Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education

Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education

Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education

Identity Papers: Literacy and Power in Higher Education

Excerpt

We’ve all seen them on college and university catalogues, brochures, posters, and viewbooks. They are the obligatory photographs of happy, attractive students in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and fresh green lawns, reading and writing under the thoughtful and attentive guidance of their professors. Though the clothing and the faces may have transformed over the years—the photos are no longer only of white men, but now reflect a carefully chosen mix of race, culture, and sex—and today’s students may be shown writing on computers rather than by hand, the message of such photos is remarkably unchanged. What these images imply about the identities of college students and literacy remains much as it did twenty or even forty years ago. The students look comfortable in their literacy practices, no one seems to be struggling, and the professors seem to be offering useful advice. The message seems clear: Come to this college and you will be welcomed into the community of scholarly readers and writers.

Yet for many arriving on college campuses, these images do not reflect reality. For both students, and for many teachers, there is a feeling of alienation, isolation, and frustration. They feel they do not fit the images or identities they have seen portrayed, and they feel their literacy practices are not what they should be even if they are not entirely sure why. Too often they blame themselves when the real conflict centers on questions of identity and institutional power.

As Donna Alvermann (2001) has noted, the goals and interests of educational institutions often create narrowly defined identities for us, whether as scholars, teachers, or students, that we feel compelled to accept to remain a part of the institution. Yet the literacy identities that are regarded as legitimate in the academy can often run counter to our other identities outside the classroom, leaving us feeling isolated and powerless. At such moments we must decide whether to accept the institutional and cultural definitions of ourselves, or to try to find some way to resist or negotiate a professional identity that allows us to live with ourselves while continuing to do the work we value.

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