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Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration

Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration

by Daniel Keller

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Arguing that composition should renew its interest in reading pedagogy and research, Chasing Literacy offers writing instructors and literacy scholars a framework for understanding and responding to the challenges posed by the proliferation of interactive and multimodal communication technologies in the twenty-first century.

Employing case-study research


Arguing that composition should renew its interest in reading pedagogy and research, Chasing Literacy offers writing instructors and literacy scholars a framework for understanding and responding to the challenges posed by the proliferation of interactive and multimodal communication technologies in the twenty-first century.

Employing case-study research of student reading practices, Keller explores reading-writing connections in new media contexts. He identifies a culture of acceleration—a gathering of social, educational, economic, and technological forces that reinforce the values of speed, efficiency, and change—and challenges educators to balance new “faster” literacies with traditional “slower” literacies. In addition, Keller details four significant features of contemporary literacy that emerged from his research: accumulation and curricular choices; literacy perceptions; speeds of rhetoric; and speeds of reading.

Chasing Literacy outlines a new reading pedagogy that will help students gain versatile, dexterous approaches to both reading and writing and makes a significant contribution to this emerging area of interest in composition theory and practice.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Daniel Keller’s Chasing Literacy provides a useful and necessary study on the habits and minds of those just now entering college. He addresses the mysteries of multitasking, browsing, and especially acceleration—which he argues is the defining characteristic of literacy at the present time. Many of us have felt that this is so with the advancement of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and iTunes; SMART and touch devices; texting, Skype, and Pinterest. But Keller shows us why changes are unfolding and, as Walter Ong would say, how our students think differently as a result.”
—Kip Strasma, Methodist College of UnityPoint Health

"Chasing Literacy generates important knowledge about how high school and college students are making purposeful, strategic decisions about how to read that is not currently a robust part of composition teacher training nor carefully theorized within writing studies."?
College English

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Utah State University Press
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Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration


University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-932-6



"[W]hat an instructor believes about reading is an essential precondition to organizing and teaching in a writing classroom." —Marguerite Helmers (2003, 4)

David and Diana could not have been more different as high school students: David struggled in many of his classes, especially when it came to reading. He passed with average grades, and he had to work to achieve those average grades. In classes that involved reading, David was quiet and lacked confidence. As David put it, "I'm bad at reading. I don't know if I need more vocabulary or a speed reading course, but I don't like it, and I'm not good at it. Others [read] faster and get more out of it than I do." Diana, on the other hand, excelled at reading and in her classes in general. She often participated in class, confident that she knew the material and knew the right things to say. According to Diana, "School's not that hard. I'm busy, and I've got a lot of homework, but I do fine. I have a lot to read, but I just do it." For Diana, school was not a matter of struggling to get by but of striving to maintain a level of excellence.

In college, David struggled even more with reading, and Diana found that her usual ways of reading did not work anymore, noting that "they [teachers] expect us to do different things in different classes with reading." Although Diana remained a good student, she felt frustrated by these unclear expectations and her lack of preparation; she didn't struggle, but she didn't know how to excel. These two students suggest the range of students that come into our first-year composition (FYC) courses: the struggling students, uncertain and quiet as the class discusses a reading, stumbling over a word or even drifting off as they try to make a point; and the above average students, those who seem confident but end up skimming the surface of a reading for "the point" and do not see it as a complex, layered event. The students in this study went to a high school that performed exceptionally well on state tests; it was held in high esteem by parents, teachers, and students. If these students experienced difficulty with reading in college, then what does that suggest about the place and purpose of reading pedagogy? For far too long, reading pedagogy has been aimed at students like David, those who struggle, those who might need remedial education. But what about Diana and her overachieving peers? What about the students who seem to read well, but lack flexible strategies or an appropriate critical stance? How might we pursue research and pedagogy that would benefit a range of students? And, most importantly, what pedagogical possibilities are we overlooking by not investigating reading at a time when reading has so many rich manifestations? In their statements that opened this chapter, David and Diana referred to their proficiencies with traditional print literacies in high school and college. As we will see throughout the book, the participants generally viewed digital literacies as non-school practices. Might David have been more confident as an academic reader if his experience with digital texts had been drawn upon? How might have Diana and David engaged their reading and writing practices in richer, more connected ways in school through exposure to a range of literacies?

This chapter examines composition's relationship to reading. Although literacy studies has shaped compositionists' approach to writing instruction, it has made less of an impact on our thinking about reading in the writing classroom. Reading pedagogy, however, is crucial to the work of writing instruction. As Marguerite Helmers (2003) observes, "what an instructor believes about reading is an essential precondition to organizing and teaching in a writing classroom" (4). The beliefs we have about reading, and the view we have of our discipline's relationship to reading, shape what we do with reading (and writing) in the classroom. As reading and writing take on more shapes and purposes—as they accumulate—in the twenty-first century, how prepared are we to engage new literacies if we leave reading in its largely invisible state?


Consider the curious double life of reading in composition classrooms. All at once, reading is both invisible and constantly present. It seems to constitute so much of what we do in the classroom, yet it may also be one of the least theorized parts of classroom practice. We see reading most when it goes awry: when students stumble over words, when they offer up an interpretation that makes us wonder if we're all reading the same thing, when they read for the quick answer instead of the deep connection, when they simplify an author's position. But, for the most part, reading leaves no trace—no drafts, no revisions, no peer review, no individual conferences. When it seems to go well—or at least when it doesn't derail the goal of teaching writing—it drifts into the background, a ghost of a concern.

Reading's simultaneous presence and absence can be seen in Pat Hoy's (2009) description of how he used to teach reading and why that changed. Hoy states that he had "developed a pedagogy that would not require [him] to teach students how to read" (305). That is, students learned particular ways of reading through assignments and exercises, not from a more direct form of instruction. When that pedagogy was successful, he was "left free to teach writing, not reading" (305). But in recent years, Hoy's students were not reading the way he expected, and he found he was not alone: other teachers in his program all agreed on the "pervasive" reading problem and its characteristics (305). I think Hoy's initial view echoes what many composition teachers desire: students should either "already know how to read" or learn how to read for college as a byproduct of other assignments through a kind of pedagogical osmosis. We expect certain kinds of reading in our classes, and we want that reading to be invisible, automatic, and ready to serve writing. When reading becomes visible, when it requires new scaffolding, then the reading-writing balance of the classroom is upset.

Hoy and his colleagues are certainly not alone in feeling dissatisfied and even frustrated with student reading. In their analysis of students' writing from sources, Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue (2010) found that students seemed to engage minimally with sources. Based on the students' lack of summary and their focus on individual sentences from sources, the researchers raise questions about students' reading practices and "ask not only whether the writers understood the source itself but also whether they even read it" (186). As they note, their "preliminary inquiry suggests that we have much more to learn" about how students read and use sources (189). The research by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue is an early stage of The Citation Project, a large-scale empirical study of how students at multiple schools use sources in their writing. The Project recognizes that we do not have much empirical data about how students actually engage with sources. At my institution, which is comprised of a selective-admission main campus with open-admission regional campuses, an assessment of FYC research papers from every campus found a common problem of minimal and incorrect source use. Writing from sources is a complicated act with many interrelated parts, but how much of the minimal source engagement stemmed from unsophisticated reading, and by extension, from underdeveloped reading pedagogies?

Because the teaching of reading in college composition classrooms has received little attention in recent years, teachers lack the pedagogical theory and practice with which to assist students with their reading. First-year composition students then lack the reading strategies and the metacognitive awareness that could help them adapt to the reading and writing situations they will encounter in college and beyond. Being immersed in composition scholarship and having taught students at different universities and at different levels of college preparedness, I have a wealth of resources to draw upon when teaching writing. Reading is a different story. For many years while teaching reading, I turned to a textbook and assigned reading questions, journal entries, and reader responses. In the absence of a theoretical basis, however, these acts felt like an imitation of real teaching, and I struggled as a teacher when students struggled as readers. In addition to having little theory and little language for reading pedagogy, I also had little idea who the students were as readers. What do they read at home? What kinds of reading did they do in high school? How do they read with technology? The questions generated by those difficult teaching days led to this research. My call for a renewed interest in reading would be well deserved, even in a print-dominated world. However, it is even more urgent with the challenges and opportunities posed by rapid technological change.

Reading and writing have changed. We see this every day. Computers and the web have profoundly influenced how we approach texts, shifting between the position of reader one moment and writer the next (Brandt 2009; Lessig 2008). Alongside this shift, dynamic and rapidly changing literacy practices continue to expand the range of genres and media that we encounter and manipulate. Contributing to and navigating among this wealth of texts means we learn and adopt different ways of reading and writing. We are no longer passive consumers, if such creatures ever existed: more than ever, we are participants in how media are produced, distributed, and accessed. Composition has responded to such changes by expanding what it means to write, yet the corresponding literacy practices—how we read digital texts—have received less attention.

One notable call to attend to new forms of composing appeared in Kathleen Blake Yancey's (2004) address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), in which she asserted that composition needs to recognize that the writing we teach in school is becoming more distanced from what students do outside of school: "Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside" (298). Yancey's recommendations for change include bringing "together the writing outside of school and that inside" (308). She emphasizes the "circulation of texts" aspect of the new curriculum, which has students writing outside of the student-to-teacher model and transforming pieces of writing across genre and media: "As they move from medium to medium, they consider what they move forward, what they leave out, what they add, and for each of these write a reflection in which they consider how the medium itself shapes what they create. The class culminates with text in which they write a reflective theory about what writing is and how it is influenced or shaped or determined by media and technology" (314).

Yancey's proposal is important because it sets a new agenda for composition, but it is also interesting in the fact that the agenda is not so new (as Yancey herself acknowledges). The basis of this agenda was formed by the work of literacy scholars, particularly the New London Group (Cope and Kalantzis 2000), who argue for a semiotic view of communication: rhetorical and material contexts influence how people choose from a range of modalities—text, sound, image, etc.—as they design and deliver signs; in making signs, they reciprocally draw from and contribute to the semiotic resources available. Similarly, Yancey's "circulation of texts" model asks students to consider how to write with different media, thinking about and using appropriate modal resources in particular situations. Yancey and the New London Group ultimately want students who are more than just technically proficient with technologies: they want students to cultivate an aware, dexterous mindset that can respond to different situations with critical, creative literacies. Given the fast-changing nature of literacy, should we not aim to cultivate the same from students' reading practices?

Composition is right to respond to new literacies with research and pedagogy adapted to new ways of composing. However, the field's response should also include attention to new ways of reading. In turning to visual rhetoric and multimodal composition, we must make a concerted effort to consider how reading happens across semiotic domains, with print text remaining an invaluable part of contemporary literacy practices. The role of reading is crucial for articulating a more robust understanding of new literacies. Kip Strasma (2010) argues that we need a "new epistemology of reading new media that avoids the pitfalls of now-forgotten inquiries into hypertext and its related field of theory" (183). So far, early hypertext scholarship and early new media scholarship "parallel one another in that those early works focused on theoretical concerns rather than empirical and epistemic research, and, similarly, that work neglected classroom specifics and empirical research on individuals or groups of readers" (192). Strasma's warning is well taken, and this book aims to fill the gap with research and a pedagogical framework that considers an expanded sense of how reading happens, how reading can be taught, and how reading can be explicitly connected to writing in productive ways that reflect the dynamic range of contexts and media in which students will read and write.


As writing teachers we have a pedagogy based on a model of growth: we start from where the students are and use appropriate exercises and assignments to help them develop as writers, asking students to write in different genres and for various audiences to reinforce the situated, contextual nature of writing. We have a wealth of tools, practical guides, and theoretical scholarship that prepare us to help students become self-sufficient writers. We actively see students as writers, and we encourage students to see themselves as writers: to develop processes, to cultivate voices, to draw in and engage with audiences. We teach writing as a way of thinking. These are the values we have attached to writing and that we emphasize in our pedagogy. We have a tradition, a disciplinary identity formed around the power of writing and the potential of writing to effect change. I find little evidence of a similarly well-developed approach to reading pedagogy.

The title of David Jolliffe's (2003) "Who is Teaching Composition Students to Read and How Are They Doing It?" poses an appropriate question, given the lack of attention to reading pedagogy in the major journals, books on composition pedagogy, and the field's flagship conference, CCCC. Jolliffe's examination of the 2003 CCCC reveals that in "the 574 concurrent sessions, workshops, and special-interest group meetings [...] the word reading appears only twice" (128). The 2005–2008 programs for CCCC feature as many (i.e., as few) presentations on reading pedagogy as they do on grammar instruction, a subject our discourse generally regards as only tangentially important to the teaching of writing. Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue (2012) investigated the lack of reading theory/ pedagogy panels at CCCC and found that reading disappeared for 17 years from the categories of interest on CCCC proposals. Salvatori and Donahue celebrate the 2008 return of reading as a category, but they are also troubled by the long disappearance: "Although it is encouraging (and downright exciting) to see that since 2008, the words theories, reading, and writing appear in association, it remains puzzling that for seventeen years the word reading was completely invisible. A hiatus of seventeen years?" (210). Reading's absence as a category, of course, does not mean reading was completely absent from the conference. To present their work over the years, Salvatori and Donahue found ways to "work around, manipulate, or 'psych out' the areas of interest legitimized by the CFP form" (211). Even though reading may not have been completely removed from CCCC for those years, it was less visible as a topic that mattered to the field: "Why should one engage in inquiry that has been waved to the disciplinary borderlands or erased from the map altogether?" (210).


Excerpted from CHASING LITERACY by DANIEL KELLER. Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Meet the Author

Daniel Keller is assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University at Newark, where he teaches composition, digital media, and literacy studies.

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