Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The digital and "literacy"

I've been thinking about Collin's suggestion that the internet is being figured as (or at least is figured as in Wayne Booth's RoR) rhetoric often is and has been: as a bad use of discourse, a source of corruption and poor thinking. Which got me to thinking about the interesting nostalgia for reading qua reading in P. Harkin's article in the latest CCC, an article on the reception of reader-response theory, which ultimately becomes an argument against the "professionalizing" of composition, which, in her view, has led to a break from reading because we think we need to focus on writing. (Lots of relative clauses there, folks--hope you're following me.)

Now, there are parts of her article that I like quite a lot, and I have been struck this semester with how my own students, as she points out, tend to think an article says what they expect it to say rather than what it in fact says (no, Max Weber doesn't argue that capitalist accumulation is rational; in fact, he says quite the opposite, and that's what makes it interesting). But just as the observation that students aren't writing that well out of high school is as old as the composition class itself, I suspect that the observation that students aren't reading as well as we might like is also an old gripe.

What really surprises me, I guess, is her final point, that we're all too busy chasing after the new when maybe we need to be brave and return to the old (ie, the old reader-response theory). Now, I'm happy to reconsider reader-response theory and to re-think what it might add to the teaching of writing. But that move at the end troubles me, because it sounds too much like the, ahem, cute complaint of a few weeks back. I mean, folks, do we really need to abandon the new in order to appreciate stuff that isn't new? I still use freewriting a whole lot in my classes, despite the fact that Peter Elbow turned teachers on to this strategy thirty years ago. But I also use blogs, and I'm also constantly worrying over ways of making my teaching fresh. Who wants a stale classroom? But can't the old and the new peacefully co-exist? Even as we need to constantly rethink the old in light of the new?

Anyway, even though I haven't really read this article yet, I wonder if Douglas Kellner's suggestion that we teach "multiple literacies" provides a productive way to think the old and the new together. (Link via Weblogg-Ed.) Guess I should read the article and find out.

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Just want to add an aide-memoire or nota bene or some such thing: I do understand the now infamous "cute" comment as a certain kind of response to labor issues. That is, how can we expect new and/or inexperienced and/or overworked contingent instructors to implement all these new ideas? Well, we can't. But that's no justification for failing to push pedagogy forward even as we work to change the labor conditions that make composition teaching such a political and ethical and, often, intellectual quagmire. (See Jeff's excellent discussion of this very issue.)

1 comment:

jeff said...

No we can't allow the labor issues - as important as they are - to stop how we think. I see this in terms of part-time faculty, but I also see WPAs using "time" as an excuse to not continue learning about how technology affects communicative practices like writing. The irony is, of course, is that many who today say "we have no time" were there twenty years ago pushing time-heavy empirical studies of word processing.
Sometimes this excuse sounds like a way to get out of any new learning or to just belittle the kinds of work now being done.

jeff