Brandt’s “Accumulating Literacy”

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

“Important too is the realization that the history of literacy at any moment is always carrying along a complex, sometimes cacophonous mix of fading and ascending materials, practices, and ideologies. Literacy is always in flux. Learning to read and write necessitates an engagement with this flux, with the layers of literacy’s past, present, and future…” (666)


In this essay, Brandt argues that literacy technologies have always been changing, but the speed of that change increased dramatically (exponentially, I think) over the course of the twentieth century. Whereas, technological changes may have been experienced as transitions from one dominant technology to another, in the twentieth century, those technologies tend to pile up on top of one another. She calls this a “surplus of literacy” (665). She notes that this surplus of literacy raises the expectations in breadth and depth of literacies, which (citing M. M. Lewis’s The Importance of Illiteracy, 1953) emphasizes notions of illiteracy, too.

Secondary Threads

Brandt often frames the shifts in literacies in what I recognize as Bourdieuian terms (she’s explicit about it once, 659).

She notes how media has always, as early as the radio and film of the 1950’s, affected the way we think and enact writing practices (656-657).

She notes the importance of artifacts laying around which keep those older tools of literacy from dying off.

Connections to Other Conversations / Concerns

In terms of twenty-first century technologies, Brandt’s observation about the “piling up” of literacies seems to be approaching its own asymptote in digital approaches to multimodalities in our Composition classrooms. With programs (like Premiere, FinalCut, MovieMaker, or Sophie) designed to incorporate voice, music, video, and pictures, these various literacies seem to be at work simultaneously within a given text. I don’t think this is what Brandt was getting at, but her argument offers and excellent argument about how, exactly, literacies tend to pile up. The intratextual simultaneity of modes is one possible historical and logical extension of her article.

Also, she herself suggests that she comes to these observations not only through interviews with several subjects, but also by paying attention to how these discussions revolve around material conditions of literacy (651, 652, 654, 659, 660, 665, 666).

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