Ethanol, Swine Flu and The New Literacies

Our culture has taught us to be inherently skeptical. Whether it has been killer bees, the electric car, Avian Flu, H1N1 or the promises of ethanol, we are trained that big issues come and go. We watch things cycle in and out of public consciousness (what is the top news story for several weeks straight might not get even a mention in a month’s time) and are trained to jump on the bandwagon of what promises to be the next big thing only to find out later that the hype was nothing more than misplaced optimism and over-speculation as to the future trajectory of whatever phenomenon we were chasing. How is hype over New Literacies be any different? Particularly when placed in direct comparison (or even opposition to) the conventional written essay? If our culture has taught us anything it should be that we should step into the “new” cautiously. You would think that part of our identity as Americans would be that of savvy hype critics. Instead it seems, as Buckingham Points out in Introducing Identity, that what we consider to be advancements in our culture “are contributing to a sense of fragmentation and uncertainty, in which the traditional resources for identity formation are no longer straightforward or so easily available.” In a sense we are becoming fence-sitters and fickle as who we are depends on the context of where we are – whether it is in a face to face social environment or “hanging out” on facebook. This fragmentation, it seems, is taking away from our ability to see things clearly. If we jump on the New Literacy bandwagon and completely refocus composition classrooms in favor of teaching visual compositions might that, decades from now, seem as quaint and ridiculous as Hall’s 1906 suggestion of a cold bath as a remedy for being horny?

There is value in looking to youth to determine what changes need to be made in the composition classroom. And, while Buckingham’s lumping of youth into one category poses similar problems as the essentialism he points out as a problem existing in identity politics, young people are the ones who generally shape the culture and we, as composition instructors, need to make sure that what we are teaching them is not only useful, but relevant to them in the context of their lives. Certainly there is science to back up a certain amount of lumping together. Adolescents, for instance, undergo a frontal lobe overhaul when they are roughly junior high aged (…/braindev.pdf). This overhaul puts them in a similar mindset to that we associate with “the terrible twos”. They are extraordinarily self-centered, prone to tantrums, don’t always show “good” judgment (which might account for the risk-taking behavior), and they are not completely in control of their emotions. The only difference between a toddler, undergoing a similar frontal lobe overhaul, and an adolescent, is the hormone factor. Similarly, when young people reach their early twenties they are still undergoing brain development and enter a period during which they tend to feel that all of the experiences they are having are unique only to them and that the thoughts that are occurring to them have never occurred to anyone before. Everything seems big and new. It is important to understand where our students’ brains are situated so that we can have a better understanding of how we can best reach them. Perhaps their identities are both forming and already fragmented. A tech-savvy youth might in one moment (as with the traditional functionalist account of socialization) be “a passive recipient of adult influences” (Buckingham, 4) and in a different moment that same youth might be present in several hundred different “nows” as s/he trolls through the tweets of his Twitter friends.

I have to wonder how much of techno-savviness has to do with the amounts of free time a person has. If young people discover much of their own new literacy practices through a process of trial, error and discovery, that could be a partial explanation as to why it is primarily young people dominating the tech scene—they have fewer responsibilities and therefore more free time. Although if, as Buckingham states, “’youth’ is a relatively modern invention” and if it is defined as “the period of transition that lasts from the end of compulsory schooling to the entry into waged labor,” then we are now seeing youth stretch into the 30’s, as college and grad school, for some, can seem rather compulsory. This delay of self-perceived “youth” fit for me personally – having finished my MFA at 31, however I didn’t begin to actually feel like an adult until after the birth of my second child when I was almost 36. For me the transition occurred out of a necessity to be an effective parent. If anyone has been waiting patiently for me to be a grown-up and enter the waged workforce, well, it might still be a while because, at 40, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.  By the same token, many of my same-age friends who have office jobs seem to be extraordinarily active on facebook playing games like Farmville and Mafia Wars…another issue entirely.

Certainly, as composition instructors, we should keep our curriculum relevant, but that does not mean exactly giving the students what they want, or just what interests and entertains them. We need to define what exactly our purpose is within the composition classroom – are we here to teach writing, or design? Is our primary focus on critical thinking, therefore making us more free to encourage composition in any mode? Or would those types of compositions–the visual, the auditory–better left to people who specialize in those areas? How much would fragmenting our identities as composition instructors ultimately help or hurt our students in terms of favoring one thing while spending less time on another?

I’m really not sure that people will sending beautiful visual compositions in lieu of e-mail or as a substitute for a report for their department manager so I think that we absolutely should continue pushing those boring old alphabetic symbols on people while, in the meantime, adopting some of Selfe’s suggestions such as allowing one essay (or revision) to be completed using different digital media (WNM 64), thus allowing tech savvy students to showcase their talents with different literacies. This would be helpful in having a full picture of students (like David) who may be completely literate in everything but the written essay. For the older, or less tech savvy instructor, it might be helpful to have students share things in class, whether in the form of Selfe’s Technlological Literacy Autoiography (WNM 59), or by asking them to take turns composing an essay using a different digital medium and sharing that with the class thus exposing not only fellow students, but the instructor as well to new modes of composition.

No doubt things need to change, but to what extent? My aunt recently read a story with her high school students in which a character had to wind his watch. None of the students knew what it meant to “wind a watch” – it can be frightening how quickly things that we once took as shared cultural knowledge can become obsolete. My friend, who teaches junior high has students that don’t know how to read an analog clock or tie shoe laces. Certainly broadening our understanding of how identities are shaped (and continue to be shaped throughout a lifetime), and understanding the vast range of experiences with technology that will enter our classrooms, can inform that decision. But still, as Hawisher & Selfe point out in Becoming Literate in the Information Age, “literacies have lifespans. Specific literacies emerge; they overlap and compete with pre-existing forms; they accumulate, especially, perhaps, in periods of transition; they also eventually fade away. And, depending on the ecological conditions, some may fade faster than others” (665). There is no need to insist students know how to wind a watch if watches are no longer in need of winding, but we need to be certain that the little class time we have with our students is spent teaching the things that will, at the very least, be around for a while.


7 comments on “Ethanol, Swine Flu and The New Literacies

  1. Like you, I am always looking for the practical applications of the theories we read, so I appreciate you naming the big questions: – are we here to teach writing, or design? Is our primary focus on critical thinking, therefore making us more free to encourage composition in any mode? Or would those types of compositions–the visual, the auditory–better left to people who specialize in those areas?

    Personally, I think everything can and should be “read” as “text,” including television news programs, photographic essays, shopping lists, and verbal conversations, thus almost anything is suitable fodder for teaching textual analysis. Learning that simple fact, and practicing those analytical skills are part of the purpose of English classes. Do we really expect students to compose in every medium possible? Sounds a bit much to ask in a single first-yr comp course. While I do think students—including freshman BW students–should be exposed to such texts, perhaps composing in multi-media is a topic for another course. How much can we tackle in one course?

    Having said all that, Cynthia Selfe makes some compelling statements regarding the evolution of the importance of online identities. There may come a time when saaviness in online identity construct and the socio-political ramifications of such is considered a prerequisite for graduation from college, but I don’t feel the need to take that on as a BW teacher. “Reading” the online presence of various people and groups and analyzing them as situated constructions might be appropriate, but to execute such constructions requires alphabetic literacy skills as well, so that’s where I’m starting.

  2. Pingback: What good is identity? « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

  3. I find your opening thoughts compelling – we *are* somehow implicitly trained for skepticism. And I think, perhaps, that your post is an excellent example of that training. I would argue that the “new literacies” (I am talking specifically about digital ones, such as this blog) cannot be compared to avian flu or the electric car (which, I think, will probably play a bigger role in our future than any of us realizes). Electronic (alphabetic and otherwise) composition and communication is not a passing fad. This is the future. The students we teach will be competing for jobs in a world that sees digital technology evolving faster than our theories of teaching. The technologies of today are, in very real and fascinating (scary?) ways FORMING the brains of our students. This is not a trend we are dealing with; this is evolution. While the medium we use in this blog is text (alphabetic) based, young people (an some not so young) are composing and creating communication genres that may dispel with the alphabetic entirely (I am not here considering spoken word as alphabetic). Take for example the google verb meme thing referenced in a previous entry (I am not yet tech savvy enough to access that entry to create a link while commenting on this one).

    We, as educators, are called upon to know more about cognitive development. Our students will *physically* process information differently that we. It is, I think, possible that alphabetic literacy will one day go the way of the wind-up watch. It’s hard to imagine, and not likely in our lifetime. But in the calendar of human communication, alphabetic literacy is a recent arrival, and to assume it’s immortality is to cling steadfastly to the trends of which we have been trained to be skeptical. The written word, dear to all of our hearts, is as you say, going to be around for a while. But perhaps it is time for us to consider its mortality. For, though I myself resist the notion, it may well be, in history’s vision, one of the big issues that came and went.

  4. I don’t have anything as lengthy to post as the other commenters on the blog, but I did want to mention something briefly about your skepticism of new media. When you mention other passing fads, that storm into our cultural consciousness and storm out the next day, you seem to suggest that that Americans should have constructed heavy guard against HYPE. And yet, like Mark, I have to agree that the world of New Media is no longer hype, and your blog post proves it. New Literacies have so infiltrated our communication that you use email as an example of “old literacies,” when compared to “beautiful visual compositions.” While email is a tool that utilizes the letter alphabet, it still is digital, as is the very blog our classroom uses to discuss these topics. It entertains me that these forms of digital communication have infiltrated our culture to the extent that we don’t even file them under “new” anymore, even though email and blogger are still mere infants in the context of written communication.

    • I’m glad you guys got your feathers ruffled a bit — I was trying to be somewhat inflammatory. However, I did not mean to say that new literacies as a whole are a passing fad. My comment was a caution of throwing all else out the window in favor of the latest and greatest. My suggestion is that we need to situate ourselves as writing instructors somewhere within these new literacies in a responsible way — not having our students turning in “visual essays” and whatnot just because they can, especially if we haven’t fully investigated the value of such compositions and also when there is still a need for coherent written communication. New Media is not hype, but there is a lot of hype about New Media.

      • Really fascinating discussion, and we’ll take it up in class. Meanwhile, I thought the stance here was somewhat similar to what a recent CCCC chair has said:

        Wootten, Judith A. (Jay). “2006 CCCC Chair’s Address: Riding a One-Eyed Horse: Reining in and Fencing Out.” College Composition and Communication 58.2 (2006): 236-245. Print.

  5. Pingback: Taking Identity at Face(book) Value « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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