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.