Distracted by Digital Writing: Unruly Bodies and the Schooling of Literacy

Stacey Pigg, University of Central Florida

"[T]he rhetorical power of the phrase 'literacy crisis' resides in its ability to condense a broad range of cultural, social, political, and economic tensions into one central image."
—John Trimbur

We all have trouble focusing sometimes. However, “distraction” has become a buzzword in popular media referring to more than the familiar jerk back to reality that happens after we have been daydreaming instead of listening. Today’s distraction is described not as a momentary state but as a permeating condition affecting all parts of life. In this webtext, I will ask that we consider what is negotiated with respect to literacy when we portray students as pervasively distracted. Discourse that identifies a contemporary attention crisis often involves implicit assumptions about literacy in at least two senses: first, it supposes that digital literacy causes distraction, and, second, it proposes that this inability to focus leads to decreased reading and writing abilities in non-digital contexts. This tightly bound argumentative structure means that analyzing contemporary representations of distraction can teach us something about what literacy means today, including what forms of literacy are valued and how we apprehend relationships between students and literacy professionals.

In line with the theme of the collection, I take up this investigation by way of John Trimbur’s “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis.” Using Trimbur’s framework, I contextualize contemporary dissatisfaction with students’ distractedness within the legacy left by the relatively recent construction of literacy as a schooled set of measurable cognitive skills, a history developed in his 1991 essay. With this arc in mind, the focus on the “attention crisis” caused by rampant digital literacy is noteworthy. Through a focus on distraction, literacy crisis rhetoric has surfaced as more than panic over the linguistic details of student writing—though there are certainly complaints about IM and text-speak showing up in academic essays. Instead, the discourse that creates crisis rhetoric has taken up embodied practices and operations related to acquiring literacy outside school as a chief target of concern. In other words, a changed embodiment or habitus associated with digital reading and writing is often positioned both as evidence of literacy decline, as well as proof of why students struggle with academic engagement. Current attention crisis discourse suggests that time spent reading and writing in digital environments (and outside of schooled contexts) is powerful because it changes how students participate in school and other parts of their lives. However, cultural texts reveal that we have not shifted to valuing these literacies. They are unsettling to us.

What Will This Text Do?

In order to learn from this dynamic, I build on Trimbur’s claim that literacy crisis discourse distills powerful “tensions into one central image” (277). Specifically, I analyze how the image of the distracted student body functions rhetorically with respect to contemporary literacy. Just as Trimbur’s discussion is grounded in his analysis of the 1975 Newsweek article, “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” I anchor my argument in an instance of broadly circulating public media discourse: the 2010 FRONTLINE production Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, which was supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Verizon Foundation. This “multiplatform initiative” combined a documentary broadcast, a Website archiving user-contributed stories, and an “extensive promotion and outreach campaign” to draw attention to the impact of digital media on culture (see FRONTLINE). Produced by Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff, the Digital Nation video documentary assembled an impressive group of leading US scholars of digital literacy and culture (James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, and Sherry Turkle among them) while analyzing the effects of technologies on all aspects of American life including school, work, play, and even military activity. The broadcast originally aired on PBS in early 2010, is available for free viewing online, and has been released broadly in DVD format. Throughout this webtext are images that link to video content hosted on FRONTLINE's website. For example, clicking on the image below will allow you to watch the full documentary, a partial transcript of selected content is available internally, and a full transcript is available here:

Because of its unparalleled focus on the impact of the Web and its broad availability and dissemination, I focus on how representations of student bodies operate rhetorically in this documentary in ways that reveal important notions about literacy crisis. Dialoguing these bodies with those from the historical moments to which Trimbur attends, I untangle new contexts for crisis discourse and gesture toward new assumptions about value. The popular discourse about attention crisis combines a range of contemporary anxieties in the body of the so-called distracted digital native, her body decorated by her technologies and her focus on "them" rather than "us."

Why is It Important?

With this dynamic in play, pausing to reflect on this rhetoric and the anxieties to which it is attached is worth the attention of Computers and Writing scholars. The seductive nature of crisis rhetoric often creates a distraction in itself, what Richard Lanham has called an attention structure mediating how we direct our time. As teachers, many of us experience the ways students internalize crisis discourse, leading them to participate in self-fulfilling prophecies about their ability and performances rather than developing new strategies for navigating the complex environments in which contemporary literacy is practiced. For this reason, I conclude this text by drawing on recent Computers and Writing scholarship and my own qualitative study of emerging writing and attention management practices to describe how repositioning the student body might lead to new understandings of what initially appears as distraction.

Tips for Navigating

To read a linear version of this argument, you may download the pdf version or proceed through the webtext using the links marked << and >> at each page's beginning and ending. The webtext is also hyperlinked to allow for potential alternative paths through the text. Finally, the text contains several links to Digital Nation video, which is hosted on its site (external to this webtext). Each screenshot from from that site links directly to video or text content relevant to my analysis. A short selection of transcribed material from Digital Nation is also available internally here for contextualizing my analysis. >>