CW05: The Politics of Digital Literacy

Casey and I got our presentations out of the way (the bare-bones version of mine is here: I had the rather stressful experience of a kernel panic and hard crash the night before while I was trying to put together some accompanying PowerPoint slides), and we’re happy to have that done. We got lots of insightful comments from generous respondents, and I hope our presentations have enough in common that we’ll be able to smush them together into something publishable.

Anyway: what I want to talk about here is the really impressive first panel I went to, on “The Politics of Digital Literacy: Cases for Institutional Critique,” since Kris Blair, Mary Hocks, and Michelle Comstock all gave enviably smart and well-put-together talks that intersected in productive and provocative ways, especially in that — while sharing a common theme and associations with large, diverse urban or state universities — Mary’s focused on institutional concerns, Michelle’s on community concerns, and Kris’s on personal concerns.


Mary Hocks introduced the panel by pointing out that in some ways, all three of them were building on work by Cindy Selfe and Jim Porter about the ways responsibilities for access get mapped onto community literacy programs, and the ways in which uneven access to the equipment and curricula associated with digital literacies continues.

Mary began her presentation, “Navigating Digital Pressures in an Urban Institution,” by noting that more than fifty percent of the students at her institution are non-traditional students, and that financial assistance for some such students — like the Hope scholarship — are being eroded by budget pressures even as the pressures on those students to buy computers increase. She then wondered: are the students at her institution as prepared for digital technologies as her institution expects them to be? And — as Charlie Moran has wondered — how can the digital divide ever be closed when economic inequalities inevitably remain? Georgia State’s exit assessments indicate students’ digital competencies are not as high as the university would like them to be, and Mary worried that some of the university’s institutional pressures can interfere with what she hopes to accomplish in terms of digital literacies for her highly diverse student population. She then detailed some of the specific institutional pressures at Georgia State, such as their need to define technological literacy, and their attempts to do so by setting criteria for outcomes that remain too vague to be helpful. (I wondered here: is there a danger that composing more concrete outcomes criteria while the societal and institutional economic inequalities remain serve as an excuse for the institution to blame poor students for their own failures?) Anyway: Mary was bringing up a lot of interesting examples and accompanying analyses and I kinda lost the thread for a bit, but picked it up again when she noted that her institutional accreditation requires demonstrated growth in technological literacy. I was concerned that this sounds like a good way for accreditors and pundits to blame teachers for succeeding: what happens when the perception of growth disappears? When the institution — from Mary’s account — is throwing technological money (WebCT, electronic portfolio evaluation products, requiring students to buy laptops) at their problems rather than devoting funding to teachers and teacher training, and when 96 percent of the students there actually do have computers, can teachers really be expected to demonstrate perpetual growth in student technological literacy? Well, yeah, because technology rapidly evolves — but it’s troubling that so many institutions, because composition is often the sole cross-univerity site of instruction, find it easy to place the burden of technological instruction on composition teachers.

Michelle, from the University of Colorado at Denver, described her work at a writing center that became part of a distributed community of digital literacy programs. Her use of the term “distributed” she attributes to James Gee’s recent description of “distributed systems,” which — while it doesn’t originate with Gee — is likely familiar to folks familiar with the rhetorics of the digital economy: others have called it “diverse” or “peer-to-peer” or “individuated,” with varying shadings and nuances of meaning, but the understanding is common: concurrent trends in economics and technology have shifted the scale of change to a far finer grain, from the mass to the individual. Academic rock stars Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are particularly instructive here, though I disagree a tiny bit with their early constructions of economic agency and hegemony. So Michelle asked: what happens when labor is distributed beyond the university setting and beyond the mass-economy model of centralized distribution? Her answer: become a digital consultant. Michelle’s project leaders saw their project as helping students prepare for future careers — but, in an urban high school that graduates about 48% of its students, such a project became particularly complicated by the funding from retail electronics change BestBuy, who wanted student testimonials and market access in return for their grant cash.

Finally, Kris Blair talked about a 5-year digital literacy program with senior citizens titled “Re-Connecting Seniors Through Technological Literacy” she’d worked on. Her work with the project showed her how doing work with older adults makes us re-think notions of technological literacy, particularly on the personal level. Kris offered engaging examples of how helping her mom learn how to use a computer helped her to think about the intersection of technology and maintaining a work/life balance, and moved on to show — with considerable wit — how her digital storytelling course for older adults at a community center helped her to understand that our jobs can sometimes prevent us from seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love us.

The presentations spurred an excellent question-and-answer discussion afterwards, with lots of people offering smart questions and insights about the possible implications of — and possible practical reactions to — institutional and cultural pressures relating to technology. The questions Mary raised, in particular, make me see the class and economic issues I’m struggling with in my dissertation in a new light.

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