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Culture and Literacy

Ph.D. student Lauren Causey searches for a link between who we are and how we learn to read

Lauren Causey was born in the Deep South, in New Orleans, LA, surrounded by toe-tapping music, Cajun cuisine, and a public education system battered by hurricanes and funding crises.

“Having grown up in New Orleans, I have internalized the strong impact that culture makes in many arenas, especially in education,” she says.

It was this cultural backdrop that inspired Causey to “find out how people learn to read and write, and why some people don’t,” she says.

After graduating from Howard University in Washington, DC, Causey took a job in New York City with Scholastic Inc. as a contracts assistant, and learned a great deal about the publishing industry as she processed contracts with writers and illustrators from across the country. At the same time, she volunteered with the New York Public Libraries to tutor beginning adult readers and writers.

“As I worked at Scholastic I thought about people without access to such wonderful books either because of a lack of skill or a lack of resources. And adults are often overlooked, so I volunteered at the libraries to help people feel more confident about their reading and writing skills,” she explains.

As a tutor, Causey says she began to wonder about the systemic causes of low literacy and the larger societal implications it creates. She decided to pursue an M.Ed. degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied in the Language and Literacy Program, and then began working on a Ph.D. in Literacy Education at the U in 2009.

“With my scholarly work I want to look at the intersection of socio-cultural elements and the way that people think about their own literacy identities,” she says.

Causey said that she is grateful for the guidance of her adviser, professor Lee Galda, and her mentor, professor Cynthia Lewis, whose Digital Media Studies, or DigME research project, has given her an arena in which to learn and test out new research techniques. (The DigMe project offers Minneapolis high school students the opportunity to expand their digital literacy, working with cutting edge audio, visual, and computer technologies while researchers from CEHD interact with them.)

In addition to her Ph.D. coursework and DigME research, Causey teaches an undergraduate course, “Diversity in Children’s Literature,” is a researcher at the Kerlan Collection (a children’s literature research collection), and was named a national Holmes Scholar in 2011.

In the future, she would like to remain in academia while also making an impact in community-centered literacy programs. She also wants to contribute to the research base about the role of culture in literature and literary response.

Causey is a long way from the rich cultural milieu of New Orleans but, “I feel that I’m in the right place, doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says.

Story by Brigitt Martin |September 2011

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