Wednesday, 1 July 2009

One ‘literacy’ or many ‘literacies’

Reflecting on why the big singular ‘Literacy’ appears in the title of this seminar series, rather than the more contemporary ‘literacies’, raises a bit of a conundrum, for me, in the way the term relates to questions of social power.

I’ve always understood that the use of the plural form ‘literacies’ (which the Word spellchecker and speech recognition software still refuses to acknowledge) signals an intention to talk about practices, which are inherently collective, rather than skills or competencies - usually seen as accomplishments of the individual.

I’ve also tended to view this shift as part of the general turn to the social in Western societies since the sixties, which I also associate with a kind of leftish, anti-authoritarian and anti-judgemental stance, like that satirised by Sondheim in the song from West Side Story: “society's played him a terrible trick, ...sociologic'ly he's sick”. Taking the monolithic ‘Literacy’ away from The Man and redistributing it amongst the people as ‘literacies’ seemed to me to be eminently within the spirit of a social democratic age.

However, toppling monoliths is also within the spirit of the more materialistic and individualistic neo-liberal age that we currently find ourselves in, and what has replaced the ‘gold standard’ view of literacy isn't so much a new awareness of the relation between textual practices and cultural capital, but instead a fascination with the different technologies of communication and how to master them for the purpose of capturing attention.

So now I find myself resisting the very democratisation of ‘literacies’ that once seemed so politically right (on). The Man has re-appropriated the term in order to sell us our very own choice of soapbox.

Which is why the time now seems right to resuscitate the old singular form ‘literacy’ (although perhaps without the capital L this time) for our investigations into practice in the digital university. Without trying to set up a new gold standard for communication we can still argue about whether there are distinct forms of cultural capital associated with specific forms of textual practice in higher education communities, and whether these forms of textual practice can contribute to the public, as well as the private, good*. It is about (the whole question of) literacy in the digital university, not just the practices individuals get involved in.

* I’ve been reading Calhoun (2006) The University and the Public Good, Thesis Eleven, 84, 7: 7-43.

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