Hot or Not: Invisible Transgressions in Composition(s)

I was absolutely thrilled to be assigned this week’s topic, as I have long been fascinated about form and content, or the idea of form being content (a comment I made that Kory so brilliantly rephrased into a more eloquent form — go figure!), and how might we teach it. After all, integrated reading and writing is nearly everyone’s Kool-Aid and the general attitude (and I say this, very generally) is that we can’t separate reading and writing processes because they are symbiotic; in that manner, form and content are likewise entwined. I’m today’s Jim Jones and I wish to highlight the complex relationships and challenges that instructors of composition must surmount in order to spread the gospel of visual literacy, and situate ourselves as druids/priests/brothers/sisters/moderators in the cult of new media texts.

Wysocki’s article “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” takes an interdisciplinary approach to the question of visual appeals and how they might present themselves in the various visual compositions with which we are confronted. She examines graphic design texts, art theory, and even our homeboy, Kant (who, I am convinced, along with Nietzsche are indispensable in every humanities-related field), as sources of inspiration and as possible ways to “decode” and inscribe values to the semiotic challenges that visual texts present to us as readers, viewers, and consumers of “texts” — the audience.

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^^_____ Take a look at exhibit A. What are your impressions of this image? Which alphabetic words come to mind? What concepts? What sort of feelings does this visual composition evoke?

…..

……..

Now consider the complete advertisement below:

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How does the entire advertisement change our perception of it? To what extent, do you think? As discussed in class and emphasized in the reading (Selfe 70), this is a postmodern culture in which binaries have been disregarded (therefore, we should not pit form against content), and so we can see how alphabetic text/numbers and pictures are manipulated for a specific purpose.

If we were to consider this visual composition as just a “text” isolated and limited to its compositional qualities — its form — how would we be able to evaluate the underlying social, cultural, and historical values of this piece? If we can read traditional, alphabetic texts and cut straight to the content, why are we not affording visual compositions the same consideration of its content, in other words, doesn’t the form itself — the placement, the contrast, the lighting, the angle, even the proportion/ratio of the sandwich vis-à-vis (no pun intended… well, OK, perhaps a little bit) lipsticked, (blow-up) dolled-up model, convey messages and ideas without any alphabetic text. Throw in the alphabetic text, and you have a complete “package” (oh, no, I’m on a pun spree), which brings us back to a tension that Wysocki highlights repeatedly in her article: communication. We are analyzing and composing vials of “communications,” little repositories in which meaning is bottled up and contained, waiting to be uncorked by the audience (OK, OK, no more sexual puns).

However, how do we interrogate this fictionalized “reality” and how do we take this “visual grammar” and go beyond form (or rather, refiguring it) the way many of us have learned how to do with traditional, print-based texts during our educational careers? We know what to do with giant blocks of monolithic texts. And yet we separate form and content in visual “texts,” something that Wysocki regards as a dangerous practice and one that allows us to perceive “content” (in the case of the “Peek” ad, p. 148 as well as the above Burger King ad) in an “unremarkably disembodied” manner, one that in itself encourages the objectification and dehumanizing of said subjects in these Photoshopped, visual compositions, and works “against helping students acquire critical and thoughtful agency with the visual” (149) because a strict emphasis on form cannot account for what Wysocki terms, all the “reciprocal communication” in the work.

Selfe’s article “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenges of Visual Literacy,” naturally raises the next question that I am certain many of us have asked ourselves as we plan(ned) our courses and are asking ourselves as we are learning how to teach writing and maintain its relevance an age where just about everything is intertextual, interwoven, and intersectional, including the very nature of composing “texts” themselves or rather, texts as artifacts of constructed meaning. We just don’t know how to approach them. As a field we have focused on alphabetic texts, and as we can see from Wysocki’s article (and the example advertisement I provided) that such adherence is outdated and perhaps even obdurate in the face of practical realities (72). But of course we would do so, as we are just comfortable with alphabetic texts. We feel confident that we can teach it because we ourselves have “developed a comfortable, stable intellectual relationship. We know… how to approach a book or non-fiction essay… we have developed many strategies for reading and understanding such texts, for analyzing and interpreting them, for talking about them” (71).

Many of us, I am certain, are cooking up our technoliteracy narratives this afternoon, evening (and tomorrow morning?). In those very narratives, I would expect some discussion of this topic, if even in an oblique manner. Based on the forum posts I read a couple of weeks ago, it seems many of us feel a need or pressure or expectation to teach visual literacy, yet so few of us feel intellectually and occupationally equipped to do as much,  and in no small part due to the fact that “many of these technologies… are thus unevenly distributed in schools along the axis of material resources” as Selfe claims (71). Both Selfe and Wysocki, echo a post-Saussurean obsession with a transcendent, floating meaning determined by sociocultural contexts. So how should we position all of this? As an interchange of “symbolic instantiations of the human need to communicate” (74).

Yet how does communication occur in a vacuum? It doesn’t. Wysocki writes about graphic design and its ethos: “[graphic design] aligns the values behind many of the formal principles taught in the texts [she has] discussed… with the political and economic structures of industrialization, structures many of us find problematic” (158). Soyoung-man-eating-banana-multi-racial-36025215und familiar? It should, if we read Ohmann’s article. We simply cannot escape the power dynamics and structures that permeate the various compositions to which we expose our students. The “monopoly capital,” in tandem with the postwar intellectual coterie, has continued to work from and support a top-down model in which those who wield power determine how the masses “consume” content. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect the above Burger King ad to depict a man doing the same thing, would we? Although, allow me to remind you, there are many men who would do the very activity the article implies but does not come out and say (all right, last bad pun, I promise). Yet such an ad would be considered controversial, perhaps even transgressive — why?

Expanding our thoughts beyond alphabetic literacy to include new media is perhaps the perfect juncture to overthrow this pyramidal dissemination of knowledge, meaning, and the “old school” compositional skill sets that determine the way (or non-way) we prepare our students for the critical thinking tasks in today’s world.

With our instantaneous, almost ubiquitous access to information and collaboration, and the dialogue that is brewing and of which we are a part by virtue of reading and discussing such concepts in class and on this blog, we owe it to ourselves and our students to find some way to sharpen our own multimodal literacies and to gain the confidence and comfort needed with these forms (and the way they deliver content) in order to successfully integrate them in our classrooms and teach the habits of mind that are relevant not only under the auspices of the institution, but in the present. So to that top-down crap, I say bottoms up (cue tasteless “Peek” ad)!

And with that, it’s time for my Kool-Aid: a bottle of Anchor Steam and a tablespoon of DayQuil.

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Tech Identities: An Evolution of an Old Problem in Academia

As I read “Becoming Literate in the Information Age” and considered my own development in my own identities in technology and literacy outside of the “norm,” I began to think on the struggle for teachers in the composition classroom to effectively instruct different speech and discourse communities; a Sociolinguistics subject I studied in undergrad and, currently, the reading subject of the Introduction to Composition class Theory here at SFSU. Students from these different communities have no issue with  conveying ideas or constructing communication; they simply don’t communicate in the specific way desired by those in power. Because the prestige language is not in their own primary or secondary discourses, these students are told that their language identity is incorrect either directly or subversively and the result can be the inability to succeed in academic institutions. Now, with technology creating further expansions and fragmentation of discourse and speech communities, not to mention becoming more important globally than traditional literacy, more students have the potential to fall through the cracks if composition teachers cannot find a way to incorporate some of these new literacies and recognition of tech identities, as well as language identities, into the classroom.

one-does-not-simply-a - One does not simply become fluent in a Secondary Discourse

This felt especially relevant in the case study of David John Damon explored in “Students Who Teach Us,” who, despite being an early adopter of web design, seemed extremely practiced, skilled, and talented at not only creating websites, but also networking people, failed out of college because of his non-academic language used in his speech and composition courses. Growing up in Detroit, he did not have the background in the “standard” Academic language discourse communities that the institution he took classes at wanted him to have skill in. His other talents were never considered or really observed by those that only saw his inability to construct traditional literacy by writing formal papers.

David spent a large portion of his time creating, learning, honing and developing websites for the various communities on campus he participated in. This is basically Tapscott’s dream student who is, “hungry for expression, discovery and [his] own self-development” (Buckingham 13). He showed all of the traits of a person who knows the importance of computer literacy in an increasing technocentric world and spent his time developing these skills much like the two people examined in “Becoming Literate”, but the difference was their upbringing, creating an academic as well as technological identity that helped to lead them to success. Sadly, while David’s teachers expressed concern for his issues with formal writing, nothing is said on attempts to work with him, nor do we find out what happened after his year at college.

It is too bad that these teachers had not also read the “Students Who Teach Us” chapter of Writing New Media since it contains some interesting ideas on how to create a culture of tech literacy and identity awareness in the classroom. These kinds of writing exercises can help students realize their own authorship and literacies that they have already developed, which might make an English class less threatening. As I explore further into this fascinating and evolving world of English Composition, I have to wonder how it is possible to incorporate even elements of everything that I am learning that seems like it would benefit student learning. In addition, I have concerns about students moving forward into other classes with teachers who are still very much traditionalists and a student’s ability to succeed coming out of a class that I teach and even more how the hell teachers can not only get away with these different ideas but begin to change the departments that they reside in, but maybe that is just me overthinking things.

 

Finally, to emulate one of my favorite YouTubers TotalBiscuit, here is an OC remix track that I feel emulates the wonder (and possibly a little fear of the unknown?) of this world of technology and literacy that we are exploring:

The Myth and Partial Reality of Disruptive Technology

 

Whether it was the first brick phone to present day smartphones, not a day goes by in Silicon Valley where we don’t hear another technology company disrupting our lives and creating innovative products to connect people and allow communication to sidestep barriers but technology has always had detractors. Consider the written language which Plato says  in  “The Superiority of the Spoken Word. Myth of the Invention of Writing,”  that oral communication is superior to writing. For Plato, he notes that oral communications allows the speaker to immediately address an audience and to explain or clarify an idea to an interlocutor while arguing that writing is “unresponsive” and devoid of social contact.

 

In “Writing Restructures Thought” Walter Ong addressed Plato’s concerns by noting that the written text will always have a level of ambiguity but writing can reduce a significant amount of it.  He says writing has its limits and parameters and this can give a writer exigence to make conscious decisions so that the message can be accessed by the audience; Ong has said that writers will invoke their audience and fictionalize the people they are writing to in order to attend to their potential needs. In addition, Ong thinks the unresponsive nature of the written language can promote objectivity because it creates distance between the writer and the idea. Instead of judging the delivery of the orator, the idea is isolated from the writer and if the idea can withstand scrutiny, it may last for a significant time.

 

While Plato and Ong are arguing over the value of communication, we also have to consider the purpose and audience that we are addressing. For example, individuals in direct sales may benefit from developing their oral skills to reach their quota whereas a copywriter needs to be a maestro with his or her words. But even these lines are blurry. Sales people could benefit from invoking an ambiguous audience and by anticipating who they may speak to, they can prepare for the unexpected. Likewise, copywriters should have a target audience to address, tailoring an advertisement to the consumer’s desires. Whether you are in sales or in advertising, you can draw from each medium to create new technologies to communicate; the limitations from writing can be supplemented by the strengths of speaking and vice versa.

 

In reading Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixel,” I read that some technologies were brushed aside. For example, the phone was seen as incapable of replacing the telegram because people preferred permanent records. Just because the first iteration of a technology has limitation doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Rather, these limitations  provides an opportunity for the innovator disruptors to fill that gap. Nowadays, we can record and transcribe our phone conversations. To bemoan the downfall of society because of the adoption of new technology is to be trapped in the past. As Ong ironically alludes to, the written language made Plato’s ideas accessible to a wider mass–something even Plato couldn’t orally dispute.

 

Gaming into “New”Literacies

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While reading Lankshear and Knobel ( “”New” Literacies: Research and Social Practice” and A New Literacies Sampler) , I needed a way to keep track of all their definitions and subcategories of  “new” literacies, so I made the chart above. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to get it into the blog, so I took a screenshot and now its basically illegible, but the point is there was a lot going on. Especially, since they changed terms between the 2004 plenary talk and the 2007 book. Once I started making the chart, my mind drifted and I began thinking about how this chart, which I made in Google Draw-a program I’ve never used before, embodies “new” literacies. Even though I’ve used other “drawing” applications before, it still took a good amount of work to navigate the program and then to read and write in it. When you break it down, all of the literacies you need to function in this program and make this chart are complicated! Google Drive in general has a whole lot of “technical stuff” and I think “ethos stuff.”  However, at the same time, “drawing” charts aren’t anything new, so its also an example of new technologies capturing old technologies.

But back to the readings…for my choosen chapter in A New Literacies Sampler I read Chapter 5: “Pleasure, Learning, Video Games, and Life: The Projective Stance” by James Gee who makes interesting parallels between video games (such as Full Spectram Warrior, and Thief  )and real life. He asserts that like video games

When we humans act in the world (in word or deed) we are “virtual characters” (i,e. taking on specific identities such as “tough cop,” “sensitive man”…) acting in a “virtual world” (i.e., constructing the world in certain ways, and not others” (100).

In any situation, we take on certain identities, decipher how the world works and how it doesn’t, and then figure out how to respond to the situation. It’s complicated to think about how much “reading” of the world we do every minute of every day. Even further it complicates our identity. If we are constantly switching in and out of “virtual characters,” what is our true identity? How can we talk about it?

Gee goes on to explain that for each “virtual character,” for both video games and real life, we have to work with and take on the “authentic professional expertise” of those characters. According to Gee, “authentic professionals have special knowledge and distinctive values tied to specific skills gained through a good deal of effort and experience.”

I think what Gee is trying to say is that learning in real life is like video games because students need to immerse themselves in the “virtual world” of a “virtual character” who has “authentic professional experience.” Video games allow you to know what the character knows, but at the same time apply your own knowledge by making decisions that have low stake consequences because you always get a do-over. Students don’t need to be told and tested; they need to be put into the “virtual world,” so they can gain the experience and knowledge with help of a “authentic professional.”

What does this have to do with “new” literacies, you ask? I think Gee is taking video games, a form of “new” literacies (that in Lankshear and Knobel’s term contain both “ethos stuff” and “tech stuff”) that a good amount of students use, but that doesn’t get recognized in education, as a way to discuss learning and the affect “new” literacies can have in the classroom. Connecting video games, real life, and learning complicates our idea of reading and writing in the world.

How do we use this connection in the classroom? I’m not sure. I don’t know if Gee wants it to have actual pedagogical implications, at least things that are easy to do; it might just be a new way of looking at technology and as a way of talking about literacy. Or maybe also just a different way of letting students immerse themselves in the world and in learning.

New Literacies, values, voices, and technology

There is something especially appropriate about writing a post about “New Literacies” on a collaborative blog, especially a blog that I don’t “own” or control.  I’m participating in an interactive space where I can not only link to relevant things, but other people can link back to me, or reply to me, or any number of other instant social things.  The “owner” of the blog can also potentially come in and edit my words, or migrate this post and all others in the blog into another format.

But, wait, there’s more! WordPress notifies me “Draft saved at 1:46:51 pm”, which also lets me know that the text itself is also being broken up into packets, copied, transported, transmitted, stored, erased, and re-distributed all over the world even now, as I type in these words!  After I click the “publish” button, this text will get pushed and pulled through data centers and and finally onto the machines of anyone who reads this post.   It’s a bit mind-boggling when you think of how different the “mechanics” involved in producing and consuming text are compared to what it is with so-called “dead tree” books.

But all of that is really just an interesting aside, right? I guess you should probably ignore my giggle fits over how freaking cool this is.

Or should you?  (Cue ominous suspenseful music.)

In the first chapter of “New Literacy Sampler”, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel discuss how literacies can be thought of as a person’s ability to engage in a specific discourse, and how the advent of social online technologies results in a kind of explosion of various literacies, discourses, and identities for people to occupy.  For them, literacy means more than a person’s ability to read and write–it refers to a person’s fluency and comfort participating in a given discourse. It’s a set of skills appropriate for a given community, and having or not having those skills signal whether someone is part of an “in-group” or not.  There is much much more to their discussion about how to draw a line between old and “new” literacies, as well as how “new” literacies represent and require changes in how we think about everything from authorship, ownership, identity, business, and text. However, the way they implicitly define literacy is what I want to highlight here.

So what does it mean when we apply the metaphor of “literacy” to such a wide variety of practices?   In “Blinded by the Letter – Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”, Wysocki and Johndan say that “too much is hidden by [the word] ‘literacy’… too much that we are wrong to bring with us”.  They discuss how “literacy” is problematic not simply because it’s hard to define. They remind us of the social implications and baggage that historically and currently are still tied to the word “literacy”.  They remind us that the “myth of literacy”–that gaining “literacy” will somehow empower and lift people up to the same level–is in fact a myth.  While gaining literacy (no matter how you are defining it) is a useful tool to help one participate in a given discourse, it is not value-neutral, and it does nothing to solve the underlying causes of inequality, socio-economic problems, racism, or other problems.  They remind us that teaching kids in a poor neighborhood to love reading, writing, or Facebook, will not inevitably make them feel like they can participate in the dominant public discourse when they grow up.   Wysocki and Johndan remind us essentially that literacy is not a magic bullet solution to social problems, and caution us not to think of these skills which we keep calling “literacies” in this way.

I think this reminder is especially relevant with regards to discussions about the internet, and especially “Web 2.0”, which is all about participatory webservices, a blurring of the lines between creator and consumer of content, and the dissolution of “authority”.  Many people see the internet as a place where “anyone can have a voice”, and they think of it as a kind of “great democratizer”.  Making sure young people have basic computer skills in addition to reading and writing skills has become a topic of educational policy and practice exactly for this reason.   Companies and industries thrive in their efforts to create newer, more connective, and more feature-ful services and technologies because of how important these “new literacies” have become to us and perhaps because they share the dream of giving everyone a voice online.

I think if you asked Wysocki and Johndan, they’d remind us that there is a danger in unbridled enthusiasm for the technologies driving these “New Literacies”, especially if they are adopted without being conscious of how existing social problems and power structures may be reinforced or further perpetrated within them.

I’ll use an example of a certain social website, reddit.com.  reddit (which is always written in lower-case) is a social news site and web community where members post content, and other members vote either up or down to indicate how they felt about a given article, story, or comment.  The idea is that “good” content, comments, and discussion will bubble up to the most prominent areas of the site, and “bad” content will be buried and eventually drop out entirely. It’s a typical example of a web service that tries to “democratize” the web. Only, there are problems.

Once you begin to engage in discussions on reddit, it becomes pretty clear that there is a set of values, ideologies, and voices that as a whole the community values and seems to give voice to through their votes.  Unpopular values and viewpoints are regularly “downvoted to oblivion”.  Reddit itself is also conscious of this trend, describing this practice as someone being a “victim of the reddit hivemind”.  In response to this culture, minority groups, voices, and people with “unpopular” views carve out their own communities in sub-sections of reddit where, while their ideas and discussions may be more appreciated, they are no longer participating in the “mainstream” portion of reddit as a whole.

reddit is just one example of a place where the dream of technology and literacy empowering and enabling everyone falls short of its goal.   Instead, we find that in our enthusiasm, we may have simply created a cyberspace version of existing social problems that literacy (both old and “new”) have only limited power to truly solve.  Offline, there are countless examples where minority groups who have literacy skills may still not be able to participate in mainstream culture, because mainstream culture doesn’t represent or reflect them.

So what does all of this have to do with the way I started this blog entry? My enthusiasm for how all this technical stuff works wasn’t just me geeking out for its own sake (okay, maybe it started out that way).  Really, I wanted to demonstrate one way that it is possible to become totally unaware of, or even ignore, the social context in which these technologies sit. It’s easy to take these New Literacies for granted, and allow ourselves to forget that technology and New Literacies are not value-neutral, and they carry with them all the things (good and bad) of the society that created them.

15 Megabytes of Fame

Michael Wesch’s compelling video An anthropological introduction to YouTube is a Rosetta Stone for the current state (give or take a few years) of the video blog or vlog.

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He highlights and translates a possible meaning for the shared experiences of Gary Brolsma’s Numa Numa, Juan Mann’s Free Hugs, and Lonely Girl 15, while thankfully leaving Brittany alone.

What is intriguing yet utterly confusing to me is the need to share one’s innermost thoughts or outright silliness with this cold and cynical world. Where would Numa Numa Gary have lipsinked before YouTube? Would Free Hugs Juan still be seeking a little warmth in a pre-internet life? How would he have been received by passers by? And what about Lonely Girl 15? Would she still be a soap opera queen in training, but in a different venue?

And what about all the copycats?

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Is this any different than me and my friends pretending to be The Supremes when we were kids? We were just having fun, sharing the experience of a song we loved and at the tender age of 8, a group we emulated. When the eccentric Charles Caleb Colton wrote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I doubt he had his kid brother in mind. Yet hundreds of emulators and autotuners are only sharing the love, right? What makes us want to imitate and remix and mashup? Is this the only way we can acquire our god given 15 megabytes of fame?

When I invite my students into the visual rhetoric conversation, where will I draw the line? How do I grade a re-envisioning of mashup of a repost?

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While I love the absolute joy and liberation from the drudgery of grad school that free-form video allows, I am ever practical and looking for a way to teach this genre of visual rhetoric without losing site of critical thinking. Your thoughts and ideas are most welcome below.

Addendum and Reflection

I went to a Community of Practice workshop yesterday sponsored by Berkeley City College and The Academy for College Excellence. My takeaway is that there are definitely more inspiring uses of online video and social networking that I can share and discuss with students. I do not look down on the imitators, autotuners and mashup artistes of the world. Collective entertainment and shared experience has its place and makes me laugh. However, at the end of the day, I want a bit more substance. For example, look at the work of Oluwaseun Odewale, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. He writes about elections in his home country, Nigeria:

Of the 87 million mobile phone users in Nigeria (44 million of which have access to the Internet), it was an interesting trend to see how social media, for the first time, was adopted and, quite interestingly, adapted, to ensure credibility of the electoral process in Nigeria.

And then there is the social justice work we are doing with ACE, to promote success for basic skills students.

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.

Ah Violetta! A different kind of Multi-Tasking? Collaborative Function as an Index of PostModernity

Recently, at a desk bestrewn with empty coffee cups, a half-dozen books, digital audio equipment, handwritten lists, old syllabi, and class notebooks, I’ve found myself multitasking. Similarly, my typically tidy virtual desktop has become cluttered with quite a number of pdf articles, garage band files, electronic “sticky” notes in all colors, word documents in various states of editing or abandonment, and a slew of photos awaiting sifting and sorting.

Given the mundane/virtual dust-devil of texts I’ve been interacting with and generating these days, I’m very interested in the discussion of multi-tasking I’ve been encountering in critical discussions of digital and new literacy.  After all, if my desk/desktop is any indication, shouldn’t I, as a multi-tasker with a laptop at the heart of it all, be able to find myself represented in articles discussing digital textuality and new media?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their 2004 plenary address to the NRC, “New” Literacies:  Research and Social Practice, commented glowingly on the work of Angela Thomas, noting her interest in the “ways in which children construct their identities in multimodal digital worlds,” and held her research up as “an excellent exemplar of how weblogs and chat spaces, among other online media, can be used as research tools.”

When I cam upon Lankshear and Knobel’s discussion of Thomas, I was drawn to the words of Violetta, one of the digital insiders interviewed online by Thomas:

I need to make a confession right now, I am talking to you but at the same time I am talking to this cool guy Matt who I know from school, and trying to do some homework – an essay for which I am hunting some info on the web – you know, throw in some jazzy pics from the web and teachers go wild about your ‘technological literacy skills’ skills.  Big deal.  If they ever saw me at my desk right now, ME, the queen of multi-tasking, they’d have no clue what was happening.

Re-reading Violetta’s last line gives me, a teacher and older user of technology, pause.  Don’t older or less frequent user-creators of new media, many of us latecomers to the party, multitask too?  Are our styles of multitasking really so different from Violetta’s?

In “Sampling the New Literacies” Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write:

Multitasking has become ubiquitous among digital youth.  Moreover, the multitasking mode is not seen simply [as] some casual kind of modes operandi confined to interactions with one’s closest friends – as when chatting, roleplaying, updating a weblog, IM-ing, etc. simultaneously . . . . Rather it is widely seen as a way of operating that applies generally in everyday life at home, at school and at play. (15)

On the basis of such input, I’m still not convinced that Violetta has anything on me.  I like to sneak a text out to a friend during class at least as much (hell, perhaps more than) most of my students.  And, to be sure, I’ll leave facebook open while paying bills, g-chatting, answering professional correspondence, writing for fun, emailing my parents, taking notes for a role playing game, listening to music, or playing/recording a guitar.

Through coordinations of self/technology/and context, we perceive ourselves, and intuit how others may read us.

However, Lankshear and Knobel do have more to offer.  In positioning their concept of new literacy into the discourse theory of James Gee, they cover the idea of coordinations through which our situated-selves enact literacies within discourse.  This catchall phrase reminds us to consider the myriad elements bound up with incarnating literacy:  thoughts, feelings, rules, institutions, tools, accessories, clothes, language, etc.  “Within such coordinations,” according to Gee, “we humans become recognizable to ourselves and to others and recognize ourselves, other people, and things as meaningful in distinctive ways.”

Perhaps Violetta’s statement suggests a refined sense of how the various coordinations invoked in her digital literacy present (or interpolate, in the Althusserian sense) her as a subject, one with creative agency, but one who also may be seen, even studied, as such.  After all, she casually mocks teachers for praising even a cursory expression of “technological literacy.”  That is, to take up Gee’s reasoning, she has a subtle awareness of how the coordinations that frame the ongoing practice of her own literacy simultaneously enables her generative self-styling of a public persona and provides surfaces through which others may find her persona legible.

Thinking through Gee’s coordinations again, which include thinking and feeling, I’m led to consider the possibility that, even if people like Violetta and I each use some of the same technology, perhaps even in somewhat similar ways, perhaps the way we think and feel about our respective digital practices are what matter.

In Lankshear and Knobel’s charting of the ethoi underpinning the practices of typographic and digital textuality, we find a wide range of theory suggesting that typographic literacy and digital literacy carry with them a number of rather different assumptions, such as the way in which ideas are given value – such as through scarcity (typographic) or sharing (digital).  I grew up in a world in which the economic model of scarcity-derived value gave ideas and academic credentials their feeling of worth; not everybody had them.  This kind of thinking is of course still with us, and I hear it expressed whenever a student expresses worry that someone might “steal”  his or her ” idea.”

Lankshear and Knobel quote Barlow’s perspicacious claim that “dispersion . . . has the value and [information’s] not a commodity, it’s a relationship and as in any relationship, the more that’s going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship” (11).

Perhaps this point isn’t so different from being, in the years before before GPS, lost with someone who checked a paper map versus being in the same situation with someone who was happy to ask for directions.  Is it worth starting a face-to-face relationship with someone when what you want is a bit of information? (Yes, this opens a fertile line of gender-based inquiry generally absent from the more accessible layers of the theory Lankshear and Knobel cite).

Barlow’s  idea, that information is conceptualized differently by practitioners of differing literacies, helps me to infer a possible difference between my own approach to the web and that of someone like Violetta.  Let me illustrate the point with a problem that came up during a recent period of multi-tasking heavily weighted toward my current academic commitments.

A few days ago, I encountered a problem using a forum a professor had set up using SFSU’s ilearn for a class.  I’d asked my professor to modify the default settings for the forum.  One of the side effects had been that all of the group members ended up locked out from posting to the forum.  Before alerting my instructor to the problem, I tried to query ilearn’s online help several times, and quickly came up against an electronic brick wall, a invitation to search that kept resulting in:  “There are currently no QuickGuides in the system that match your search criteria. Please try again.”

Reflecting on the matter now with Barlow’s statement in mind, I realize that I tried to solve the ilearn problem from a scarcity-model informational standpoint; the smart money would have been to solve it relationally, to find someone who could help me step by step through the situation, perhaps through the obviously displayed email or chat support options.  Seeking that kind of help isn’t as comfortably in my playbook.   Looking back, I realize I  also have a few people in my networks (both professional and social) with whom I might have interacted in order to solve my problem.

Why didn’t I?  I bet that, in terms of digital  literacy, I am several, even 10s of thousand of hours short of Violetta’s time online.  If indeed, as Walter Ong famously wrote, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Violetta and I may very well negotiate such problems differently.   I bet she would have gotten the results, and probably through a more social source than the help files I looked at, which are simply digital analogues of mundane owner’s manuals — a typographic solution.  A digital insider might ask: why open the manual when you can instant message an expert?  Perhaps Violetta might have started by asking that “cool guy Matt” she was already chatting with, and he might have had the answer.

I think that we might be in the midst of a social change that dethrones, or destabilizes, our traditional view of a narrowly defined executive function as the preeminent organizational skill.  It may be that this concept was formulated in an era of, or under the influence of values generated by, typographic literacy.  Perhaps collaborative function, an ability to effectively access collective sources of knowledge, is a more apt descriptor of the underlying capability for problem solving in the digital era.

Where is the collaboration in this executive function model?

Lankshear and Knobel note how wikipedia, for example, “leverages collective intelligence for knowledge production in the public domain.”  The literature on digital literacy that has come across my workspaces of late suggests that some kind of collaborative function will increasingly trump the sort of executive function that typically is associated with students’ ability to focus.  If we fail to recognize this, we not only impair our own digital literacy, and misunderstand the classroom presence of our students, but also, even while using digital and new media, stage our attempts at problem-solving with a scarcity-based model of information lurking in the wings.

Given the frequency with which New Media theorists invoke Jameson, Derrida, and other postmodern luminaries, it has become difficult to disassociate digital textuality from postmodernity itself.  Lankshear and Knobel note that the 2.0 digital mindset may be seen “as an aspect of the postmodern spirit.”  In “Blinded by the Letter:  Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola contrast, in a line of inquiry somewhat parallel to the scarcity/dispersion dichotomy, the private linearity of printed consciousness and the spatialized intertextuality of digital thinking.

Perhaps the world where the full implications of “an unseen network of reference” that is “visible, navigable, writable and readable, on our computer screens” is also the world of collaborative function, where users not only see/access links between texts, but are much more free to see/access the social relationships based upon textual exchange, the affective and informational networks through which texts, reified artifacts, useless in themselves, are transmitted and granted meaning.

In my youth, fan-generated responses to Star Wars often looked more like this.

Where Violetta and I may well overlap, in terms of our digital-literary consciousness, though, would be in our appreciation of fan-generated media.  Consider this fan-generated video of a Star Wars space battle, which reveals  the fervor and technical prowess of the normally faceless imperial pilots that form part of the menacing backdrop  of the films.

Sleigh Bells

Although my information-seeking instincts may be still been conditioned by a youth of scarcity-consciousness, at least I’ve come this far – I can admire fan-fictive remixing, and don’t want to see either Lucasfilm (or Sleigh Bells, which someone other than the fan-author added to the vid as a righteous musical backdrop)  pull down the video by flexing their scarcity-derived intellectual property rights.  I’d go further, and assert this fan-creator’s right to draw upon these sources to make new texts.  Many of you are probably already familiar with Larry Lessig’s TED talk on Read/Write culture, so I won’t belabor the matter.

One last takeaway from Violetta’s statement, I think, is that we don’t want, by studying digital and new medial literacies, to fetishize their demonstration.  Users like Violetta are aware that their practices are the subject of academic/pedagogical inquiry and appropriation.  They may know all too well that scholars like Lankeshear and Knobel dedicate works like “Sample ‘The New’ in New Literacies” to “the young (and not so young) digital insiders who inspire people like us.”   In that spirit, let’s make sure we do our best, then, to listen to what student-users have to teach us about working collaboratively with new media.

Beyond ‘new’ literacies

Hi all!

I just found out about this through a listserv I subscribe to, and it looks like there are some interesting articles in this special themed issue: Beyond ‘new’ literacies, edited by Dana J. Wilber, and published by Digital Culture & Education, an interdisciplinary, web-published, open-access journal, which looks really cool and worth checking out. Some of the articles talk about constructivist pedagogies, visual literacies, definitions of literacies, etc….

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These are a Few Of My Favorite Posts (Part 1)

What stood out from this week’s reading was the idea of asking students to write about their favorite posts or posters on the class blog. Rather than allowing to vanish over time, the assignment forces students to look back over the work the class has produced. Such an exercise has two important functions: it reviews the material, develops critical skills and encourages the social production of knowledge.

I would recommend a variation that would add another important skill, synthesis: students could review the blogs from the course and pull out ideas that seem most significant. Since my final project is an overview of the salient points of the course, along with some of my own new ideas, I thought I would mine your posts for the most relevant concepts for my own purposes (teaching face-to-face, text-based classes with online support), which I would then possibly include in my final paper. Such recycling of material fits in with my developing idea that teachers should encourage students to use the smaller pieces of writing, both their own and that of others in the class, to create a larger whole in an integrated and continuous process.
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