The New Literacy

This column published as The New Literacy in Learning Place online [Sept] 01, 2002. [Link] Type: C - Publications in Trade Journals [List all Publications]
Time and again we hear from academics bemoaning the loss of the cultivated and literate student in today's schools, the victim, they say, of a multi-media diet of McDonalds, music videos and post-modernist pablum. Such students fail, moan the critics, to engage in complex dialogue and complex thought. They are capable of understanding only simple and sanitized text, and even then only when it is accompanied with moving pictures and a soundtrack.

I have spent a large part of my working life in the company of the literati, listening to their seminars, attending their lectures, reading their journalistic contributions to the pool of public knowledge. For me, the greatest invention of recent years has been the introduction of wireless networking so I can have something to do while waiting through the interminable gaps in their reasoned arguments. Even while reading, I prefer to have the radio or television playing to occupy my mind as I wade my way through the text. I am not alone, as one exasperated instructor after another struggles to keep online clat to a minimum during class time.

Scollon (et.al.) calls this polyfocal attention: "Perhaps the most striking thing about our students' attention is that it is polyfocal. That is, very rarely do they direct their attention in a focal, concentrated way to any single text or medium. When they watch television, they also listen to music and read or carry on conversations; traveling on the bus or Mass Transit Railway they read and listen to music-most commonly they 'read' while chatting, watching television and listening to music on CD." (Scollon, R., Bhatia, V., Li, D. and Yung, V. 1999. Blurred genres and fuzzy identities in Hong Kong public discourse: Foundational ethnographic issues in the study of reading. Applied Linguistics 20(1):22-43)

Why don't students pay attention to only one think. Scollon (et.al) suggest that new technology may allow new distractions, but that people have always been polyfocal - but had to content themselves with things like smoking cigarettes or eating hot dogs. I think it's more than that. It seems to me that for an information age student the most definiing characteristic of written text is that it is slow. Not quite as slow as listening to voice mail messages, but when compared to the rapid-fire pace of information transfer most of us are used to, it is achingly slow. The words struggle to pass from one to the next, a disappointingly linear presentation of what would more usefuly be a multi-streamed layering and threading of information, context and content. Today's students see no reason to wait. If there is a lull in the information stream coming from one direction, they quickly shift focus to another.

The problem with text is that it can only do one thing at a time. As I compose this article, for example, I would like to combine the multimedia version of Lawrence Lessig's free_culture with the recent study showing that there is a generational gap, a gap so wide as to even include how the different groups use their thumbs. With hyperlinking, I can at least fit these disparate thoughts into a single paragraph. With text only, it would be hopeless.

And yet it is important, in order to make the point, that these phenomena be seen side by side, acquired, ideally, in the same moment by the mind, so that the nuances of the one can be understood by the other. To see the depth of the generational gap I want readers to visualize the use of the thumb on keypads (as compared to the awkward way adults navigate the touch-tone with their index fingers) and to place that alongside the impact the spoken word adds to the slides in Lessig's show, to present all of these as a single thought.

What the critics of new media are missing is what may be called hyper-grammar. Textual language is bound by rules of syntax and semantics, with reference and meaning tightly constrainted by systems of representation. It is not a thought, in text, if it cannot be articulated without a subject and a predicate. It is not related to another thought, in text, if it cannot be logically conjoined. Waves of meaning are washed aside when the experience is rendered into words. That experience, so quaintly called "filling in the gaps with your imagination" by the literati, is lamented by the older generation when it is lost. And frustrating for the young, who would like to know what the author really meant with just that turn of a phrase.

Today's reader works with a much wider grammar. Even such simply typographic conventions, such as the use of italics, bold and capitals, can add new meaning to a text. The addition of symbols, such as smileys, convey emotion or sentiment. The breaking of linguistic rules - like this - can add urgency or clarity. The dropping of nouns, verbs or pronouns can express coreference (essentially, placing two separate thoughts into a single context). True, the haste with which people type online can result in a myriad of interesting typos and other errors - but then the error rate in a message also designates its degree of formality (conversely - to remove the errors reduces all text to the same sterile state of formality).

This is but one dimension of the new literacy. Here is another: go to any online chat room or IRC and observe the conversation. To the initiated, what emerges is a slew of seemingly unrelated comments. The participants roam back and forth from one topic to the next, sometimes within a single post. When I have hosted chats online among academic, participants complained that it was too complex, that they couldn't follow the conversation (and would I please ask people to stop posting messages). It would probably astonish such people that younger users may operate in several such chats simultaneously, each one in a separate window.

What should be understood is that these multiple threads layer into one another. It's not merely that attention is being shifted from one to another stream of information (though that does sometimes occur). Rather, the different topic streams are each facets of a multilayered presentation. The best analogy is in the explicit use of a soundtrack to add meaning to a dialogue (a technique used by the pop news shows so popular on television - as Homer Simpson says to his wife, "Oooo, he must be evil. Don't you hear the scary music?"). Words and images and text fuse into a single, complex message. Just as I can now no longer separate John Stuart Mill from the Devonian gardens (where I read On Liberty) or Quine's discussion of rabbits from the Edmonton river valley (where I read "Word and Object"), these multiple media add nuance to the text that words alone cannot convey.

So let us now return to the original complaint: that students are unable to understand complex concepts. If it is true that students use hyper-grammer, that their attention is polyfocal, and that their interactions are multi-threaded, then it seems that even short exchanges are quite complex. The difference is in how that complexity is expressed. And it is arguable - and I would argue - that the sort of complexity sought after by the literati is an inferior complexity than that experienced by the information age student.

How so? In a famous passage Michael Polanyi in his book Personal Knowledge defined 'tacit knowledge' as being similar to knowing how to ride a bicycle. His point was that, no matter how much we read about the subject, it would be impossible to learn until we actually mounted the vehicle and took a ride for ourselves. Now in a certain sense, learning to ride a bicycle through practice is much simpler than the corresponding textual description. Indeed, it is likely that the person who has learned to ride the bicycle could not even understand the textual account of the same process (particularly if he mathematics of balance and motion are included). And yet, the person riding the bicycle has the very same knowledge as the person who has grasped the text - more, even, according to Polanyi.

What information technology brings us is the capacity to substitute experience for description. At the most basic level, we immerse ourselves in the darkness of a movie theatre and see and feel for ourselves what it must have been like to be on board the sinking Titanic. But add to this the possibility of multiple channels of communication, immersive simulation, multi-threaded interaction - a veritable medly of sight, sound and text - and we are able to move ourselves much closer to the experience, and thus to acquire a complex (though non-textual) comprehension of the event.

Moreover, the teen-age student may be in no better a position to describe this knowledge than a six year old who can ride a bicycle. Perhaps the only textual account he can give is a half-gutteral "whoa." But this does not mean that the information has not been acquired. It merely means that the information has not been abstracted from its experiential surround, abstracted, stripped of emotion and rendered in neat little syntactically correct packages. Such a student would fail utterly in contemporary evaluations of learning (literary criticism being a foreign art form, an earlier and drier version of Siskel and Ebert). But this is more a criticism of the testing instrument: an evaluation of what the student really learned would be found in practice (does he avoid icebergs?) and creativity (can he emulate and improve upon the representation of ships being struck by icebergs?).

It may be years before people cease to lament the decline of the literate student (after all, people today still bemoan the fact that students no longer learn Latin and Greek). But lament it we should not, because by avoiding the need to codify knowledge into sentences and seminars students today are acquiring not only different modes of learning, but much more efficient and effective modes of memory and recall. The new literacy may not be an even greater grasp of the fine points of language, but rather, a capacity to move beyond the limits of text and to manipulate experience directly.

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