Monday, October 20, 2008

Is Literate Lives Readable?

Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States by Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher (Erlbaum, 259p.) is a strange kind of history book with a strange way of arguing.

Ostensibly, its project is to catalogue the oral histories of twenty computer users, analyze their different paths to proficiency, and come to some conclusions about the importance of what Selfe and Hawisher call “literacies of technology” (2). The authors’ stated goal is to “[trace] technological literacy as it has emerged over the last few decades within the United States” with a focus on “reading, writing, and [the exchange of] information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices—cultural, social, political, and educational” (2).

As they lay out their case studies in each chapter, however, they include general histories of the time periods in which their participants came of age, and targeted histories of computer technology, as well (they detail, in a typical chapter, Watergate, the emergence of Atari, and a particular person’s path through graduate school in the ’70s).

Selfe and Hawisher write, “[W]e hope to emphasize the importance of context—how particular historical periods, cultural milieus, and material conditions affected people’s acquisition of the literacies of technology” (7).

This braided structure, though, has the unintended effect of taking attention away from the subjects. And, the self-evident nature of the above quotation is indicative of the book’s mostly unchallenging way of arguing; the authors’ claim that circumstances affect the way people learn is as obvious as it is reiterated.

That said, many of the oral histories Selfe and Hawisher include are compelling. They attempt to give us a cross-section of computer users, including the stories of people from different generational, gender, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The group of 20, though, are mostly writing instructors; their experiences attaining literacies of technology are almost uniformly positive, so the authors admit that their sample should not be seen as representative: “we quickly realized that only a limited number of people were willing to share detailed, and revealing, life-history narratives—especially in connection with technology use” (24).

The book, then, lingers on specific stories, but its arguments seem hamstrung by the fact that the oral histories are not emblematic. Selfe and Hawisher discount their own evidence and so can only argue what has already been proven.

The authors are involved in a very intriguing project, though, and should be forgiven for its necessary complications. The innovative feature of the book, for instance—its attempt at co-authorship with its own subjects—is both a pleasant surprise and a limitation.

They write, “[W]e also slowly came to the realization that the project we had undertaken was no longer our own. It belonged, as well, to the people we interviewed and surveyed—their words and their stories were continual reminders that they had claimed the intellectual ground of the project as their own” (13).

This allegiance to the subjects is admirable, but it reins in authorial voice, leaving some ideas uncommented on. Midway through the book, a woman tells that her daughters were harassed by someone they met in a chat room (103-104); the authors move on. Later, a woman mentions how her computer mentor died of AIDS; the authors move on:

“‘He was my best friend and he did die of AIDS a few years later.’ Thus, for Janice, her friend’s computer expertise in building a 386, ‘with a tiny hard drive,’ literally enabled her to own a working computer during this time” (176).

I asked myself during these moments if the collaborative process kept the authors from responding to what their participants were saying. Does collaborative writing dull personal response? Relatedly, does it keep our most provocative arguments at bay?

Clearly, the voices of the participants, and not the authors, are strongest here. But, despite the methodology, Selfe Hawisher do offer some welcome analysis and prescription.

In Chapter One, for instance, which “defines and exemplifies the definition of a cultural ecology and the role such a concept assumes in relation to people’s lives and their acquisition of digital literacies,” Selfe and Hawisher include stories that challenge our notions of contemporary literacy. The oral history of Damon Davis, a student who struggled in class but excelled at designing websites, gives us a taste of what they value. They write, “Damon chose not to subscribe [. . .] to the conventional print literacy values and practices” (54).

As I’ll detail later, subsequent chapters also draw a distinction between print literacy and literacies of technology; Selfe and Hawisher argue for an increased focus on the latter.

I should mention that Chapter One includes a particularly good capsule review of the 1980s as it seeks to contextualize the school experiences of those born in the late ’70s. In fact, most of the history included in the book is well-rendered, and the short inclusions of the history of computers read nicely and sometimes shock. Selfe and Hawisher write, “[S]ales in [the computer] industry went from $750 million in 1977 to $475 billion in 1983” (39).

These sections remind us of one of the goals of the book, stated in the introduction: “Before our cultural memory of this important time faded entirely, we wanted to document the period during which these machines first wove their way into, and altered, the fabric of our culture” (6). Certainly that statistic and the others they include force the reader to remember how recently computers were not at all ubiquitous.

In Chapter Two, Selfe and Hawisher include the stories of three women—Mary, Paula, and Karen—born in the 1960s, and remind us again of the radical changes that computers have made:

“We suspect that with this generation, for the first time in our history, literacy practices became inextricably and irrevocably tied to computers and one’s ability to make them work” In their words, “This chapter analyzes the importance of gender and class in shaping literacy values but also considers the critical choices people make in departing from common cultural expectations” (26).

The chapter explores the barriers the three women had to face in coming to the technologies of literacy. There is a focus on the fact that computers were not often used in schools, and Selfe and Hawisher highlight how even those whose educations preceded wide use of computers need to be trained: “If we define literacy as the power to enact change in the world, we cannot—must not—ignore the women, and men, who struggle to come to literacy in the information age” (82).

This provocative moment defines literacy differently than anywhere else in the book but gives us insight into the agenda of the authors. Literacy is activism, here. Technologies of literacy, certainly valued, are about agency outside of traditional ways of learning and communicating.

Chapter Three follows this agenda, introducing the idea of “technological gateways” (26). For the authors, these are progressive “sites and occasions for acquiring digital literacies but vary across people’s experiences and the times and circumstances in which they grew up” (26). The story of Carmen Vincent, a Native American woman whose long employment history brought her to increased computer literacy, allows Selfe and Hawisher to exhibit the ways in which “technological gateways” open unexpectedly.

They focus on barriers and, perhaps too easily, triumphs, writing, “[this case study] demonstrate[s] how racism and poverty, literacy and illiteracy, money and access to technology are linked in the complex cultural ecology that characterizes the United States of America—and how inventive individual people can be in shaping the conditions under which their access to technology can work most effectively” (107).

Chapter Four holds much of the same but does include a debate about the ways computers unify us versus the way they divide us. In one of the rare checks on the “computers are great” parade in this book, the authors include the skepticism of Tom Lugo, who says, “I hate—this is one reason why I don’t think I’ll ever use the Web for a lot of research—I hate just staring at the screen. I want to have something in my hands” (123).

Selfe and Hawisher, though, compare Tom to another woman, Melissa, writing, “Whereas Tom’s use of computers often signals to him that he is apart from people, Melissa participates enthusiastically in online worlds, constructing community and meaningful relations through written, online exchanges” (128). The authors seem to side with Melissa.

Later, they write of “the narrow bandwidth of the alphabetical” (208), indicting not only traditional print literacy, but words themselves (as opposed to the visual rhetoric Kress highlights). During this indictment, they champion online communication.

I see their point, but I’ve never experienced a webpage that has more cultural “bandwidth” than, say, Hamlet. To me, their argument that print literacy no longer appeals to students makes me wonder about shallow students not “narrow” words.

In the most interesting set of oral histories, three black women from the same family but of different generations describe their experiences with computers. Like in chapter four, things in the world of Chapter Five are not all rosy. The authors write, “Although these stories should, in an ideal world, outline a narrative of promise, of steadily improving conditions for the practice of literacy in general, and digital literacy, more specifically, they do not” (133).

The eldest relative never finished high school, and while her niece succeeded brilliantly in computer learning, he niece's daughter, Yolanda, attends a technologically unsatisfactory school in South Carolina. That fact allows the authors to foreshadow the following (tame) conclusion from Chapter Seven:

“[E]ducators, certainly those who teach English composition only in its more conventional forms, will need to change their attitudes about literacy in general, and they will need additional technology resources so that they can work more closely with students to learn about the new [. . .] media literacies [. . .]” (209).

The authors do well to include pertinent statistics about the struggles of rural schools, and the lack of training that many teachers suffer from. And they stress that the availability of computers does not cure a technology gap: “One reason that Yolanda’s English and language arts teachers have failed to provide her instruction in digital literacy could have to do with their own lack of professional development” (157).

The theme of Chapter Six is that, in Deboarah Brandt’s words, “Literacy is always in flux” (181). To illustrate this, Selfe and Hawisher include the stories of three women who came of age in the sixties. These stories help them to draw a parallel between movements of social change and revolutionary movements of literacy.

I need to mention that Brandt, Gunther Kress, and Paulo Freire (even though he is mentioned only once) are the dominant critical voices underneath the text. Brandt’s own oral histories—especially Literacy in American Lives—are models for this work; Kress’s focus on visual rhetoric strengthens the authors' ideas about the value of new media as compared to print literacy; and Freire’s philosophy of a decentralized classroom influences Chapter Seven: The Future of Literacy.

Selfe and Hawisher (let's call them Hawisher and Selfe for once) finally ask the big questions near the end of the book. Where are we going and How do we get there?:

“In the next decade what will the term literacy mean, especially within online environments? What new kinds of literacy practices will characterize those students now preparing to enter and graduate from our nation’s schools? How will these graduates communicate over the globally extended computer networks now distinguishing 21st century workplaces? And how will these networks continue to transform, or not, these graduates’ ordinary everyday literacy practices?” (183).

To answer these questions, the authors include the reflections of two writing instructors with advanced degrees and two incredibly gifted teenagers. Needless to say, these oral histories are not representative of common computer users; the fifteen-year old, Brittney, reports that she takes Spanish online, checks her stock portfolio, looks up word derivations, updates her school's website, and, on a slow day, writes a hagiography or two (194).

Clearly, Selfe and Hawisher want to show us the best of what can be done on the Internet if young people have the appropriate training. Their extreme examples of people with vast technological literacy in this final chapter help them foreground a kind of Utopia in which over-achievers plug their massive, pubescent brains into 34-inch Macs and shame the rest of us book-learners:

“[I]t is clear that [the participants of this chapter] consider the reading and composing skills they acquired informally in electronic environments—literacies marked by the kinesthetic, the visual, the navigational, the intercultural; by a robust combination of code, image, sound, animation, and words—to be far more compelling, far more germane to their future success than the more traditional literacy instruction they have received in school” (205).

This is the book's strongest point. But it troubles me. It undervalues a literacy—reading--marked by the imaginative. It suggests that without all stimulation, there is no stimulation. And it unrealistically relies on the example of an astoundingly bright student who has already mastered baseline literacies.

Certainly we have to value literacies of technology, but their valuation seems a bit wide-eyed, a bit reactionary. I, for one, jaundiced as I am, still find germane the jaundiced page of an old paper-back.

And that's why I need to learn, as Selfe and Hawisher suggest that all teachers need to learn from their technologically-adept students. They quote Freire to emphasize that point that writing instruction needs to stretch:

“[T]he teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-students with students-teachers. . .They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (210).

Literate Lives, though badly bogged down by truisms, concludes thankfully with something more akin to Freire. Selfe and Hawisher move beyond their (oft-repeated) suggestions that race, class, and gender play a part in who we are to argue instead for nuanced teaching. Reminiscent of Dickie Selfe, they remind us that access to computers is not a cure-all, that “[t]he specific conditions of access have a substantial effect on the acquisition and development of digital literacy” (227).

And, drawing on their admittedly limited sampling of oral histories, they call passionately for teacherly awareness of digital literacies and, more importantly, awareness of “the increasingly complex global contexts within which these [. . .] literacies function” (232).

This is by no means a great book, but Selfe and Hawisher valuably ask us to remember how quickly computer technology has developed, how thrillingly it opens its gateways, and how, chillingly, those opportunities remain out of reach for so many.

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