Made to Broken/Broken to be MAde

Evolution of Literacies

Text is unlinear when written on paper.
Digital text is different.
Digital text is more flexible.
Digital text is moveable.
Digital text is above all…hyper.

—Michael Wesch, "The Machine is Us/ing Us"

Gordon Wells, in his article "Talk about Text: Where Literacy Is Learned and Taught" (1990) reminds us that "literacy is not a single, homogenous competence but, rather, that it involves being able to engage with texts of different types in modes appropriate to the different purposes people have in using them" (p. 404). Michael Wesch's video on the innovations and changes in Web 2.0 notes how the operations of digital text are dynamic, evolving, and difficult to assign a concrete definition. By extension, literacy—the ability "to engage with texts of different types in modes appropriate to the different purposes people have in using them" noted by Wells—must now address hypertext and digital texts. As these texts function in new and often radically different ways, literacy studies must evolve alongside these new developments. Some have already anticipated the necessary problems—and solutions—in this new paradigm. In Free Culture, The Nature and Future of Creativity, Lawrence Lessig (2004) notes:

A growing field of academics and activists sees this form of literacy as crucial to the next generation of culture. For though anyone who has written understands how difficult writing is—how difficult it is to sequence the story, to keep a reader's attention, to craft language to be understandable—few of us have any real sense of how difficult media is. Or more fundamentally, few of us have a sense of how media works, how it holds an audience or leads it through a story, how it triggers emotion or builds suspense (p. 36).

Lessig, writing primarily on media (the remix, mashups, etc.) in online environments, nevertheless speaks to a common concern held by writing instructors. Without the alphabetic essay, what are we actually teaching? Lessig's call to action differs slightly from Trimbur's recounting of literacy crisis discourse; for Lessig, the crisis is with media itself, and how we interact with it. Still, part of Lessig's concern is about the consumption and understanding of media, which does recall Trimbur's chronicling of literacy crisis discourse. One aspect of the evolution of literacy and composition is to embrace the notion that "composition"—or, more simply, composing—cannot be limited to only one form. Lessig continues by noting the similarities in the process of learning to write and learning to compose: "One learns to write by writing and then reflecting upon what one has written. One learns to write with images by making them and then reflecting upon what one has created" (p. 36). The processes of writing the alphabetic essay and crafting digital text—through code or otherwise—require similar kinds of cognition and reflection, of knowledge-building and work. Dennis Baron, in his article "From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology" (1999) notes that the "the writing practices I had been engaged in regularly since the age of four, now seemed to overwhelm and constrict me, and I longed for the flexibility of digitized text." Simply put, different kinds of writing function in different ways and while using similar means of cognition, fulfill different needs for different kinds of people. The spaces in which writing occurs—including the constant writing production of tweets, status updates, and blog posts in online environments—are similarly changing. Baron also notes that "writing itself is always first and foremost a technology, a way of engineering materials in order to accomplish an end." For literacy, then, the means to this end is shifting, and shifting rapidly. Acknowledging these new forms and functions of digital literacy is the first step in a new educational era. What follows that step, naturally, is an interrogation equally important to discovering what literacy and literacy crisis discourse have become—so what do we do about it?

New Crises...