On the one hand, trying to sort through where the changes of digital media have left the study of literacy and rhetoric can seem daunting. The change is often so fast, occasionally so transitory, and in such volume (whether I mean the quantity of information or the level of conversation, I’m not certain) that I often feel as if I am standing hip-deep in fast water while juggling. It seems all I can do to keep my balance, stay in one place, and keep aloft the balls I currently have in the air. As I noted when I started this blog, the press of time, work, and living a daily life as best I can, sometimes makes that balancing act all I can accomplish without diving deeper into the waters of technological and textual change.
Yet, at the same time, when I don’t focus on the speed of the water, and I take the time to get a better sense of my surroundings, I am less unsettled by what is happening around me. Of course, digital media are changing some fundamental opportunities for communicating, and those changes are, in turn, changing our conceptions of text, audience, authorship and more. Still, when it comes down to it, I don’t know that I see our essential jobs as literacy and rhetoric and writing teachers and researchers as changing. We’re still about the creation and interpretation of texts. Though it may be crass to quote myself, I’m keep coming back to the definition of literacy that I have written before:
For me literacy is connected to the way humans communicate ideas, concepts, and emotions to one another. Humans are meaning-making creatures and we have learned to do so by creating representations of our ideas that can be interpreted by others when we are not present. I see it as important, then, to keep literacy connected to the communication of ideas through representation, whether of words, images, graphics, and so on. In this way literacy can apply to writing print on a page, arranging images and words on a webpage, or arranging images and words on film or video. Each example illustrates the arrangement of signs or symbols or images to represent ideas. For this book, my working definition of literacy, at its most basic and yet most varied, is the ability to use sign systems to compose and interpret texts that communicate ideas from one person to another.
Having this definition of literacy seems no big deal to me. Perhaps it comes from a background, academically and professional, that was not in English departments until I came back to graduate school. Or perhaps I can trace this position to having always been a movie freak and a photographer. Or maybe it is that I worked extensively with photography and audio and graphics in concert with writing during my education and (brief) professional life as a journalist. Whatever the reason, this seems to me not only to be the way literacy should be defined, now and in the past, but to point me toward what I think the purpose of literacy education (including rhetoric and writing) should be for us today. But more on that in days to come (I’m trying to learn to write shorter again, for the blog).
More to come….