Written by Michael Rouleau
What motivates adult learners to develop their literacy skills when they choose reading and writing for personal reasons? Lauren Rosenberg, English professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, addresses this question in her new book “The Desire for Literacy: Writing in the Lives of Adult Learners.”
Ten years in the making, “The Desire for Literacy” examines the lives of four formerly “nonliterate” adult learners from the Springfield, MA, area. Enrolled at Read/Write/Now, a learning center in Springfield, the participants — two men and two women — were mostly in their 60s at the time of Rosenberg’s study, retired and U.S. citizens.
“I wanted to work with nonimmigrants,” said Rosenberg. “Gaining literacy in adulthood is a different problem when it is not about second language acquisition. Then it is about the politics of an educational system that has withheld its promise from some citizens.”
Each of the participants faced educational barriers growing up, from being forced to stay home and watch siblings to living and working on sharecropper’s farms in the pre-Civil Rights South. While the participants were considered nonliterate, Rosenberg found them to be very intelligent and thoughtful, with important “insights about politics, education and racism. Because of their position of oppression, they see these issues from a different angle.”
Rosenberg interacted with the participants at the literacy center on a regular basis for six years. “I was not their teacher; I was there as a researcher,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in a position of power. They only knew me as someone to talk with them about their reading and writing.”
Over the course of their learning, Rosenberg noticed a sense of empowerment among some of the participants. “Through their newly acquired literacy, adult learners become able to voice their analysis in previously unavailable ways,” she said.
A qualitative study, “The Desire for Literacy” blends theory with personal narratives as it explores why these post-career adults desire literacy when it has been denied to them throughout their lives. Trained as both a writer of fiction and a specialist in rhetoric and composition, Rosenberg wanted the book to highlight how individuals’ narratives could reveal that they were capable of theorizing about their experiences.
Relying on her storytelling skills, the book takes on a new format. “It’s a book about four people and their lives,” said Rosenberg. “I was really lucky to work with an editor who encouraged me to break boundaries.” Aware of the stature of writing for the SWR series, she said, “These books sometimes become classics in the field. The Studies in Writing and Rhetoric is a very prestigious series.”
Rosenberg will give a book talk on “The Desire for Literacy” on Nov. 18 from 2 –3 p.m. outside of room 266 of the J. Eugene Smith Library on Eastern’s campus.
The aim of the SWR series is to influence how writing gets taught at the college level. The methods of studies vary from the critical to historical to linguistic to ethnographic, and their authors draw on work in various fields that inform composition — including rhetoric, communication, education, discourse analysis, psychology, cultural studies and literature. Their focuses are similarly diverse — ranging from individual writers and teachers, to classrooms and communities and curricula, to analyses of the social, political and material contexts of writing and its teaching.