Monthly Archives: April 2011

What do New Literacies Look Like?

Thought I’d share a piece I wrote over the last couple of days for a new edition of our Composition 1 (ENC 1101) textbook at USF. It’s generally just the things that came into my head, so I’m especially interested in hearing what people think I got wrong, or painted in a subtly misleading shade, and such.

UPDATE: A newer, revised version of this piece is available at the free online textbook Writing Commons.

Krista76, "Old New Media Readings"

Krista76, “Old New Media Readings,” available at

The Traditional Model of Literacy

We usually think of a particular skill when we hear the word literacy: knowing how to read. If a teacher’s students can barely read, she’ll complain to her principal, “They’re barely literate!” If a politician says, “Kids today are illiterate!” he means that they can’t read–or perhaps more subtly, that they can’t read very well. That is, they don’t understand the complexities and nuances that practiced readers see in a big splattering of words on a page or screen.

That politician’s claim reminds us of another aspect of literacy that’s usually tied to the reading angle: the ability to write. When he riles up the crowd by calling kids illiterate, he probably means, “Kids today don’t understand complex reading, and they can’t produce complex writing, either.” So implied in the skill of literacy is also the ability to write. This makes sense; if I can’t make sense of a piece of writing’s purpose, organization, figures of speech, and rhetorical moves, I probably can’t create a piece of writing that uses those aspects of writing in sophisticated ways.

And as you can hear from my examples of the teacher and the politician, literacy is often a word that shows up when people want to describe something that people don’t have. I’m unlikely to be praised for my literacy when I accurately summarize a tough essay in class, and I’m unlikely to read a particularly nice magazine article and respond to the author by saying, “Oh, you were so particularly literate in that piece!” Literacy is usually used more as a base-line for competence, something that we ought to have but that stands out most noticeably when it’s not there, like the space where a demolished building used to be, or when we see a person not wearing any pants.

New Models of Literacy

Why go into so much detail about the traditional model of literacy–the skill of knowing how to effectively read and write? Because when literacy is applied to new contexts–as it is all the time–it often retains the baggage of its traditional usage, as something to describe a lack that we wish were filled, and as something that involves both effective reading and effective writing (though sometimes reading and writing are expanded to different forms of understanding and acting).

For example, a quick Google search for literacy shows me these varied ways that people use the word:

  • Financial literacy: the ability to understand complex financial information, and the ability to act wisely on that financial know-how
  • Information literacy: the ability to find the right information for a given task, and the ability to use that information in the best way (for an essay, work assignment, protest rally, or whatever)
  • Media literacy: the ability to read or view the various tricks used by the media to subtly emphasize one point of view, and the ability to compose our own media messages that use media trickery effectively for a given rhetorical situation

In all three of those examples of literacies, I imagine that the term developed as people began to realize how illiterate their friends and colleagues seemed to be in those areas. (Perhaps most terminology begins this way: as a way for individuals to draw attention to their own strengths in comparison to a rabble of “those other people.”) In that framework, financial literacy works as a helpful term because so many people seem to lack basic skills related to budgeting, managing credit cards, and paying off debt; to people who have financial literacy, those who lack it seem to be missing a set of skills that is so fundamental that to not have them is akin to a reading person’s feelings toward someone who cannot read. Along the same tack, information literacy works as a term because so many people seem to lack the basic skills necessary to finding the information they need, especially in our increasingly information-centered world. And media literacy is a helpful term because so many people are duped, plain and simple, by the political and social messages embedded in the news, movies, and music we consume.

So what happens when we apply these same ideas to new media reading and writing contexts?

New Media Literacies

New media is an awkward term; on its surface, it seems to imply media (news, music, TV, movies) that simply has come out recently–it’s new. From that perspective, new media would be content that was distributed in the last few days or weeks, as opposed to all that hype about Justin Bieber, which was so last year.

But new media encompasses far more than that. In the introduction to an issue of the scholarly journal American Journal of Business, Jo Ann Atkin describes a complex mess of activities that could be termed “new media”:

What do we exactly mean when we say “new media?” Most definitions of new media (and there are plenty) usually focus on three characteristics. That is, new media is a form of interactive communication that is both digital in format and distribution. This definition would encompass such technologies as: gaming, web sites, chat rooms, e-mail, virtual reality, streaming video or audio, blogs, real simple syndication (RSS), short message service (SMS), Twitter, wikis, online communities (e.g., Facbook, LinkedIn), and YouTube to name a few. The definition also implies that the computer or information technology plays a critical role in both message content/design and dissemination.

Atkin’s list of new media technologies is a treasure trove for different angles through which we can understand new media literacy. As with other kinds of literacy, I’m reminded of all the people I know who aren’t literate in these areas (and I bet you know a few too). For example, from the reading angle, I can think of plenty of people who:

  • Are confused when faced with a video game, not knowing where to look for visual cues about what to do next
  • Don’t notice the visual cues on a computer desktop that instantly draw the attention of a more literate person
  • Miss the signs that an email is a phishing scam
  • Don’t realize that blogs are inherently spaces for dialogue in the comments section
  • Never stop to consider that web designers have purposefully chosen colors, layout, fonts, images, and multimedia elements to make viewers think and feel in specific ways

And from the writing angle, there are plenty of folks who:

  • Try to use Facebook in ways that feel weird to those who are literate in its use
  • Produce movies for YouTube that come across as boring, badly paced, ugly, or annoying
  • Write emails without knowing the expectations of their audience (who, for instance, might prefer to be addressed in complete sentences)
  • Think their Twitter followers really want to know every boring detail of their lives
  • Create graphics without carefully choosing effective fonts, colors, and layout options that will be most effective for their audience
  • Participate in wikis without respecting and following the formatting and structure decisions made by those who went before them

All of these people could be described as needing one or more of the skills wrapped up in the phrase new media literacy. These skills often have both a technical and a rhetorical angle. That is, those with exceptional new media literacy are masters at 1) understanding and using technologies (e.g. getting around on social media sites, using photo editing software, producing videos) and 2) understanding the rhetorical needs of reading and composing in a specific time and space, for a specific audience who will judge a composition to be effective (e.g. designing a website that visitors think is attractive, saying something to Facebook friends that is likely to be “liked,” not looking like an ass when plodding around online in general).

If you’re asking, “So what?” the answer should be obvious: illiterate people need training and practice in literacy to become effective in contexts where those literacies matter. And just as traditional text literacy can be taught, so can these other literacies, both through immersion in contexts where those literacies are used effectively (like a U.S. citizen moving to Japan to learn the language, or a seventy-five-year-old woman who spends hours online every day to learn the conventions used by effective websites) and through instruction from experts.

The good news is that many traditional-age college students already have a solid grip on many new media skills–and they may not even realize how skillful they are! But there’s a subtle problem, as well: like a child who goes around telling his family that he knows how to read when he really only knows his alphabet, it’s possible to over-estimate the sophistication of one’s new media literacy skills. That is, I might say, “Um, I’ve been online every day since I was eight. Of course I know what makes an effective website or video or audio essay.” But when given a chance to show off some of my skills, I might suddenly be found lacking. All that skill I have at navigating new media spaces may not have translated into a complex understanding of the literacies at play there, keeping me from effectively being unable to describe what makes an effective new media text and even more unable to make one myself.

That’s why writing new media texts–or in this case, composing is probably the better term–is so important: it gives us practice in using our new media literacies in powerful ways while showing us the places where our skills are most lacking sophistication. So go out and compose like crazy in any format you can find or invent–but all the while, ask yourself what you already know and what you still need to learn.

Works Cited

Atkin, Jo Ann. “Lost in Translation: New Media | Old School Lesson.” American Journal of Business 24.2 (2009): n.pag. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.

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Reflections on CCCC 2011

Wow! 4 C’s is over, and I’m trying to make sense of my jumbled notes and memories, kneading them together into something that will rise into a single loaf of a blog post. Here’s my best shot:

Best Papers/Panels

  • The Sound Teaching workshop with Dan Anderson, Geoff Sirc, Spencer Shaffner, Jason Loan, Zach Laminack, and Steph Ceraso was inspiring. I’m seriously going to be assigning mix tapes to my students from now on. I mean, what took me so long? My second blog post ever was even about mix tapes!
  • I chaired panel B.16, Code-Switching, Code Meshing, and Contrastive Rhetoric, even though I don’t have any scholarly expertise in the area; C’s offered the chairing job, and I took it. But it reminded me of the power of a lively audience that’s willing to be open and frank, and the surprising importance that (sometimes) comes from attending panels outside your normal area. Sweet!
  • F.38, Hearing Space and Listening Compositions: Re-Inscribing Sound in Composition Practices, was probably my favorite panel, with the wise and friendly Jordan Frith, Seth Mulliken, and Kati Fargo speaking. Jordan helped us imagine pedagogical uses for sound-based geolocation tagging games, Seth helped us critically investigate the terms sometimes used when talking about remixes (which gave me that little thrill of, “Hey, I have an article coming out that kind of addresses that!”), and Kati reminded me of ways to attend to soundscapes rhetorically. Lots of lovely thinking, and at 8 a.m.!
  • At another early-morning session, L.05 Fans, Fandom, and Fazines: Contesting Boundaries, I was privileged to witness some on-the-spot organizing, as fans and fan-studies people spoke up and said, “For goodness sakes, it’s time we had a fan studies SIG!”

Best Experiences

  • Unbelievably, I was one of the 3 winners of C’s the Day! That’s right: I have a small-blue and a super-huge-blue sparklepony. The small one isn’t named yet, but the large one is named Victor, a purposefully nonreferential name that could refer to more than one field luminary. I’ll be writing more about this experience in a future issue of one online journal or another, which is a pretty stinking sweet prize. (More than one friend’s face went from, “Oh, a cute pony!” to slack-jawed surprise when I told them I was playing for a publication.)
  • Running into Charlie Lowe at every corner became a recurring joke; it was good to finally meet him after so many emails.
  • Image from H.G. Wells' film, _Things to Come_; from

    I swear, it’s all about the elevators. This was the coolest, freakiest, most dystopian hotel I’ve ever been in, like something from Metropolis or Things to Come.

  • I focused more on people than on my interests this year, and that was a nice move. Instead of going around a lot myself, I really got to know my USF colleagues better (both fellow grad students and professors and staff), reconnected with old friends, attended lots of friends’ panels, discovered a new aunt, and went out of my comfort zone to tell people I liked their work and ask them to lunch. Sure, I got to hear others’ thoughts on sound and music, but in the end, that wasn’t the most important thing.
  • This is my second conference using Evernote to take notes, instead of scribbling randomly all over pieces of paper that are unsearchable, and which will never be seen again. I flipping adore this method (and this MSI Wind netbook, which has now seen 2 years and 3 C’s, and is still holding up fabulously).

Best Food

  • Miso, a lovely Japanese place in the midst of a graffiti-lined street in Inman Park
  • Anatolia, near Georgia State, a bizarre and lovely (and super-yummy) Turkist place
  • Bhojanic, an Indian place in Decatur

A Word on Presentation Style

Though I had an overall positive experience, it’s worth noting that I was sadly unimpressed with the style of many of the presentations I saw. I was staying with a linguist friend who asked me, amazed, “Do people in your field really read papers to the audience?” a question repeated by a colleague of hers that we ran into on the MARTA. My response early on was, “Well, yeah, sometimes, but only like a few of us. Loads of people give really creative presentations.” I was thinking of John Logie and his fantastic deliver, especially–but Logie wasn’t here this year. It was like a paper-reading virus got into the water stream in Atlanta or something.

By my count (which might be off), I heard 19 people read straight from prepared texts, 2 people speak extemporaneously from an outline, and 3 people who did about a 50/50 mix. 8 of these people used traditional slideshows (PowerPoint and the like), 3 used Prezi (though all 3 were on the same panel and had collaborated to put all of their info into the same Prezi), and 2 showed videos with no accompanying slideshow.

Now, some people can read a prepared text like nobody’s business, staying fresh and engaging. (Kate Pantelides and Twila Yates Papay come to mind from this year’s C’s.) But holy smokes folks, many people can’t, and the audience is left wondering, “Would you let your students give a presentation like this?” and, “Couldn’t you have shown us the stuff that you’re describing–or better yet, taught us, as opposed to just presenting to us?”

I suppose this is a hanging-on from our humanities heritage as a field? And yes, in the end I’d rather have someone read a paper to me than stumble over notes–know thyself, and all that. But I felt the way I often feel with students, to whom I say things like, “There’s a power in your ideas that isn’t coming out in the way you’re expressing those ideas. But I know you, and I trust you, so please take a few minutes to ask yourself how you could give a presentation that is absolutely engaging and avoids all cliches as if they were poisonous vines creeping up around you. When you’re this boring, it subtly communicates that you simply didn’t try not to be boring.”

Other Posts on the Conference

These are just a few that I know of; feel free to contact me if you want to be added to the list!

  • Dan Berrett, writing for Inside Higher Ed, reviewing my favorite research initiative in rhet/comp, The Citation Project, as presented at C’s. (Check out the comments, too.)
  • As always, Alex Reid has some excellent thoughts on C’s and how it relates to the larger field.
  • Dennis Jerz was a hardcore C’s blogger, posting his detailed notes to many-a-session, and–bonus!–the story of his hospitalized sickness on the way home.
  • The Blogora has a post about students at C’s studying the history/theory of rhetoric.
  • Jenn Stewart, fellow C’s the Day winner, has a hilarious post up, filled with many-a-pic of Sparkleponies, as well as a “this is the stuff I thought about at C’s” kind of post. Perhaps I should have followed her lead and split the academic and the crazy-wild-fun into different posts?
  • There’s a page up on Ryan Trauman’s site about the Remixing our Scholarship panel.
  • Marc Santos‘s thoughts on education and assessment are briefly tied into C’s–namely, how doggone often these things were mentioned there.
  • Shane Wilson on Peter Elbow, and the hotel as the Star Wars Galactic Senate.
  • Noel Radley over at Viz, writing about Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s visual-body-twitter-scanner thing that was down in the Marquis level of the Marriott during C’s.

Looking forward to St. Louis next year!


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