New Literacies: What are They and What Does This Mean for Writing?

What are new literacies? How do new literacies differ from old ones? How does this affect how we write and how we teach writing? To address these questions, I will examine three articles: “‘New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice” by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies” by the same authors from the New Literacies Sampler, and “Looking from the Inside Out: Academic Blogging as New Literacy” by Julia Davies and Guy Merchant, also from the New Literacies Sampler.

First of all, there has been a massive proliferation of kinds of texts and textual spaces. Usually the term “new literacy” is associated with recent computing and communications technology; however, new literacy is not limited to new technology. Technological forms of new literacy, as listed by Lankshear and Knobel, include: blogs, webpages, synchronous forms of communication (chat and instant messaging), asynchronous forms (email and discussion boards), and digital multimedia forms. Other types of new literacy are: zines, fan fiction, critical literacy, memes, scenario planning (business applications, for example), and adbusting. It is important for writing teachers to acknowledge the fact that students are reading more and producing more writing, in different styles, tones, and registers and for a wider range of purposes, than ever before. Rather than dismissing texting or fanfiction as inapplicable to academic writing, teachers should show students how to translate skills they already have, for example narrative and persuasive abilities (what I did today and why we should go see this movie), into a different kind of writing. However, writing itself is changing in response to new literacies.

Digitally-based new literacies employ an expanded semiotics, which includes “images, sounds, graphics, signs, codes” (Lankshear 3) and can also include “additional media such as voice recordings, music files, 2D and 3D animation, video, paintshopped images, scanned images of paper-based artworks, etc.” (Lankshear 8). There is more experimentation, hybridization, and rule breaking. Writers are “blending personal with public” (Davies 169) and blurring “distinction between the serious and the frivolous” (ibid.). Should writing teachers ignore or even forbid such practices? Perhaps in certain contexts, but it is clear that academic writing itself is moving in this direction, as evidenced by the article “‘New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practices” which includes images, graphs, video and hyperlinks. Without a doubt much academic writing, if not all, is moving in this direction and so teachers need to accept and embrace the changes in text.

The most significant change of new literacies, however, is a shift from authors and final versions to collaboration and fluid texts. Distributing writing is much cheaper and more available than ever to the general population and readers are invited to add their own comments and reviews, so “Conventional social relations associated with the roles of author/authority and expert have broken down radically under the move from ‘publishing’ to participation, from centralized authority to mass collaboration” (Lankshear 14). Even before these new literacies, Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author” stressed the part that readers play in the recreation of the text. A writer creates a code, an outwardly made sign, but it is up to the reader to interpret it, to perform it as a living text.

This is all the more true online because of “the complex configuration of digital texts which are often multimodal, hyperlinked and dynamic in character, make even partial readings increasingly problematic. In looking at a blog, for instance, we need to accept that the text is seldom static, it is regularly updated, and interactive via the comments function attached to each post, and that a visitor to a blog is highly unlikely to follow all the available hyperlinks or explore all of the archived posts, and that multiple visitors are unlikely to follow these links in exactly the same way anyway, and so on. Instead, readers will make choices about what to read and what to ignore, designing their own reading path (Kress 2003) through the text” (Davies 172). In other words, readers, who have always had to recreate a text in their own minds, are now recreating texts in a more active way, by following certain links that lead to other links and ignoring others. They are producing a text that is not directly dictated by the author and these texts are much more inclusive of material beyond the limits of the primary text. Academic writing has always been intertextual, including references to other texts, but now readers can quickly follow these quotations and read them in context.

In short, the concept of what a text is has utterly changed, as well as forms of writing, and purposes of writing. Writing is no longer seen as a solitary act done by an author/authority, rather writing is a collaborative social effort that is fluid and continuous. Writing teachers who do not integrate these changes into their teaching are teaching outmoded forms of communication. How should academic writing adapt to these new practices yet still maintain traditional standards is a question, however, that is still under debate. Any thoughts about how to incorporate these changes?

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3 comments on “New Literacies: What are They and What Does This Mean for Writing?

  1. What this brings to mind for me is the ideas of plagiarism and copyright material. Since writing is no longer a solitary act how do professors decide where one thought ends and another begins. I know we have discussed this idea in several of my classes in the graduate program as many of us find ourselves reading and rereading the same texts in different classes and we eventually adopt the language of the texts we are reading. When does the phrase “schema theory” become your own, if ever?

    With the introduction of web-based material and digital-based texts how can we determine original thought (if there is such a thing)? Who is accountable for monitoring this information overload? Along with new means of creating texts comes new means of finding fault in that text as we have websites like turnitin.com that are supposed to “find” instances of plagiarism but as the lines become more and more blurred through blogging and various social networks sites how is the academy supposed to keep up?

  2. Hi, Ron – great post! Perhaps we can also think about how writing has always been intertextual and collaborative. While some things have changed, it could be argued that some aspects of the new literacies have stayed the same. For instance, if we think of writers building on existing traditions and in most cases harking back to what other writers have written, we can see a very rich culture of intertextuality, historicity, and continuity in more traditional forms of reading and writing, albeit in different ways than new literacies.

    In response to your question, I do think that there has to be some way for academic institutions and teachers to guide emerging scholars in navigating Web 2.0 waters and teach them the critical skills and literacies they need. As you’ve pointed out, the notion of “text” has changed, and so has forms and purposes of writing. As more and more students read and write using new media technologies, the need for critical skills in how to use these technologies productively is becoming more and more urgent. What if schools had a compulsory digital writing course that all students need to take in conjunction with their composition courses, early on in their writing/college career?

    • Viola, I like your idea of institutions having a compulsory digital writing course. It seems that stating that the writing composition instructors currently teach is (and have taught) is outdated, is an overstatement. Ron asked (referring to the new literacies) the question, “Should writing teachers ignore or even forbid such practices?” The question makes a binary issue of one that is more complex. The question is not whether to ignore or forbid these practices in the composition classroom, it is more about finding an appropriate place for them. Lothlorien, in her response to my post from earlier today, is in favor of viewing everything as a possible text and in favor of teaching a broad range of textual analysis. Teaching textual analysis on Web 2.0 terms is certainly important and appropriate, but is it the job of the composition instructor? Even here, in this blog, some of our posts are very essayistic in their structure, so how can we argue that writing in that form is obsolete?

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