Monday, August 15, 2011

The Stigma of Sharing the Private

Just three weeks ago, I sat curled up in a ball, crying on the bathroom floor. My boyfriend ended our relationship rather abruptly, and at the moment, it was intensely painful. At the same time, I was working in the city, taking a summer class, planning my syllabus, and figuring out how to pay my tuition.... or rather trying to do all this. Focusing was a near impossible task. I would try to read for class and my mind would wander. I would try to type, and I'd be distracted by pictures on my computer. Every thing reminded me of him and the fresh wound that he had just inflicted. For a few days, my life stood still. But I'm not writing this post to reveal to the world all of the ups and downs of my love life. I have a purpose.

While I was going through this emotional roller coaster, though, I thought of my students and their lives. This wasn't the first time I experienced a break up, and I know they experience them too. They experience lots of things that I'm sure hurt. People lose loved ones, are bullied, are betrayed by friends, fail when success is important, deal with the hard task of discovering who they are, and watch things fall apart. It happens all the time, every day. And while they're dealing with whatever comes their way, we just keep saying "separate your business/academic life from your personal life." We tell them to put away their problems and just focus on work once they get to school. I wonder whether that's for the best.

Our world has become increasingly impersonal. While we have social networking sites and blogs these days, almost our entire lives are compartmentalized. The things we need to talk about most are the ones we are told that we cannot share, though we let everyone in the world know our favorite bands and hometown. Maybe we're looking for connections, but not conversation. We want to recognize where we fit without taking emotional risks.

After beginning this post, I also started reading Nancy Welch's book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized WorldThough she's talking about bigger issues in our society, like privatization and a lack of public representation, she emphasizes many of the notions that I am expressing in her book. Early on, Welch writes, "Individual privacy rights are meant to exclude some of most (personal) matters from public regulation and debate" (33). In other words, we give people a right to privacy to make it easier to brush hard-to-deal-with topics under the rug.

I admit that I abstain from having my students write anything that would be intensely personal. I stay away from topics like obstacles overcome or traumas experienced (which I have actually been forced to write about as a student). I'm not ready to make my students write about topics like that-- it feels to me more like I'm giving my students a grade on their confessions than their content-- but there must be some happy medium. Then again, I'm also wondering if I'm being selfish by not wanting to hear their confessions. Am I simply avoiding them because I'm uncomfortable? Or too lazy, perhaps, to deal with the uphill battle that comes when someone shares his/her private life with you? They are questions I am not prepared to answer.

For now, my goal is to reframe some of my assignments to help students "go public," as Welch calls it, to help them deal with the issues that are important to them without necessarily making them a private matter, make them active participants in their world.

I leave you think about this: by telling people to separate their "personal" from the "public" lives, who it is that we are really protecting? Are we protecting our students or our selves?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Burniske's Literacy in the Digital Age

I picked up R. W. Burniske's book Literacy in the Digital Age just because it sounded interesting. Lucky for me, I was not disappointed. Burniske's book is all about redefining literacy in a way that meets 21st century students' needs. He takes lame, underdeveloped terms like "computer literacy" and "functional literacy" and revises them so that they become more complex and useful. Burniske explains:

just as we must learn to read and write the alphabet to develop functional literacy, so too must we learn how to ‘read’ visual images, discursive practices, personal ethics, community actions, cultural events, global developments, and humanity in general. (2)

The focus is no longer on a set of operational skills, but instead, a set of reading practices that enable students to navigate their complex worlds, worlds that require much more than an ability to read text or word per minute proficiency. Burniske advocates a set of eight literacies: media literacy, civil literacy, discourse literacy, personal literacy, community literacy, visual literacy, evaluative literacy, and pedagogical literacy. These eight literacies are interactive. They build off of one another. Furthermore, these literacies provide an ethical framework, encouraging positive interaction, teaching students how to deal with "fire," and showing students how they "compose their selves" online.

Burniske's book is also complete with exercises to help promote these literacies and case studies to show how they work in action. Best of all, his exercises are be useful across age ranges. Though the book seems to focus mostly on middle to high school aged students, I can see many of his exercises being easily applicable to an adult literacy program or FYW course.

One of the most useful exercises can be found in a section called "Fostering Personal Literacy." Burniske outlines this exercise as such: "Students must discover or invent a thoughtful, open-ended 'why' question that challenges them, because analysis begins with the question 'Why"' (64). He challenges students to ask "why" questions, which are then answered and responded to again with an additional 'why' question, continuing on through a set of 10 answers and why questions. At the end, he has the students reflect on the process. He says, "With time, they come to realize that What questions lead them to the cul-de-sac of static answers rather than the open road of dynamic, arguable ones" (66). What students learn is how to perform real analysis, and when turned inwards, it can help them discover how they want to define themselves and why.

Since technology is a part of my course, I'm thinking about how I can make sure my students leave my course being literate in 8/9 of Burniske's literacies (I guess they could skip the pedagogical for the time being).