Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Us, the "unwitting purveyors of technology and technological literacy"?

Though Selfe's chapter tends to be a useful critique in theory, it suffers from the same shortcomings of the system it is attempting to critique, namely in that it's no more specific in how to approach that useful subset of the topic of digital literacy it warns that we're all too likely to miss.

Technologies can be useful, and digital composition technologies do produce some advantages over the very useful composition technologies that preceded them. What needs to be done is to identify these advantages and to remove them from the cycle of consumerism Selfe implicates in government-sponsored initiatives to increase technological literacies. Ohmann has already explained the key to understanding "literacy" -- we are to substitute "measurable" or "quantifiable oppression" each time it appears in our readings. To expect the federal government to do more than use the discourse of literacy to hide its more popular discourse of pork should surprise no one.

It pained me the first time I heard the director of a mid-level government office say that its employees could rest assured they had done good work because a third of the office's budget had made its way to the private sector. This was not a qualified measurement, but the primary and, to start this speech I recall, only measurement of success. Politics as currently conceived requires such ugly practical measuring sticks.

The key, then, is to take the short-term given of the government's aid and to, as so many school districts do to some degree, leverage those discourses to benefit those that need the assistance.

Selfe's writing occasionally approaches a particularly ungainly tenor, where instead of identifying the advantages technology adds to her field of expertise, she simply repeats the mantra that its would-be users must be taught to think critically about it. What does this critical thinking look like? She also comes dangerously close to crossing the line between looking for examples of where technology and society intersect unfavorably and devolving into a speech about the inequities of race that can be reproduced generically in articles of most any topic regarding resources. At worst, Selfe implicitly links race with the inability to reach desirable, skilled employment -- what is the cause and effect in a statement like, "In other words, the poorer you are and the less educated you are in this country -- both of which conditions are correlated with race -- the less likely you are to have access to computers and to high-paying, high-tech jobs in the American workplace" (101)? This is not a reason to devalue technological, digital literacy, but another reason to define its practical advantages and ensure not that we (and who is this "we," again?) "provide free access to computers for citizens at the poverty level and citizens of color", but instead that our educational institutions intelligently foreground those advantages alongside the oppressive flipside of consumerism to every student, irrespective of race or class.

(And where is the government's "narrowly defined" version of literacy? The issue is, again, that it's too broad!

By "technologically literate," this document [from Richard Riley's office of the Secretary of Education] refers to the use of computers not only for the purposes of calculating, programming, and designing, but also for the purposes of reading, writing, and communicating...

Is that all? ;^D)

The real key to introducing students to the advantages of digitally aided composition is to remove the dependence of platform on consumption and obsolescence. The digital educational platform must be standardized and resist obsolescence. Ironically, the most technical fields are the ones that require the least consumable resources; programming a computer can be done with older computers and a free operating system. There is little to nothing stopping anyone from learning to program C or Java on five-year old, even ten year-old hardware. Nearly the same can be said for composition. AbiWord runs on a number of older systems, and contains all the benefits of what's now traditional digital composition -- grammar and spell check tools, an easily accessed thesaurus, and trouble-free error correction. What's really changed with word processors over the last twenty years beyond the hardware required the run them, attempts at subscription models, and the intersection of new file formats with copyright?

The question is how to define such a stable, obsolescence-resistant platform. The One Laptop Per Child project might provide one, albeit arbitrary, possible model platform.

Regardless, the keys for digital composition should be to identify those advantages and to teach them to students outside of the influence and control of a commercialized, consumerized state of being, and then to repeat the process with other professionalizations. If schools can be a place where students learn to take computerized resources for granted, there is no reason to imprint the need for unnecessary hardware and software "refreshes". Teach digital goods as durable goods. It's surprisingly how widely that conception proves tenable and useful.

The question is how to find digital expertise interested in the issues of composition that can create such a stable platform.

Okay, well, it's too late and I need some sleep. Back for more, hopefully more cognizant tripe tomorrow.

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