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Stuart Selber defines the ideal multiliterate student as one who masters functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy. In terms of computer skills, Selber characterizes functional literacy as the ability to use technology, whereas critical literacy requires students to question technology, and rhetorical literacy means the student can produce technology (25).
The same categories characterize composition – functional literacy is the ability to write (you know the alphabet, basic grammar and syntax rules, etc., and you can use those basic skills to express your ideas); critical literacy is the ability to interpret and evaluate your own and others’ writing within the appropriate social, political, and historical contexts; and rhetorical literacy is the ability to communicate ideas via text using an appropriate approach for the given audience and writing situation.
Of course, these literacies do not exist in isolation, nor are they stepping stones; we constantly move between the three. Knowing when to focus on which skill is the mark of a good writer.
For me, the big question, as we’ve frequently discussed in my Literacy & Technology course this quarter, is how to think about these literacies in a way that adequately promotes both computer and composition skills.
But maybe this isn’t as complicated as I’ve been trying to make it. Maybe the synthesis of computers and composition simply means that the digitally literate student knows enough about a technology to accomplish her composition goals. If she wants to write a blog, she needs to be able to use the blog, which means understanding how the blogging platform works and what the composing standards are (e.g., how to insert photos and hyperlinks). She also needs to be able to question the blog, which means realizing how people can find her blog, what social and political factors are at play in that community, and how her blog engages with those factors. Finally, she needs to produce the blog, which means understanding enough about the programming of the blogging platform to personalize the templates and enough about the blogging community to produce content that people want to read.
Of course, we can’t go through and teach our students how to obtain functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy for every tool out there; composition instructors have to think carefully about which digital tools are most appropriate for a specific assignment. This question of appropriateness leads to the concern that if we shift our focus to digital products like blogs, we may be losing critical thinking skills that are uniquely developed through writing academic papers.
But do we really think that’s true? Is writing a blog less critical than writing a one-page reading reflection paper? From my experience in this course, the writing process is not that much different (in fact, I’m composing this in a Word doc). The only difference is that I have a broader audience and a more involved process for preparing the final product, which, if anything, requires me to be more attentive to functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy.
Functional literacy is often defined as mastery of the basic reading and writing skills, with emphasis on “lower-order concerns” (vocabulary, grammar, spelling, handwriting, etc.). In Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart Selber argues such a mechanical definition of literacy is incomplete because functional literacy requires students to “construct new meaning” (33), and this necessitates more higher-order concerns like interpretation and analysis of texts and the ability to synthesize ideas to create new insights.
If we extend this definition to computer composition, we must add mechanical skills like how to type, how to use a word processer, how to send email and post in a discussion forum… but what else?
Simply knowing what a computer is and how to type and send an email doesn’t seem like enough to “construct new meaning.” Stuart claims students need a procedural knowledge of how computers work, which will enable students to “succeed in technological contexts and develop a fluency needed to critique those contexts” (73). For Selber, a big part of this procedural knowledge is understanding “the options and settings one can manipulate to organize a writing space that is intelligible” (50).
Helen J. Burgess takes this idea a step further in her article, “<?php>: ‘Invisible’ Code and the Mystique of Web Writing,” by arguing for student mastery of programming, but notes that this mastery is increasingly unlikely because code is becoming more and more invisible. Burgess notes that while we are quite capable of producing online documents without fully understanding the code that makes our production possible (for example, I’m posting to this blog without understanding HTML – it’s all auto-generated by the blogger template), this is dangerous because it frames the computer as a tool that just “magically” gets things done.
But does this mean that digitally literate people need to be accomplished programmers? Do I need to understand the code behind this blog to be functionally literate? I feel like I’m fully able to communicate and leverage the social/collaborative and visual elements of digital composition, and if I’m successfully communicating with you and exploring new insights, then aren’t I “constructing new meaning”?
And regardless of how we define the expected computer competence of a digitally literate college graduate, when should computer skills be taught? Should this happen in the introductory college composition course or as a separate general education requirement?
As you are reading this blog, you understand the meaning in part because I’m leading you – I have an idea in mind and I’m structuring my words and sentences in a way that asks your brain to follow a logical strand of thought. But you are also bringing in your own associations. If you know me personally, our experiences together are probably affecting your interpretation, or if you are in class with me, your knowledge of the prompt for this blog and your own experiences with our reading assignments are affecting your interpretation.
Further, as Maryanne Wolf points out, individual words lend themselves to associative interpretation. She uses the example of the word “bug” – when you read that word, you probably think of a crawling creature, but “also the bug’s less frequent associations – spies, Volkswagens, and glitches in software” (Proust and the Squid, 9).
The point is that context is incredibly important when we read; this idea builds arguments for reader-response theory, where the reader’s past experiences and unique interpretations contribute to creating the “meaning” of a text.
This is not a new concept, but it is interesting when we start to think about digital literacy. In his essay, “Breaking all the rules:
and the aesthetics of online space,” Michael Gold explains that web designers emphasize nonlinear design because it’s better suited for online spaces. A website can do a lot more than present a linear block of text for you to read – there can be images and hyperlinks, which leads to a more interactive experience. Gold argues that the nonlinearity of the web may mimic the nonlinearity of our associative thinking patterns by pointing to William James and stream of consciousness. (From A to , p. 125-149)
So does this mean there is a new kind of nonlinear reading on the horizon? Personally, I’m not ready to give up linear structures in my reading or in my writing, but there does seem to be a connection between the nonlinear nature of web-reading and the way our brains work.
In “Wiring a Usable Center” (1998), Stuart Blythe offers an interesting contribution to this idea by arguing that usability research methods (the kind of user-experience research that companies do when designing a website) mirror writing center pedagogy because both aim to empower the user (Wiring the Writing Center, 103-116).
Even if we don’t want to accept or encourage nonlinear reading, I think we can agree that our concept “reading” is changing, and there may be things writing instructors can learn from web designers.
Traditionally, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, but that definition is changing as digital communication becomes more prevalent. Scholars like Gunther Kress (Literacy in the New Media Age) and Phillip George (The Role ofFree and Open Source Software in Digital Literacy Education) argue that reading and writing in digital environments involve a visual element that changes the way we read and compose.
When you read something online, George points out, you rarely just read a block of text – there are normally images and hyperlinks, and often you find video or audio elements. The images contribute to your interpretation of what the text means, and things like links or videos change the way you experience the text – you may click away to another site or pause reading to watch a video. This method of reading makes it a nonlinear process – instead of comprehending layers of ideas that together build toward a conclusion, we comprehend multiple horizontal ideas and stitch together meaning.
Kress explains this in terms of composition by claiming writing is determined by the logic of time whereas images are governed by the logic of space. Composing in a digital environment requires an awareness of placement and design, and a recognition that the reader may not be reading linearly.
This changing understanding of literacy affects almost every aspect of our society. One response is of concern – kids today can’t seem to focus as well, they don’t read as much, they privilege the virtual world to the physical one. Another response is of excitement – kids today are consumers of vast amounts of information, they can use technology with an ease that’s impressive, and they are able to communicate virtually with people on the other side of the world.
Whether you think the shift toward digital is good or bad, it influences the way students learn, the way they communicate, and the way they are going to be required to communicate in the business world.
As composition instructor, this reality not only affects my understanding of how students learn, but it changes the content of my courses. My job is to teach literacy, and literacy now includes multimodal reading, social and collaborative writing, and an ability to adapt to the fast-paced development of new tools.
Like anything else, the first step is to being able to teach digital literacy is mastering it myself. I’m finding one of my biggest challenges is incorporating those visual elements, so I’d like to hear from you. Do you use images, videos, or audio elements when you “write” online? If so, how do you incorporate them? Why do you incorporate them?