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Literacies of Membership: The Nineteenth-Century Politics of Access

Middleton, Holly Suzanne (2008) Literacies of Membership: The Nineteenth-Century Politics of Access. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This project responds to the discourse of crisis in literacy and large-scale literacy assessment by demonstrating how unexamined deployments of literacy erase the complexity of literate acts. Utilizing archives of nineteenth-century student writing as well as disciplinary and institutional histories, this study recovers student writing as material social practice, foregrounding, rather than effacing, cultural contradictions at three institutional sites. Drawing on scholarship in literary, cultural, and New Literacy Studies, this project returns to the literacy crisis at nineteenth-century Harvard and asks the critical question: what were Harvard examiners reading when they were reading illiteracy? Harvard scholars A. S. Hill, Barrett Wendell, and LeBaron Russell Briggs evaluated student writing according to its literary value, identifying two key elements of style—commonplaceness and sentimentality—as indicators of subliteracy that signified dependence. The exclusionary effects of these unexamined assumptions are brought into relief by then examining, as primary texts, student compositions at Illinois Industrial University and Radcliffe College. My reading of the coursework done by two populations previously excluded from higher education, farmers and women, indicates that they appropriated local discourses and negotiated the contradictions of their own institutional sites in order to enact independent subjectivities.While literary appreciation does not currently carry the same kind of weight in assessing literacy, I find that the conflation of literacy and republican independence functions to efface the complexity of literacy and disguises what Brian Street calls ideological models of literacy as autonomous. As deeply political decisions regarding access and placement constitute so much of our work, this project suggests that all of us in English studies reevaluate how our own construction of value and our large-scale assessment practices may function to reinforce, rather than complicate, autonomous models of literacy.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Middleton, Holly
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairCarr, Stephen Leoscarr@pitt.eduSCARR
Committee MemberStabile,
Committee MemberSeitz, Jamesseitz@pitt.eduSEITZ
Committee MemberSalvatori,
Date: 28 January 2008
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 27 September 2007
Approval Date: 28 January 2008
Submission Date: 6 December 2007
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: A. S. Hill; Barrett Wendell; commonplace; entrance examinations; Harvard University; higher education; Illinois Industrial University; L. B. R. Briggs; Radcliffe College; republicanism; sentimentality
Other ID:, etd-12062007-115931
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 20:08
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:53


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