Consumer, Producer, Critic (Not necessarily in that order)

In her article, “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy,” Jennifer Stone analyzes eight popular websites that adolescents commonly use outside of school.  What’s incredible (or maybe not so incredible in this age of NCLB, that is, based on what I know about it from The New Yorker) about her study is this:  she found that students who were labeled “struggling readers” in school, spent hours outside of school reading websites full of complex sentences and vocabulary.  What’s more, these websites contained much more complicated vocabulary and syntax than the reading they were doing in school.  Her point is not to convince teachers that they should be using popular websites to teach reading and writing.  Rather, she is arguing for an expanded view of literacy, one that includes the popular websites that students read and interact with regularly. According to Stone, acknowledging students’ use of these websites as a valid literacy practice would lessen the social divide between what counts as “inside” versus “outside” the realm of school.  That is, between what counts as “real” reading and what counts as a lesser version in the minds of teachers, parents, school officials, and even students.

Stone’s push to modify the definition of reading isn’t anything new, especially in terms of critical literacy (Defined here by Ira Shor).  Rather, what has changed is the type(s) of texts that students are often reading. What Stone refers to as “intertextual connections,” is the norm in online writing and reading. Yet, she admits, “we cannot merely celebrate these literacies; nor should we destroy the pleasures of popular culture,”  but in terms of a classroom practice, she argues, “At the same time, there is certainly a need for schools to start helping students to unpack what these texts do and how they do it” (p. 61).  To me, this sounds similar to critical literacy.  In her 1994 book addressing critical reading, The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English (link to the Google book here), Kathleen McCormick suggests that students learn to read “symptomatically.” That is, “to look for the symptoms or signs of the power and contradictions involved in that culture’s ideology” (p. 77), something Stone asks teachers and students to do more of.

Unlike critical reading in print texts, however, when students are reading on the Internet, they may comment on their friends’ and peers’ Facebook pages, or on blogs, discussion boards, and articles. They are shaping their identity through online sites via what they read, subscribe to, and post. Online, they are both consumers and producers of text.  But this doesn’t ensure that they’re acting as critics (self- or otherwise) in the sense of critical literacy. Since most, if not all, students are already using new literacies online (is that redundant?), it seems like we should be helping students to move from being consumers, to producers, to critics, in reflective, rhetorical, and reciprocal ways.

If we look at teaching critical reading in the context of new literacies, it does seem similar to critical literacy; it’s about empowering students and building their metacognitive skills.  Here, however, it is also to raise their awareness of what they’re doing on the Internet, how it works, who it benefits, and in what ways it is (and is not) beneficial to their face to face and online presence or identity.  This seems especially important in a world where “social” is not contained to an in-person community of peers, but rather, almost uncontained in an online world where each and every person is simultaneously negotiating their identity to different ends.  I think it’s important to teach and maintain a balance and an awareness of the differences between online and face-to-face worlds.  We don’t want students to believe, like Allie Brosh, that adulthood is something that can be won in one fell swoop, like a trophy, and that once won, they can go back to an unrestrained life on the Internet (see my favorite blog for Brosh’s self-reflection, “This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult”).

That said, I think that Jennifer Stone is right: it is crucial for teachers to understand how online texts “are shaping students’ literate lives,” and to be aware of institutional views of online texts that “[push] these literacies into unofficial spaces and renders them invisible” (p. 61). When these literacies are invisible, students, teachers, and school officials see them as less valuable than traditional texts (possibly even those that Stone proves to be less critical or complex than some online). This makes me wonder: if students’ understanding, reflection, and articulation of the rhetorical moves they and other online authors are making was to improve, would online literacies (even those related to popular websites) be given more credibility and become valued as school-based literacies?  For some reason, I doubt that schools will broaden their view of what it means to be literate any time soon.

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One comment on “Consumer, Producer, Critic (Not necessarily in that order)

  1. We’re not in Kansas anymore–and it’s not just text any more, either, Toto. Now we speak in terms of “use” of websites. This tells us a lot about the value of these sites and the nature of “new” literacy. How often has it been said that a student, or anyone, “uses” a book? It’s true that people “use” how-to or self-help books. But this aspect of “functionality” tells us a lot. As people concerned with literacy, we are often focused primarily on text. But text is now a component of a larger suite of features. Websites provide “user experience” overtly—it’s not something one has to derive. You only have to click and it does something. So, there is not just this idea of readers “reading” a text on a website, but of users using websites in which text has a useful function. Another aspect to consider is that popular websites are large scale commercial enterprises, similar to how we might understand television channels. I some ways this makes websites more like TV that print. This means that a lot of money and marketing is being applied to draw “users” – or we could even say, consumers to a popular site. It’s not just text anymore…it’s user experience, user identity, user community and consumer functionality…did we ever do those things with text on the page? Well, we tried, right? But with the web anyone can potentially be a publicist, author, movie director, journalist, columnist, or impresario. I think any notion of new literacy has to take all these things into account. It’s not just about reading, or even writing, anymore, although both will continue to play a crucial role.

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