De-Reification in the Digital Age

It comes as a shock for me every time realize that my students don’t know teachers are people, too.  When I was teaching adult ESL, it didn’t matter how many invitations I got to coffee or birthday parties; as soon as I started approaching a group of giggling students, the laughter would die down immediately if the “funny-fodder” was even remotely interesting. Now that I am teaching freshman composition for the first time, things have taken on a level of downright hilarity.  Adult ESL students at least saw me as a being that existed on the same plane of reality as they did.  These days, I am almost convinced myself that I actually cease to exist as soon as my students exit the classroom.  I think they are astonished to learn that I’m capable of re-materializing during office hours, and I don’t blame them.  After all, I suppose it was not so long ago that I myself made snide comments about not speaking to professors in any human capacity “until I’ve seen them bleed.”  It remains a surprise to have been relegated to that category myself, although I don’t know why it still surprises me, seeing as how I have just collected an essay from my students wherein I asked them to describe some aspect of slang and turn it into an argument about academic language.  Of course they think I am a robot.

When I met with each of my students as they embarked upon this essay, we arrived almost inevitably every time at the conclusion that when they wrote academically, they didn’t like it because they “lost personality” or became “boring.”  I loved the distinction here: they were not bored by academic writing, they were boring by academic writing.  Putting ideas into academic language has a homogenizing quality, a way of distilling any extreme flavors for the sake of appealing to a wider audience (we can’t all take the heat of Thai chilies, and if you haven’t grown up eating durian, forget about trying.  Ever.).  It makes sense that we have to make our arguments palatable to more people, over a wider range of time and experience, but the process of doing so can feel like it drains the life out of the writing.  We are forced to explain in an abundance of details that which seems obvious to a modern audience, and we must do so in as inoffensive a way possible.

So no wonder students think academics aren’t human.  Not only do teachers have to teach their students the variety of writing that necessarily asks them to distill their personalities and seems to suck the life out of every great idea, teachers themselves engage in this kind of writing on a regular basis.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola, in “Blinded by the Letter”, discuss the dangers of academic literacy conventions my students seem to so resent:

“To the book, writers [discussed in the article] attribute our sense of self, our memories, our possibilities, the specific linear forms of analysis we use, our attitude towards knowledge, our belief in the authority of certain kinds of knowledge, our sense of the world…” but “[w]hat else might we be-or be open to-if we did not see ourselves and our world so defined in books?” (728)

The language of “the book” is that which defines all sense of knowledge and understanding, but which must do so in such a way as to transcend temporality.  This language encompasses all linear academic literacy practices that Hull (via Wysocki and Johnson Eilola) describes an “all-purpose flour” model for language, one that at once ignores the socio-economic constructs underlying them, and produces the uncomfortable, personality-stifling effects my students discussed with me in their conferences.

No wonder, then, that students prefer the kind of writing they engage in with the “New Literacies” described by Lankshear and Knobel .  Rather than purging elements of their personality from their writing in order to fit linear, homogenized, “White”-bread model demanded of them by academic institutions, “New Literacy” practices (Blogging, Manga, FanFics) give students the opportunity to write what they want to an audience that understands their intentions and contexts.  When given the option of engaging in a “New Literacy”, or to write an essay in language dubbed “universal” to hide its colonial underpinnings, the interesting choice seems clear. “New literacies” allow students to engage with writing in real time, to connect with a sociocultural reality in which they live, as opposed to, say, writing for an  audience in some distant future that just happens to be reading their Literacy Narrative essays defining modern slang, a situation as uninteresting as it is unimaginable.

And because this is a blog for future/current teachers, students be damned.  Academics want a voice beyond the language of the university as well.  According to Davies and Merchant’s “Blogging as New Literacy”, “to write a blog is a little like displaying a personal journal in a shop window, for friends and passers-by to read at their leisure.”  For academics, this new literacy practice can be an apt mediation point between work and life, especially if we consider that for most scholars, work is a large part of life.  The joy of the blogger is twofold: they break free of the shackles imposed on them by rigid editors and timeless-yet-linear literacy practices, and they get immediate gratification by hitting the “publish” button as soon as they finish writing.

Davies and Merchant claim that “Bloggers Have Feelings, Too,” and here blogging takes on perhaps its most interesting factor for me.  When I blog, or respond to a blog, I engage in a fresh and interesting conversation, and I’m allowed to say things like “students be damned”.  For the first time in my academic career, as I’ve blogged I’ve been allowed to maintain some personality, even (wait for it…) a sense of humor, irony, or fun.  “New Literacy” practices let teachers shed the grey cloak of serious academia, allow them to kill the machine, to de-reify, to personify, to breathe life back into themselves while they still get to geek out on school.  Through “New Literacy”, in the face of all odds and in the eyes of our students and the world, we the teachers are allowed to become human again.

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5 comments on “De-Reification in the Digital Age

  1. we can’t all take the heat of Thai chilies, and if you haven’t grown up eating durian, forget about trying. Ever.

    As someone who tried durian for the first time just last spring, I heartily agree.

  2. I appreciate how you pointed out your students’ distinction between being bored by academic writing and being made to be boring by academic writing. It is so unfortunately true. Why does academia distill the ‘extreme’ flavors? Is there something inherent in new literacies that let’s those flavors out? It seems so. Our discussion in class touched on a sort of downside with the proliferation of the internet – anybody can use it and thus anybody can express their ‘extreme flavor.’

    While you say that new literacies de-reify academics (and thus academia?) the other is also true – nobodies on YouTube get re-ified for their ‘genius’ comments or takes. As academics can shed their cloak of fancy reification, Joe from nowhere USA becomes reified for his video failing at the cinnamon challenge. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it’s an interesting connection.

  3. I love your observation that for your students, you seem to cease to exist as soon as they exit the classroom. It reminds me of what Descartes said: “I post, therefore I am.” This applies especially in online classes, and for both students and teachers. If a student does not post, she is not present in the class. In effect, she ceases to exist. It’s a rather postmodern idea: that we exist in language.

    It applies to me in this post now. After this sentence, I will take a break from existing…

  4. Can the technology that brings about “New Literacies” offer relationship tools to a field normally categorized as needing information tools? Ie. Computers help educators connect to their students on an affective as well as informational level, and vice versa. Currently, the affective expectations for the classroom and those for the internet differ starkly, but those worlds already do blend together online and may blend more so as time passes…

    or

    has this affective dimension ALWAYS existed and are the tools of “New Literacies” being used to express it? As an undergraduate, I was always eagerly awaiting the end of semester Happy Hour where I could bond with my teachers as real people. I admired my professors. I wanted to know what made them tick as real people. How did their real lives affect their teaching? (Back then I did not know the word pedagogy). There is often an awkwardness in the classroom that everyone is sitting in a room talking about things objectively, when you know that you are all “real” people who go home and live their “real people” lives where they do things like watch tv shows, enjoy ice cream sandwiches and walk their dog named Rufus. Knowing these things about my teachers always engaged me. I would feel like I was part of the club and it motivated me as a student.

    I didn’t need things to be like Dead Poets Society, but I always liked knowing little things like that my teacher liked the Master and Commander books or that they listened to the Grateful Dead in High School.

  5. “Putting ideas into academic language has a homogenizing quality, a way of distilling any extreme flavors for the sake of appealing to a wider audience.”

    I have a feeling that this is what most people hate about learning to write in an academic setting. It’s what I hated, and I’m still trying to figure out what changed in me to subside the hate and learn to accept and even enjoy some dry academic prose.

    The true challenge for me is trying to convince students why forsaking the flavors of rich, descriptive, emotional writing is valuable to them. We can say over and over again that this is what you need to succeed in college and in the professional world, but I’m not sure this foresight is prominent among 18-year-olds. This may be exactly why the entrance of New Literacies into the classroom is so welcomed by students and a smattering of composition teachers.

    For those who are opposed, the argument about entering the writing classroom onto the interwebz seems to often be centered around this idea of what is legitimate and who has the proper accreditation to provide people with information. It seems like such a weak argument on the academy’s part. Sure, we can claim expertise on a certain kind of writing. But can we really say that there is nothing on the internet where someone outside the academy is displaying expertise? Perhaps our apprehension to New Literacy is that shedding the heavy cloak of academia, truly means accepting that we are not experts in every realm and that unlike robots we are fallible, imperfect beings.

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