The History and Future of Literacy

“Reading Politics: The History and Future of Literacy,” English 180B. Taught by Abigail Droge in the Stanford Summer Session, Summer 2017. Seminar with both high school and college students from around the world meeting twice a week for an hour and fifty minutes each time, on an eight-week term schedule.

Course Description

Reading is a political act. Through our major texts of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories, and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, we will explore the power dynamics of literacy and literature. How can books incite social revolutions? How can they maintain harmful inequalities? When is reading a tool of empowerment and when is it a tool of social control? We will examine these questions in a number of contexts, ranging from Victorian London to the Jim Crow American South, from the Islamic Revolution in Iran to a Silicon Valley proliferating with new forms of scientific, technological, and financial literacy. The course includes a significant community engagement component, in which students will volunteer with a Bay Area literacy program. Throughout the summer, we will reflect on these volunteer experiences and consider the complex politics at work in the act of teaching someone to read. What relationships can we and should we build between literary study and the communities around us?

Major Texts

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Penguin Classics,ISBN: 978-0141439747
  • Zora Neale Hurston, The Complete Stories, Harper, ISBN: 978-0061350184
  • Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Random House, ISBN: 978-0812979305

Learning Goals

  • To understand the power dynamics that have adhered around literacy movements historically (and that continue to do so). To recognize the many ways in which reading can be a political act.
  • To reflect on the responsibility we have as scholars to address real-world problems, and to grapple with the difficulty of how best to relate our study to our community.
  • To practice writing that bridges academic analysis, personal experience, and social reflection.

Syllabus Design

This course was designated as a Cardinal Course by the Stanford Haas Center for Public Service and counted towards the Summer Intensive in Human Rights through Stanford Summer Session. We had the privilege to partner with four different Bay Area organizations over the course of the summer, working with incarcerated, immigrant, homeless, and at-risk communities. Students each volunteered with one community-partner outside of class time. Class discussions and assignments placed the course readings and community engagement experiences in constant conversation. Since a theme of the course was what happens when literacy becomes a tool of social control, rather than equality, even when the intention might be well-meaning, we strove to be aware of our own role as volunteers, the power dynamics that we brought to each situation, and ways that we could learn as much as teach.

Full syllabus available here:


Writing assignments in this class consist of weekly scaffolded responses that lead up to a final paper.

  • Weekly Responses (about 400 words each)
    • Weeks 2 and 3: The Future of Literacy This two-part sequence combines creative and critical skills
      • Week 2: Get Creative Imagine a fictional scenario in the near future in which reading (broadly defined) plays a key role. What might reading mean in the future?
      • Week 3: Get Critical Provide a commentary on your short fiction piece in which you discuss the social and political implications of the kind of reading you have portrayed. What issues are at stake in the future society you’ve imagined?
    • Weeks 4-8: The Presentism Puzzle One of the biggest debates in the field of literary criticism right now is that around “presentism”: whether books we read from the past should be explicitly related to the present, and if so, how to do so effectively and responsibly. This sequence of responses is a chance for you to think through this conundrum by reflecting on our course texts and your community engagement experience. These reflections will prepare you for the final paper, with the ultimate goal of crafting a piece of writing that demonstrates the type of relationship you think scholars should build between past and present and between literature and society.
      • Week 4: Reflection on Oliver Twist
      • Week 5: Reflection on Community Engagement experience You might think about what you find surprising, what you find frustrating, and what you are learning from the community partners you are working with. What stories have your partners shared with you and what do stories mean to them?
      • Week 6: Reflection on Hurston’s short stories
      • Week 7: Reflection on Reading Lolita in Tehran
      • Week 8: Brainstorm for final paper Pick one of the reflections you’ve done on a course text (Dickens, Hurston, or Nafisi). How might you connect this reflection with your community engagement experience?
  • Final Paper (about 3000 words). This assignment will ask you to build on the weekly writing responses you have done above and to connect, in some way, a reading of at least one of our major course texts and your community engagement experience. How you make this connection is the main challenge here. What do you think is the appropriate role of literary study in addressing today’s social and political challenges? What can and should literature do in the world?