Get Digitally Literate Quick!

The theme of this weeks reading is ‘New’ Literacies. My reading consisted of three articles titled “New Literacy” – that is three separate academic articles with the same title. So, what is New literacy? What is “new” about it?

Teaching ‘new’ literacies (that is, reading and writing activities and more that take place in digital environments) is the new trend in composition classrooms. However, when we teach ‘new literacies’ we should be careful with getting on the bandwagon without reevaluating what we actually want to teach and want students to learn.

We should re-conceive ‘new’ literacies as not just a new label, a new term to sum up a cool new way to write online, but as a new way of thinking, of creating agency, of performing  and of creating an identity and composing meaning. In their introduction to A New Literacies Sampler, “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies.”  Lankshear and Knobel refer to new digital environments as “techno stuff” and the way in which we use and engage with them, “ethos stuff.” Teaching new literacies needs to be more than just introducing an online reading and writing forum. Something is only a new literacy when it engages with “ethos stuff” –“[which] are more “participatory,” “collaborative,” and “distributed” in nature than conventional literacies.” (NLS 9). Techno stuff is the new medium, new blogs or videos or memes; ethos stuff is the way we engage with that new techno stuff. New literacies are only new, Lankshear and Knobel argue, when we engage with both new forms and new ways of using the forms.

For example, If a student writes a standard five-paragraph essay and puts it on a blog, there isn’t anything ‘new’ about that literacy. This pushes us past just using digital environments to interacting and engaging with them. So, as compositionists, how we do we foster this? A new lesson plan on blogs?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their other new literacy article, “New Literacies: Research and Practice” state that “we would like to see a moratorium on research that ‘delivers’ activities and modules and professional development ‘tricks’ designed for classroom application” (Lankshear and Knobel 3).

New literacy is not a ‘get quick rich scheme.’ Putting a standard essay online doesn’t make it innovative. Similarly, equipping instructors with lesson plans that claim to create or enable new literacies in their students doesn’t get at the goal or heart of new literacies, that is, the ‘etho stuff.’ Instructors need to be equipped with not just the tools, but the ways to use those tools in meaningful and engaging ways. Something only works when it works.

For, when we engage in new literacies in a non-productive way, we are continuing the thought that new media is only a medium, not a new way of engaging and thinking.

In “Blinded by the Letter” Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola warn against pasting the label of ‘literacy’ onto new digital environments. The term ‘literacy’ often evokes a neutral association to the ability to read and write. They argue, however, that if literacy is just a discrete set of skills to master, those who do not have it are somehow lacking or deficient (723). When we then use this term in conjunction with digital literacy, ‘we ask them, by using a conception of literacy that allows us to ask them, to blame themselves.’ (723). If we think of technological literacy as an ‘skill’ rather than, like print literacy, ties to power, agency, and class inequity, we assume that those who don’t have it have failed, are not adequate. Wysocki and Johnson-Eliola push, then, to connect digital literacy with the same powers we attribute to literacy for they do, especially now 12 years later, increasingly have ties to.

(disclaimer: this meme is for example only – to show the innate ties literacy can have to power, agency, and class inequity.)

They then posit that we should move our definition of literacy to one that embodies a spatial relationship, not temporal or linear. I’m reminded of Nicki’s description of her many screens open “deftly maneuvering between my laptop’s split-screen (Google Chrome on the right, displaying a pdf along with numerous tabs of research material, and on the left, Microsoft Onenote.” It is easy to forget that when this article was written, 1999 , the so-called ‘information super highway’ was still a burgeoning idea. Now, we flip between screens like nobody’s business, deftly moving from one application to the next, scrolling and refreshing, while often also simultaneously looking at our phones or iPods. I’ve seen people out with a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone. One screen, or one application, is not enough anymore. But how we do we tap this resource in the classroom?


Reflecting back on Lankshear and Knobel’s “New Literacies” we want to do more than show our students these cool new interfaces or demonstrate how to flip between programs. Instead, we should strive, as Cynthia Lewis describes in another reiteration of “New Literacies” from  Sampling, that “ we need to know what writers of new literacies do when they write—what they think about and how they negotiate the demands of new forms and processes of writing (NSL 229).

“What they (students who are being introduced to a digital literacy discourse) all have in common is the belief that true agency is arrived at through a mixture of process and product, learner control and imposed limits. The most important ingredient, however, is a meta-awareness of how the domain works and how one might work the domain” (Lewis 231). The question then, is how do we invoke this? How do we implement actual ‘new literacies’ in our classroom that are not “get digitally literate quick’ schemes. We want students to engage with not only the ‘techno stuff’ of new digital environments but also the ‘ethos stuff’ – how, why, for what purpose and to what extent are they using digital environments.


6 comments on “Get Digitally Literate Quick!

  1. Your mention of “ethos” in a digital context gets me thinking. The notion of authorship is something that is stilling being re-thought as we transition to an increasingly digital world. I think in class activities regarding understanding what authenticity online means, how we are influenced as authors, what intellectual property means, and how we can responsibly make connections in our writing would be beneficial. Why do you cite a source? Why is it important?

    Beyond a copyright and plagiarism context, how do we craft online identities? How do our online identities relate to our real life? How curved is the mirror? The rise of things line online reputation management consulting services make me realize how crucial it is to some people, and how powerful that mirror can be. Not just in the context of companies or jobs, but I have often felt while perusing social networks that the online identities of people I know and people that I read seem disconnected from the real people.

    An example of disconnected online identities can be seen in articles like this one “Better Home and Bloggers” ( in Bitch magazine, which discuss how the women’s DIY blog-o-sphere can be oppressive, creating status anxiety in readers who aren’t creating mason jar chandeliers for their next dinner party. I’m sure everyone of the bloggers featured in this article are well-intentioned folks who want to share their slice of their personal “good life” but a sensitive soul (myself included here) might be reading these blogs and see a curved reflection of what the “good life” is supposed to look like and then think “gee, my life doesn’t look like that.”

  2. I find myself walking that fine line you mention: “For example, If a student writes a standard five-paragraph essay and puts it on a blog, there isn’t anything ‘new’ about that literacy.” I do ask my students, in blogs, to post links to their essays as a gDoc. Now, that’s not all that I ask them to do, and we’re still working on “what makes a good blog post.” In addition to blogging responses to things we have read, I also gave them the choice of a “theme” to blog about, in addition to these other things. I have begun by modeling my own “theme” blog posts about vintage Airstream trailers. Someone is blogging about Arsenal, the soccer team. Another student asked if she could blog about unconventional models of human beauty. Somebody wanted to focus on nail art. Someone else will be talking about Rengar, which is evidently connected to some video game or role-playing game that he likes.

    You also highlighted something I wish for, too: “We would like to see a moratorium on research that ‘delivers’ activities and modules and professional development ‘tricks’ designed for classroom application” (Lankshear and Knobel 3). This is i n f u r i a t i n g . I have seen all sorts of great ideas sanitized, Bowdlerized, cellophane-packaged, processed, and perverted into pedagogical McCrap. The “five-paragraph essay” is one of them (yes, we are required to teach this at the high school where I work). I am already seeing this with my own blogging projects I do with my seniors. Administrators are already assigning other teachers to “come see what she does” as if I were some sort of Very Model Of A. I can just see the workbook, titled “Successful Blogging in the Classroom” with my picture on it now, some banner across the top that advertizes, “Now Aligned With The Common Core Standards!” *hate*

    I think that’s part of what school administrations want. The quick fix, the magic bullet, the workbook, numerical results. They don’t want process, messes, fix-ups, do-overs, or anything else that real learning is.

    Maybe a lot like the digital technologies we’re using and studying. What a mess. It isn’t tidy. Maybe this is why they’re so afraid of it. When they ask me questions about what I’m doing and why, they look like my son when he pads out to the living room at 10pm clutching his stuffed lion, asking me to hold his hand as I take him back into the dark.

  3. First of all, just want to throw out there that I enjoyed our blog. That said, I was left relieved to see that others out there have a few of the same questions I often have. My biggest question is the fact that how do we has teachers, incorporate or better yet, link the techno with the ethos?
    We’ve all been taught to express and stress to our students the importance of gaining a strong ethos and basic understanding in our classroom. We also know that all this snazzy new techno stuff (like you mention how three screens, iPod, iPad and computer are just not enough) is taking form and really starting to dominate. But how do we mesh these two together to make something magical?
    My first semester in the MA Comp program, I had the opportunity to take this class, but chose not to. I was afraid of technology and thought I didn’t need to learn more about it. But here I am in my final semester, and am thrilled to be in this class. Understanding and utilizing technology is something we can’t avoid and something we as instructors need to take strongly into consideration.

  4. I have a natural affinity towards blogs that are less “cheeky” and more academic. This fulfills my interest quite well and in the manner I attempted to in my personal blog for the week. Personality is good, but making a succinct point, without all the fluff, is better.

  5. I like your conclusion, where you quote Cynthia Lewis: “we need to know what writers of new literacies do when they write—what they think about and how they negotiate the demands of new forms and processes of writing.” I like it because it introduces that important element of composition and composition pedagogy, the writing process. I wonder if there are studies, like there were in the 1970s (Sommers, Perl, Emig, etc.) involving speak-aloud protocols using the new media. Or are those kinds of studies too outdated and questionable now.

  6. Pingback: YouTube, ITube, WeAllTube | Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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