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.
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.
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.