Literacy practices change as the societies they are embedded in evolve. Modern globalizing trends and the increased appreciation for the plurality of cultures and languages of the human race accelerate the evolution of the ideas that scholars and instructors consider to be best practices for evoking the literacy practices of students and creating opportunities for them to explore new opportunities for reading and writing. Reader response theory, multicultural literacy practices and aural composing are three areas of scholarship in literacy that inform best practices in the contemporary composition and rhetoric classroom.
Reader response theory, as discussed by Louise Rosenblatt, proposes an interactive and circular model to demonstrate the manner in which a reader engages with a text. The interaction that occurs between read and text is a transaction, designating an “ongoing process in which the elements or factors are, one might say, aspects of a total situation, each conditioned by and conditioning the other” (Rosenblatt 17). Instead of a solely text-based model to explain what happens when we read, Rosenblatt’s theory portrays the reader, situated in her environment, engaging with a text as “poem,” thereby deriving meaning from and understanding of it. This complex scenario occurs in flux; reader response to a text is not static, but unfixed and changing insofar as each instance of reading may produce new understandings of a work. Further, Rosenblatt explains that: “the relation between the reader and the text is not linear. It is a situation, an event at a particular time and place” (Rosenblatt 15). Text and reader compliment one another, according to reader response theory, so that understanding is only possible as they work in conjunction. To determine the roles of “poem” and the reader in context and understand their relationship, an analysis of the act of reading according to its constituent parts will provide a glimpse of the workings of the whole apparatus. Structuring the relationship between text and reader here as a dichotomy serves analytical purposes: it is not the true condition of the transaction that occurs when we read as understood by Rosenblatt.
Any inquiry into reading must include an explanation of the function of the text itself. In reader response theory, the ‘text’ is replaced by ‘poem’ to indicate the engagement between a printed work and its reader. Rosenblatt distinguishes the “text” from the “poem,” where the text is merely the set of fixed “printed signs [with the] capacity to serve as symbols” (Rosenblatt 12). A text might refer to a book we observe on the shelf of a library, but once opened and read, it possesses a less fixed status. In its organization, the text “helps to regulate what shall be held in the front of the reader’s attention,” (Rosenblatt 11) but the meaning it contains is subject to the interpretative acts of the reader. Rosenblatt introduces the term ‘poem’ to refer to the “whole category of aesthetic transactions between readers and texts without implying the greater ‘poeticity’ of any specific genre” (Rosenblatt 12).
The primary purpose of the text itself in reader response theory is as “the stimulus that focuses the reader’s attention:” (Rosenblatt 11) as a poem, it is an occasion of sorts that permits the reader to produce her own understanding of the meaning conveyed by the set of symbols printed on the page. Text, or a printed work, has a determined physical status as a bound set of leaves with print running across them, but the meaning it “enables the reader to construct” (Winterowd 59) is subject to the determinations of the mind that engages with it.
Making meaning, or a ‘poem’ from a text requires considerate input and activity on the part of the reader, though some of it may be subsumed beneath normal perceptions of what happens while reading takes place. Even though a text may seem to provide meaning to anyone who cares to explore it, Rosenblatt argues for a less passive position for the reader. “The reader [creates] a poem out of texts by an active, self-ordering, and self-correcting process” (Rosenblatt 11). The act of engaging with a text to derive meaning is a contextualized occasion that depends upon the reader and the knowledge she employs to engage with what she reads. “The finding of meanings involves both the author’s text and what the reader brings to it” (Rosenblatt 15). The capacity of the reader to engage with a text in her own manner defines her facility in “seeking a hypothesis to guide the selecting, rejecting and ordering of what is being called forth” (Rosenblatt 11) from a text. If Rosenblatt’s reader-response theory is an apt description of what occurs between reader and text, then many implications for the teaching of reading and literature arise.
In “The Setting for Spontaneity,” Rosenblatt applies reader-response theory to a critique of traditional approaches to teaching literature and suggests alternate methodologies for choosing texts and teaching about them. Since readers affect texts as they read and derive meaning particular to their situation or experience, “such factors as the students’ general background, level of maturity, linguistic history, major difficulties and aspirations [should] guide the teacher’s selection of works to bring to their attention” (Rosenblatt 73). Beyond consideration for the texts most appropriate for a particular set of students, the teacher should play a fundamental, though decidedly non-pedantic role in formulating opportunities for students to respond to and learn from what they read.
Rosenblatt finds that the instructor has three basic responsibilities to the student of literature: first, “instead of trying to superimpose routine patterns [of reading and analysis], the teacher will help the student develop these understandings in the context of his own emotions and his own curiosity about life and literature” (Rosenblatt 66). Reader response theory as applied to the classroom invokes an understanding of the power of literature to indicate certain qualities or commentary about the experiences of humanity, which each reader will identify with differently. Additionally, while students’ interpretations of texts may not always align with popular scholarship, they “should not be made to feel that their own response to books…is not worth expressing” (Rosenblatt 66). When students read literature for the first, or even third time, they bring entirely different
modes of and means for understanding than a trained scholar of literature might, but this does not make their experience of reading any less of an important, or ultimately formative, educational act. The instructor’s function, then, “is to help the students realize that the most important thing is what literature means for them and does for them” (Rosenblatt 67).
On its face, this sort of process might seem to favor an open-ended, highly personal experience of reading with little regard for formal literary traditions. Rosenblatt encourages this initial, emotionally based reading, but finds that the instructor also has a responsibility to “initiate a process through which the student can clarify and enlarge their response to the work” (Rosenblatt 76). The instructor must increase students’ experience of a text by enlarging the contexts in which they view a work. Students must be guided to achieve a “critical awareness of their own reactions [and] a keener and more adequate perception of all that the text offers” (Rosenblatt 76). The instructor must work to unite students’ personal reactions to a text with larger conversations about the same readings that occur within the academy. Texts remain unfixed entities in the reader response classroom, so that instructors have the opportunity to promote personal interaction with written works by readers, and then engage these initial experiences with texts as components of the larger social and scholarly circles that approach the same works armed with a litany of critical and interpretative techniques and philosophies. Instead of demanding that students ascribe to a point of view, the instructor works to allow students to align their understandings of a work against or alongside bodies of scholarship on the same subject matter. The teacher who ascribes to reader response theory ought to create lessons that allow students to retain their identities by offering their own interpretations of a text while pointing out where students’ ideas fit in time-tested readings of the same work. Scholarship in most disciplines is a continuum of shifting, but related paradigms, so it seems possible for students to place themselves as readers within it.
As an educator, it seems easy to apply established interpretations of texts to lesson development, to present static information about a work of literature. Beyond the classroom, students have access to a wealth of digital and print materials that easily color their perspectives of whatever text they engage. Rather than limit the literary experiences of students by appealing to published authorities, I make every attempt to place the literature I discuss with students in their complex contexts filled with personal concerns, prior knowledge and culturally-specific modes of appreciating literature. Reader response theory seems a natural extension of the process method for teaching composition: instruction should begin with the activation of the identities and histories of students, and then proceed to align that knowledge with the content that should be transmitted over the course of a semester, or unit. In a set of lessons inquiring into the socio-cultural effects of globalization that I developed for GED students, we read a story about the opening of a Western fast food chain in China called “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” by Ha Jin. Our interpretations of and interaction with the text made use of students’ previously activated knowledge about their own culturally specific experiences with food versus their experience with fast food chains in New York City. While we read the short story through the context of previous experiences and discussed them at great length, we also compared the way ideas about globalization were presented in the story with non-fiction readings we covered on the same topic. Engaging this theme through the lens of the students alongside a variety of readings hopefully acknowledged their status as active participants in the transaction of reading, while building content knowledge and critical skills. I hope to continue to explore new ways to think about the act of reading in order to improve my students’ ability to perform critical analysis of the texts they engage.
Multicultural literacy does not simply involve the incorporation of texts outside the traditional canon into a battery of required reading. Rather, it is the activity of both encouraging the representation of diverse works and examining who reads them, the readers’ purposes, the interpretations that result, and the historical situations that give rise to certain texts. Proponents of multicultural literacy defend their practices in part as a critical extension of traditional notions of “cultural literacy” and for the analytic prowess that results from engaging a wide variety of texts. It is, in short, a literacy of inclusion and constant reexamination, an active rhetorical practice including equal consideration for reader and text.
The practice of multicultural literacy involves a commitment to a spirit of inquiry, and not only the careful selection of a set of texts representative of diverse cultural contexts. The ongoing effort to create a more inclusive body of work has yielded results, but true diversity of works studied in traditional academic settings has yet to be achieved: “there are more women in the canon nowadays, more people of color. But the changes are not proportionate to the accomplishments or the potentials of women or people of color, surely” (Villanueva 95). Lisle and Mano note that the English discipline has long recognized the need for diversification of texts studied, but the project of multicultural literacy ought to exceed simple recognition. “The additive approach is merely a quick fix: multivocality demands much more than a token representation” (Lisle 13). According to these scholars, the diverse set of literacies practiced and ontologies ascribed to around the world poses serious challenges to our Western assumptions about language and rhetoric.
Multicultural literacy is a response to this challenge: an effort to reconcile the way language is examined and reading and writing are practiced in the classroom with the complicated reality of the world in which writing is produced. Traditional Western models of rhetoric are limited: “our own conceptions of effective organization and coherence are culture specific” (Lisle 17). As such, the students and teachers who practice multicultural literacy “investigate the influence of culture on the development of texts,” (Lisle 21) develop and evaluate various rhetorical strategies, and engage in exploration of their personal relationship to a text.
The teacher has a variety of responsibilities to uphold when practicing multicultural literacy. First off, the instructor must acknowledge and understand the rhetorical strategies her students may already bring to the classroom and provide them with opportunities to connect prior knowledge to new learning and reading experiences, to “help students understand academic habits of mind and language in relation to their own cultural and rhetorical knowledge” (Lisle 20). The instructor must find a variety of ways to allow students to retain their identity while incorporating aspects of an often foreign, but necessary academic identity into their personae. Instruction and texts ought to provide “opportunities for students to wrestle with the cultural conflicts that are raised by their immersion in academic culture” (Lisle 20). A variety of readings not only can raise students’ consciousness of their place in the academy, but they should be selected with the notion of critical, dialectic engagement in mind on the part of the instructor. Villanueva asks teachers to determine with their students what has shaped a text: “the classics and the national-cultural should be taught in such a way as to expose the…ideological” (Villanueva 95).
Multicultural literacy practices do not involve the simple substitution of the canon with works by other authors, but a commitment to interrogate the rhetorical practices exhibited by authors that students read alongside continued reformulation and examination of students’ own literary practices. This schema makes “clear to students that rhetorical practices are culturally constructed and subject to change” (Lisle 20). Rather than presenting a set of fixed interpretative and communicative strategies, the instructor working to advance multicultural literacy involves students in self and learning community directed interrogation of the ideas and techniques that underpin literary expression in multiple cultural contexts.
Multicultural literacy, then, is a commitment to literacy practices that are more inclusive in terms of texts explored in the traditional classroom, but its practitioners also must apply similar critical strategies to the students they encounter. Moss and other theorists tie their success in the classroom to how well they can understand the rhetorical strategies their students already possess, and how well they make use of these to advance knowledge:
Our success as educators depends a great deal on our ability to understand what literacy and language resources our students, particularly those from non-traditional or non-mainstream communities, bring as part of their cultural backgrounds into the English classroom. (Moss 1)
Incorporating a place for the worldviews and knowledge of students into a theory of multicultural literacy practice is an additional layer of inclusion. Likewise, acknowledging competing, and even opposed, rhetorical formulae creates opportunities for writers to test the bounds of traditional written forms, and incorporate strategies that exceed dominant and seemingly universally accepted prose writing techniques.
Readers and writers in the classroom practicing multicultural literacy can build the critical academic skills required of them by participating in cross-analysis of texts and writing to analyze the literary and rhetorical strategies they observe in reading. Lisle and Mano suggest that “a writing course based on cultural difference and multivocality can help students develop the intellectual complexity most valued by the academy” (Lisle 25). The act, then, of acknowledging the origins, style and ideas presented in a text creates the kind of analytic or critical consciousness most valued in academic writing. Instead of simply celebrating differences, true multicultural literacy practice works to demonstrate difference and similarity between works, and understand the reasons for such comparisons and contrasts. “The goal is not necessarily to have students relinquish national-cultural myths, the goal is to expose them to differences and similarities within the literary convention they have to contend with, to know the traditional norms while appraising them” (Villanueva 100). Multicultural literacy does not advance a prescribed political or cultural agenda, rather it asks students to determine which agendas they can observe and note how they are constructed or presented.
In the freshman writing classroom, it is my responsibility to create an academic consciousness in the students, while introducing them to the accepted rhetorical modes of expression in college. The most important characteristic I hope to develop in them, however, is their ability to think critically about texts and ideas they read about or already possess. The best feature of multicultural literacy practice in the classroom is that it lends itself to advancing critical thinking skills without imposing one singular technique. The greatest barrier to creating new understandings or interpretations of any content is to limit the ways students can learn. Likewise, the easiest way to silence a considerable portion of the students in any CUNY classroom is to fail to acknowledge their established identities, or ignore them entirely. A semester long curriculum designed around a set of texts with origins in a variety of cultures would allow students to explore thematic, rhetorical and linguistic similarities and differences through carefully scaffolded critical analysis. In a course I took last spring, I wrote a set of lessons for a composition class that inquired into the themes of globalization, language and culture. I chose some short texts by Arudhati Roy, George Orwell, Annie Lamott, and several news writers alongside a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a story by Ha Jin. Even though the lessons were for a composition classroom, I tried to introduce a variety of writers working with different cultural and historical perspectives. The greater variety of sources I collect to read with students writing at any level will increase my ability to provide opportunities for critical analysis of texts in the classroom.
Aurality is an ancient form of discourse now largely ignored in composition classrooms, a nearly lost yet highly valuable form of rhetorical expression. While other sound-based experiences pervade our being, from music in our ears to announcements over loudspeakers, the composition classroom is decidedly less noisy. “Sound, although it remains of central importance both to students and to the population at large, is often undervalued as a compositional mode” (Selfe 617). Cynthia Selfe explores the aural possibilities for rhetorical expression and makes the case for a reincorporation of them in from the rest of the resounding world. Our experience of the world is shaped by sensory perceptions unconstrained by the fashions of rhetoric. But even so, the written word privileges the sense of sight over all others, perhaps to a rhetorical disadvantage: “the history of writing in US composition instruction, as well as its contemporary legacy, functions to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and deprives students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning” (Selfe 618). By incorporating aurality and other modes into rhetorical or literacy practices, the composition classroom would offer additional options for communication, thereby improving the quality and range of ideas and rhetorical strategies explored.
Print-focused literacy practices came to dominate composition instruction practices in the universities and elsewhere as impetus for increased powers of objectification and analytic specificity were demanded by industry and science.
“Since the late 19th century…the rapid rise of industrial manufacturing, the explosion of scientific discoveries and the expansion of the new country’s industrial trade…required both new approaches to education and a new kind of secular university, one designed to meet the needs of individuals involved in science, commerce and manufacturing” (Selfe 620).
Since those seeking education in the universities of the early industrial age needed to write and read more critically for the purposes of their work, rhetorical strategies taught in college classrooms focused primarily on teaching written English. “Newly emergent departments of English focused primarily on their ability to provide instruction in written composition” (Selfe 621). While English may be a relatively new discipline, formalized instruction in written composition strategies is a nearly universal course in colleges in the United States.
Unfortunately, the preference for the written mode of discourse over the aural limits expression by disallowing one mode of powerful expression. Selfe writes, “when we privilege print as the only acceptable way to make or exchange meaning, we not only ignore the history of rhetoric and its intellectual inheritance, but we also limit, unnecessarily, our scholarly understanding of semiotic systems and the effectiveness of our instruction for many students” (Selfe 618). Reintroducing aurality and additional modes of expression into the composition classroom might permit for the introduction of a multi-modal and more inclusive setting for learning about how to use language.
Groups existing outside the dominant cultural mainstream have historically maintained strong informal aural practices that continue to inform students’ literacy practices prior to entering the classroom. While English composition programs moved to print-based instruction in writing, “aurality retained some of its power and reach where individuals and groups were forced to acquire both written and aural literacies by a range of informal means or through an educational system that retained a fundamental integration of the language arts” (Selfe 623). Cultural and social groups outside the majority in the United States have preserved oral forms of discourse in churches, other religious centers, and oral recitation of poems or folktales. Likewise, the world outside the composition class is highly aural in nature. Perhaps aurality has been missing from the composition classroom even while it continues to dominate less formalized modes of expression, both in and outside mainstream culture.
Nevertheless, transitioning into a composition classroom from a highly aural community is a great challenge. “The almost exclusive dominance of print literacy works against the interests of individuals whose cultures and communities have managed to maintain a value on multiple modalities of expression, multiple and hybrid ways of knowing, communicating and establishing identity” (Selfe 618). Students who do not grow up practicing the dominant literacy must still acquire and be able to use it. The instructor who wishes to create an inclusive classroom ought to find ways to engage not just the oral/aural powers of students, but invite them to engage in other modes of communication as well.
The aural mode may serve to engage traditionally un-enfranchised groups of students by making use of forms of expression they already possess. Teachers have a responsibility to understand the complexity of culture-specific literacy practices in effect outside their classrooms. “Students have to identify their own communicative needs and to represent their own identities to select the right tools for the communicative contexts within which they operate, and to think critically and carefully about the meaning that they and others compose” (Selfe 618). A teacher committed to working with the contexts her students dwell in can develop lessons that ask students to inquire into their own literacy practices, not only as a form of self-assessment, but so the instructor can increase her knowledge of the strategies students use to express themselves. Students can often provide different views and understandings of content matter when they can engage topics with discourse or modes of expression that are already familiar.
Specific instructional techniques ought to be applied in the classroom to engage multiple modes of expression, including aurality. Teachers must “respect and encourage students to deploy multiple modalities in skillful ways—written, aural, visual—and that they model a respect for and understanding of the various roles each modality can play in human expression” (Selfe 626). Diverse technologies and teaching strategies provide teachers with the opportunity to create so many different kinds of assignments beyond the time-tested analytic essay. “The aural is one modality among many on which individuals should be able to call on as a rhetoric” (Selfe 638).
In GED classes I teach, we often practice descriptive writing in a few lessons and writing assignments during the term. Aural modes of composing would work quite well for the descriptive pieces. I am already helping students to engage the five senses via words in their writing, but this appeal to the senses via aurality could extend the act of describing to more familiar modes of composition. Including aurality in rhetorical practice aligns theoretically with the process theory of writing, where students move along a continuum of writing activities. Different modes of expression, including aurality, could work well when applied at certain points in the writing process. Without too many resources, the teacher of writing can easily incorporate the aural mode into lesson plans. I would like to invite my students to create aural reactions to a site we visit together, or a painting or song I share with them. We need little more than the materials I compile and our voices to do so.
Theories of reading and writing blend with definitions of literacy to provide a large body of ideas available to inform instructional practices. While using language seems to be a simple and almost unconscious act, once we begin to analyze what really is happening when we read and write, complications arise. Likewise, once an instructor begins to think carefully about the best ways to teach writing and reading, a host of possibilities arise. When the instructor meets students, their needs, skills and backgrounds also inform the complicated effort to improve and understand literacy.
Lisle, Bonnie and Sandra Mano. “Embracing a Multicultural Rhetoric.” Writing in Multicultural Settings. Ed. Carol Severino et al. 12-26. New York: MLA, 1997.
Moss, Beverly J. Introduction. Literacy Across Communities. Ed. Moss. Creskill NJ: Hampton Press, 1994. Print.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. “The Poem as Event.” The Reader, The Text, The Poem. 6-25. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Print.
_________. “The Setting for Spontaneity.” Literature as Exploration. 57-77. New York: MLA. nd. Print.
Selfe, Cynthia. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC. 60.4 (2009): 616-663. Print.
Villanueva, Victor. “Of Color, Classes and Classrooms.” Bootstraps: From and American Academic of Color. 91-118. Urbana: NCTE, 1993. Print.
Winterowd, W. Ross. “To Read.” The Culture and Politics of Literacy. 57-83. New York: Oxford, 1989. Print.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts, Deborah Brandt
Chapter One: “Strong Text: Opacity, Autonomy and Anonymity”
I. What is a strong text interpretation? A “strong text” interpretation characterizes literacy in terms of individuals’ interactions with written texts.
A. The theorists who support this interpretation investigate the features of texts to find what printed words require of their readers.
B. The adjective strong is used to describe this theory because printed works are traditionally fixed and unchanging (i.e. strong) and therefore determined, and continue to determine how literacy developed and works.
II. What scholastic tradition permits this understanding of literacy?
Many scholars in a variety of disciplines traditionally investigated literacy in terms of the oral-literate framework, a dichotomy that places texts clearly on the literate side of the pair. According to this dichotomy, linguistic, cognitive and social distinctions can be made between oral-based communication systems and literate (text-based) communication systems.
III. What are the assumptions that ground the strong text model of literacy?
“[Strong text] Literacy is best understood as a technology, a penetrating force that unnaturalizes and reorganizes all that it comes in contact with”(23).
A. The alphabet is opaque because it is a closed, self-referential system of representation: there is no such thing as a subjective letter.
B. Texts are not subject to context, time or other human pressures. Their materiality gives them autonomous status.
C. Texts’ contents exist independent of human identities, so they are anonymous and objective self-referential systems that produce ideas independent of experience.
IV. What are some examples of strong-text scholarship/How is the basic strong text model interpreted or appropriated by different theorists?
A. Jack Goody: Written communication shapes culture.
-Writing distances language users from each other and themselves
-Writing makes hierarchical “anonymous” social systems possible.
-Writing creates an external, self-reflective system of expression that reorganizes the way people understand the world
B.Walter Ong: Written communication shapes the way we can think.
1. Writing creates “social and cognitive disengagement” from lived experience.
2. Writing is a technology that intervenes between language user and lived experiences.
C. Deborah Tannen: The continuum between “message-focused” and “involvement focused” is a movement from communication that prioritizes words to one that prioritizes language users.
D. David Olsen:
1.The literate environment of school demands immediate and continuing adaptation from orality to literacy, thereby privilege written texts over oral communication.
2. Children learn language initially for its uses to demonstrate objects in the world
3. School forces students to use language out of the context of immediate use
4. Students can explore worlds outside their experience in writing, because written language creates alternative possibilities
5. The more [scholastically] literate the household, the easier the transition to school
V. What are the criticisms of this model of literacy/Why is this model incomplete? In general, dissenters are troubled by the privileging and decontextualizing of text and favor a more complex intersubjective interpretation.
A. Scribner and Cole: Literacy is embedded in social practices
-cognitive habits are formed by school and society, not the act of reading
B. Shirley Heath: Practices and meanings of literacy are socially constructed
C. Brian Street: Dominant social groups create dominant capital L literacies
D. Deborah Brandt: Strong text theories do not explain what makes literacy possible. They also rely on an oversimplified dichotomy of oral and literate modes of communication. Context and language acts cannot be separated, so text is not objective or separate from lived experience. In fact, writing demonstrates “the means by which we make the world together”(31). Social involvement is the true “key to literacy and literacy growth” (32).
VI. Responses to the Criticisms
Ong: textual distancing is only possible with the relationship to speech. Knowledge ultimately resides in the mind of the knower, not in print.
Goody: softens the break between orality and literacy to acknowledge a continuum in later works
Tannen: involvement focus may be useful to readers
Olson: orality is the training ground for literacy.
1. The digital age presents us with new opportunities for authorship, like blogs and self-publishing on web sites. Will these new opportunities affect the commonly held idea of published writing as a source of authority and knowledge?
2. How can silent reading possibly be a social act?
Encyclopedia Entry: Digital Literacy
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which we particularly like to homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology. –Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
The term ‘literacy’ is often and easily misappropriated to refer to a sufficient and usable body of knowledge concerning any topic. People may refer to themselves as wine literate or baseball literate to mean they that possess knowledge about these topics. Similarly, in the current computer rich age, the term ‘digital’ serves as a convenient blanket term for a breadth of technological tools and settings where they are in use. A coffee shop may advertise its “digital lounge” to refer to a location of wireless access to the Internet. The accepted definitions for both these terms are often misconstrued, because they are so favored for the linguistic and technological powers they bespeak.
Rather than greet common misuse of terms like digital or literacy with chagrin, the wise lexicographer and student of language ought to recognize the many values and meanings assigned them as a sign of their import to our times. In combining these already complicated terms, defining the phrase digital literacy involves consideration of the competing perspectives of educators, consumers, politicians, students, and organizations and individuals involved in the technology industry. Digital literacy refers to the ability of an individual to incorporate the use of various technologies with the efforts to participate in, create, and analyze discourse in a variety of modes that may exceed the traditional print medium and simultaneously appeal to more than one of the five senses.
A variety of competing definitions exist for digital literacy, and even simple agreement on the substitute of a seeming synonym like ‘technological literacy’ does not exist. A cursory search for one definition yields a plurality, because our understanding of literacy in the digital age is still in flux, and different takes on the term are developed for different uses, not simply as objective explanations. Literacy scholar Cynthia Selfe contrasts the U.S. government’s definition of digital literacy (in 1996) with her own, where the government defines digital literacy as “computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, production and performance” (Selfe 10). While the federal definition may be sufficient for legislative purposes, Selfe finds that it fails to account for the contexts in which acts of digital literacy occur. For her, digital literacy “refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing and communicating” (Selfe 11). Selfe’s understanding of literacy takes care to acknowledge the extension of the socially constructed nature of language into the digital realm.
Other scholars challenge the notion that digital literacy only involves the extension of language ability into the realm of technology, and expand their definition of the term to include other, non-print based modes of communication. Carey Jewitt acknowledges the origins of literacy in print based reading and writing, but finds that “new technologies appear to blur the boundaries between the visual and written” (113). Images, sounds, and responses to human touch can share an equal prominence with the written word in the multi-media or “multi-modal” forms of discourse possible to create with the use of computers. The new modes of communication afforded by computer technology do not deny the power of language, but supplement it to create a more complete sensory message that can convey meaning on a variety of levels.
Most scholars accept the notion that “typography [can be used] to visually express something,” ( Jewitt 114) so that font and text size of a message can affect the reader’s interpretation of the message. Just as the visual properties of printed language can help determine its received meaning, other visual, oral and tactile effects now possible to create with digital technologies can enhance, or alter, the meaning of the intended message. Any careful web page designer will include images, colors, fonts, and perhaps music that align with the language content of the web site: hot pink leopard print background may be more suitable for a fashion web site than a high school biology class site, or perhaps staid and predictable choices in web page design may only serve to reinforce established perceptions and ideas.
The digital literate has a wider range of choices to reckon with beyond choosing the right words and the right font to make a message complete. The richness of the content available on the Internet may be more effective at presenting meaning than language on its own. Williams suggests that “language and print literacies cannot provide the full meaning of the multimodal content that is obvious to anyone within moments of connecting to the Internet” (Williams 7). In order to be considered digitally literate, a person must be aware of and competent in the use of the technologies necessary to create true multimodal presentations or communications. Digitial literates must be versed in Web 2.0 technologies like wikis and blogs, but also aware of the possible evolution of ideas and communication through multi-media.
Not only do more possibilities for the presenting information exist in the digital realm, but also the context in which literacy is practiced is more interactive, and has the potential to be more culturally and socially diverse than traditional print discourse communities. The ability to participate in social networks or correspond via email with people around the world in real time affords a much different experience of communication practices than traditional modes of print distribution. According to Williams, “the interactive capabilities of online technologies have highlighted and intensified the ways in which relations within discursive communities determine how reading and writing happen and who is able to participate in literacy practices” (Williams 16). While digital technology presents the opportunities for increased collaboration, unexamined practices may only eventually reinforce norms of the traditionally exclusive print literacy communities.
The digitally literate and socially conscious individual must learn to interrogate and analyze the communities of digital discourse she participates in, to see whether practices that seem to reinforce collaboration and increase opportunities for communication may actually reinforce exclusion of traditionally disadvantaged populations. The digital community is by no means universally accessible; its availability to users tied to economic resources, geographic location, and community perceptions of the uses of technology. While technological resources are commonly taken to be tools to alleviate contemporary socio-economic stratification, Cynthia Selfe found mixed success at achieving this worthy goal in her study of technology’s effects on literacy in the late nineties:
If the project to expand technological literacy has been justified as a means of achieving positive social change and new opportunity, to date it has failed to yield the significant social progress or productive changes that many people have come to hope for. (Selfe 6)
Highly technologically literate individuals remain a privileged minority, due to the unequal appropriation of the tools of technology by different social classes and cultures.
The definition for digital literacy remains in flux, as new technological tools continue to emerge. Educators should be concerned with establishing a workable definition for the term, because their students’ success depend on their literacy not just in terms reading and writing printed text, but in their ability to assess, understand and produce communication in the many modes afforded by digital tools. To guide continuing efforts to establish a normative definition, the National Council of Teachers of English established a working definition for 21st century literacies in February 2008. As adopted by the NCTE executive committee, 21st century readers and writers need to be able to:
Develop proficiency with tools of technology, build relationships to solve problems collaboratively, design and share information for global communities, manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous [and competing] information, and critique, create, analyze and evaluate multi-media texts. (ncte.org)
The guidelines established by the NCTE may serve as a tool for determining necessary adjustments to educational philosophies and pedagogical practice for teachers committed to advancing literacy in the 21st century. For example, a teacher planning lessons designed to build literacy could supplement thematic explorations of immigration with real-time dialogue online with other students studying the same topic, could create assignments that require multi-media presentations, and could ask students explore the blogs and web sites of organizations and individuals interested in immigrant rights. The printed text is no longer the teacher’s only source of worthwhile curriculum materials: just as educators must teach students to use digital tools, they must become proficient with them as well.
While the legions of digital literates will continue to increase, so too will the best definition of the term continue to evolve. Heidegger’s caution that we may easily assign a false neutrality to tools of technology ought to be heeded: the notion of digital literacy and use of tools that make it possible are situated in a host of social, economic and political contexts that are no less objective than the words printed on any page.