transnational literate lives in digital times: introduction 4

Synne Skjulstad Mirza Nurkic Sophie Dewayani Ismael Gonzalez Vanessa Rouillon Hannah Kyung Lee Shafinaz Ahmed Tessa Kennedy Gorjana Kisa
Yu-Kyung Kang
Oladipupo "Dipo" Lashore
Pengfei Song
Kate Polglaze

Click on images above to learn more about the coauthors.

INTRODUCTION: Notes on Method

As noted in Literate Lives in the Information Age (2004), Deborah Brandt's (1998b) talk at the University of Louisville’s Thomas R. Watson Conference about her oral-history literacy project originally inspired, and still inspires, our research. At that time, we began a relatively large-scale study to identify how and why people in the United States acquired and developed (or, for various reasons, failed to acquire and develop) digital literacies. Since that time, computer networks have vastly extended their global reach and have supported the rise of other information technologies (e.g., mobile phones and social networking sites), as well as other communicative practices (e.g., instant messaging, text messaging, Skype). Many of these technologies have now become integral parts of educational settings, and we have become increasingly interested in the ways in which digital media find their way into—and alter—the fabric of our culture. After seeking and obtaining approval from our respective universities to conduct research using human subjects, we collected over 350 literacy narratives via both oral interviews, which were conducted face-to-face, and written interviews, which were conducted online. The focus of this initial study, however, was primarily on the changing nature of literate lives within the United States, and we came to realize that we needed to expand the study to include additional cultural settings.

In the course of this larger project, we came in contact with a number of people who, though not U.S. citizens, were residing in the United States, and we met additional students and colleagues on trips to various countries in the course of our research on digital literacy practices. Many of the students with whom we spoke during this period felt connected to multiple nations. They might have grown up in China but attended school in the United Kingdom or the United States, or perhaps they had been born in South Korea but lived in the United States as children and returned to the country for graduate school. Others, born in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, had moved to Australia as refugees of the Bosnian wars and stayed when their parents found good work; still others used an Australian “gap year” in their education or relied on international conferences to travel to and reside in countries other than their own. It was clear from our conversations and participants’ videos that they had come to depend on digital communication technologies to maintain their transnational networks of families and friends and that they had experienced the availability of specific digital tools—their uptake, appropriation, and deployment—variously according to the local settings and circumstances in which they lived.

This project focuses on the lives of these individuals and their uses of digital communication technologies. As Victoria Bernal (2006) contends,

"…[T]he Internet is the quintessential diasporic medium, ideally suited to allowing migrants in diverse locations to connect, share information and analyses, and coordinate their activities…. Cyberspace is a medium that helps diasporas overcome distances that separate members from one another and that separate the diaspora from its homeland. Particularly where strict regulation, censorship and self-censorship are characteristic of homeland-based media, cyberspace gives a range and depth to the perspectives expressed around public issues that may not be possible in public spheres in the home country" (pp. 175–176).

Given this context, we thought it important to consider not only the larger global contexts of historical, political, economic, and ideological movements that occurred during this period, but the characteristics of the specific localities inhabited by these globally connected students. When possible, we tried to experience for ourselves these locales as part of our fieldwork. And we wanted to reconcile, to register, to bring into intellectual correspondence, this series of perspectives—the local and the global—in the interest of obtaining a more robust, multidimensional understanding of digital literacy practices and values, as they operated both in individuals’ lives and within a larger global context. In this effort, we were informed by the work of scholars such as Carmen Luke (2001, 2006) and Allan Luke (2004, 2005) who have mapped the complexities of local educational practices in Australia, Thailand, and elsewhere onto a larger map of global patterns, flows, and formations.

As we traveled and talked to students who inhabited transnational contexts outside the classroom, we were also influenced by the work of Beverly Moss (1992), who emphasizes the importance of spending time with people in order to understand more deeply and insightfully the ways in which their literacy practices and values play themselves out in situ, as well as the work of Christopher Keller (2004), who suggests that composition researchers need to follow students' literacy practices not only within classrooms, but also outside of them, “to trace paths of circulation and travel rather than assume the fixity and rootedness of subjects” (p. 206).

With these influences shaping our work, we believed that such a study would contribute to the existing knowledge about how and why students communicate in digital communication environments and how new digital media contexts influence students’ own literate practices. And we hoped that we could learn how they use such technologies to operate effectively in a landscape characterized by both global connectedness and complex local differences. We were confident that the results of our work would be of interest to educators, employers, and parents, but we also hoped that what we learned from the study would make us more effective teachers and educators.

This project, like Deborah Brandt's (2001) work and the earlier Literate Lives in the Information Age (2004), is grounded firmly in oral-history and life-history narratives and research (Bertaux, 1981; Bertaux & Thompson, 1993, 1997; Thompson, 1988; Lummis, 1987). When we met with students in the study, we asked them to tell us stories about their lives; about the ways in which, and the circumstances under which, they learned to use digital communication technologies, especially computers; about their digital literacy experiences; and about their uses of digital communication technologies. For certain participants, when possible, we asked too that they create writing process videos in which they captured some of the activities in which they engaged as they wrote. In response to these stories and videos, we asked for more stories, more videos: about family history, literacy practices and values, memories of schooling environments and workplace experiences, descriptions of digital media use and avoidance.

Because participants' voices have been such an important part of these literacy narratives, we have also tried to maintain, as far as possible, the integrity of the responses: at times using digital video to record their narratives and writing processes and at other times using their own written words and language. In addition, we have selected written passages that retain the participants' words and phrasing, grammatical structures, and distinctive word choices, which also mark their digital videos. This approach, we believe, keeps the contributors’ language intact—along with all of its important markers of class, age, geography, and personal expression.

As Brandt (2001) notes, “What people are able to do with their writing or reading in any time and place—as well as what others do to them with writing and reading—contribute[s] to their sense of identity, normality, and possibility” (p. 11). We would agree and, at the same time, add that the possibilities and effects of people’s writing or reading shape and are shaped by the information technologies to which they have access at any point in time. However, even as the narratives we present here identify and acknowledge the large-scale social, historical, and cultural trends that have exerted influence on people’s digital literacies, we want to avoid suggesting that these large-scale trends have had a one-way structuring effect on people’s experiences, literacies, and lives.

Humans themselves, we believe, shape the circumstances of their lives in countless continuous and important ways. Moreover, we know that large-scale social or cultural patterns are constituted by the actions—and the divergent experiences—of people living out their lives. Thus, our work is also based on the work of scholars such as Anthony Giddens (1979, 1984), Michel de Certeau (1984), and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985), who suggest that human agents both shape and are shaped by the cultural, educational, economic, and social contexts they inhabit.

previous < > INTRODUCTION: Overview of Chapters