In Defense of New Literacies

Attempts at bridging fanfiction (and other kinds of technologically-dependent media-centric approaches to the classroom environment) with academia has largely been met with skepticism both by society and its participants despite the potential for expression and sophisticated interpretation that is oftentimes unique to analyzing digital narratives. This is especially true in the institution of education, as fears that a preference to digital media might replace traditional texts and reading and writing strategies lead to a “diluting” of society in general, which is then internalized and adopted by students. While this assumption has its merits, many advocates of the New Literacies school of thought–including Colin Lankshear and Michele Nobele in the excerpt for their work “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies”–set out to assuage these fears by positioning text and imagery as intertwined to the point where neglecting the benefits of graphic-oriented media pose a major limitation on the creative role of the teacher, as well as the learning potential of the student.

The question of what to do with technology and how to teach reading and writing to a generation steeped in visual media has been looming over classrooms in the past few decades, but continues to be a highly debated discussion and is even more important at the present. As teachers and administrators deal with the challenges and opportunities embracing technology and visual literacy provide for reading and writing instruction, using fanfiction as possible reading instruction and writing assignments poses an attempt (at the very least) to make good use of technology to motivate students to learn while encouraging them to be creative, as demonstrated in “‘New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice” by Lankshear and Nobele. For example, the use of “hypertext” or using multiple GUIs at once (chat windows, online multiplayer games that feature virtual lobbies with”cross-chat”) offers students a fresh perspective when interactive with texts, as the interactive nature of internet tools and resources are crucial in a student’s development of effective and efficient rereading skills and may result in a “first reading” that is more productive.

Although Lanskear and Nobele admirably bracket their discussion of the term “new literacy” to socially constructed practices, it is in fact a broad concept that garners much attention to the viability of a unified and coherent theory. That in itself is cause for hesitation amongst teachers that are not used to incorporating technology into their lesson plans, but for those that are still skeptical of the effectiveness of digital literacy, let us consider a moment in recent history where potential influence  video game violence on children was the center of controversy right here in California. The recently deceased Antonin Scalia, mainly known for his radical conservatism and his strong stances on abortion, gay marriage, and other hot topics, actually came to the defense of video games in a case where the state of California attempted to criminalize the sale of “mature” games to minors. California claimed that video games present special problems because they are “interactive,” in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome.  but Scalia along with the majority of judges ruled that all literature is interactive, stating that “[T]he better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.” Ultimately, the rights to freedom of expression were protected for this digital medium, but I find it interesting that in this case the perception of the influence of digital narratives and medium had escalated to a fever pitch, whereas there seems to be a lack of a unified public opinion on the usefulness of this kind of interactivity in the classroom. In other words, we seem to be more ready to demonize products of technology and interactivity than work towards a cohesive and positive outcome using such technology. But I guess that comes with the territory, as the “new” in New Literacy suggests; everything considered new stands to threaten traditional and convention means, until it has proved its worth. By then, we may need to call it something else because it might not be new anymore.

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