THE ETHICAL POLITICS OF LITERACY
Group presentation at Inkshed XV, Oak Island, N.S., May 1998, by W. Brock MacDonald, J. Barbara Rose, and Kathryn Voltan
During the 1996-97 academic year, the Writing Lab at Woodsworth College at the University of Toronto held 1, 704 one-on-one meetings with students. These students' various "literacies" reflect the unique diversity of Woodsworth's student population, which includes Pre-University students, degree and certificate students, most of U of T's part-time students, and large numbers of L2 and Special Needs students.
The Pre-University students, who come from an extremely broad range of backgrounds, present the greatest challenges pedagogically and ethically. Previous research has identified several demographic factors which appear to affect their success rates, both in Pre-U and in subsequent University work; we are in the process of developing a new research initiative which we hope will tell us more, particularly with respect to literacy issues. This year we instituted a Language Improvement Program for students whose communication skills have never been adequately developed, often (but not always, n.b.) because English is their second language. This program includes both one-on-one sessions and special seminars on language problems.
Pre-University students come to the College and to the Writing Lab with literacies differing significantly from the university culture's literacy. That literacy is often understood as a set of practices and skills, but it is also an ideology, rooted in the Western cultural and intellectual tradition; all this is unfamiliar to the majority of our Pre-U students, who are either literate in non-Western cultures or post-literate (i.e. their literacy derives from mass media and popular culture rather than from a text-based tradition). The ethical challenge is to help them work within the university culture's literacy without demanding that they give up their socio-cultural particularity; this necessitates frequent and complex negotiation of many issues, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Understanding and empathy are key factors in the successful negotiations; through our forthcoming research initiative we hope to increase our understanding of who our students are, what they want to achieve, and how we can best assist them in their efforts.