The Center for Writing Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Navigation: Quick Links

Rafters and skylights in the English Building

Colloquium Archive

Eileen Lagman

Name: Eileen Lagman, English Department

Presentation Title: "Heroes, Brains, and Spectral Presences: Accumulating Literacy in the Migration of Skilled Labor."

Date: May 8, 2014


The Philippines has been labeled the “temp agency to the world,” as nearly ten percent of the nation’s population works abroad. Because many of these migrant workers are college-educated, economists have described this phenomenon as “brain drain” and sometimes “brain waste.” But what exactly is being lost? In this presentation, I examine the processes by which workers become mobile and transferable human capital through the spectacular accumulation of literacy. Drawing from one year of qualitative transnational research, I focus on interviews with two Filipino migrant workers, their literacy practices in the global workplace, and the government-sponsored vocational training they complete in order to work abroad. Deborah Brandt has described the process of accumulating literacy as a “piling up and extending out” of literacy and its technologies. However, in the context of global capitalism, accumulation, as Anna Tsing argues, is often “spectacular.” In the Philippines, government institutions facilitate accumulation within particular conditions for literacy learning: increasing regulation and measurement of skills to create standardized and simultaneously exceptional workers for the global labor market. As migrants move across national borders, their stories illustrate the very human costs of equating literacy to capital.