Interview by Amy Garey
Amy Garey: How does migration influence literacy practices?
Kate Vieira: Unfortunately, lots of the discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere around migration and literacy frames migrants as having literacy problems, whether in their home language and/or in English. What I hoped to do with this book was to take what we know about the history of writing–that writing is a technology that at its core is about communicating across distance–to reframe this deficit-based discussion to show how, in fact, migration drives sophisticated literacy learning. Essentially, when people who love one another are distanced, as this past year has so painfully emphasized, they find new ways to communicate. The migrant families with whom I was privileged to work revealed how they innovated, learned, and taught each other new practices of writing. Such practices were family based, rhetorically informed, economically savvy, emotionally astute, and technologically aware and deserve recognition as such. I’m so grateful to the participants who shared their stories with me.
Amy Garey: This may well be the only ethnographic project comparing Brazil and Latvia. What advantages did this project’s comparative approach bring to your research questions?
Kate Vieira: Hahaha. Well, in the book I speak about two reasons for working in Brazil and Latvia–one autobiographical (I had community ties in both places and speak the languages spoken there) and the other methodological (the community in Brazil had very little out migration, whereas in Latvia the community that hosted me was experiencing mass outmigration).
One of the cornerstones of ethnographic studies of literacy is that context matters. Seen this way, literacy is not a skill, but is a practice shaped by people and power relationships. So I was curious about what migration-driven literacy practices looked like in these very different communities. In Latvia, migration-driven literacy learning had a longer history in which the state played a big role: The Soviet Union had driven internal migration for some time, so people came to current migration-driven literacy practices through the lens of previous letter writing, for example. In Brazil, I really focused on economic issues shaping literacy–like the price and accessibility of certain communication technologies like laptops. For me, the comparison helped me to see the way a fundamental part of writing–its use by people to communicate across distance–is shaped by historical events, global inequities, as well as family and personal histories.
And one final note: I chose to research in these communities because I love the people who live there. And we should always research from love.
Amy Garey: You wrote of the ways that writing, in imagining a conversation with a loved one, can make an absent relative in some sense present. Do you think that the way the lockdown has influenced everyday use of videoconferencing applications will change this text-based process of imagining? Will Zoom alter incentives for family members to become literate?
Kate Vieira: Well, I’d say that logging on to Zoom is a literacy practice, even though the audio and visual forms of meaning making are emphasized more than the textual forms. I mean, we still access Zoom via a keyboard or touchpad on a phone, make use of the chat function to send snarky comments to classmates / colleagues, and have to navigate an array of profoundly textual sign-ins, often sent to us via email (the “mail” of course referencing the older transnational literacy institution of the postal system). So on the one hand, you can’t really extract the textual from the audio/visual on Zoom. And on the other hand, lots of literacy scholars would say that audio-visual meaning making is also a literacy, even when it doesn’t include the textual.
So I think what we’ve seen in the pandemic is a version of what migrant families have been doing for ages: teaching and helping our loved ones access new forms of literacy so we can feel close even though we are physically not in the same space.
I’d say the salient differences in processes of imagining loved ones primarily via the textual or via the audio-visual are particular to people, their place, their time, their family or community practices, their access or lack thereof to certain kinds of literacies, and so on: For example, in the book, some people said that they appreciated letters more than video chats, because letters felt more meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that letters are fundamentally more meaningful to everyone: One woman described writing the exact same letter to three potential boyfriends and just changing the name! So how particular communication technologies mean to particular people, how we feel about writing a letter versus a text versus sending a Marco Polo–that has to do with larger personal and social valences of that particular literacy technology.
Amy Garey: The book described the advantages migrants gained by acquiring literacy in foreign languages like English and German. Could you speak a little more about the social effects of gaining literacy skills for those who remained in their home countries?
Kate Vieira: Oh, interesting. This is a great question and something my study didn’t address. My sense was there was social capital attached to knowing multiple languages–but I focused more on what these languages meant for peoples’ sense of where they might go, so I don’t want to speculate too much here.
Amy Garey: Noting that many American students practice literacy skills when communicating with relatives abroad, you advocated “love-based critical literacy” pedagogies that incorporate students’ existing digital writing habits. Does SMS-based reading and writing, though, help individuals attain functional literacy (for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial)?
Kate Vieira: This is a great question because it brings up a really foundational issue of what literacy is and why we teach it. In my home field of composition and rhetoric, we have often focused on teaching literacy for the purposes you outline in your question–to intervene in democratic institutions via, for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial and other kinds of really important public uses of literacy.
Does an SMS help people do this? Not necessarily. But then again, neither necessarily does a traditional essay. There is no one genre or type of writing that has the corner on critical thinking or, for that matter, political engagement. I think they provide different kinds of opportunities for doing different kinds of work. And certainly there are plenty of essays that exhibit minimal critical thinking and simply rehash harmful ideologies–so the question for me is always not about the genre per se, but what we hope to do with it, whose interests we are serving.
I also want to point out that there is good research in social studies and literacy education, for example, about moving beyond debate to help students develop civic agency. And there is also important work on love as critical in socially just and specifically anti-racist educational projects.
What I’d say from the perspective of this book, though, is that if we as educators overlook two fundamental motivations for practicing literacy–for love and money–then we will miss so much of how literacy means in students’ lives, and we will therefore likely miss out on authentic opportunities to think and learn with students as fellow human beings. Which for me is what the larger literacy educational project is all about: How do we make meaning together? And what can this meaning do for us, our communities, the wider world?
Maybe the answer to these questions is in comparing and contrasting views in an editorial and maybe it’s in sending an SMS or maybe it’s writing a poem–it really depends on the moment, the people, our historical context, and what we want to accomplish together with the act of writing.
Congratulation to Kate Vieira — her book won The Edward B. Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association (2020), and the Advancement of Knowledge Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (2021).