Recalling the Letter: The Power of Oral Testimony in Histories of Literacy

By:
Prof. John Duffy
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Much of the literature on the history of literacy is built on documentary forms of evidence such as signature counts, employment records, and book publication figures. A recent trend in histories of literacy, however, has been the use of talk, or oral testimony, to reconstruct histories of writing, especially the histories of marginalized groups such as refugees, immigrants, African-Americans, working people and others long "hidden from history" in conventional scholarship (Perks and Thomson, 1998).

This paper explores the use of oral testimony in writing histories of literacy, considering questions of knowledge, experience, power, and limitations. What forms of knowledge, for example, become available when actors in history speak to their own experiences? How is this knowledge different from that produced in histories based on written records? In what ways might oral testimonies communicate the lived experience of learning to read and write, its psychological and affective dimensions? And how are relationships of power negotiated in the collection of oral testimonies about literacy? Do oral testimonies disrupt the asymmetrical relationships of literacy researcher and subject, or do they simply reproduce these? Finally, what are the limitations of oral histories of literacy? What forms of knowledge are lost, withheld, or concealed in oral testimonies? What are the implications of these?

To suggest at least provisional answers to these questions, I will draw upon my research collecting oral testimonies to write a literacy history of the Hmong of Laos, refugees to the United States whose language had no widely accepted written form until the 1960s. The Hmong testimonies illustrate, I will argue, that while many questions have yet to be answered, oral testimonies can offer insights that are not available in histories of literacy based solely upon documentary evidence.


Keywords: Literacy, Oral history, Refugees, Writing, History
Stream: Adult, Vocational, Tertiary and Professional Learning
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Prof. John Duffy

Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Notre Dame
USA

John Duffy studies the historical development of literacy and rhetoric in cross-cultural contexts. He has published articles on the concept of "preliteracy," the uses of writing in a guerrilla army, and on literacy development in an immigrant community. He is co-editor of The Rhetoric of Everyday Life, a volume of essays from the University of Wisconsin Press (2002). He is currently completing a book on the literacy history of the Hmong, a Southeast Asian people whose language had no widely accepted written form until recently. John's interests also include rhetorical theory, composition studies, and writing centers. His research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education.

Ref: L05P1115