This paper explores the challenges of espousing a critical pedagogy within the managerial climate that presently shapes teacher education. It argues that current discourses of professionalism are incommensurate with a view of literacy as social practice and that they disregard complex semiotic ecologies in which both school and university students operate. Graduate teachers are constructed as the 'providers' of decontextualised literacy skills to school students whose existing communication networks are ignored. Rejecting this narrow view of professional practice, we draw on activity theory to analyse the social configuration of tertiary students' identities and the textual resources that mediate their professional learning. This kind of research is needed to reveal the contradictions within and between activity systems in which tertiary students participate as well as to construct possible solutions to the contradictions identified.