Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dan Bommarito

“Working” Theories and Community Engagement: A Report from a Public Literacies
Symposium at Arizona State University, March 18-19, 2013

At a time when institutions of higher education are paying increased attention to the varied needs of local communities, it is important to consider how this shift in attention influences the ways we conceive our roles as writing teachers and advocates for the public good. This week, I have had the pleasure of participating in a Public Literacies Symposium with community literacy scholars Linda Flower, Eli Goldblatt, and Tiffany Rousculp, along with faculty, students, and administrators at my institution as we tackle questions related to this “public turn” and its transforming effects on our conceptions of writing programs as sites of instruction, inquiry, and engagement.

Linda Flower argues that “if academics wish to exchange the mantel of ‘public intellectual’ for the role of ‘community partner’ we will need to develop more grounded, working theories of deliberation in local publics—and of how to support it.” For Flower, working theories are rooted in lived experience and shaped by individuals’ dynamic accounts of that experience. Moreover, working theories develop not by bracketing and eschewing difference, but by inviting difference and using it as a resource for invention. By developing and interrogating our own working theories and putting them into conversation with others’, we set up conditions which have the potential to support deliberation that is generative and empowering rather than reductive and stifling. It is in these moments of generative deliberation that change becomes not merely a result or outcome, but, as Tiffany Rousculp argues, “the potential for people to make choices regarding
textual production within regulating environments.”

The words of Flower and Rousculp resonate with me as I reflect on the important community work pursued by UMSL, the Gateway Writing Project and, particularly, the Summer Institute.  Upon reflection of my time at the Summer Institute, what stands out is the facilitators’ insistence on firsthand experience with writing—teachers of writing are, after all, cast as writers themselves—and the importance of sharing those experiences with other real, practicing writers.  Our daily journaling, writing marathons, round-table readings and discussions, and culminating publication project are all marks of GWP’s effort to foster strong writerly relationships firmly rooted in lived experience.

Those experiences position us teachers to engage a wider public—whether that means other GWP participants, teachers and administrators at our home institutions, students, parents, or professionals at other sites of literacy development. One example is the “Teacher Demo” assignment. As attendees of the Summer Institute will no doubt recall, the Teacher Demo assignment asks that each participant deliver a presentation and workshop on a classroom practice addressing some writing-related issue. Presenters frame a problem they have encountered, address the problem somehow through classroom assignments or curriculum
design, and facilitate discussion among GWP members about the problem itself and possible resolutions. Because GWP makes a conscious attempt to invite teachers with diverse professional backgrounds and experience, Teacher Demos shed light on the richness of classroom contexts across all age levels, from elementary school on through college, as well as vexing issues found along the way. The role of discussion, then, is not to arrive at consensus and closure, but, instead, to pose open questions in light of challenges that emerge in these various contexts and to situate our own experiences alongside the firsthand accounts of others.

GWP invites us into the gritty, complex, and often messy realities of community work and literacy education. It asks us to refrain from dictating what others should or shouldn’t do by shifting the focus onto the richness of lived experience. More important than developing a universal standard of writing, it seems to say, is the need to candidly and collaboratively investigate our definitions of writing and literacy, what aspects of writing and literacy we most value in which contexts, and why. I am so grateful for my time spent at the Summer Institute and for the partnership between GWP and UMSL because they have opened up and sustained
a productive space in which to co-construct unique narratives of literacy education that seek to respond to the complex local conditions in which literacy is lived and taught.

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