Identity is Something We Do

I’m not sure if it’s me, the reading I’ve been doing or some combination of the two, but I feel more afraid of bringing technology into the classroom than when we started a few weeks ago. There are so many ways to go wrong, and my confidence has plummeted. Hawisher and Selfe’s assertion that “We also fail, as we deny the value of these new literacies, to recognize ourselves as illiterate” in some spheres. And in this intellectual arrogance, we neglect to open ourselves to learning new literacies that could teach us more about human discursive practices” (36) really resonated with me. I’m illiterate and my hopes of catching on and up seem futile considering the short lifespan of technology and invisibility of students’ digital literacies.

Am I the only one that feels this way here? I’m a little older than Brittany (Hawisher and Selfe), but my digital literacy narrative isn’t all that different from hers. Somehow those few years made a seemingly incredible difference in the sophistication of her computer use compared to mine. Brittany, and several of the other students cited in the study, were immersed in technology and it was clear that there was a great deal of learning going on outside of school. Professor Ching commented last week that learning is fun, and I think that’s more than evident here. It’s school that’s not fun. (Rick Evan’s “Schooled Literacy” is a great article outlining how school can negatively affects students’ literacy practices).

How do we capitalize on all this “fun” without ruining it? More importantly, why aren’t we? Fear – fear of the technology itself, fear that we ourselves are illiterate, and a fear of our students as experts. I don’t think any of us want to be end up like Barbara at Ridgeview described in Chapter 2 “Wired Bodies in a Wireless Classroom” in New Literacies, who compares herself to a younger teacher that had successfully incorporated technology in her classroom by saying, “ I mean…for Kristin it’s not a problem. For me it’s a problem. But she’s…she’s in her 20’s, I’m in my 40’s. That’s the difference” (38).  My hope is that just because we don’t ourselves understand doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. I don’t want subscribe to the “Lead Pencil Club” (a group opposed to computers and convinced the old ways are better) described in Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology” either. Regardless of how young and with it we might be right now, or how apt we are with technology use, the distance between our digital identities and our students will continue to grow as we age because digital literacies have lifespans too (Haswisher and Selfe).

Video games are completely absent from digital literacy narrative. I’ve never really played them, and I don’t want to. The idea of being a “gamer” is very much connected to a person’s identity. I have a self-described “Gamer” in one of my classes right now. Being a “gamer” is not different from being a “blogger,” a “coder,” or a “hacker”; these things that we do become a part of our identity and allow us to identify with others. Identity is something we do. (Buckingham) And I don’t do any of those things. I am blogging right now, but I am not a blogger.

So if I have such a hard time identifying with some of my students online identities, what can I do? My approach here is to try and understand these types of identities and literacies and think of them in the context Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm presented in their book “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevy”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. They suggest that “video games can be a useful guide, or heuristic, for us as teachers.” (51) Thinking about students experience with video games and other outside literary practices they do, online or off, can help us think about how to increase student motivation. Smith and Wilhelm suggest we start thinking about the types of experiences we want to create in our classrooms rather than what we need to prepare them for. I can get into that – understanding how students engage with technology and trying to create similar experiences in the classroom. There seems to be a little more permanence there.


Cultural Identity in the Digital Age

“One of the major problems with popular debates in this field is the tendency to regard technology as the driving force of social change. Social theory of the kind I have discussed here reminds us that technological change is often merely part of much broader social and historical developments.” (Buckingham 10)

“We can understand literacy as a set of practices and values only when we properly situate our studies within the context of a particular historical period, a particular cultural milieu, and a specific cluster of material conditions.” (Hawisher et al. 646)

As we see in the quotes above, both David Buckingham in “Introducing Identity” (2008) and Gail E. Hawisher. Cynthia L. Selfe, Brittney Moraski and Melissa Pearson in “Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology” (2004) contend that social and historical conditions shape technological changes, rather than seeing technology as a one-sided agent of social change. Both authors are concerned with the impact of digital media on young people, with Hawisher taking a broader approach that compares the experience of digital literacy across generations. While Hawisher concludes that “people can exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacies” (644) and that often this agency occurs outside of the parameters of academic institutions, Buckingham seems to take this line of inquiry further in his conclusion that “Critical literacy is … about understanding who produces media, how and why they do so, how these media represent the world, and how they create meanings and pleasures” (17-18). This point seems to move beyond the more insular focus in Hawisher’s article on expanding composition instructors’ notions of “literacy” and on increasing gateways for young people to become digitally literate. Rather, Buckingham focuses on those who produce new media and the cultural changes that accompany it. He notes that there are very real social implications stemming from the emergence of new technologies and digital media, including “questions about social power and inequality” (19).

Buckingham and Hawisher are concerned with unequal access to digital media among diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but only Buckingham gestures toward the social and political implications of this divide, and of the technology “revolution” in general. What I am interested in exploring here is the way in which the rise of digital media has also given rise to a particular ideology, or way of viewing the world, espoused most prominently by the tech innovators of Silicon Valley. The New Yorker reporter George Packer has explored this emerging ideology in his article “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans – and its money – to the realm of politics” (27 May 2013). Packer traces both the growing wealth divide in Silicon Valley, and the attendant libertarian ethos that has accompanied the rise of wealth in the Valley, showing that as the divide grows between haves and have-nots, a libertarian-inspired suspicion of government and bureaucracy has enabled Silicon Valley executives to deflect questions of social justice and equality. The insular focus of these executives is guided by the belief that government can only impede the climate of freedom that is essential for technological innovation to occur.

George Packer, a Palo Alto native, notes that when he grew up in the 1970s, the

Valley was thoroughly middle class, egalitarian, pleasant, and a little boring. Thirty-five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis, and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Louis Vuitton. There are fifty or so billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley; last year’s Facebook public stock offering alone created half a dozen more of the former and more than a thousand of the latter. There are also record numbers of poor people, and the past two years have seen a twenty-percent rise in homelessness, largely because of the soaring cost of housing. After decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.

This growing inequality and divide in wealth is accompanied by an ideology that seems to be shared by Silicon Valley’s elite, which holds that “collective problems are solved incrementally, through the decentralized activity of countless interconnected equals—a process that mirrors the dynamics of the Internet.” This belief might be called the myth the digital age, the notion that innovations in technology hold the cure for solving societal problems such as inequality. This myth assumes, in other words, that if tech innovators are granted the freedom to innovate, societal problems will be solved without the need for government intervention. This has fostered a libertarian outlook among many of the Valley’s tech innovators, and in Packer’s view, has enabled them to turn a blind eye to pressing questions of inequality. As Packer states:

Like industries that preceded it, Silicon Valley is not a philosophy, a revolution, or a cause. It’s a group of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals with their own well-guarded interests. Sometimes those interests can be aligned with the public’s, sometimes not. Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings.

It is this clash between the purported “open,” “transparent,” “egalitarian” tech culture and the hierarchies upon which it is actually constituted that strikes me as important to consider in any discussion of technology and identity. That is, we can ask what kind of cultural identity is fostered by the tech “revolution,” and we can also question how the lack of transparency that characterizes the operations of many tech companies might clash with the myth of liberation and accountability that they promote. Packer asserts that “technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.”

Both Buckingham and Hawisher encourage us to critique the myth that “technology [is simply] a force of liberation for young people” (Buckingham 13), a sentiment that George Packer seems to agree with. Yet as they focus on the formation of identity among young users of digital media, neither Buckingham nor Hawisher seems to shed light on the identities of those who are developing these innovations, namely the tech leaders of Silicon Valley. As a whole, this group has, as Packer shows us, cultivated an ethos of insular libertarianism that often deflects attention from broader social inequities. I would argue that we should examine the cultural identity as much as the individual identities that have emerged alongside the rise of technological innovations and digital media, as this distinctive tech identity is profoundly affecting the era in which we live.

The Value of New Literacies in the Composition Classroom

We’ve all been there.  At least once in our academic careers we have spent the first 20 minutes of a class period watching the teacher or student presenter battle it out with the technology they were dependent on for that days lesson.  Does the occasional misfire of technology signal its unwarranted place in the classroom?  Are we wasting our time, or are we wasting the potential of the tools we have before us?

You have also very likely sat behind (and quickly learned to sit in front of) this guy:

who has been perusing his Facebook and email while typing a paper on the effects of Hurricane Katrina all throughout the lecture on poster propaganda in Berlin.  Bravo on the multi-tasking skills, but will he be fully present for the ensuing group work?  I’d rather not take my chances.

While these are two examples of many unfortunate drawbacks to technology in the classroom, they certainly cannot justify excising technology from schools.  Not only that, but they bring up very important questions surrounding digital literacy and our own agency.  What is the current role of technology in the classroom?  Is it effective?  Should we throw it out, work within it, or transform it to what we need it to be?

In “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of  a New Media Text Designer” Cynthia Selfe points out that English comp teachers are becoming more and more interested in new media texts because not only do they see more of them and have more access to reading and authoring these texts themselves, but their students are paying noticeably more attention to these texts as well.  Selfe argues here that teachers should be paying more attention to them, as well as using them systematically in the classroom to teach about new literacies.  In the chapter Selfe uses the technological and traditional literacy narrative of one student to explore how this contested landscape effect students working in specific English comp programs, the role new media literacies play in the negotiation of new social codes, and what English comp teachers must do with this knowledge to squelch the risk of composition studies becoming increasingly irrelevant (or politicized as such).

As hard as it is to believe that something so absolutely necessary for the educational (read: professional, personal, future) career of American students (read: communities, future leaders, country) as the critical thinking skills learned through composition could be devalued by anyone with the power to support it, the sub-topic of the use of technology in the classroom comes with a built-in debate which could serve to bolster a positive view of the necessity of comp studies or derail it.  David Buckingham explains in “Introducing Identity,” how the long debate on the impact of media and technology on children has always served as a focus for much broader hopes and fears about social change.  The idea that technology is transforming social relationships, the economy and sprawling realms of public and private life is recycled in popular debates, drawing on its long history of public opinion ranging from celebration to paranoia.

Research like that of Kristen Drotner, who believes that schools need to more directly address the new forms of competence needed today and is concerned with the implications of young people’s emerging digital cultures and the role of schools, along with the digital literacy case studies carried out by Hawisher and Selfe can help us put together an informed picture of how new literacies can or should play out in the composition classroom; one not overburdened by celebration or paranoia, but balanced by the real emerging needs of students.  Though Hawisher and Selfe are (rightly) hesitant to apply their ethnographic research to form a larger narrative, their approach points out how little English teachers know about the numerous literacies their students bring to class, and calls on them to seek out and embrace a broad understanding and valuing of multiple literacies in schools to cooperate with those at home, in the community and in the workplace; the literacies their students shape and are shaped by in other (social, professional, educational) aspects of their lives.

Of course this “unique position of the teacher to make a difference in the literate activities of students” requires an aspect of pioneering bravery on the part of teachers (especially those who do not consider themselves tech savvy), and it will certainly include a learning curve (occasionally we will spend some of our precious class time searching for a dongle).  Introducing the specific strategies and activities she suggests to take this road, Selfe explains that these strategies will depend on the teacher’s willingness to: experiment with new media compositions, take personal and intellectual risks as they learn to value different types of texts, integrate attention to such texts into the curriculum, and engage in composing such works themselves.  Not to mention on computer resources, tech support and the professional development that they have available at their specific institutions.  This is clearly a risk for teachers, not only in their own dynamic with their students, but in breeching this learning curve quickly and smoothly enough to justify the value of new literacies in the composition classroom while the composition classroom itself is still in the process of being contested, questioned, and possible threatened.  The successful use of a range of literacies in the classroom may keep composition studies relevant to students, the students’ skills relevant to future academic and professional work, and therefore the composition classroom relevant to the university.

TWinaDA Means “I Love You” Even If I Don’t Understand You

In “Introducing Identity,” David Buckingham identifies an argument that supports the view of today’s new media technology as “a force of liberation for young people–a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community” (13).  But I’m not sure how “autonomous” the younger digital generation can really be.  They are definitely empowered to break away from traditional opressors–parents, like the argument suggests, and perhaps also institutional (at least in its traditional forms).

Still, are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media?  One of Buckingham’s concerns points to “the undemocratic tendencies of online ‘communities'” (14).  In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on.  One day about a month ago, women (and girls) on Facebook started putting up colours and patterns on their statuses.  Some men even joined in, many without knowing what exactly they were participating in–their favourite colours?, the colour of their current mood?, or what?  And when many asked those who participated, the resulting elitism and reluctance to reveal was met either with participants’ own lack of understanding, or a cliquish desire to keep that knowledge from more people.  Only after a whole day, or even longer, did many find out that it turned out to be the colour of the bra you are wearing at the time in support of breast cancer awareness.  Nevermind the irony esoteric knowledge/practices against the purpose of awareness, what disturbs me more is the antisocial, anti-democratic behaviours that arose from the event.  And this is but one example on Facebook, while many others include the so-called “doppelganger” profile picture week, viral gaming like Julianne has noted, etc.  And these behaviours are certainly not limited to Facebook.  Go to any site that has social interaction–MySpace, Twitter, even markets like Amazon and eBay–and they’re all there.

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