Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Musing on "Literacy Crises"

In Computers and the Teaching of Writing, it becomes clear that one of the things that fueled the initial drive to try computer-mediated writing instruction was the furore over a literacy crisis largely fueled by "Why Johnny Can't Write," a 1975 Newsweek article. This surprised me at first but, on further reflection, I've no idea why.

As a Rhetoric and Writing PhD student, I have to be almost grateful to literacy crises. After all, the original start of First-Year Composition, which some would say is the entire raison d'etre for our field, came from the effect of a literacy crisis in the early twentieth century. At any time since, whenever there's been stirrings of another crisis...well, sure, difficulties have been caused for those in the field. Some people think that once people are assigned to take care of a problem, it's supposed to...just go away, or disappear, or something else very convenient. However, any of those rumblings of crisis get more time, people, and money allocated to the teaching and studying of reading and writing. So we really have a bizarre relationship with this crisis cycle.

As the daughter of a teacher and a trucker, I have to admit that so-called "literacy crises" piss me off. As the daughter of a high-school teacher, I've seen a lot of public/media response to various educational problems at the secondary level, and it often focuses on blaming the teachers, instead of looking at any more complex issues of funding, structure, and assessment. As the daughter of a trucker who doesn't have a degree, it irritates me that the literacy crises are almost always based on the new entrance of an underprivileged group into the hallowed halls of higher ed. God forbid we should have any sympathy for, or understanding of, the complexities of home language, the differences between "good" and "correct" writing, or a myriad of other socioeconomic complexities. Let's just call it a crisis.

As a scholar with an interest in visual rhetorics and computer culture, I find the bubblings of a new literacy crisis kind of fascinating. This time, after all, many students definitely have very strong reading and writing literacies that aren't based on prior formal education or socioeconomic lack. They're based on new communication technologies, both online and off. This seems to present an interesting quandary. For some, it boils down to "computers are good, but they do bad things to writing." For those who are willing to look at it in a more complex way, it's an intriguing interplay of new literacies, old demands, a shift to the visual, and changing communication needs on a societal level. Over the next decade, it'll be interesting to see how this develops.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blogging Communities (Readings, 9/18)

I was really intrigued by several things said about blogs in this week's readings. Barton's concept of the subjectivity and intimacy of blogs can lead to some interesting places in their academic use. The Colby et al article provided some fascinating perspectives on networked academic blogs as either a salon, a performance space, or the agora. Both of these articles make sense on their own, and there are some parts of each argument that I can completely buy. However, if these ideas are explicitly combined, and put in perspective with some phenomena I've experienced online, things can get really cool.

Unsurprisingly, this goes back to knitting for me. The knitting blogosphere is salon-like in that someone reading knitting blogs learns a great deal of intimate detail about those writing them (which also, of course, links back to Barton). Even though I read Modeknit/Knitting Heretic for knitting info, I'm still worried about the author's husband, who is going through treatment for a particularly ugly type of cancer. However, sharing this information has more of a purpose than simple intimate revelation for the author; it's sparked off debate and discussion about cancer prevention and treatment, as well as the fundraising for same, throughout the online knitting community. Part of this is due to basic human concern for someone who's suffering; part of this is due to Annie's fabulous snarkiness and wisdom. We care because she's earned her place in the salon.

The knitting blogosphere can be a place that allows someone to learn how to perform, both as a blogger and a "real knitter," through the encouragement of others and the sharing of information. Additionally, knitting podcasts have exploded in recent memory into a celebrity-making vehicle all their own.

Insofar as functioning like the agora, there's no question that this happens within the knitting blogosphere. After all, the Yarn Harlot has had a huge deal of influence over both knitting trends (many yarn store owners call the sales boost that anything she's working on experiences the Harlot Effect) and charity fundraising for her chosen causes, as she's rallied knitters to donate $339, 632 to Doctors Without Borders to date.

Okay, so thus far, knitblogging is fitting into each of the three types of activity set out by Colby et al. However, there's a larger function here, partially fed by the intimacy discussed by Barton, that really excites me: the formation of community.

The vast majority of knitbloggers are aware of the "stars" of the community. However, smaller networks also form, whether driven by blogrings or shared interests, where several bloggers are talking to each other on and through their blogs on a regular basis. Sounds a lot like the class blog, right? However, I find this phenomenon even more interesting in some ways, because these bloggers have, in many cases, never met. They've certainly never been put together and forced to interact as is done in a class. Still, they've formed a community of mutual support and exploration, much like the academy.

So, what interests me most here is the potential for this kind of interaction among scholars of all levels. I mean, interacting through class-based blogs is wonderful, no doubt, but what about this kind of interaction with no outside prompt? I've started to see this through networked research and work blogs held by academics; is there any way to encourage this phenomenon in other levels of learners? After all, the community formed here seems to be, in many ways, much like its own academy, but it's one without borders or compulsion, which can certainly spur learning in whole new ways.

This phenomenon is frustrating, as its deliberate creation by instructors is (by definition) impossible, but tantalizing. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Reading Post 1

Writing New Media (Ch. 1)

"Opening New Media to Writing: Openings and Justifications," by Anne Frances Wysocki

I kind of have a academic crush on Anne Wysocki now.

The reasons? Well, this chapter blew off the top of my head, and has made me reconsider the immediacy of the need for addressing "new media" (in Wysocki's terminology) and the materiality of texts in my FYC class, while simultaneously juxtaposing this need with my own research interest of material/visual rhetoric in needlework and other crafts. So, you know, that's a start.

But the thing that sealed it? Well, I was admiring both the cover and interior design of the book as I read. (No, seriously. I've done a bit of design work myself, and I worked in publishing for six years or so, so I definitely notice good design.) The cover is really subtle and gorgeous, with a lovely layered effect. And the interior is clean and readable, but still interesting, with title and author information sideways in the left and right margins of the spread. The fonts chosen are attractive, and they clearly vary for carefully chosen reasons related to meaning.

Shortly after that, I was peeling the bookstore sticker off of the back of the book, and as it came back, I noticed the designer for the cover and interior...Anne Frances Wysocki. (Swoon.)

Okay, but to be serious, this chapter, with its emphasis on looking at the materialities of writing, has inspired me in some ways, but troubled me in others. I completely see Wysocki's point about teaching students to understand the material constraints on text; one small example is the use of a style guide. I'm aware that, when they ask about why we require MLA, it's easier to blow them off, but I try to explain why a style guide is useful in furthering communication in a discipline.

However, there are many other places where the distinct shape of our program might put constraints on what we can or cannot usefully examine. I love some of the exercises in the text, but how many of those could be usefully integrated into a 111 curriculum?

One thing that occurs to me is the use of webpages for a final critique. It's not getting students to produce new media, but it is getting them questioning the reasons behind the design of a page. Is that enough of a start, though?

I'd love input from classmates on this; what do you guys think?