Literacy

Stop the Paralysis: Recognizing Your Level of Academic Literacy

heidi_marshall-ASCI didn’t grow up in the Midwest, but I’ve now lived in MinneSNOWda for more than a decade. This past November, I purchased a home and found myself, for the first time in those 10+ years, face-to-face with a driveway full of snow and a big, klonking snow blower standing between me and the ability to back my car out of the garage. I was paralyzed. I didn’t know how to turn the thing on, let alone navigate it through 8 inches of snow, and I silently scolded myself for writing the snow blower into my purchase agreement.

I stood there for what felt like ages before, finally, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened my YouTube app, and searched for videos on how to use a snow blower

Literacy means so much more than the ability to read and write. From learning to use a snow blower to composing a capstone manuscript for a doctoral program, our literacy can range from very low to very high depending on our level of knowledge about and experience with whatever it is we’re doing. According to McMillan (1996), the stages of developing literacy are as follows:

  • Systemic: Systemic literacy means we possess some ability to accomplish the task at hand. In other words, we are physically and mentally able to do it.
  • Situational: Situational literacy comes when we can produce or engage in an adequate, even skilled, manner with the task, but at a basic or introductory level.
  • Operational: Operational literacy comes when we understand what is expected at a higher level, but still lack the skills to produce at that higher level. We can mimic experts but are not creatively producing.
  • Principle: Principle literacy is the level at which we are able to integrate complex information and skill and demonstrate a deep understanding of what we are doing.
  • Application: We reach application literacy when we are then able to teach the task to someone else.

When we don’t know what we’re doing, when we’re hovering somewhere between systemic and situational literacy, when we’re staring down a driveway or at a mounting stack of research articles or an empty page on our computer screen, we often become paralyzed. Our fear and anxiety with what seems to be an insurmountable amount of snow takes over. We feel ill-equipped and uncertain, and our confidence and self-efficacy for accomplishing the task ahead, be it clearing the driveway or writing a dissertation, decreases.

In other words, when we have little experience with an activity, our literacy of that activity starts low. But that’s the key point: Your current level of literacy is only a starting point. You have the ability to raise it and to perform at high levels.

Think about something you’re really good at. Do you play an instrument? Sing in a choir? Keep a meticulous garden? You didn’t go into that activity knowing everything, let alone anything, about it. You learned it through experience and by expanding your knowledge base. You practiced. You read about it. Maybe you took classes. I guarantee that you were never as hard on yourself about not having experience and knowledge around that activity, be it playing the violin, singing, or keeping plants in bloom, as you are about not knowing APA or feeling apprehension about academic writing.

I didn’t know a thing about clearing a driveway with a snow blower until I researched it. And then I had to try it. I wasn’t great at it at first, but by the end of winter, I was a pro.

Writing like a scholar is a literacy that you are still developing, and knowing where you are in the process can be a great aid in helping you reach your academic goals. Be honest with yourself about where you are starting. There is no shame in admitting that you have little experience or knowledge about APA or writing (or statistics or data collection or anything, really!). That is normal! It just means that you’ll need to spend a little more time reading, studying, and practicing in order to expand your current level of experience and knowledge. Don’t let what feels to be unsurmountable stop you in your tracks. Your path to academic success and degree attainment requires that you are able to overcome the paralysis caused by fear and anxiety, and so take a deep breath, open up YouTube if you have to, expand your knowledge, and remember to practice.

McMillan, S. (1996). Literacy and computer literacy: Definitions and comparisons. Computers & Education, 27(3/4), 161−170. doi:10.1016/S0360-1315(96)00026-7


Heidi Marshall has worked for Walden in a variety of capacities for the past seven years, including as a Writing Center Instructor, the Associate Director of the Academic Skills Center, and, most recently, as contributing WCSS faculty. She teaches the WCSS Doctoral Writing Workshops, Graduate Writing I & II, and other WCSS courses.

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