Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

In “Blinded by the Letter Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola address two myths that are associated with discussions of “literacy,” one, that literacy is always a tool of liberation for oppressed peoples, and two, that literacy will improve an individual’s sense of self and moral character. I have often had a bad taste in my mouth when reading academic discussions of literacy in the sense that academic efforts to offer literacy to oppressed peoples are like wealthy philanthropy—rich people donate money because it makes them feel good, but more often than not, not because it will really create substantial change. I’m not saying that efforts to share literacies are not worthwhile and effective, but I don’t think teaching someone to read and write is the panacea that will dissolve class inequity. Literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. The Wysocki and Johnson-Eiolola article was refreshing to me. This quote from Ruth Finnegan words it well, “So, when people might want, for example, houses or jobs or economic reform, they arc instead given literacy programs. (41)” 

The second myth taken up by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola is that the book, and the book alone, offers people the necessary self-reflection to become more self realized and moral individuals. A book or literacy for that matter does not by default make you a moral person. I hear this in the tone of people’s voices when they react to discovering that another individual has never read a book or only plays video games. Yes, reading does open you up to considering moral ideas, but it does not inherently make you moral. The cultural expectation to read can be oppressive. This Portlandia sketch sums up this myth pretty well to me.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola continue their argument by applying their discussion of literacy myths to computers, urging readers to consider the use of the term “literacy” when applying it to computers—for fear that we might apply the same assumptions and myths to computer literacy. Efforts by the Clinton administration to put a computer in every classroom seem to be tangential to this idea of applying the same myths of literacy to computers. Computers in every classroom did not save students, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt them either.  

The second assumed promise of literacy that the authors warn us to consider carefully is this idea of improving the self, the bildungsroman of literacy. A bildungsroman is a literary term for a coming of age story. Computers are very much tied to self-improvement and authoritative self-identity. We can see these myths embodied in rags to riches stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, all wunderkinds whose abilities and destinies were unleashed because of computers.

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We cannot assume that people are missing out on the good life if they don’t know how to work an iPod.

But to completely dismiss computers and computer literacy because it brings along some myths of overzealous promise is unwise.

Computers can be powerful tools for discovering identities and understanding how power is negotiated. InColin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s article, “’New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice,” the authors analyze “‘new’ literacies” (which at the time of the article’s publication are new but today are more broadly accepted as commonplace)

in the form of blogs, online fan fiction and “synchronous online communities (this appears to be a precursor to things like World of Warcraft).

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It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that each online community represents a separate discourse community, thereby offering an individual the ability to become literate within that discourse community.

Each community: fan fiction fans, synchronous online community members, and bloggers, all three of these discourses offered community members avenues for re-imagining their identities and expressing themselves in ways that conventional media and reading and writing outlets had not.

Lankshear and Knobel classify communication through fan fiction and online synchronous communities as “relationship technology” rather than “information technology” (while blogs seem to stand in both categories), and they argue that awareness of these literacies can be applied in the classroom. I would rephrase this suggestion as “know your population. ”

Framing curriculum in formats that are personally compelling for students is beneficial in terms of engagement for the students. Students can have “authority” over their school assignments in ways that traditional research papers may not allow, capitalizing on the “relationship technology” that youth are so adept at navigating.

An article in A New Literacies Sampler continues along similar lines as Lankshear and Knobel. In “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” by Jennifer Stone, Stone explores how popular websites used by teenagers support literacy practices encouraged in schools (a la Robert Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” wherein the transgressive activities of students in class actually reinforce classroom goals). In Stone’s research she observes youth using the rhetorical skills that complement classroom practices. Stone suggests that schools can help students to “begin addressing the convergence of genres, modalities, and inter-textuality to promote consumption” (61) that is inherent in many popular websites.

In conclusion, it may be beneficial to use technological literacy in the classroom as a tool for empowerment and self-realization, but it is necessary not to overstate what our claim of “literacy” offers students. We are offering them tools, but we are not necessarily offering liberation or morality. It is also important to note that the tools benefit not just the students, but also, us, as teachers in our ability to engage our students.

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3 comments on “Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

  1. Jeannette, I love the way you interact with the Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola piece here. I agree that it is wise to understand these myths of literacy but we should not let the fact that these myths exist keep us from reaping possible benefits of technological literacy in the classroom. You mentioned well-intentioned philanthropists throwing money into educational programs for the disadvantaged as if it is the ultimate fix for every socioeconomic need. Of course the intentions, the money, and the actual action of these philanthropists is a great start, but there must be substance supporting the programs they fund or implement that goes beyond these myths linking literacy and upward mobility. Just as we must take caution when we implement new tools in the classroom and understand that they will not materialize liberation and morality. Very well-stated, and very effective blog post overall. Cheers!

  2. I also think you did noble work bringing some of the best ideas in “Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” to light. I concur that we should be wary of ideological bias when it comes to literacy. I think there is an opportunity cost to every time-consuming pursuit, and literacy is no different. If we look back to Ong, he also warned of the “chriographic squint,” the tendency of literacy to impede thinking about its effect on us. Much more to say, but great job pointing out the article’s emphasis on relationship-based information in the digital age. I am writing in class, so forgive me if I’m not being all that clear!

  3. I appreciate also the way that you problematize the over-importance that a kind of dominant “White” society places on the empowering value of literacy (when people are hungry and need housing, we offer literacy development), but are careful not to undervalue literacy education, either. Bill gates gets his name thrown around enough, I think, especially where people really could benefit from a little hard work and attention to the ways text inform our lives. I often wonder where I stand here; I recently read an excerpt by Ira Shor that said something to the effect of ‘the problem of literacy education in the US is that all our Junior Colleges really are are holding tanks for surplus workers.” I thought it was really depressing, seeing as how I do see the value in learning to think critically and engage with text on a socially empowered level. Such a goal is really unrealistic, however, in a single semester composition class. I suppose we just walk a fine line, really.

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