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Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014

Review of Daniel Keller’s Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration

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Susanne Hall

Keller, Daniel. Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration. Logan: Utah State UP, 2014. 193pp.

Daniel Keller’s Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration offers a valuable examination and theorization of 21st century reading. Keller begins by observing the considerable limits of what teachers of writing and scholars in writing studies know about the reading practices of contemporary students. As with many books that identify a troubling lacuna in a field, the project’s strengths lie in carefully and clearly making a gap in knowledge visible, identifying the reasons for this lack, and then providing context, a vocabulary, and the critical energy for responding to it.

As Keller reminds us, for nearly fifteen years scholars in writing studies have been theorizing and studying multimodal genres of writing. This work has by now led to the revision of many college writing courses and curricula, which seek to prepare students not only to write in traditional academic genres like the linear, alphabetic essay, but also in a wide array of other genres driven by the affordances of video, radio, and the internet. At this point, not only do we have excellent theoretical work in this field, but a number of pedagogically oriented resources have also emerged to guide instructors’ teaching of multimodal writing. In a recent essay about three such pedagogically oriented books, Randall W. Monty writes, “The argument for multimodality’s inclusion within composition studies, and to a more specific extent, the writing classroom, should at this point be settled . . . composition, most now agree, should empower students to analyze and write with emergent technology, modes, and media” (231). Keller’s project quite sensibly points to the explosion of work on multimodal composing and observes that our study of reading has simply not kept pace.

In his first chapter, Keller historicizes, investigates, and responds to the imbalance between the robust theorization and study of college writing—including but not limited to the extensive work on multimodal composition—and the relative paucity of scholarship on the reading practices of those writers. Thinking from inside his own college writing course, Keller begins by reminding us why teaching reading often vexes us in the composition classroom. Unlike writing, reading “leaves no trace—no drafts, no revisions, no peer review, no individual conferences” (18). As a result, as long as problems related to reading seem not to completely undermine our goals of teaching writing, reading often “drifts into the background, a ghost of a concern” (18). Many teachers of writing will recognize themselves in Keller’s descriptions of his own pedagogical quandary about reading.

As he points out in a footnote, reading isn’t necessarily traceless, and many writing instructors create assignments that yield artifacts of reading practices and experiences. This kind of assignment is not uncommon in the teaching of K-12 students, and it can be found in some college writing courses. Keller does not examine them in his book, but more formal reading-focused pedagogical programs exist, such as WestEd’s Reading Apprenticeship. This program seeks to build literacy through activities that create and examine the traces of reading. One activity that Reading Apprenticeship promotes, called “talking to the text,” requires that students actually write down on a text all of the things they are thinking as they read it; this is then shared with an instructor or a tutor. Furthermore, peer review or individual conferences about reading may not be commonly practiced, but they are thinkable.

As we know, such work is uncommon in most college courses, not just because of a lack of training or theorizing, but also for the reason that Keller points out in that same footnote—a lack of time. It is difficult enough to respond to all of the writing students are already doing in composition courses without adding more assignments in which they write in response to their work as readers. I would add that space seems an equally important limiting factor with regard to teaching reading; even with infinite time, I cannot thoroughly observe and critique college students’ reading practices unless I am there beside them, in the dorm rooms, coffee shops, or libraries where that reading is happening. A written record of a student’s “talking to the text” will always be partial or abridged. Keller’s response to this pedagogical problem and the deficit of research on it is to create a case study research project that devotes substantial time to examining student reading practices and their contexts. As a researcher, Keller does indeed leave the classroom and follow students into other sites of reading, including their homes.

Keller’s case study, begun in 2006, gathered data from nine Midwestern high school students, following four of them into their first semester of college. He conducted multiple interviews with each, gathering literacy histories and observing four of them in their homes to investigate their scenes of reading there. In addition to talking with the students, Keller also interviewed the director of the high school library, a senior English teacher, and family members of four participants. Keller’s sample is small and lacks diversity, as he explicitly acknowledges. All the students attended the same high school. The school is decidedly “above-average,” one in which the halls are charged with positive energy and 90% of graduates go on to college study (170). Keller reports that though the school lacks economic diversity, it does have racial diversity (170), but neither class nor race are explicit focal points for the book, and neither are discussed in any detail during the case study-focused parts of the book. Keller also notes that he had trouble recruiting students who viewed themselves as “‘bad’ readers” (172). The inherent limits of the case study method are likely to be the most disappointing aspect of the book for many readers. Still, there are many people who study and/or teach middle-class students who see themselves as “good” readers and who come from “good” high schools. Beyond that, many of the concepts and methods in the book could usefully be borrowed to analyze other groups of students.

The theoretical framework of the book rests upon the linked ideas that literacy is accumulating and accelerating. Keller borrows the idea of the “‘accumulation’ of literacies” from Deborah Brandt (qtd. in Keller 4), whose 1995 study of reading in the 20th century is a key precedent for Keller’s study of how it is working in the 21st. Brandt argued that there was both a “piling up” of genres and modes of reading as well as a “spreading out” of the influence of literacy into more parts of our daily lives (qtd. in Keller 4-5). Brandt’s work provides Keller with a language for talking about the tension of the “ongoing challenge to adapt, to (re)situate ourselves as users of literacy among reconfigurations of old, current, and new literacies” (6). Both the piling up and spreading out are complex, producing both opportunities and conflicts for readers and writers. Keller, in turn, shares convincing evidence for the continued presence of piling up and spreading out of literacy in his 21st century subjects’ lives.

Keller also extends Brandt’s ideas, arguing that this literacy is speeding up, or “accelerating.” This means different things at different points in the book, but Keller most persuasively proves that the pace at which students read and respond to texts is extremely fast. This is true of the reading they do for school, which is often left incomplete and is sandwiched between a wide array of extracurricular activities and jobs. It is equally true of their social media reading and writing, which is focused on texting, instant messaging, and microblogging on platforms like Facebook. In one of the most interesting parts of the book, Keller probes how students learn about and participate in what he calls the “ephemeral rhetoric” of social media (90). In such genres, responding promptly and often is more important than having outstanding ideas or images to share, since the students seemed to agree that nearly all of what appears in these platforms is quickly forgotten. Most students thought of this reading and updating as more of a social chore than a pleasure, even as they recognized and adopted the light and playful rhetoric of the media. This would be a fruitful area for further study, especially since the social media landscape shifts on the scale of months, not years, as major platforms make large and small infrastructural changes and users’ relationships with those platforms evolve.

Another interesting finding of the study is that the subjects shared a very traditional way of understanding reading, at least in the context of discussing it with someone they knew to be a professional teacher of writing. They agreed on reading literary masterpieces as the optimal kind of reading, and they saw literary reading as intellectually and morally better than other kinds of reading, whether they enjoyed it or not. They were embarrassed or sheepish about discussing the other kinds of texts they spend considerable time reading, like magazines, journalism, web forums, popular novels, graphic novels, and social media; in many cases they did not recognize this work as reading without prompting from Keller. Keller concludes, “Holding up traditional literature as the standard for reading led to a devaluing of a literacy these participants actively pursued and enjoyed” (49). One conclusion drawn from these “literacy perceptions” is that college writing courses reorganized around multimodal reading and writing projects will likely continue to meet with confusion or resistance from some students. If the time is coming in which young digital natives free themselves from literacy biases of the 20th century, it is still ahead of us.

Keller’s book charts out many areas deserving of further study: How does the “shuttling between print and digital [media]” affect the production of or search for ideas (154)? What does it mean that many of the same devices we now use to read position us, usually quite literally, not only as readers, but also as writers or respondents (155)? Can we make a useful distinction between the “intentional and unintentional multitasking” in which contemporary readers frequently engage (167)? In these cases and more, Keller provides us not only with useful questions, but also with key concepts and heuristics for moving toward answers.

As for how we should be attending to reading in the contemporary classroom, Keller’s project offers a “framework for understanding the pressures shaping the curriculum” (157), but there are few actionable suggestions in the book. That is appropriate, I think, to what we know right now. Keller’s book will help generate a wave of projects, both theoretical and practical, that help us better address this issue as thinkers and as teachers.

Works Cited

Brandt, Deborah. Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century. College English 57.6 (1995): 649-68. Print.

Monty, Randall W. Review Essay: Multimodality in Local and Disciplinary Praxes. Writing Program Administration 31.1 (2013): 231–35. Print.

Reading Apprenticeship at WestEd: Improving Academic Literacy. WestEd, 2014. Web. 23 July 2014. <>.

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