Alternative (part 1/3): Paying Attention to Emerging Practice

<< In this webtext so far, I have suggested that many educators, parents, and cultural critics are experiencing a felt sense that something is wrong with respect to contemporary students’ literacy development. Though it is difficult to put our finger on what makes us uneasy, current discourse indicates a tension between the sense of literacy as embedded in everyday practice and a conception of literacy as cognitive skill. Literacies developed outside of school—especially involving digital technologies—are agentive and powerful in the lives of contemporary students. These practices affect the way that they engage, particularly their receptiveness to traditional techniques of schooling. However, we often resist valuing out of school literacies and create new academic standards to measure appropriate literate engagement. A material shift in literacy is underway but not without strong resistances and tensions especially from literacy professionals.

Crisis rhetoric functions as a method of diverting attention. However, Computers and Writing specialists have a history of scholarship closely linking technology use to emerging literacy practices. Collin Brooke has offered a generous reading of digital practice, urging us to describe emerging strategies (see, for example, Brooke’s discussion of “persistence of cognition,” 157). While Trimbur’s 1991 call to action importantly focused on increasing access to education, literacy researchers who specialize in Computers and Writing can intervene by uncovering the complexity and importance of vernacular literacies. Doing so will allow us to reposition students as having more agency with respect to their own literacy development, as well as to develop pedagogies not only from a sense of what students lack but from how they are already successful.

How Can We Represent Student Bodies Differently?

In research and pedagogies, we can listen to, learn about, and theorize from the enacted literacy practices embedded in everyday student activity, rather than labeling them from a decline perspective. In order to give a sense of how I have tried to re-see student practice from this paradigm, I briefly describe two recurrent practices from my recent study of student writing outside classroom space. Within this IRB-approved research focusing on individuals writing in coffeehouses, I observed how students dealt with multiple demands on their time and attention. From one point of view, the activity of the writing sessions I describe appears distracted. Students often spend only seconds with one writing technology or medium before turning to another. However, this movement often 1) represented a way of coping with complex information landscapes, 2) was planned, and 3) resulted in writing performances that students deemed successful. While I observed similar kinds of engagement across all student participants in my research, here I focus on one participant, Kathryn, who helped me understand that practices often conceptualized as “fluff” rather than “stuff” were central to the unfolding of writing in lived experience. >>