Selfe: Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century

Selfe, Cynthia L. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP. 1999. Print.

Bright Shiny Objects

Selfe explores the intersection of technology and literacy, primarily through the rapid rise of computer use in the late Twentieth century. Selfe argues that prevailing social, economic, and political inequities and myths about literacy are perpetuated in the widespread call for increasing levels of computer literacy: “I try to identify the effects of this new literacy agenda, focusing specifically on the serious and shameful inequities it continues to generate within our coultre and the public education system” (xix). Selfe analyzes how the Clinton Administration’s Technology Literacy Challenge, as a national literacy project, perpetuates and extends to computers literacy myths such as the positivist notion of inevitable individual progress through literacy. Such myths are exasperated through soundbites and pop science that misdirect attention: “our cultural tendency to sketch complex technology issues and the technology-literacy link along the lines of a reductive binary–technology as boon or technology as bane–encourages a widespread lack of attention to the complexities and nuances of the issues with which we are now faced” (39).

Selfe traces the roles of government, education, ideology, and families (i.e., parents) in the construction and maintenance of literacy myths and the legacy inequities that such myths afford. In a time when computers were relatively novel to scholars in the humanities, composition, and language studies in general, Selfe finishes with a call for engagement and awareness: “By paying attention to the unfamiliar subject of technology–in sustained and critical ways, and from our own perspectives as humanists–we may learn some important lessons about how to go about making change in literacy instruction” (134). Selfe advocates action through situated knowledge and practice in local, institutional contexts (from pedagogy to committee work, programs, and in departments), in professional organizations, through scholarship and research, through networked infrastructure, wider political and civic efforts, and through teacher education and coalitions.

technology, literacy, computers


Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction

James Paul Gee, Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses

Bruno Latour, ARAMIS or the Love of Technology

Ong: Orality and Literacy (With Bonus Moth Story Hour Link)

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge. 1992. Print.

orality, literacy, oral residue, mediation, chirographic conditioning


"The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis - Storyteller Under Sunny Skies clay sculpture" by The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
“The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis – Storyteller Under Sunny Skies clay sculpture” by The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Ong delves in the history and psychodynamics of shifts from primary oral cultures to literate/secondary oral cultures. The designation of orality as secondary is important as orality’s residue remains and continues to imprint and shape literate culture. Ong details various transmutations of oral traditions into written texts, the history of alphabet development, the rise of “Learned Latin,” first-encounters with literacy, early record keeping and documentation, and the emergence of narrative (temporal/logical sequencing of events) and other differences in storytelling (closure, characterization) between oral and literate, especially print-based, cultures. The significance of the aural and visual plays a role in Ong’s explication. Ong characterizes sound as temporally evanescent. Print was a notable development in literate cultures, correlating with the rise in reference materials correlates strongly with print: dictionaries, textbooks, indexes, title pages, etc. And as print deepened the attachment to literate paradigms, so too does the shift toward electronic modes of literacy. Finally, Ong contextualizes theoretical frameworks such as New Criticism, Structuralism, and Deconstruction as emergent from and shaped by the particular affordances of literate practices (as different from practices that may have arisen out of primary oral cultures).

Bibliographic notes:

Heavy emphasis on the works of Eric Havelock and Claude Lévi- Strauss

Later work for Ong (numerous self references)

cf. Invention with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

Gregory Ulmer, Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (2003)

cf. Byron Hawk’s work on music/sound with this quote: “This centering effect of sound is what high-fidelity sound reproduction exploits with intense sophistication. You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight” (70).

cf. Wysocki & Johnson-Eilola “Blinded by the Letter: “One might argue (as does Finnegan 1977, p. 16) that the term ‘literature’, though devised primarily for works in writing, has simply been extended to include related phenomena such as traditional oral narrative in cultures untouched by writing” (11).


“In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing. We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous” (134)

“The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense” (83).

“But when other dialects of a given language besides the grapholect vary from the grammar of the grapholect, they are not ungrammatical: they are simply using a different grammar, for language is structure, and it is impossible to use language without a grammar” (106).

“By and large, printed texts are far easier to read than manuscript texts. The effects of the greater legibility of print are massive. The greater legibility ultimately makes for rapid, silent reading. Such reading in turn makes for a different relationship between the reader and the authorial voice in the text and calls for different styles of writing. Print involves many persons besides the author in the production of a work—publishers, literary agents, publishers’ readers, copy editors and others. Before as well as after scrutiny by such persons, writing for print often calls for painstaking revisions by the author of an order of magnitude virtually unknown in a manuscript culture” (120).

“Since two manuscripts of a given work, even if copied from the same dictation, almost never correspond page for page, each manuscript of a given work would normally require a separate index. Indexing was not worth the effort” (122).

“Chirographic conditioning” (173). That’s a term I dwelled on here, late in Ong’s text. Throughout the text, Ong oscillates between explications of orality and literacy, the aural and visual, and shows not only the differences, but also how literacy emerged from and developed (still develops) alongside orality. The conditioning Ong refers to late in the text is explored through what he calls the “media model” (contemporary with McLuhan as he is). The conditioning, Ong argues, privileges the informational (instead of, say, the affective) and affords broadcasting as opposed to interaction: “the written text appears prima facie to be a one-way informational street, for no real recipient (reader, hearer) is present when the texts come into being” (173). The literate response, then, Ong argues, is to create a fiction: “The writer’s audience is always a fiction” (173).

So I dwell here to connect all of this to the digital. Ong discusses the shifting landscape of the print world toward an electronic world, and how the chirographic conditioning of literate/print cultures is both intensified and modified in electronic paradigms. What I find interesting from Ong’s discussion of the direction of communication is how, with the rise of social media and networked communication, the grip of broadcasting, as the mode of communication seems to have loosened. I’m drawn to thinking about how the trappings of orality (what Ong calls “oral reside”) may resurface in a paradigm dominated by literacy, or, as Gregory Ulmer would argue, in a shifting paradigm from literacy to electracy. I wonder how the trappings of resurfacing will play out. Do certain practices associated with orality return, zombie-like? Ong makes the argument for the qualitative difference between mediated (literate) and un-mediated (oral) types of communication. The emergence of networked communication via the internet and social media frameworks, and significantly the collapsing of time between utterance and response, seems to indicate a re-turn to the practices of orality. Kind of. I suppose this is where Ulmer’s notion of electracy (not the prettiest of neologisms; the peril of portmanteau) may bring insight.

I’m also thinking through how indexing, which emerged from the technical innovation of print, may now be shifting as well. The problems of indexing before print (an inefficient, often futile practice when manuscripts could vary so widely), has encountered similar problems in the digital age. when it comes to file formats and hypertext (hence the rise of .pdf). Searching, then, becomes an addition to, and sometimes as replacement of, indexing. Relatedly, Ong posits a container metaphor for books in literate/print cultures: “Once print has been fairly well interiorized, a book was sensed as a kind of object which ‘contained’ information, scientific, fictional or other, rather than, as earlier, a recorded utterance” (123). How durable or helpful is that metaphor? It seems to me that network metaphors will become increasingly prominent and piquant.

Finally, I’m thinking through the externalization of cognition. Ong recognizes this as one of the most significant impacts of literacy: ”The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought” (24). This, of course, is afforded even more in digital environments, where the capacity for externalizing cognition is exponentially greater. What are/will be the reverberations of that increased capacity? (Archiving, searching, tagging, etc.?)

And how could this post be complete without some live-recorded storytelling via the Moth Story Hour. David Carr’s story is haunting.

Snowsuits, Swordfights, and Swindles

Literacy Event Observations

As part of an ongoing project in a seminar exploring literacy instruction, I am a participant/observer in another graduate seminar, ethnographically collecting notes and observations that revolve around the kinds of literacy practices at work in a learning environment.

Using a “Discourse of Writing Model” model proposed by Roz Ivanic (“Discourses of Writing and Learning to Write”, Language and Education, 2004) we as participant observers are selecting a lens from a multi-layered view of language (223).  These layers ripple out from a text-focused center, to cognitive processes, through event/dialogic observations, and into sociocultural and political contexts.

I’m interested in every layer, of course, but have decided to focus primarily at the event/dialogic level, inspired in part by Shirley Brice Heath’s work.

What is the purpose for language use in this (and presumably other) graduate seminars.  In this seminar, the purpose of language seems primarily to be to present information and to foster inquiry.  This is accomplished through both spoken language and through textual language (questions posed by students before class, printed, and distributed).  Language seems to be used, as well,  to form social bonds; i.e., as a kind of underlife that operates underneath the primary discourse the seminar is constructed around.  Language is also mediated through digital screens and through film.

The observable social interactions might be described in two ways: as those between teacher and student and those between students.  The teacher poses questions to the group as a whole, and most responses are volleyed back directly to the teacher.  In some instances, after a question is posed, students will interact directly with each other, and in fact this kind of interaction is persistently encouraged by the teacher.

Other particulars worth noting: textual language is interpreted and presented by students every class, with some disagreement surfacing in terms of meaning.  Alternative readings are somewhat common, and meaning of textual language is negotiated orally.  Language is implied, as well, in visual imagery.  Objects of study include visual images, and language is inferred from those images, again with differing readings as to meaning and intention of the images author/composer.


Vernacular Eloquence: Intro and Ch. 1

Elbow, Peter.  Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.  New York: Oxford UP.  2012. Print.

One sentence summary

The culturally constructed activities of speaking and writing both converge and diverge from each other in ways that are symbiotic and  exclusive.

Key Words

Orality, Literacy, Writing, Speaking, Semiotics, Constructivism

Introduction and Chapter 1 Discussion

Elbow examines the distinctive natures of speech and writing as well as overlap and symbiosis between these two modalities.  In the intro, Elbow considers the sharp differences between “casual conversation” and “careful expository writing” (16).  Elbow distinguishes the properties of speech and writing as different “physical processessensory modalities …  [and] language or products” (19).

In chapter one, Elbow discusses the role of culture(s) on spoken language in particular, citing Shirley Brice Heath’s research while also sidestepping the kinds of issues Ong, Havelock, et al. explored in their examinations of orality and literacy.

In a detailed passage on pages 25-26, Elbow recasts a transcript that works to capture, in print, the inflections, pauses, meanderings, and sudden shifts in a spoken conversation.  This transcription is fascinating not for all of the details it captures, which is many more than any other kind of transcription I’ve seen–or done as a newspaper reporter myself.  Rather, the transcription is fascinating for all of the multitude of sensory details missing from the transcript–gestures, facial expressions, body positions, spatial relationships, eye contact, etc.

Elbow moves on to reference Saussure and discusses semiotics and the nature of signs, signifiers and signifieds without invoking any of the technical jargon.  While writing and speaking (both symbol-based activities) both hold certain kinds of “magic” on different cultures through time, Elbow says his discussion of culture will quickly make way for an analysis that seeks to “take what’s best about speaking and add it to what’s best about writing” (34).

Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare, or Red Herring?

Roberts, Peter.  “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare, or Red Herring?”  British Journal of Educational Studies 43.4 (1995): 412-432.  Web.

One Sentence Summary

Attempts to define literacy (qualitative, quantitative, and pluralistic) are political in nature and largely fail due to totalizing or essentializing; a pluralistic approach is most tenable.


Literacy, Illiteracy, Quantitative, Qualitative, Pluralist

Claims to Keep

“There can never be a single, fixed, timeless definition of literacy.” (425)

“I want to take a slightly different stance here and suggest that while the task of defining literacy (in the singular) is a red herring, the goal of seeking a certain clarity in discussion different literacies is of continuing importance.” (429)

Claims to Question

“In addition, the sheer number of and variety of definitions is staggering in magnitude and, from one perspective, thoroughly confusing: literacy, it seems, can mean whatever people want it to mean” (419)

I wonder if the latter part of this claim is a bit exaggerated. While it stands to reason that definitions of literacy are widely variable, I imagine threads, perhaps tenuous at times, connecting them all, which is different than having it mean whatever I want it to mean, i.e., I would like to see a definition that could not be threaded back toward other definitions.


This piece by Roberts explores the contended definitions and conceptions of literacy.  Roberts explores the political (power) issues that arise from attempts to define literacy and points first to the inadequacies of quantitative definitions, though he does mention how rhetorically powerful ostensible empirical definitions can be for policymakers.  Roberts moves on to qualitative definitions which he characterizes as situated in an unhappy, muddy middle between pluralist and quantitative definitions.  Finally, Roberts looks to pluralist conceptions of literacy (or rather literacies) to both make an attempt at common ground and to save the enterprise from postmodern rabbit holes.

I appreciate Roberts call for more historical research of the concept of literacy, I imagine by tracing back the threads or keywords.  What does it mean to read? To write? To listen? To speak? And what other modes might be involved in a definition of literacy?  And what have those terms meant through time and in various contexts?

A passage that troubles the waters a bit for me is found on page 414.  Roberts discusses the conception of literacy in terms of reading ages, e.g., 5th grade reading level, 8th grade, high school, etc.  Since I teach freshman composition, I sometimes throw around (and hear thrown around) phrases like “college writing” pretty nonchalantly.  What exactly do I mean when I say this?  Am I attempting to quantitatively define literacy when I do this?  And when asked to elaborate, do I resort to qualitative definitions?

It seems to me that a worthy project throughout this semester will be to gather and become conversant in a number of definitions or conceptions of literacy, and to be able to articulate how those definitions  or conceptions might be marshaled depending on the context at hand.