Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Secrets that We Keep (Or try to…)

Virginia Heffernan, one of my favorite writers in the New York Times and on digital and pop culture issues, has a succinct and vivid analysis of the growing cultural awakening about privacy and email.  It’s not that a lot of us — including her I’m sure — haven’t known this for a long time. If the 1’s and 0’s of digital media allow us to store and send information in multiple forms, at lightning speeds, and over vast differences, they also allow for multiple was of finding and decoding that same information. What’s changing, according to Heffernan, is the growing awareness in the culture at large of the potential public nature of something as ubiquitous as email. As she writes:

It’s the rare Web-user who’d willingly submit his own e-mail archive to prosecutorial scrutiny. LDL (“Let’s Discuss Live”), for those who have the option, is an extremely good idea. Nearly everyone needs some form of communication that’s not searchable, archivable, forwardable, discoverable and permanent.

It’s not a moment to be nostalgic for the days before email, but it is another notable moment of cultural change in how we perceive our digital lives. As more people begin to have a visceral sense of the lack of security, she notes that more and more people are reverting to that unencrypted, but familiar way of passing intimate information — in director, embodied, conversation.

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The One-Way Bridge, Part 2

At a conference last week I heard several people defend the approaches to popular culture and literacy pedagogy that I define as the “One-Way Bridge.” They talked of the ways they would ask students to talk or write about popular culture texts so that material could become the content for class discussions or assignments that would help the students become more successful at school-sanctioned reading and writing. Yet at the end of their comments was often a question about why students still seemed to resist such efforts. Why, they would ask in mild frustration, shouldn’t the students be more excited about having popular culture “brought” into the classroom?

When they describe their attempt to connect to students’ interests, however, I hear descriptions similar to what I have observed in classes from middle-school to universities. There is an attempt, an exercise or discussion in which the teacher solicits material or ideas about what the students read and write outside of school. Yet what often happens is, after a few minutes, the teacher begins to drive the students over the one-way bridge to show how their work outside of school can be transformed into more valuable school work. It’s not that this is necessarily a wasted effort, but many students I talk with describe these moments as ones in which they feel as if they’ve been had. And the result of this pedagogical bait-and-switch, before too long, is that students begin develop a wariness of being asked about their out-of-school literacy practices. As one university student put it to me, in a disdainful tone of voice, “You know that if a teacher asks about movies or music you like, their just going to turn it into the lesson for the day. I’ve figured that much out.” Many students learn to regard these moments in the same way they do as a teacher-designed digital project that feels to them like a “creepy treehouse” — they learn to stay away, or perhaps play along, but keep their most interesting ideas to themselves.

Part of the allure of popular culture, including digital texts students manipulate themselves these days, is that they feel a sense of control over the interpretations, the uses, the emotions of the film, TV, games, and websites they encounter. The only assessment involved in popular culture — for them and for the rest of us — comes from our own tastes and our discussions with our friends. School work, on the other hand, is all about assessment. Now, more than ever, students have learned that the “lesson of the day” will always be graded — and that it only counts and is worth learning if the teacher grades it. It is easy to see, then, that if the students see school work as always involving the assessment of an adult, it is the antithesis of what the sense of control, pleasure, and mastery they feel when they read and compose with and about popular culture.

There are a lot of reasons this happens in the classroom and very few of them are because the teachers have nefarious motives. Instead I think that, for some teachers, there is a genuine belief that the bridge should only allow travel in one direction and that their responsibility is to bring students over that bridge to the literature and literacy practices valued in school. That’s an ethically defensible position – one that I happen to disagree with – but understandable. For other teachers, the pressure of standardized assessment and the standardized lesson plans that go with such assessment leaves them feeling they have little room for straying from traditional school-based literacy practices. For still others, there may be a sense that popular culture content may get out of control, bringing controversial work and disturbing representations into the classroom.  I believe there are answers to all of these concerns, and others, that I will continue to write about soon. But we first have to realize that a fake two-way bridge isn’t fooling anybody.

The One-Way Bridge

For a long time there has been a lot of discussion in literacy and writing education,  at both the K-12 and college levels, about “using” popular culture as a “bridge” to the print literacy genres and forms more valued – and more certain to be assessed – in the classroom. Yet it’s clear, in this metaphor, that this is a one-way bridge. The novel, the poem, the essay, the argument-based article, the research paper, all continue to be the desired destination for students in this model. Sure, we can start with the mindless and fun pop culture stuff, but then we cross that glorious bridge to the golden fields of print texts and critical thinking.

Obviously, I’ve got some problems with this model. To begin with, I’m less-than-convinced that no critical thinking goes on in the composing and interpretation of popular culture texts (and let’s remember that, today, students may very well be composing or commenting on pop culture online as well as reading it). And I’m also not the first to point out that the medium does not determine the quality of a text. There are plenty of bad novels, great films, excellent television series, and so on. Yet, while those points are worth making again (since they still seem to have not reached a lot of people), my problem with the model today is its single direction. Why must we assume that the only learning worth happening in school takes place when the base influences encountered outside the classroom are turned into the gold of academic literacy and texts? Why not, instead, approach all of the literacy practices, in the classroom and out, as connected? Why not engage students in ways of thinking about audience, detail, style, emotion, analysis, or anything else we want to teach them about reading and writing, as important ideas to consider regardless of the text and the context? Rather than approach popular culture as something to be left on one side of the bridge as students move on to more “important” work, why not help them see how the literacy and rhetorical practices we are teaching them will bring them knowledge and pleasure in all the part of their lives?

I know this is a difficult case to make, as the Core Common standards are not only generally hostile to this concept, but even more try to separate reading and writing into distinct, rather than connected, activities (more on that soon). I do take some heart in what Leslie Burns pointed out at IRA in terms of the language in the Common Core Standards that leaves some room for teaching about multimodal and digital and popular culture literacy practices. But even with that, it’s going to be an argument.

What would it take to convince literacy and writing educators and scholars to imagine a two-way bridge?

Teaching Literacies with Digital and Pop Culture Media for Grades 4-12

I’m off to Orlando and IRA (the International Reading Association) tomorrow to be part of an all-day workshop with some wonderful scholars and teachers. The workshop, “Teaching Literacies with Digital and Pop Culture Media for Grades 4-12,” includes Margaret Hagood, Donna Alvermann, Barbara Guzzetti, and many others whose work I have admired for a while now but have never had the chance to work with.

I’ll be talking about “Rethinking Reading and Writing with Participatory Popular Culture,” which continues the research from Shimmering Literacies. I’m focusing on how digital media are not only changing students conceptions of interpreting and composing texts, but blur the line between the practices of reading and writing in ways that have implications for how we teach reading and writing in a multimodal culture.

So I am grateful to be included in this workshop and looking forward to the presentations and conversations. I plan to learn a lot.

More to come next week, both about the workshop and end-of-semester reflections on the “New Media and Composition Pedagogy” seminar.