Sponsors of Literacy

Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” is dense and long-ish article, but an outstanding piece of research. She has selected 5 profiles of varying lengths from hundreds of interviews about how people learned to read and write.  That extensive research enabled her to define a “sponsor of literacy” as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy–and gain advantage by it in some way” (334).  She paired two profiles of people almost exactly my age (one year younger): white male of affluent, educated parents who had easy and extensive access to the growing computer industry, which led to a successful education and employment, paired with hispanic female of a poor family trying to balance education and work. She had limited access to computer literacy or Spanish literacy, but sought out bilingualism the way her male counterpart sought out computer literacy. This similarity, Brandt argues, should not obscure the fact that the male interview had access to a highly valued, well-paid set of literate practices, while the female interviewee’s “skills developed and paid off much further down the economic-reward ladder.” Brandt also illustrated “the rise in literacy standards” through the story of one person’s career–resistant to education, then motivated to be an educated and successful union rep, who eventually had to confront (and lose) to the more highly educated young lawyers eventually brought in by the government and corporate entities he had been negotiating with. Brandt concludes with two stories of appropriation: women who learned from corporate settings how be a more effective evangelist and a more effective home manager.  The very last section of the article concludes with 3 short paragraphs for teachers, reminding us that we “we serve . . . as conflicted brokers between literacy’s buyers and sellers” (348) and that as we assist others in the pursuit of literacy, we also recognize that literacy is in pursuit of them.

Brandt’s research as written up here contains 5 literacy narratives. She doesn’t tell her own story, but instead has found fascinating and illuminating elements in others’ stories.  Susan Sontag, in her philosophical instructions, encourages us to consider that writing might be “other than me;” Brandt’s research might inspire some of us to interview others, to ask them about their reading and writing stories. Family members might be particularly rich resources for such stories.  And while I do a lot of “giving” with my literacy sponsorship, I do a lot of it under the “giving + learning” umbrella, and my literacy narrative, circa 2009-11, should interrogate, what’s in it for me.

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