Sunday, January 22, 2012

Defining Literacy

This week, Rebekka asked the class to think about what the term 'literacy' means in a digital world.

Interestingly, shortly after I put my last blog post up on Facebook, my cousin asked me a similar question in the comments section. An image of the exchange is posted here because...

  1. I think I composed a nice little definition there, if I do say so myself, and...
  2. That exchange is a an good example of reading in today's digital environment.
Some explanation of the exchange: When I posted to Facebook, I noted that my literacy narrative referred to the white-on-blue word processing screen made famous by the TV show "Doogie Howser M.D." As a result, the comments that followed include hyper-specific pop culture references alongside a discussion of the abstract concept of literacy.

I love this about digital literacy. A quality exchange normally has multiple foci. Digital literacy is found in the act of navigating all the points, counterpoints, ironic responses, non sequiturs, misfires, misunderstandings, baiting, esoteric references, and the all-too-obvious observations that are each accepted as part of the discourse.

Paul's Boutique
I'm reminded of the Beastie Boys 1989 album, Paul's Boutique. The Wikipedia page for the album's 6th track, "The Sounds of Science," lists no less than twenty-one pop culture references, and that list is nowhere near complete. Luckily, Soopageek has provided a much more complete annotated version of the song's lyric.  Here's one annotation from Soopageek's page:

Ponce De Leon constantly on
The fountain of youth not Robotron
  • Ponce De Leon was a Spanish Explorer who discovered Florida while searching for the fountain of youth.
  •  Robotron: 2084 was a popular arcade video game released in 1982.

Now I know that the Beastie Boys' effort to innovate through extensive sampling and rapid-fire references from across the cultural spectrum is more of a reflection of postmodernism's influence than it is of digital literacy, but... And this is a big 'but'...

The fact that a postmodern approach to ideas had seeped so deep into our culture by 1989 has a lot to do with what digital literacy looks like today.

In our class last week, Aaron argued that for the digitally literate, the onus is on the reader to understand how a link or allusion informs the document at hand, and this is true regardless of the cultural capital the author is drawing from - from Spanish explorers to early 80s video games. Aaron's argument suggests it is no longer the author's task to anticipate the reader's frame of reference.

I resisted in class, but I'm coming around.

Here's an instance that might explain why: Today I read James Sullivan's review of William Gibson's latest book. Among other things, the review refers to Skip Spence's 1969 album "Oar," the post-hippie era, Jorge Luis Borges, eBay, politics in Singapore, and of course Gibson's entire body of speculative fiction.

I was on a website I visit regularly reading about an author with whom I am familiar. Nevertheless, I had to look up Skip Spence (good stuff, btw).

It's not the number of references that requires a new kind of literacy, it's the range. A reader attempting to take in the full meaning of that review needs to have access to such a broad swath of cultural knowledge that internet search becomes a necessary part of the reading process.

In fact, readers now expect digital texts to send them off searching. If readers aren't moved to teach themselves something new as a result of a digital document, than the author isn't properly taking advantage of the medium. And if that's the case, then the author is not fully digitally literate.

So, if we lost functions of memory in the shift from an oral to a literate culture, as Wolf and Hass suggest, then perhaps we'll have to sacrifice the concept of individuals owning cultural capital in the shift to a digital culture.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I'm in a New Class

I've enrolled in the UWP's Literacy and Technology course this winter. The seminar is being led by Rebekka Andersen.

Maintaining a blog is one task in the course. I've been keeping a blog for a while, as my 3 readers know, but I'm looking forward to the added direction. This week I'm posting a literacy narrative with a focus on how technology has impacted my reading and writing. Normally I won't explain a post's aim like this, but I thought the shift in focus might merit an explanation for those who have visited before.

Below is a video of a spokesperson from the Hunt Institute talking about his institute's take on 'literacy in other disciplines' as seen through the lens of the common core standards. You can watch it if you want. The man says nice things, sounds smart, and paints a wonderful picture of the value of literacy in science and history. I want this guy to be right about what school can achieve, but this task of composing a literacy narrative has me feeling skeptical. When I listen to someone describe students acquiring broad cultural literacy via a formal process, I can't help thinking about how messy that process was for me personally - a white, Midwestern, middle class, heterosexual male; I'm the kind of person for whom the system was designed... when it was designed over a century ago. 

So, how is a formal education system to inculcate literacy across disciplines to a diverse population in a world where literacy is changing at the speed of technological development?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I think developing a narrative of an event that contributed to my literacy could be a point of departure.

When I was in eighth grade, every assignment in our English class was geared toward the composition of a large autobiography. Each student was to assemble final drafts of all the assignments into a binder, personalize the collection of assignments with photos and additional writings, and put finishing touches on what would be read as one coherent work. A select few of the projects would be judged by a panel of parents who would declare one student "The Author of the Year."

I would love to say that I set my sights on that prize the day it was announced, but I was not that kind of student. I was a reader, but I rarely read the assigned texts. I would occasionally complete a writing assignment, but only if the assignment grabbed my interest. In short, I was a bad student. My teacher told me as much when she pulled me aside a few weeks before the final deadline and expressed her concern. "Hogan, I know you have some good ideas, but I haven't seen any of your revised work yet. I'm afraid that you don't have enough time to complete your autobiography, and if that happens, you won't pass eighth grade."

I cried.

Don't feel bad. That was nothing new. I was a crier back then.

But when I stopped crying, I decided that my teacher was clearly in the wrong. While I may not have had my autobiography written, I had a lot of rough drafts, and more importantly, I had been thinking about the project quite a bit. I just needed to sit down at the computer and type it all up.

Word processing before fonts.
So the weekend before the year long project was due, I booted up the family PC, entered the appropriate MS-DOS commands, and had a blank blue screen of the early MS word processing software.

I got to down to the business of putting my ideas on the page. I had a lot to say. All the thinking I had done in the run up to the writing had the words flowing from my mind to my fingertips.

And that's when I realized I was a lousy typist.

It was bad. Hunting and pecking really isn't a fair description, because I spent so much time hunting.

After taking more than three hours to write one full page, I did the math and realized there was no way I would finish the project before Monday... or ever. I had something of a meltdown at that point.

Worth noting here: I am a middle child with an older sister who is the only girl and two younger brothers who are twins. It was a difficult environment in which to effectively communicate my needs. At that stage in my life, the only method of getting attention I had mastered was a horrible melodramatic outburst.

In the instance of the autobiography, this strategy worked. My folks calmed me down and listened as I explained my predicament. They picked up on something I haven't really explained here yet. In my tone my parents heard something they normally didn't associate with my orientation toward school: I didn't just want to finish the project and pass eighth grade; I really wanted to do a good job.

There were a few contributing factors:
  • That year I had started hanging out with a new group of friends, and they were all good students.
  • In seventh grade I had started reading the Xanth fantasy novels, and after finishing a few books with +500 pages, I had begun to fancy myself as a bit of a literary type.  
  • I needed to prove my teacher wrong.
My dad told me that my execution of this whole project was a disaster, but he then told me that he would type if I read aloud the words I wanted to have on the page. We got to work on Sunday morning and did not go to sleep that night (yeah, my dad is great).

I ended up winning the "Author of the Year" award, which was really exciting.

My Autobiography's Cover
But something else happened as well. Throughout that day and night of writing, as my dad and I would print up a final version of this or that portion of the project, I began to compose the whole. I thought about appearance, order, pictures, captions, cover art, and the kinds of details I had never considered before. 

I have awful handwriting and trouble spelling things on the first try. So before using a computer to complete an assignment, I really just wanted to get the required material on the page. Computer publishing put a well-composed document within my reach, and suddenly I was thinking about a reader's first impression.
Double-stick tape, a Sharpie, and dot-matrix printing.

Since that long day of writing with my dad, I have read and composed texts using technology quite a bit. But my appreciation for how technology and composition are woven together stems from this story.

So thinking back to that guy from the Hunt Institute video, I'm not sure if anyone can bottle that kind of experience and make it work for a diverse population of students. But I'm here at UC Davis trying to find methods that will help students discover their own set of circumstances that will lead to a better understanding of literacy.