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.

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