The Crisis: Literacy in the Time of Twitter and Texting

John Trimbur notes, in his 1991 article “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis,” the recurrence, in varying historical periods, of a “literacy crisis” narrative. Trimbur describes the literacy crisis of the early nineties as a story of the widespread rapid decline in literacy to levels supposedly held by the uneducated poor—a decline which threatened to erode the power of the middle-class. That narrative has changed: The widespread use of digital tools—which are most widely accessed and used by members of the middle-class and above—frames the 21st century's literacy crisis narrative. In books like Nicholas Carr’s (2010) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and articles like Bill Keller’s (2011) “The Twitter Trap,” this literacy crisis warns of a decline in intellect brought about by pervasive use of digital media.

It is essential that we examine student writing practices that, at first glance, seem to fit this narrative: writing that mirrors the mobile rhetoric of texting and lacks the conventions of “civil” or appropriate academic discourse. Such writing is not evidence of a decline in literacy, but instead should be seen as a current form of “hyperliterate” activity that displays a lack of audience awareness within an academic context. Counter to the current crisis narrative, the use of digital media does not result in a decline of literacy but leads to what Katherine Hayles (2007 and 2012) has called hyper reading and hyper writing. Hayles (2012) writes:

Hyper reading, often associated with reading on the Web, has also been shown to bring about cognitive and morphological changes in the brain. Young people are at the leading edge of these changes, but pedagogical strategies have not to date generally been fashioned to take advantage of these changes. Students read and write print texts in the classroom and consume and create digital texts of their own on screens (with computers, iPhones, tablets, etc.), but there is little transfer from leisure activities to classroom instruction and vice versa (p.11).

As Hayles, Selber, and Johnson-Eilola (2009) argue, student use of digital and mobile communication cannot be ignored in our classrooms as unrelated or inappropriate to academic discourse. Unfortunately, the commonly held negative attitude of college instructors towards any use of cell or smart phones in the classroom is reflected by numerous YouTube videos of instructors committing violent acts against mobile devices. Searching for the terms "angry professor cell phone" on YouTube provides numerous examples, such as the one locatedhere.

Instead of this hostile approach to student use of mobile devices, I will argue that we must study their use of these technologies to improve student literacies but also expand how we define literacy itself. Further, my research (as discussed in The Classroom) points to the fact that the current crisis over literacy which, in its most recent iteration, is supposedly about how technology is making us illiterate, has the same roots as previous crises over literacy. That is, at its core, the most recent popular literacy crisis is rooted in the same anxieties over cultural and socio-economic changes as before. While the fear of the (racial, cultural, or economic) Other may still be the underlying cause of current anxieties over literacy, a parallel and related crisis discourse about civility has emerged from the networked political arena. The causes and results of this “crisis of civility narrative” can be examined through the lens of networked communication theory to better understand the ways this parallel crisis underlies and feeds the latest literacy crisis narrative. The analysis of hyper discourse (such as student text messages and emails) in relation to the current popular outcry over the tendency of people (particularly young people) to communicate, via digital devices, in uncivil or “improper” ways, suggests that the latest literacy crisis is actually about the fear of a decline of “cultural literacy,” along with an attendant decline in respect for hegemonic values and “proper” modes of communication. Our success, as writing teachers and scholars, in turning the current crisis narrative into an opportunity may hinge upon our understanding of what may be the real crisis: the ways that literacy continues to be deployed by those in power as a marker of class and race, while digital discourse itself tends to promote a rhetorical and lived individualism, which discourages understanding and engagement among those who are different.

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