Made to Broken/Broken to be MAde

Made to Be Broken/ Broken to Be Made

BENJAMIN SMITH, Oklahoma State University

The late author David Foster Wallace began his now-viral 2005 Keynon College Commencement address with a parable about fish in water: "There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"

His point was not only to open a graduation speech with a "deep" anecdote, but to call attention to the convention of opening a graduation speech with a "deep" anecdote. By revealing the conventions of the graduation speech genre, Wallace pushed his audience to question and examine the nature of his speech—a speech that marks the rite of passage to end an educational experience and to enter the "real" world. As such, the graduating class—and the more than 100,000 online viewers since—are called to question the nature of their education and interrogate their place in the world. In much the same way, as instructors we are tasked with the call to deconstruct and make aware our own students as they are surrounded by ethereal geographies: vast and complicated digital worlds where they have all at once traveled effortlessly while forgetting the path beneath their feet. For "digital natives," we must reveal the water.

Literacy in the Digital Age

John Trimbur's (1991) essential argument in "Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis" is that the literacy crisis is less about Johnny's ability to write and more about the political and social circumstances at the time.  The trope of crises occludes the real reasons for concerns, and stakeholders gain by circulating the trope. In the case of Trimbur, literacy crises are the product of "progressive imperatives of public policy, economic development, technological and scientific innovation" in a new economy built upon technology rather than labor-based industry (p. 284). Trimbur's message appears now to be prophetic to the new perceived need for coders and programmers in a new information-based economy. He describes a new technocracy, an age of unprecedented data processing and information overload—and the uncertainty of how literacy will be required for this new economy and the workers under its thumb (p. 285).

That the economic foundations of the world are rapidly shifting should come as no surprise; and, like Trimbur, I want to trouble the conventional belief that literacy is in crisis. It is not my belief that a shifting economy should demand higher levels of literacy; rather, I believe the kinds of literacy necessary are shifting laterally, expanding to new kinds of literacy and to new kinds of education. Programming and coding education have had a strange history: the pinnacle of software was achieved with the truly intuitive interface pioneered by touchscreen software developers (most notably in mobile platforms which reached audiences measured in the millions). Consequently, the need to critically engage and understand software was no longer required of the user. Consumers no longer need to know command-line arguments or how to navigate a computer through a directory tree; in the age of touchscreens and intuitive interfaces, software now makes programming invisible. In that regard, the crisis of computer literacy was largely unfounded. The need to understand how to use a computer inside and beyond the classroom has been understood and mastered, even if such mastery is built on the sketchy foundation of intuitive touchscreen interfaces. But as a new age of programming has begun, the lessons of crisis discourse, it seems, are rather complex.  

This essay will examine the rhetoric of coding crisis and its eventual end: the shift in literacies to include the crisis of code, how cyberspace became a sacred space, what code offers that the classroom can't, and how these developments fit in with composition as a whole. 

The final section of this chapter will detail the development and rhetoric of new movements in digital self-reliance and the tectonic shifts in composition studies.  Students are no longer found in desks—they are everywhere and they are everyone. The classroom is anywhere with a data connection. The spreading and sharing of information through the internet has revived a keen interest learning code for the sake of joining a larger conversation—so what do we, as educators, do with it all?