Re: [xmca] FW: NCTEAR

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Jan 28 2007 - 18:46:39 PST

As I am one of the plenary speakers for this conference, I thought
I'd put in two cents (or so).

My talk's title is New Media & New Learning Communities, and one line
of my abstract reads:
Research on students' literacies needs to focus on their networked
media: from fan-fiction sites, blogs, and MySpace identities, to
online gameworlds, home-made podcasts, and SecondLife machinema.

And I could have added ipods, cellphones, YouTube, and TIVO!

I can appreciate that Gunther might be hoping to keep the word
literacy for that old printed-text competency, else what will we call
it? print literacy? alphabetic literacy? But it's far too late for
that, or even, I think, to restrict it to letter-ate codes. And the
reason is not just our profligate usage of the word. The phenomenon
has changed.

What we always wanted to mean by literacy was the ability to access
codified knowledge in ways that made it possible to use it for our
own purposes. We used to codify it mostly in textual (and numerical)
forms and store it away in books and kindred media. And we also meant
to focus on knowledge that was considered valuable, which is why
literate was often in the past a synonym for educated or cultured.
But today more and more of what people value is codified
multi-modally, as integrated combinations of images and text and
sound, animations, videos, 3D virtual spaces, etc. etc. And you can't
really get at the meaning of these forms piecemeal: you have to
integrate the text with its fellow-travelers, cross-contextualizing
them by one another, to get at the kinds of meanings being made and
stored more and more today.

Another dimension of literacy that Gunther himself kept flogging
people about in the 80s is its productive dimension: slaves read,
masters write. So we enhanced the definition of literacy from a
generalization of reading to a generalization that included writing:
the ability to mobilize the resources of [name your code] to usefully
create and interpret meanings in [name your medium].

Even the narrow focus on text or print eventually made us realize
that literacy is a whole technology, including the conventions for
how to use its material apparatus. From how to decode a page of text,
it expands to how to use all the parts of a book, to how to open it
and hold it, to how to find it in the library. Literacy as technical
and social and semiotic competence ... all to the same end of being
able to create and access meanings and information ... which are now
being coded through a myriad of interlocking technologies. And you
pretty well have to be passably good with all of them if you are
going to keep up with how under-30s with the wherewithal to are using
anything we might still want to call literacy. (Libraries? books? if
it's not online, it doesn't exist ... and if it's nothing but text, click on!)

Is there a reasonable limit? Should we stop short of culinary
literacy, or laundry literacy? or TIVO literacy? Maybe, to give the
term a rest, but in fact the new literacies pervade almost every
aspect of technological life today, and the meanings of the printed
texts within them are often not usefully recoverable (or
constructable) without the motor actions and sensory experiences that
go hand-in-hand with them.

A notion of mine that may have some kinship with "letter-oriented
codes" is that of typological semiotic resources vs. topological
ones. The former enable us to make meanings by categorial differences
of kind, whether one letter vs another, one word vs another, one
musical note vs another, one TIVO channel vs. another. The other sort
allow meaning by degree, and all degrees of in-between-ness, like
color spectra and sound pitch (not restricted to canonical notes of a
scale) and mathematical quantity or continuous graphs. I suppose that
if you could identify an area of meaning-making and knowledge
codification in which NO typological representations (inscriptions,
pace Latour) were involved, then maybe we could exclude that from
being called a "literacy". (I include 'representations' here to
eliminate the case of spoken language, which while a typological code
-- in large part -- is contrasted with literate forms as durable
representations). But I have a deep suspicion that the typological
and the topological go hand in hand in any non-trivial understanding.

If you'd like some thoughtful notions about what "writing" is, try
Roy Harris' _Signs of Writing_ -- it should give an idea what some
other letter-like codes might be and something of the basic
technology involved. And for the broader notion of literacy as a
resource for social meaning-making, Jim Gee's _Social Linguistics and
Literacies_ helped drag "literacy" out of the schoolhouse closet. I'm
afraid there's no putting it back now.


At 02:03 PM 1/28/2007, you wrote:
>I think you have been very generous with your time, Peter.
>Your informative note put me in mind of the Machado/Friere volume on reading
>the word and reading the world.
>In this case, "reading" is close to the more general notion of
>"interpreting." I expect that the multiple meanings
>will not go away and will in general be clarified by the context.
>Now if only I could properly read those TIVO instructions so that I could
>combine TIVO and certain channels it does not
>want to record!! Its tough been technologically illiterate! :-)
>ps-- your forwards are a great way to stay in touch, especially when we get
>reports back from folks who attend. I hope that you
>have forwarded the prior not to kevin if he is not lurking out there
>On 1/28/07, Peter Smagorinsky <> wrote:
>>Mike, I guess that asking me a direct question is one way to get me to
>>contribute to these discussions. Sorry I've mostly lurked of late--it's
>>of those years.
>>The question "What is literacy?" came up in a doctoral seminar I'm
>>on research in composition this semester. One of the students brought in
>>something from Gunther Kress (a literacy-oriented semiotics guy) in which
>>argues that literacy ought only to be applied to the ability to read or
>>produce letter-oriented codes. Kress has also been part of the New London
>>Group, famed for its paper on Multiliteracies, a construct that accounts
>>"new" literacies largely following from recent technologies--the images,
>>sounds, etc. involved in internet communication.
>Jay Lemke
>University of Michigan
>School of Education
>610 East University
>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>Tel. 734-763-9276
>Website. <>
xmca mailing list

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Feb 01 2007 - 10:11:33 PST