10/16 – Programming the Digital Age

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Reading: Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Presentation: Conor on Kress’ Literacy in the New Media Age (wiki log-in key = “conor”)


The Problem: …computer literacy is a vexing and ongoing problem even for teachers who have good support systems. Many in the profession are understandably skeptical about getting involved in computer literacy initiatives. One explanation for this skepticism is that those who work with technology can quite easily find themselves in a number of precarious situations. Some are fortunate to have access to impressive computer facilities but find themselves operating in a culture that vastly underestimates what must be learned to take advantage of technology and to understand its social and pedagogical implications. Others function rather productively in relative isolation, organizing an active community of dedicated graduate students and part-time instructors, while bending over backwards to entice faculty colleagues to invest their time and energy in a new direction. Still others – the great majority of teachers, I argue – are encouraged, even mandated, to integrate technology into the curriculum, yet no incentives are given for such an ambitious assignment, one that places an extra workload burden on teachers, adding considerably to their overall job activities. (2)

Multiliteracies: …teachers should emphasize different kinds of computer literacies and help students become skilled at moving among them in strategic ways. The three literacy categories that organize my discussion – functional, critical, and rhetorical – are meant to be suggestive rather than restrictive, and more complimentary than in competition with each other. […] Students who are not adequately exposed to all three literacy categories will find it difficult to participate fully and meaningfully in technological activities. (24)

Technology as Artifact: It is indeed a shameful act that certain technologies have been designed in order to repress subaltern groups. Harley Shaiken reports on a machine shop that installed an override switch on an automatic turret punch press so that the company could send the symbolic message to workers that management was in control. […] Langdon Winner mentions a number of examples in which the designs of of technologies have served purposes of domination: the design of college campuses to diffuse student demonstrations; the design of industrial plants to deter union activities; the design of overpasses to segregate people of color who ride city buses. […] Still, at least two other explanations (not excuses) for abusive designs are possible. First, a design can be socially inattentive. […] Second, a design can have unexpected consequences. (89-90)

Functional Literacy: …why do so many students today still operate the computer like a glorified typewriter? In part because teachers often implicitly or explicitly dismiss student experiments with genres and formats, and in part because certain documentation styles remain quite traditional (the MLA style, for example…puts angled brackets around Website addresses as opposed to permitting actual hyperlink designations). In addition, however, teachers have not paid enough attention to the so-called advanced features of software programs (e.g., style sheets, master pages…), which are typically explained in the associated help features. […] These five parameter – eduational goals, social conventions, specialized discourses, management activities, and technological impasses – provide a framework within which teachers of writing and communication can conceive a productive approach to functional literacy that encompasses computers. On the whole, they serve as an alternative to the prescriptive lists of software skills churned out in academic settings by technologists and administrators who fail to problematize modern literacy practices that seem to be given and natural but are in fact subject to social forces. (48; 72)

Critical Literacy: …students that are critically literate can work against the grain of conventional preoccupations and narratives, implicating design cultures, use contexts, institutional forces, and popular representations within the shape and direction of computer-based artifacts and activities (95).

Rhetorical Literacy: …students who are rhetorically literate can effect change in technological systems. Students should not be just effective users of computers, nor should they be just informed questioners. Although these two roles are essential, neither one encourages a sufficient level of participation. In order to function most effectively as agents of change, students must also become reflective producers of technology, a role that involves a combination of functional and critical abilities. (182)

  1. In Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart A. Selber argues persuasively that computer literacy should be explored, critiqued, and utilized within the humanities, specifically English departments. The rest of Selber’s book lays the ground work for proving not only that technology is the purview of humanity departments, but that rhetorical studies are inextricably bound to or within technology. Thus, Selber argues that a computer literacy program must address functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies. It is impossible to read Multiliteracies without questioning one’s own relationship with technology in the classroom. Specifically, I was struck by Selber’s reasoning for positioning technology within the hands of humanity departments; most computer literacy programs overemphasize technical skills and fail to adequately prepare students for the writing and communications tasks in a technology driven era. Therefore, those of us in the humanities must have a say in establishing standards and pedagogies for computer literacy because access to technology is a social problem. Yet, since technology is a social construct, it also opens up opportunities for social connection and collaboration; this point, for me, was the most resonate.

    Selber’s argument that English departments must take up issues of computer literacy is compelling. As Selber notes, “for better or worse, computer environments have become primary spaces where much education happens,” and given this fact, we should not cede the definitions of what constitutes reading and writing in these new environments to those outside of the humanities (3). Selber argues that leaving computer literacy to the computer sciences can mean an undue emphasis on functional models of technological literacy, with these models’ where there is an inherent lack of critical self-reflexivity. The functional model encourages us to see computer literacy as a neutral technology, in the same way that print literacy is seen as a neutral technology. As composition and literacy studies has shifted generally toward viewing print literacy as ideological, seeing it as primarily a social practice, it seems only right, Selber argues, that we should understand computer literacy as a social practice as well. Thus, Selber attempts to reestablishes digital literacy as a “multiliteracy,” wherein the conversation can open up beyond the computer lab, and connections can begin to be established across formats, functions, documents, and disciplines. As Selber puts it, “although it is sensible and helpful to begin with current ways of knowing and working, such a model is ultimately limiting because it becomes non-dialogic: Not only does the model assume that technology is neutral, but if it fails to recognize that technology can encourage teachers to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions, goals, and practices” (Selber 23).

    In chapters 2, 3, and 4, three separate areas of digital literacy: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Each section provides a basis and framework for each concept and is usually helpfully followed by explorations of Selber’s own experience and research. In his chapter “Functional Literacy: Computers as Tools, Students as Effective Users of Technology,” Selber assumes that computer literacy starts with a rudimentary acquisition of skills and the utilization of various “tools;” however, his inquiries ask us to reflect on the political assumptions that exist within “tool metaphors” (Selber 36) that are generally presented as being politically neutral. Selber suggests that the power of connecting technology to the humanities is that rhetoric and composition faculty can help students “situate technological impasses in a broader context so that their characteristics can be organized and understood” (Selber 70). Students can begin to accomplish this through the use of a systematic heuristic approach to technological and web-related problems, wherein they set up qualitative inquiries into these problems, identify them within an empirical framework , and then apply the “appropriate forms of assistance” (Selber 71), thus empowering the students to overcome what Selber calls “performance-oriented impasses”(Selber 72).

    Student exploration within digital realms, according to Selber, are social, interactive, and collaborative. Additionally, these realms, while collaborative and social, are never neutral. Thus, Selber makes the case that students should be asking why and how technology institutions such as websites, campus computer labs, software packages, etc., have been set up to persuade, control, direct and use them. He then points to areas where the digital divide has worsened and deepened, though he is “not suggesting that this troubling state of affairs has been brought about solely by the politics of design cultures, only that these politics are implicated with crucial issues of access, a fact that can help students focus their critical analyses of computing infrastructures” (Selber 108). It is through rhetorical digital literacy that teachers may be able to help students gain increased understanding and perception of social and cultural climates and changes. Thus, this crusade, if you will, is not simply duty of the student, but the teacher as well. Selber’s book is an attempt to recruit or educate faculty who can help students evaluate technology in rhetorical contexts and then re-evaluate and even reproduce the technology in positive ways (he refers to this practice as ‘reflection in action’). Ultimately, Selber hopes that students (and teachers) will move on from just being functionally adept computer users to becoming fully aware, fully critical interface designers.

    I wonder if Selber misses an opportunity to reshape the conversation as a vision of what technology and rhetoric could accomplish if it were to become interdisciplinary. Interface design, in its fullest implementation, could branch out to embrace a truly interdisciplinary effort between rhetoric, graphic design, computer science, and many other fields. It seems that multiliteracies should/could include other departments, since rhetoric and composition departments themselves are undergoing various transformations, most of which involve further integration with disciplines such as philosophy, communication, computer science, education and the like.

  2. Considering that part of our work during this course has been an attempt to identify theoretical or discursive trends and divergences, it seems appropriate to begin this response with a relatively brief discussion of this text’s similarity and alignment with some of the other readings we have encountered this semester. It is my hope that by alluding to these similarities we might establish a catalogue of the predominant discourses and preoccupations that comprise this field of critical inquiry.

    One of the more sizeable discursive threads running through many of the texts relates to what Selber generally refers to as “use context” in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Most specifically, this thematic discourse manifests in both Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s focus on workspace environments. As early as chapter two of Multiliteracies, Selber references that work space ultimately influences the, “user expectations and understandings of emergent technologies” (52). Referencing a study of email trends in two dramatically different corporate settings, Selber concludes that the relative rigidity of workplace structure has significant implications for the almost parallel structure of digital email communication. Returning to Johnson-Eilola’s work in Datacloud, one can see that Selber’s discourse on the workplace mirrors Eilola’s discussion of interface overflow. Though one might argue that the two diverge a little as it seems that Selber tends to focus on the practices that affect the act of computing, while Eilola studies the ways in which computing practices affect workspace, a general theme relating these two spaces can be observed.

    Returning briefly to Jeff Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool, one can read a similar concern for the type of work that both instructors and students do with the digital and computers more generally, in various portions of Selber’s text (Selber 23, 48, 135-136). While in the first chapter Selber criticizes professors for instructing with technologically dated models of “knowing and working,” in the second chapter he questions why students still operate the computer as though it was a, “glorified typewriter”? Here, one can read that Selber, much like Rice, is critical of a pedagogy that seeks to inform students only by means of established practice. Quite simply, Rice and Selber seem intimately concerned with instructors and students that attempt to superimpose print culture on that of digital or computer culture. For Selber’s purposes, this allows him the opportunity to propose that teachers engage in a pedagogy of multiliteracy; the student must engage with issues of functionality, must remain attentive to social and political forces/operations, and must consider both of the previous in order to invent and persuade.

    In addition to my effort to elucidate a few of the thematic threads weaving throughout the endeavors we have encountered thus far, my response is also concerned with the nature of critical work that Selber recommends students and instructors partake of. If part of Selber’s work in his chapter on critical literacy is to suggest that students remain attuned to the politics of both the social context and the machine, the integral portion of his text arises somewhere near the middle of this chapter. Here he suggests that resistance is less a matter of rebelling against the technologies and technological development that we encounter in various contexts (work, the domestic realm, entertainment, etc.), and more a matter of working within an infrastructure:

    “…it is a form of accommodation in that users work in oppositional ways within an existing infrastructure as opposed to creating or seeking out an alternative infrastructure” (115).

    I don’t know that this statement is particularly striking because it seems that I have encountered something similar to this argument elsewhere (namely during my conversation with Richard Doyle, and in my reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus), rather I mention it because it seems to be the first time this semester that we have encountered such a clear argument to this regard. Though I believe Banks is getting at somewhat the same issue, Selber more clearly identifies a mode or type of resistance that seems to contradict the neo-luddite framework we encountered previously. Although I agree with Selber’s estimation, and feel that it provides a more accessible/reasonable alternative than that advocated by the quintessential Luddite, I don’t know that he spends enough time working this dilemma out. In a very simple capacity, I would like to see more work on the types of strategies that one might take to teach students to work within the system while remaining carefully attentive that they also remain “critical.” The emphasis here of course, might be that an instructor has to be careful not to allow the student to become too interested in the success they can have while failing to consider the political/social ramifications. Though Selber provides numerous educational examples in other portions of the text, I’m not sure that he really works out his particular take on the politics of this system.

    Though I respect the implication that the student can be successful while still remaining attentive to politics and still retaining one’s ethical dignity, I’m not entirely sure that this is always the case, or that Selber devotes enough conflict to the contentions that arise between the two. It is one thing to suggest that this might work and quite another to consider how criticism is often compromised in favor of success within the existing infrastructure.

    For instance, returning to Rice’s theories on writing, it seems pretty obvious that Rice is often forced to compromise his particular style of writing (a style which is itself critical), in favor of that which will be beneficial within the technological and social framework we have been provided. Thus, you see that Rice produces a textbook despite arguing that the textbook is problematic for the culture of writing.

  3. Fissures in the Systemic Change

    There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the education lies firmly in the grasp of the digital age. The cry for technological integration into every facet of academia is prevalent in every level of education from primary through the most elite graduate studies and research. There are many things standing in the way of this vision of a new technological utopia. The most poisonous root runs deep into the recesses of the Digital Divide. Stuart Selber’s book, Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, promises at the onset to offer a critique of the current state of critical computer literacy while developing a plan of pedagogical attack for addressing the problems that he and other have uncovered. While I feel that he did an excellent job walking the reader through the seemingly mountainous obstacles standing in the path of the society that hinder the equalization of availability for all individuals, I am not as confident with the program structure that he offers.

    In his final chapter, Systematic Requirements for Change, Selber sets the parameters for the development of a program that he calls, ‘Multiliteracies for a Digital Age.’” The program begins, innocently enough with a single survey course that “demonstrates interrelationships between functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies.” A rather intelligent design, it builds on the units of study and hands-on projects that “integrate functional and critical considerations with rhetorically focused design activities.” (221) He moves through possible individual assignments that would engage the student base within the context of study that offer both in and out of the classroom applications. Where the problem begins to surface is with his “multi-leveled curricular approach.” In this, he calls for English departments to plan cohesively linked courses that implement technological literacies into the framework of the classroom. He claims that “making connections clear between different types of literacies” depends on a “level of curricula as a whole” (223-4). This could pose to be problematic within English departments where many of the staff are self-professed Neo-luddites to one degree or another who feel that “computers are evil, tools of the devil really, and English professors, as a last bastion of liberal humanism, must resist their encroachment on purer pursuits” (11). Selber admits openly that many educators lag behind their students in technological knowledge and there is a great permeation of technophobia, even amongst the learned. The institutionalization of these programs may pose more difficult than the implementation of programs where students train educators in the use of technology or the occasional professional development session. With staff, it is more of a cultural divide that is requiring bridging than a simple matter of educating the educators. In addition to these elements, the program also depends upon departmental and institutional restructuring. This restructuring depends on eight conditions: dissatisfaction with the status quo, requisite knowledge among those centrally involved, sufficient resources, sufficient time, incentives for participants, broad-based-participation, high-level commitment amongst the stakeholders, and strong leadership (227). Although he claims that there has been considerable research and publication about this topic in particular, he offers little advice on how to attain these conditions.

    What interests me the most is that a considerable amount of time was spent on behalf of the author in the beginning of this text approaching the major difficulties standing in the way of technological literacy, one major one being the Digital Divide. Selber spends time walking the reader through the plight of the “haves” and the “have nots” that has proven to “have widened,” not shrunk, “since the advent of the personal computer” (108). If the educated and powerful refuse to admit the existence of the division or offers plausible solutions to the Digital Divide, none of what Selber proposes will be able to become a reality in the sense he lays out. It would be an even greater privileging of the people who already hold positions of power.

    My questions are focused more on the Digital Divide. If we recognize the problem systemically lies within the categories of gender, race, location, and economics, why haven’t we gone back to revisit the information first presented in the research from Falling Through the Net? How can the privileged persons of power be made to clearly understand the positions of those who hold none of the cards without inspiring animosity and notions of “pulling up the bootstraps” for those without a say? Isn’t it short sighted to philosophize about technology programs and multiliteracies without solving foundational issues?

  4. Just as Banks argued in his text, Selber notes that inequalities are perpetuated in the ways technologies are situated in social contexts—though computer literacy is often taught as a skill set. Selber argues, “In rejecting theories claiming that technology alone creates educational change, it locates the potential for such change in a nexus of social forces” (8). More specifically, Selber draws from the work of Cynthia Selfe in that “human-computer interfaces…can be read as maps that value ‘monoculturalism, capitalism, and phallologic thinking’” (10). Selber argues we must counter this by providing literacy programs that encourage multiple literacies as well as socially contextualizing the hardware. To achieve this, we must resist what Selber calls the “instrumental” approach to computers: “As the instrumental view suggests, computers can contribute not only to projects encouraging social change but also to those merely reproducing the dominant cultural values. In this way, computers are malleable in that they unevenly develop along particular axes of interest, depending on the tendential forces molding their shape” (12). One way of doing this, Selber argues is through adopting an assignment (something like a Technology Narrative) where students join a forum/blog/list-serv and “…study its discourse from functional, critical, and rhetorical perspectives” (197). Students will employ the functional aspect of literacy by studying the online discourse to decipher the authorized patterns of the forum/blog/list-erv they’ve chosen through analyzing: 1) the topics covered; 2) (un)successful appeals/suggestions; 3) unwritten rules for participation; 4) description of personas present, etc. Next, students will employ the critical aspect of literacy in this assignment by examining: 1) the social forces that regulate the discussion; 2) who ‘speaks’ and why; 3) the legitimate subjects that are accepted/rejected. Finally, students will employ the rhetorical aspect of literacy through two components: 1) composing a post or response to the dialogue the student has been analyzing for the assignment (whether the student decides to actually submit this posting is optional); 2) analyzing the actual interface configuration of the forum/blog/list-serv itself and suggesting alternative, possibly more effective ways of online discourse. Then, as a meta-cognition component to the previous assignment, (here I am combining two different assignments presented separately in Selber’s text) students will be required to write a reflection of their attitudes and expectations in relation to computers. In this reflection, students must also account for their personal views on technology by examining: 1) the cultural factors that have shaped their perspectives (the ways technologies are represented in their household, their school, the media, etc.; 2) the ways in which these cultural factors continue to affect their approaches to technology, their interaction with technology, and their evaluation of technology (205). While I know I’ve went into great detail about this assignment, it is with a purpose, I promise. Selber’s approaches to multi-literacies foster normative thought processes about technology, normative approaches to examining technology, and lead in to (in his specific pragmatic suggestions) even further normative responses. If I were to adopt Selber’s assignments, I would ask students to specifically dissect the blog/list-serv/forum according to Selber’s Functional, Critical, Rhetorical guides, but I would ask my students to apply the Functional, Critical, and Rhetorical according to (dis)abled perspectives, minority cultures, rather than along dominant cultures.
    While adopting such an assignment provides students the opportunity to become users, questioners, and producers of technology, it does so in alignment with an ableist culture. According to Selber, the Functional is base line. That the Rhetorical mediates the Functional and Critical in that Rhetorical is the students’ interjection, (dis)ruption to the medium they are dissecting through the Functional and Critical lens. To avoid such analysis in our classrooms (for Selber, regardless of normative or (dis)abled approaches and responses) “…if teachers fail to adopt a postcritical stance, thus leaving technology design and education to those outside of the [rhet/comp] field, it is entirely probable that students will have a much more difficult time understanding computers in critical, contextual, and historical ways; that technology designs, informed by pedagogical and cultural values not our own, will define and redefine literacy practices in ways that are less than desireable; and that computer literacy initiatives will simply serve to perpetuate rather than alleviate existing social inequities” (13).

  5. Cindy Mooty-Hoffmann
    Reading Assignment #6: Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart Selber
    Oct. 16, 2008

    Finally, there are now answers to the question: What activities should the composition instructors incorporate to have our students become multiliterate within the digital medium field? Through the analysis of widely acclaimed scholars in the rhetoric and digital media fields, Stuart Selber sets out the problem, definition, and multiple solutions. He argues that computer literacy needs to be a curricular goal debunking the myth that the mere provision of computers does not provide people with the production ability to use them effectively. As I was reading through the texts, there were many “ah ha” moments that I wrote down to incorporate within my classroom—and isn’t that what this course is about? I was specifically stuck on page 199 where Selber stated that teachers need to be “courageous enough to experiment with technology in the classroom, even if that experimentation makes them rather uncomfortable, and even if it positions them as novices to some degree” (199). A couple pages later Selber mentions that he tells the students that he is experimenting with new technology and believes it’s OK that he doesn’t have all the answers—that they would be searching for the answers to half of the questions together (202). I guess I thought I had to be an expert at technology before I incorporated it within the coursework.

    I am teaching freshmen composition this semester at Oakland Community College (a “gate-keeping” course) where we have requirements to have the students write 20 pages of essays with three drafts each through out the semester incorporating a variety of genres (compare/contrast, description, argumentative, etc.). We have a textbook to use, but no required or suggested guidelines to follow for uniformity within the college. Additionally, my classroom is in a computer lab, but there are no requirements on instructional use for these computers nor any “shared” assignments to benefit from. That being said, I want to compare the changing dynamics of my class from last year to this to future classrooms to show how my students can achieve success in the classroom using Selber’s framework. In past years, every assignment and essay was strictly from the text book or something I had created from prior class; there was also a mid-term exam on grammar. Beyond using the computers for typing and researching their essays through the library database, students had one e-mail assignment to me so I could build a classroom database, had to manage Website to upload their essays, and Blackboard was incorporated so that the students could access their grades or any missing assignments. This year, while I have increased the use of technology, I still do not see that the students are mastering Selber’s literacies—probably because I am not employing them sufficiently. I still have the same number of essays (college policy), but I have incorporated a Service Learning component, added in-class Works Cited and page formatting exercises, and removed the mid-term exam; the rest was pretty much the same. My future plans are where I become excited. I have heard classmates discuss the creation of a class Wiki—this sounds like a wonderful idea. I could use a Wiki for personal biographies or to post their narrative essays. (I am unsure about the assignment since I have not used the program yet, but I like the idea on page 136 where it calls for a “standard design” of five paragraphs of text, one ordered list, two unordered lists, three graphics, one image map or animated image, three internal links with anchors, three external links, and two manipulations of text attributes. I just wonder if this assignment is too far reaching for a freshman composition class.) I can completely change my compare contrast essay into a compare/contrast visual presentation using Powerpoint, and I will make Blackboard discussion board a requirement (perhaps to the Service Learning assignment). I know Selber mentions on page 212 that an overly ambitious program might not end up well, however, I think the plans seem manageable and reflect on the changing issues in digital rhetoric.

    Here is a sample of where I’ve been compared to what direction I would like to go for future classrooms:
    Past (Fall 2007): 2-3 pages personal response on poetry, 3-4 pages Compare contrast (fun—batman/superman); 2-3 pages Description (bedroom, store…); 7-8 pages Argumentative w/PPT any choice; 2-3 pages Impromptu on Inconvenient Truth; Mid-term exam

    Present (Fall 2008); Personal response—no change; Compare contrast (candidates) w/presentation; Description (service learning site); Argumentative w/PPT On Service learning– We can help make a difference; No change to impromptu. No Mid-term exam

    Future (Fall 2009) Personal response–still an entrance essay, but topic needs to reflect my current philosoph; Compare contrast (No longer an essay, but strictly PPT comparing items); Description Will still be on service learning, but will be Wiki entries so everyone can see what’s going on—mandatory journal after every 3-hour site visit; 8-9 pages Argumentative w/PPT Several reading assignments posted to Blackboard with required thread response; No change on impromptu. No Mid-term exam

    I just wonder about “those” student who are not computer literate when entering the program, if they might be too intimidated about such a syllabus. Would this then negatively effect retention?

  6. In considering Stuart Selber’s call for multiliteracies, it is especially helpful to look to the work of Paulo Freire in order to better inform Selber’s overall educational plan. While Selber does describe his heuristics method to be Freirean in style, there are other key parts of his text that have a noticeably Freirean worldview. Admittedly, Freire’s ideas are not necessarily novel; nevertheless, I found it striking how deeply Selber’s work was influenced (if only obliquely) by Freire’s work.
    As Selber himself admits, the articulations of rhetorical literacy outlined in chapter four have a Freirean spin, his calls for reflection and social action especially. Reflection is a key component to Freire’s pedagogy, but this introspection must be accompanied by action: the creation of meaning and knowledge by interaction (and even confrontation) in the outside world: “I cannot understand human beings as simply living. I can understand them only as historically, culturally, and socially existing. . . . [W]e, as existent, outfit ourselves to engage in the struggle in quest of and in defense of equality of opportunity, by the very fact that, as living beings, we are radically different from one another” (Hope 83). Indeed, in the same vein as the teaching practices of other critical pedagogues like Ira Shor and Henry Giroux, Freire’s pedagogy not only embraces the differences among students, but also sets the stage for conversations that transgress these unique experiences and create new meanings. This passage shows, too, the necessity to resist the status quo, to go beyond living within the confines of their cultural or economic past, to prove that the future is not merely “the pure repetition of today” (Hope 86). This sort of reflection is evident in the personal narrative exercise that Selber outlines as part of his heuristic, where “students attempt to move their designing ‘out of the realm of the mystical . . . into a situation in which they are able to begin to see through discussion with others the nature of forces that cause them to operate in the way they do and how they can move beyond intellectualizing the issues to concrete action for change’” (160). Part of what is so palatable about Selber’s book is its synthesis of theory and practice to inform an active shaping of both the classroom and the world at large. Freire too describes the consequence of failing to recognize a shift in one’s culture and the importance of actively changing our perception: “If men are unable to conceive critically the themes of their time, and thus to intervene actively in reality, they are carried along in the wake of change. They see that the times are changing, but they are submerged in that change and so cannot discern its dramatic significance” (Education for Critical Consciousness 6). Selber’s conditions for change call for precisely this: “broad-based participation [among departments, institutions, teachers, and students] must be expected and encouraged” (Selber 236).
    Expressivists too might ask students to begin with their own experiences when writing, but Freire’s approach stands apart from these individual-centered pedagogies by teaching students to transform their experiences into new shared meanings. Freire also advocates dialectic: “Changing language is part of the process of changing the world. The relationship, language-thought-world, is a dialectical, processual, contradictory relationship” (56). Freire’s choice to start with the individual is not wholly introspective, but part of the constantly interwoven fabric of shared cultural experience. Through Freire’s “action-reflection-action” (43), students use their own experiences only as a springboard for action that will impact a larger group. Using personal experience as the first step, however, ensures that students see that they are a part of this knowledge creation, not receptacles of ready-made knowledge. Selber advocates a very similar practice in asking his students to confront their assumptions about the work they do and the opinions they use to inform them and to then reconstruct their practices to elicit positive change.

  7. Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

    I. What should a computer literate person be able to do? What does “computer competent” mean?

    Last week, when I mentioned Student X that I had during the summer, the one who could not operate the wiki without repeatedly erasing the entire page’s content, I certainly appreciated the feedback that I received during our discussion about these preliminary computer competency questions that Selber poses in his preface. More specifically, I think the question still stands as to what Wayne State University expects from the English department and its composition students, and our role as teachers of general education classes where students will always be entering the classroom within a continuum of competencies. Similar to Jeff’s comments about how technology limitations are indeed no different from writing limitations, Selber acknowledges the wide disparity and suggests incorporating self-assessment surveys and assigning technology narratives to further determine student capabilities and attitudes about technology, writing, and ultimately, what perspectives on agency these students enter the classroom with. Selber suggests that these positive, negative, and mixed attitudes toward technology provide valuable and insightful information that will inevitably assist with the progress these students make within the course. Again, while I recognize that Student X was indeed a special case (dear to my heart), this continuum of technological competencies is a major factor at Wayne State University, one that Val mentioned last week when she pointed out the number of students from her Hamtramck school (proceeding to attend WSU) that do not own computers and barely know how to operate basic computer functions. Therefore, what measures could we, as a class, agree upon that reflect a flexible, but fair, definition of what it means to be “computer competent,” either at a generic college level or at WSU? While acknowledging that particular or context-based queries are important, is there a functional level of computer literacy (such as the Florida State University definition that Selber outlines) that should exist prior to entering college courses?

    II. Technology Development for Graduate Students

    While I have made tremendous strides in advancing my technology “user knowledge” (thanks to Jeff’s practicum last year – and my younger sister’s tough-love tutorial that consisted of “Are you f***-ing stupid?”) I most certainly believe that I would fail Florida State’s computer literacy exam based on the terminology alone. As Selber points out, most humanists have limited their computer knowledge to word-processing features, search engines, and basic communication functions. Selber’s kick-in-the-ass call for “teachers to be courageous enough to experiment with technology in the classroom, even if that experimentation makes them rather uncomfortable, and even if it positions them as novices to some degree” (199), unlocks my guilt-ridden complex surrounding technology and the disservice I’m doing to my students, the profession, and myself for not taking the time to acquire the language and skills necessary to effectively use, reflect upon, and participate in the larger discourse. The conference-style meeting that Selber promotes between a graduate student and a faculty member in determining what goals or needs are desirable in relationship to learning about technology seems to be an ideal set-up for graduate students entering a program, as well. I know that the Office for Teaching and Learning will assist in helping faculty and GTAs learn technology features, but it would be nice to have departmental support in the form of constructive evaluation and designed technology-based curriculum for entering graduate students. Perhaps this technology conference or initiative to assist with technology concerns extends to a larger conversation some of us graduate students have been having about genre and writing-related knowledge that we feel is lacking from the program. If the undergraduate curriculum is receiving extensive attention around a book such as Selber’s, then certainly this reform should extend, if not begin with or receive more attention, to graduate students learning how to teach undergraduate students the functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies surrounding different technologies and their potential to positively influence our social and interpersonal relationships.

  8. The Postcritical University

    I am reading Selber and it is hard not to think of his work in light of Banks’ book from last week. In particular, I am thinking of the way Banks’ defines the scope of technology in his book. Banks offers three pieces that define the way technology is understood in his book. First, he cites Heidegger’s assertion that “The manufacture and utilization of equipment, tools, and machines, and the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends they serve, all belong to what technology is” (qtd in Banks 2). Second, Banks cites Sullivan and Dauterman’s argument that technology is “more than a mere scribal tool. It offers—at the very least—a connection to a new sources of information, a site for rethinking structures” (qtd in Banks 2). Finally, Banks offers his own definition, one which merges the earlier claims: “. . . [M]ore than mere artifacts,” Banks writes, “technologies are the spaces and processes that determine whether any group of people is able to tell its own stories on its own terms, whether people are able to agitate and advocate for policies that advance its interests, and whether that group of people has any hope enjoying equal social, political, and economic relations” (10).
    What is useful in this definition is that it opens up other systems for critique, systems that might be understood as technological if thought of as artifactual terms—the obvious example from Banks’ own work might be the freedom quilts used to code directions for the Underground Railroad. This is especially valuable in terms of Selber’s work for the ways that Selber’s work moves beyond the questions of the most basic forms of functional literacy into critical and rhetorical literacy. In each of the forms of literacy that Selber argues for, computing, information, and communication software is understood not as discrete, value-neutral artifacts but as bound inescapably to questions of access and power; although it is wedged between his discussions of functional and rhetorical literacies, the questions that Selber marks as relevant to critical literacy underscore the other forms as well: “What is lost as well as gained? Who profits? Who is left behind and for what reasons? What is privileged in terms of literacy and learning and cultural capital? What political and cultural values and assumptions are embedded in hardware and software” (81)? Trying to think Banks and Selber together, then, might point to a way of theorizing technology that works to uncover its own systematicity, in a way that prevents the occlusion of political and economic interests by insisting on a multivalent literacy that not just employs technology but employs it in a way that makes it always already available to critique.
    In this sense, one such “technology” that might make an interesting site of analysis is the university itself. By the definitions offered here, the university is a technology par excellence, but the scope of these books doesn’t allow for the wholesale critique of the university as a technological structure. While there are gestures toward this in Selber’s discussion of the Penn State-Microsoft deal (122-4), this is only a beginning step. In thinking the university as technology, in the terms suggested by Banks and Selber together, we would be encouraging the university community to adopt the same postcritical stance toward the institution that Selber encourages toward digital technologies, that is, one in which members of the university community are “mindful of the ways in which they can unwittingly promote inequitable and counterproductive technological practices” (8). By advocating ways to make the university-as-technology open to the demands of the multilliteracies model for which Selber argues, we might encourage a university in which administrative priorities and institutional connections to political and economic interests—especially those that occasionally run counter to the pedagogical and humanistic goals of the university—can become open to critique and change by all members of the academic community.

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