Developing as an Adult Writer: Literacy Learners and Military Personnel

Lauren Rosenberg

New Mexico State University


Response to Bazerman, “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan”

The scholarship I bring to lifespan studies concentrates on a couple of different populations of adult learners. For more than a dozen years, I have been studying and writing about adult basic literacy learners (see Rosenberg Desire, “Retelling,” “’You Have to Knock,” and Rosenberg and Branch). More recently, my attention has turned to the writing practices of military personnel while at work (Rosenberg and Howes), as I consider issues such as ownership of one’s writing, authorship, and notions of the writer as a person of action versus a passive office worker. Common to both studies, is the fact that most adult learners (adult literacy learners and veterans who attend college after service) tend to be older than traditional college-age students; it is also likely that they are on alternative educational paths than traditional students who have had a mainstream education. In response to Bazerman’s opening assertion that, “[However,] children come to school with varied life experiences that position them in different ways as they learn to engage in disciplinary literacies and use new technologies,” I submit that lifespan researchers need to look into the writing development of adults, such as the two groups I mention here, who have extensive experiences outside of a traditional educational mode and can broaden the way we understand the meanings and uses of writing. The perspectives of adult basic learners and military veterans are important examples of literacy learning to consider as the lifespan group constructs a “vision of writing development that incorporates its complexities and many dimensions, and that accounts for the individuality of trajectories that can lead to distinctive voices and expression” (Bazerman1).

According to the first principle identified in “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan,” “Writing can develop across the lifespan as part of changing contexts” (2). Bazerman draws upon Deborah Brandt’s argument that writing is accumulated across one’s lifetime (Literacy), yet, for some people who have not experienced literacy as developing consistently, writing does not accumulate evenly. For nonliterate people, for example, and for those who acquire new literacies later in life, writing development may have been halted during childhood. Writing, for the adult literacy learners I studied, often does not develop in younger childhood because it is withheld (by important adults, by material conditions in a family’s life) or interrupted (Branch, Purcell-Gates, Rosenberg Desire). There are exceptions to what we think of as a typical developmental path to writing, conditions that effect our sense of how a society of writing individuals becomes formed. As Bazerman notes, “For some writers, as their adolescent and adult social worlds expand into new professional, commercial, civic, and other affiliational contexts, so do the possibilities and exigencies for their writing development” (3); however, for other writers, the typical, expected transition never happens because their experience with literacy learning opposes the mainstream. I believe adult learners are aware when writing is absent in their lives (see Branch, “What No Literacy”), even when the possibility of identifying as a writer may not exist easily. I am reminded of a brief interaction I had with an adult literacy learner I did not know who observed me writing in a notebook. She commented: Your writing is so pretty. Was it the physical manifestation of alphabetic language on the page that impressed this woman and caused her to long for “pretty” handwriting? Or, was it the realization that someone could convey thought into documentable language that had allure? Whichever meaning the woman intended, the message I heard expressed by her comment was that writing “pretty” was something she desired because she hadn’t yet attained it.

Bazerman’s second principle states, “Writing development is complex because writing is complex.” While it is obvious that every writing act is “a unique performance” (4), let me point out that the physical and symbolic activities of writing are particularly complex for those who are acquiring literacy in later adulthood, and who, as younger adults, were denied the possibility of a dominant trajectory to writing development (the handwriting example helps illustrate this). They don’t struggle because they missed out on gaining skills, but for other, “social processes [that] also influence writing development” (Herrington and Curtis qtd in Bazerman (3), such as having been called “dummy” by peers, teachers, and family, or having felt pressured into silence or self-censorship (Rosenberg Desire, Lathan).

Bazerman notes that, although “Writing and writing development emerge, then, within the material, political, and social worlds that nurture, actualize and exploit them. …  Where a society is not cooperating with and generous toward a learner, development will be made more difficult” (6, my emphasis). The adult learners I worked with had all struggled to become writers when they were growing up because of the material conditions of their lives. But this can mean a variety of things and have different effects throughout a person’s entire life. For example, the two men in my study (Rosenberg “Retelling,” Desire), had a brief education that was continually interrupted by their responsibilities as farmworkers on the sharecropper’s farms where they were raised. In both cases, economic necessity halted their access to mainstream writing development fostered by public schooling; it also prevented them from gaining writing opportunities until they retired, each on disability resulting from a physical injury. The two women I studied had very different histories with formal and informal literacy development as children and as adults. One of the women grew up in poverty in an urban area, where, because of the instability of her family situation, she was continually moving and unable to have consistency in school. The conditions in her life made her feel unable to learn. Even now, as an older adult, she claims that she struggles to “sponge” in what she needs to function as a reader and writer (Desire). She also expresses a lot of anxiety about the act of writing because she claims it is so hard. The other woman I worked with, who also grew up poor and with only occasional access to school, loves to write. She turns to writing for reflection, self-analysis, and to restory the events of her life. For her, developing as a writer is something she looks forward to as an opportunity to improve herself and address the situations in her life. These examples show the importance of looking at non-traditional adult learners as part of lifespan studies so that we can better understand how writing carries different meaning and value in response to people’s prior experiences. While most citizens within the mainstream take for granted the abilities to write and read, these actions and experiences are not obvious for those who spent much of their lives without writing.

While Bazerman mentions under the third principle that, “Poverty and other marginalizing social factors, although they may be overcome by individuals, may limit resources and developmental opportunities as well as create stigmatizing social attributions that affect writing development” (8), this assertion is not explored in the lifespan scholarship so far. In addition to “resources and developmental” opportunities that are withheld, some individuals are prevented from having a voice because of how they are gazed upon socially, and how they turn that gaze to self-critique. For instance, one of the participants I have continued to work with for more than a dozen years, Chief (a pseudonym), speaks of the experience of being positioned as “hushmouth” (Desire chapters 5 and 6) as a low literate African American man. He often kept silent in conversations because of his own sense that people didn’t want to know what he had to say. For Chief, developing as a writer in older adulthood allows him to counter his personal oppression as well as the historic oppression of his community of African Americans. Rhea Lathan addresses the experiences of individuals and groups, especially African Americans, whose spoken and written voices have been historically ignored or hidden, a reminder that lifespan studies must address the writing development of those on the margins as well as within the mainstream.

Principle five states, “The development of writing depends on the development, redirection, and specialized reconfiguring of general functions, processes, and tools.” Further, Bazerman and others note, “As writers develop, for example, they establish specific attitudes about their efficacy as a writer, the value of writing in their own life, and the reasons for their perceived writing successes and missteps. These writing specific dispositions influence how they view themselves as writers, their effort and persistence when writing, and the quality of what they compose (Graham 2006 qtd in Bazerman 11).” In response to this quote, I turn to the other population of adults that is the topic of my current research: military veterans. The military personnel I am researching all had jobs that involved a great deal of writing. My study examines the writing tasks servicemembers perform for their military jobs. It also investigates their relationship to the act of writing—an act that is cast quite differently in the military from in civilian society. For example, in my work in progress on the writing practices of an Army officer, my participant notes that servicemembers typically identify as men and women of action, or doers, a position that opposes the identity usually attributed to the writer, who is denigrated as a “paperwork guy” (Rosenberg interview). The officer, or servicemember, who sits at a computer to write, and who may have more clout than his or her peers, is still often viewed as inactive in a culture of action. While the writing being produced may hold great value to the institution, the supervisors, and to the writer performing a task, the work of the writer is not necessarily valued the way we tend to view writing as meaningful in civilian life.


In response to principle seven: “[E]ducators need to recognize the different ways language resources can be used to present meaning in written text,” I argue that we also need to recognize that people relate differently to language resources based on their individual and community experiences with writing development, which are shaped by social factors such as socioeconomics, race, and other categories of difference. As language resources vary, the meaning found within a text—what it means and what it does—varies as well. We know this from Shirley Brice Heath, James Gee, and Brian Street’s early work on literacy development as socially determined, and all of the scholarship that follows based on this view. As Bazerman notes, “[But] because people are socially positioned in different ways, and have different life experiences, not all members of every speech community develop the same facility with all forms of spoken discourse. This is also true of written discourse” (12). My research on adult literacy learners, and the study of military servicemembers writing at work, exemplify the array of motivations and contexts that position people as writers. In the case of the military personnel, the ideology of the institution in which they are tasked to write is a major factor influencing their ongoing writing development.

For example, a Navy veteran who was interviewed for the project, noted that as an English major in college prior to enlisting, he thought of writing as Shakespeare and other literary work of the past. In the Navy, he served in a Quality Assurance (QA) program making “QA packages.” He wrote procedures, ten-page detailed reports “about how you’re going to do something.” The way he described the reports was that they were “detailed” and required “precision.” The “writing part is the single most important” thing, this participant explained, because the stakes were high. If you made a mistake in writing the instructions, it could cost lives. He would write the procedure while performing it at the same time. Then it would go to someone else who would try out the program to see if it was precisely correct. Eventually, the commanding officer would sign off on it. This participant, who is now a student in the university, reflected that he never thought about the QA reports he composed in the Navy as writing—they were tasks required of his job—until he made the connection during one of our conversations (Rosenberg interview).

The point I want to make as an end to this blog entry is that much of the writing people produce, they may not recognize as writing at all. As Brandt elucidates in both her major studies (Literacy, The Rise), the writing people compose routinely as part of their everyday lives, at work and for less clearly designated purposes, reflects extensive and ongoing development of the writer. Understanding the many pathways to writing development, particularly as an adult writer’s practices sprawl unexpectedly, strikes me as the most provocative aspect of lifespan studies.


Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles, et al. “Towards an Understanding of Writing Development Across the Lifespan. Lifespan Group Full Statement.”

Branch, Kirk. “In the Hallways of the Literacy Narrative: Violence and the Power of Literacy.” Multiple Literacies for the 21st Century. Edited by Brian Huot, Beth Stroble, and Charles Bazerman. Hampton, 2004, pp. 15–38.

———. “What No Literacy Means: Literacy Events in the Absence of Literacy.” Reflections: Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy, vol. 9, no. 3, 2010, pp. 52–74.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge UP, 2001.

———. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Gee, James Paul. “‘Literacy, Discourse and Linguistics: Introduction’ and ‘What Is Literacy?’” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 525–44.

Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge UP, 1983.

Lathan, Rhea, Freedom Writing Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955-1967. CCCC/NCTE, 2015.

Purcell-Gates, Victoria, “A World without Print.” Edited by Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001, pp. 402–17.

Rosenberg, Lauren. The Desire for Literacy: Writing in the Lives of Adult Learners. CCCC/NCTE, 2015.

 ———. Personal Interview with “R”. 29 May 29, 2015.

———. Personal Interview with Peter Molin. 18 May 29, 2016.

———. “Retelling Culture through the Construction of Alternative Literacy Narratives: A Study of Adults Acquiring New Literacies. Reflections: Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy, vol. 9, no. 3, 2010, pp. 75–114.

———. “‘You Have to Knock at the Door for the Door Get Open’: Alternative Literacy Narratives and the Development of Textual Agency in Writing by Newly Literate Adults.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 2008, pp. 113–44.

Rosenberg, Lauren, and Kirk Branch. “A Conversation about Literacy Narratives and Social Power.” Reflections: Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy, vol. 9, no. 3, 2010, pp. 115–28.

Rosenberg, Lauren and Emma Howes. "Listening to Research as a Feminist Ethos of Representation.” Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis. Edited by Kristine Blair and Lee Nickoson. (Chapter accepted by Editors, collection accepted by WAC Clearinghouse)

Street, Brian V. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge UP, 1984.