I teach small seminars, large lectures, and writing-intensive courses for undergraduate and graduate students. They all ask and answer a version of this question: What is writing and how does it work in the world?


What are the Consequences of Literacy?  

What are the consequences of literacy? In their 1963 article, anthropologist Jack Goody and literary critic Ian Watt posed this bold question, touching off debates that would animate literacy studies for decades to come. Along with others, they argued that literacy caused wide cognitive and societal transformations. The New Literacy Studies group countered that literacy is best understood not as an autonomous technology of change, but instead as a context-dependent social practice. Subsequently, scholars have argued that context-dependent views of literacy are too small, limiting an understanding of literacy’s role in larger, macro-social trends, such as globalization or economic inequality. But what, the question remains, are literacy’s consequences? The goal of this class is to tease out a nuanced, updated answer to this question. To do so, we examine key arguments in the history of literacy studies from the perspective of scholars in fields as diverse as anthropology, archaeology, history, literary studies, education, linguistics, sociology, and psychology. 

Literacy is often thought of as the skills of reading and writing. This class takes a different approach. We engage with literacy as a socio-historic phenomenon that has spread widely, through the circulation of people and texts. In this view, literacy is more a social trend than a set of skills, although skills play a part in how it is experienced. Understanding the contours of this social trend is essential for effective literacy instruction: Whether we are cognizant of it or not, when we intervene in people’s literacy development as teachers or administrators, we are also intervening in history, aligning ourselves with particular ideologies of literacy and distancing ourselves from others. In other words, the social history of literacy profoundly matters for our work in the present. 


Researching Writers and Writing: Qualitative Methods in Writing Studies

Why undertake a qualitative study of writing? What questions about writing can qualitative studies answer? And how? This course, an introduction to qualitative studies of writing, addresses these questions. In answering these questions, this course has four primary goals:

  • To understand how methodological choices shape the creation of knowledge about writing, and forward the field of writing studies
  • To articulate the affordances and limitations of different approaches to qualitative work for creating knowledge about literacy.  
  • To develop principles for rigorous and socially responsible qualitative research
  • To practice key aspects of qualitative work, including study design, ethical conduct, data collection, data analysis, and of course, writing.

To meet these goals, this course is split into two parts: a reading-intensive first half and a hands-on second-half. In the reading-intensive first half of the course, we examine some key methodological approaches—and debates about these approaches—in writing studies. In the practice-intensive second half the course, the reading is lighter, and students are primarily engaged in developing a small-scale qualitative project, on which they present at the end of the semester.


Writing and the Global Movement of People

The movement of people across national borders is widespread. This course takes this phenomenon, known as transnationalism, as a lens through which to theorize literacy’s consequences. In this course, we examine how literacy sometimes promotes and sometimes blocks the social and physical mobility of transnational migrants.  

Often defined as a set of skills and resources, literacy has figured prominently in debates about immigrants’ national integration. Some have called for migrants’ swift assimilation through literacy, others have pointed to the value of migrants’ diverse literacy legacies, and still others have examined how their literacies change in new national contexts.

But if we think of literacy more materially, as skills and resources made possible by the technology of writing, it becomes clear that literacy plays a role in more than migrants’ incorporation within nations. It also shapes their movement among them. Writing can facilitate transnational communication and network migration via the postal system and Internet. And writing is a key tool in migration policy, as nation states use immigration documents, such as visas and passports, to allow some migrants in and to keep others out. Writing, in other words, is deeply imbricated in the infrastructures that govern transnational mobility. The central question members of this course ask and answer is how.  


Writing, Healing, and the Body

In an age that is seeing the rise of writing (Brandt, 2015), more and more people are turning to writing to heal emotional and physical trauma, resulting in shelves of popular self-help literature on writing to heal (e.g. deSalvo, 1999). It appears they are on to something. Psychologists have shown that writing can help release emotional stress, resulting in improved physical health (Pennebaker and Seagal, 1999). And medical researchers have documented the beneficial effects of writing on a range of physical conditions, from asthma (Smith et al, 2015) to high blood pressure (Houston, 2011) to wounds (Koschwanez, 2015) to arthritis (Smith et al, 1999). These developments are occurring against the larger scientific backdrop of advancements in MRI technology, which have enabled neuroscientists to document the surprisingly elaborate connections between mind and body (Davidson, 2012; Dum et al, 2016).

While scholars in composition studies are beginning to explore the myriad ways writing might be embodied (e.g. Haas and Witte, 2001), and while scholars in education have documented writing’s potential for social healing (Weinstein, 2009), we still understand relatively little about how to most productively use writing to physically heal. How, for whom, and under what conditions might people experience writing as healing—and how might we leverage such insight for the wellbeing of writing students, and for the public good more broadly?

The goal of this course is to be able to answer these questions by exploring writing’s relationship to the body, the social, and the soul.


Writing for Peace

Expressive writing has been shown to heal physical and emotional trauma, but might it also promote peace? If so, how? This course, for upper level undergraduates and graduate students in education, explores these questions. In this class, we will conceptualize peace not as conflict resolution, but instead as conflict transformation, a holistic, long-term project, whose goal is equality and trust (Lederach, 2003). This concept of peace, we will learn, includes developing both inner peace and outer peace to promote long-term social harmony for societies recovering from conflict. Writing has a crucial role to play in this process. In exploring theories of peace, critical literacy, and activist pedagogy, this course provides students with cutting edge conceptual frameworks for understanding not only how writing works in the world, but also how writing can make the world better.