Writing systems and literacy: a syllabus

At the end of a conference a few years ago on writing systems, we (the dozen or so participants) energetically promised to share with one another the various syllabi we use in our courses on writing systems and literacy. Apparently we failed, as I have been unable to find any correspondence indicating that we did so. I taught such a course to a small group of seniors in the fall of 2006, and this fall I am teaching a highly revised version of the course to a small group of grad students. I don’t think the syllabus itself is anything special (it’s a seminar: we read a lot, then write long papers), but below, I give the reading list along with a brief discussion of each:

1. Andrew Robinson, Writing Systems and Literacy: A Very Short Introduction.
None of my students have any particular prior expertise in the area, so I’m having them read this prior to our first class meeting. It is what it is, but will form a really good introductory set of ideas for them.

2. Maurice Bloch, How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy.
This is a great mix of theory from social and cognitive anthropology and the detailed ethnographic work in Madagascar that Bloch is known for, linking literacy to memory and cognition in some really intriguing ways.

3. John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B.
I used this in the first incarnation of the course – a fantastic autobiographical account of the world’s most famous script decipherment, and a grand tribute to Michael Ventris, whose tragic death marks the narrative indelibly.

4. John Defrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.
While the title suggests that it is more generally on language, the core of the book is on the nature and social context of the Chinese characters, ranging from basic semiotic issues to modern romanization efforts, and the gross misunderstandings most Westerners have of the script.

5. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind.
Goody isn’t as popular today as he was twenty years ago, but I find his account extremely compelling and theoretically rich. The critics get their day (see below) but fundamentally my approach to numerical notation rests on Goody, another holdover from the first incarnation of the course.

6. Stephen Houston (ed), The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process.
Finally out in paperback so I can assign it – this collection of magisterial essays is social, historical, linguistic, and archaeological, framing the origin of writing in a thoroughly anthropological framework.

7. Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, The Psychology of Literacy.
Despite the title, this is a work of deep ethnography as well as cross-cultural psychology, investigating what effects (if any) the native Vai syllabary and other scripts have on a complex Liberian literate context.

8. Brian Street, Literacy in Theory and Practice.
I suppose this would be the ‘anti-Goody’, placing literacy (correctly) as a social practice whose cognitive effects cannot be predicted. Street’s theoretical position forms the mainstream of the modern anthropology of literacy.

9. Peter Wogan, Magical Writing in Salasaca.
A great little ethnography injecting issues of inequality and colonialism, as well as ritual and religion, into the literate lives of the people of Salasaca in Ecuador (I’m also assigning this because we have two Ecuador specialists in our department).

10. Niko Besnier, Literacy, Emotion and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll.
A last-minute addition, a further ethnography allowing us to look at another region of the world, but also to look at the ways in which literacy relates to the construction of individual identities and personal authority.


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