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Literacy Narratives: Exploring Our Knowledge

This is an introductory lecture and activity for teaching literacy narratives. This is intended for undergraduates, but master's level students might enjoy this entrance into the topic as well.

First, what is literacy?

When we search for synonyms of the word “literacy,” we find that it’s interchangeable with “knowledge,” “learning,” “literateness,” “mastery,” and many other words meaning similar things. In fact, to find these, all I had to do was highlight the word “literate,” double tap my track pad, and scroll down to “synonyms.” When I was in elementary school, I would have had to pull a hard copy of a dictionary or thesaurus from a shelf to find these words. With this one example in mind, would you say that my learning literacy has shifted over time? Is this also digital literacy? Would you categorize it as something else, perhaps?

To tell this story, I thought back to a time when I would not have had such sophisticated technology to help me find a synonym. In writing a literacy narrative about the ways I search for the right word, I could even offer a digression in my story, where I move you to a different time and place—my elementary classroom. Most of the teachers had a HUGE dictionary on a podium placed strategically so students could easily swipe through the pages when necessary. The book of words would be placed on a podium, opened, to make it more inviting to students. I used it often.

Rhetorically, looking back in my story might be considered a digression of sorts. When you think about the ways people tell stories, even in famous works throughout history, many speakers will digress into a side story to explain contexts and settings to an audience (either the readers or a listener within the story itself).

Looking to the past to understand the present is one of these rhetorical methods.

Other approaches a writer might use would be to pull in outside sources, anecdotes, or examples to tell this type of story. You might have written these types of papers in the past, I realize, but at this level, I will be asking for a more sophisticated approach in the writing. Let’s look at an example together. I think this might be helpful.

Nicholas Carr is widely known as an author who presents critical analyses of technology in the social forum. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr begins chapter one by describing a scene from Stanley Kubrik’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This opener talks about the precarious relationship between humankind and its machines. An astronaut in the story, Dave, is talking with “HAL,” a computer that speaks to him, except in this scene, HAL is not being cooperative. In fact, HAL argues with Dave in the scene because the machine says it knows Dave was going to disconnect his wiring and “wants” him to stop. HAL (the computer) says, as Carr also notes, “My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” (Watch a snippet of it at this link:

After briefly describing this scene in the book, Carr goes into a discussion of how he feels similarly to the machine! He says, “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing” (5). From there, Carr’s narrative is very much a literacy narrative pertaining to the ways his mind has been shaped by the Internet and its seemingly constant need for our attention. His reflection starts to address the ways his focus of attention has begun to wane, or decline. He can see it in his daily habits, too, when he says, for example, “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle” (6).

What’s happening in this story? Well, first of all, all of these ideas and examples are presented in the first two pages of chapter one! We are presented with a nice set of examples, symbolism, and explanations to help set the tone of an entire book about the ways technology, and more specifically the Internet, impacts the mind. We might call this a digital literacy narrative of sorts, right? He is reflecting on the ways his life has evolved as technology has evolved, which is something relatable to a lot of us (if not all of us).

What types of literacies have you acquired or developed in your life? What could we call those literacies? (List some.) Should we consider these multiple literacies, as I’ve suggested here, or do you think it all factors into one central type of literacy? Your stance on this will matter as you write, as you think about the theoretical side of the self-reflection you’ll need to do. You might even like to talk about this in your writing. We could always seek out the scholarly literature on narrative that exists, but for now, we need to focus on ways to talk about one’s own literacy in a way that goes beyond the surface level. (A surface level assertion might simply state, “I do not enjoy reading,” which would be much too simplistic.)

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York, W. W. Norton, 2011.

“Deactivating Hal 9000 HD.” YouTube, uploaded by Nocturnal Toothbrush, 1 May 2015,

© Copyright 2019, Amanda Sevilla, PhD

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