Our cherished written tradition was developed
for the powerful, by the powerful,
and by continuing to prioritize it in the classroom
we perpetuate the privileging of already-privileged groups.
In order for all our students to be fully literate,
we must engage them with texts of all modes
and teach them to communicate adeptly
in every medium available.
I think there are many things that we falsely conflate with intelligence, and while one of them is the ability to write well (itself a rather subjective designation), the ability to test well is also hugely significant. We often look at good test takers as smarter scholars, though I think people are starting to observe that the SAT may be more a measure of a student’s test-taking strategies and abilities than their genuine intellectual creativity and engagement. Many SAT prep courses my students take do not attempt to augment their knowledge or add to their critical thinking or creative problem solving abilities. Instead, these hundreds-of-dollars-per-hour “classes” focus on standardized test taking strategies. They educate students about how the SAT is scored, about when to guess and when to leave an answer blank, what formula their written essay should follow, ways to work backwards on the math section, or make educated guesses on verbal, finally drilling them with practice tests and problems. They are teaching experience and conformity as a way of demonstrating capability. Students who may have plenty of potential, plenty of intelligence, plenty of curiosity and creativity, are subjected to this very limited means of measuring worth or worthiness and may be shut out of certain institutions because of their either inability or lack of desire to conform to the standards of a standardized test.
In spite of this hurdle, though, Selfe points out that “through various means and, often, with great sacrifice” many students from marginalized backgrounds learn to use writing to subvert and push back against such oppression while holding onto aural traditions from their backgrounds (623). “These aural traces,” she writes on page 624, “identify communities of people who have survived and thrived, not only by deploying but also by resisting the literacy practices of a dominant culture.”
These students seem to be engaging in an advanced and adept form of code switching—jumping between languages and conventions and, here, modes in order to best and most successfully navigate certain spaces in relation to their own authenticity. What I find especially valuable about Selfe’s emphasis on aural and alphabetic (and other) traditions being taught in tandem is her recognition that it is not enough for us to leave such code switching up to our students as a coping mechanism—code switching is a tool and technique that should be taught as a means of making every student more fluent and strategic in their use of language to navigate the world. As I noted in the first sentence of this post, teaching students to use all available means is important “so that they can function as literate citizens in a world where communications cross geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic borders and are enriched rather than diminished by semiotic dimensionality” (Selfe 618). If we are teaching students to be successful citizens, and if our world is increasingly global and intersecting, they will need all of these linguistic and multimodal understandings in order to contribute.
We as teachers must also realize that our classrooms are now in many ways crossing those same borders of culture and literacy. Many students who may have in earlier decades been shut out of our classrooms are now finding themselves and their voices within them, though they may still feel at odds with what we value and prioritize academically. We must not see it as “enough” to have a diverse group of students in our classroom. It is our imperative to educate all students and also to value them and their knowledge within our academic space. Every student should feel empowered, and every student should feel challenged, and every student should be taught to code switch. By engaging multiple modalities in the classroom, we give multiple literacies equal value, and multiple students equal worth. We must, to quote Selfe one last time, “respect and encourage students to deploy multiple modalities in skillful ways” (625-626). Emphasis on the idea of respect.