Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

What Will We Have Made of Literacy?

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

What Will We Have Made of Literacy?

Article excerpt

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.

Martin Luther King, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," 1967

Tomorrow becomes today whenever we envision what we will have done. The future perfect tense sets out promises about what we will have achieved that are often so commonplace that they pass unchecked. For example, we sometimes talk about a promising writer without stopping to reflect upon what is entailed in the promises we make to students about what their writing will enable them to achieve. Such entailments are called into question when someone calls for an accounting ofpromises that have come due, as King did when he reminded Americans of their obligations to live up to their democratic legacies. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, King also called his audience to attend to the "fierce urgency of now" in ways that have taken on new resonance as we consider our obligations to respond to current rollbacks of civil rights. King's prophetic invocation of the future perfect provides a useful frame to reflect upon the work that will need to have been achieved over the next three years. The "fierce urgency of now" has prompted a surge of activist work that began with the latest march on Washington a year ago now. Such political activism does not seem as far afield from the teaching of writing as it once did. Critical pedagogy and New Literacy Studies have helped us recognize that the promise of literacy has functioned as a sort of pact or social compact that we have entered into by setting out what literacy will have enabled us and our students to achieve.

The promise of literacy has long been a signature issue for our field. The future perfect is a useful frame for reflecting upon the promises we have made to our students and ourselves about the enabling capacities of literacy because the future perfect is a dialectical figure of thought that is rooted in how we think about those moments when tomorrow becomes today and we look to the past to envision the future. Those roots run deep in how we think in the here and now about the futures we envision and seek to create. Cognitive research on the "prospective brain" has found that we use the same retrospective areas of the brain for remembering experiences that we also rely on for the prospective function of imagining a future course of action (Schacter et al.; Schacter and Addis). Our collective memory functions in much the same dialectical manner to enlist the past in envisioning the future, as King did in calling for an accounting of the futures that had been promised to African Americans. Rhetoric has traditionally attempted to harness this prophetic capacity by looking to memory as the source of invention. Rhetoricians have taught the two arts together to prepare students to defend prospective courses of action with retrospective accounts of the historical promises entailed in shared traditions. We will be better able to respond to the histories that loom before us if we take stock of the futures we have imagined for our work with literacy. Reflecting on the "unfolding conundrum of life and history" imbedded in our conceptions of literacy can help us reassess the promises we have made about what our studies will enable us and our students to realize.

While futures trading is an unfamiliar business for most of us, the consequences of literacy are our stock and trade-though the promise of literacy is not as easy to set out as it once was. Teachers used to unproblematically assume that mastering academic discourse would enable students to develop higher-order thinking, earn a better living, and thereby contribute to social progress. That promise was set out by the scholars who shaped the guiding assumptions of modern literacy studies. …

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