Don't Try to Do Good With 'Contempt in Your Heart'

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Laura Rice

New methods for teaching literacy in developing regions are likely to resemble the Trojan horse, said Laura Rice, bearing “within them innuendos and subtexts that demean the very people they intend to help.” In her new book Imagined Lives, Rice is investigating international literacy conditions, with an emphasis on the experiences of rural North African women. The women, she said, “live at the intersection of 3R literacy, indigenous knowledge, and large-scale development programs.”

By “literacy,” Rice means “the knowledge needed to cope with everyday needs,” while “3R literacy” refers to reading, writing and numeracy.

A Research Fellow and associate professor of English at OSU, Rice held a previous fellowship at the Center during which she worked on her book Departures (City Lights, 1994), co-authored with Karim Hamdy. She also was acting director of the Center in 1993 while then-Director Peter Copek was on sabbatical. Rice’s current project draws on work done with the help of a 2001-02 Fulbright grant, which took her to remote locales to interview Bedouin women, and supported visits to development projects promoting literacy. In summer of 2004 she returned to Africa to do final interviews with Bedouin women and their extended families.

Literacy in this study of adults does not refer to the linear, individually experienced, progressive acquisition of 3R skills associated with children.” It is, rather, “a complex, non-linear, and spatially-experienced set of social practices.”

While 3R literacy is becoming more central to Maghribi oral cultures where print culture has embedded itself through the processes of nation-state building and globalization in much the same way that computer-literacy is becoming more central to the print cultures of the industrialized West, said Rice, “One does not suddenly become illiterate in the knowledge needed to cope with everyday needs when a new literacy technology takes over.”

Imagined Lives has two parts, the first an analysis of current literacy conditions internationally, in the Arab world in general, and in rural North Africa in particular, the second focused on the discourse of literacy in development projects, North African novels and memoirs, and the life experiences of rural women. Using gender analysis and post-colonial theory, Rice has identified two practices in development efforts that she considers particularly germane to her study.

“First, local facts are extracted from their contexts and tailored to fit Western paradigms. Second, top-down agendas are imposed, ignoring indigenous knowledge, alienating local stakeholders, and undermining projects before they start. It seems to be hard for development experts to ‘learn from below’ in this situation. It is important to avoid ‘doing good with contempt in your heart,’ as Gayatri Spivak has put it.”

Imagined Lives employs an interdisciplinary approach including literary criticism/discourse analysis, applied international development, and ethnography. The project, said Rice, has required her to think across the border between what has been called two “social imaginaries,” one based on Western social contract theory where individuals think of their identities as autonomous, the other based on collective, relational identities.”

Rice participated in development work, and conducted scores of interviews, initially based on questionnaires and then expanding into open-ended conversations. She selected the life stores of three women and their extended families to capture the idea of literacy as a complex, nonlinear, and spatially-experienced set of social practices.

“Except in quoted material, I avoid the word illiterate because it sets up a binary vision of the world,” Rice said. “Overall, we can say that development projects promoting 3R literacy for adults have had little success. New literacy theory and practices have evolved to address the facts on the ground, but powerful development institutions have been maintaining the status quo.”