Thinking about Literacy

Clarence Fisher on Remote Access has an interesting discussion of literacy. It starts with a quote from Bob Stein of The Future of the Book:

“We find when writing moves online, the connections between ideas and people are much more apparent than they are in the context of a printed book.”

Then he goes on in the post to say: “We like to pretend in schools that reading and writing are social actions, but we only want to go so far. We need individual grades after all.”

This whole discussion reminded me of a poem I wrote many years ago and re-read yesterday. It is about how the fiction I read changes my perception of the world and I wish that I could know the folks who are in those stories as well as I know the stories. (Yes, I know they don’t exist; I’m just saying.)

I would have liked to been
in the crew
of the Axis, or maybe be the second in command,
and watch the ambassador’s pants fall off.

But really how is that different from wishing I had been able to know my grandmother when she was young or read the letter from Michener about her book or heard my friend give her talk in Seattle? I am not sure it is.

Did we teach that reading and writing are social actions? In my life (until that PhD in rhetoric) we didn’t talk about reading and writing as social but as individual. Yes, the author wrote a book and hoped a publisher would purchase it and an audience would read it, but the writing itself was seen as individual.

(Eric Flint’s ways of writing 1632 is the farthest from that which I have read on any regular basis. He writes with his fans and other authors about his world and follows the stories where the others think they should go.)

Reading was also individual. We had the SRA reading speed tests and the individual reading experiences. In school the only social reading I remember was A Wrinkle in Time read by my teacher, Mrs. Loomis. We all loved this reading (and I read the book to my sons at the same age because of this) but mostly our reading was individual. I certainly thought it was individual, when I was racing my way through books to compete with my brother in reading and get to go back to the library with my father.

Rhetoric teaches (correctly) that writing has an audience and a purpose. But I am not sure that this makes writing a social activity. At least not as it has been done in the past.

Perhaps now, with blogs and tweets and facebook pages, writing IS a social activity. I answer my friend’s status update and she likes. I post something on her wall. She reads it. Everyone else reads it as well. Perhaps they respond.

Fisher’s article concentrates on the difference in delivery. I don’t think ebooks versus paper books are such a big difference. I do think that writing responded to in process is a big difference.

I don’t think reading an ebook on my computer is a whole lot different socially than reading a book on paper. Both are done individually… Perhaps if we are reading it in class from the projection screen I will view it as different. (And I am going to be doing that this semester.) But if we are simply reading in a different medium, I am not sure that changes the literacy at all.

Fisher talks about concern that corporations are driving literacy. You know, corporations won’t make and sell kindles, nooks, iPads, and computers if folks are not interested in buying them. But if Amazon can sell books without having to send them through the mail (which it can and why aren’t they significantly cheaper since they don’t have that cost?), why/how does that make Amazon in charge of literacy? I still read what I want to read. Yes, some people will get on and download the free Kindle app to their computer and read all the free books and only the free books. Hey, the library does that too. Does that mean that the library is driving literacy? Not in any more nefarious way than it has since Benjamin Franklin’s day. And I don’t think that corporations are driving literacy any differently than publishers and libraries have and are.

As computing platforms diverge and seek to distinguish themselves from others, what happens to our ideas of literacy and our literacy skills when Apple offers one type of platform, Google another, Linux a third and Microsoft something completely different? Will we need a “Shakespeare by Google” class while another offers a “Shakespeare by Linux?” Will these two texts contain fundamentally different information? What happens when corporations sponsor the hardware in a school or district? Will students be illiterate when they transfer?

This is why open models are important.

Really? Apple has a platform. Folks use iPads and iPhones and Macs. Other folks use HP. Shakespeare by Google might be an interesting class, just because Google is showing so much content, but is it going to change Shakespeare? No. Not any more than any scholar, book, or publication does/will.

I don’t think that technical literacy should be conflated with reading/writing and information literacy. Those are very different skills.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Literacy”

  1. I believe that the impact of these different “delivery systems” (that’s what print books, e-books, PDFs and readers are) is not whether the delivery system changes Shakespeare, but whether the delivery system _offers_ Shakespeare. I work in a distance learning environment. When content was packaged as printed books, html pages and PDFs, delivering content was a walk in the park compared to today.

    Today we need to deliver learning materials to the devices our students use. But Flash doesn’t work on the iPad. PDFs won’t work on smartphones (I think that’s what I heard in today’s meeting). One student says “Is there an e-book?” Another says “I’d like print, thank you.” “I have a vision problem – can you provide an audio version?” “Can I download this e-book to an Android?” And some computer users are still stuck with dialup, with limited access to podcasts and videos.

    Did you know that most publishers restrict e-books in some way? You can’t print more than a certain number of pages without paying an additional fee, for instance. Maybe you can’t search it. Maybe you can’t copy any of the text (to quote in a paper). Maybe you can only use their e-book on a specific brand of reader.

    Perhaps Shakespeare will be made available in any delivery technology through any app. But I suspect that every technology will not deliver monographs in military history, the poetry of Mary Oliver, the writings of John McPhee, or case studies in nursing management.

    The ageless drama, the history, the poetry, the compelling writing, the educational substance won’t change. What will change is your ability to access it. Readers and educators alike will need to challenge publishers and device designers to provide device-independent access to all reading material.

  2. I’m just going to throw this out there, but what about book clubs? When you and millions of others are reading (or supposed to be reading) the same book then coming together to talk about it “with” Oprah, isn’t there a social element? Or the comic book geeks who hoard and prize their specific knowledge and experience of reading their favorites? It might never be as collective as a rock concert or live piece of theater, but can’t it be more than private? What about comment boards on articles and posts? Isn’t that evidence of some sort of collective experience of the writing?

    I might be getting off topic, but I think there used to be a collective experience with reading, especially when everyone read the newspapers. Now, it’s rising again online, but in a different way.

    But that’s just me. 🙂

  3. Yes, reading for a book club is social. I guess I was originally thinking more of academic work and reading. Of course, for some of my literature classes I read the work aloud in class and they discuss and write on it. So then it is more social for sure. Also, we do plays aloud, where everyone takes a character and reads the lines.

    I guess reading can be more social, even in an academic situation, than I think of automatically/first.

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