transnational literate lives in digital times: conclusion 4

Gail E. Hawisher, Cynthia L. Selfe, Patrick W. Berry, and Synne Skjulstad

Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times Transnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital TimesTransnational Literate Lives in Digital Times



Many of the coauthors spoke of the high value their parents had placed on education and of their own efforts to continue that tradition; this valuation existed side by side with, and was often linked directly or indirectly with, their deployment of communication technologies and digital networks.

All of those contributors whom we met had acquired and developed both print and digital literacies—and they valued the reading and writing they did in both environments as well. Gorjana and Tessa, for example, remembered being read to by their parents at bedtime and the pleasure they derived from that activity or related activities like going to the local library to check out books or bringing books home from school, very much like participants from the United States in the earlier Literate Lives (Selfe & Hawisher, 2004). Vanessa and Ismael both took pride in learning how to speak and write English along with Spanish in the schools they attended in Peru and Mexico, respectively, and Pengfei declared himself fortunate to have been introduced to English in the sixth grade; with this introduction, when he was 12, the English language became his passion. Dipo similarly learned English at a very young age, starting in his nursery school, and continued studying the English language from that time on.

Interestingly, many of the stories the participants related about reading and writing in print contexts at home, like the narratives of Lieblich and her colleagues' (1998) participants, expressed the young people's commitment to "continuing their parents' traditions in the area of education" (p. 134), forging a chain of connection between their parents' strong literacy values and their personal literacy practices. The majority of participants mentioned their parents' education and educational values. Hannah, for example, wrote of her father as an architect and her mother as a nurse but also a writer of poems and essays in Korean; Mirza spoke of the fact that both his parents held Ph.D.'s, although their work in Sydney did not reflect their educations; Pengfei appreciated the sacrifices his parents had made for his education, with his father's finally buying a computer that cost him almost a year's salary so that he might keep in touch with this son whom he had sent away to become educated; Dipo watched as his mother studied to become an accountant and his father left home to earn his engineering degrees; Sophie told us of her mother's earning a pre-bachelor's degree in Indonesia that enabled her to teach English; and Vanessa mentioned the "narrow culture" of her parents and grandparents, which privileged reading as a form of leisure. Importantly, although few of the participants' parents were as proficient as their children in digital literacies or English, their parents' educational aspirations encouraged their children to take on those skills and abilities that would go far in assuring their success in a globalized, digital world. In this sense, the values that contributors' families placed on education and the extent to which they personally deployed digital technologies in their pursuit of education are linked.

As should be expected given generational differences in the use of digital media—although the parents, usually fathers, often bought the computers—a story of continuation and inheritance with digital media was not a focus when it came to the participants' families. None of the participants talked about efforts their parents had made to teach them to use computers. Although Mirza took some pride in the fact that he was good at computers like his IT-focused parents, he did not remember their helping him learn how to use digital environments for reading and writing. Gorjana, Tessa, Kate, and Dipo similarly noted that they developed their digital literacy at home primarily on their own, with minimal or no instruction from parents. Indeed, in Gorjana's family, digital literacy flowed upstream rather than downstream; she taught her parents how to use the household computer. Thus, these stories about digital literacy practices—Tessa's, Kate's, and Hannah's early attraction to educational computer games, and their later reliance on cell phones and e-mail, online chats, and Facebook—suggest a break with the traditions of parents rather than a continuation of generational habits and practices as far as digital media are concerned.

The anthropological work of Margaret Mead can shed some light on this situation. Mead documented (1970) how the education of children in various cultures was determined in part by the rate of change societies were undergoing. In stable cultures, which change slowly, Mead explained, young people could benefit from an education that passed along traditionally based knowledge from an adult-teacher who knew, from experience, how to handle many of the challenges young people would encounter later in life. In less stable cultures, however—cultures characterized by rapid change and disruption, or by the "development of new forms of technology in which the old are not expert" (Mead, 1970, p. 39)—young people no longer had the luxury of relying solely on the information provided by their elders to equip them for a changing world. Indeed, adults in such societies had little experience with the challenges young people would encounter and often were in the position of preparing children for a future the adults themselves could not predict. In such cultures today, young people must depend on the help of their peers in their face-to-face and online communities, as well as on their own efforts, to develop the abilities they need for the future.

For the study at hand, we think it important to note that while none of the parents provided much direct instruction for their children, they did recognize the growing importance of digital communication in an increasingly technological world, and they often responded by providing the household computers on which their children were able to teach themselves how to read and write in digital environments. Such an investment in the future of their children was significant. In 1994, when Tessa's father first brought to their Australian home the family's "ancient Apple Macintosh," only 3.8% of the population there owned one or more computers (ABS, 1994, p. 1). In 1999, when Kate's and Gorjana's families bought their first computers, less than half of homes, and only 31% of homes with dependents under 18, had a household computer (ABS, 2000, p. 6). Dipo's father's purchase of a family computer in Lagos, Nigeria, was expensive, as was the used 1985 IBM computer that Ismael's father bought in rural northern Mexico— considering that the IBM personal computer only appeared in 1981, this was a forward-looking and groundbreaking purchase for his family.


For the most part, those who participated in this study learned to use technologies on their own and with friends. Most contributors did not receive extensive instruction in using digital media in school, nor did they remember much direct help in learning technologies from their parents, although parents supported their use of digital technologies, often in material ways.

Although many of the participants had available to them the primary gateways of home, school, and community through which to acquire and develop their digital literacies and understandings, they often acquired these literacies on their own or with friends, with very little help from the adults in their lives. Individuals differed, however, in the particular patterns and timing of their digital literacy learning.

Gorjana, who was born in 1983 and attended high school in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, remembers that she never received computer instruction in secondary school and noted that she only began using computers in a formal educational setting when she enrolled at the University of New South Wales in Australia. In contrast, Kate, born in 1986, Mirza, born in 1987, and Tessa, born in 1988 and the youngest in the study, all remembered some kind of computer instruction in both elementary and secondary school, as did Dipo, born in 1984, who immediately turned to playing computer games with his classmates in Lagos, Nigeria, when his father brought home a computer. For those who claimed varying degrees of digital literacy instruction at school, school seemed to serve as a primary gateway for their more formal practices of digital literacy, such as word processing for school papers, but their extensive and varied uses of communication technologies developed without such direct formal instruction.

Age, and perhaps to a slightly lesser degree geographical location, figured prominently in the participants' learning of digital technology, with older students' experiencing less satisfaction with schools' attempts to introduce them to digital literacies, as was also true for those who were part of the 2004 Literate Lives study. Sophie, for example, born in Indonesia in 1972, explains that she is "susceptible to computer anxiety not because [her] technological opportunities and experiences have been so severely limited, but because the computer was introduced to [her] as a set of mechanical tools with complicated programming languages and a 'foreign' domain separated from [her] professional and personal life." The skill-based educational approach that Sophie describes was also very common among the individuals from the United States whom we interviewed for the earlier study (see Selfe & Hawisher, 2004) who were born before 1980. The participants in the current study also found school computer instruction less than adequate, especially when computing was taught in isolation. Synne, for example, had no use for computers until she was introduced to Photoshop and was able to manipulate digital photos that she cared about on Apple Macintoshes rather than doing exercises on PCs. Like Synne, Sophie and Shafinaz, when digital media was part of a project in which they were invested, took great pleasure in making the technology work for them. Narrating their literate activity using video cameras was a digital project that they came to value not because of the technology so much as due to their own engagement with the details of their everyday writing lives. If schools are to play a meaningful role in introducing digital media to young people—if they are to serve as a critical and productive educational gateway for learning technology—they must provide an environment that engages and inspires students (Davidson, 2011). In addition, teachers are well advised to pay close attention to informal technology use by young people for hints about those digital tools that prove most useful in their own lived experiences and those of their friends and extended families, various members of whom may themselves occupy digital transnational landscapes and deploy digital communication technologies in creative ways.


All participants have a strong sense of the value of cultural diversity and of the appropriate use of technology. Those students who claim transnational identities would benefit from and contribute immeasurably to curricula developed specifically for the purpose of understanding the complexities of forging identities across global and translingual landscapes. Such curricula would also greatly benefit students with more limited exposure to other peoples, cultures, and literacy practices, extending their understanding and awareness of difference and the range of communication resources that can be brought to bear on problems of global and local significance (Kalantzis & Cope, 2006).

A strong sense of the value of cultural diversity also contributes to the coauthors' understanding and uses of digital communication technologies. Like the participants who told their life narratives to Amia Lieblich and her colleagues (1998, p. 151), the coauthors featured in this book, as well as other individuals with whom we spoke during this project, frequently told stories and made comments that included indirect criticism and had some moral import. For us, these stories and comments suggested a recognition of the value of a diverse society, one often shaped by transnational identifications. These comments and stories generally fell into two categories: One involved a negative evaluation of individuals, groups, and institutions that were intolerant of, or inhospitable toward, transnational populations, while the other focused on people who used digital technologies in ways that might be considered inappropriate or unethical.

As we noted in Chapter 2, one example of a narrative that implied a criticism of intolerance came from Tessa, who described her anguish when confronted at the University of New South Wales with the racist attitudes of first-year students communicating in an online chat room during a first-year orientation—an episode to which Tessa and the other group leaders responded with direct communication. As she describes in her video in Chapter 2, she and the other group leaders responded to the racist comments directed toward Asians in a way that gave people the opportunity to change their attitudes toward transnational populations without becoming defensive—or at least this was the intention. As Nancy Abelmann (2009) has demonstrated in her important study of other Asian students—Korean Americans at the University of Illinois—"escaping the racialized gaze" (p. 103) of dominant cultural groups within or outside the university is not always possible. Whether online or offline, students of color are too often subjected to this "gaze" despite the best intentions of some of their classmates. Sophie, of Indonesia, also sensed intolerance among those with whom she interacted in Urbana, Illinois. In trying to order pizza and having the person with whom she spoke refuse to try to understand her "best English" and ultimately hang up, she was hurt in ways that can be incomprehensible to those who speak the required language of their current locations. In each of the above cases, tolerance for those who hailed from other linguistic and cultural settings—and better yet, an appreciation of the rich communicative resources they offered—would have helped assuage multilingual speakers' discomfort in a strange land.

A similar example, we believe, was Kate's discussion of attitudes, which implied a negative evaluation of people who made decisions based on an interpretation of "what God wants you to do" rather than an understanding of "fairness" and "what's right for other people." In this comment, Kate noted the importance of shaping her own ethical stance through online communications with other people who had indigenous perspectives and with people who offered cultural perspectives that were different from her own. We note, too, Ismael's profound disappointment when he discovered in his reading that words like "squaw," "stench," and "debauchery" might be used in association with Mexicans. As he writes in Chapter 4: "I had no idea of the many adjectives which people can use to reflect their own ignorance in trying to define Mexicans." These kinds of educational experiences and the coauthors' subsequent responses demonstrate their recognition of the need for tolerance and acceptance, and even the appreciation of linguistic and communicative difference, as primary attitudes and values in online and offline communication.

A second kind of critical story or comment had to do with the inappropriate use of communication technologies. In particular, Mirza's story about sharing music files seems to fall into this category. Mirza's narrative acknowledged an interpretation of his actions as possibly illegal, but was used by him to deny strongly that such behavior in digital environments was "evil."

In his narrative, Mirza pointed out that his actions in online contexts did not ultimately have a negative impact on the artists who produced the music he downloaded because file sharing allowed him to expand his taste in music and would allow him to support a wider range of musical genres as soon as he began making enough money. Indeed, Mirza's story revealed his own pragmatic sense of personal ethics. It implied a critical assessment of people who did not recognize the real motivations of file-sharing exchanges and those who adopted an intolerant attitude toward the youths who engaged in this activity.

We also consider Gorjana's comments about Facebook and computer gaming to fall into this category of critical comments about inappropriate uses of technology. For Gorjana, people who spent time playing violent computer games or spent inordinate amounts of time creating Facebook entries had fallen into a trap of using technology for technology's sake rather than for the more appropriate purpose of connecting in meaningful ways with friends or family. We believe her attitude about these matters was shaped at least in part by her transnational identity, particularly what she and her family had learned as refugees from the violence in Bosnia. Gorjana felt that material things, including computers and other ICTs, had very little value in comparison with personal relationships, and that the most appropriate use for such devices was to put individuals in touch with each other so that they could continue to develop their bonds of family and friendship—an attitude with which many, including her coauthors, would agree.

The dimensional richness of the stories the participants told and the comments they made reveal a great deal both about the nature of transnational identifications and about the diverse roles of digital communication networks in the lives of those who claim transnational connections. We come away from this project increasingly convinced, as is Carmen Luke (2006), that "in a global world the mono-lingual and mono-cultural self grounded in fixed and singular identity will be at increasing disadvantage" (p. 114). We are also convinced, with Luke, that thoughtful educators have a responsibility to develop international curricula that will "facilitate spaces and practices of cultural complexity, complex connectivity, and difference…to develop in students the capacity to understand and negotiate identity in a global setting, where national differences remain salient but are inflected by a range of other elements" (p. 115).

We believe further that the critical use—and study—of digital networks and digital communication technologies, which comprise the communication landscapes inhabited by large numbers of people around the world, should assume a major role in any curricula that value both the local and the global. In such settings, both educators and students can hope to learn a great deal about populations that identify with transnational contexts and explore in greater depth what they have to teach us all.

Digital media—such as video, audio, e-mail, images, texting, mobile phones, and even social networking sites that serve as repositories for these media—can act as powerful research tools for collecting and exhibiting life history interviews, literacy narratives, and writing process videos when these tools are put in the hands of researchers and research participants alike.

Over the years, as we collected literacy narratives, we became increasingly dissatisfied with limiting either our research methods or our research reports solely to the modality of print. We experimented with various recording modes and settled on video primarily because it allowed us to pass along the fullest possible range of semiotic information about the participants we met and the stories they told. As mentioned earlier, we also asked participants to make use of video cameras to capture their own literate practices and sometimes those of others. In these ways, we began to employ digital media as research tools for collecting and exhibiting life history interviews, sometimes asking participants themselves to represent their literate practices by videorecording their writing processes—all strategies that readers and viewers have encountered in this book. Each of these changes to our original methodological approach in Literate Lives (Selfe & Hawisher, 2004), which relied primarily on alphabetic texts, has added, we hope, important dimensions to our ongoing investigations of globalized digital literacy practices (Hawisher & Selfe, 2000).

Because our investigations focused on digital literacies and how they shaped and were shaped by individuals' literate lives, it also made increasing sense to work with individuals in online contexts that moved beyond the boundaries of both face-to-face exchanges and single-session interviews. Globalized computer networks, along with more readily accessible digital tools (mobile phone technologies, instant messaging, texting, e-mail, listservs, emerging websites), enabled our interviewing and allowed us to escape the boundaries of single-session conversations and geopolitical locations as is evidenced by the work with the coauthors in this current text. This use of computer-based communication allowed us to collaboratively collect and tell the stories of individuals who had acquired digital literacies over the course of their lives and who deployed these literacies to communicate within and between cultures as they advanced their educations and careers.

Along with refining our methods for collecting and exhibiting literacy narratives through the use of digital video cameras, we have also encouraged participants to make use of video cameras in tracing their own writing processes and digital literacies. Participants captured a representation of their writing processes on camera to demonstrate some of the thinking they experienced as they approached and carried out a writing task. In studying these videos, we have found that the use of digital media seems to open up new opportunities for making meaning, reflecting upon that meaning, and trying to communicate what it is we do as we engage in literate practices. As we work to represent—in words, images, and sound—processes of inquiry, the actual doing tends to reshape the way we experience and situate literate activity in our lives. Digital video also has the potential to afford us richer means of reflecting on such dispersed activity and what it means to our literate lives (Hawisher & Selfe with Kisa & Ahmed, 2010; Hawisher et al., 2009). Although video and audio have been used for a number of years to collect and report on data in disciplines such as anthropology, biology, education, and political science, such methods have not seen widespread use in other humanities disciplines like rhetoric and composition studies, in part due to the limitations of publication venues. With the advent of digital media publications, however, it is now possible for researchers to expand their reports beyond the range of the alphabetic, and to provide new kinds of information for scholars to consider.

We argue that the media clips presented in this book not only add additional semiotic information to alphabetic representations of research, but also have the added benefit of supporting readers in validating the information and interpretations we collaboratively provide (Pea and Lemke, 2007), thus offering some triangulated perspectives on our own explanations of literate behavior as well as new opportunities to identify and carry out careful, critical approaches to the analysis of video evidence (Green and Bloome, in press). This said, alphabetic texts and their subsequent interpretation remain tremendously important for researchers of literate activity, as do texts in other modalities. We would argue that each modality adds a dimension that can enable a distinct type of closer look at the data at hand and that we have appreciated the added interpretations the coauthors in this study have brought in collecting data and in explaining their own take on what it means. In the next section, we present some closing thoughts on the research methodology we have deployed in our study of transnational digital lives.

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