A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Making the Case for Brandt: A Review of Literacy, Economy, and Power

A Review of Literacy, Economy, and Power: Writing and Research after Literacy in American Lives edited by John Duffy, Julie Nelson Christoph, Eli Goldblatt, Nelson Graff, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Bryan Trabold, 2013; Southern Illinois University Press

Amy Williams, University of Utah

(Pubished: June 16, 2016)

I recently met a prominent rhetoric and composition scholar who, on hearing that I study literacy, asked simply, “Local Literacies or Literacy in American Lives?” Without hesitation I responded, “Brandt.” He seemed surprised: by my answer or my surety in answering I couldn't tell. He confessed his own disappointment in Brandt’s book and politely asked me to defend my choice. I gamely took the challenge. I listed my appreciation for Brandt's cross-generational lens, her oral history methodology, her economic focus, and her theoretical contribution in conceptualizing literacy sponsors. Brandt, I said, had opened my eyes to the powerful forces exerting pressure on literacy learning, development, and opportunity and had helped me understand that "just as illiteracy is rarely self-chosen and rarely self-created, the literacy that people practice is not the literacy they necessarily wish to practice" (Brandt 8). In short, I argued that Brandt had given sociocultural approaches to literacy a methodological model and a theoretical construct to take on issues of power. Unsure if I had been persuasive, I offered a final salvo: "You really should read Literacy, Economy, and Power.

Edited by John Duffy, Julie Nelson Christoph, Eli Goldblatt, Nelson Graff, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Bryan Trabold, Literacy, Economy, and Power: Writing and Research after Literacy in American Lives proclaims the continued significance of Brandt’s landmark book. In their introduction, Duffy et al. note that at its publication in 2001 Brandt's Literacy in American Lives (LIAL)was one of many voices transforming the study of literacy. But in the ensuing fifteen years, Brandt's work has proven remarkably generative for literacy scholars. According to the editors, the extent to which LIAL has been, and continues to be, taken up by literacy scholars marks it as "a preeminent, if not the preeminent, voice in literacy studies" (1). Indeed, the chapters in Duffy et al.'s book attest to the wide-ranging influence of Brandt’s methodological and conceptual contributions.

Literacy, Economy, and Power includes contemporary scholarship that, like Brandt's, emphasizes historicity, uses oral testimony, or engages the concept of sponsorship as a lens to understand the political, economic, religious, and social forces at work in people's literate lives. Duffy et al. clearly aim to valorize Brandt, but not through review, analysis, or praise of her original work. Of the eighteen authors represented in the collection, only one—Anne Ruggles Gere in a brief but moving afterword—devotes her essay to lauding Brandt. The others honor Brandt by highlighting her influence on their own work, which the editors call "some of the smartest, most creative, and most thought-provoking recent research in literacy studies" (3). This strategy of linking LIAL to today's research demonstrates Brandt's legacy while also illustrating how scholars enter and advance an academic conversation through the work of others. As a result, this collection, while important for all readers interested in literacy, may be particularly valuable for literacy scholars just entering the field. 

The editors divide Literacy, Economy, and Power into three sections, representing past, present, and future. The first section, "Looking Back at Literacy," includes four essays that combine Brandt’s theory of sponsorship with her affinity for historical research. Using a variety of archival materials, the scholars represented here give the reader an enhanced appreciation for the flexibility of her approach.

The first essay, “Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix: The Sponsors of Literacy They Were and Were Not” by Ellen Cushman, brilliantly elaborates Brandt's concept of sponsorship through a study of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper published by an American Indian nation, and Elias Boudinot, its editor. As editor, Boudinot represents both a sponsor of literacy and one sponsored by others—the Cherokee nation, individuals within the nation, and outside (white) financial backers of the paper. Cushman recounts the way Boudinot negotiated this complicated and sometimes conflicting web of sponsorship. For example, Cherokee sponsors wanted a paper that would "deliver [Cherokee] intelligence in their own prized writing system" (21) while white readers (some sympathetic, some curious, some suspicious) expected an English-language paper. Boudinot often accommodated both by presenting content in side-by-side English and Cherokee. When the question of Cherokee sovereignty strained relations between the Cherokee Nation, the state of Georgia, and the federal government, Boudinot's sponsor/sponsored position became increasingly precarious. Ultimately judging the Cherokee effort to maintain their ancestral lands as futile, Boudinot openly supported the nation’s removal, a stance that led to his assassination in 1829. For Cushman, Boudinot's fate makes tragically clear Brandt's ideas about the "remarkable" political, social, and economic stakes involved in sponsorship. Boudinot's story also invites a more nuanced view of sponsors than Brandt offers. Cushman demonstrates that sponsors are entangled in "mutually sustaining relationships with those they sponsor and those who sponsor them" (27). Sponsors may "wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty" (Brandt 19), but Cushman notes that they also "serve at the behest of others" (27). 

In another biographical sketch, “Writing the Life of Henry Obookiah: The Sponsorship of Literacy and Identity,” Morris Young examines the literacy narrative of Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian boy living in the 19th century. Deploring what he deemed the primitive conditions of his native Hawaiian culture, Obookiah escaped the island and, through a series of serendipitous encounters, made his way to New Haven, Connecticut, where he was introduced to both literacy and Christianity. Like Boudinot, Obookiah’s story complicates the sponsor/sponsored relationship. Sponsors entered young Obookiah’s life in the form of people, texts, institutions, and religious faith. Encouraged to write and circulate his Memoirs, Obookiah and his text in turn functioned as sponsors of literacy and, ultimately, Christianity. Like Cushman, Young presents a complex counterpart to the comparatively straightforward, one-way sponsorships Brandt describes in LIAL. In Young’s and Cushman’s analyses, sponsor and sponsored relationships are fluid and contingent. The sponsored, Boudinot and Obookiah, become sponsors even as they continue to be sponsored (and vulnerable to the sponsors’ fortunes). Furthermore, Boudinot’s and Obookiah’s literacy and their ability to perform as either sponsored or sponsor collide with larger religious, cultural, and political forces. As a result, the consequences of their literacies are not only personal but also impact indigenous sovereignty and nationhood for the Cherokee and Hawaiian peoples.

In her essay, “Testimony as a Sponsor of Literacy: Bernice Robinson and the South Carolina Sea Island Citizenship Program’s Literacy Activism,” Rhea Estelle Lathan extends the idea of sponsorship by demonstrating how the African American practice of testifying—"a communal reenactment of one's feelings and experiences" (31)—functions as a sponsor of literacy. She explores this idea through the record of African-American activist Bernice Robinson's experiences teaching in a 1950s South Carolina literacy program. Lathan argues that Robinson's use of testimony qualifies as a literacy sponsor because it is a tool that "includes ways of knowing that not only sponsor the practices, meanings, and values of literacy but become central to [people's] literacy acquisition and use" (41). Here Lathan unexpectedly but persuasively expands literacy sponsorship to include practices (like testimony) that are embodied, felt, and oral, thus tying Brandt’s sponsorship to themes of embodiment, feeling, sensation, and affect that are increasingly prominent in rhetoric and composition scholarship. 

Carol Mattingly’s research, “Beyond the Protestant Literacy Myth,” takes a more traditional view of literacy as she critically re-evaluates narratives about Protestantism and Catholicism as literacy sponsors. Mattingly challenges the assumption that Protestant sects championed literacy while the Catholic church did not. Using examples from Europe, America, and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mattingly provides abundant evidence that the Catholic church actively promoted literacy in local contexts and that many of these efforts were directed toward women. While Mattingly does not enlarge the idea of sponsorship as other authors in this section do, she does demonstrate the value of Brandt’s original concept for critical research. Her reappraisal of the received history of Christian literacy suggests other historical narratives that may be productively interrogated using Brandt’s ideas.

In the book’s second section, “Looking Now at Literacy,” the editors present research that applies Brandt’s theory and method to contemporary contexts. This section starts with another nod to religion as a sponsor of literacy as Julie Nelson Christoph (“Sponsoring Education for All: Revisiting the Sacred/Secular Divide in Twenty-First-Century Zanzibar”) explores the “multilayered” (94) sacred and secular literacy cultures in contemporary Zanzibar. Christoph notes that official, secular literacy efforts in the country rely on autonomous literacy models, and these controversial models maintain a curious hold on people’s views of literacy. For example, Christoph found that most people express a profound belief in the value of secular literacy while also insisting that it plays little or no role in their everyday lives. At the same time, every respondent reports engaging in religious literacy activities associated with Islam. Because UNESCO attempts to teach and measure literacy from an autonomous perspective, they fail to acknowledge religious literacy practices or the role of Islam as a powerful literacy sponsor in Zanzibar. For Christoph, this lack of recognition and coordination between Zanzibar’s secular and religious literacy sponsors reduces the efficacy of official literacy initiatives and threatens to leave citizens unprepared for the literacy demands of the 21st century.

Kim Donehower’s short essay, “Connecting Literacy to Sustainability: Revisiting Literacy as Involvement,” reminds us that LIAL and the notion of sponsorship are not Brandt’s only contributions to the field. Donehower returns to Brandt’s Literacy as Involvement and her notions of “strong-text” and “process” perspectives of literacy. Process perspectives, which Donehower and Brandt clearly favor, focus not on the text but on the way texts are produced and used socially. As Donehower says, process literacy is “an active, activist literacy, a literacy that does things—social things” (98). This theoretical lens makes Donehower’s essay a bit of an outlier within the volume, but her combination of archival research, ethnography, and rural contexts reflects LIAL’s methodology and interests. Furthermore, like other authors in this volume, Donehower illustrates how Brandt’s work can be extended to address a wide range of scholarly interests. In this case, Donehower links reading and writing activities to issues of democracy and community sustainability, suggesting Brandt’s potential relevance for political theory. 

In their essay “Toward a Labor Economy of Literacy: Academic Frictions,” Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu connect their body of work on economic structures and translingualism to Brandt’s notion of sponsorship. Here they contrast foundationalist and accommodationist models of academic writing—both of which view language differences as barriers to communication—with their translation model, based on the translingual principle that language difference is “a resource for producing meaning” (Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur 303). Horner and Lu reject the “myth of friction-less, labor free literacy” (120) and recast the inevitable friction of academic literacy as productive and generative, even the very “condition for meaning” (112). Horner and Lu urge “agents” of academic sites to sponsor—“enable, support, teach, and model” (123)—a translation model of literacy in which students learn to “value experiences of difficulty, confusion, and difference as both inevitable and as resources upon which writers and readers, through their labor, create and re-create meaning” (123). Horner and Lu remind us that Brandt’s concerns were never just theoretical and methodological but also pedagogical. Their essay invites pedagogical applications of Brandt’s work.

In “The Unintended Consequences of Sponsorship,” Eli Goldblatt and David A. Joliffe challenge the final phrase in Brandt’s definition of literacy sponsor, the idea that sponsors “gain advantage by [their sponsorship] in some way” (127). Goldblatt and Joliffe admit that Brandt’s phrase has “always bothered us as incomplete and overstated” (127). Using university-sponsored literacy programs as their object of analysis, the authors consider the risks involved for literacy sponsors, including the risk that the advantages gained produce unforeseen and perhaps unwanted consequences. Like the early chapters by Cushman and Young, Goldblatt and Joliffe provide a more critical interpretation of the terms of sponsorship and then transfer those concerns to contemporary contexts.

Beverly J. Moss and Robyn Lyons-Robinson continue this critical bent in their ethnography of a Columbus, Ohio book club (“Making Literacy Work: A ‘Phenomenal Woman’ Negotiating Her Literacy Identity in and for an African American Women’s Club”). Arguing that power operates in more complex and situated ways than Brandt’s definition implies, they suggest that “sponsorship and authority are intricately intertwined, that the authority that comes from an academic space is not necessarily always welcome in [another] cultural space, and even when it is, the invitation—and it is an invitation—can be revoked” (149). Together Goldblatt and Joliffe and Moss and Lyons-Robinson remind us that, like all theories of power, Brandt’s concept of sponsorship is not exhaustive. It must draw from, not just be applied to, the object of inquiry.

Coming from the field of education, Michael W. Smith (“Seeking Sponsors, Accumulating Literacies: Deborah Brandt and English Education”) continues the pedagogical theme introduced by Horner and Lu as he enacts Brandt’s concept of sponsors in the context of English teacher education courses. Smith considers how teachers can act as sponsors and can create classroom practices that act as sponsors but are, in turn, sponsored by concrete and abstract entities—disciplinary knowledge, standardized testing, Chambers of Commerce, etc. Believing that teachers must critically evaluate the politics of their teaching, Smith argues that the construct of sponsorship provides a helpful heuristic for doing so. As a charming coda to his essay, Smith recounts his experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught alongside and learned from Brandt.

In “Combining Phenomenological and Sociohistoric Frameworks for Studying Literate Practices: Some Implications of Deborah Brandt’s Methodological Trajectory,” Paul Prior argues that the acclaim afforded LIAL often overshadows Brandt’s earlier works. In her pre-LIAL research, Brandt utilized ethno-methodologies, conversation analysis, and phenomenology. She seems to abandon these methods—to the field’s detriment Prior believes—with her turn to a life history approach in LIAL. But Prior proposes a reading of her work that sees a “sustained resonance with phenomenological sociology span[ning] Brandt’s career, in which situated study of live action and historical inquiry can be understood as complementary phenomenological methods and in which phenomenological and sociohistoric approaches share considerable common ground” (168). Prior presents evidence of this methodological continuity across the breadth of Brandt’s work before turning to his own research to further demonstrate the value of combining phenomenological and sociohistoric approaches.

The book’s “Looking Forward” section consists of one essay, Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher’s “Combining Phenomenological and Sociohistoric Frameworks for Studying Literate Practices: Some Implications of Deborah Brandt’s Methodological Trajectory.” Selfe and Hawisher credit Brandt for establishing an orientation to literacy that is at once expansive enough to allow for the “accumulation” of theories and methods and disciplined enough to remain recognizably Brandt’s. The authors detail the ways their own work follows Brandt while also embracing digital technologies, feminist theory, collaboration, global contexts, and multiple media. As the most overtly methodological pieces in the volume, Prior’s and Selfe and Hawisher’s essays will inspire scholars seeking dynamic approaches to the study of literate activity that resonate with the field’s diverse theoretical and methodological traditions.

An epilogue by Harvey Graff tracing the development of literacy studies alongside the development of interdisciplinarity and the aforementioned afterword by Gere close the volume. Graff reminds us that Brandt was part of the vanguard of New Literacy scholars who effected a sea change in the way literacy is studied. That vanguard, of course, included Barton and Hamilton, so perhaps this is why my interlocutor set up the binary: Local Literacies or Literacy in American Lives. If a choice must be made, Gere suggests why one might lean toward the latter. Acknowledging that she recognized LIAL’s value even at the time of its publication, Gere now admits, “What I did not foresee was the degree to which this book would become indispensable in literacy studies. […] I did not foresee the extent to which this book would become part of my own mental architecture” (228). Duffy et al.’s volume suggests that many working in literacy studies would agree.

Overall, this book has much to recommend it. Duffy et al. introduce readers to some of the best scholars in the field while acknowledging the roots that nourish and make possible their work. One need not have read Literacy in American Lives to appreciate what Literacy, Economy, and Power offers. But it is also unlikely one will finish this book without feeling motivated (or perhaps compelled) to read or reread the seminal work that inspired it.

Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Duffy, John, Julie Nelson Christoph, Eli Goldblatt, Nelson Graff, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Bryan Trabold. Literacy, Economy, and Power: Writing and Research after Literacy in American Lives. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. Print.

Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English 73.3 (2011): 303-321. Print.