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Title:Rewriting the aging body: literacy, technology, and history
Author(s):Bowen, Lauren
Director of Research:Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Hawisher, Gail E.; Littlefield, Melissa M.; Prior, Paul A.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Age Studies
Writing Studies
Digital Literacy
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
Abstract:Millie Garfield gets out of bed each morning and makes a cup of coffee. She then goes to her computer and starts her day with a review of her favorite blogs, a visit to her son’s Twitter page, and a quick scan of reader comments on her own weekly blog posts. She looks forward to corresponding with a fellow blogger, who will help her get the most out of the e-reader she received as a gift for her birthday—her eighty-fifth. Accounts like this strike many as exceptional because dominant narratives about who possesses technological literacy—and why—obscure the life experiences of older adults like Millie. In this dissertation, I recover such stories in order to challenge the assumption that older adults are inherently unwilling or inept participants by identifying ways in which older writers find motivation to continue developing technological literacy. Literacy scholarship reveals that people take on the challenges of literacy to achieve greater public participation, or else because it is believed (usually falsely) to carry economic value. By examining the literacy and learning of older adults, I find other motivations—ones tied closely to the human body. Through rhetorical analysis of public texts and qualitative studies of literacy development and practice in and out of school contexts, I argue that older adults’ literacy is shaped not only by what their bodies can no longer do, but also (and especially) by what their bodies have been doing for a lifetime. According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, the over-65 population will eventually make up as much as twenty percent of the U.S. population. However, with few exceptions, writing and literacy studies scholars have not deliberately examined how literacy—particularly technological literacy—functions in the context of aging. My introductory chapter offers a cross-disciplinary analysis of how age studies and writing studies might be mutually beneficial. As age studies scholars have shown, old age, like any other marginalized and oppressed body-based identity, is partially a construction of social and cultural values and the discourses that bear those values. In short, we learn (and are taught) how to be old. But how does this process of learning find expression in our literate lives, and how can we become attuned to it in order to critique and possibly change it for the better? One way, I contend, is to remain attentive to age identities and aging bodies in the research and teaching of technological literacy. As we continue to call for attention to new media composing practices (particularly through work within the subfield of computers and writing), we must resist the tendency to associate such practices with youth-based values. Instead, by examining technological literacy from a lifelong, embodied perspective, we can identify technological literacy in situated terms and recognize the fluid relationship between age identity and literacy. To further investigate the relationship between aging and literacy, my research moves among three sites: rhetorical worlds in which older adults engage in literate activity; embodied, narrative worlds of several older writers; and a multigenerational community literacy project. In my second chapter, which examines the first site, I identify ideologies of aging defined and promoted by what I call a curriculum of aging. Through rhetorical analysis of publications produced and distributed to millions of older Americans by AARP, a leading elder advocacy group in the U.S., I identify ways that public discourses attempt to shape older adults’ relationships to technology and technological literacy. I find that these rhetorics forward the message that older adults only use technology to repair their aging bodies, such as focusing exclusively on assistive technologies and conflating aging with disability, rather than representing information or communication technologies that might foster understandings of later life as a period of potential for learning, literacy, and social development. In response to these limiting public messages about literacy and the aging body, the principal site of the project involves an in-depth qualitative study of seven adults born between 1925 and 1945, the so-called Silent Generation. In the third and fourth chapters, I examine the oral narratives, literate activities, and digital writings of these elders, whose life experiences have predisposed them to take on the struggles and challenges of learning new media outside of school contexts. In the third chapter, I show how literacy narratives, paired with observations of at-home sites of literate activity through a method I call literacy tours, reveal much about the ways embodied experiences impact literacy development across the life course. The accounts of two participants—a 77-year-old man struggling to write his memoirs on the computer, and an 86-year-old woman who has achieved a measure of fame through her blogs—show that aging bodies are not experienced by older adults primarily for their impairments and, by extension, neither are their literacies. Drawing from the body-based theories of learning and epistemology, I argue that studies of older adults’ histories, with particular attention to the body and embodied experience, can resist limiting assumptions about “impaired literacy,” and can further contribute to embodied theories of literacy. The fourth chapter expands this claim to demonstrate that digital technologies can play rich roles in the lives of older adults, even if those technologies are not used in the ways we have come to expect, based on the habits of younger people active in digital culture. In this chapter, I offer an extended discussion of the literate activity of an 81-year-old woman, whose life experiences with literacy and learning developed a “literacy affinity” that motivated her to adopt new literacy practices in digital times. Although her digital literacy appeared, at first glance, to be stunted by her advanced age, her forays into social media involved intermediations between familiar (print-based) and unfamiliar technological literacy practices. Understanding literacy development as a process of intermediation, I argue, helps literacy researchers to resist an age bias in their assessments of what counts as literacy in digital times. In the final site of my project, presented in the fifth chapter, I extend the consideration of age identity into pedagogical practice by offering a critical examination of community-based learning through two paired writing courses I designed and taught. Situated in the liminal space between university and community, this joint project brought together a group of undergraduates in a composition course and a group of adults aged 55 to 79 enrolled in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. As participants engaged in reciprocal research projects that required them to listen to and represent the life stories of learners from another generation, many of them began to practice strategies of mutuality and empathy in their writing and research. Through such practices, I contend that sites of community literacy pedagogy may be spaces in which older and younger adults can confront, challenge, and perhaps change ideologies of aging. In bringing together interests from the fields of age studies and writing studies, this dissertation claims two overlapping objectives in its investigation of the relationships between aging and literacy in digital times. First, I offer a critical examination of the decline narrative of aging as it collides with the progress narrative of technology in American culture. The addition of age as a critical framework for literacy allows literacy researchers and teachers to become aware of the (re)production of age ideology through literate activity, and to question age-based assumptions about what it means to be literate. Second, in order to appreciate one consequence of considering literacy from the perspective of aging, I aim to expand body-aware theories of literacy by examining literate bodies from a lifelong perspective, and to push back against age-biased configurations of literacy and literate identities, particularly in digital times.
Issue Date:2012-05-22
Rights Information:All images used with permission from the Ad Council & National Council on the Aging; MIT AgeLab; and Jeff Bowen. Partial chapters reprinted with permission from the National Council of Teachers of English.
Date Available in IDEALS:2012-05-22
Date Deposited:2012-05

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