Defining Academic Literacy

I have reassigned time this semester to research and write a grant proposal. I’m proposing developing an academic literacy program I created with a colleague in 2008 into something bigger and better. I spent a good part of today researching how different people define “academic literacy.” It’s one of those terms—like “cultural literacy”—that is hard to pin down. People know it when they see it (like pornography) but can’t necessarily define it.

Many people use “academic literacy” as a synonym for college-level reading and writing. I think it’s more complicated than that. To read and write at a college level, I think students need to understand academic culture, at least at a basic level. They need to understand academic values, etiquette, and assumptions. Without that understanding, having the ability to read and write is like having the ability to read and write French but not understanding French culture—a person in that situation wouldn’t feel comfortable in France. I want students to feel comfortable in academia—not because all students will become academics, but because any college student who graduates with a four-year degree will need to be in academia for at least four years.

Some of the more interesting sources I came across today:

“Academic Literacy in a Wired World: Redefining Genres for College Writing Courses” by Alice L. Trupe,  which is an example of “academic literacy” as a synonym for college-level writing

“Re-Inventing the Possibilities: Academic Literacy and New Media” by Cheryl Ball & Ryan Moeller, which examines “academic literacy” as including ways of making meaning (they suggest the production of hypertexts as an avenue toward helping students develop academic literacy)

“Threshold Practices: Becoming a Student through Academic Literacies” by Lesley Gourlay, which proposes that we see “academic literacies” as a series of “threshold practices.”

“A Writer-Respondent Intervention as a Means of Developing Academic Literacy” by S. Bharuthram and S. McKenna, a report on a South African program that relies on reader response to writing (but seems to go beyond simply equating reading/writing skill with “academic literacy”)

Three more South African studies: “On Being an Insider on the Outside: New Spaces for Integrating Academic Literacies” by Cecilia Jacobs, “A Multimodal Approach to Academic ‘Literacies’: Problematising the Visual/Verbal Divide” by Arlene Arche, and “Teaching Referencing as an Introduction to Epistemological Empowerment” by Monica Hendricks and Lynn Quinn

“Repositioning Academic Literacy: Charting the Emergence of a Community of Practice” by Elizabeth Hirst, Robyn Henderson, Margaret Allan, June Bode, and Mehtap Kocatepe, an Australian study