Curriculum of Aging

Project Summary

The Curriculum of Aging: Literacy and Technology in Later Life, considers 21st-century literacy practices amid and against public rhetorics of aging. I argue that literacy, and digital literacy in particular, is a key factor in what I call a curriculum of aging: an assemblage of discourses for and about older adults that implicitly teaches audiences of all ages how to grow old. To challenge limiting rhetoric that suggests digital literacy is not meaningful for elders, or else is meaningful only when it fits medical models of aging, I present findings from an ethnographic study of everyday computer users in New England who were born before 1945. Contributing in part to the critical lens of disability studies in composition, I reframe the aging body as something other than an impediment to late-life literacy development. As we attend to the new work of composing (especially within the subfield of computers and writing), composition scholars must pay attention to elders’ perspectives on literacy, learning, and the impact of rapid technological change.


As several literacy researchers have reminded us, to lack the ability to communicate through digital writing technologies in the 21st century is, in essence, to be illiterate (Selfe and Hawisher, 2004; Blommaert, 2008). While literacy research has charged forward with the important work of investigating the causes, consequences, and possible interventions into digital literacy gaps among students (Selfe and Hawisher, 2004), minorities (Banks, 2006), and under-resourced urban communities (Grabill, 2007), studies rarely attend to one significant and enduring factor in the digital divide: age. Studies of and interventions into this age-based digital divide are complicated by a culture of ageism. A product of both the cultural tendency to view old age and new technology as mutually exclusive spheres and the tendency to treat aging as an individual problem, much digital literacy scholarship carries the presumption that older adults are digitally illiterate. Decades ago, literacy researchers (Scribner & Cole, 1981; Street, 1984) successfully challenged superficial definitions of literacy that labeled certain cultural groups as “non-literate,” and questioned claims particular forms of literacy bring universal benefits. As important as these challenges were in studies of print-based literacies, the challenge must be reasserted in the age of digital literacies. This book aims to do just that.

Research Objectives

The Curriculum of Aging has two central objectives: to uncover the rhetorics of aging that contribute to a widespread assumption that older adults do not and cannot “obtain” new literacies, and to investigate the everyday technological literacies of older adults from the context of their life histories. Toward the first objective, the book presents a rhetorical analysis of popular (e.g., AARP public materials) and scholarly (e.g., the literature of computers and writing) discourses of digital literacy, with an eye toward the ways aging is invoked. These rhetorical contexts of literacy practices in later life contribute to what I call a curriculum of aging: an assemblage of rhetorics that define and promote cultural ideologies about old age (see Bowen, 2012), and which often revolve around a reductive focus on the physiological and cognitive decline associated with aging. As a direct response to these problematic rhetorics, the book is centrally concerned with tracing the literate lives of older adults who have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, found their way in to digital literacies in later life. Building on preliminary research conducted in the northeastern region of the United States (Bowen, 2011), the book takes an emic, ecological approach (Barton, 2007) to the study of literacy in later life. Through extensive oral history interviews and ethnographic observations, this study investigates the digital activities of twenty adults born prior to 1945 in relation to their pursuits of literacy and learning from birth to the present. Among the study’s early findings, the qualitative study complicates the reductive views of the aging body as an inherent “problem”; participants’ guided tours (what I call “literacy tours”) of their digital literacy practices reveal that the learned movements involved in activities such as typing, building model airplanes, and making scrapbooks can, over time, support new literacies as, for instance, the familiarity of such movements can generate affect-based motivations for learning.


The Curriculum of Aging will offer at least four important contributions to rhetoric and composition.

  1. To a field that has historically centered on the study of younger learners—particularly college-age writers—this book illustrates that by isolating a small, though developmentally crucial, segment of the life course, we fail to adequately historicize the development of literacy.
  2. The book will illustrate the networked interaction between cognitive, social, and material dimensions of literacy and learning from a later life perspective.
  3. Against the historical lack of disciplinary cross-talk between studies of rhetoric and studies of literacy, this book contributes to recent interest in understanding how public discourses shape or are shaped by the teaching and learning of literacy.
  4. The book documents a fading historical moment that indexes consequences of technological change sure to repeat in future generations.