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Activist literacy: Engaging democracy in the classroom and the community

Virginia Crisco, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In this dissertation, I conduct teacher-research and discourse analysis to examine the intersection of literacy and democracy in the first-year writing classroom and in a grassroots community organization, the Green Party of the United States. In both sites, I observe the literacy practices of citizenship and public activism. I argue that democratic spaces inherently include unequal power structures, so teachers and scholars need to observe the literacy abilities citizens use to address these power structures. More specifically, I define the term “activist literacy,” to include agency, coalition building and collaboration, an awareness of power structures, and the deliberate use and interpretation of language. Activist literacy is related to critical literacy but is informed by both the classroom and the community and is marked by rhetorically savvy literacy practice in the pursuit of local change. I also consider how individuals shape their civic identities in relation to the “impartial civic public” (Young) and how collaborative writing informs the rhetorical use of genre to make change. These examinations lead me to construct a pedagogy of activist literacy for the classroom and the community. ^ Overall, my dissertation theorizes democracy as a literate practice and literacy as a democratic practice. As such, I complicate literacy scholars' arguments about the rhetorical use of literacy while speaking back to critical pedagogy's fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning. Critical literacy and pedagogy are democratic processes that emphasize understanding the relationship between language and power for social critique, self-transformation, and cultural change (Knoblauch and Brannon). Scholars such as Ellen Cushman and Jacqueline Jones Royster argue that literacy use is rhetorical and that citizens and activists can and do use literacy to take action in their lives. Activist literacy, then, is the rhetorical use of literacy toward the pursuit of access, democratic participation, and change. In the end, I argue for reconsidering the literacy and pedagogy of public writing and democratic participation to inform the spaces of the classroom and the community. ^

Subject Area

Education, Language and Literature|Political Science, General|Language, Rhetoric and Composition|Education, Higher

Recommended Citation

Crisco, Virginia, "Activist literacy: Engaging democracy in the classroom and the community" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3176773.