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The New Literacy

This column published as The New Literacy in Learning Place online September 1, 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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senks [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: The New Literacy

CL:Students are not necessarily fluent in new communications technologies, but each year they demonstrate increased effectiveness at using them, as well as acquiring new skills. While I can't speak for your class, in my class we continue to explore electronic discourse and continue their knowledge, often shaping our discovery through a combination of my interests and their own.

SE:Sounds like the old pedagogy to me, the way good teachers have always functioned.The teacher--you in this case--decides without vote exactly how the course will be run, and within that professorial framework are free to express their interests.

CL:The teacher does have to make some decisions about how to shape a classroom, but there are varying degrees. For example, you are expressing a bias for teacher-centered pedagogy here. Collaboration is, admittedly, an important skill that students will need beyond higher education. However, collaboration is also equally important as the means to a more student-centered pedagogy which recognizes that knowledge making/learning can happen for many more efficiently when students work together rather than as individuals. Plus, the peer pressure associated with collaborative work has shown to be an excellent incentive to learn.

SE:My pointis this: I think if I were a student in your class I would not be able to vote in a closed ballot on whether we should have more lecture and less discussion: I think you decide unilaterally on the framework and the system and the direction of the course, and the students are required to participate and collaborate and take leadership and express their interests and needs whether they want to or not.
And that's fine with me!
CL:Hmmm....Changes in literacy student needs during the late 19th and early 20th century might better be attributed to increased access to education by the middle and lower class, rather than attributing it to technology. Meanwhile, the impact that the printing press had on literacy would be a better comparison to digital technology--word processing, email, Internet. (Personally, I tend to believe that Moore's Law may be having a profound impact on the rate at which communication/discourse changes to adapt to developing technologies; meanwhile, pedagogy seems to plod along at a constant rate of gradual adjustment).
SE: You seem to believe that pedagogy should change daily, or at least change at the rate of Moore's Law, to reflect, say, the change to flat screen monitors and PDA's and wireless: that each new tool requires a new literacy. An important logical error. Your own basic teaching practice, I suggest, will stay much the same as it is now--"student centered," with the only thing changing are the new Power Point slides of the latest technology.
SE:Let me settle for these comments now, and leave for another time your a priori assumptions about the the banking model and and the new rhetoric. I close with a request. Can you find or retrieve from the chat archives a piece of new rhetoric that illustrates the depth and profundity of the new communication styles our students are evolving?

I'd like very much for you to point me to an online chat that demonstrates the subtleties and complexities of the New Literacy. The ones I've collected are sweet, amiable, adolescent, sometimes harassing, sometimes yearning for friendship and acceptance.

But of course it may be that a New Literate, a new young teacher who is hip (is that still the term?) can point out to me all the nuances and intricacies that an Old Literate fails to get in the communication of the young newliterates and their newliterate profs.

Steve Eskow [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy

I can understand that. It's also hard to discuss the possibility of The New Illiteracy with someone who begins with the a priori assumption that there is a New Literacy. Right?

Certainly! If you've noticed, I avoiding using the term "The New Literacy." It's difficult to speak of "The" literacy whether old or new since the literacies necessary to function in our society are constantly changing.

Let's assume that students come to your class, or my class fluent in the use of the new communication technologies: they click on links, they cell phone, they IM, they change channels remotely, they IRC, they asynchronous conference--and all at the same time and while listening to rock on their headphones. Now, presumably as of yore they are in your class, or my class, to move themn beyond where they are now: to 'provide [them} with skills, knowledge and attitudes that the larger culture does not'--if they can learn all they need to know without you and without me why come to our class?

Students are not necessarily fluent in new communications technologies, but each year they demonstrate increased effectiveness at using them, as well as acquiring new skills. While I can't speak for your class, in my class we continue to explore electronic discourse and continue their knowledge, often shaping our discovery through a combination of my interests and their own.

So the present problems of pedagogy are no different than they have ever been. The teacher looks at what the students know and what they don't know that they need to know, looks at the larger culture beyond the classroom walls, where it is and isn't, and where it might go, and s/he creates a 'curriculum.' If the teacher thinks the students need to learn skills of collaboration--and many teachers now think those will be increasingly important--the teacher creates 'learner centered' opportunities for the students to engage in dialog, make decisions, etc. It is not much of a paradox to say to say that good 'learner centeredness' is as much a matter of firm teacher decision making as any other approach to pedagogy.

The teacher does have to make some decisions about how to shape a classroom, but there are varying degrees. For example, you are expressing a bias for teacher-centered pedagogy here. Collaboration is, admittedly, an important skill that students will need beyond higher education. However, collaboration is also equally important as the means to a more student-centered pedagogy which recognizes that knowledge making/learning can happen for many more efficiently when students work together rather than as individuals. Plus, the peer pressure associated with collaborative work has shown to be an excellent incentive to learn.

Actually, the culture hasn't been 'static' since your great-grandfather's time, and the rate of change, it can be argued, is perceptibly slower than 100 years ago. The telegraph, radio, the cinema, television: the pre-computer changes were remarkable in their profusion and the swiftness of their appearance.

And, as you know, there is a vast educational literature of the kind of advice you and Stephen are now giving to teachers emerging from the telegraph, the radio, the movies, television. Get with it, teachers were advised, the times they are a'changin: teach your students to read and write telegraphese, convert your courses to radio delivery, bring the wonders of the world into your classroom via television and the movies...

Clearly we are doomed to repeat that history, now with cell phones and IM's, and hypertext.


Hmmm....Changes in literacy student needs during the late 19th and early 20th century might better be attributed to increased access to education by the middle and lower class, rather than attributing it to technology. Meanwhile, the impact that the printing press had on literacy would be a better comparison to digital technology--word processing, email, Internet. (Personally, I tend to believe that Moore's Law may be having a profound impact on the rate at which communication/discourse changes to adapt to developing technologies; meanwhile, pedagogy seems to plod along at a constant rate of gradual adjustment).

My teachers absolutely prepared me well for modern times and the new media. I had absolutely no trouble using my old literacy skills to read and understand television commercials. My first full size computer was a Kaypro, I also had a portable TRS 1000 with a speedy 300 baud modem, and after I learned the simple mechanics of the computers I found that my old reading and writing outfitted me well for email.

And I think the same can be said for my students: their old literacy training made learning the simplicities of the computer and hypertext a lark.

I don't think I can even attempt to go there (lol).

Let me settle for these comments now, and leave for another time your a priori assumptions about the the banking model and and the new rhetoric. I close with a request. Can you find or retrieve from the chat archives a piece of new rhetoric that illustrates the depth and profundity of the new communication styles our students are evolving?

Now: I've resisted learning even the simplest html, and therefore a program like this which requires it has me creating a message that looks like this one. I hope you can figure out who's speaking, and why the type faces change. Meanwhile, Stephen, when will this fine program not require me to learn a new language?


So, you are saying that you can't write hypertext? But you said hypertext was easy above??? One doesn't really have to know how to write html to use Netscape/Mozilla Composer or Macromedia Dreamweaver, and cut and paste in the source into the text window.Many of my students can write hypertext. Of course, like you, they also resist learning skills which they don't feel are necessary. BTW: It's "Mr. Lowe." [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy

Charlie Lowe is correct; the site is completely of my own design (including all the software, with the exception of the web server, which I left to Apache, and perl, which I left to Larry Wall).

I did in fact create a visual editor for this discussion board a few years ago, one that functions just like a Word or Wordpad editor, but discontinued it due to its incompatibility with Netscape. Today, of course, that's no longer an issue and therefore may be worth looking at again.

[Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: Re: Re: The New Literacy

Dr.Lowe

You say:
The problem is that it's difficult to engage directly with anyone on the possibiltiies of new literacies who begins with a priori assumptions such as in your previous posts to Stephen>

I can understand that. It's also hard to discuss the possibility of The New Illiteracy with someone who begins with the a priori assumption that there is a New Literacy. Right?

If you call it The New Illiteracy you can predict that the writer--me, in this case--thinks the schools and the colleges have to recognize what our students bring to us and create a pedagogy that seeks to overcome those limitations,

as well as School, in other words, aims to provide students with skills, knowledge, and attitudes that the larger culture does not.

To me, this is more of a teacher-centered pedagogy, rather than student-centered, because it is based on looking at student limitations--at evaluating student abilities against the teachers supplied measuring stick.
Ah, teacher-centered and learner-centered. Ah me.

Let's assume that students come to your class, or my class fluent in the use of the new communication technologies: they click on links, they cell phone, they IM, they change channels remotely, they IRC, they asynchronous conference--and all at the same time and while listening to rock on their headphones. Now, presumably as of yore they are in your class, or my class, to move themn beyond where they are now: to "provide [them} with skills, knowledge and attitudes that the larger culture does not"--if they can learn all they need to know without you and without me why come to our class?

So the present problems of pedagogy are no different than they have ever been. The teacher looks at what the students know and what they don't know that they need to know, looks at the larger culture beyond the classroom walls, where it is and isn't, and where it might go, and s/he creates a "curriculum." If the teacher thinks the students need to learn skills of collaboration--and many teachers now think those will be increasingly important--the teacher creates "learner centered" opportunities for the students to engage in dialog, make decisions, etc. It is not much of a paradox to say to say that good "learner centeredness" is as much a matter of firm teacher decision making as any other approach to pedagogy.

Now this might work if we can assume that our culture and the literacies necessary to function in our culture were static. That the teacher can be seen as a well spring of knowledge. However, electronic discourse is evolving so rapidly--and this is an acknowledged problem in education--that teachers are not fluent enough in these forms of communication to assume this role.

Actually, the culture hasn't been "static" since your great-grandfather's time, and the rate of change, it can be argued, is perceptibly slower than 100 years ago. The telegraph, radio, the cinema, television: the pre-computer changes were remarkable in their profusion and the swiftness of their appearance.

And, as you know, there is a vast educational literature of the kind of advice you and Stephen are now giving to teachers emerging from the telegraph, the radio, the movies, television. Get with it, teachers were advised, the times they are a'changin: teach your students to read and write telegraphese, convert your courses to radio delivery, bring the wonders of the world into your classroom via television and the movies...

Clearly we are doomed to repeat that history, now with cell phones and IM's, and hypertext.

Nor do scholars understand enough to properly judge what our students' needs will be in the future. How many educators would have predicted the importance of email, the integration of IM into our society, and the development of the Internet only 12 years ago? Did we prepare our students then for the developing new literacies that they need now, and will need, in the future?

My teachers absolutely prepared me well for modern times and the new media. I had absolutely no trouble using my old literacy skills to read and understand television commercials. My first full size computer was a Kaypro, I also had a portable TRS 1000 with a speedy 300 baud modem, and after I learned the simple mechanics of the computers I found that my old reading and writing outfitted me well for email.

And I think the same can be said for my students: their old literacy training made learning the simplicities of the computer and hypertext a lark.

Let me settle for these comments now, and leave for another time your a priori assumptions about the the banking model and and the new rhetoric. I close with a request. Can you find or retrieve from the chat archives a piece of new rhetoric that illustrates the depth and profundity of the new communication styles our students are evolving? I and grad students have done ethnographic studies and we must miss the nuance and brilliance of what your students are saying. It seems like the latest variation of teenage chatter, much phatic communion, much flirting, much partying, all good fun and warmth, and little worth noting or remembering.

Now: I've resisted learning even the simplest html, and therefore a program like this which requires it has me creating a message that looks like this one. I hope you can figure out who's speaking, and why the type faces change. Meanwhile, Stephen, when will this fine program not require me to learn a new language? Steve Eskow [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: Re: The New Literacy

Actually, my comments about your post, Dr. Eskow, were not an attempt at scholarly debate, for there was no attempt to address you directly (you'll notice the use of third person in reference to you), but rather to act as a counter for those other readers who might look at Stephen's text.

But I would be glad to address your comments if you like. The problem is that it's difficult to engage directly with anyone on the possibiltiies of new literacies who begins with a priori assumptions such as in your previous posts to Stephen

If you call it The New Illiteracy you can predict that the writer--me, in this case--thinks the schools and the colleges have to recognize what our students bring to us and create a pedagogy that seeks to overcome those limitations,

as well as School, in other words, aims to provide students with skills, knowledge, and attitudes that the larger culture does not.

To me, this is more of a teacher-centered pedagogy, rather than student-centered, because it is based on looking at student limitations--at evaluating student abilities against the teachers supplied measuring stick. Now this might work if we can assume that our culture and the literacies necessary to function in our culture were static. That the teacher can be seen as a well spring of knowledge. However, electronic discourse is evolving so rapidly--and this is an acknowledged problem in education--that teachers are not fluent enough in these forms of communication to assume this role.

Nor do scholars understand enough to properly judge what our students' needs will be in the future. How many educators would have predicted the importance of email, the integration of IM into our society, and the development of the Internet only 12 years ago? Did we prepare our students then for the developing new literacies that they need now, and will need, in the future?

It makes more sense then for teachers to work with students on developing and shaping these emerging digital literacies, to work with a wide variety discourse types, and in doing so, join the students in the learning process, rather than continuing to hold onto the banking model of education.

Are these digital and multimedia literacies always going to be useful for every type of discourse, for every rhetorical situation? Certainly not.

Are students going to be better able to adapt to different rhetorical situations if we have them engage and analyze not only in traditional, more scholarly discourse, but also electronic discourses? Certainly yes.

And will we make better progress at teachers if we even just recognize that they are developing useful literacies which we may not fully understand, that if we give them credit for their abilities, rather than pointing out only what they lack, they will become more motivated and engaged. Definitely so.

And was it necessary for Stephen to create a more multimedia version of his text for the point of his argument. Definitely not. Nevertheless, he does seem to recognize and make use of the electronic medium, both with the style of the post and the use of hyperlinks, despite your complaints. And this text does exist as part of a larger whole, Stephen's Web, which is not a traditional scholarly form of publication, contains asynchronous discussion boards, and, I'm betting, is completely designed and maintained by Stephen. An excellent example of pushing beyond the boundaries of scholarly discourse on the web.

Meanwhile, I wish that I could appreciate all of the rhetorical forms that students are adopting and developing within electronic communication, but instead it's more of a constant road of discovery. Both in my role as a writer and a writing teacher. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: The New Literacy

Charlie's nonrejoinder to my post is an interesting example of the old academic style of debate at its worst: he ignores the issues raised, suggests that my problem is that I've had no experience with the illuminations of the new media while he of course has experienced all they mysteries of polyfocal noncommunication, and gushes with praise of his students, who he apparently reassures endlessly that their phatic communion on chat rooms, laced with intricate repetitions of cliched abbreviations--IMHO, CU, and the like--represent a new form of instant communication of depth and brilliance which iniates and afficionados like Charlie can appreciate while Old Illiterates like me are blind to their brilliance.


All those old-fashioned literate sentences used to say so little. And by saying so little saying so much about the limits of the New Literacy. It would be an interesting exercise to redo that new Lowe as a genuine multimedia experience--not, of course, course by merely adding power pointlessness but by effecting a genuine transformation of those long and stilted sentences into short grunts separated by hyperlinks interspersed by lots of punctuation, particularly exclamation points, bursts of capital letters, and lots of COLOR!, plus, of course, lots of abbreviations.

IMHO.

Steve Eskow [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy

Great!

I had two classes read your text, yesterday and today, preceded by John Seely Brown's Growing Up Digital. The best part of the discussion was having some of them realize that while they might struggle with some traditional literacies, their digital literacies were already more advanced than many of the literati will ever be. That even though some might struggle in school, that this was not an indication of an inability to learn, but rather the medium and method of their learning experiences.

Of the replies below, I'd like to offer observations about two.

First, Eskow's first post, which is, to borrow from his second post, representative of "The Old Illiteracy." Doesn't take an 18 year old much instruction to understand that a 263 word paragraph on the web is rhetorically unsophisticated, lacking awareness of basic web readability; a high literate, versed enough in the use of the Web to post on discussion boards, should be able to figure this out for himself. Either that, or literate enough to learn somewhere else how to communicate in a given medium.

Nor was the Old Illiterate aware of the rhetorical sophistication of Lessig's new media Free Culture presentation, which makes excellent use of powerpoint to enhance an audio presentation quite amazingly, most likely because Eskow is unlearned in new media presentations; most academic literati powerpoints are merely outlines or supply only supplemental material, and are rarely used to rhetorically enhance the speaker's message in the way that Lessig has (of course, many just read from a paper; talking heads are another issue entirely).

Similarly, the signficance of Lessig's message seems to have been lost on Eskow at the expense of making his point--it being termed "painfully slow"--a powerful message with implications for our society which would not have been lost on most of my students.

Now Eskow, if he reads this post, may take offense to my use of the term "Old Illiterate," but no more than I take offense to having my students classed in the "New Illiteracy." There are more than one set of literacies. And these literacies change as our society and communication mediums change.

However, I mostly use this label because of the binary Eskow set up, not because I truly believe Eskow an illiterate, any more than my students are. I will say, though, that because we read "The New Literacy" text only in class as a supplement to Brown's text, fortunately, I doubt most of them had the time to get to all of the comments here. Describing students as illiterate is not the most productive way to get them to acquire new literacies.

As for tgelder's point that

Reasoning, as I will call it, depends on a mastery of the proposition, an articulated thought expressed in the form of a grammatically well-formed sentence. In this way basic 'old' literacy is the foundation of rationality and knowledge.

I would question which grammar? In chatrooms, many well-versed in the old basic literacy grammar would be incapable of keeping up with a meaningful discussion carried on by students at their rate of dialogue, rendering their "articulated thoughts" unexpressive.

You see, students have fluency in discourse communities which use a different medium of exchange, mediums which are gaining more prominence in day-to-day communication. Difficulty in acquiring a medium which is largely the venue of academics does not make them illiterate to those of us who recognize the importance of other discourse communities, particularly electronic ones which will soon, if they have not done so already, dominate our society. Educators will have to adapt, not forcefeed the old literacies.

Thanks again, Stephen, for this well-articulated text.

Charlie Lowe
Kairosnews [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy


There is a lot to agree with in Stephen's piece, but I worry that he goes a litte too far. The danger is that the baby (sorry for the cliche) gets thrown out with the bathwater.

The baby, in this case, is the capacity to engage in general informal reasoning and argumentation, which is essential for having a genuinely rational opinion (and, in the end, to the capacity to genuinely *know* anything.)

Reasoning, as I will call it, depends on a mastery of the proposition, an articulated thought expressed in the form of a grammatically well-formed sentence. In this way basic "old" literacy is the foundation of rationality and knowledge.

I agree that new media, and new availability of old and new media, offer access to information that is in many ways faster and more rich than is possible using just the written word. However by throwing the gates open too wide, we allow students to neglect or even avoid engaging in propositionally articulated thinking and reasoning, and hence reasoning in the most important sense.

In my teaching at a high-quality, selective tertiary institution, I constantly see students who are rationally incapacitated, in the sense that they simply have not mastered the basic skills of reasoning, or in many cases, the basic skills involved in propositionally articulating their thoughts. Indeed, I would say (consistent with Deanna Kuhn's findings, in her book The Skills of Argument) that a majority of my students have not mastered basic reasoning skills, and in that sense are not capable of having a rational opinion or genuinely knowing anything (on matters of any complexity).

"Old" literacy, expressing thoughts in grammatically well-formed sentences, and relating such sentences logically, gives one tremendous thinking power for which there is simply no alternative in any other medium. Paradoxically, expressive power, and hence freedom, only comes through submitting to certain "rigid" constraints. The classic illustration is the rules of musical structure and form. Once one takes the rules on board, a whole universe of musical expressiveness is opened up, a universe simply not available to someone operating in a more free-form, less disciplined (and supposedly more "free") format. Certain deep freedoms, as Robert Brandom says, only come through submitting to the right kinds of constraints.

Steve says "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 modes of memory and recall." Be that as it may, but they are also unwittingly losing the capacity to engage in rational inquiry - a "baby" which is at least as valuable, and arguably far more valuable, than the alternative learning modes they are supposedly acquiring.

I have written about the "crisis" in reasoning in a paper with the ungainly title "Pencillin for the Mind?" - available at

http://www.philosophy.unimelb.edu.au/reason/papers/pen.pdf

Much of what Steve dislikes about the Old Literacy is the restriction to prose, in either written or spoken form. Perhaps surprisingly, in this I very much agree. Prose may well be convenient and even efficient for some purposes; indeed, as Steve Eskrow points out, it may be *more* so than some alternatives. However it is a very inefficient "medium" for handling reasoning. An alternative is to use graphical techniques to enhance the mind's capacity to handle the logical structure of reasoning and argumentation - what we call "argument mapping". Argument mapping does not neglect, sidestep, avoid, or transcend the need to engage in propositionally and logically articulated thinking; rather, it provides a way to precisely that, transcending only the limitations of pure prose (spoken or written) as an expressive medium.

For more on this topic, see my paper Enhancing Deliberation Through Computer-Supported Argument Mapping

http://www.philosophy.unimelb.edu.au/reason/papers/Enhancing_Deliberation.pdf

In my opinion, argument mapping is a kind of middle ground between the Old and New Literacies. It preserves what is fundamentally important in the Old, but takes advantage of all the benefits of the New. It throws out the bathwater but keeps the baby.

- Tim van Gelder [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: Re: The New Literacy

"Nice to see a post from Steve Eskow."

Happy to be here. I have met the enemy, and they is us.

"The answer to his comment, obviously, is that my column is not aimed at the young students I describe, but rather, at the literati currently entrusted to teach them."

So is my "comment." Aimed at you and the "literati" that read you.

The phenomena you describe, which might equally well be called The New Illiteracy, have been well known and described by such as Goffman since the '60's.(Note that Rodney King needs Goffman's 40-year old schema to conceptualize his findings.) If you call it The New Literacy, one already knows your pedagogy: it will admire and endorse as well as describe the new consciousness. If you call it The New Illiteracy you can predict that the writer--me, in this case--thinks the schools and the colleges have to recognize what our students bring to us and create a pedagogy that seeks to overcome those limitations. School, in other words, aims to provide students with skills, knowledge, and attitudes that the larger culture does not.

"Even so, though, my presentation - maligned by Eskow as "simple" - is at least a partial move to the new paradigm (my use of hyperlinks - rather than academic references - is another). The fact that I piblished it on the web rather than (two years from now) in an academic is another."

Any way we can get to a really new paradigm that refuses to use the cliche of a "new paradigm"? Every little popgun of an idea is announced as a cannon, and every restatement of McLuhan is announced a "new paradigm." I learn of a dozen new paradigms every week

I find it somehow touching, Stephen, that you cite your using "hyperlinks" as evidence of a move to the "new paradigm." I don't know of any of the old literati that doesn't use them: footnotes come to life with hyperlinks.

However, you need to link to the painful truth: your piece is a standard linear Old Literacy argument, proceding step by ancient scholarly step from thesis to supporting arguments, with the hyperlinks helpful footnotes that, like all footnotes, can be ignored or left until later.

"And finally, of course, many of my readers simply do not yet have the bandwidth needed to benefit from a multi-media delivery (and owners of such bandwidth - movie studios, television channels, and the like, have seen fit to keep me far Far away from their production studios). So I am limited in what I can do."

Ah, yes, the old bandwidth excuse.

You don't need bandwidth, Stephen. There are thousands of images already on line, and thousands of audio files, and thousands of streaming video presentations. And your Google would find more sound and images than you need in 30 seconds.

Why not put together you demonstration from such found materials?

Premise: you can't do it in anything resembling the amount of time you took to write your all-text case. And I don't want to have to take the time to process it after it becomes an hour-long documentary.

The problem is otherwise.

Multimedia are just too slow.

What would you do with all that filmware from George Lucas if you had it that could compete with the economy of the linear language you used to make your case? Would you narrate a piece of streaming video, which would limit my learning to my ability to deal with you speaking at, what, 150 words a minute? Just too slow, Stephen: can't compare with the speed with which I was able to read you all-text statement, slowed down, as I mentioned, by the intolerably slow message from Lessig.

"Eskow's argument is an instance of what is called the "ad hominem tu quoque" fallacy - the supposition that someone must always practice what they preach. Which, of course, is absurd."

Not quite. My argument is this: if you practiced what you preached, your case would be as slow and as boring as much "educational" tlevision: you and Rodney King are old literati, and he seems happy with that. Why not admit you are too, and settle?

Incidentally, if you're not familiar with Derrida's notion of "grammatology," and his notion of a new Writing that is "picto-ideo-phonographic", and Greg Ulmer's extension of that work in a series of books and projects beginning with APPLIED GRAMMATOLOGY ,let me know, and I'll post some references.

Maybe I'll even use a hyperlink or two, to prove to you I'm hip.

Cheers.

Steve

[Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: The New Literacy

According to Alex Kuskis, << ...it still hasn't registered with most educators that there is such a thing as a "new literacy", in which they are, for the most part, illiterate. Peter Cochrane has written: “Imagine a school with children that can read and write, but with teachers who cannot, and you have a metaphor of the Information Age in which we live.” Most of the teachers now practicing have grown up with television, and are literate in all the new media: radio, television, computers, cell phones. Most of the new teachers are as familiar with McLuhan and his insights and errors as are the apostles of the New Literacy. It's somewhat arrogant to claim for one's position special wisdom based on generational differences: it makes it unnecessary to have to marshall arguments. It still hasn't registered with most New Literates that the promises of mass wisdom promised by the Chosen when the images and sound of the mass media were universally available have failed to deliver. In the US, at least, we have almost universal mass mediation: in many homes the radio and television are always on. And there is little evidence that these media, and the New Literacy, have brought us closer to universal learning. Steve Eskow [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: The New Literacy

Nice to see a post from Steve Eskow.

The answer to his comment, obviously, is that my column is not aimed at the young students I describe, but rather, at the literati currently entrusted to teach them.

Even so, though, my presentation - maligned by Eskow as "simple" - is at least a partial move to the new paradigm (my use of hyperlinks - rather than academic references - is another). The fact that I piblished it on the web rather than (two years from now) in an academic is another.

And finally, of course, many of my readers simply do not yet have the bandwidth needed to benefit from a multi-media delivery (and owners of such bandwidth - movie studios, television channels, and the like, have seen fit to keep me far Far away from their production studios). So I am limited in what I can do.

Eskow's argument is an instance of what is called the "ad hominem tu quoque" fallacy - the supposition that someone must always practice what they preach. Which, of course, is absurd. [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy

I am honored to be the first link in Dr. Downes example of the Old Literacy in action: I am the "Steve Eskow" whose message to a mailing list is used to support the contention that Old Critics are "moaning" about the New Literacy. Dr. Downes seems to have a gift for misleading analogies, and they confuse him. He compares, for example, the moans he still hears (where?) about the loss of Latin and Greek to the moans of us Old Literates bewailing the inability of our students to read and write. He ignores, of course, the important differences between dead languages and live languages: reading and writing the living language--English, in this case-- are and will continue to be the central communicative skills of the living culture. The central charge, then, subject to empirical verification, is this: many of Dr. Downes' students cannot read and understand his piece on the New Literacy. This is a challenge to him to set up the experiment. Students taking this test would be free to wear earphones, watch television, and use their cell phones to call one friend for help, a la So You Want To Be a Millionaire. The central irony, then, is that you have to be an Old Literate in order to be able to follow Dr. Downes' somewhat simple and well-known argument, since, despite the concession to a few links, themselves mostly textual pieces, The New Literates is composed of the old literate elements. Rather than use one picture Dr. Downes uses a thousand words. Dr. Downes' use of the argument that the new media are reshaping the psyches and consciousness and communicative styles of those exposed to them is sound and well established by others. What education should do in the face of these changes is less certain. One position needs immediate challenge: Dr. Downes' contention that multimediating and hyper-grammatizing communication will speed it up: that linear text, as exemplified by Dr. Downes' article, is too slow. Because Dr. Downes' piece is essentially linear text written by Dr. Downes, with interpolations of other pieces of linear text written by others, it moves swiftly and can be digested quickly. What slows it down is the link to Lawrence Lessig and his audio talk. That concession to "cognitive styles" requires one to listen to someone communicating orally at the rate of 140 words a minute: painfully slow for an Old Literate. Why Dr. Downes would insert such a slow moving Old Literacy lecture into his hymn to the New Literacy is a puzzle. Dr. Downes, as always, raises issues of great importance. As always, too, he takes stands on those issues that allow for clarifying and correcting dialog and discussion, so, as always, I am grateful to him. Steve Eskow [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: Re: The New Literacy

“Imagine a school with children that can read and write, but with teachers who cannot, and you have a metaphor of the Information Age in which we live.”

That's a very illuminating quote. What happens next? Will the children just start deeming teachers irrelevant, and find ways to learn and share what they need on their own? [Comment] [Permalink]

Re: The New Literacy

Over 30 years ago in "Counterblast" (1969), Marshall McLuhan cautioned about the educational system's over-reliance on book culture: "Education must always concentrate its resources at the point of major information intake. But from what sources do growing minds nowadays acquire most factual data and how much critical awareness is conferred at these points? It's a commentary on our extreme cultural lag that when we think of criticism of information flow we still use only the concept of book culture,namely, how much trust can be reposed in the words of the message. Yet the bias of each medium is far more distorting than the deliberate lie." (p. 119) Things have not changed since then and it still hasn't registered with most educators that there is such a thing as a "new literacy", in which they are, for the most part, illiterate. Peter Cochrane has written: “Imagine a school with children that can read and write, but with teachers who cannot, and you have a metaphor of the Information Age in which we live.”.......Alex Kuskis [Comment] [Permalink]

The New Literacy

Without our foreknowledge, we have already raised a couple of generations on "one minute" comprehenders. Was it the TV, with it's one minute ads? There have been thousands of them pouring into the minds of our children every month. "Give it to me in a minute", they seem to demand. We give it to them and we even augment it up with a visual, so that five year olds recognize brands even before they know how to read and write. And then yes, they seem to be ready to take two or three thoughts together, easily, and then they have no patience for us parents and adults when we do not credit them for the knowledge they already have. [Comment] [Permalink]

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