McGill Students for Literacy: A Feminist Assessment

by Stephanie Garrow and Lynda Stokes

McGill Students for Literacy (MSL) is an independent literacy organization founded and operated by McGill University students. Its mandate is to train McGill students to tutor adults and youth in basic literacy skills and to promote awareness of il/literacy issues. MSL's tutoring services are free and all of the students involved work as volunteers.

The issue
should be the
patriarchally induced
of women's
lives, not
failure to
become literate.

As a final research project for an interdisciplinary seminar on Women's Studies, we conducted a feminist evaluation of MSL. We wanted to know what were the barriers to learning that women faced and whether MSL was meeting the needs of both women students as well as the tutors and administrators. This article is a summary of that evaluation, and of the situations of women involved in the program.

Defining Il/literacy
Although there are many more non-literate women than men in the world, men and women in Canada have comparable levels of literacy, according to government statistics. Approximately 16% of Canadians have very limited literacy skills. A further 22% can read everyday materials only if they are written simply, are clearly laid out and if they involve tasks that are easy to perform (1). So why then is literacy a women's issue? How are women's experiences of il/literacy different from men's?

Understanding and assessing il/literacy in Canada has not been a simple matter of defining the skills needed to read and write; literacy has political implications beyond the mechanical skills of reading and writing. Defining il/literacy or identifying it as a problem is a central and difficult issue in literacy practice. According to Dana Beckelman, "Any act of defining what constitutes literacy is merely the definer's interpretation" (2). She argues that woman-positive literacy practice should strive for an understanding of literacy which is inclusive, not exclusive as any explicit definition suggests. As Jennifer Horsman, a feminist literacy worker, has also pointed out, the "stress on defining the population of 'illiterates' as if it were a clear-cut, either/or question, helps to strengthen the perception of non-readers as "other" (3).

Within the structure of McGill Students for Literacy, we have tried not to let our practice revolve around a specific definition. The onus is on the potential literacy student to determine whether s/he needs help with his/her reading and writing and to contact us. From a feminist perspective, this lack of an entrenched definition can be seen as an asset.

For example, when a Student-Tutor Coordinator meets with a potential literacy student for the first time, she asks, "Is there a specific reason that you are seeking help? How will your life be different if you improve your reading and/or writing? What do you find most difficult about reading? About writing? Is there anything else you would like to discuss?" By having the potential literacy student identify his/her needs s/he is the one who defines literacy. Women identify the areas they want to work on, such as reading comprehension, spelling, reading specific things and/or performing specific tasks.

Les élèves de McGill et l'alphabétisation: une évaluation féministe
par Stephanie Garrow et Linda Stokes

McGill Students for Litetacy est un organisme d'alphabétisation indépendant qu'ont fondé et que gèrent les étudiants de McGill. Nous estimons que l'organisation et la structure de MSL tient compte des besoins et de la situation de toutes les femmes du programme, c'est-à-dire des étudiantes et des enseignantes.

On demande aux femmes qui s'adressent à l'organisme pour suivre des cours d'évaluer leurs besoins en matière d'alphabétisation, ce qui permet que leur apprentissage corresponde à leur existence et objectifs. Comme la vie des femmes s'organise souvent autour des besoins des autres, les cours sont souples, individuels, les apprenantes décidant elles-mêmes de leur horaire. MSL met aussi l'accent sur l'intégration des aspects sociaux et professionnels, car ce n'est que grâce à des contacts sociaux et à des interactions que l'isolement des femmes commencent à s'effacer et que ces dernières comprennent comment s'opposer aux forces sociales qui les désavantagent. Les apprenantes considèrent souvent que leur alphabétisation est habilitant une façon de trouver un emploi stimulant, d'avoir davantage d'estime en elles et plus confiance pour surmonter les soucis quotidiens toute seules. Dans son programme d'alphabétisation, MSL tient vraiment compte des réalités de la vie des femmes pour les habiliter.

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