The Trope of Crisis

Lynn C. Lewis
Oklahoma State University

So, to update the discourse of literacy crises, I want at the outset to recognize the inescapability of these newly wired states of being and how their ubiquity has set off various moral panics—typically articulated in the highest register of crisis discourse—about diminished attention spans, antisocial geeks, online bullying, first-person shooter games, the incivility of cyber-discourses, virtuality’s erasure of the real world, and the shallowness of life that is continuously connected and on display through social networking. There is no doubt that digital culture has reinvigorated the discourse of literacy crises.John Trimbur, Revisiting ‘Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis’ in the Era of Neoliberalism

John Trimbur’s 1991 essay, "Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis," describes a literacy crisis narrative situated in an ideological agenda and particular historical moment. Drawing on Gramsci’s argument that concerns about language use signal a reorganization of cultural hegemony, Trimbur defines the stakeholders in this reorganization through close analysis of Newsweek’s influential 1975 article, "Why Johnny Can’t Write." He describes the political and economic fear and unease of the Carter years when stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis dominated American public consciousness, noting the connections between fear as dominant trope and literacy crisis discourse. Trimbur persuasively argues for a view of literacy crisis discourse as always strategic, and demonstrates the ways in which it has reified the meritocratic educational order (285-86).

This foundational essay, frequently read and discussed in undergraduate courses and graduate seminars, is the linchpin of this book project. At the 2010 Watson Conference at the University of Louisville, I mentioned to John Trimbur that my graduate students had recently read his essay and found it very valuable. John’s thoughtful, smiling response, Thank you, but it really does need to be updated, led me to conceive this book project as a response to the challenge. My friend and colleague, Genevieve Critel, then a Ph.D. candidate at the Ohio State University and I had talked for some time about working on a project together. She was immediately enthusiastic when I told her my idea, and so we began work, via GoogleDocs, Skype, and long phone conversations.

We began by asking ourselves how this historical moment compares to that described in John Trimbur’s essay.

Twenty-one years after the publication of "Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis," our historical moment is characterized by post-9/11 dread and the economic panic of a new Great Depression. Mobile technological devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and laptops permeate twenty-first century public spaces. Where once a business woman talking into the air as she strode a city street might have signaled an individual’s psychotic break, now it suggests Bluetooth connectivity to networks, and the speeding pace of public and private lives embedded in technologies. Trimbur takes up these ideas in the epigraph above, from his contribution at the end of this book. As he notes, moral panics erupt into being in tandem with the pervasive perfusion of electronic technologies into more and more highly wired lives. And, as this book demonstrates, their discourse, their reliance on the crisis trope, is always strategic.

As in 1991, the crisis trope appears endemic. For example, searching the New York Times through the Lexis Nexis database for the term crisis finds too many references to show in both the previous year and previous six months. Narrowing the search to three months, I find a more manageable 2,138 references. The trope’s subjects range broadly: employment, student finances, defense spending, aging, bullying, infectious disease, education funding, climatology, accidents, disasters, and on and on. Its potent reminder to its audience that the worst is likely to happen or may have already occurred seems irresistible. Crisis rhetoric calls to action and, frequently, depends on the invocation of nostalgia. Literacy crisis rhetoric does both. As the contributors to this project will show, nostalgia for the imaginary (un)age wherein students were undistracted, unplagiarist, and culturally literate seesaws with fears of a future in which only experts can write code or the written text is demoted in favor of talking books or basic writers focus on multimodal composing rather than grammar. These crises swirl in the air of the electronic age, obliterating nuance, difference, and inequality for, as Trimbur argued, "The term literacy crisis possesses rhetorical its ability to condense a broad range of cultural, social, political, and economic tensions into one central image" (277).

The contributors to this project interrogate twenty-first century tensions condensed into one image as well. Though these tensions vary, they possess two commonalities. First, they are marked by digital technological imbrication. That is, the ubiquitous presence of the Web mediated through computer, tablet, or smart phone roots each of them. Trimbur’s epigraph above acknowledges and invites these meditations. Second, they may be read as consequences of the essential turn in the focus of literacy studies from reading to writing. Kathleen Yancey’s famous declaration in her 2004 Chair’s Address at CCCC, explains,

Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres. The consequence of these two factors is the creation of a writing public that, in development and in linkage to technology, parallels the development of a reading public. And these parallels, they raise good questions, suggest ways that literacy is created across spaces, across time (430-31).

For Deborah Brandt, this turn becomes a second stage of mass literacy, one in which writing is coming to rival reading as a basis of mass literate experience (172).  In other words, more people compose than ever before. The Pew Internet Survey’s April, 2008 report on teens, Writing, Technology, and Teens, notes that teens’ lives are filled with writing. Yet, teens believe their digital composing practices are not really writing, and, as the contributors to this book show, this belief, fueled by crisis discourses, circulates ubiquitously.

Indeed, literacy crisis discourse abounds—see for example, Rebecca Moore Howard’s extensive bibliographies on the topic. These scholars, among others, see the proliferation of composing technologies such as social networking sites, blogs, Nings, and web page authoring applications, providing the means for the writing public’s mass literate experience. However, those same technologies, frequently promoted as consumption devices, spawn deep-seated fears about what this means for literacy. In other words, they are themselves objects of twenty-first century literacy crisis discourse. But what does that twenty-first century literacy crisis discourse look like? To what extent does this crisis discourse differ in kind, substance, or effects from what Trimbur described? How is it strategic and what responses might be possible?

This book project seeks to answer these questions through exploration of seven sites of literacy crisis discourse.

Stacey Pigg, University of Central Florida, examines the attention crisis in Distracted by Digital Literacy: Unruly Bodies and the Schooling of Literacy. The attention crisis, Pigg argues, is two-pronged: it not only represents familiar concerns about linguistic purity but also seeks to discipline students’ bodily practices in outside of school literacy practices. Pigg notes that distraction is misleading as a term. Rather, students are engaging in effective rhetorical strategies she describes as compartmentalizing and monitoring. And, as she suggests, these rhetorical strategies have much to offer student writers—as well as teachers’ understanding of effective pedagogy in twenty-first century writing classrooms.

Like Pigg, Stephanie Vie, University of Central Florida, is concerned with current crisis discourse that frames student writing. In Don’t Fear the Reaper: Beyond the Specter of Internet Plagiarism, Vie explains that concerns that Johnny Can’t Write, have been replaced by the mantra Johnny Won’t Write His Own Paper. Discourse on the plagiarism crisis represents a ubiquitous narrative, one that attributes the problem to digital technologies. Anxieties about technology, teaching, the role of instructor and student, and the nature of writing in the twenty-first century help explain the rapid acceptance of plagiarism detection services such as just as middle class anxieties explain the proliferation of literacy crisis discourse in Trimbur’s essay. Vie demonstrates that’s definition of plagiarism matches crisis narratives rather than the nuanced complexity established through current scholarship. Like Trimbur, Vie calls for closer attention to the narratives proliferated through crisis discourse and argues for much closer examination of plagiarism detection services.

Kevin Brooks, University of North Dakota and Chris Lindgren, University of Minnesota, interrogate Code Academy's use of crisis discourse in its Code Year initiative. Applying Trimbur's critique, the authors reflect on their experiences working with underprivileged 4th and 5th grade children and teaching the open source programming language Sugar in Responding to the Proceduracy Crisis: From Code Year to Code Decade. Proceduracy crisis discourse, the notion that failing to learn to code is a crisis-in-the-making, is circulating among academic journals and scholarly conferences. While the authors see learning to code as an important literacy practice, they draw attention to the perils of crisis discourse. First, the authors show that current crisis discourse elides the many successful programs and curricula that have taught code for the past fifty years. Next, Brooks and Lindgren describe their after school program designed to teach children procedural literacy using Sugar. They suggest the program was a valuable beginning, but that the value for some children was compromised by access, gender and race in ways they had not foreseen. The authors conclude that the short-term nature of a code year and the crisis discourse that emerged around this event are deeply problematic. Attaining procedural literacy is important but careful attention to gender, race, and access complexities as well as long-term program building are essential to reaching this goal.

Justin Young, Eastern Washington University, considers how crisis discourse frames under-prepared student writing. His contribution, Crisis and Opportunity: Hyperliteracies in the Composition Classroom describes prevalent concerns about students’ dependence on text-speak and the resulting rudeness they appear to demonstrate when writing in other communicative genres, both digital and material. He notes that privileging cultural literacy—a literacy rooted in middle-class expectations and values—makes possible the civility crisis. However, Young seeks to complicate our understanding of both the civility crisis and scholarly responses to this problem, defining and describing these students as hyperliterate. Unlike the students in Lunsford’s important Stanford study of students’ multiliterate capabilities, Young’s students are less able to negotiate contexts because they fail to consider the audience. However, their messages, when composed effectively, represent important hyperliterate practices worth developing in the classroom. Young suggests that pedagogical frameworks should include hyperliterate practices with careful attention to the opportune rhetorical contexts for their practice.

Benjamin Smith, Oklahoma State University, explores shifts in literacy demands in Made to be Broken/Broken to be Made. He examines proceduracy crisis discourse from a different angle pointing to a relationship between the call for multimodal composing and code. In contrast to Brooks and Lindgren, Smith focuses on the first-year writing classroom and taking small steps towards critical awareness of the ways in which code underlies the digital homesteads students create in internet spaces. Where organizations such as call for sweeping programmatic changes in order to fend off looming code crisis, Smith proposes scaffolded approaches so that students may envision themselves as joining larger conversations, privileging interaction, action, and reflection in digital spaces rather than easy and passive consumption.

Melissa Helquist, South Lake Community College, applies a multimodal lens to issues of disability in her essay, Listening as Literacy: Notes from the Braille Literacy Crisis. Helquist analyzes a report by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which exemplifies Trimbur’s argument that narratives proclaiming a literacy crisis tend to provoke generic reactions. The NFB’s report claims that the low employment and high poverty rates among blind and low-vision people can be explained by low levels of Braille—a Braille literacy crisis. However, Helquist questions these claims: demonstrating that anxieties about the so-called demise of the book underlie the NFB’s concerns, an iteration of Trimbur’s identification of middle-class status anxieties underlying literacy crisis discourse. The NFB’s refusal to expand literacy definitions to include multimodality are troubling; as a result, new technologies for listening are ignored. Helquist suggests that literacy is best viewed as embodied, as has been argued by numerous scholars; such a view opens definitions of literacy to include listening. Finally, Helquist points to newer technologies which marry Braille with texting and audio feedback. She argues such technologies point to the ways a disability lens will enrich understandings of literacy.

Constrictive definitions of literacy also concern Lynn Reid, Farleigh Dickinson University. In Politics of Remediation, she interrogates how literacy crisis discourse, foundational to basic writing programs, constricts instructors from multimodal composing work in the basic writing classroom. Reid suggests resistance to multimodal writing parallels resistance to basic writing in that neither is regarded as serious writing. While the field of basic writing appears as a response to crisis as deficient or declining skills, Reid agrees with Trimbur that the crisis trope may lead to either program development or program abandonment. Reid describes the history of the basic writing field in order to demonstrate the deep imbrication of crisis rhetoric with basic writing. In general, scholars have tended to define the basic writing classroom as a site where problems and/or failing students can be fixed and as a consequence, multimodal work is avoided because it will not fix the problem of students writing traditional academic texts.

Finally, John Trimbur, Emerson College, reflects on Revisiting ‘Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis’ in the Era of Neoliberalism, in the final contribution to the book. Trimbur acknowledges the profound impact of digital writing technologies and spaces in his essay and describes the context within which each of the crisis discourses described above circulate. Where previously, literacy crisis discourse focused on student and teacher seeming failure to achieve particular objectives, now the trope of crisis attacks the value of higher education itself. Rather than accepting a system in which equal access to higher education devolves into nostalgic mist, we would do better, Trimbur argues, to focus more sharply on approaches to providing access to all students in a system that values social justice and egalitarian reform.

The contributors to this project contextualize their arguments by considering a variety of student writers through differing lenses. Inequality persists across these populations, and our digital era has deepened old fissures (see Brooks and Lindgren, Young, Helquist and Reid) and generated new ones (see Pigg, Vie, and Smith). Nevertheless, each scholar expresses optimism. They agree that literacy practices in the digital age present real opportunities.

Literacy crisis tropes continue to circulate freely. When I began this project, I did not know if Trimbur's claims would hold up considering the technological, social, and political changes of the last decade. Yet, each of this book's arguments finds the discourse of literacy crisis to serve particular stakeholders. Indeed, even when organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind or for-profit corporations such as or non-profits such as point to a genuine issue—a need for real support for evolving literacy practices—the crisis discourse surrounding these remains troubling, constrictive, and reductive. It is, in other words, strategic discourse. Sounding its breadth and depth remains crucial.

Works Cited