When I Say Literacy, You Say…

… in all likelihood, a number of different things, all of which might have something to do with “language acquisition,” “the alphabet,” “writing,” or – simply – “words.” I know that prior to my study of digital scholarship, I thought of literacy as primarily relegated to the development of reading and writing skills.

Of course, inquiries into digital literacy complicated my definition. After all, developing digital literacy is not just about developing reading and writing skills.

Allow me a brief digression before returning to the main point of this entry:

If you’re reading this page, you’re aware that you’re not simply looking at words. You’ve also likely paid attention to where the words have been placed on this page, the color of the border I’ve chosen, the font in which my writing appears. As Gunther Kress writes in Literacy in the New Media Age, the logic of your reading experience is shaped spatially. To clarify, in writing (and in speaking, for that matter), our understanding is governed by the logic of time; you have to follow the order of words in a book or in a conversation in order to infer meaning (Kress 1-2). However, on a screen, the logic of words is governed by how they are laid out on the page. You may be reading this paragraph in sequential order (as you would in a book), but you may also be more compelled to scan this page, to skip to a later paragraph to see “what the point” is of this blog post.

You may have jumped to this very line because I’ve isolated in from the larger block of text that I just wrote.

If I wrote this in bullet points:

  • You would likely be inclined to pay greater attention to these points.
  • Bullet points always stand for something important, right?

I’ve manipulated your reading experience by introducing these visual cues, but they are increasingly important, especially as we consider the medium by which we find new information and acquire new knowledge on the web.

Phew, OK, so with all of that said:

What is literacy? What do we talk about when we talk about literacy?

To refer to Kress again, literacy may be defined – very broadly speaking – as the process of “mak[ing] messages using letters as the means of recording that message” (Kress 23). Walter Ong seems to define literacy similarly, assessing literacy as the means by which written communication is disseminated. In his text, Orality and Literacy, Ong does not explicitly define “literacy,” yet his synchronous analysis of oral and literate cultures suggests that oral and literate cultures are inherently dichotomous. Although I have not read the entirety of Orality and Literacy, the first part of the text seems devoted to contrasting oral and literate cultures, assessing the “logics” of the two cultures in similar terms as Kress. For example, Ong also acknowledges the difference in “spatial” logic and “temporal” logic as Kress does.

Like Kress, Ong also acknowledges the power of writing mediums (like books and screens) and asserts that “the electronic age is also an age of ‘secondary orality,’ the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence” (Ong 3).

This, of course, begs the question, “If the electronic age is an age of orality, where does writing fit in?” After all, as Naomi Baron writes in Always On, writing conducted online more closely resembles “speech” than it does “formal writing” (28).

If this is true, then to what extent is digital literacy inextricably connected to written practices? Is digital writing simply a transcription of speech?

I cannot help but think about Selber again, who defined three different types of literacies that function synchronously when using the web: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Remaining mindful of these three types of literacy suggests to me that digital writing is not simply a transcription of speech.

Because the visual plays such a strong role in online reading and writing practices, I do not think that words themselves are entirely shaped by “speech” patterns. Rather, online reading and writing practices are inextricably shaped by visual culture. In the future, I imagine that the most effective rhetorical arguments will not require mellifluous prose, but rather a healthy balance of text and image.

This shift is already occurring. I’m reminded of a panel I attended at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in 2010 on digital literary journals. The editors-in-chief of two completely digital journals spoke primarily about their approaches to designing their journals’ web pages. One editor asserted that he wanted the experience of reading his journal to mimic the experience of reading a print journal as much as possible, while the other editor designed her journal’s page to reflect the experience of browsing a social network. The first editor’s journal webpage featured a cream-colored background, few hyperlinks, and a minimalist header and footer with basic information about the journal. The second editor’s journal webpage, however, was filled with links and information: as a browser read through a poem published in the journal, the user would have the option of listening to the poet read his piece, of reading an interview with the poet whose piece was published, and to participate in a forum about the poem itself.

These two dramatically different approaches to reading creative writing online are, to me, exemplary of what it means to develop literacy. I find that literacy, then, is rooted in the communication of written messages. However, I’m inclined to broaden Kress’s definition of literacy to suggest that written messages need not only include words and letters, but images and the placement of images.

I suppose I have come to the conclusion of this entry discussing more about what it means to be digitally literate than to be literate. However, I cannot help but believe that these two terms may, inevitably, become conflated.