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College Quarterly
Summer 2014 - Volume 17 Number 3
Producing Good Citizens: Literacy Training in Anxious Times
Amy Wan
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Reviewed by Farra Yasin

After the re-election of Barack Obama, more than 82 000 “undocumented” young adults filed for deferred deportation status. These undocumented individuals anticipated that under the Obama administration the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minor Act (DREAM Act) would be legislated and would grant undocumented adults residency status if they serve in the military or go to college (Miranda, 2012, p. 10). Such legislation would finally provide these individuals with a transparent path to citizenship.  Many undocumented adults are children of illegal immigrants who came to the United States when they were infants (Miranda, 2012, p. 11 and Vega, 2011, p. 37) and while they are not legally citizens, they participate as citizens by attending school, working and paying taxes (Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 2013). However, in the recently published historical analysis, Producing Good Citizen’s: Literacy Training in Anxious Times, author Amy Wan questions whether the DREAM Act is indeed a path for citizenship or a barrier. Her historical analysis examines the relationship between literacy and citizenship between 1910-1920 and relates these historical schooling practices to the current debates on the DREAM Act. In doing so, the book provides a wider definition of citizenship that goes beyond the legal to consider cultural citizenship practices. Her book demonstrates how the literacy classes have historically been constructed as spaces for citizenship production just as Colleges will become spaces to ensure legal citizenship if the DREAM Act is passed.

Amy Wan is an assistant professor of English at City University in New York and co-director of the University’s first-year writing program. Her historical analysis provides a sophisticated lens for adult literacy practitioners to reflect on practice. In the first chapter, she defines the main concepts that she focuses on in her analysis: literacy and citizenship. The book suggests that in a country that values citizenship in relation to economic productivity, literacy learning becomes a practice that connects the activity of reading and writing to understanding of the individual’s position in the industrial economy. In the first chapter, she also challenges the assumption that literacy learning necessarily leads to equal access to citizenship (Wan, 2014, pp. 21 & 31) and institutionalized adaptations of Freire’s concept of literacy learning that claim to be liberatory (Wan, 2014, pp. 21 & 31). Chapters 2-3 elaborates on the concepts introduced in chapter 1 with a rich historical analysis of the relation between literacy learning and citizen production in three adult learning contexts: immigrant language programs, union-organized literacy programs, and college composition courses. In each chapter, she illustrates the unique ways literacy classes from each sector taught values of citizenship that were individualistic and vocational in orientation. The final chapter problematizes the perspective that the DREAM ACT provides a path to citizenship, and instead, suggests that it masks inequalities by competitively tying citizenship to academic achievement. She concludes by inviting adult literacy practitioners to consider what citizenship values are promoted in adult literacy programs.

This historical analysis provides an interesting lens for critically examining literacy policy and rethinking androgogical practice. It reminds readers that literacy crises are not unique to our time period, but instead, the rhetoric of crises has roots that extend as far back as 1910. It is great that she frames the historical analysis with a discussion of a contemporary policy such as the DREAM Act. It contemporizes the literacy practices of the past as organic rather than dead and static. However, the transition from chapter 4 on the literacy practices of colleges in 1910 to the Dream Act of 2010 in chapter 5 is abrupt and more could be said to demonstrate why the events of 1910 are relevant to the DREAM Act and why that historical period was selected for contrast rather than another. I also think the use of the word “anxiety” needs to be further interrogated and explained with the same rigor as concepts of citizenship and literacy. Instead, anxiety is often used in the book to refer to an undefined invisible majority whose ambient feelings about citizenship and literacy become the bogeyman of policy and programming. However, what makes this book a must read for adult literacy practitioners is how Wan articulates the way literacy practices historically value individualistic notions of citizenship and create the appearance of access while masking its capacity to exclude.


Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. (2013, July). Undocumented immigrants’ state and local tax contributions. Retrieved from:

Miranda, M. (2012). Hope in uncertainty. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 29(22), pp. 10-11. Retrieved from:

Vega, S. (2011). My life as a DREAMer who ACTed beyond the barriers: From growing up “Undocumented” in Arizona to a Master’s Degree from Harvard. Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, 23, pp. 37-41. Retrieved from:

Farra Yasin is a second year Ph.D. student who is researching college literacy policy and pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, Canada. Professionally, she has worked as an elementary, high school and college educator where the focus of her practice is teaching writing.