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