Here are some ideas to help you start your literacy narrative. You don’t need to use these prompts, and it did seem like most people knew what they wanted to write about, but if you’re feeling stuck or want to ponder some of these questions further to get at that “so what?” part of your story, you may find these helpful.
How has new media (reading, writing, exchanging of information using new media platforms) helped you develop your identity?
Should “nonwriting” (media that is not primarily written in its final form) like making videos, recording podcasts, or sharing photos be considered literacy?
How did you develop the skills you have that allow you to engage with/participate in/use new media? Were they taught to you explicitly, by another person or in a class? Were they self-taught? Learned through play, experimentation, trial and error?
What communities or resources has new media made available to you that otherwise may not be there?
Which characteristics of new media (remember our list in class, or re-read the “What is new media?” page) stand out to you the most? Can you tell a story that speaks to one of these in particular?
The other night, my daughter and I were curled up in my bed reading The Story of the Root Children. This is a picture book from the early 20th century (the author, Sybille Von Olfers, was born in 1881 and lived to just 1916). At 9 years old, this book is well below her reading-level, but the story is magical and thus we keep coming back to it as a reminder of the changing seasons and the life that breathes underground even after everything is frozen. These moments are pretty rare, now that she’s capable of reading books like The Cursed Child on her own, and so when she brought me that book to read even though it was long past her bedtime, I happily obliged.
When my daughter was tiny, I read to her often. There were books everywhere, mostly cardboard, and I made it my mission to teach her from the moment she could talk that words had power, that words appeared on pages alongside pictures, that she could speak them and understand them and share them. We started with the alphabet so that she would learn to recognize the individual letters. We moved on to simple words, like “cat,” and I hoped she would recognize its image even if she couldn’t sound out the letters by themselves yet. Favorite books included Goodnight Gorilla, That’s Not My Pirate, and all of Eric Carle’s infamous stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Grouchy Ladybug. Another story that I loved (and still love) is The Legend of Sleeping Bear; the first time I read that aloud I sobbed through the ending. My heart swelled with pride when she began to imitate my reading aloud. Eventually, her performance turned to actual comprehension, and soon enough, she was reading on her own.
I got pregnant when I was just 21 years old. While some people are married and settled down at that age, I was most certainly not, and as a young woman (who looked even younger than I was), people seemed to think I was absolutely clueless. Maybe they felt pity toward my green Starbucks apron stretched over my growing belly, my messy hair pulled back to expose my stretched ears. I did have one customer bring me diapers and a gift card, a gesture of kindness (not pity) that I will always remember. If you have ever been pregnant, you’ll sympathize with my plight: everyone had advice to share, especially book recommendations. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is practically the pregnancy Bible, and it was shoved into my arms with great excitement. I politely declined, however, and as my pregnancy continued, my heart filled with vitriol toward the entire maternal health care system in our country.
Despite what most people may have seen, or thought, when they saw me, I was not entirely naive. Sure, I had all the wisdom that 21 brings (which isn’t much compared to what I know now in my thirties), but I also had community. Ever since dial-up internet was a thing, I had found places for myself online, a means of connecting with others who shared aspects of my own identity. I embraced email, forums, and blogging. At that time, I was an avid Livejournal user, and had joined a due date community for women who were expecting in July of 2007. Livejournal works similarly to Reddit, in that you can participate in communities, but it is different in that you also maintain a blog of your own that can be customized, like Tumblr. You can also create a profile where interests function like tags, and you can build a friends list of people you follow, and people who follow you back. Like Facebook, your Livejournal posts could be set to public or private. Though I had started out seeing an OB-GYN for prenatal care, frustration with that provider led me to consider the nurse-midwives through Planned Parenthood, who I saw until 33 weeks into my pregnancy. At that point, thanks to research I had done through Livejournal and a post with photos of a homebirth in an apartment, I switched care to a homebirth midwife and a doula. Naturally, this decision was met with criticism, but I felt confident that the information I had gathered online was sufficient and proceeded with my plans to give birth in my own living room.
Through the connections I had made online, I also discovered a different library of books about pregnancy and raising children. Ina May Gaskin became my new literary hero, with books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Spiritual Midwifery. While What to Expect When You’re Expecting covers various questions about nutrition and safety, as well as a traditional hospital birth experience, it felt sterile compared to the vibrant storytelling in Ina May’s books. Perhaps most important, Ina May’s books had pictures of actual women in actual labor birthing their actual children. No staged or hand-drawn images there. And that, ultimately, was what prepared me for what I was about to endure. I needed to see what it looked like, and I needed to hear from other women who had been through it. I didn’t need to be told not to eat soft-serve ice cream or soft cheeses, I didn’t need any more seeds of fear planted in my already-anxious mind. I needed honesty, I needed something raw, I needed to be intimately aware of what my body was experiencing. I needed some real noise to drown out the monotonous drone of medicalized, procedural birth.
I realize I sound like a bit of a radical here. I don’t have any qualms with hospital births, and I think in some cases, medical intervention is absolutely necessary. This was true for me – after my daughter was born, at home, in my living room, I went to the hospital for stitches. She was a big baby, but she was born healthy and strong. I do believe that hospital births can be positive and autonomous, especially with the help of a doula, but that wasn’t the path I took at that time.
I also realize that my title may be a bit misleading: I did, in fact, read while pregnant. I read often. I read as much as I could get my hands on. But I read intentionally. I chose not to read most of the mainstream literature because it didn’t feel right. It made me feel shame, for being pregnant without a marriage and a stable job. It made me feel as if my body had been taken over by not just another being, but by an institution, and I wanted to push back against that. I suppose I am thankful for the naivety I had at that time, because I truly believed I could do anything. The books I read and the online communities I belonged to during my pregnancy were some of the most formative experiences I had as a new mother. They helped me come into my own as a woman, and shaped the values I carry with me today, as the parent of a now-4th grader. Both books and online spaces are prioritized in our home as a means for connection, for communication, and for acquiring knowledge. I hope that my daughter realizes this, and is able to pass it along to her own family (be it blood or otherwise) someday.
Here is a literacy narrative that focuses on communication within a specific community. If we look at literacy as more than simply the act of reading and writing (or the ability to do these things) and consider comprehension, fluency, and context as well, learning how to be part of a new community is an excellent example of literacy in action. Different situations call for different communication skills, and part of joining a new group is learning their ways of thinking and being and then putting them into practice.
“It’s kind of like a cult,” he said, as he bent over the back wheel of my bike to look at the derailleur. “Welcome.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
In May of this year, after stepping down from my roller derby team, I decided to buy a bike. After some pretty extensive research involving an ex-boyfriend, a self-proclaimed bike snob, and a lot of Craigslist postings, I ultimately purchased a 2016 Trek FX 7.3 in matte black from a local bike shop (LBS) called D&D Bicycles and Hockey in Westland. D&D ultimately won my business because they offered a three year service plan, 10% off the bike rack and gear I was getting as well, and many of their employees are female. In fact, they were the only bike shop I went to that had women present at all, and it was the only place I felt welcome as a new cyclist.
Since the day I bought my bike, which I promptly named Sirius Black, I’ve rode 186 miles. I’ve raised the seat a good 2-3 inches, replaced the saddle, added a rear rack, a Towpath Rider sticker, and I’ve watched my average speed go from 11mph to just over 13 (thanks, Strava!). It’s been in for service once, at the D&D shop in Northville, where Dan shook my hand, introduced himself as a “bike nut,” and welcomed me to the community he affectionately referred to as a “cult.”
I started biking because I wanted another means of exploring Michigan and Ohio. I’ve gone on some pretty great hikes up north and at Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland, but have always skirted around the bike trails with reluctant curiosity. I did have an old 3-speed cruiser for a short while when my daughter was 3, but it wasn’t meant for long rides and we only used it to bike from our tiny apartment to the library in town (which was hard! Pulling a bike trailer on an old cruiser is no joke!). When I started playing roller derby, I really began to see what my body was capable of, but the late night practices and pressure to advance quickly so as not to let my team down were no match for my anxiety and consequential health issues. I stopped skating, and instead looked to outdoor activities I could do at my own pace, on my own time.
Once I started biking, I also began to look for online resources because I had questions about gear and trails, and I missed feeling like I was part of a larger community. This led me to Reddit, where I discovered the r/ladycyclists subreddit, and I also joined the r/xxfitness subreddit which is an active, women-specific fitness group that focuses primarily on powerlifting. Learning to use Reddit was a challenge because it seemed that there was a fairly strict system in place that had little tolerance for users who weren’t doing it right. This is called “Reddiquette.” For example, reading a subreddit’s FAQ and searching through existing posts before asking a question is essential. If you don’t do this, other users, or even a auto-bot (an automatically generated comment based on post content) are quick to correct. Sometimes titles are required to contain certain information, too, and as I’ve become more familiar with the site, I can see why. Titles like “Just starting out, need help!” and “Leggings??!!?!?!?” are less likely to be read than titles that give specific information about what the user is asking or sharing. A better title might be “Form check, 150lb squat” which tells readers that a) the user has a specific question, b) there’s probably a video, which means that experienced users might click to offer their critiques, and users new to lifting might click to see what squatting 150lbs looks like, and what that person could do better to improve their form.
There’s also an upvoting/downvoting system, which is like the currency of Reddit, similar to Facebook likes but with more value. Posts that get upvoted have a greater chance of being seen on the front page; subreddits can be organized by “hot” or “top” (those with the most upvotes) in addition to recency, and I think “hot” is the default setting. Users can also downvote when they think a post is irrelevant, cruel, or repetitive. Like face-to-face groups, each subreddit is its own community with a distinct set of expectations. When I first joined Reddit, I posted questions and relied on the expertise of others to help acclimate me to these new communities both on- and off-line. Now, as a user, cyclist, and gym member with more experience, I am able to share information with other users by commenting on their posts in addition to posing new questions that come up as I go. I also feel more comfortable connecting with others in person because I don’t feel like a total “noob.”
Since joining Reddit and putting more miles on Sirius Black, I’ve developed more confidence in my physical abilities, and I’ve gained knowledge that directly applies to my physical activity. Through r/ladycyclists, I’ve learned about saddle height and knee pain, which padded shorts to buy, why clipless pedaling systems use shoes that clip in (it’s an oxymoron!), and in a related subreddit I found the motivation I needed to start commuting to work by bike. Through r/xxfitness, I learned proper squat form, discovered Strong Curves (a workout program), and made friends with a few local women who were looking for accountability. I’ve also learned how to use a previously unfamiliar form of online communication. I’ve learned how to format my posts using html. I’ve learned how to upload photos or video to imgur to share. I’ve learned that YouTube videos can be unlisted if I only want people with the link to view them (though Reddit itself is public). I’ve also been reminded that all communities have a set of rules that members are expected to follow. Sometimes these rules are explicitly stated (ie: FAQ on a subreddit), and sometimes these rules have to be observed in action or learned through trial and error.
There are insiders and outsiders in every community, and while at times I still feel like I walk that line, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable crossing the threshold. Sure, my body is my own, and my accomplishments may have happened regardless of whether or not Reddit exists, but the support I have found there and the communication skills I’ve gained have been so valuable. A few months ago, Dan’s warm welcome at the bike shop would have intimidated me, but my metaphorical toolbox helped me navigate that conversation with ease. Here’s to many more years of riding, and an ongoing journey that isn’t bound by geographical location, but by what I am willing to put into it.