I have a confession to make: computers scare me.
Admittedly, this is not ideal. I’m working towards graduate work in digital literacy/media studies. Yet if something goes wrong, I’m the first to call tech support, panicked. What am I thinking? And yes, I ask myself this all the time.
I’m likely ripe for a psychological diagnosis, but I think this anxiety is precisely what drives me to pursue this study: I know all too well that, as Bradley Dilger and Jeff Rice write in the intro toFrom A to <A>: Keywords of Markup, “the literate mind has extended to the markup mind” (xiv). Plus, as the discourse of computing and computer control becomes an increasingly big part of working culture (and popular culture), I recognize that (as Stuart Selber writes in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age) “one must effectively appropriate the language of a community in order to have a voice within it” (45).
So, yeah, this stuff is important. But that recognition doesn’t stop me from feeling utterly terrified.
Allow me to clarify: the kinds of things I can do on computers don’t scare me. Software is my friend. I love using my Word Processor. I love that I can make calculations easily with Excel (this will come in handy with tax season upon us!). Heck, I love using the Internet and I love the kind of cultural resources the Internet has wrought.
The point is, it’s the inner machinations of the computer that scare me. If there’s a window that pops up that’s anything out of the ordinary, I feel panicked. If something is frozen on my screen, I frantically hit CTRL ALT DEL in the hopes that if I just shut a troublesome program down, the problem will figure itself out. Is my computer running really slowly? Well, shoot, I’ll just shut it down, restart it, and let my heart beat as loud as a tom-tom until the windows welcome sound greets me again. Ah, it’s working! It’s working! Life is beautiful! I’ll never hurt you again, my dearest Shibi!
Anyway, what this all boils down to (I think) is my fear of losing control. This perhaps scares many of us (especially those of us in graduate school; our work is very much contingent on finding answers and organizing those answers). Yet when it comes to the computer, I fear this loss of control even more because I know how central this computer (this machine) is to so much of my life. Scary but true.
Mitigating the kinds of fear I have is exactly the reason that writers like Selber, Dilger, and Rice advocate for the development of functional literacy in the classroom. In short, my understanding of functional literacy (given the discussions we’ve had in our readings and in class) is the development of technical computing skills (and applying those skills in appropriate and confident ways). After all, developing functional literacy is empowering! Knowing how to do something is a powerful tool to – well – actually doing stuff and being a part of a larger community of other “do-ers.”
But the range of developing functionally literate skills seems expansive to me. Selber suggests that functionally literate students merely need to be aware of “those online activities considered to be customary in English courses at the post-secondary level,” (44) whereas Dilger and Rice suggest that “In the age of new media, there is no way to avoid markup. Markup is text. Markup is communication. Markup is writing” (xi).
So, the range here is: functional literacy could mean using a word processor (yay!) to learning how to use HTML markup (yay, but scary!).
To me, that range is ENORMOUS. I consider myself a fairly adept user of certain kinds of software and programs, but I’m forcing myself to learn coding and markup and, boy, it’s hard. I can’t imagine having to learn this kind of stuff in an English class. Granted, I’m a few weeks behind on my Code Year lesson (when you have fifty-five undergraduate papers in front of you to grade, a lecture to prepare, and class presentation questions to write, you know where your priorities go), but still. I think if I was told I had to edit a web text for a writing class, I would feel enormously alienated from the processes of writing I grew up with. Though I may be a “digital native,” there are some terrains that to me are still like the wild, wild west.
In any case, I’ve probably gone on too long, but I suppose my question with the development of functional literacy is this: how much will future students need to know? To what extent do computers need to be quasi-programmers to be able to be a part of “the conversation?”