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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Sep 20, 2017

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today I want to start with a walk down memory lane


Remember laser discs? You might not be old enough to, but I do. I remember my seventh grade science classroom had a laserdisc player and we watched just a couple of films, brilliantly bright documentaries about butterflies or some other medium-appropriate topic. I don’t remember the topic, only that it was beauitlful. But I do remember that we only had the two laserdiscs, partially because they were expensive, but partially because in just a couple of years, DVDs would become widespread and accessible.


How about mini-discs? I definitely had boxes of minidiscs I had recorded from cds--I could get a cd and a half  onto only one mini-disc!--and I could listen to seemingly endless music at my college early morning janitorial job. It seemed very impressive--until I bought my first iPod.


This is fun. But why am I talking about technological non-starters? Because it’s so hard to guess what kind of technology will be pivotal when you’re doing research on the role of technology in our society. Things are guarenteed to change as fast as you get your book to press.


Cynthia L. Selfe wrote Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-first Century in 1999 as a forward thinking volume. In 1999, mini-discs and laserdiscs were soon to fade into history, andsome of the terms she uses, like the Web to name the internet, seem almost quaint. But when technology changes all the time, the best tact, and the one Selfe takes, is to discuss principles of the technology rather than the technology itself.


Selfe’s foremost claim is straightforward and applicable today as when it was written: “Literacy professionals and the organizations that represent them need to commit to understanding the complex relationship between literacy and technology and to intervening in the national project to expand technological literacy. We must also realistically appraise the multiple roles that literacy educators are already playing in support of this project” (160).


The word “realistically” is key for Selfe. Technology, she points out, has always attracted boosters and boycotters. Somebody introduces, say, a wiki assignment into a composition classroom and assumes that the students will now learn collaboration and concision perfectly, while another teacher rolls their eyes, believing that such an assignment is, at best, an interesting distraction. As Selfe points out “By describing computer technology as either beneficial or detrimental, either good or bad, they limit our understanding”  (36) and instead she aims for us to “understand the complex ways in which technology has become inked with our conception of literacy and, possibly, to shape the relationship between these two phenomena in increasingly productive ways” (37).


So what does this word “literacy” mean anyway? We’ve talked about literacy before on the show, especially in the Deborah Brandt episode. Remember how we talked about how literacy has meant, in different times, everything from cursive to memorizing vast tracts of poetry to understanding chunks of French or Latin in the middle of a text? Cursive might not be useful at all for you now. Well, now, Selfe says, we need to think about technological literacy. She defines technological literacy as “a complex set of socialy and culturally situated values, practices and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments” (11). Whew. So what does that include? According to Selfe, it include reading and writing and communicating. It includes the “social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication” and it includes “print, still graphics, moving images” and “such tools as databases...e-mail, listserv software, bulletin boards, and graphics and line-art packages” (11-12).


If you’re like me the first thing...well, the first thing I thought was “heh! Bulletin boards. Clip art! That’s as old-fashioned as laserdiscs and minidiscs!” and we’ll get back to that thought in a moment, but the second thing I thought was “how?! How on earth am I supposed to teach visual rhetoric and how to use emerging technology and I might not even be that good at on top of all the other literacy practices that my students need?” It seems like too much for us, and too complicated.


And in many ways it is too much. For that reason, it can be tempting to buy a package of projects and assignments, or to subscribe to every new technology that comes out in the hope of covering all the basis. One of the complex relationships that Selfe emphasizes is that whereever there is change, there are people wanting you to buy stuff. The companies who make the technology--in Selfe’s day it’s all “word processing” and “home PCs”--advertise to schools and, especially, parents, that children will fall behind unless they own this or another type of technology, and if they fall behind, the number one consequence is that they won’t make as much money. Selfe says that we need to be cautious of accepting the premise of technology as a purely economic investment--buy a computer now and it will pay off one hundredfold! Other voices, too, will make them, in Brandt’s words “sponsors of literacy,” such as the government and your school’s administration. There are complex and sometimes conflicted voices in how our students are introduced to technology literacy. Okay, now that you know to be skeptical of some of the many voices with vested interests, how do you know how to proceed?


Well, let’s get back to that first thought we had--reading Selfe’s book, it’s remarkable to think that less than 20 years ago there were still teachers who didn’t like their students to type up their first draft of assignments and there wasn’t a computer with projector in practically every classroom. There was also relatively little “non-computer digital technology”--she talks a lot about the PC and chatrooms and listservs, not foreseeing the way smartphones, Reddit, and Facebook will transform literacy in the first decade of the 21st century. She couldn’t have, and no one can. So this is maybe a hint about how to incorporate technology literacy into your own pedagogy--things are going to change so quickly that perhaps what you can best do is to encourage students to develop the general skills that will help them to adapt to new forms of technology.  You can encourage conversations about privacy and anonymity, audience and permanence with their application to whatever technology is blooming and dying--FourSquare, Twitter, Pokeman Go. You can teach students about the way we talk about technology--how those vested interests like corporations and governments talk about how technology is to be used and the limits of both the optimists and the Luddites. You can also teach them the tools that will make them successful when they encounter new kinds of technology. Maybe you teach them how to use a peer review software that they will NEVER AGAIN use in their lives, as I had to do once. My students HATED it and, to be honest, I hated making them use it. We struggled over and over again, spending precious time in class explaining how to upload their papers, how to make comments. But what I should have done instead is emphasize how this experience taught them certain abstract technology skills--how to fiddle around with something without thinking you’re going to break it, how to search for FAQs online when you need to troubleshoot, how to read instructions and intuit from the interface what the program “wants” you to do. These are skills that will outlast listservs and laserdiscs and  their progeny.


In short, we need to realize, to quote Selfe’s subtitle “the importance of paying attention” and help students to identify the ideological, political, economic, and spiritual implications of the the technology they can ignore or embrace.