Thursday, October 11, 2012

Entry 7: Who's Remediating Whom?

In two sentences, Kathleen Blake Yancey summed up what it’s taken me six journal entries and a timeline to even hint at: “Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres.” I would be annoyed if I didn’t feel so vindicated. I’m not really interested in laying blame or leveling accusations of privilege at any group, ideology, or modality; the flaws and limitations of print as the dominant modality, while numerous, are not really the issue to me. While I don’t disagree with anything that Cynthia Selfe says in Movement of the Air, I think that her concerns are misplaced. Our students aren’t the ones who are in danger during the technological revolution. We are. As Yancey describes, “Today we are witnessing a parallel creation of a writing public made plural, and as in the case of the development of a reading public, it’s taking place largely outside of the school – and this in an age of universal education. Moreover, unlike what happens in our classes, no one is forcing this public to write. There are no As here, no Dean’s lists, no writing teacher to keep tabs on you” and “writers in the 21st century self-organize into what seem to be overlapping technologically driven writing circles, what we might call a series of newly imagined communities…that cross borders of all kinds – nation state, class, gender, ethnicity.” Selfe calls for greater access to digital technologies and aurality by arguing that the students suffer under the yoke of logocentrism:
As faculty, when we limit our understanding of composing and our teaching of composition to a single modality, when we focus on print alone as the communicative venue for our assignments and for students’ responses to those assignments, we ensure that instruction is less accessible to a wide range of learners, and we constrain students’ ability to succeed by offering them an unnecessarily narrow choice of semiotic and rhetorical resources…For students, the stakes are even more significant. Young people need to know that their role as rhetorical agents is open, not artificially foreclosed by the limits of their teachers’ imaginations. They need a full quiver of semiotic modes from which to select, role models who can teach them to think critically about a range of communication tools, and multiple ways of reaching their audience. They do not need teachers who insist on one tool or one way (644-645).
To me, though, Yancey’s assertions (and, earlier, Lanham’s) seem more reflective of what is at stake. Where “the influence of writings as the primary mode of formal academic work, commercial exchange, and record keeping” (625) once gave the academic institution power to dictate not only which methods of communication were preferred, but which cultural artifacts belonged to the “high” culture, and which belonged to the “low.” This was facilitated in large part by the level of accessibility to this information: before mass communications, knowledge was expensive and arduous to obtain. That would naturally make the keepers of this knowledge privileged over what was considered valuable. Now, however, with the widespread proliferation of information and mass communication technologies (a proliferation which I have argued will only grow as time passes, and will soon include all people over a wider range of socioeconomic and racial strata), the academy is quickly losing its hold over cultural capital. Yancey cites Daley’s argument that “the screen is the language of the vernacular…if we do not include it in the school curriculum we will become as irrelevant as faculty professing in Latin.” This is the true danger of not embracing alternative modalities. Where before if a student fell outside of the logocentric “high culture” of the university curriculum, he or she would have no recourse, now that same student can find an avenue for his or her interests in the digital space – a space that is becoming increasingly relevant to the professional and social worlds.

One need only look at a negative review on, or an angry series of tweets about an unfair assignment to see how students are using writing to fight back against the privileged modalities. One need only visit any number of websites, youtube pages, viral videos or discussion boards to see an array of young authors designing multimodal projects that are informed by their interests – many of which show a level of expertise that borders on professional. These same digital authors are in our classrooms, churning out bland by-the-numbers papers (many of which are based on templates they found online) with the intention of paying their academic dues so that they can move on to the classes that really interest them. We can insist that these projects are less meaningful than their work in the classroom, but we may find that before too long our voices might be the ones drowned out in the exponentially growing tide of newer, more innovative content. Where before disenfranchised students had to change their voices to adapt to the academy, we may soon find that those same students will simply leave for greener pastures.

This isn’t to say we’re all doomed. Yancey, Selfe, and George all outline good models for integrating newer or different modalities into the classroom. However, I would stress that we shouldn't try to keep up with or compete against these new modalities. That would be intruding where we are not wanted, and anyway, we could never hope to keep up. Yancey cites D.J. Leu et. al. saying that “technological change happens so rapidly that the changes to literacy are limited not by technology but by our ability to adapt and acquire the new literacies that emerge.” Put simply, we won’t survive by acting as cultural gatekeepers anymore. Instead, our role should be to teach students to respond, adapt, and use the mediums that they are most familiar with to express their interests and generate new content. We don’t need to be experts on visual, aural, or digital modalities, we just need to give context to the students who are. Our students are going to express themselves with or without us; our job is to make sure that they’re getting the most out of their preferred means of expression.  

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