Note: This post is my reactions to the assigned readings in the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community this week.
I’ve always felt myself a stranger in a strange land academically. I’ve been intimidated by the thought of academic writing. Writing is so, so central to academia and I’ve thought or seen myself as writer. I never had a college-level comp course unless you count “Business Writing”. I placed out of college comp and I largely skipped all my senior year English classes in high school. The Econ Masters thesis was 6 years in gestation. The dissertation? Started 3 of them and, well, we’re still waiting.
The irony is I have a BA in Speech & Rhetoric. I won a prize in grad school for best economic writing (yes, I realize that can be considered an oxymoron). The key here is that I wasn’t writing. Not in my mind. I was speaking. Years of college speech & debate and decades of presentations & meetings taught me to make speeches. My rhetoric studies were in a Speech department, not an English or Composition department. Everything I’ve written is largely a speech I hear myself making. It’s all oral rhetoric. I can talk. Podiums, meetings, seminars, and the TV camera are my comfort zone. Keyboard or pen? Not so much.
So when I saw that our first two readings in this “literacy” FLC were both about orality, I got excited – fist-pumping excited. Speaking. Listening. Oral. Now we’re talking. Literally.
Barton and Hamilton refer to the tyranny of writing over orality in the academy. They recount how the study of rhetoric, dating back to ancient Greece, started with the oral tradition but the necessity for written artifacts (texts) to facilitate the study of rhetorics led to a domination of the written text over the oral:
The impression grew that, apart from the oration (governed by written rhetorical rules), oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study.
Reading this, I was reminded of the story of the growth and emergence of higher education I read earlier this summer. Lowe and Yasuhara document extensively how in multiple ancient civilizations, the library, a massive collection of written texts, was the seed around which centers of higher learning grew. These library collections of texts attracted scholars. The scholars taught and learned from each other using the texts. Eventually, centuries later these collections of scholars centered by the library of texts became universities and colleges.
I’ve presented and written about how this academic, scholarly tradition is effectively a commons. What’s relevant for this discussion about higher education as a commons is that the core activity of higher ed, teaching and learning, is primarily oral. We prefer oral. We teach face-to-face. Seminars and conferences are built on dialogue, the oral. Even when we teach online, we add video orality and discussion forums. As academics, we love the oral back-and-forth. We naturally gravitate to the oral tradition for teaching and learning.
Yet we also write and read. The necessity of producing the “artifacts” of learning, the texts, articles, and books that document our learning for future generations, perpetuates the “library”, the corpus of scholarly texts. There is, or should be, a virtuous spiral here. We engage the texts by discussing, talking, presenting, and arguing. Then we write what we learn, adding to the corpus for future learners. We pad the shoulders of giants with writings for future learners to see further.
Barton and Hamilton cast written literacy as a tyrant. Ong observes
socially powerful institutions, such as education, tend to support dominant literary practices. These dominant practices can be seen as part of …institutionalized configurations of power…
I see this happening in higher education today. The curriculum is no longer what is taught and learned, the course of learning. It is a document, a written text, a “master syllabus”, a set of standardized “learning outcomes” to be measured and recorded. The “course” is no longer what a professor does in class, or what students do, or what activities they perform. The “course” is now a set of files and documents contained in a “Learning Management System”. Pedagogy, of course, being the dialectic between teacher and student is primarily oral. The literacy practice of written curriculum and textbooks ascends and pedagogy recedes
This domination of the written in the curriculum serves the purposes of the capitalist and the market. The market and the capitalist in particular is the enemy of the commons. The logic of the market commoditizes and standardizes everything. It is about things, goods and resources, not doings, like people and activities. Texts can be commoditized. Oral tradition less so.
I am excited to see where this faculty learning community takes not only me, but us. After all, it’s all about the dialogue to me.
Barton, David and Mary Hamilton (2000). Chapter 1:Literacy Practices. In Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context (pp 7-15) Available at: http://e503.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/2/3/8623935/situated_literacies_-_ch._1.pdf
Lowe, Roy and Yoshihito Yasuhara, (2017) The Origins of Higher Learning Routledge: Taylor and Francis. https://www.routledge.com/The-Origins-of-Higher-Learning-Knowledge-networks-and-the-early-development/Lowe-Yasuhara/p/book/9781138844834
Ong, W. J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and literacy(pp. 5–15). Retrieved from https://lcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=17442153&site=ehost-live