My Hesitation to Talk about Research is Not About You.

Whenever I am asked, “So, what’s your research about anyway?” my stomach dips. My mind goes blank for a moment; what is my research about? Do I even know? Sometimes, I feel like the project I’m working on is so big that I don’t know where to begin and there’s a certain dread I experience in trying to capture this project in a few sentences. So, my answer typically meanders through some qualified, fuzzy statements, like “Well, you know, it’s like…”

Let me just assure you of this: my hesitation is not about you. It’s all about me.

After I passed my qualifying exams, I thought that I would finally feel comfortable with the big research question. After all, I managed to convince a committee of five professors of my competence; surely, I could convince others of the same. Yet months after my qualifying exam, I somehow feel more insecure than ever about explaining my research.

The reason for my insecurity is simple: the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know very much at all. The more I start to probe my research questions, the more depth, complexity, and texture they seem to take on. I feel as though I’ve hatched open a large egg and have just discovered that the creature hatched is not just a lizard but a fire-breathing dragon. I’ve got to get myself one hell of a shield.

Feeling like an incompetent nincompoop is a classic learned person problem. It’s impossible not to feel like one when your days are filled with reading, writing, reflecting, and asking questions. In fact, at the beginning of every graduate seminar I took, the professor always asked the participants to introduce themselves and their major fields of interest, and every time, my peers and I would have to qualify our interests with statements like, “Well, I’m not really an expert or anything, but…” Arguably, all of us in that room were well on our way to being experts, yet none of us could own that title. It felt uncomfortable. It still feels uncomfortable.

The thing is, the only way I’ll be able to convince other people that I’m doing more than picking lint out of my navel these days is by giving the dreaded 2-minute version of my research. People like Nicholas Kristof have called for making academic research accessible to the public and I completely agree. I don’t struggle very much with colloquial language and making ideas accessible, but I find I struggle with condensing an argument and making it clear without either obfuscating the point or over-simplifying it. In other words, I don’t want to misrepresent an idea, but I also don’t want to bog down.

What’s the solution here? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my call to you if you’re reading this (and if you are, it probably means you know me in person because – let’s be real – this blog is mostly getting circulated through my Facebook friends): ask me about my research. Keep asking me. The more practice I get, the less uncomfortable I’ll feel, and hey, maybe the more coherent I’ll become too. I want to be able to share ideas and discuss them with you, whether you’re an academic or not. I might be afraid to do so and I might seem a little weird about it, but ultimately, I’ll be grateful. If I don’t seem grateful, just point me back to this blog post and allow me to eat my words. They’ll be delicious.

The Shortcut Divide

“Wait, wait, what is it that you highlighted? Do I click here?”

“Do I need to get the YouTube BEFORE I make the post?”

“Hold on: what are you doing exactly? What button did you press?”

These are questions I hadn’t thought about.

“Oh, um, you just highlight the URL. You know, the long series of words that are in this bar – yes, this one.”

“It’s the button with the music note and the camera. You see that? There?”

“So, I just clicked the ‘video’ button. Yeah, where it says ‘video.'”

It’s easy to take for granted the processes online that feel so natural to those of us who have used computers for as long as we can remember.

Yesterday, I attended the last portion of a WordPress workshop for middle school and high school history teachers led by UC Davis Digital History developer Phillip Barron. I was asked to give a small presentation on the functional literacy project I developed for UWP 270 as well as any tips or experiences I had about working with WordPress.

Frankly, I’m not sure I had too much to offer (I still have so much to learn myself!). The main piece of advice I gave was not to have fear. Looking out at the group, mostly absorbed in their laptops, I couldn’t help but remember that feeling I get almost every time I sit in front of a computer and start a new project. For the most part, when I sit with my hands upon the keys, trying to figure out how to tweak the code of a webpage, I alternate between fear, frustration, and impatience. I know that it is within my control to change whatever it is that I want to change, but I do not intuitively know how to manipulate space on a screen. It takes me a long time to figure out how to do something new.

I felt really impressed with the group that was there because I know how challenging it is to change the way that we think about our work. Learning is fun. Learning is exhilarating. But much of the time, learning is also really, really hard.

So, there was a part of me that felt like a huge hypocrite standing at the front of the room, speaking about pushing past fears as if it was something I had already done. But after I gave my “talk,” I helped individual teachers work on their webpages, and I realized that I did have something to offer: patience. If there’s something that teaching has taught me, it is the patience to help people when they’re struggling, to listen through struggles, and to find solutions.

I realized that even as I struggle and complain about my own technical incompetency, I still have the major advantage of being young, of growing up knowing how to copy and paste, of understanding what a hyperlink and a URL is, of opening up millions of tabs on my screen and being able to effortlessly click among them. The concept I found I helped the participants with the most was just that: copying, pasting, choosing the right buttons to do certain actions.

For many of the things participants wanted to do, I had already found shortcuts. And that, I realized, was the source of the divide between my experience with computers and many of these workshop participants’ experience with computers: I felt comfortable enough with the fluid processes of using a computer and browsing the Web that I wasn’t afraid to take shortcuts and cut corners. The workshop participants, however, wanted every step laid out in sequential order; they wanted to know exactly what to press and when to press it.

There’s clearly no wrong way to use a computer, but the desire for linearity, for seeing all of the steps, for making the process of using a computer transparent surprised me a little bit. It shouldn’t have, of course. After all, what have I been reading about all year? The inherent discomfort in our postmodern tendencies to shake up the order of our lives, to see our lives and experiences as disconnected and fragmented. The shortcuts might seem easier, but for someone entering a new world and a new way of thinking, they can simply be baffling.

If nothing else, yesterday was a good reminder of why I’m so fascinated with and interested in the intersections between literacy technology: the way we use the devices so central to our lives changes the ways that we think about leading our lives. I think after yesterday, I’m even more motivated now to think closely this summer about how I’m going to adapt to teaching in a computer classroom and how I might consider integrating 21st century literacies into my formal writing class.

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.