Tricking New Literacies

In class this week, we are discussing Toward a Literacy of a Promise: Joining the African American Struggle.  We’ll pause and (re)look at pages 6-10—  two subsections called: 1) “School Literacy and the Discourses of Power”; 2) “Schooled Literacy and Traditional Forms of Literacy Instruction.”  Powell has taken theories of New Literacies Studies (NLS) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and really made that her own, in her own words/frames of reference, and politics of location.  We need to do the same… here is my version…

In simplest terms, in CDA and NLS, we think of schools as expecting and maintaining certain styles of speaking, writing, and being and thereby recycling power.  There are “prescriptive norms and values” for how you must write, speak, respond, ask questions, look, sit, think, act, walk, feel, question— how loud you do it, when, where, and how.  (We call these norms and values Discourses— with a capital “D”!) What researchers related to NLS and CDA are suggesting is that Anglo, upper middle class students represent Discourses that schools match (see Shirley Brice Heath’s 1983 canonical Ways with Words for a linguistic ethnography of just how much school matched white kids’ homes and ran counter to the philosophies and goals of black homes).  What happens then is that the language and ways of being that have real currency, impact, and effect in the home communities of students of color have no visible value or place in school.  What is important about Powell’s work is that she is NOT suggesting that we teach whitened-school practices to non-white students more effectively or efficiently (which is essentially what most teaching models consciously or unconsciously do).  She is suggesting a rupture of those whitened school-practices that get communicated through textbooks, standardized tests, prepackaged learning objectives, curriculum kits, classroom techniques, etc.  Literacy gets packaged as a set of neutral, static objectives that can be measured and “scientifically” managed and then students must conform to the materials, an altogether different thing than becoming conscious or literate, so that they can be (using Gee’s words):  “apprenticed in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.”

Tricking-VideoLet me bring it home, quite literally.  In my first semester at my current college, I had a first-year writing course that I taught with the theme of NLS.  My idea was that young people of color themselves could chime in on these very conversations and (re)claim how they are literate in ways over and beyond “schooled literacy” in politically necessary ways.  I was not disappointed.  Before midterms even fell down on my first semester at my new campus, Jason taught me about a set of literate practices that I had never heard of before… tricking.  Jason was a trickster!  Now as an oldhead, this was new to me and so this is how I described it upon first seeing it: super-high energy, multiracial youth across the world blending acrobatics with martial arts and a dose of some kind of new crack cuz this stuff was just CRAZZZY!   So how was this NLS for Jason?  Well, to get to tricking, there was a lot of textual sharing that happened first (this was 2008— tricking is more prevalent and popular now.)  What I knew was that Jason spent hours of his time uploading his own videos of his tricking and looking at videos from other tricksters across the world who would comment back to one another with suggestions; when there was no common language, they would use their bodies for the form of their commentary.  In fact, Jason’s video collage and research project for the class examined how tricking embodied what Maisha Fisher calls a “participatory literacy community” where literacy is shaped solely through high levels of participation.

Since Jason’s lesson, I have been following Brandon McCuien (I am still not very knowledgeable about this world though), who I see young people on the internet calling a Black Superhero and/or the Real Neo.

Here is his short, gone-viral collage:

Here he is in public spaces:

Now I don’t mean to sensationalize here but this couldn’t capture more brilliantly something that seems so totally opposite in form, purpose, and dynamic from what school feels like and does:

  • a reinvention of gymnastics (and maybe martial arts too)
  • moving your learning directly into embodied action
  • maintaining connections with other youth across the globe
  • inventing global communication networks where the viewers/youth design a sophisticated “assessment” vocabulary for who’s good and who’s not
  • taking over public spaces— literally flipping them
  • and, if all that ain’t enough: deciding who the hell your own black hero is!

I can dig it.  The point of a theory and practice of African American Literacies, NLS, or CDA would be to see the energy, audience awareness, and skill that someone like McCuien so obviously has and see to it that schooling recognizes it also.  Now many might say: but yeah, they need to learn how to write essays.  I won’t argue for or against that but what I say is this: if we can’t engage all this brilliance with our essay-based teaching requirements, then it is not the students who are lacking, it is us.