That title is really weird, right? So was the experience that I’m about to share here at first–although it started making great sense when I got used to the academic culture that I am in now, after some time.
In a graduate seminar and practicum on teaching college-level writing that I took as an MA student in the US, the professor gave the class a literacy/teaching narrative essay assignment. Most of the writing tasks given by professors in various other courses that I had taken until then were all challenging because I was not used to writing “assignments,” but I had been doing fairly well by starting early and working very hard. This assignment caught me off guard! At first, it sounded much easier to write than all the others that I had done, but I was totally stuck because the “idea” behind it made no sense to me and I couldn’t find anything meaningful to say on the subject.
In elementary and secondary school in India, I learned to “learn by heart” whatever the books said, and understanding came later. In college and university in Nepal, I learned to understand and remember every course material in order to summarize, analyze, and otherwise demonstrate understanding so that I could earn the best “marks” in exams at the end of the year.
As an English teacher in English medium schools in Nepal, I implemented the supposedly Western idea of education (or I thought I did) that individual students should learn by doing/experiencing and by interpreting ideas and information as independently as they can. But the dominant mode of teaching and learning remained knowledge-transfer, rather than (the facilitation of) knowledge-making.
In both the above sociocultural settings, I had not reflected on the idea of literacy, education, and the learning process as a matter of my personal “experience” as a learner, as a participant, contributor, creator, and owner of my own knowledge. Nor had I tried to make any value judgment about literacy or learning at large as it affected me as an individual learner and owner of my own ideas about learning or literacy. I had always known education as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The most common metaphor for education in my home country Nepal was “weapon” to fight through one’s life–a metaphor that I quickly learned was odd, even absurd, when shared with my teachers and colleagues in the US. (Incidentally, I was quite excited when the metaphor of education as “weapon” was discussed around the world when Nelson Mandela died and one of his quotations was popularized–although I was soon amazed by how Western media appropriated the metaphor from Mandela’s explicitly “educational” context/meaning here and put it in the context of politics and power, like here!)
Pondering the literacy (or, optionally, teaching) narrative assignment, I realized that I had been taking knowledge for granted, as an absolute, so that it would have made no sense for me to consider being in dialog or tension with, or in command of it. As a student, I was judged for the amount of knowledge I had received; and as a teacher, I had rarely thought of students as contributors to the learning process, for they were essentially beneficiaries.
Until I actually started brainstorming on and drafting this assignment, I thought that it would be both easy and interesting because I knew that I had substantial material to draw from my eventful academic and professional careers. But when I had to come up with a logical framework for the narrative material that I first amassed in several pages of notes, I suddenly lost all my confidence. I could describe and narrate all the things that had happened to me, things I had gone through; if describing, rather than sense-making, was the objective, I had more material than I needed right inside my head, but as a graduate student, I was aware that that was not enough.
As the deadline drew closer, I was more and more aware, even anxious, that unless my story was meaningful in the context of the local meanings, concepts, and context of “literacy,” and not just an interesting story about my “academic life,” I would not be fulfilling the assignment. I had no theme, no argument. I had stories to tell but they would not fit into a structure of meaning I was supposed to—or wanted to—build. In fact, I was also afraid that if I told any of the stories about my literacy life, they would sound foreign, exotic, perhaps seemingly made up or exaggerated. I could not write the essay because I found it difficult to ascribe an epistemological agency that would explain my development as a reader and writer.
As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I could not dupe myself into believing that I was telling a literacy story by telling a story of my learning. I started to write one that would show how I learned to read and write and then pursued higher education against the backdrop of my economic, social, and political experiences in India and Nepal. I tried another draft that described the material conditions and obstacles that I had overcome in my life to make learning possible at all, obstacles that included dropping out of lower secondary school because my parents didn’t believe that higher education would be worth the time and effort, displacement of family from east India due to terrorism leading to another near end of high school education, an unprecedented change of major from engineering to English literature at the beginning of college, and a literal escape from home to finish my undergraduate degree.
I wrote draft after draft, discarding each of them. One of them used the metaphor of the Buddha’s quest in trying to describe my craze for getting good grades and degrees in order to liberate myself from the limitations of the family and community, class and occupation. Each time, I came to the crippling realization that I had never looked in the face of learning itself and made any value judgment about what it meant to “me.” My stories of learning felt weird, absurd, hopeless, crazy, and wild in turns. The more I tried to make sense of the mass of ideas and experiences, the more I realized that I had not learned to see education in its own right.
In hindsight, I realize that with the worldview which I had internalized, I was unable to find a theme for framing the events of my literate life. I procrastinated until the night before the assignment was due, and I finally wrote an essay that I knew did tell a kind of literacy story, but it was lacking in relevant substance and focus. This story of life that almost kept me from becoming literate sounded more absurd than relevant in the context of what I really wanted to write–here in the US, for a completely different audience, an audience that I was already learning has a unique social, historical, and cultural relation to literacy.
Luckily, the professor was so nice and understanding that he thought what I wrote made great sense! That was quite a happy ending to a self-inflicted (?) painful experience, right? But quite honestly, I was not sure how much weight to give to his being a wonderful teacher and how much to his response to my writing–because my writing didn’t make any sense to myself!
Here’s a great article (you’ll find the abstract and works cited) on the subject of literacy narratives across cultures, by Bronwyn Williams.