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:

Information Commodification




Johndon Johnson-Eilola’s article “The Database and the Essay” argues that postmodern definitions of writing have begun to be accepted and popularized by the general public. If we accept the general premise of postmodernism that ideas are formed in context and in social situations and don’t stem from individual genius, we are then faced with the issue of authorship and ownership. Johnson-Eilola points to intellectual property law and the erosion of fair use rights, arguing that language and text has become commodified within a capitalist system, “put into motion…forced to earn its keep by moving incessantly” (203).  This idea of breaking texts into fragmented parts so that they will fit within the avenues of capitalist circulation has quite serious implications for original ownership. When texts are broken into smaller and smaller pieces, allowing for easier commodification, and then continually repurposed into new forms, how can we define authorship and originality? The deconstruction of meaning from a single textual object into an interconnected web of linkage and in-text citation has not created a “communal web of shared experiences,” as Johnson-Eilola claims was originally predicted (204).  What has instead emerged is the commodification of intellect with the continual breaking down and reformulation of texts and ideas, each recombination generating profitable value.

This issue can be viewed in terms of the broader debate over what is writing and what is mere compilation. We generally define writing as involving a creative process that results in the formation of a unique text containing original thought. This is taught in academic settings and grounds most writing pedagogy. However new competing definitions of writing that lean toward postmodernism argue that language is a continual social construction, so is completely arbitrary and that this applies to texts as well. There is a marked shift from thinking of texts as discrete objects to now viewing them as unpredictable, fragmented elements that are constantly reconfigured and reconnected. Johnson-Eilola argues that this shift is important because it “opens a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a work– as a relatively extended, coherent whole– and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks” (209).  By viewing any type of text within these financially geared terms, issues of ownership become problematic. If texts and ideas are continually reformulated, who holds proprietary rights?

Attempts at answering this question have become more urgent and relevant as blogs and linking further complicate the idea of ownership. Traditionally citation and reference within texts is considered necessary and socially valuable and has always been free, but now companies claim that linking within a website destroys their economic model of users moving “top-down” through the site viewing advertisements along the way. If users are linked to a page deep within the site, they miss relevant advertising and the company is not paid. The contrast between the academic argument that information should be free and the economic model claiming that information should circulate and thus earn money can be reduced to the rather difficult issue of information commodity. On one side we have academics arguing that knowledge and texts reside outside of the economic sphere while simultaneously constructing institutions that collect money in exchange for knowledge. And on the other side we have the postmodernists and corporations that fragment and circulate texts, profiting from this continual exchange of information. Though these sides claim to be in constant and bitter debate, their practices are incredibly similar. Does this then de-value the argument? Aren’t both institutions essentially attempting to control the same thing?



Some Notes (and Questions) about New Media Activites

In my class (first-year composition) next week, I’m dedicating all three days to visual rhetoric to try out some of the things I have gathered from various readings and discussions with people. My class is between formal assignments and I want to take a break from all the essay writing they have been doing. Plus they are going to need this visual rhetoric background later on in the course for something else. While trying to create a lesson plan, I searched through the activities included at the end of Wysocki’s “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” (Writing New Media) since I was reading it anyway, but I felt resistant and came up empty. I think that many of these activities are not accessible because they require a lot of planning and scaffolding. Sometimes they include multiple components that are completed over a larger series of classes or they require a certain skill set from my students that I can’t help them with. Some of them also seem to require a certain class “theme” or at least more attention to a certain “theme” or subject.

I know the author’s state that the activities can be adapted, but I’m having trouble with that. So of course after I had this reaction, I had to kickstart my reflection process, as I’ve been trained to do, and think about why I feel this way when I (think) I am eager and willing to include visual rhetoric and new media in my classroom. Am I too lazy, or intimidated, or scared to put in the effort? Did I not give myself enough time to think about what I want to do? Am I not creative enough? Do I feel unqualified? Do I think my students can’t handle it? I find myself falling back on viewpoints and excuses that the authors in this book tell us (teachers) not to have, and then I feel guilty and frustrated.

Since I feel this way, Cynthia L. Selfe in “Toward New Media Texts,” tells me that I should start with visual literacy, so I think great…problem solved! Then I flip the page and look at her activities, and again I feel kind of defeated because they involve some larger lessons, a lot of  planning, and a good chunk of class time, which starts a whole new round of self-reflection. So what is the problem? Right now, I think it might be that I didn’t leave enough time to plan. I can’t just haphazardly throw together a visual rhetoric lesson at the last minute, or if I do I’m just going to have to accept that the lesson won’t be as productive as it can be. I’m starting to think that visual rhetoric is not something you can just include one day out of fifteen weeks, and claim you are pro-visual rhetoric. Of course it’s a start, but I think it needs to be more deeply embedded in a curriculum to  allow  for a series of  effective class discussions and homework assignments. Maybe this whole thought process is what Wysocki and Selfe’s are arguing in the first place.

I’m still going to go through with my “visual rhetoric week,” but when I design my next class I need a better approach then dedicating a week to visual rhetoric with the idea that I can just pull something together the minute before. Probably not the best method for me or my students.

“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? 

Why Composition (and Digital Media)?

Alex Reid, author of The Two Virtuals (a chapter of which we discussed in class a couple of weeks ago), has a recent post on his blog about “what composition is for and why digital media is integral to it.” This post seemed to speak directly to some issues that our class has been circling around now for a few weeks: namely, what is the point of introducing digital media into a composition course?

Reid’s answer? We do it to leverage the writing (some) students are already doing:

What we can know with a higher degree of certainty is that [students] will write for online spaces. Of course this writing is often very, very short and highly informal. But it is the one writing practice they actually elect to pursue. My suggestion is that by incorporating digital composition into FYC we can make connections between their current elective writing practices and other writing practices that they might choose to adopt.

Perhaps the line between what students “elect to pursue” and school writing isn’t so easy to draw, but I thought that distinction resonated with the themes of motivation, discipline, and (dare I say it?) desire that came up in our latest class discussion. Some of us seemed to feel that moving toward new literacies in FYC is an important end in itself (as Cynthia Selfe argues in Writing New Media), while others seemed to agree with Mark Bauerlein that doing so (or doing too much of it) might lead to a loss of “slow, linear thinking.”

What I see Reid suggesting is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. New literacies and “old” literacies aren’t (necessarily) mutually exclusive, any more than learning another language reduces your ability to speak your native tongue. Perhaps increased attention to — and practice of — any literate practices can have positive and lasting effects. The challenge composition instructors face, though, is helping students negotiate the sometimes murky waters between what Lankshear and Knobel present as two different “mindsets.”