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.

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