Functional 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?

One thought on “Functional Literacy

  1. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the discussion your tech presentation prompted last week. There’s this post process theorist Joseph Petraglia who makes the following argument: If composition studies continues to be defined by first-year comp’s instruction of basic scribal skills, then the discipline will never reach its full potential.
    Okay, so that’s a bit of a strawman, but he does paint FYC as a pretty sad and pointless endeavor.
    My contention with Petraglia is that a good FYC course does not teach scribal skills (even if that what other departments think that’s what we ought to be doing). FYC is a place where we teach the habits of a good writer, and I think those kinds of habits apply to computer literacy as well.
    I don’t think we need to teach code, but I do think students should know that code is what dictates the layout of their texts. If they want to influence that layout, then at least we will have shown them where to go to learn the process.
    We don’t have to teach the scribal skills, just show how those skills are applied.

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