A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Literacy Narratives for Social Change: Making Connections between Service-Learning and Literature Education

Lisa Rabin

Enculturation 6.1 (2008): http://enculturation.net/6.1/rabin


Questions on the role of advocacy and the public intellectual have long obtained in literary studies in the United States (Cushman, “The Public”). As John Guillory and Jeffrey Williams have noted, these discussions have often turned upon a perceived disconnect between the work of literary critique and the “ultimate political effects” of this work in the world. More recently, several literary scholars have sought to further concrete intersections between critique and civic engagement. The university-community initiatives of Gregory Jay in “The Culture and Communities Program” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Julia Reinhard Lupton in “Humanities Out There” at UC Irvine, and Doris Sommer in the “Cultural Agents Initiative” at Harvard University, for example, demonstrate model programs of cultural critique, community outreach, and work towards social change.

In this article I show how a middle school outreach program involving myself and my literature students in Spanish and English at George Mason University melds a critique of culture and institutions with advocacy work in community literacy. Although I have been inspired by the programs of Jay, Reinhard Lupton and Sommer, I am also indebted to a model from mid and later 20th-century England, where the scholars Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, David Holbrook, and Stuart Hall (among others) worked in adult education courses, or what were known as extramural programs (Inglis 18). Williams, who worked for the Oxford University Delegacy for Extra-Mural Studies and the Worker’s Educational Association, taught English to working-class and women students in the Fens from 1946-1961. Scholars have frequently noted Williams’ acknowledgment of the formative experience of teaching in these programs in the creation of cultural studies (Ryle; Inglis; Lorentzen, “Why the Novel Still Matters”). Yet as John McIlroy writes on the legacy of Williams’ teaching in the Fens, “The harvest lay not only in the important contribution to social thinking Williams made but in the enriched lives of the thousands of adult students he taught” (40). I contend that the early teaching of Raymond Williams and others, which was dedicated to extramural students’ development of a critical literacy in their lived lives, integrates cultural critique and social justice in a model as yet untapped for literary studies in the United States.

My argument has obvious crossover value with the ongoing scholarly conversation on service-learning and literature education in the United States (Conniff and Youngkin; Comstock; Cushman, “Public Intellectual”; Garbus; Grobman). It is striking that in spite of many efforts that are being made nationally in this area, as Laurie Grobman notes in her article in the 2005 Profession, very little theorizing on service-learning’s connection to literary education in English is available in scholarly publications (132). Similarly, in spite of a growing trend in Spanish language and culture courses to incorporate service-learning into the classroom (Hellebrandt and Varona; Hellebrandt, Arries, and Varona; Long) there has been almost no attempt to address the use of service-learning and the Hispanic literature classroom. [1]

Grobman paired her students’ study of multicultural literature with service-learning in the community. Although positive in some ways, Grobman’s experience suggested that students tended to look to the texts for an answer to community problems, often diminishing their critical grasp of community issues by reading the texts too simplistically. In the end, Grobman questions whether service-learning may undermine what the university study of literature can offer to students, and asks her colleagues of literature to address whether there is indeed a “place for learning in literary studies” (Grobman 129).

I argue that our literature students’ education in textual and ideological critique can be enhanced by a critical service-learning, one that demands our students’ analysis of systemic problems that contribute to material conditions. Recent service-learning scholarship has problematized an uncritical focus for students and called for their community work “to be accompanied by experiences that support more systemic political or policy-related understanding and engagement” (Ehrlich; Coogan; Ochoa and Ochoa). In my specific experience, which involves George Mason literature students working with “struggling” readers in a book club at a local middle school in Arlington County, university literature students have found significant coherence between their study of ideologies of US schooling and literacy in literary texts and the community work they perform with the children.

Because my service-learning initiatives are with local schools, my critical pedagogy with students participating in these programs focuses on US ideologies of literacy in our current times. In Cultural Capital, Guillory urged literary scholars to see our work as part of an institution of literacy, “inclusive of every level and every kind of school, higher and lower, public and private” (38). Similarly, I encourage students to consider how systems of educationincluding their own university oneconspire with ideologies of race, class and ethnicity and contribute to social inequity, particularly at lower levels in the schools.

Interns who teach in our after-school critical literacy program for “struggling” readers at the middle school focus on how technocratic models of education since the 1950’s in North America have supplanted both traditional Arnoldian and progressive models of education (Luke 1988). These students, who have chosen to major in literature, are well-positioned to assess the problems that technocratic ideologies on literacy and “standards”—embodied most recently in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—have brought to US classrooms. As schools are increasingly obligated to rely on literacy lessons through mass-produced textbooks, children’s interaction with literary texts (as well as other cultural artifacts) becomes a far-distant reality in US classrooms. Literature students at the university can consider how their own education in texts contrasts with that of US schoolchildren’s education in textbooks. I point out to interns that the mass-produced textbook resembles what Umberto Eco called “closed” texts, or scripted material that encourages a passive stance towards recognizing and processing information (Eco qtd. in Luke 116). Luke warns that when closed texts are “taught and read within highly circumscribed and rule-bound social contexts,” schools may produce in students what “Freire calls a ‘disempowered’ consciousness” (Luke 209-210).  As Kozol (2005) points out, such technocratic environments and their over-dependency on scripted material are distressingly common in lower-income school districts in the United States.

Because NCLB has made schools “accountable” for funding through students’ achievement on standardized tests, districts that show low results are more apt to consign their children to a “severe and routinized instruction” through scripted material (Kozol 273). As Kozol points out, affluent parents will resist such a system, resulting in further segregation and lower social mobility for poor children within these districts. In a shocking example from California several years ago, the high-stakes accountability curriculum in the West Contra Costa Unified School District was policed by McGrawHill “trainers” in classrooms (Jaeger). As we consider issues contributing to disparities in US schools, my students and I assess larger systemic conditions like the alliance between corporate interests, public policy, and education “reform” that the California example demonstrates. In Elizabeth Jaeger’s words, NCLB “shackles” teachers of poor children to a curriculum that only demands subservience to authority, while “(t)eachers in more affluent schools could enrich the curriculum to emphasize higher-level thinking and aesthetics. These students had the opportunity to obtain an education that prepared them to assume demanding leadership roles” (n.p.)

Jaeger’s contrast between teaching with scripted material and the pedagogy of “higher-level thinking and aesthetics” has a particular resonance for literature students interning in our program. What in fact can children’s interaction with “open” texts, outside of literacy “standards” and “accountability,” bring to their education? The Council Chronicle Online recently reported a NCTE poll of more than 2,000 literacy educators in the U.S. on NCLB. 76% of these educators “believe that the Act has had at least a somewhat negative influence on teaching and learning in English/reading classrooms.” A high school English teacher lamented not being able “to dive into Mark Twain” because the students “had to drown in a variety of test prep activities” (“Literacy Educators”). But just what can we argue that is being missed by the exclusion of literary texts in the school classroom?

Literary texts and their pedagogic value has been a site of considerable ideological struggle over the past few decades, from the traditionalist perspective that laments the diminishment of the use of literary texts in schools to teach “universalist” and “civilized” values, to a formalist view of literary texts as a “special” kind of discourse, to advocacy views that have argued for a revisiting of the use of literary texts, which have been connected in with certain class ideologies, in the classroom (Eagleton; Beverley; Ohmann).

Yet as Geoffrey Hall (2005) points out in a call to Bakhtin (1981), if there is anything that can be empirically claimed for the value of literary texts in teaching, it is their heteroglossic nature, or their range of discursive styles. Hall points to corpus linguistic work that reveals the particularly wide linguistic variety of modern narratives, as compared to works of older fiction and non-fiction texts. Hall writes, “If the language of literature is in any way distinct, as has been argued, it is distinct for . . . a toleration of a greater variety than is found in any other language use. It can include spoken and written features, diverse levels of formality, social, professional styles, dialects, sociolects and idiolects: a range of the language necessarily of interestif undoubtedly challengingto the language student” (26). Significantly, Hall suggests pace Bakhtin, the multiple sites of discourse and of meaning in literature can engage students’ attention to places of struggle in life, where a multiplicity of “voices” contest for social agency (Hall 27). Julia Kristeva connects literary texts to the kind of “work as process” that Marx argued to be outside of structures of exchange and that could contribute to social transformation. Kristeva claims that literary texts produce in the reader a different subject position, disrupting signifying practices where he or she “relinquish(es) his (or her) identity in rhythm” (104). More recently in a PMLA collection of articles on the teaching of literature, Biddy Martin has called our teacherly attention to Gayatri Spivak’s sense of reading literature as a “fraying of logic” with “rhetoricity,” where the “self loses its boundaries” and new spaces of contingency may be encoded (Spivak qtd. in Martin 16).

Following these theorists, we can imagine that in the best possible pedagogical situation, children’s engagement with literatureas well as with other cultural practicesmay expand their sense of agency in the world. Yet as I lead my students to consider, developing an aesthetic or critical stance towards a text becomes a distant possibility for children in lower-income school districts. As my literature students ruefully note in their work at the middle school (where 50% of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch), many children are forced to spend precious class and leisure time at “remedial” work in literacy. My students can thus see how their own education in literacywhich at the university includes the now “privileged” activity of interacting with open textsis indeed part of an institutional apparatus, one in which the sorting at lower levels may in fact preclude some children from seeing the university altogether. The differential between university literature study, in other words, and schoolchildren’s technocratic literacy “training” is striking indeed. And this differential provides, moreover, perhaps the most coherent impetus for our public service in the schools.

In our creation of the “culture club” at the middle school, my students and I have sought to provide the children with opportunities to both critique and interact with friends around open texts. Following Cushman’s recommendations for “sustainable service learning programs” (“Sustainable”), we have created the club in constant dialogue with community partners, and included long-range planning towards distinct community goals. In the spring of 2006 the “culture club” was launched to give the children a space to see reading and writing as more than simply functional skills. For 3 ½ months George Mason students led the children in the opportunity to relax and enjoy texts with friends; to look at the highly effective strategies of oral culture normally seen as “outside” standard literacy paradigms, like signifying, regional folk aphorisms, rap and reggaetón; and to create things that drew upon the culture of language and literacy in students’ home lives, like community ethnographies, biographies of family members, and critiques of cultural and gender representations in the media. The school was so happy with George Mason students’ participation in the program that they asked us to continue developing programs with them. This year, George Mason students of English and Hispanic literature are facilitating a critical literacy program in English and Spanish that will be the focus of a long-term study on reading and affect in adolescents.

In the following section I describe how I structure George Mason students’ service-learning in the middle school by a critical pedagogy that synthesizes sociolinguistic and educational readings on US literacy ideologies with novels of social protest in which the definition of “literacy” is problematized.  I include anecdotes from a class blog that George Mason students participated in as they taught in the after-school class in 2006. The blog anecdotes exemplify how my students modeled my critical pedagogy in their own teaching in the middle school class, integrating discussion of social ideologies with creative activities on texts and other cultural representations.

As I have described above, George Mason students who intern at the middle school are urged at the beginning of their experience to situate the university literature classroom within literacy institutions in the U.S. That students reading literature at the university have attained a certain “mastery” of the “standard” language and defer a certain authority to the printed text (Willinsky),  are assumptions that bear scrutiny. Students may be taken from a general look at the ideologies surrounding language “standardization” (Milroy and Milroy), to a more specific scrutiny of how readers and writers of the “standard” are sorted in schools (Heath, Ways With Words; Rose; Street). Amy, [2] who read Willinsky as part of her work at the middle school last spring, reflected on her own experience with “sorting” in our class blog:

I never was asked to be in the gifted and (talented) classes. I then began to think that I wasn’t as smart as those that were in those courses. I began to identify with the “average” group of youth. I felt sometimes as an outsider that if I wanted to take more challenging courses as a senior where I had the option to take AP courses, that I would have to conform to their standards of style, (speech), activity, and friends [sic]. I decided not to be (intimidated) anymore and took AP English my senior year. . . . After taking that course, I felt empowered and so much more confident in my abilities to articulate myself through writing and rhetoric. I realized that it wasn’t that I (suddenly) became this “gifted and (talented)” college-bound student, but that I took a chance in breaking the barriers of the standards, of the sorting of the students. In my AP course, we discussed literature and were able to apply what we had learned into our own lives. I began to thirst after works of literature to critically analyze and discuss. The (curriculum) of the mainstream English course was more (structured) and left little room for personal reflection and literary analysisthe focus was on (proper grammar) and expanding vocabulary through reading and writing.

I believe that sorting the students into separate English classes only discourages those that are left behind to ever consider that their expression of opinion in literature matters.[3]

Amy’s lament on “those left behind” in secondary English classes bears special meaning for university literature students working for social advocacy in U.S. schools. While facilitating a unit on social conformity and gender identities at the middle school, Amy was shocked to discover how publicly the children she taught were marginalized from mainstream school agency:

The themes we focused on were: Positive self-image, depression, dichotomy between (beauty) pageant contestants discussing their future goals while in a bathing suit, anorexia and bulimia, GI Joe, Barbi(e), steroids, identity, labels, stereotypes, and “fitting-in”. Towards the end of discussing these somewhat confusing and (sensitive) subjects this provoked them to think about ways in which they have been labeled (sic). (Two students) discussed how they have been labeled by TEACHERS and some students as “stupid” or “slow” because they are in the HILT (High Intensity Language Training) program. . . . This brought me back to the previous readings that we were assigned to ponder. (We) reassured everyone thatif anythingthey have more of an advantage being bilingual over that of their native English speaking peers (sic). They are just as intelligent and just as capable of learning and tests aren’t necessarily the best way to assess one’s intelligence. . . . I feel that everyone was (reassured) and that their identity of being hispanoamericanos was strengthened even slightly.

Here, Amy was able to concretely observe how ideologies on second language and literacy acquisition have a direct impact on children’s sense of self worth. That she was able to help the children recognize labels as ideologies, and to resist them, is tremendously encouraging. This is an exemplary moment of synergy between a critical pedagogy in the university literature classroom and service-learning in community literacy.

After my university students of literature are introduced to a larger view of literacy and literature ideologies in U.S. schooling, they go on to read 19th- and 20th-century narratives in English and Spanish where literacy is a significant theme. This year George Mason students of English and Spanish working in the middle school program will read 6 literacy narratives from diverse sources: Dickens’ Hard Times, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo; Or Civilization and Barbarism (1845), George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Rómulo Gallegos’ Doña Barbara (1929), Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and Abraham Rodríguez’ Spidertown.3 As Eric Lorentzen argues in “Why the Novel (Still) Matters: Doing Student-Centered Cultural Studies in the Literature Classroom,” students can easily move from reading the construction of literacy in texts to interpreting how social ideologies on schooling are currently instantiated.

One of the most fruitful ways to launch this critical process is by having students consider how definitions of literacy in schools are constructed, as opposed to being “natural” or self-evident. Students are introduced to more recent sociolinguistic studies that have investigated what Shirley Brice Heath has called literacy in “contexts of use as defined by particular communities” (“The Functions” 19). Students then read the narrative fictions of social protest, exploring how these creative writers in different epochs pose what Lorentzen has felicitously termed “alternative literacies” to dominant ideologies of school literacy (Revolutionary Reading). They compare and contrast, for example, the positioning of street knowledges versus school knowledges in the fictions of Dickens, Shaw, and Rodríguez. They read discrete sociolinguistic studies on community literacy in use, like that of Farr and Guerra on Mexican-American families in Chicago. Students can then go on to ask the middle school children they work with to assess how the languages and literacies of school differ from those of their worlds outside the classroom. I also assign George Mason students several texts in critical literacy (Shor, Bhatt and Martin-Jon, and Morgan) so that they may be introduced to pedagogies of resistance that may be encouraged in classrooms.

Because most of the children we work with at the middle school are from homes where the first language is Spanish, the dislocation between a Spanish-speaking identity and a school- (and society-) based identity in English is often keenly felt. Amy wrote that middle school students spoke openly and passionately about language discrimination in a class last spring held during heated national debates on immigration:

We had (the children) search the internet to find information on the H.R. 3447 bill and had them list their own reasons for why people might immigrate and then look up other actual reasons for immigration. Later, (another Mason student) had them list the advantages and disadvantages of immigration (from the perspective of the immigrants). We touched on issues such as blue collar and white collar jobs, defined the term "prestige", the reason behind the Mexican-American War and how that plays into the immigration bill controversy, and (labels) that some natives may give to immigrants because of their false sense of (perception).

Honestly, I was a bit nervous discussing such serious and (sensitive) topicsespecially because they are SO very impressionable. . . . It's (obvious) that their parents discuss the immigration issue with them, for they were all extremely passionate in their opinions. De hecho, at one point during the discussion, (one middle school student) commented that the language barrier is a disadvantage for those who immigrateand while he was making his comment he appeared to mock those that don't speak English. (Another middle school student) . . . defended non-English speakers by boldly remarking, "It's not their fault they don't know the language! It doesn't make them stupid!" (The first student)now realizing that he (accidentally) offended (the second) (as well as others I'm sure) (apologized). . . .

Overall, it was a great successactually I think it was one of the most fascinating (classes) simply because this topic affected them in a very personal way. I was so proud that not one of them was (afraid) to voice their opinion. This was an ideal lesson to challenge their critical thinking skills as well as their public speaking skills.

Here, in the children’s moving responses to immigration debates, Amy was able to concretely observe how ideologies on second language and literacy acquisition are directly linked to ideologies on so-called “national” identity, and how they come into direct conflict with children’s home- and community-based knowledges and sense of self-worth.

Literacy narratives in modern fiction are exemplary spaces of heteroglossic discourse, in which diverse registers of languagelanguage variations, multilingualism, school and community knowledgescome in contact with each other. The competition and struggle between these registers in texts provide a fruitful stage for discussion of real-world issues that literature students engaged in social justice projects in literacy encounter. The reading of literacy narratives in conjunction with studies in sociolinguistics and progressive education may help students to potentially resist literacy ideologies in US society, thus providing a true public service. This semester, Mason students are introducing middle school students to the literacy narratives of Dickens and the others, in the hopes that the critical space opened up by the literary textand its resistance to dominant codings of “literacy” and schoolingmay have some direct effect on the children’s feelings towards reading. We are seeking, in other words, a melding of literary theory and social praxis, where the best that has been claimed for reading as agencyas a modality for self-reflection, institutional critique and the breaking down of psychic and social boundariescan be attempted. That our program works precisely on the borders between school and the world in the after-school setting is a crucial factor in its realization. Our long-term study on the impact of the program on the children’s affect towards literacy and schooling will attempt to qualitatively reproduce these assumptions.

As literature professors, we have a responsibility to show students how their supposedly “natural” experience of interpreting a text in literature class is in fact an activity lodged in a larger ideological system of literacy. At the same time, as I have hoped to show in this article, students’ critical awareness of literature and literacy ideologies can be a platform from which they pursue literacy and social justice projects in the community. At the end of the semester, Amy reflects upon her experience:

Through the past twelve weeks of the Culture Club, I have noticed that the youth have become much more confident in their (intellectual) abilities as well as in their overall personal identity. It broke my heart that one day when (a middle school student)i told me that (they have) experienced labeling when some of (their) classmates (and even teacher) ignorantly expressed their negative opinion about ESOL or HILT students. As we (facilitators) have provided them with visual, written, and oral texts that they can relate to, they have progressed (at) a very impressive rate in their abilities to think for themselves and to have a constructive debate.

It is Amy’s keen sense of the children’s “debate” that I would like to close with here.  For in aiding the middle school children to develop public agency through texts and cultural representations outside of their “standards”-based curriculum, George Mason students have found a public voice for their own literary and cultural studies. I contend that service-learning, when combined with a critical pedagogy in the literature classroom, may help us to create an alternate public sphere for literary studies in the United States, one we might do well to model upon the work of Raymond Williams and others in the British extramural programs, where the potential of texts to disrupt ideologies and received knowledge can merge with an activation of social responsibility in local communities.



I am grateful to Eric Lorentzen, Kristina Olson, Ricardo Vivancos-Pérez and the members of the Critical Pedagogies and Cultural Studies conference at George Washington University in July of 2006 for their significant feedback on this article. This article is dedicated to Jennifer Leeman, whose work and generosity of spirit are a revelation. I would also like to thank John Guillory and Raymond Williams for their inspiration.


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[1] An exception is Irizarry in Hellebrandt and Varona, Construyendo puentes.

[2] “Amy” is a pseudonym. I gained her permission to use her words. The Office for Research on Human Subjects at George Mason University gave me approval to use her anecdotes in this article.

[3] I am grateful to Eric Lorentzen and Randi Kristensen and Tania Shields for suggesting the rich sources of Dickens and Kincaid’s novels to me. Eldred and Mortensen (1991) deconstruct the myth of literacy and social mobility in Shaw.