Monday, January 28, 2008

Coming Together As Many

Aside from the occasional interesting historical fact (I had no idea that Thoreau's Walden escape was funded by his entrepreneurial pencil-making stint), Bacon's piece struggled to keep my attention/intrigue. From my perspective, he failed to add anything new to the conversation regarding new technologies in the classroom, and instead seemed to repeat what others have said plenty of times before; namely, that technologies become invisible and automatic, and we therefore have a choice to fight or adapt. I don't expect, nor do I usually want, concrete answers in a scholarly piece, but I do hope to be left with a question or two that I find engaging and that even re-appears long after the article finds its home back on my shelf. Instead, Bacon's historical anecdotes provided me with nothing more than mild entertainment and a few yawny-yawn-yawns.

Offering more relevant references to current debates in our field, Hesse caused my computer to hit sleep mode far less than Bacon did (as I took notes on it). Since I assign a mixed genre literacy narrative (like Faigley's microethnography) to my 101 students and see it as an enlightening way to get at the root of student anxiety around constructions of the self, I found Hesse's multiple definitions of "essayistic literacy" and his questioning of the genre's value to be helpful. At times, however, I was confused about exactly what point he was making or where he was headed (i.e. his consideration of whether a home page is an extended argument or only a channeling of info? Does it really matter?) He also seemed to cite other scholars more than relying on his own contributions. If nothing else, though, he increased my understanding of the pedagogies within a social constructionist framework (accommodationist and resistance) and set the stage for Wysocki's compelling piece.

I love when segues appear without trying...

In "Blinded by the Letter," Wysocki and Eilola have a heightened sense of energy and innovation, both in the questions they ask and the design/format they use. It's like they're practicing what they're preaching, in a sense... like they are "not just moving through information," but "moving through it and making and changing conscious constructions of it as [they] go” (366). To me, their approach is as close to "patch-writing," or "patch-composing," perhaps, as one can get. Quoting others in chunks, messing with design and font conventions, and creating somewhat of a jump-around content path, these two are displaying the complex and exciting relationship we can have with our new and ever-changing idea of techno literacy.

Visually speaking, they act on their notion that an articulation relationship operates under a "cloud of sometimes contradictory nexus points among different positions" (367), and further assert that "literacy can be seen as not a skill but a process of situating and resituating representations in social spaces" (367). I'm drawn to this idea because of its implications to rehash and revise the old, linguistically exclusive ways of viewing discourse, literacy, and learning as monolithic practices. I'm also caught in that place of being motivated by theory and confused by how to specifically act on it in my own pedagogy.

Their references to Stuart Hall also made me want to read more of his work, since I've only had minimal exposure to it. I'm particularly hopeful about his view of articulation theory as a way of forcing us to set aside the belief that a 'unity' exists within discourses--that instead a new way of viewing multiple literacies as multiple articulations can "enable[s] us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position” (367). If possible, it seems that this approach could both validate individual student experiences with (and interpretations of) literacy and acknowledge social forces at play without forcing such acknowledgment upon them. In the end, I believe students deserve to arrive at those social connections/social locations on their own, and the complex dimension that computer technology adds to our relationships to literacy might allow that very thing to happen.

Lastly, I'll add this: Can Richard Miller ditch Rutgers and teach here? I want a "Center for New Humanities!"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anxiety and Hope

Man, how I wish I'd read these pieces a week or two ago, when I was tying up the last pieces of my M.A. portfolio on the literacy myth and the need to recognize and honor multiliteracies in the classrooom. Ah well, just as we are works in progress, so are the "products" we design. Maybe I can make some revisions, knowing what I know now, especially from the New London Group and Richard Ohmann.

The important thing about these readings, to me anyway, was that they were not only critical of our historically narrow and exclusive ways of viewing literacy (a.k.a. the dark side), but they also gave HOPE and VISION to teachers of English studies. That's right, I said 'hope' and 'vision.'

While it's become much too easy to point out the anxiety that technology generates in an unequal society, these scholars don't stop there. Ohmann, for one, declares his belief in the "liberatory possibilities" that can emerge from the issues of inequality/lack of agency that technological literacy creates. So, while he recognizes that “monopoly capital” will continue to dominate “classrooms, textbooks, student essays, and texts of all sorts” (32), he also concludes with the opportunity (inevitability?) for resistance and rebellion in such an environment, and asks that we take part in it in our daily work lives. I love the boldness, and I love the specific call to take action. No empty bitching here, folks. These are the steps Ohmann says we can, and should, take:

1. Fight mindless computer literacy programs.
2. Critically analyze the politics of
3. Engage our students in discussions of literacy as a process of liberation, with the caveat that literacy in itself is not “intrinsically liberating.

Similarly, the New London Group gives refreshingly direct and hopeful advice, so to speak. After grounding their argument in the notion that literacy pedagogy has been "a carefully restricted project—restricted to fomalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language” (9), they go on to state specific goals within that context. They make the “negotiating of multiplicity of discourses” (9) that's required of us sound invigorating, not hopeless. And while questions of how to ensure full participation are still puzzling in my own mind, I applaud scholars who are trying to get at more concrete ways we can enact such change--locally and globally.

And I think that's the point--to include students in the questions we're asking one other, the points of tension we wrestle with here. After all, we're talking about them. The negotiation process needs their input. We cannot simply sit in our grad classes and have heady conversations about increasing access for all students and then proceed to teach from our same old transmission framework.

As the New London Group puts it, we need to “tread a careful path that provides students with the opportunity to develop skills for access to new forms of work through learning the new language of work. But at the same time, our role as teachers is not simply to be technocrats. It is not our job to produce docile, compliant workers. Students also need to devlop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives” (13).

I know I'm heavy on the quoting here, but the idea of engaging the multiple and diverse "lifeworlds" (such a cool term that seems to articulate a thought I've tried to get at in my head for some time now) that converge in our classrooms is exciting, to say the least. And so, I'm thankful I have some positive theory to hold onto as I figure out how, exactly, to develop a literacy pedagogy that seeks to be more inclusive and rebellious at the same time--one that sees differences as exciting to engage, not something to hide. I feel like hanging this quote over my desk: “To be relevant, learning processes need to recruit, rather than attempt to ignore and erase, the different subjectivities, interests, intentions, commitments, and purposes that students bring to learning (18).

Let's choose hope.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Power to the e-people

The highlight for me this week was surely Marilyn Cooper's "Postmodern Possibilities in Electronic Conversations." In addition to it offering some relevant insights to my profession as a college instructor who uses email with frequency with my students (I hadn't really thought about email's function/what it allows that classroom interaction can't), it also drew on deeper themes of power and the postmodern identity that seemed impressive to me. The simple pedagogical advice was strong enough on its own, but the links to Foucault and power really rounded it out and turned it into a smart, sound argument.

Like I said, I had never really analyzed the role email plays between my students and me, but while reading Cooper I found myself nodding and underlying the parts that discussed how email opens up avenues (discourse-wise and otherwise) that the constraints and formalities of the classroom do not welcome, no matter how "liberatory" we try to make it. I loved the idea that students feel less monitored or judged in that e-space... that even if they know a teacher will be looking at their words with scrutiny, they also know "the gaze" won't be looking so much at grammar or punctuation, but rather critical thinking and absorbtion of class material. In short, electronic conversations, according to Cooper, liberate students, and knowing how shy/anxiety-ridden/intimidated students get in the classroom, makes me want to use email even more in order to offer students a place where those concerns aren't as intense or present, and the "universal rules" of SAE aren't governing their every move.

As Cooper puts it, "Most simply put, the transition involves a shift from the notion of knowledge as the apprehension of universal truth and its transparent representation in language by rational and unified individuals to the notion of knowledge as the construction in language of partial and temporary truths by multiple and internally contradictory individuals (143). If this is true, then are the possibilities of our static, "pure" (Bizzell) discourse changing in the classroom (i.e. making ways for alternative discourses) likely? I certainly hope so. Maybe someday soon our "rules" will give way to, and more accurately reflect, the multiple literacies that our diverse students bring with them to class.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Call to be Activists

From Grabill's call to "expand the scope of our work outside composition classrooms" (298) to Selfe's push to “understand and make sense of, to pay attention to, how technology is now inextricably linked to literacy and literacy education in this country" (96), I'm revved up by the potential of teachers being social activists, or, to be buzzwordy, "agents of change."

This week's readings seem to form a strong team of concepts that interrelate and drive the points home that 1) The system of literacy education (including its connections to technology education) is an exclusive one (in terms of race and class); and 2) The issue of access--while it may be riddled with complexities that are hard to pinpoint or tackle--is a problem that deserves our immediate attention as it continues to increase the power differentials and social violence between the haves and have-nots.

I started with Grabill and Selfe. While Grabill focuses on community contexts ["Most discussions of literacy have taken place almost exclusively within school domains to the exclusion of a much wider range of written activity in workplace and community contexts" (298)], Selfe focuses on the local and national efforts to not only make access to writing technologies a more equal venture, but also to get people (especially teachers, since that's her primary audience) to "pay critical attention to the issues generated by technology use” (108).

These two scholars established a strong historical and field-specific foundation for launching into Banks and Walton, with the Banks piece being particularly powerful/influential for me. For starters, many of Banks' notions of censorship and surveillance sounded eerily familiar to Foucault's descriptions of the Panopticon. The need for Black youths and adults alike to have "underground spaces" where they can express themselves freely without being victims of judgment under the culturally dominant microscope seemed like both a liberating and tragic reality--simultaneously. What I mean is, while it initially sounds promising/exciting that a spaces like Blackplanet exist for people to find community and strength around their discursive traditions, the underlying fact that racism and hegemony have created a need for "subversive" or "underground" arenas for people of color is still disturbing. Banks even refers to "the gaze" that Foucalt discusses in "The Eye of Power," when he says, "because these spaces exist outside of the official gaze of schools, workplaces, and governments, those who become part of them truly do have the right to their own language" (71). But, I'm inclined to ask, are they ever really free of the gaze? The fact that the Blackplanet Web site is not Black-owned is troubling, to say the least. At least the forum exists, yes, but who controls it's content and fate?

Thus, we're reminded to get off our comfortable bums and use our power for transformation. We need to promote not only underground spaces that oppressed populations can control, but also mainstream, highly-visible ones of which they can take true ownership. If we sit back and ignore Selfe's advice to pay attention, we'll continue to “enact[s] social violence” and “ensure[s] continuing illiteracy under the aegis of education” (96). We first need to engage students and administrators in the discussion of unequal access if we ever want to have faith in Giddens’ notion that "…all social actors, no matter how lowly, have some degree of penetration of the social forms which oppress them" (72).

Technological mastery for all is complicated, yes, but Selfe and Banks (especially) break it down in a way that gives people in our profession some achievable steps to make local changes that will, we can hope, make waves on a broader scale.

I sound optimistic, but the beast of hegemony is making my stomach sick as I wonder if the broader-scale changes are ultimately possible.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Agency, Structure, and Power--oh my.

Whew! Sure wish I had known more of the names Giddens was dropping, but I did my best to extract what I could from his ideas on agency, power, and structure, and while it's sure to lack a sleek literary flow, here's what I came up with:

--"To study the structure of society is like studying the anatomy of the organism, to study its functions is like studying the physiology of the organism" (60). But how can we truly assign structure to something as fluid as social relationships? Can they even be predictable enough to be discussed in terms of "structure"? I suppose to some degree we are always observing "patterns" on a micro level (between people) and "functions" on a macro level (how those patterns operate at systems), but what if these patterns are read/perceived differently by different observers? Surely such subjectivity about human behavior exists, right? I suppose, though, that everyday pleasantries ("Hi, how was your weekend?") are social patterns on which we can rely... a kind of structure, I guess.

--Back up a second: At first I liked the way he discredited the idea that society is a force with which no one can reckon, and instead claimed that humans have agency, control, and power to reason within it (50). I can get behind this for those who already hold power, but what about the poor? This idea on agency, it seems, could easily slide into a "bootstraps" mentality, and that wouldn't be cool. Wouldn't structural racism disprove his original idea?

--"The concept of structuration involves that of the duality of structure, which relates to the fundamentally recursive character of social life, and expresses the mutual dependence of structure and agency" (69). Yes, this is sounding like the social theory I'm familiar with... the mutual dependence of action (or agency, as he calls it) and structure... that one can't exist without the other. He says that structure can shape 'personality' (micro) and 'society' (macro), all social (inter)action is recursive. Structure, then, is "both enabling and constraining" (69). Is that because we individual agency, and like he says, each action is "a production of something new," but at the same time we are always operating under/within the constraints of a dominant culture/society? This notion of being "stuck" within a larger system seems to contradict his later idea that structure is "not to be conceptualized as a barrier to action," but as an agent of its production. To me, it sounds like he's saying that on the one hand we are peons within an encompassing structure, yet on the other, that our personal power can impact this bigger force. Individual will/motivation can conquer?

I have more questions than answers this week (obviously).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

When "the gaze" gets you fired

Over the holidays, my sister mentioned that her friend's husband, Leam, had just been "let go" from his job as a mid-level executive at a well-known bank. The reason? Someone (a.k.a. "the gaze") discovered that he had been logging on to an oh-so-evil Web site called "" on an almost daily basis. Despite the facts that 1) each visit lasted fewer than five minutes, and 2) he had been a loyal and valued employee for four years, his violation of the company's "no personal browsing" policy was enough to get him immediately and permanently removed. On his not-so-merry way out the door, he thought, still in shock, "Who knew that checking on a simple football score could get you ousted."

But it did. And I was instantly reminded of this modern-day surveillance scenario when I was reading our assigned Foucault pieces this week. While the word 'internet' never appeared in either piece, its connections to the modes of discipline and surveillance Foucault discussed were all too apparent.

In Bentham's architectural Panopticon, a single guard could monitor numbers of prisoners while the guard remained unseen. The same went for my sister's friend Leam. While he was making his routine contributions to American capitalism and taking sanity breaks to check in on his favorite sports teams, the eye of power--whether it was a computer-based detection program or a real human being--caught him in a disloyal act.

"Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance," said Foucalt in his Panopticism. "…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge… We are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism" (217).

With new technologies introducing themselves every day, it's hard to avoid being affected by machines, or mechanisms, of power. While it'd be easy for me to say, "Yeah, well, I'm never gonna work for a company that enforces rigid policies like Leam's did," the truth is that I don't need to have an official association with a company to be subject to a larger surveillance mechanism. After all, I own a laptop. If I send an email from my gmail account about an upcoming ski trip to Whistler, it's certainly no mistake that an instant later, a banner ad for cheap flights to Vancouver pops up. Marketing specialists would call that brilliant. I call it freaky. I call it surveillance.

And from The Eye of Power: There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze (155). Leam's removal was far from dramatic that day. To the contrary, he said it was surrounded by an eerie silence that followed him until he reached the urban sounds of the outdoors.

So, I'm guessing that one connection these readings might have to our 597 seminar is the notion that technology is power, and power can either be used wisely and sensitively or to violate and abuse. Its implications for racial profiling and targeting in our nation are especially frightening. And the idea that we often can't identify the tyrant, or monarch, enforcing our laws (due to the complexity and decentralization of power that technology has caused) is equally frightening. Centers of power have multiplied, and as Foucault mentioned in Panopticism, 'Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology (215).

My question: How do we find the balance of loving the conveniences and creativity that technology offers us while still being cautious of these surveillance scenarios? More important, how do we communicate both sides to our students? (The story I mentioned above made my sister absolutely paranoid of using her work computer, which is NOT where I want to land.)