The active crafter / responder

June 29, 2006

Abby and I were talking about the “user” issue.  She mentioned that she sees “reader” as being passive whereas a user takes something, crafts it, produces it, responds to it. 

My background as an adult education literacy worker & a journo I think means that I have come to see reading as very active – in the literacy worker context, reading IS making meaning, is coming to the place where one is able to voice one’s needs, aims, and understand oneself as a social, involved, engaged, heard being — but surely, that isn’t the experience of those who have been forced to learn to read, and who found no pleasure or acceptance in it.

In the literacy work I did in Sask. women’s prison all that became clear to me.  A lot of women had terrible experiences with reading because they associated it with being forced to learn English and abandon their Aboriginal language.  So there was a lot of waiting and letting the person drive things and that was my own learning about reading. 

In the best-case scenario there, the “reading” context wasn’t only learning what the words on the page mean in a closed circuit between letters and a person’s mind; the reading also involved trying to create a context of mutuality and support between myself as a teacher (teacher-learner) and the learner (learner-teacher).  Sometimes it worked– one day Angelique would announce, “I’m ready to learn philosophy — what you learned in school, show me…..” [“What was wrong with them?  They sound like very unhappy men, wandering around Greece, abandoning their people.”]; or Lori said, “I’d like to do a project on wolves,” or Angela remembered Neil.

Other days, just mistakes, resentment, bitter power relations, starting to talk a lot softer.   

Witnessing that reading of words, or the refusal and despair about reading words, the cultural baggage around English, all the emotions around the learning, the entrhrallment of learning to read words that meant something to oneself, also became reading people in a new way.   [The technique we used for learning to  read was that the learner would narrate their life story.  It would be written down and then typed up in large print.  It became the text for learning to write and read new words].   

That context reminds me always of an interview w. James Baldwin: Interviwer:  “Before you knew you were a writer, who did you think you were?”  Baldwin:  “A witness.  A very despairing witness.”   I think this is about not only professional writers, but all of us in our ability to act on the world with language — before you knew you had the power to describe and name things back to the world, who did you think you were?   

My issue with the “user” is around a sense of consuming and commodifying what one is receiving so it is automatically categorized, numbered.    To me there’s a sense of closed circuit between the individual and the object being taken up.  

But I can see how just as easily, someone might make this argument about reading — Abby noted that reader can sound like a closed circuit betwen a person and a text.     

What would be the words to name that kind of activity….

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