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:

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“Towards New Media Texts” but in old ways?

Cynthia Selfe’s chapter “Towards New Media Texts” in Writing New Media attempts to first define new media texts with particular attention to visual literacy, and then details composition instructors’ resistance to implementing these new forms of visual literacy within their curriculum. Selfe claims that instructors “privilege alphabetic literacy over visual literacy…because they have already invested so heavily in writing, writing instruction and writing programs” and seems to imply that visual and textual literacy cannot exist within the same course (71).  While Selfe’s argument is valid and extremely relevant, I found her somewhat sweeping claims that composition is becoming irrelevant to students who engage with technological forms of communication to be problematic.

While some forms of academia are becoming inappropriate or inconsequential in a digital age, there is no reason that core academic values cannot be updated to include new forms of communication and technology.  Selfe’s attempts to rationalize these concepts are apparent in her first sample activity of the visual essay. By introducing the newer idea of visual literacy through the more traditional and recognizable essay form, she grounds new media within accepted discourse conventions. While this is an admirable attempt to entwine visual and alphabetic literacy, her heavy dependence on essayist forms negates or makes unclear the more digital or new media aspects of the assignment. 

Because of the wording of the prompt, phrases like “the essay should demonstrate an overall coherence,” “the essay should identify 2-4 major points,” first year composition students will perhaps have difficulty grasping the core visual nature of the assignment (77). I think this could have been made more clear or more impactful if the prompt itself had been in a visual format (a flow chart illustrating all of the steps or requirements possibly), as this would model the type of work she is encouraging and expecting.

Also her reflection/evaluation sheet for the “composer/designer” is a rather generic form that could be applied to almost any academic essay written in a freshman composition course. If we are exploring new mediums of expression, shouldn’t there be new criteria for evaluation? Should students be responding to new media texts in the same language they would use for more textual works? How can we change or update student’s and our own discourse conventions to include and explicitly speak to these new literacies? 

A Liberatory Literacy

While Ohman’s article Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital argues that technological literacy, or new media literacy, will simply promote the idea of “monopoly capitalism,” Yancey’s work Made Not Only in Words, Composition in a New Key, contends that this new literacy will help negotiate a more positive type of economy that is “driven by use value” (Yancey 301). Although Ohman and Yancey are writing in different eras which naturally is illustrated from rather disconnected economic contexts, they both categorize new media literacy in social terms from an economic perspective.

 

By utilizing Ohman’s article as a precedence that Yancey responds to through her discussion of literacy and the economy, we can see the development of new media literacy from a social and historical perspective. Because Ohman is writing near the advent of the personal computer, he is rather skeptical and believes that “the computer and its software are an intended and developing technology, carrying forward the deskilling and control of labor,” and draws parallels to F.W. Taylor’s work on assembly lines, which all contribute to Ohman’s idea of monopoly capitalism (Ohman 708).  Ohman extends this idea to the classroom, claiming that the attempt to utilize technology in school settings will not transform education, but will simply contribute to the increasing politicization of the educational system. New media and technology are a way for businesses to stimulate and direct educational processes, so do not have “liberatory potential” (710). Yancey is similarly concerned with the economy’s role in evolving literacies by claiming that the expanding writing public has contributed to globalization, which has led to a loss of jobs. This speaks to Ohman’s references to Taylor and the dehumanization of the creation process, but Yancey further explores this type of labor development in more positive terms of globalization leading to new forms of cooperation and communication among previously disparate social realms. While Ohman does not address these more positive societal developments, his definition of literacy is inseparable from social constructs so does support Yancey’s socially-charged claims.

 

Ohman argues that literacy is a social exchange that will always contain unresolvable political conflict. Although he claims that new media and technology cannot advance the educational system, he also demonstrates that this technology can’t be separated from his socially affected and continually developing definition of literacy. His resistance to new media’s place in the classroom is very clearly delineated, but he is unable to argue against its place in the evolution of literacy. He concludes with the statement, “It’s worth trying to reconstitute literacy as a process of liberation– but also to remember that work for literacy is not in itself intrinsically liberating” (Ohman 713). This remark illustrates that although Ohman claims to not believe that technology can radically change writing, he has incredible foresight which allows his argument to carry validity in the current debates about how to utilize technology in the classroom.

Yancey then expands on and complicates this idea of “literacy as a process of liberation” by demonstrating that screen literacy, or new media literacy, will not only aid students in their education but will also prepare them for our economy’s increasing globalization by providing them with competitive skills. Where Ohman believes that computer literacy is not applicable to or diminishes the skills necessary to succeed beyond education, Yancey argues that the educational system, particularly composition, can help students engage with new media and then act as a gateway to the real world where they will be able to effectively “become members of the writing public” (Yancey 306). Yancey also agrees with Ohman’s assessment that literacy is not inherently liberatory, but situates her view of this in terms of the student/professor relationship. She contends that if literacy is a social process, “Shouldn’t the system of circulation– the paths that the writing takes– extend beyond and around the single path from student to teacher?” (Yancey 311). This argument can stem from the ongoing debate of how to utilize technology in the classroom in a way that expands and, as Ohman would term it, liberates students from the traditional and more restrictive model of students writing only for their professor. So how can schools and universities utilize new media in a liberatory way that allows students to participate in the increasing globalization of society? Neither Yancey nor Ohman provide a concrete solution to the issue of new literacies that attempt to engage with more global views, but they both establish that these concerns are worth addressing and have no ready solutions.

Semiotic Domains, Virginia Woolf, and Video Games

A New York Times review of a new Batman video game

I eagerly signed up to blog for this week’s topic “Games and Writing,” in order to learn more about video games, and gaming since I am a little embarrassed to admit – I am novice. I came of age during Atari’s ascent, had friends with early Apple computers that had video games loaded into the software (primitive by today’s standards), but never caught the bug that so many of my contemporaries did. I read comic books as a kid and as a teenager, have returned to them as an adult, but somehow, I never jumped on the wave of video games, believing that they were a waste of time, as one grandfather (aghast!) makes comment in one of this week’s articles.

In my attempt to unpack why I felt they were not worth my time, I realized, I just was not that informed about them, and even a little frightened, because I did not know the lexicon necessary to enter the conversation of video games. However, I soon realized, after pushing past my initial discomfort, that if I believe that the study of images, film, television, comic books, graphic novels, and Cultural Studies, are apt canvas’s to read, and write about, so too are Video Games. Moreover, if I did not think that video games had arrived, I could not ignore that the seminal New York Times regularly reviews newly released, and popular video games, in a serious-minded fashion, as they would review a book, play, or film – providing video games weight and status.

In reading James Paul Gee’s “Semiotic Domains: Is Playing Video Games a ‘Waste ofTime’?” article and Ian Bogost’s “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” I noticed that both writer’s link and even go so far as to define learning to play video games as “learning a new literacy.” I was moderately suspicious but Bogost made an argument that resonated to me when he suggested that “playing video games is [a] kind of literacy . . . not one that helps us read but . . . that helps us make or critique the systems we live in” (136), which made sense to me after he had systematically chronicled the benefits that video games provide. I especially like how Bogost presents games that have socio-economic structures and questions that can assist with a student’s actively engaging with real world issues, that may seem more abstract when written only on the page, but more concrete and alive through the application of a video game.

James Paul Gee places an emphasis on recognizing that in the modern world, we need to acknowledge more than just print literacy to move forward. Gee’s sentiment reminded me that ever since motion pictures were developed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writing has been altered in order to incorporate the public’s new understanding of images. The Modern writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s made strides to incorporate the visual into the word in ways never before imagined, so as to make the text more like something the reading audience could “picture” happening in film. Reading words in a visual frame much like Gee argues for learning multiple literacies.

Notably, Virginia Woolf’s makes use of modern technology in a sequence in Mrs. Dalloway, in which a plane flies overhead, providing descriptive language to incorporate the propulsive, motion that the new technology provided (airplanes and film).   Influenced by Impressionistic Art in the Fine Arts, and often making an attempt to meld different mediums, Woolf and her fellow Moderns embraced pushing the boundaries of the written word, through experimentation, stream of consciousness narration, and shifting perspectives in time and place. While I am not sure what Woolf and her colleagues would make of today’s multimodal landscape, many of their interests are extended in today’s digital mediums and literacies.

I believe this week’s readings assist in providing a solid foundation for the use of video games as a learning tool in the classroom by demonstrating active and applied effort from students as a result of playing video games.  I am still not sure on quite how, or where to begin with in my own effort to get started.  I do not want to wrangle with joy sticks or consoles, but I am interested in computer based games, or smartphone applicable ones; and therefore, I welcome suggestions from my fellow blog readers and writers.

Get Digitally Literate Quick!

The theme of this weeks reading is ‘New’ Literacies. My reading consisted of three articles titled “New Literacy” – that is three separate academic articles with the same title. So, what is New literacy? What is “new” about it?

Teaching ‘new’ literacies (that is, reading and writing activities and more that take place in digital environments) is the new trend in composition classrooms. However, when we teach ‘new literacies’ we should be careful with getting on the bandwagon without reevaluating what we actually want to teach and want students to learn.

We should re-conceive ‘new’ literacies as not just a new label, a new term to sum up a cool new way to write online, but as a new way of thinking, of creating agency, of performing  and of creating an identity and composing meaning. In their introduction to A New Literacies Sampler, “Sampling ‘the New’ in New Literacies.”  Lankshear and Knobel refer to new digital environments as “techno stuff” and the way in which we use and engage with them, “ethos stuff.” Teaching new literacies needs to be more than just introducing an online reading and writing forum. Something is only a new literacy when it engages with “ethos stuff” –“[which] are more “participatory,” “collaborative,” and “distributed” in nature than conventional literacies.” (NLS 9). Techno stuff is the new medium, new blogs or videos or memes; ethos stuff is the way we engage with that new techno stuff. New literacies are only new, Lankshear and Knobel argue, when we engage with both new forms and new ways of using the forms.

For example, If a student writes a standard five-paragraph essay and puts it on a blog, there isn’t anything ‘new’ about that literacy. This pushes us past just using digital environments to interacting and engaging with them. So, as compositionists, how we do we foster this? A new lesson plan on blogs?

Lankshear and Knobel, in their other new literacy article, “New Literacies: Research and Practice” state that “we would like to see a moratorium on research that ‘delivers’ activities and modules and professional development ‘tricks’ designed for classroom application” (Lankshear and Knobel 3).


New literacy is not a ‘get quick rich scheme.’ Putting a standard essay online doesn’t make it innovative. Similarly, equipping instructors with lesson plans that claim to create or enable new literacies in their students doesn’t get at the goal or heart of new literacies, that is, the ‘etho stuff.’ Instructors need to be equipped with not just the tools, but the ways to use those tools in meaningful and engaging ways. Something only works when it works.

For, when we engage in new literacies in a non-productive way, we are continuing the thought that new media is only a medium, not a new way of engaging and thinking.

In “Blinded by the Letter” Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola warn against pasting the label of ‘literacy’ onto new digital environments. The term ‘literacy’ often evokes a neutral association to the ability to read and write. They argue, however, that if literacy is just a discrete set of skills to master, those who do not have it are somehow lacking or deficient (723). When we then use this term in conjunction with digital literacy, ‘we ask them, by using a conception of literacy that allows us to ask them, to blame themselves.’ (723). If we think of technological literacy as an ‘skill’ rather than, like print literacy, ties to power, agency, and class inequity, we assume that those who don’t have it have failed, are not adequate. Wysocki and Johnson-Eliola push, then, to connect digital literacy with the same powers we attribute to literacy for they do, especially now 12 years later, increasingly have ties to.

(disclaimer: this meme is for example only – to show the innate ties literacy can have to power, agency, and class inequity.)

They then posit that we should move our definition of literacy to one that embodies a spatial relationship, not temporal or linear. I’m reminded of Nicki’s description of her many screens open “deftly maneuvering between my laptop’s split-screen (Google Chrome on the right, displaying a pdf along with numerous tabs of research material, and on the left, Microsoft Onenote.” It is easy to forget that when this article was written, 1999 , the so-called ‘information super highway’ was still a burgeoning idea. Now, we flip between screens like nobody’s business, deftly moving from one application to the next, scrolling and refreshing, while often also simultaneously looking at our phones or iPods. I’ve seen people out with a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone. One screen, or one application, is not enough anymore. But how we do we tap this resource in the classroom?

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Reflecting back on Lankshear and Knobel’s “New Literacies” we want to do more than show our students these cool new interfaces or demonstrate how to flip between programs. Instead, we should strive, as Cynthia Lewis describes in another reiteration of “New Literacies” from  Sampling, that “ we need to know what writers of new literacies do when they write—what they think about and how they negotiate the demands of new forms and processes of writing (NSL 229).

“What they (students who are being introduced to a digital literacy discourse) all have in common is the belief that true agency is arrived at through a mixture of process and product, learner control and imposed limits. The most important ingredient, however, is a meta-awareness of how the domain works and how one might work the domain” (Lewis 231). The question then, is how do we invoke this? How do we implement actual ‘new literacies’ in our classroom that are not “get digitally literate quick’ schemes. We want students to engage with not only the ‘techno stuff’ of new digital environments but also the ‘ethos stuff’ – how, why, for what purpose and to what extent are they using digital environments.