Chapter 3: Looking for Transfer through Multiliteracies

3.2 Developing Critical Literacies

Looking and listening for Selber's critical literacy in the first-year writing study has been challenging. Evidence of students developing functional and rhetorical literacies was often obvious, seeming to jump out at me as I went through the data. In contrast, I found myself struggling at first to spot evidence of critical literacy. As I carefully listened and relistened to student accounts, however, I began to understand that critical literacy was not missing from student experiences. Instead, the critical literacy I observed was different from Selber's: it was enacted through multimodal video production, and it involved the ability to recognize, question, analyze, and apply multimodal design elements.

Selber defines critical literacy as students’ ability to “recognize and question the politics of computers” (75). These politics include the perspectives of people who shape design cultures, the contexts and environments in which computers are made and used, institutional forces related to corporations and universities that affect computer use, and popular representations of computers through images, narratives, and tropes. In other words, critically literate students, according to Selber, learn to ask questions about the technology they use, such as What is lost as well as gained through the use of this technology? Who profits? Who is left behind, and for what reasons? When this technology is used, what is privileged in terms of literacy and cultural capital, and what is ignored? (Selber 81).

Supporting students in developing this kind of in-depth, socially aware critical literacy is a tall order for educators, often made more difficult by the very use of the term critical. Selber points out that some, such as Elizabeth Ellsworth, question the use of “such code words as ‘critical,’ for they can fail to both name ideological agendas and suggest concrete pedagogical programs” (Selber 84). Ellsworth recommends that teachers “be more explicit about the politics and applications of critical literacy” (Selber 84). Selber is rather clear that developing critical literacy is a political enterprise, one that requires students to recognize and challenge the status quo related to computer infrastructures. As for application, he recommends the use of metadiscourse heuristics that provide students with a framework and a vocabulary to focus their attention in a politicized fashion (97).

Becoming aware of, questioning, and challenging the infrastructures that support and restrain digital media composition is indeed important, for both teachers of writing and students in our classrooms. Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeff Grabill make a similar argument, exhorting teachers and students to ask, "What material, technical, discursive, institutional, and cultural conditions prohibit and enable writing with multiple media?" (23). This question wasn't asked much during the video projects and student experiences I observed in the first-year writing study, though. While students did discuss video editing interfaces, hardware, software, and even computing environments, they did not overtly question these designs and contexts, nor were they prompted to do so by instruction or classroom activities.

In interviews, as I questioned students about the development of their various literacies, I didn’t quite know how to ask about critical literacies. One obvious issue was that critical was a murky term, never used twice in quite the same way. The video below provides some snapshots of how I asked about critical literacies in interviews as well as how participants responded.

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This video provides a glimpse into how I asked students about critical literacies during interviews as well as some of their responses.

Descriptive Transcript

Julie: What was the other? We were talking about rhetorical literacy and functional literacy and...
Crystal: critical is the third one, and it always seems to get left out in the cold, because it's kind of the most conceptual, or I don't know, theoretical or something for students to think. They have to step back and like critique systems through looking at their work and looking at the work of other people I guess. I don't know. Do you think there's anything going on there?
White text appears on a black screen reading "I am talking with Julie, first-year writing instructor." This is then replaced by "Critical Literacy... 'the ways students might be encouraged to recognize and question the politics of computers' (Selber 75)."
Julie: I'm not sure. I'm really not sure. I think, what I hope is that they will take something content-wise from putting this video together and think about how to organize it in a paper. Embedded writing specialist Sam is observing and assisting Gerry and D'mitria with their video project. They are in a computer lab style classroom, working together on one laptop.
Julie: And I would consider that to be sort of more on the critical literacy side of things. I'm not sure if it's going to actually happen or not.The angle of the camera switches to show an over the shoulder view of Gerry and D'mitria working on their video project.
Crystal: But you feel like all three of those things were going on in the video project for the students?
Sam: Yeah, but maybe some more than others. I think there was a lot of functional literacy happening. And I think there was, I think there was definitely rhetorical literacy. Now critical literacy, that's just critical thinking, being able to analyze? Is that what we're talking about?
Crystal: Yeah. And critique something and then apply that.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, there had, no, there was definitely critical literacy going on. Because like, even the fact that Gerry's group thought they needed transitions at all.
Sam is shown in an office, sitting at a table, talking to Crystal, who sits across from him. Crystal is taking notes with a pen and paper. On the bottom right corner, text reads "Talking with Sam, Embedded Writing Specialist in first-year writing".
Sam: Why they couldn't just play that video through. Gerry and D'mitria are shown in their classroom working on their video project on one laptop. They are focusing on their work.
Sam: So even if you're not cognizant of what the different kind of literacies are, what these things are, you're still thinking critically.Sam's interview with Crystal in the office is shown again.
Crystal: Have you done any critique or critical thinking or critical writing in this assignment that you can talk about?
Daijah: In this particular assignment? No, not really.
Daijah and Crystal are shown sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal takes notes as she talks to Daijah. On the bottom of the screen, texts reads "Daijah".
Crystal VanKooten: Okay, what about the role of critical analysis or critique? Does that play any role in making the video?
Crystal (student): Not yet, just outside of what I had in class with Professor Jostock.
Crystal and Crystal VanKooten are shown sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal VanKooten takes notes as she talks to Crystal. On the bottom of the screen, text reads "Crystal".
Crystal: So did you use any critique in the process of doing the video? Does that play any role? Like either getting critique or giving critique to other people?
Alan: So the criticism came from my team members.
Alan and Crystal are shown sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal takes notes as she talks to Alan. On the bottom of the screen, text reads "Alan".
Crystal: Okay. What would you say the role of critique has been in this last project? Have you had critique of your work or critiquing other people's work?
Fawaz: What do you mean professor, critique, like...?
Crystal: Critique is like where you, you analyze and you give maybe constructive feedback or you ask questions.
Fawaz and Crystal are shown sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal takes notes as she talks to Fawaz. On the bottom of the screen, text reads "Fawaz".
Crystal: Okay. What are you, what would you say the role of critique is in your composition process for the video? Did you have to critique yourself or others, or...?
Sabrina: I had a lot of my friends critique me. I had friends sit with me while I was composing the video. And I was like, guys, is this too boring? Like where do I need to break this up at?
Sabrina and Crystal are shown sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal takes notes as she talks to Sabrina. On the bottom of the screen, text reads "Sabrina".

The participants and I used the terms critique, criticism, critical thinking, critical writing, and critical analysis when we discussed critical literacies. The critical literacies that seemed most salient to all of us, though, were not Selber's politicized critique of systems. Instead, study participants discussed giving and receiving constructive feedback on video work, analyzing compositional choices, and potentially applying knowledge across media as part of critical literacies. These actions are part of an extended form of critical literacy, in which students recognized, analyzed, and questioned multimodal elements of their work as they engaged in production.

But critical literacy was more than the giving and receiving of feedback on multimodal work. It also often involved a redefinition of literacy—as bigger, capacious, and involving multiple modes and ways of communicating. Logan described how this worked for her, stating,

This project was a roller coaster ride.  But like any roller coaster that you get off of, you’re scared during it, but once you get off, you realize it was thrilling and you want to get back on.  So it just made me want to do more videos.  Become more literate.  It made me think about, "Oh, what does 'literate' mean?"  One of the first questions we went through in English—What is literacy to you?  What is this?  I just realized, I was not literate in this. 

Logan's course opened with a literacy narrative assignment that asked students to define and demonstrate what literacy meant to them. At the end of the course, after the video project, Logan found herself redefining literacy to include video composition and a set of related multimodal skills she had lacked before the project. Logan's articulations here make it obvious that she redefined literacy through video production, and she even used the term literacy to discuss her new understandings. Other students did not use such overt language to discuss how they redefined literacy through video, but they were redefining it nonetheless. Mikayla, for example, explained a new understanding of writing:

When you communicate with someone, you're not just writing. There's a lot more to writing and communication. I mean writing, you don't think of writing emails. That's a form of writing, and that's a form of a lot of people's majors. There's online things like Prezi and Animoto that you're going to have to use in your job—that's a form of communication, that's a form of writing...

Mikayla's redefined sense of literacy, articulated here as she discusses writing, is part of a critical multimodal literacy of production, realized in part because she composed across multiple modes and forms in her first-year course.

Students in the study revealed further development of critical multimodal literacy as they analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of multimodal elements within their work. They became critical readers and writers of images, words, sounds, movements, spatial arrangement, and combinations of these. Gerry and classmate D'mitria demonstrated this aspect of critical literacy as they discussed and selected music to include in their video about the First-Year Advising Center. For the better part of one class period, both students listened to songs together, trying to find one that provided the proper tone and feel. Gerry summarized the reasons behind their ultimate song choice, stating, "D’mitria wanted this beat boxing music. I was like, 'No, this should be proper music for a proper video.' I think that was the only fight I won with her. We actually went for the jazzy music instead of the beat box music." For Gerry, the "jazzy" music aligned more purposefully with the serious topic of the First-Year Advising Center.

Finally, the kind of critical multimodal literacy based in production that was revealed through participant experiences included an ability to take knowledge gained through video composition and then look ahead, imagine future writing and rhetorical situations, consider what might be useful, and get ready to transfer knowledge. Many students did this again and again during interviews as I prompted them to articulate what they were learning through video composition, and then to think ahead to how they might use this learning. I present much of this data in Chapter 4. Mikayla's thoughts on how she might apply her learning, though, are representative of this critical literacy move toward future transfer. She talked with me about the rhetorical appeals and the ability to analyze as concepts that would stick with her. Specifically, she thought ahead to a career in the fashion industry:

If I end up working for a magazine, and I'm a creative director, well, I have to analyze every other thing in the market. [...] I have to be able to create, I guess you could say, outfits and creative things that will cause emotion in people. I guess it's not necessarily like I'll be sitting there and being like, "Hmmm, what ethos can I use in this shirt?" But when I put the whole thing together, if this is supposed to make you feel angry, I need to pick red. I need to make it look so it's something that's going to get people's attention and make them angry, just by looking at this picture of this outfit, or this way that I designed the spread in the magazine.

Mikayla's critical multimodal literacy, developed in part through video production, encompassed an ability to analyze multimodal elements such as colors, arrangement, and appeals to pathos and ethos. And Mikayla could envision this ability being useful in a very different composing context: in her desired role as a designer of clothing and magazine spreads trying to reach an audience with a certain effect. This kind of critical literacy move is different from Selber's critical literacy, but no less important. Through production, students like Mikayla were enacting critical multimodal composition in which they recognized, analyzed, questioned, and thought about applying multimodal elements of their work, and this literacy set them up for future acts of transfer across media.