Friday, 20 August 2010

The 'literacy problem'

Have just read something entitled 'New Literacies' on the ALT wiki I found the posting rather frustrating with regard to its cursory use of bodies of work which have been grappling with the issue of literacy as a social and cultural practice, across a range of mediated contexts, for the last thirty years.

The author, whose name I had to dig around for but finally found, seems to be setting out to discuss what he refers to as ‘the literacy problem’. He draws on an eclectic range of literature, some of which is referenced at the end of the posting and some of which is not. Secondary sources figure pretty strongly. What causes me the most irritation is the way in which someone claims to be writing about New Literacies, throws in many of the dominant writers in the New Literacy Studies (NLS) field, Street, Gee, Barton but also manages to misrepresent some fundamental principles of this field of enquiry and how it has evolved and developed as a critical lens on practice in specific cultural contexs, including new media and technological contexts. Also there is no acknowledgement that literacies theorists have always been aware of technologies in relation to literacy practices. The author claims that new literacies researchers “never studied literacy directly but only through the lens of organizations, institution and groups”. I am left wondering what he has actually read of the work he refers to. There are serious omissions, too, for example, no reference to the 2001 vol 4 & 5 special editions of Language and Education on New Directions in Literacy research, Kress’s Page to Screen, or Carey Jewitt’s work on multimodality. Throughout much of the posting the word literacy seems to me to be a kind of shorthand for anything to do with skill or competence. In fact, a quick web search of my own yesterday evening reinforced this, with links to
Agricultural literacyAliteracy • • Computer literacyCultural literacy • • Diaspora literacyEcological literacyElectracyFinancial literacyHealth literacyInformation literacyInformation and media literacy • • Mental health literacyMental literacyMultimedia literacy • • Racial literacyScientific literacyStatistical literacyTechnacy • • Visual literacy not to mention, emotional literacy - environmental literacy - political literacy- physical literacy........

So where do I go from here if I want to be able to think and write critically about literacies in a digital world? I remember Brian Street some years back critiquing the association of literacies with particular categories. His position was that terms such as ‘computer literacy’ were misleading since they suggested something unitary, whereas literacy always involves different uses of literacy in different contexts. At the time I wasn’t sure how far I agreed with this and still felt comfortable about using the term ‘digital literacies’. I believed that in associating digital with the plural literacies we were embedding the notion of literacy practices as primarily socially situated and contextual. I am no longer convinced that the term is doing this job. I want to continue to find a way of signalling my interest in exploring meaning making in a digital world and foregrounding the critical contested nature of literacies and literacy practices which the long history of NLS and by association, Academic Literacies, buys us. Since the LiDU seminar series started, I have been increasingly concerned that the ubiquitious use of the term digital literacies no longer carries these connotations for me and this ALT posting reinforces my disquiet. I find myself searching around as to where to go from here. I’m moving further and further away from using the term ‘digital literacies’. Literacies in a digital world is working better for me right now and, with regard to my own work, academic literacies in a digital world/context/age seems to conjure up where I am located, with my interests in meaning making through participation in textual and technological practices.
I am hoping that with our 2 day event in October, focusing on methodological issues, we will be able to explore this further.

Third seminar in the series coming soon!

The third seminar in the series, entitled 'Methodologies for Research in Literacy and Learning in Digital Contexts', will be held at the Open University on October 14th and 15th.

The programme is still being finalised -- as well as presentations and discussions led by the core members of the seminar group (David Barton, Mary Hamilton, Candice Satchwell, Helen Beetham, Allison Littlejohn, Lou McGill, Sian Bayne, Mary Lea, Chris Jones, Robin Goodfellow) it will include talks from two international invited speakers: Eszter Hargittai from Northwestern University in the USA, and Carmen Lee from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a plenary discussion led by Carey Jewitt from the Institute of Education.

Eszter has recently had an interview about her book 'Research Confidential' published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Carmen was an invited speaker at the 17th International conference on learning in Hong Kong this year. Carey is well-known internationally for her work on multimodality and education.

The previous two seminars (Edinburgh last October, Glasgow Caledonian in March) raised a number of key questions for future research on 'literacies of the digital' and 'learning in the digital age'. Some of these issues are summarised here on the Lidu blog, for example:

Socio-technical practices – what are they, how are they learned, what group, and group-use-of-technology practices need to be learned for collaborative, participatory practices?

How do universities respond, in terms of assessment frameworks, regulations etc., to new text types and literacy practices?

What is it to be a digital scholar? What makes a ‘successful’ ‘academic’ blog, for example? Will a blog ever have the same status as a paper in a reviewed journal?

The October seminar is focusing on the kinds of research methodologies, survey-based, qualitative, ethnographic, reflexive etc. that we need to inform the exploration of questions like these.