Made to Broken/Broken to be MAde

A Crisis Averted

If literacy must be reconceptualized as encompassing new technologies and new ways of thinking, then the definition of what it means to be literate naturally evolves as well. "Literate" students must now be able to adapt to physical and digital texts, often simultaneously, in order to interrogate and interpret meaning—and indeed, many already have. Our role as instructors is marked by the intersection of what students know, what they need to know, and for what purposes. As Wells (1990) notes, "[to] be fully literate, therefore, is to have both the ability and the disposition to engage with texts epistemically when the occasion demands" (p. 374). Of course, the idea of "texts" can be interpreted in any number of ways; Wells's definition is notable primarily due to the dependent clause: "when the occasion demands." It stands to reason, then, that students steeped in digital environments will encounter digital texts on a constant basis. Their academic lives are the practice arena for the rest of their private and professional lives.

According to Takayoshi and Selfe (2007), "Students need to be experienced and skilled not only in reading (consuming) texts employing multiple modalities, but also in composing in multiple modalities, if they hope to communicate successfully within the digital communication networks that characterize workplaces, schools, civic life, and span traditional cultural and geopolitical borders" (p. 3). And, in truth, learning to code can be one path toward these goals—but it is not the path.

What amounts to a fully experienced education cannot be found in a singular vision, however tempting it might to look to simple solutions to complex problems. Reversing this singularity may offer a better, more realized perspective. Annette Vee writes that "[programming] as defined by computer science or software engineering is bound to echo the ideologies of those contexts. Peeling programming away from these ideologies reveals that the webmaster, gamemaker, tinkerer, scientist and citizen activist can also benefit from programming as a means to achieve their goals" (p. 59). For and so many others, their perceived altruistic beliefs are self-serving and short-sighted, offering a solution to a problem existing only in their own minds. If, as Vee, notes, we can find ways for programming to fit in other fields to apply concepts gleaned from code (in her case, using computation literacy, a kind of applied deconstruction)—then we can democratize the priority of code education in such a way that it becomes part of the curriculum, rather than encompassing it. Code, once invisible, should be found in plain sight so that students are able to engage with it without a required obsession. Ultimately, the application of the principles of code to literacy may yield exciting results. The kind of literacy necessary to engage digital texts, outlined by Matteas (2007), is one that has been hybridized from multiple fields in order to account for the variegated nature of code:

…procedural literacy…the ability to read and write processes, to engage procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between the culturally-embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically-mediated processes. With appropriate programming, a computer can embody any conceivable process; code is the most versatile, general process language ever created. Hence, the craft skill of programming is a fundamental component of procedural literacy, though it is not the details of any particular programming language that matters, but rather the more general tropes and structures that cut across all languages (pp. 101-102)

Procedural literacy offers the technical side of computer programming with the abstract of human thought. In other words, this literacy practice combines the logic of code, a linear form of information processing, with a level of emotional content. Procedural literacy, then, engages the process of meaning making in a manner formerly unassociated with such a practice. An easy example is HTML code: elements of the code inform a given browser of the operations necessary to display a webpage. The information contained within the elements may be pure text, images, videos, etc. The language of code is also the language of poetry, of art, and of science. Our job, then, is to instruct and to facilitate the navigation of this new modality. Cynthia Selfe (2009) writes:

Composition classrooms can provide a context not only for talking about different literacies, but also for practicing different literacies, learning to create texts that combine a range of modalities as communicative resources: exploring their affordances the special capabilities they offer to authors; identifying what audiences expect of texts that deploy different modalities and how they respond to such texts…[within] such a classroom, teaching students to make informed, rhetorically based uses of sound as a composing modality and other expressive modalities—such as video, still images, and animation—could help them better understand the particular affordances of written language, and vice versa. (p. 643)

The tools and resources available to educators are endless (many are discussed later in this chapter). But one problem remains: aren't our students already experts in the use of these tools? After all, this is a generation which has been labeled time and time again as "digital natives," a demographic of tech-savvy and supremely able students capable of instantly learning software and being at ease with new technologies. Their abilities, however, remain largely untested and, for the most part, lack uniformity. Although technology has become more ubiquitous and inexpensive, not every student has mastered a specific set of software common to his or her generation. Still, most students are part of a generation of tech users who are at ease with smartphones and tablets and computers and all the connections between. Wallace's metaphorical anecdote is all too easy to apply to apply to our students: The matrix has become their water.