Literacy Club – A Discourse Community for the Study of Culture

Smith argues that the when one learns to read and write well, that individual becomes a member of the “literacy club” (1988). As a member of the literacy club, members will participate in activities to promote written language. These literacy clubs allow for all members to be like each other. “They learn culture, the huge all-embracing clubs to which all of us belong” (5). As literacy club members, they “promote, … the value and utility of these activities to the new members, helping them to participate when they want but never forcing their involvement and never ostracizing them for not having the understanding or the expertise of more practiced members” (italics added, 3).

However, when it comes to a marginalized person’s admission into the dominate culture’s community, here is the rub and where this theory’s incongruence happens. For when a marginalized person becomes a discourse member of the dominate culture, that is one who participates in the dialogue and also participates in the standard making process, s/he loses her/his membership in the marginalized community — a representative, maybe; a member, no longer. Like my sliding scale definition of literacy, community membership also functions on a sliding scale.

This idea of a sliding scale for community membership is best illustrated first by Purves (1990) and then Villanueva (1993). In The Scribal Society, Purves (1990) examines the “appropriate” way for one to attain full membership into a scribal society. The “appropriate” way includes passing visible gates like entrance or exit exams, or even writing and defending dissertations such as this one. While invisible gates may come in the form of one’s race, gender, or heritage, it is the maintenance of these visible and invisible gates by the scribal society’s gatekeepers that is so important. Purves writes:

There are also invisible gates, such as race, social class, and language background, but the visible tests are often surrogate measures for making sure that the current scribal society maintains its particular nature. Race, social class, and especially language background are linked to being a scribe, because by the very definition of a scribal society (a definition society has made for itself), scribal behavior implies certain boundaries to the appropriate dialect of the appropriate language and the appropriate cultural knowledge. (108)

These gates become the “do not enter” signs for marginalized people, and they are carefully maintained by the appointed gatekeepers. This does not mean a marginalized person cannot become a scribe. No, a marginalized person can become a scribe though Purves does point out that the “scribal world is not democratic, although opportunity to enter into the competition may be equal” (108). What this means for a marginalized person is if s/he becomes a scribe, s/he then crosses over into a new community, and as a member of this new community, s/he must develop a new identity as a scribe, and as a scribe s/he must also function as a gatekeeper to protect the scribal community from non-member scribes.

Victor Villanueva (1993) expands on this scribal membership dichotomy in Bootstraps where he examines his own journey from the margins into the academy — from being just another man of color to becoming a respected academic, a scribe, and gatekeeper.

He [Villanueva] looks at the experiences of the African American speaker of Black English, the Spanish-speaking Mexican American, Puerto Rican, or other Latino, and says, ’They lack sophisticated speaking skills in the language of the majority.’ Then he remembers having spoken Spanish and Black English and the Standard English required at school, seems like always, and he wonders how it is that he got sorted outside the mainstream, relegated to a vocational high school, a high school dropout. He is racially white, despite a subtle hue, a native-born citizen and a lifetime resident of the continental United States, a quick study in linguistic code switching, a Ph.D. in the language and the literary traditions of the majority, and a reproducer of those traditions. And still, other. And he realizes that there is more to racism, ethnocentricity, and language than is apparent, that there are long-established systemic forces at play that maintain bigotry, systemic forces that can even make bigots of those who are appalled by bigotry [italics added]. (XIV)

In this scenario as just another man of color, Villanueva would hold one place marker within American society and that would be located within the margins. Society would only expect him to rise to a certain social and economic standard, which may be as a tradesman with a GED. He would be expected to become a member of the permanent underclass. But he, like some others from the margins, does not accept his place. Instead, he sees what is possible even though he is originally denied access. Remember what Purves said earlier, that while the scribal world is not democratic, the opportunity to enter it is equal. This is the case for Villanueva; he takes the required steps to gain access to the scribal society.

Part of his gaining access is to understand how Villanueva explains the difference between being an immigrant and a minority. The immigrant seeks to assimilate into the mainstream’s culture and is accepted as long as the immigrant correctly uses the mainstream’s language and dialect (23). Whereas, for the minority, “even when accepting the culture of the majority, is never wholly accepted. There is always a distance” (23).

Villanueva, like many others, has learned how to combine critical literacy with cultural literacy and has broken the code to the scribal society, securing full membership, but with a distance. Now he is a scribe and a respected gatekeeper who is charged by the academy to keep out the unworthy masses.

But does he assimilate? No, he doesn’t assimilate any more than I do. For every working-class kid who has ever broken the code and scaled the scribal society’s wall, is no longer true member of a marginalized community. As scribes, we may speak for our marginalized community as a representative, but we are rarely claimed by them as a community member.

This loss of marginalized community membership leads me to a great irony, which is this: when working-class kids break the code and scale the Scribal Society’s wall, we rarely feel as if we do belong socially within the scribal society. I understand what Villanueva means when he writes of contradictions found within his professional community, for “fellow academics are foreign to me in many ways, and I think they will always be, that I will always be somehow an outlander” (XV). He continues with his thoughts on this contradiction, “[b]ut just as often [I] feel [as] a member of a professional community — a community that extends beyond the university that employs me, a community that includes all English-language teachers” (xv). Villanueva and others like him are of two different worlds. Intellectually he belongs to the world of the scribes, and socially to the marginalized. However, neither community truly wants him.

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