Ill/Literacy Autobiography

This assignment was adapted from an assignment by Emily Hall. 


As we’ve begun to see in our readings and class discussions, everyone experiences learning and writing differently, and our experiences are influenced by myriad internal and external factors—technology, family, emotion, economics, race, place, relationships, age, ability, etc. One way for us to become tutors who are truly responsive to the individuals we teach is to reflect on our own experiences with learning and writing, and the internal and external factors that have shaped us. In other words, understanding our own experiences will help us understand and empathize with the experiences of others. For this assignment, we’ll write ill/literacy autobiographies—we’ll call them ill/literacy autobiographies because we are never fully literate in everything we do all the time. As we learn new skills and move into new contexts, we find ourselves illiterate at different moments in our lives. As writing tutors, we need to be empathetic in those moments of illiteracy.

Defining terms: What is literacy?

Literacy, according to The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. . . . Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups (2013)

For the purposes of this paper, literacy is defined broadly as the ability to understand and make meaning through language. In this context, language can be taken to mean any symbol system used for communication within groups. You may be literate in visual or digital media, in sports, in music, or in other areas of interest. Although you may choose to focus on school literacy (e.g. learning to read and write or do math), you are encouraged to think of literacy broadly and to imagine yourself and others as capable of multiple literacies.

The Genre

A ill/literacy autobiography is a story, but all good stories do more than just recall events—they communicate meaning to audiences, they teach people, they make people laugh, they raise questions, they inspire thinking, etc. In other words, not only is an ill/literacy autobiography a story about the author’s experiences with literacy, but it is also an analysis of those experiences. The example(s) you draw upon will come from your life (and your experience as a writer and reader) but your main job will be to explore and plumb those experiences to gain greater insight into them. In other words, I would like you to come to some kind of conclusion about your identity and experiences as a literate person. That conclusion should be evident throughout the paper; it should function as your explicit or implicit thesis.

As you analyze your experience and attitudes about writing, you may want to make use of some of the reading we’ve done in this course so far. You don’t need to quote directly from the readings; you may refer briefly to a point in a reading to help you make a point, quarrel with the premise of an article, or use an article’s premise as a jumping-off point (no need for a works cited list).

Getting Started

Most engaging narratives focus in-depth on only a few moments, rather than cover a series of events in general terms. A great way to begin writing a narrative is to focus in on a couple key moments, and then, as you draft and revise, discover how you can use those moments to communicate meaning, teach readers something, or raise an interesting question.

Here are some questions that might help you start thinking of particular moments:

When have I struggled with literacy? What did that feel like? What made it difficult? What helped me?

When have I succeeded with literacy? What helped me in that situation?

Who has been especially influential to my literacy development?

When have my feelings about literacy changed? What made them change?

In what situations or contexts have I had enjoyable literacy experiences? In what situations have I had less enjoyable literacy experiences?

Here are some questions that might help you arrive at your analysis/conclusion:

What external factors have shaped my experiences with literacy (i.e. technology, family, economics, race, place, relationships, etc.)?

What internal factors have shaped my experiences with literacy (i.e. emotion, age, ability, identity, etc.)?

What role has my literacy played in developing my identity?

What are some of my assumptions about writing or literacy and where did they come from?

What does it mean to me to write? To be a writer?

How did literacy figure into my relationships with family and/or friends at various stages of my life? What part does language play in my relationships with my peers?


Think of the audience for this paper as your fellow Fellows: intelligent, thoughtful writers and readers, who care about literacy and have a general knowledge of the readings and the issues in this course.

Nuts and Bolts

4-5 pages, double-spaced with 1-inch margins, submitted to the appropriate Learn@UW dropbox.

Dates to Remember

Tuesday, Sept. 19

First draft w/ cover sheet due to Learn@UW dropbox AND to workshop group members

Thursday, Sept. 21

Written workshop comments due (emailed) and discussed in class

Thursday, Sept. 28

Revised essay with new cover sheet (Learn@UW)

I hope you enjoy thinking about these issues and learning something about yourself so that you can begin to empathize with a range of literacy experiences.