National Writing Project

Jacqueline Jones Royster Discusses Citizenship in a Global Environment

By: Art Peterson
Date: January 2009

Summary: Jacqueline Jones Royster, professor of English at The Ohio State University, explores the connection between literacy and the public good, and advances these goals.

 

When NWP leaders gather in Washington for their Spring Meeting in April, 2009, they will be privileged to hear from a keynote speaker described as “nationally known for her ability to give engaging speeches.”

That would be Jacqueline Jones Royster, professor of English at The Ohio State University. Royster will address the meeting in a talk titled “Responsible Citizenship in a Global Environment.”

This is the kind of big issue that appeals to Royster, who, like many successful teachers, was raised with a love of learning. “Quite literally,” she says, “you might say that school was a place that I loved, and I just never left. Destiny didn’t have to find me, and I didn’t have to find it in terms of choosing to be a teacher or choosing the research that has become my passion.”

This passion has allowed Royster to pursue a variety of specialties, which she has been adroit enough to mesh together in her multifaceted studies. Her interests in feminism, literacy, rhetoric, and women of African American descent, for instance, motivated her to write Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), a work which received the 2001 Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize from the Modern Language Association.

In this work, Royster focuses on a class of 19th century African American women who were able to use language to facilitate change. She writes, “These women told a story quite representative among women of African descent, in terms of their collective quest for literacy.” These are women, she says, who, though marginalized, were able to find ways to make the world a better place.

Literacy: A Challenge to Adversity

This connection between literacy and change is one that Royster also explores in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells 1892–1900 . (Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 1996). For Royster, Wells’ career provides a touchstone for ways that literacy can challenge adversity and positively affect events. The African American Wells, orphaned at 16, headed her family of five siblings, found her way to a highly developed literacy, and became perhaps the major voice in the crusade against lynching.

Strong, literate women are also at the center of Royster’s Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803–2003 (Ohio University Press, 2003). At the request of the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, Royster took on the task of writing about two centuries of Ohio women of all races, religions, and areas of the state, who have broken barriers.

A Leader in Literacy Education

But Royster’s interest in the relationship between literacy, advancement in the world, and the achievement of the underrepresented is in no way limited to academic exploration. By making the teaching of writing the core of her professional life, she not only explores the connection between literacy and the public good, but also advances these goals.

She has directed the Comprehensive Writing Program at Spelman College and the Writing Center at Ohio State. She has served on the executive committee of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Teaching of Writing and as Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

As a leader in literacy education, Royster describes how her thinking has evolved in the context of the democratizing effects of global technology. While granting the benefits technology provides for advancing communication opportunities and skills, she says, “I believe that, as with all these resources, newer technologies constitute a double-edged sword.” She is particularly concerned with ethical issues generated by the new forms of communication.

“The examples that come to mind are the growing instances of acts of violence that are being celebrated on YouTube and the ‘disconsciousness’ with which our children engage in such activities without our paying enough attention. As teachers, then, our responsibilities for incorporating new technologies into our classrooms and curricula with critical, not just creative, regard, are manifold.”

While as a teacher Royster has been concerned with these macro issues, she has also been intimately involved with the day-to-day work that teachers do. Among other writing texts she has authored is Writers Choice: Grammar and Composition, Grades 6–8 (Glencoe/MacMillan McGraw-Hill, 1996).

She comments, “I am deeply grateful to have learned quite early in my life that what happens in my classroom is not about me. It’s about a community of learners, myself included. Together we can make great learning happen. I have been consistently confirmed in my faith that students rise well to such occasions—if given the chance in respectful and caring ways.”

So NWP leaders fortunate enough to get to Washington DC in April will have the chance to visit with a woman who shares the NWP values of choice, diversity, and the advancement of literacy, both through her academic achievement and in her practical work.

“If you build it thoughtfully, inclusively, and well,” she says, “they will learn.”

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