Digital Literacy, Competence, and the Necessity of Inexperience: A Forward/Reflection on Alex Reid

Just finished reading Alex Reid’s blog, where he’s posted a response to a passage in the Horizon Report, produced by The New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE. I’m particularly interested in reflecting on Reid’s engagement with the Horizon Report’s use of the term literacy.

I sense that Reid is somewhat resistant to the grafting a one term, literacy, with its history as a socially valorized term in particular contexts, onto a much more contemporary—and only selectively related—digital context. Literacy originally emerged as a key cultural term in reference to print texts (most often implying some relationship to reading and writing books and letters). I won’t deny that there are some pretty clear analogs between the two contexts (printed texts vs. digital texts). And I share Reid’s skepticism about the (what I would characterize as) too-easy appropriation of the culturally-loaded term into what often seem to be overt rhetorical strategies for legitimizing digital media studies. Here are three quotes from Reid’s post:

It is increasingly difficult to imagine arguing that college students will not be using digital media as students, professionals, and citizens for many purposes that will partly supplant as well as extend the way prior generations used books, paper, pens, typewriters, libraries, televisions, newspapers, lecture halls, and even higher education itself. As an industry, as institutions, and as faculty we remain ill-prepared to meet these changing conditions.


I would suggest that “literacy” is a concept that responds to the problems print technologies pose as mechanisms of communication. Here we remediate, I suppose, the concept of literacy as “digital media literacy” in response to the problem of understanding how assemblages of/including digital technologies mediate communication. … “Literacy” is a charged term in education. Few would doubt the importance of teaching “literacy,” so to tie digital media to literacy is a way of brining a particular kind of legitimacy and attention to the task.


The word “literate” enters English along with the printing press in the 15th century, where it refers to a general understanding of language and a liberal education. Literacy, tellingly, only appears in the late 19th century as a discernable quality or skill and as a quality of a social group. So one might contend that “literacy” only appears as a concept as a way of socializing and institutionalizing a particular perceived problem in the habits of a population who were being newly introduced to a system of public education.

So what’s at stake here? Plenty. Obviously, given my own alignments, I’m invested in legitimizing digital writing studies. Drawing on a long, scholarly history of literacy studies as one-of-many-ways of framing this pursuit has a rich potential. Not only for improving the scholarship, but legitimizing it, too. That’s the easy part to understand.

Yet, how do I remain skeptical? For a couple of reasons. The first is that literacy’s history as a key cultural term has not always been positive. Many scholars, such as Harvey Graff, Miles Myers, or Cynthia Selfe, offer extensive histories of the term, and show how the term itself has operated as a socio-rhetorical technology in service of various public “causes” proposed by policy makers, church leaders, and corporate interests. Church leaders stressed the important of literacy as a way of strengthening the church’s reach into the lives of both children and parents. Policy makers collect and dole out billions of dollars based on policies related to literacy. And of course, the economics of reading and writing (books, newspapers, computers, etc.) is so ubiquitous, it’s immersive.

An no, I don’t think we should avoid the term literacy just because there’s such a contentious web of powerful entities invested in its circulation. That’s actually one of the reasons I think it’s important for us as scholars of digital writing practices to embrace the term. It’s the language of our audience. It’s the language of (one of) our discipline’s histories.

What’s at stake? If we don’t continually challenge and reflect on the term and the ways we invoke it or fight against it, it becomes and even more powerful technology for those interests I’ve already mentioned. It’s not the best example, but it’s immediately relevant. Consider eReaders. If you take a look out on the web, on Amazon, at your local Barnes and Noble, on the evening news or morning shows, you’ll become immediately aware of just how much rhetorical work goes into creating a market for these technologies. That’s not to say that a market doesn’t already exist. It certainly does. That’s part of what’s historical about this issue. But what the public rhetoric (read: advertising, reviews, press releases) reveals are the efforts of various entities (mostly corporate at the moment) to both cultivate and gain a stronger foothold in this “emerging” market.

And this brings me back  to one other thing I wanted to mention. Reid references two very different understandings of literacy between the 15th and 19th centuries. In the earlier sense, the term refers to a relatively uncontested set of material technologies surrounding reading and writing. But four centuries later, the term has become loaded down with so many cultural associations that Reid suggests it is more relevant to “socializing and institutionalizing.” I agree with Reid here. But Reid is working this out in a blog post, and he can’t say everything he wants to. So I want to attempt to clarify something that I’m not sure is clear in his post.

I think that by the 19th century, literacy had indeed come to refer to a set of socializing and institutionalizing practices. But that was happening on multiple levels. On one hand, it can be argued that educational (and maybe all public) institutions are merely material instantiations of rhetoric (see Reid’s reading of philosophy as a response to implicit/explicit problem). A cultural institution or university is largely defined in two ways: the effects it has on students and the knowledge it produces. Texts are central the operation of this sort of an institution. Knowledge is instantiated, preserved, manipulated, circulated, and received largely in the form of material texts (books, essays, journals, etc.). In this sense (institutionalization), literacy is the ability of a student to effectively engage and acquire agency within that textually-constructed environment.

But there is another sense, and that is cultural capital (both exchange value and use value) earned through academic success. In other words institutional literacy often results in social literacy. Of course the relationship between the two is more recursive and much, much more complex, but the point I want to address is the way literacy operates outside of educational institutions. Sure it’s a commonplace to argue that learning doesn’t stop after graduation; it never stops, really. And like our academic institutions, the extra-institutional world operates largely through texts. Before the advent of digital technologies, those text were almost exclusively print technologies. Books, newpapers, manuals, letters, etc. In this sense, literacy as a tool that mitigated learning and socio-cultural (and economic) participation.

What’s important here is what is often elided in this explanation. Too often, literacy becomes synonymous with cultural competency (will someone please help me come up with a better term for that?). Because cultural competency has for so long been mitigated by textual competency, definitions of literacy begin to destabilize. Because digital technologies are (relatively) quickly supplanting print-technologies in a variety of socio-cultural operations, I think it’s most often appropriate to use the term digital literacy—to the extent that literacy has come to mean textually-mitigated interaction with one’s culture.

But some people see this appropriation of literacy from print to digital contexts, and misunderstand what exactly transfers between the two contexts. I think it’s the textuality-as-operating-structure rather can literacy-as-synonymous-with-competence.

I’ve heard some really weird uses of literacy over the past several years. Gardening literacy. Fish tank literacy. Sexual literacy. And too often these uses emerge from pedagogical questions framed like this one: “What sorts of literacies do you have?” I think what these instructors are really asking, or at least what the students hear is “What things are you particularly good at?”

Okay, so back to Reid’s engagement with digital literacy. My reading of his post is that he’s encouraging us at instructors to recognize that digital literacy, particularly in the context of mobile computing, likely means something very different to our students than it does to us. And that’s because of the ways (the manner, the goals, the frequency, and depth to which) we use digital technologies. To return to my earlier premise, one of the ways we engage, understand, and construct our worlds is through texts. This is even more true for academics, especially in writing studies. But the worlds we’ve built for ourselves which exist in our memories, our libraries, our computers, and other texts, are inflected by the materials of those texts.

For instance, my guess is that someone who lived during the JFK assassination (I didn’t), has a much different type of memory about that experience than I do about the 9/11 attacks. The media coverage used very different technologies which resulted in much different experiences and differently structured memories, both personal, social, and institutional. In other words, different texts. Different realities. Recursively, of course. This is just an example in the extreme. My other premise is that text create an immersive cultural experience structured around the technologies mitigating textual production and reception.

So it’s not that we haven’t caught up to our students and their digital literacies. There are some absolutely fundamental barriers to accessing the types of literacies we experience and our students experience. Maybe only subtle or minor barriers, but insurmountable to some degree nonetheless. I hate the term digital generation. But it’s apt in a lot of ways to this discussion. It can be difficult to ask a student to consider the affordances of certain modes of communication or technologies. Two reasons. The first is that some technologies like television or web-browsers have become so ubiquitous, some students have never recognized them as a type of communication. Television is television. Not a strategy of communication. Not a means of communication. It is unto itself. To the extent that television itself becomes the message (as opposed to the medium of the message… um, McCluhan reference… darn.), the ability to talk about television and reflect on it is a measure of a very traditional notion of literacy.

So what does this have to do with literacy and mobile technology? It’s important that we maintain a skeptically capacious view of literacy when it comes to digital techologies. Hardware? Software?

Laptops are mobile technologies. Laptop use mitigates certain types of cultural access and participation, much like books used to do. Few people used to doubt the importance of learning to engage texts effectively as a culturally relevant/important course of study. Does the same argument hold true? How difficult would it be to argue that teaching someone to use a laptop is an essential aspect of cultivating cultural literacy? And what of software? Facebook, for instance (or Twitter, or Firefox, or WordPress, or Powerpoint, etc.). Facebook is a particularly textual strategy of cultural participation. Should we be teaching literacy skills toward effective FaceBook participation, or should we be teaching Facebook skills toward effectively literate participation in the larger culture?

What’s most amazing about this discussion, I think, and this is the point with which Alex concludes his post, is that it’s likely that our students have a ton of experience and perceptual aptitude that we will never be able to access. We are going to need them to address these concerns. Not despite their inexperience with print-based cultural participation, but because of it.

(Production tools for this post… Browser: Chrome; Blog Post Editor: Windows Live Writer; Blogging Platform: Self-hosted WordPress site; PDF Reader: Adobe Acrobat. … I’ve decided to post this info for two reasons. The first is that I hope that some people will read this blog and want to produce one of their own. Transparent production notes can be instructive, and they can foster questions if people want to know how to do this stuff. The other reason is that I want to foster more productive and specific conversations about the resources necessary (types and volume of) for digital textual production. Please reference freely, inquire confidently, or comment reflectively/passionately. Yeah, okay, I would love for you to clarify and add anything you can.)

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