A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Or You Don't: Talents, Tendencies, and the Pooka of Literacy

Catherine Prendergast, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/pooka-of-literacy (Published: November 5, 2013)

Literacy narratives are stories of incremental progress. The narrator moves through obstacles from lack to literacy, rarely back. Literacy, we learn through such tales, accumulates in families, one generation bequeathing purposefully or unintentionally materials, skills, and attitudes to the next. Today’s generation sits atop this pile of gifts, often having to sort through them to find one best suited to the moment (Brandt). Literacy narratives are thus written by the winners, those on the top of this pile. But the literacy narrative’s real protagonists are not individuals, but rather time and place. Anti-biographies that resist the winner-take-all cliché, literacy narratives feature most prominently the forces of class, race, geography, and historical events. Such macro-factors account for what language we speak, what schools we attend, whether we will write our stories with a quill or computer. We accept this in literacy studies, because it is, after all, the truth.

And yet…

I want to write here not about what we know, but about what we don’t. We don’t know why one person embraces a book that another rejects, when all other macro-factors are equivalent. We can’t explain why one student gravitates toward the theater while another, the lab. We have no way to account for an individual’s inclinations or aversions, much less their talents. We don’t really have a way to account for individuals at all.

Are there some truths about literacy that can’t easily be removed from the context of one individual life? In the hopes of offering a prompt to the field to ponder this question further, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my father, whose life, as I will describe, forces me to be the least reliable of narrators. I’m asking you to read a bad literacy narrative, though one that pushes the genre to investigate why it is we speak in stories to begin with. What can we learn about literacy from the seemingly incidental and quirky details of a personal history? Literacy, I will claim, is about learning, about the economy, work, gender, race, and class, but it also a mode through which we experience gains and losses that are personal, unpredictable, and, in the end, why we tell our tales as tales.

Two Books

When he assigns literacy narratives to students, Morris Young counsels them to avoid the “hero” story. Resist the “dramatic and traumatic” and look for the everyday (160).

This is good advice. Let me play for one moment, however, what we would imagine to be the typical C student of literacy and revel in the drama of my father’s life. My father was the eldest son of two Irish immigrants: George, the son of a West Clare farmer, and Nora, who hailed from Tralee. In 1906, young Nora was committed with her four siblings to one of Ireland’s so-called industrial schools after her father, a pig dealer with no pension, died from tuberculosis. Nora’s mother immigrated to New York where she worked in domestic service to earn each of her children back over the next decade. George had immigrated to New York before World War I, meeting Nora after he returned from service. My father was the first in his family on both sides to have more than elementary schooling. Given the time and place he was born into, so much is to be expected. Less expected is that my father became a professor of astronomy at Columbia University, his only brother, a professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins. One might conclude that immigration to America caused the family’s rise, however my grandfather came from an entrepeneurial family seemingly bound to make good whether they left or not. My great uncle’s children who stayed in Ireland made names for themselves breeding stallions.

My father’s “everyday” is hard to wrench from this dramatic backstory. He rarely spoke about his childhood. Relatives suggest it was filled with books and pets, with abundant family but few friends. My father would entertain himself in his family’s brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, by putting a bowl of water on a turntable: He’d watch it forever, just to see what the waves would do. Nowadays, that behavior earns you a designation somewhere on the spectrum. My father’s everyday, in other words, was not most people’s everyday.

I find among my grandmother’s albums this photo of my father in kindergarten, of a composer and his composition:

Kevin Prendergast in kindergarten, circa 1935
Kevin Prendergast in kindergarten, circa 1935

What strikes me about my father’s expression here is that he is not smiling like his teacher, nor even looking at the camera, or to his mother who likely took the photo. He’s not taking in the applause. His eyes haven’t left his creation. Maybe he’s spotted a mistake. Maybe he’s thinking what he should add next. He looks if anything as if he’d rather not be standing there at all.

Years after my father’s death I showed this photo to my uncle, the pathologist, in the hopes of soliciting more family memories: “Well,” my uncle said, looking from the castle to me perhaps a bit too briskly. “You either got it or you don’t.”

For every positive school experience recalled in a literacy narrative, there are at least five ugly and painful ones. My father’s kindergarten photo at St. Gregory’s is, true to genre, exceptional in documenting a moment of teacher pride in his early education. More frequently, parochial school featured scenes like the one described by Linda Brodkey in “Writing on the Bias,” in which a teacher tapes shut an unauthorized book Brodkey was reading. My father did not get expelled from St. Gregory’s because he was rebellious. A bookish kid, he didn’t have competing interests in the streets. In my father’s day, Bedford-Stuyversant was a neighborhood of upwardly mobile Irish and Jewish immigrants, most of whom were for the most part willing to embrace the school’s authority–not yet the “Bed-Stuy” of riots and molotov cocktails described in Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps. Still, my father had little use for school. He never mentioned a teacher he admired from elementary or high school. There is in my father’s story no Jack MacFarland, the inspiring high school teacher Mike Rose credits in Lives on the Boundary with pulling him toward college. My father did speak with reverence about two mentors, but he did not meet them until college, in the case of one, and his post-doctoral years, in the case of the other. Such figures did not so much awaken nascent desires as take them nearly formed and fulfill them to professional capacity.

While not by nature rebellious, my father was reportedly still a pain in the ass to have in the classroom. If he didn’t like the lesson, he tuned out and suffered the parochial consequences. Fortunately for him, Nora had investments in protecting her young son from failure. Nora was practical. She told both her boys that as a younger woman she had decided that any man desiring her hand must show her two books: a Bible and a bank book. Nora would attend mass faithfully until she died, but when it came to her elder son, she could see the Bible wasn’t going to have any desired effect. With a skepticism of educational institutions doubtless stemming from her own many years “in care”–years of which she rarely spoke–Nora pushed the rules to make a space for her son. She petitioned St. Gregory’s to drop the morning church requirement so that my father could practice piano. He would later study at Julliard. She talked to the nuns when my father’s patent boredom showed. When he finally got kicked out for good, Nora sent him to Brooklyn Tech, the math and science magnet school where the worst schoolyard taunt was “What’s your weighted average?”

It was a smart move. Both of my father’s parents wanted him to become an engineer. But my father had two books of his own which were to decide his destiny: one on engineering, and one on astrophysics. He read them in quick succession, finding the first boring and the second riveting. He decided then and there he wanted to be an astronomer. His parents protested. An engineer was something, a profession, a career, a moneymaker. An astronomer was… what? Sputnik had yet to be sent up. There was no space race. But my father would not be moved. In 1950 he entered graduate school at Columbia immediately after getting his undergraduate degree—also from Columbia—and had a PhD in astronomy in hand five years later. He was 25.


As much as literacy narratives are about explaining what is gained from one generation to the next, they are also chronicles of loss. Literacy brings family fissures; those who acquire advanced literacy are often the ones who can’t go home again. If you are looking for the familial fissure in my father’s literacy plot, look no farther than my father’s relationship to his father.

My grandfather was an Irish immigrant whose story is the American plot in four storyboards: the rags to riches narrative at its most literal and compressed. After serving in World War I, George worked as a salesman at an import/export house located at the southern-most tip of Manhattan, 17 Battery Place. Through trade in canned meat, Tabasco sauce, and other food provisions, he brought his family if not to wealth, to at least a solidly middle-class existence. As they rose, George and my grandmother remained active members in New York’s Irish-American civic societies and did not forget the “old country.” They sorted through piles of my old clothes to send the good pants back home.

My father, however, sorted through the accumulated pile of George’s literacies and seemed to have no use for any of them: not the farm knowledge, the business sense, the church, nor the embrace of national identity. As a child of Brooklyn, my father would pick up more Yiddish than brogue. Unlike his mass-attending brother, my father would become an atheist, marry a Jew, and, (infuriating Nora who was still alive to witness it) decline to baptize his children. He did not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. He owned more books about Winston Churchill than about Irish independence. And while I knew my grandmother very well, my father told me next to nothing about my grandfather who died four years before I was born, except that he was from the part of Ireland where, “the main crop was kids and they exported a lot of them.” Yet in a scene that is burned into my brain for its novelty, and because it took place in one of the increasingly few, lucid moments before my father died, he revealed the name of the village my grandfather had left when he was 17: Cree, from the Gaelic Chríoch, meaning “the end.”

Even my father, however, would not deny that his large Irish family was his greatest boon in life. His parents both held jobs through the Great Depression, a feat that ensured their children would grow up in comfort. An extended family living close by, or even—as in the case of my father’s grandmother and aunt—with them, enabled both of my father’s parents to work (Nora as a stenographer, a skill she learned while at industrial school) while raising the two boys. The presence of other women in the house would become crucial when, after the birth of her second son, Nora’s latent tuberculosis become active. She was swiftly relocated to the mountains for a year and a half of recuperation. Without the dedicated efforts of an extended family, it is difficult to see how my father winds up being my father.

Finally, there are those legacies of gender and race privilege my father inherited that can never be denied. My father was on the leading edge of white men who, either through the GI Bill or through the progressive spirit of the day, were handed affordable educations. Lingering anti-Irish sentiment notwithstanding, he faced few obstacles in his career. I don’t think he ever applied for a job. Colleagues called up his advisor: Boom, a post-doc at University of Chicago that turned into an assistant professorship. While there, Sputnik was launched, the luckiest of lucky breaks if you were an astronomer. Suddenly, a capricious career choice starts looking prescient. A phone call: Want to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton? Boom. NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies for a year. Boom. Back to Columbia as a tenured professor, in an office atop the McKim, Mead, and White designed Pupin Hall, where the first uranium atom had been split twenty-five years before. What affirmative action? My father was moved along by a chain of handshakes exchanged among a tight-knit professoriate newly empowered by the space race to identify and promote exceptional talent. Such are the factors Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers would undoubtedly point to if rendering my father’s story as one datapoint in his argument for the power of environment and persistence in making stand-outs, stand out.

And yet…

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I, like my grandmother, like my father’s kindergarten teacher, like my father’s colleagues, recognized that even with all that, my father was way off the curve of normal. “Oh he was brilliant,” one his colleagues told me. “I’m merely smart, but he was brilliant.” “The real deal,” another offered. While no Einstein, my father was one in a certain number, even measured against a stack of math prodigies and their weighted averages. More convincing to me than Gladwell’s socio-historic matrix, therefore, is Andrew Solomon’s observation in Far from the Tree: “Clever people often have clever sons and daughters, but dazzling brilliance is an aberration” (405). Brilliance, Solomon argues, is as poorly understood as autism. Call it brilliance, call it non-neurotypical, call it what you will, but my father evades the explanations provided by the macro-factors of his life.

Add up all those macro-factors, and my father becomes engineer.


In my father’s family, no household is considered complete without a cat. I grew up with cats present and stories about cats gone by. The most famous died before I was born: Pooka. A pooka, in Irish mythology (from the Gaelic, pucá), doesn’t need to be a cat; a pooka is a shape shifter that attends you, bringing luck either good or bad, but always what you hadn’t expected. Spectacles not where you left them? Blame the pooka. Unexpected tax refund? Thank the pooka. Milk spoiled? The pooka. Irish life, with its substantial curses and blessings, is pooka all the way down. The pooka messes with business as usual, takes your plans and claws them to shreds. But every house needs a pooka, otherwise the things that don’t make sense gnaw at you, begging for pointless explanations.

Surely the pooka allowed my grandmother to reckon with her son’s abrupt talents. But what the pooka brings, it can also take away.

The advantages my father enjoyed, all his luck of time and place save for gender (a big one), could not match mine. I, the beneficiary of my Irish grandparents’ rise into the middle class, the further beneficiary of college tuition exemption that came with my father’s tenured appointment, and the daughter of a math major mother who worked part time as a computer programmer—I inherited a landscape rich in numeracy, the family business, as it were. My parents thought that left unaided I would, like my older sister, succeed in science and math.

They were wrong.

When I entered 8th grade, my school engaged in a new experiment. They split-tracked a small group of students, of which I was one, leading me to be dumped out of the top track in math and science into the “B,” or moderate dummy track. My parents were stunned. How could this child of theirs—of theirs—be bad at math and science? They had their own literacy myth going, one in which something more foolproof than genetics ushers talents and abilities from one generation to the next. To their thinking, I was the outlier, not my father. My mother went to my school and railed at the administration. There must be some mistake, she argued, but I knew better. I told my parents that despite their belief that the school was filled with idiots (they thought all schools were filled with idiots), my teachers were right: I was bad at math and science. Whatever “it” was that all my family seemed to have, I didn’t have it.

How would a literacy narrative make sense of this daughter to her parents? Look at the trappings of both numeracy and literacy that surrounded me in hyper-abundance. My father was ridiculously well read for a scientist. He had books on Pythagoras, on Plato, on ancient Egypt. He honed his wit on P.G. Wodehouse and Pogo. My parents had run out of shelves in the main floors of the house so had begun shelving the attic: “My companions in misery,” my father called his books. I would move out long before they would. Of course there were books on astronomy, shelves of them whose spines boasted tantalizing titles, like Stars or Galaxies, but whose contents looked nothing like stars or galaxies. I would open these books, briefly, before putting them back on the shelf. But I read all the Nero Wolfe mysteries, developing an unrequited crush on Archie Goodwin, the sidekick who could report whole conversations verbatim to his immobile boss.

Calculators, slide rulers, abici—these lay everywhere. By the 1980s, they were joined by a home computer, built by my father’s colleagues, the Chudnovky brothers, mathematicians who logged a world record for computing pi out to some billion digits. I used it to type my college literature papers. I could control words, I was learning, but not numbers. Still I fetishized the terms of astronomy, but could only grasp them in my own private context. “Quasar” was the dog belonging to the colleague who (also) named quasars. “Syzygy” was a small craft my father built in the garage that sank once it was placed in water (okay, maybe not an engineer). I remember asking my father what a syzygy was, but I don’t remember his answer. Looking at the constellations, I could make out only the dippers. My father did not walk me slowly through his work. He was not a populizer: When Carl Sagan, (not yet Carl Sagan) attended his class too sporadically, my father gave him a D. I stopped asking my father what he did and, when asked by others, rendered an answer only in pigeon. Black holes, I’d say. Singularities. He makes models of the evolution of spiral galaxies plus time. I said this for years before realizing the “plus time” was redundant.

My father gave me a photo of the triskelion at the center of the galaxy. I hung it on my wall with a “you are here” arrow. One night after tucking me in, my father gave it a glance: “It’s upside down,” he said. It took me two decades to realize he had been joking.

I did tell you he was funny, didn’t I?

So these accumulated tools, materials, and associations yielded me vastly diminished returns in numeracy and scientific literacy. But we know from literacy narratives that literacy writ large is more than knowledge of discreet domains. As Patrick Berry reminds, we must also acknowledge the affective returns of literacy. The gifts that did pass down to me from my father’s associations and abilities were more of this variety. For example, even as I would enter the humanities, the domain of the lone author, I would retain a belief that knowledge is made, and conveyed, through collaborations, and that geography, ethnicity, and national origin pose no bar to these. My father’s intellectual world was rigorously international. Speakers of non-standardized Englishes peopled my father’s world, and through his, mine. Nobody’s accent was a problem. There was work to be done.

My father also collaborated with an unusual number of women. In this realm he was a veritable feminist, whereas at home, he barely lifted a dish. He worked with or mentored several prominent women in astronomy. Seeing these women with my father, I never imagined that girls couldn’t grow up to be professors, work as diligently and as obsessively as men. Go ahead and follow your brain. If your house is a mess, who cares? You have better things to do. I felt the truth of that in my bones. I certainly never thought women couldn’t do the math. These women clearly could do the math. I just as clearly couldn’t.

But did I try to learn math and science? Did I really, really try? Here, I approach another convention of the literacy narrative: the confession. Every literacy narrative documents sins—a little drinking, a little stealing, a little drug use—something that complicates, even threatens the accumulation of literacy; in this arena, Keith Gilyard’s recollections in Voices of the Self of “designed destruction” set the bar. My confessions are comparatively minor, falling under the wide umbrella of what we might call “student resistance.” Faced with continuing embarrassment and confusion in math and science, I did what thousands of students around the globe do everyday: I cheated, I bribed, and when all else failed, I ran.

At first, when my parents were still in denial, my mother tried tutoring me in math, hoping I could catch up to my classmates taking algebra in the eighth grade. I made sure she’d regret that effort. My father, arguably over-qualified, attempted no such remediation. Once in my junior year of high school, when I was confronted with a physics lab that flummoxed me, I asked my father for assistance. He handed the assignment sheet back to me with two words: “Won’t work,” he declared. “What do you mean, ‘Won’t work’?” “The lab,” he said, “is wrong. Your teacher is an idiot.” When I missed the physics midterm due to illness, my teacher arranged for me to take the make-up exam at his office while he was at lunch. On the corner of his desk rested a pile of already corrected midterms. He really was an idiot—either that or very nice. I did well on that test.

By senior year, I no longer waited for the hand of kind fate to intervene: I bought my younger friend (and math phenom) Chris a six-pack of beer which he drank in the park while finishing my take-home trigonometry final. Even with Chris’s assistance, I squeaked through this last math course I would ever take with a C+. Who cares? It was senior year, and I had already been admitted to college.

I followed my father into Columbia, but Columbia of the 1980s was not the Columbia of the 1940s. When I arrived, with national disinterest in math and science on the rise, I was able to place out of all math and science requirements with one Advanced Placement test in biology. In the 1980s, Columbia’s core curriculum included thirty required credits in the arts and humanities that students could not placeout of, (including their first year writing course, Logic and Rhetoric). My father, at that point the chair of his department, spent his days arguing with “administrators with Rolex watches” to keep astronomy from being institutionally merged with physics–a cost-saving measure. He was livid when he looked at my schedule, seeing in it all the threats to blue sky science he battled daily. He had ceased to understand his university, then careening into its era of corporatization, a path its students would follow: A full 45% of my class went to law school immediately after graduation. Another large chunk enrolled in MBA programs and went on to plot the subprime mortgage meltdown. A smattering more—mostly women—went to medical school.

I had only one friend who planned, like me, to go to graduate school in English. When it came to take the GRE, he studied up for the quantitative part of the test just as diligently as for the verbal. I didn’t understand this. Why pretend that I understood math when I hadn’t taken a course in it in four years? Instead of reviewing geometry, I studied the exam itself. I learned that if I received an exam booklet with three sections instead of two of one part of the test, the extra section was experimental—field-testing to craft the next exam. This section, I read somewhere, would be more difficult, but would not count toward my score. When I arrived at my examination site on the day of the test (the GRE was not online then) I received a booklet containing two sections of verbal, two of analytical (then logic puzzles), and—just my luck—three of quantitative. I got four problems into the third section and concluded they were more difficult than they should have been. It must be the experimental one.

I decided not to finish the section. I put my pen down midway through question number five. I wish I could say that I had decided not to be a testing corporation’s guinea pig, but I can’t rescue any moral stance. I was just done: Done with math. Done with the humiliation. Done. With. This. I went to the bathroom and smoked a cigarette while everyone else completed the section. My score in quantitative, when I received it, was in the nineteenth percentile. Perhaps that was not the experimental section, after all. Probably it was.

One learns through writing a literacy narrative. That is why we do them and assign them to our students. This is the second one I’ve written. The first was in Deborah Brandt’s seminar on the topic of literacy at the University of Wisconsin, the only graduate school I applied to that would take me and my lopsided GRE results. At the time, Brandt was collecting the narratives that would become the data for Literacy in American Lives. I was in my second year of PhD study in literature, as were many other students in the class. Brandt’s assignment was to write our memories of both reading and writing, with no particular emphasis on either. My classmates wrote narratives detailing scenes of reading: furtive reading, favorite characters, books that changed their lives. My literacy narrative was a chronology of scenes of writing, from my very first diary with a teensy tiny key, up through my realization in college that I could not write fiction. I looked around the room at my peers and realized I was not like them–would never be like them. They yearned to read. I yearned to write. I switched my specialization to Rhetoric and Composition shortly thereafter.

However modest, that was my Sputnik moment: My bit of luck, my right place, right time. But for the growth of this field called Rhetoric and Composition that didn’t exist where I went to college, I would have failed to complete a dissertation on James Joyce or Djuna Barnes, and would be doing something else right now other than writing my second literacy narrative. I still wonder, though, about those literacy narratives in Brandt’s seminar which, in aggregate, revealed a distinction between people who cherished reading and others who, when given time and opportunity, would rather write. What makes someone “tend” toward one area or another? Are there readers and writers? The comparison test between engineering and astronomy my father took years ago happened to me in that class. I am this. I am not that. But why? Among individuals in the same time and place, where do these distinct leanings come from? So far, we don’t not know. Talk to the pooka.

Hidden Treasure

Every obituary of my father, every reflection on his career has to explain why he was so very smart but published so very little. His closest friend and colleague, his steel through the end, Ed Spiegel, takes a stab at it in the obituary he wrote for the Astronomical Society: “While one can only speculate on why so much of his work went unpublished,” Spiegel writes, “I find a remark by de Kooning quite helpful in thinking about it.” The remark is about being so modest you are actually vain. Apparently when Spiegel accused my father of having this mindset, he chuckled and said, “You are right. But don’t tell anyone.”

Another colleague, George Contopolous, mentions my father’s publishing block several times in his autobiography of his life in astronomy: “Prendergast was a genious [sic] but also known for his neglect in publishing papers” (35). A few pages later: “Kevin Prendergast was a hidden treasure. It was surprising how many things he knew in mathematics, physics and astronomy. He would often give crucial advice on very different subjects.” Sounds great, but he continues: “His only (but serious) drawback was his neglect in publishing his papers.…Most of his own work is in the form of preprints or just notes” (49).

Contopolous complains that my father never wrote up his presentation he gave at a meeting of astronomers in Greece in 1964. There’s a photo in the Contopolous book from this meeting: fifty astronomers lined up beside a jet plane. It takes me several minutes to find my father: his lock of hair and the corner of his glasses angled downwards, barely visible behind fifty smiling astronomers.

Hidden treasure.

I had always seen my father write, so I assumed that what he wrote he also published. He was, after all, a professor. I didn’t know about his substantial Achilles heel until my last year of college, when a chance conversation on my dorm floor with two astronomy majors revealed it: “Your Dad’s class is great!” they said. “He tells us these things he’s never even published!”

“He tells you…what now?”

My father kept writing until he couldn’t write anymore. He wrote until he was taken into the hospital, and from there, to hospice. Piles and piles of his papers accumulated in our house, most in his office, some near his bed. After he died, my mother donated all these papers to Columbia’s archives; a former graduate student of my father’s categorized them, as only someone with specialized knowledge could. The well-tailored suits he wore to the office nearly every day were sent to the thrift store.

Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan have observed that dipping into the archives to “get to know Grandpa” is nothing new; their volume Beyond the Archives is replete with accounts of archival trips driven by the need to fill in the missing pieces. In wondering why my father never published, I have my missing piece. The answer won’t be at the family plot in Queens, so I decide I will go to the archives instead. I am a good archival researcher. I will find my father in the papers. This is what I do, my literacies in action.

Before the visit, I locate the digital copy of the finding aid and give it a read. The collection of my father’s work spans 20 feet, 5000 items in 48 boxes; I note this bulk approvingly. It’s at a remote location, I note, disappointed. I have to request the material in advance. That’s okay. I will request it. Bring me the body.

I select my four allotted boxes through the clunky online system. Of course I want to look at the boxes marked “personal” to see the photographs and miscellaneous letters. I’m going to skip boxes marked “lectures on gas stream in close binary systems” and “bifurcation and vanishing of Henyey matrix and other difference equations.” I may go for “astrophysics.” At least I know (I think) what that is. Maybe I’ll go for the folder marked “black holes,” one of the few things my father studied that even as a kid I could pronounce. I’m anticipating an exercise in humility in all of these. Science and technology studies colleagues, forgive me, but I suspect you cannot help me here. If you can, stand and be recognized.

I fear all the papers are going to smell like ERICs, the machine-rolled, filter-tipped cigars that killed my father.

When I arrive at the archives in Butler Library, I’m told that my alumni reading card, which expires in 2014, has already expired (it’s 2013), and I’m ushered over to an office to get a new card. Once upstairs, I’m told that the main reading room is full, and I am sent to a desk in a subsidiary reading room. The archives clerk wheels in a cart supporting four boxes of my father’s work, and parks it in a corner, informing me that I have to wait till a staff member arrives before I can look at the files. The staff member, I am told, is currently at lunch. I am sitting, ready, five feet from my father’s files, thinking, this is what my father hated about Columbia. Nothing works. It would have horrified him to know that even in death he would be subject to his employer’s capricious bureaucracy.

When I get to the “administrative” file, I understand what was at stake in my father’s increasing battles with the university. In a 1986 letter to a colleague abroad, he explains why a plan to restore the university’s Harriman Observatory in upstate New York has foundered: “The University would like to know how it can either save some money, or find other sources of support.” He mentions that action should be taken before his term as chair expired and a less sympathetic person assumed the office.

A frantic draft of a “white paper” my father wrote to keep his department from being merged into physics has barely suppressed rage seeping through every sentence: “Columbia doesn’t need ast. –no univ does.” (in this handwritten manuscript, “univ” is written over a crossed out “one”). It continues, “Astronomy 'useless'—but training in ast. is not. But perhaps better not ask what a ‘U’ needs: Cambridge does without school of Law, Med, Bus, etc., etc., but has three large separate flourishing astronomy groups.” (Columbia, of course, boasted a law school, a medical school, and a business school.)

After a brief history of the expansion of physics departments after World War II, my father continues with a local appeal:

Whatever about other phys departs absorbing ast, it would be a mistake with ours, because i) frankly, they have troubles of their own ii) they have quite a history of dropping subfields: nuclear and atomic physics among them. (incidentally these are fields in which they won Nobel Prizes).

I’ve written tons of these kinds of memos myself to know this is how you make arguments to administration: Provide some institutional comparisons, appeal to local tradition, and indulge in light slagging on the competition. But my father pulls a rhetorical rabbit out the hat in the next paragraph, where he articulates the methodological distinction between physics and astronomy:

anything big enough to see is unique. Then what is import, or unimport? Physicists don’t face this question: all protons are the same, and everything about them is important. Always seek the simplest sit. in which the phen. appears—we don’t have that luxury.

“Anything big enough to see is unique.” “Unique” sticks out to me because it is a word literacy scholars avoid. If the protagonists of literacy narratives are time and place, no one data point (person) is “unique.” But if that’s true, why tell the story of literacy refracted through people, in narratives that are necessarily flush with the unique?

This passage of my father’s work strikes me as a major find. Both because of and despite its emphasis on the unique, it reminds me of the way I think. When I teach students why the formulation “literacy event” is flawed, I, too, invoke physics, via this quote from Marshall Sahlins: “Not every action is a historical event. In a physical sense, of course, every human act qualifies as an event—but this is not physics” (302). Even the first time I read this line from Sahlins, it sounded like something my father would say. I’ve come home, if not to an understanding of math, at least to a sensibility that strikes me as familial.

As much as I would like to revel in the similarities between my father’s analytical bent and my own, however, I have to acknowledge that these administrative documents represent only a sliver, a tiny sliver, of the thousands of pages in front of me. When I am out of the administrative files and into his exchanges with colleagues about astronomy, I encounter, as expected, my own inability to appreciate my father’s rhetorical posture. And I encounter it quickly. Here is an email sent to one of his students in March of 2000:

The force due to these two is given by –d/dr phi, and it vanishes at corotation, which occurs where phi (r) reaches a maximum. If this doesn’t look like a volcano when plotted as a function of x and y, something is very wrong.

I selected that email to show you because I can transcribe it. Most, I can’t: As I attempt to, I quickly run into special mathematical characters I don’t know how to find on my keyboard; I encounter–literally–Greek. Even the English prose, however, makes no sense to me. I know what a volcano looks like, but I don’t know the significance of a volcano shape on a graph. Reading my father’s correspondence with colleagues, I cannot figure out how he got from one topic to another, or why. I can’t tell you what his colleagues are working on. I can’t even describe my father’s own career arc. This is a life in letters, but not one I can decipher.

I leave the letters, memos, and emails and go into the math itself. This is my father for the most part talking to my father (wasn’t that the problem?), and it is incomprehensible to me. I can’t keep track of the things I’ve photographed because everything looks the same: How will I distinguish pages from the “Breaking Waves” file from work in “Wave Driven Wind”? I am only able to date work by decade: newer work appears on canary yellow lined sheets (interspersed with more computer printouts), whereas earlier work is on low quality white (now greying) unlined paper that I rarely saw in the house.

What do I lose by this incomprehension? I lose my father. My father’s math rendered his world view—to be even more correct, his galactic view, because unlike me, he had one. Sifting through the math, I grow jealous of his colleagues who can understand this stuff, who can wonder at drop of water I ignore as it slides down the glass. I find, in these papers, how far apart my father and I really are. A breaking wave to me signifies rough water, or a nice sound, even a memorable day at the beach. It certainly doesn’t signify this:

Kevin Prendergast, Breaking Waves, unpublished manuscript
Kevin Prendergast, Breaking Waves, unpublished manuscript

The later work, as I feared, smells like ERICs, and my chin breaks out in a familiar allergic reaction. I must have touched my hand to my face. I put the file down, and leave the archives to wash my hands and face. I return, though, reminding myself that this is my project, not my father’s: I’m going to find out what stopped him from publishing. And then I’m going to publish it. If there’s one lesson I’ve taken from my father, it is publish the damn thing. That, and ditch the smokes.

Back to the correspondence. Voila: A 1988 letter to Contopolous contains this chestnut:

I never published anything except the note in the Springer series, as I became discouraged by a rejection from a (quite reputable) journal. Could you tell me where you plan to publish your work, and do you think they could be interested in mine?

There it is. Fear of rejection. Simple, boring, paralyzing fear of rejection. The pooka, this time in a less amiable guise.

I should have known. The day after my dorm mates told me that my father was teaching them material he hadn’t published, I confronted him. Walking down Amsterdam Avenue to our usual lunch (bacon and tomato grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate shake), I asked gently—well, I thought, gently, “Your students told me you teach them things you never published. Shouldn’t you be publishing, you know, putting your name on it?”

My father stopped, wheeled around, and began walking in the other direction.

I called to him to come back, and he did. My father would never really leave me. He would ask me nearly every day, out of every quiet moment: “Are you mad at me?” It’s what he said as often as most parents say “I love you” to their children. And I understood it to mean the same thing.


Teach me something, I said to my father in one of our frequent phone calls after his diagnosis. By then, I knew his days were numbered. I was an assistant professor in the Midwest, not visiting as often as I should.

Teach me something about your work in words that I will understand.

My father sent me these, thirteen sheets of canary yellow lined paper. It explains catastrophes, but because they contain my father’s wit, his asides, and his exquisite and mind-bending drawings, I treasure them more than any photograph:

It must have taken him some effort to write this letter. Each page is my father talking to me, the least common denominator; they are a father’s love in thirteen pages. If you didn’t read it, please go back and do so. Try to do as he suggests: Mentally take a sheet of paper, fold it in a specific way, cut it and then rotate it to imagine the edge in two dimensions. It’s more fun than Sudoku, I promise. I read this letter often, trying to understand the content of its pages, and sometimes I think that I do. Yet I will never understand catastrophes as my father does. I will not read this letter as my father’s colleagues would. As I learned long ago in graduate school (thank you, Marty Nystrand), meaning doesn’t reside in any text, available to anyone who picks it up. Any astronomer who picks up my father’s published work (there is, of course, some) will, even if they never met him, know him in a way that I will not. And they will already know the answer to the question I asked his colleagues when I was preparing to write this piece. Why, I asked, did my father devote so much energy to studying hydrodynamics when his subject was astronomy?

Because space is a fluid, they said.


Loss, as David Eng and David Kazanjian remind, creates, but it does so unpredictably. An engagement with loss “generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future” (2). I have a place to go to visit my father, a story of travel to the archives, of an attempt to understand. The archives, if imagined from one angle, might be a site of twenty linear feet of failure, the footprints of a mischievous pooka in my father’s life. But had he been publishing, there would be very little need for 5000 items to be preserved in one place. What is left is materially more than what would have remained had his work been translated into clean, published prose. There are the canary yellow lined pads, the marks of his pen, the superscripts and subscripts and asides he was so fond of, and that smell. It is now a site for me of memory, more dear in that I have to wrest it from someone else’s hands, more precious in that I will always fail to capture it, and from that failure, find reason to write. Ultimately, the literacies we cherish most are not those resting in the accumulated pile we inherit, but those we forge to make up for our losses.

I still have my questions about literacy. Literacy, as Harvey Graff reminds us, is “the product of its own history,” (xxix) but it also seems to me that we experience it as a product of our own history. No one has done more to undermine the myth of inevitable social progress through literacy than has Graff, who has shown us through historical analysis what literacy cannot do, despite the ideological freight it is loaded with at any given moment in time. But what about those aberrations who buck the large historical trends—those for whom history cannot give a full account? What do we do with those who make history? What do we with the literacies that, in our familial narratives, become “history” in the sense that they decline and fade?

Literacy narratives do not strive to flatten. They’re actually among the most pleasant works in the field to read. Despite the characteristic rhetorical gestures of the genre, each one offers a distinct and accessible story. Reading Brodkey, Villanueva, Young, Rose, Berry, and Gilyard again for this piece reminds me of the unique (there it is) sensibility that informs each—how that sensibility over time has made each one of these scholars a gift to our entire field. When literacy narratives are deployed exclusively as chocolate covering for the sociological indices, large trends, and other macro-factors we consider the nutritive substance of literacy research, we lose more than the narrators; we lose a way to account for the outliers, the spikes, the aberrations, the weird. We miss the desires, the tendencies, the affinities, and yes the talents that are also the stuff of literacy, and for which we, as yet, have little explanation.

Perhaps we don’t want or need an explanation. Perhaps whether my father became an astronomer or an engineer is meaningless to us, because he would have maintained his middle class position either way. His agony over publishing may similarly be of no consequence because he couldn’t lose his job. If I could prove that my father had mild Aspergers, would that make his story more compelling? I doubt it would have made a difference to him. In the end, the fact that we don’t share the same questions, that we don’t need the same answers, interests me more and more each year.

The pooka, obviously, is an unsatisfying analytical category to rescue the individual along their talents, tendencies, questions, and quirks: Don’t look for it to replace literacy “myth,” or “sponsor” any time soon. But if looking for the pooka in the story destabilizes our frameworks for understanding literacy just long enough to consider what might get lost in them, it has done its work.

A final memory: My father visits me in graduate school. I take him to Madison’s modest gardens because going to the Brooklyn Botanical is what my family did. It’s late spring and the flowers are finally in bloom and the displays are terrific, but my father isn’t looking at them at all. He’s stuck alongside the koi pond, staring at the small water bell in the middle.

“Isn’t it marvelous,” he said, his eyes not leaving it.

You either got it…

Kevin Prendergast in his office, circa 1964.
Kevin Prendergast in his office, circa 1964.

Works Cited

Berry, Patrick, W. (Forthcoming). “Doing Time with Literacy Narratives.” Pedagogy 14.1.

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

Brodkey, Linda. Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only. Minnesota, MN: U of Minnesota, P, 1996. Print.

Contopolous, George. Adventures in Chaos and Order: A Scientific Autobiography. Norwell, MA: Klewer Academic Publishing. Print.

Eng, David and David Kazanjian, “Introduction” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David Eng and David Kazanjian. Los Angeles: U of California Press, 2002. 1–25. Print.

Gilyard, Keith. Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Print.

Graff, Harvey. The Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P. Print.

Kevin H. Prendergast Papers. Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Print.

Sahlins, Marshall, Culture in Practice: Selected Essays. New York: Zone Books, 2005. Print.

Solomon, Andrew. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012. Print.

Villaneuva, Victor. Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. Urbana, IL: NCTE Press, 1993. Print.

Young, Morris. Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print