Gail E. Hawisher, Cynthia L. Selfe, Patrick W. Berry, and Synne Skjulstad
CONCLUSION: Closing Thoughts on Research Methodology
Since the time of our work with Synne and our initial foray into research in transnational settings, we have extended our methodological approaches in several important ways. These include an expanded use of feminist and collaborative strategies for gathering and reporting on individuals' literacy stories; taking our ongoing study into a variety of global and transnational contexts; exploring methodological and interpretive work with literacy narratives and narrative theory; and broadening the ways in which we have deployed digital media, particularly video, both as a method of data gathering and as a method of reporting on our research to others in and outside of the profession. All these changes to our original methodological approach have added important dimensions to investigations of globalized digital literacy practices (Hawisher & Selfe, 2000).
The shift to video as a primary research tool, as Roy Pea and Jay Lemke (2007) argue, allowed us to report on findings in a much more richly textured way than print alone would have. Indeed, Pea and Lemke suggest that digital media representations of research data—the use of digital video clips to represent instances of communicative exchange—should be used in tandem with written descriptions of specific phenomena to support a closer and more detailed reading of collaborative interpretations that ultimately allows for clearer explanations:
"…a sample of original video allows scholarly peers to assess the results of [alphabetic] transcription and to place analyses in the wider context of features of the video-recorded event that may not have appeared relevant to the original researchers…. The purposes are to enable researchers to more clearly convey the evidentiary basis of their arguments and to permit a closer assessment of the work reported" (p. 41).
Thus digital media, in addition to being at the heart of our study, comprised the research tools of choice for collecting, exhibiting, and analyzing life history interviews. Through Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP), the interviews are, furthermore, available in an online, open access, peer-reviewed venue for other researchers to view and study. In the text that follows, we outline some of assumptions and practices that continue to inform this ongoing research.
Local and Global Ecologies
The increased use of digital media in our approach to the study of digital literacies has not changed the fact that our research grows out of the work of scholars such as Brian Street (1995), James Paul Gee (1996), Harvey Graff (1987), and Deborah Brandt (2001). We have always begun with the assumption that we cannot hope to understand any literacy or language use—print or digital—until we understand the complex social and cultural ecology, both local and global, within which literacy practices and values are situated. We continue to use the term "cultural ecology" to suggest how literacy is related in complex ways to existing social milieux; educational practices and values; social formations like race, class, and gender; political and economic trends and events; family practices and experiences; and material conditions, among many other factors. We believe the ways in which people acquire and develop digital literacies—or are prevented from doing so—depend on a constellation of factors including income, education, access and the specific conditions of access, geographical location, proficiency in English, and support systems (see, for example, Hawisher & Selfe with Guo & Liu, 2006, 2010).
We refer to these related contexts as the cultural ecology of literacy and, with this metaphor, attempt to signal the complex web of social forces, historical events, economic patterns, material conditions, and cultural expectations within which both humans and computer technologies coexist.
Our understanding of cultural ecologies is based on a long history of work by exemplary scholars who have approached the phenomenon from different directions. We mention only the most salient figures from our own field here. In 1986, Marilyn Cooper helped us understand that language and literacy practices are "essentially social activities, dependent on social structures and processes not only in their interpretive but also in their constructive phases" (p. 366). And in 1998, Bertram Bruce and Maureen Hogan reminded us that computer technologies and the literacy activities they mediate are best understood through a study of the social systems and settings within which machines, and the humans who use them, exist. As they put it, "awareness of how technologies merge with daily practices leads us to view technology and literacy as constituent parts of life, elements of an ecological system, [and] gives us a basis for understanding the interpenetration among machines, humans, and the natural world" (p. 272). In foregrounding the significance of multiple contexts (historic, social, economic, educational, political, technological) for digital literacy efforts, we suggest the many related factors that influence people's adoption of digital media in relation to literacy practices.
As we continued to work on our project during the first decade of the twenty-first century, the globalized contexts inhabited by the many participants in our studies became increasingly important to us. We began to meet individuals on various research trips abroad and talk to them about the digital literacy practices they had taken up since the 1980s. Most of them inhabited the globalized educscape, a term Carmen Luke (2006) adopts to call forth an image of international education that corresponds with Appadurai's use of scapes to mark transnational flows across the global landscape (Appadurai, 1996).
The stories of these individuals, we believe, provide an interesting set of cultural tracings of how people inhabiting transnational contexts learn, take up, and use digital communication technologies to extend their communicative reach, to maintain their social and cultural identities, and to construct their worlds. Because the participants also grew up under markedly different local circumstances, we believe their narratives help us further appreciate the importance of situating an understanding of digital literacies in specific cultural, material, educational, and familial contexts. For these individuals, information and communication technologies represent a fundamental feature of a globalized world undergoing a period of major social, educational, and technological change, one in which people's lives and literacies have been altered in fundamental and specific ways.
We believe such stories will assume increasing importance in the coming decade as scholars attempt to identify and describe the globalized environments many students inhabit. A number of scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition have indeed made the "global turn" to which Hesford (2006) refers and, in doing so, have turned specifically to literacy acquisition and development among those with transnational connections. We're thinking, for example, of John Duffy and his 2007 study of a Hmong-American Community; Kate Vieira and her 2010 College English article on a Portuguese-speaking immigrant community in Massachusetts; Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Matsuda and their 2010 collection Cross-Language Relations in Composition; and Morris Young and his award-winning 2004 book on Asian-American literacies. All these colleagues continue to make important contributions to our own thinking and scholarship on what Paul Prior calls "literate activity," in which acts of literacy not only are "situated, mediated, and dispersed" (1998, p. 287) but also may include ongoing interactions, sometimes face-to-face, in the actual production of various types of texts (Prior and Hengst, 2010).
Literacy narratives, as we have used the term, take into their field of vision reading and or composing, language acquisition, literacy practices, and literacy values. These narratives are structured by "learned" and "internalized" understandings about literacy, which are culturally constituted. Literacy narratives often include "explicit images of schooling and teaching" (Eldred and Mortensen, 1992, p. 513) within formal and official sites of literacy, but they just as frequently focus on literacy as it is taught, learned, and practiced in informal settings such as home, church, online spaces, and other nonacademic environments (Brandt, 1995, 1998a, 1999, 2001; Selfe & Hawisher, 2004; Street, 1995). Literacy narratives have social, cultural, ideological, and tropical dimensions for us, as well (Eldred & Mortensen, 2006). Literacy accounts, as Linda Brodkey's (1986) work has established, are structured via a series of cultural "tropes" and thus serve as "social Rorschachs" (p. 47) that provide a historically situated snapshot of what specific cultures and subcultures mean by literacy. Such narratives are rich in meaning because they "twice encode culture" (Brodkey, 1987); they are simultaneously "practices and artifacts" (p. 46). Because our cultural understandings of literacy are the material of which literacy narratives are woven, even though some narratives affirm and some resist "culturally scripted ideas" (Eldred and Mortensen, 1992, p. 513) about literacy, they cannot avoid reflecting in some way—whether directly or indirectly–what it means to read and compose in a particular culture or time and place. We have found the writing process videos that participants themselves have constructed to be especially revealing in this regard, with their often culturally grounded representations of writing with music and images from the participants' homelands.
Storytellers use these personal accounts—written, oral, videotaped—to position themselves within the contexts of their own lives at home, within the family, with peers, in school, in the community, and in the workplace. Through literacy narratives, individuals connect these contexts to their understanding and practice of literacy. Because literacy narratives, as we define them here, are autobiographical, they always involve a degree of self-representation and performance. Thus we understand such stories to be sites of "self-translation" (Soliday, 1994, p. 511). As people tell and perform literacy stories, they also formulate their own sense of self; with each performance, this self changes slightly depending on a constellation of social and cultural factors, personal aspirations and understandings, the audience being addressed, and the rhetorical circumstances of the telling itself, among many other factors.
In this important sense, we came to understand participants to be using the interview settings and the narratives they related within these settings as their own personal forms of social action, a narrative strategy available to all humans (Brockmeier & Carbaugh, 2001). Revealed in these stories were not only glimpses of the challenges with which participants struggled when they sought access to technology or assistance in learning to use technology, but also tacit and often unconscious acts of world-making, of discursive and rhetorical codings that helped them both to articulate the cultural conventions of the technological world in which they lived and to shape that world to their needs. This grounding in narrative—combined with our increased attempts to fold the digital into our research—frames much of the research in which we currently engage.
Along with refining our methods for collecting literacy narratives through the use of digital video cameras, we have also, as mentioned, encouraged participants to make use of video cameras in tracing their own writing processes and digital literacies. Participants captured a representation of their writing processes on camera to try to demonstrate some of the thinking they experienced as they approached and carried out a writing task. In studying these videos, we have found that the use of digital media seems to open up new opportunities for making meaning, reflecting upon that meaning, and trying to communicate what it is we do as we engage in literate practices. As we work to represent—in words, images, and sound—processes of inquiry, the actual doing tends to reshape the way we experience and situate literate activity in our lives. Digital video also has the potential to afford us richer means of reflecting on such dispersed activity and what it means to our literate lives (Hawisher & Selfe with Kisa & Ahmed, 2010; Hawisher et al., 2009). Although video and audio have been used for a number of years to collect and report on data in disciplines such as anthropology, biology, and political science, such methods have not seen widespread use in other humanities disciplines like rhetoric and composition studies, in part due to the limitations of publication venues. With the advent of digital media publications, however, it is now possible for researchers to expand their reports beyond the range of the alphabetic.
In recent interviews with students who inhabit transnational contexts, for example, we used digital video and audio to both record and report on interviews in which students shared narratives about their use of various digital technologies to maintain their relationships with family, friends, and coworkers (Hawisher & Selfe with Kisa & Ahmed, 2010). Rendered in a more conventional form—that is, through transcripts and quotations—such narratives tend to be mono-dimensional and less complete, accurate, and informative: For instance, transcribed accounts of these interviews contain the students' words, but they fail to convey other important information—the English dialects of speakers from various regions and parts of the world; the rhythm and pace of their voices as they talk about particular incidents involving their parents, their friends, or their siblings; the vocal emphasis they place on some words and phrases as they tell their stories about emigration, the violence of war, and the challenges of adapting to a new culture; the revealing gestures and facial expressions they use to accompany a specific narrative about a mother, a father, a sister; the bodily presence they invest in conversations about school, travel, technology, and belonging to multiple cultures and locations. Thus we argue throughout the book that these media clips, impossible to render in print contexts, add additional semiotic information and more to alphabetic representations of research.