Academic journal article Composition Studies

Activating Activist Literacy: Discovering Dispositions for Civic Identity Development

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Activating Activist Literacy: Discovering Dispositions for Civic Identity Development

Article excerpt

I was nervous about doing a community action project because I am sorry to say I am not the type of person who jumps up and wants to be the first one to better my community. It is not that I don't want to, it is just that I'm a quiet type of person who likes to let other people jump out there and better the community.

- Nichole, First-year writing student

This [community action] project actually made me venture outside of my comfort zone that I was building up around myself and experience someplace other than the theaters, restaurants, and malls.

- Josie, First-year writing student

Josie and Nichole were part of a first-year writing class where students used writing to take action in their community The quotations above suggest that as civic community participants they are confronted with new contexts in which they negotiate new and different roles as adults who are newly allowed to vote, living on their own, and responsible for their own actions. Josie demonstrates how a community action project asked her to think about herself differently by "ventur[ing] outside of my comfort zone," and Nichole mentions her quiet personality shaping her decision to do work in civic spaces. Service- learning projects prompting action in the community ask students to position themselves differently through writing, to take up a civic identity using the discourses of these spaces to create a public self through literacy and action. Service-learning pedagogy provides the means to get learners into communities and doing actual literacy work. Service -learning activities can play an important role in teaching students how to negotiate their new responsibilities as citizens in society, but as pedagogues we need to prepare students to do this work.

Josie and Nichole participated in a service -learning activity I call the Community Action Project (CAP), a three-part assignment sequence in which students inquire into an issue, use writing to take action, and then reflect on that action. As Christian Weisser notes, "Service-learning approaches to composition attempt to generate situations where writing can be seen as deeply connected to social action and democratic practices" (53, emphasis added). Drawing on research with two first- year writing classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,1 I consider how service-learning, identity formation, and literacy development intersect; I argue that literacy teachers who use service-learning need to understand the relationship between civic identity formation and what I call "activist literacy." This research leads me to argue, first of all, that activist service -learning projects promote a particular kind of literacy practice: "activist literacy," the rhetorical use of literacy for civic participation. Activist literacy is fundamentally action oriented, not just the act in and of itself but the thinking, planning, decision-making, reading, writing, action, and reflection that surrounds the act. For Josie and Nicole this meant not only doing research on their topic, but using that research to change their classmate's understanding of the homeless, presenting that research in an activist genre for a community food drive, and reflecting on their research and actions to change their own attitudes and assumptions about the homeless. Activist literacy makes room for individual agency and collaborative action, focusing on making change locally in the communities to which a person belongs. Activist literacy includes an ability to critique the connection between power, language, and institutional structures, and it prompts rhetorical and linguistic strategies to challenge socio-cultural structures in the process of meaning making and social justice. Thus, activist literacy is both a practice and a disposition.

As a service-learning teacher, I advocate for both teachers' understanding of how activist literacy helps students to change as well as students' understanding of how it helps them to make change. …

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