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.

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Bringing New Media into My Classroom

In my ENG 114 class, I asked my students to read Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” and in their next formal assignment I’m asking them to create an autoethnography: “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (35). An autoethnography asks students to speak to an audience by using that audience’s language, so my students won’t be writing a traditional essay; they will be mixing different genres to speak back to a public audience. Although I am still requiring students to do a certain amount of writing, they are creating a new media composition, at least in the way that Wysocki defines new media in “Opening New  Media To Writing: Openings & Justifications,” (Writing New Media) as texts “that have been made by composers who are aware of the range of materialities of texts and then who highlight the materiality” (15). I’m asking my students to think about the choices they are making and what that means for them as producers, and their audience as consumers. I’m also considering a conversation about Yancey’s “writing public” and the ways in which people communicate outside of school (301).

I’m excited about this assignment, but I’m also a little wary. I’m worried that my students have spent so long writing traditional academic essays that they won’t know what to do! I’m not doubting my students creativity; I think they have great ideas about everything (probably like most teachers do). However, after feeling uncomfortable just reading Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key,” I’m wondering how my students will feel actually crafting a new media composition for a formal grade in an English class. This is the second time I’ve read Yancey’s piece, and the format of the “essay” still throws me off. We often talk about how teachers feel weird assigning anything other than a traditional essay, so I’m wondering how students feel creating a new media composition in the classroom. I wonder if they enjoy it like we think they will? Or if they think its important or relevant to their education like we think they should? I’m hoping to ask my students about this as they work on this assignment, and a few other assignments in the future.

But for now I’m wondering if any of you have assigned a new media composition in a writing class? Did the students have trouble fulfilling the assignment? How much did they incorporate the new media aspect? Do you think they thought is was fun or useful?

Materiality in Jazz and Composition

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When I read at noisy coffee shops, I like to listen to music—mostly jazz. The other day, while reading Anne Francis Wysocki’s “Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications” (the first essay in a collection Wysocki coedited, Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition), I listened to a bunch of Thelonious Monk albums (through headphones connected to my iPhone). That’s why when, the next day, I cracked the text open to begin drafting a blog discussing the Wysocki piece and noticed for the first time the book’s two epigraphs, the first one (an excerpt from Stephen Dobyns’ poem “Thelonious Monk”) seemed to me freighted with synchronicity.

The kind of jazz I favor (mostly from the 50s and 60s) has a quality that might make an academic critic call it “meta-jazz.” Players of this kind of jazz (artists as superficially disparate as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charles Mingus, and Monk) employ tropes that run the musical gamut. Familiar jazz, blues, popular music, and art music themes are integrated into new compositions with prominent improvisatory elements. This is not exactly the musical melting pot one might imagine, though. It’s not smooth—that kind of jazz would come years later. The musical elements in the sort of jazz I’m talking about are integrated but still recognizable. Players of “meta-jazz” do not try to smooth over the incongruities in their music. A Modern Jazz Quartet song may switch from being a fugue to being a down-home blues jam in a beat. And some instrumentalists introduce notes to musical modes that traditional (current-traditional?) western musical theory adamantly asserts do not belong. A lot of the charm for me is in the left turns these players take.

Stephen Dobyns likewise likes the left turns—the incongruous congruity of Monk’s playing, if you will (incongruous because his notes don’t play by the rigid rules of Western musical modes but congruous because they establish more flexible rules by virtue of their integrity with the whole). The first two excerpted stanzas of Dobyns’ poem in the epigraph say of Monk, “I was caught by how he took / the musical phrase and seemed to find a new / way out, the next note was never the note / you thought would turn up and yet / seemed correct” (viii). I would assert that one needs to be supremely self aware, and aware of the tradition that one is working in, if one is to ride the knife blade of incongruous congruity that Monk and other modern jazz musicians ride. That is, one needs to be aware, to borrow a term that Wysocki uses to refer to the composition we do in English classes, of the materiality of one’s music—of the social effects its components have had in the past and the social effect the rearrangement and altering of those components will have in the present.

I would argue that the layout design of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s essay “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” (a meta-transcript—which is to say not an exact transcript, a transcript that talks back to itself in asides, footnotes, and graphics—of her 2004 Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication) is all about incongruous congruity. It jumps genres and media in the sort of self-aware way (drawing attention to its “materiality” as a text) that Wysocki makes her main criterion for a text to be “new media” (Wysocki 15-16).

Wysocki asserts that a new media text is aware of itself as a text. It is aware of its moves, and of the material motivation of its moves, and it requires that an engaged reader be aware of these things as well. Wysocki proposes materiality as a complex web of temporal reality. She takes issue with previous commentators who, following Marshall McLuhan, have mistaken the part for the whole and declared that “the medium is the message.” Wysocki’s argument is far more nuanced than McLuhan’s: The medium may not be the message, she contends, but it is an important component of the message.

Wysocki feels that McLuhan’s famous, catchy assertion is reductive but not without worth. The medium does play a significant role in the ideological implications of a text’s instantiation, she argues. This Microsoft Word document, for example, requires that I type in straight, uniform lines. Wysocki argues that this communicates and perpetuates an ethos that favors efficiency and linearity (12-13). But the materiality of a text does not stop with its medium. It also includes the socioeconomic factors affecting the text’s composition and distribution, such as the gender, race, class, and sexual orientation of reader and writer (3-4). A text’s medium is not neutral, but neither is its context. Some materiality we cannot see, but we can very much feel. In order to be truly new[1], therefore Wysocki argues that a text must be aware of (and must try to manipulate) all of its ideological baggage. Its grappling with the complex web of materiality must be made visible. These texts must ultimately (either explicitly or implicitly) question what it means to be a text. I find it appropriate that one of the first “pieces” in a text that begins with an essay that redefines “new media” in the aforementioned way is a paean to Thelonious Monk. His radical yet systematic departures from what was considered appropriate in western music called attention to music’s materiality and questioned what it means to be a song.  


[1] “New” like “post-” (its ideological and aesthetic ambiguity notwithstanding) is an adjective that can connote self-awareness.

 

The Medium and The Message

In “Opening New Media to Writing”, Wysocki invites teachers to use new media as an addition to their composition-based pedagogy, and to allow new media to inform the composition classroom in new ways. In “Composition in a New Key”, Yancey does the same, and Cynthia Selfe joins in as well in “Toward New Media Texts: Taking up the Challenges of Visual Literacy”.

There is a call to arms in Wysocki, Yancey, and Selfe’s articles to push composition into a future of public writings and readings, visual analysis in addition to text, and examination of the construction of self, identity, and place through the lens of the internet. Ohmann, a skeptic, offers some minor cautionings and perhaps occupies a similar mindset that I do in “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital”: New Media and technology have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to education as a whole, but our goals and purposes will ultimately decide whether it is successful or not.

While I am enthusiastic about the potential benefits of such an application, I conflict with the purpose of inserting new media in a classroom.  Each reading contained a specific kind of reasoning for this shift, however I still struggle to except justifications at hand.

So, by adding new media into the composition classroom, are we training students for future jobs? Ohmann seems to think that this is an exaggeration of the future state of technology. He relates this ‘age of technology’ to previous ages of economic revolution; in this, technology is a tool of workforce stratification where only a few will need the specialized skills of technology.  By no means is Ohmann alone in his skepticism of the political implications of technology.

Certainly there are niche jobs in technology, and training for them is done in specific classes that may even happen in specific technology-centered schools. And, if future students are becoming proficient with new technologies earlier than ever, then how are we, who may often be behind their skills, going to help them with future jobs?

While there are those who would argue that even the most recent generation is under-prepared for jobs involving even the slightest technological skills, I’m not sure I understand the task of training for technological jobs in the writing classroom. Based on my job technology-related job experience, I envision composition classrooms working in Excel, Word, Outlook, and alike. And this seems like a challenge to me, even if Yancey does detail an interesting idea for using PowerPoint in the classroom.

Then, if we are not training a future workforce, are we leveraging new media as a means to engage students and motivate them? Yancey offers different points in her articles where she details several moments in history where writing and reading activities were done on a large scale outside the classroom. She asserts that not only do people not need formal instruction to participate in different forms of social reading and writing practices, they especially do not need assessment to validate these acts.

Ultimately, people don’t need grades to be active readers and writers. If we then decide to pull things from technologies that drive people to read and write more into the classroom and assess them, are we just going to slowly suffocate their joy?

Ok, so we’re not trying to be kill-joys and grade your favorite internet activity. Continue to make Willy Wonka memes without fear. Then, is this move into a related, but seemingly separate field a last-ditch effort to give composition departments a fighting chance in the academic world? Yancey, Selfe, and Wysocki spend a lot of time detailing how composition should be moving into the future–presumably so that we don’t get left in the past.

There’s been plenty of concern about the direction of composition studies over the past couple of decades (See: End of Composition Studies by David Smit– the title says it all). And so, it’s no wonder that we want to make sure that we’re presenting something fresh and appealing to colleges. But I think some of this progress has the potential to dismantle the field and place it in the realms of other disciplines. I think this is why Yancey mentions WAC classes and their new importance to composition teachers.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted with what our purpose is or could be, even if I can see all of these justifications as potential benefits. The answers I have are certainly a product of being here and now for me, grappling with teaching myself for the first-time, and generally doubting everything I do in the classroom. Perhaps though, others have more insight for the use of New Media in the classroom and the choice, like inserting anything into your teaching, is a personal one based on personal reasoning. Clearly, I’m not quite there yet.

Ushering In a New Order for the University

Has anyone else been thinking of the larger ramifications of subsuming new media texts into the composition classroom?  – Not just what it will mean for us in our classes or the shift in and expansion of our field of study as we integrate various fields of study (psychology, depth psychology, communication&media, computer/software programming, art, music, sociology, anthropology…etc.), into our teaching, as our readings showed us this week, in order to accommodate the needs determined by the global direction of the world’s new means of composing meaning and communicating. But what implications our decision might have, what possibilities it might open for restructuring the university? And I don’t mean the difference between face to face and virtual classrooms. Continue reading