Perspectives on Literacy

In this seminar, we study the history, politics, uses, and meanings of literacy in America. What is literacy? How is it used in the world? How and why have definitions of literacy changed over time? What's at stake in defining literacy? How do people acquire and practice literacies? How are literacies distributed across different populations? How have technological changes affected processes of reading and writing? We explore these questions by investigating our own literacy practices, observing literacy events, and reading and writing scholarly research on literacy to broaden our perspectives.

Writing Assignments

In addition to talking and listening in class, students post and comment at the course forum. These posts and comments are the equivalent of journal entries or response papers. The forum assignment serves multiple purposes: it allows a venue for written as well as oral participation; it contributes to the agenda for our in-class time; and it encourages students to practice treating writing as part of a scholarly conversation by making that conversation literal, not just metaphorical.

There are two short papers (4-6 pages). The first is a literacy interview: students interview (and are interviewed by) a classmate and write up an analysis of the information from the interview. The second is a literacy site observation: students choose a site where writing and/or reading occurs, observe it regularly, analyze it using concepts we read about in class, and develop an argument about literacy at that site.

Students also complete a research project (10-20 pages) that engages with an existing scholarly conversation or debate about some issue related to literacy. The process for this paper includes a proposal and an annotated bibliography, a draft to be discussed by a small group of peers, a presentation of research to the campus community at the end-of-semester English symposium, and a final revised version of the paper submitted during finals week.


  • Deborah Brandt, Literacy in American Lives
  • Ellen Cushman et al, Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook

Additional readings are accessed via JSTOR or e-reserve.