In her case study of David John Damon, Cynthia Selfe contrasts his advanced digital literacy skills at college with his undeveloped conventional writing skills, asserting how the university’s overvaluation of the latter and undervaluation of the former were the cause of his eventual flunking out. Spending most of his time working as a Web design consultant and producing CDs, Damon failed two “conventional communication classes,” resulting in a GPA too low to continue at the university. Selfe concludes that Damon “failed out of the university—primarily because he couldn’t produce a traditional essay organized according to the print-based literacy standards of linear propositional logic, Standard English, argumentative development, and standard spelling” (“Students Who Teach Us” 49).
I am undecided about the value of teaching digital literacies, which Hawisher et al. (the ‘et al’ includes Selfe) define simply as “the ability to read, compose, and communicate in computer environments” (“Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” 642). But I can spot a weak argument in support of digital literacies.
Selfe characterizes “conventional” writing classes in language which more or less equates them with the outdated approach of current-traditionalism, making “conventional’ seem like a dirty word. More specifically, Damon’s teachers in the English Department, Selfe writes, “were very concerned about his ability to organize and write formal essays, his inattention to standard spelling, his inability to write sentences that were grammatically correct according to conventional standards, and his problems with development and logical argument” (“Students Who Teach Us 49). Why, Selfe implies, should such old-fashioned, limited, even trivial concerns get in the way of a student whose literacy is so far ahead of his teachers?
I wonder, for a start, how Selfe knows that Damon’s teachers were so retrograde. Perhaps they were not as obsessed with spelling and grammar as she suggests. Perhaps some of them knew a thing or two about writing.
I also wonder if Damon, to put it bluntly, did his homework for those classes. As Selfe herself points out, he “continued devoting the majority of his days to online design work, spending weekends travelling to consult with his Web design fraternity clients,” and so on.
But I also wonder about the broader issue implied by Selfe’s article: the blurring of the concepts of ‘composition’ and ‘literacy,’ and the expansion of the concept ‘literacy’ to include anything, more or less, that we can say we ‘read’ or ‘compose.’ That is, not just words but images, videos, etc. Do we read architecture, dance, paintings? At what point will we say that composition does not need to include words at all? At what point will we eschew the complex things words can do for us and for others.
Hawisher et al juxtapose a visual composition and a “conventional” book report by a student, Brittney. The book report she wrote simply “to please her teachers.” (That sounds awful, doesn’t it?) The visual composition she wrote “to challenge herself and to engage in the literacy practices she knows will matter most to her when she graduates” (661). (How wonderful!) On the one hand, however, I think there is more to writing and knowing than a book report–not necessarily the best example of an exciting writing project. On the other hand, I’m wondering how I could critique Selfe and others, as I am doing now, with a visual Powerpoint text, mostly pictures with a few narrative words typed across them.
Ending with an attempt at humor, I imagine the following dialogue:
Digitally Literate Student (DL): Teacher, you know that saying, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Conventional Teacher (CT—could be mistaken for Current Traditionalist): Yes.
DL: And you know how you said our papers had to be about a thousand words?
CT: Er, yes.
DL: Well, here’s my paper.
DL: In hyperspace.
CT: Oh, Ok. Hang on. (Time passes while CT looks up ‘hyperspace’ in a conventional dictionary and then takes a class on the new literacies. Finally:) Then here’s my evaluation: you wrote too many words.