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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Literacy and Literacies

Today in class (Advanced Academic English) I covered literacy as a context-dependent concept, code switching, and the importance of literacy awareness in 2010. I used the car horn as an example of a "code." What does honking a horn signify in Detroit? What does it signify in Beirut? In Detroit, that particular piece of "language" might mean hurry up or perhaps even I'm gonna kick your ass whereas in Beirut the possibilties are wider: want a ride? or gee whiz we're all stopped are possible meanings.

Other kinds of literacy (including the thing we call "academic literacy") differ across contexts as well. Students hadn't had this conversation before, but they had lots of experiences to process in light of the concepts. Many have lived in multiple countries; all speak multiple languages; we find ourselves in a place where the East and the West clash constantly. We talked about code switching (moving between different language practices) as an essential rhetorical skill and the students immediately began to point out how unstable the contexts are: how facebook code seeps into academic code, how/why/when English words makes their way into conversations in Arabic, etc.

My research questions this semester include: How does "academic writing" differ across two cultural contexts, both of which are extremely multi-cultural and cosmopolitan? What kinds of overlap and messy instability exist between these allegedly different contexts? How do students across these contexts perceive their literate experiences? Dearborn is a place full of Lebanese (and other Arab) influences. Beirut is a place full of American (and other Western) influences. A colleague at UMD and I are linking students at our two institutions. They'll write literacy profiles of one another. We'll all analyze the data. Hopefully we'll learn something.

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