Critical Digital Literacy in a Global Era: An Ethical Obligation
Literacy historians, including Brian Street (1984) and Deborah Brandt (2001), have made lucid the ways in which social practices of literacy shape and are shaped by historical, political, and material circumstance. As Hawisher and Selfe have explained through their life histories work and Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives project, “literacies have lifespans” (2004, p. 644). The many subdisciplines and movements in composition–such as Basic Writing and SRTOL, ESL and translingual approaches–demonstrate the difficulty and dynamism of teaching traditional, print-based academic literacies to students of diverse social positionalities and political subjectivites. Understandably, writing teachers are hesitant to add yet another literacy task to their already-packed curricula. In 1999, Selfe made obvious the economic and situational impact of a person’s literacies as they occur in a particular environment when she wrote that:
The definition of literacy determines not only who will succeed in our culture–and the criteria for such success–but also who will fail. [...] Through these mechanisms, definitions of literacy play a significant role in creating and maintaining a cohesive hegemonic system in the United States that affects every citizen’s chances for success. (p. 18)
On one hand, we must be carefully active in shaping curricula that will promote or deny student literacy development in ways that will help or hinder their future life chances. On the other, it is important to remember (via Brandt, 2001, and Hawisher and Selfe, 2004) that the specific material circumstances in a given person’s life generate the distinct literacy needs and opportunities that will serve or even harm them. In a global era, however, the whole of literacy circumstances has an emergent effect on the environments of all.
Currently, we know that students create and share more texts in a given day than ever before. The literacy-learning environment is such that children can create and share their own texts before learning reading and writing in school (check out reports from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop for more). A key word here is sharing. Digital literacies and the rapid pace of circulation have reoriented discussions of literacy practices even further away from focus on impact in individual lives, and toward a more social understanding. This is well-captured in Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison and Weigel’s Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century when the authors explain that:
Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom. (2006, p. 4)
Often, however, students develop their digital literacies before these foundational skills. Ridolfo and DeVoss (2009) provide a quick summation of some of this work in “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery,”:
Writing happens—and happens a lot—and lives in digital spaces like fan fiction sites, YouTube comments, blogs, and other spaces, and, Yancey notes, this writing dramatically counterpoints the writing done within the academy. Students are writing. A lot. They’re sharing. A lot. They’re circulating texts. A lot and across multiple spaces.
This is no overstatement. Students acquire digital literacies in home and social contexts in ways that outpace what the current education system could possibly provide, though in diverse ways and to distributed degrees.
The complex evolution of what Hawisher and Selfe (2004) term literacy ecologies reflects at the micro-level the macrocosm of global literacy exchanges within which individual literacy circumstances flow. The sum of political, economic, social, and historical forces that build a global moment is the matrix out of which a person’s literacy repertoire develops, gains value, produces, and fades. Computers and composition scholars have traced the government and private forces that have come together to render digital literacies essential to success in the current symbolic analytic job climate in the US (Johnson-Eiola, 2005; Monroe, 2004; Selfe, 1999), but recent developments reveal the extent to which that collusion has come to fruition in a more global context.
Responding to the recent Internet shut down by governments facing the Arab Spring, President Obama has made public statements that the essence of access is nearing the status of an inalienable human right (click here to access a May, 2011 report wherein the United Nations explicitly names Internet access a human right). In an address describing the freedoms valued by American ideology, before demanding that Mubarak reinstate and keep open Internet access for Egyptian citizens, Obama argues that:
The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.
I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service, and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st Century. (“President Obama,” 2011)
While Obama only implicitly describes access as a human right, Secretary Hilary Clinton has been much more direct in her assessment–championing what she calls “the freedom to connect.” In a January 2010 address, Clinton connects global economics, human rights, labor struggles, good business, and “21st century statecraft” to US efforts to expand global access. The following lengthy excerpts from her speech give me the opportunity to describe part of the literacy ecology that prompts digital literacy as an ethical project for writing teachers:
…the freedom to connect – the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate. Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society. [...]
And as we work together with the private sector and foreign governments to deploy the tools of 21st century statecraft, we have to remember our shared responsibility to safeguard the freedoms that I’ve talked about today. We feel strongly that principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy, not just somehow connected to our national values, but they are universal and they’re also good for business. [...]
Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors. [...]
Now, pursuing the freedoms I’ve talked about today is, I believe, the right thing to do. But I also believe it’s the smart thing to do. By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities. We need to work toward a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together and expands the definition of the global community. Given the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, we need people around the world to pool their knowledge and creativity to help rebuild the global economy, to protect our environment, to defeat violent extremism, and build a future in which every human being can live up to and realize his or her God-given potential. [...]
… No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries. [...] (Clinton, 2011)
Clinton’s remarks paint a mural of humanitarian, political, and economic goals all served by the advancement of digital access and the literacies that shape access’s actual meaning in the world. And yet we must keep in mind the competing government-sponsored interests that render these fundamental rights “alienable” in particular moments. The US government is active, for instance, in sharing anti-Wikileaks sentiment, developing Internet censorship technologies, and even in developing an “Internet kill switch bill,” or, the Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act, that permits the shut down of US Internet access in an instant. In serving the goals of commerce, political intervention on behalf of oppressed citizens in foreign nations, and building a brighter human future, the Obama administration is wholly pro-access. That commitment is less staunch, however, when it comes to protecting government interests better-served by a lack thereof. I point out the contradictions here to acknowledge that global connectedness is unwieldy, perhaps beyond what is imaginable. Nevertheless, I believe that in thinking about digital literacies we must consider the holistic: teaching critical digital literacy is an ongoing ethical project in which we can subscribe to the ideals of what’s humanly possible through an active global public, while using appropriate strategies for intervening in those complex material realities that contradict the fulfillment of that potential (on ideals, see Adler-Kassner, 2008; on strategies, see de Certeau, 1984).
Among the possibilities for students to use their digital literacies toward socially-just ends is public participation and public writing of the sort advocated by Welch (2008). In her introduction to Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World, Welch seeks to combine conversations about public writing and rhetorical history to understand how people have been successful in helping to shape the course of world events in the face of increasing privatization and constraint. She notes that though the complex nature of these power structures and hegemony-reinforcing events might seem overwhelming to the small acts of individual civilian writers, still there is hope. Through examples like the the rallies of Latino workers in Spring 2006, or the setting up of a tent city on the University of Vermont campus by conscientious students in protest of an expensive new building project, Welch shows us movements that, “are genuinely grassroots. They are also remarkably, and necessarily, inventive as individuals and groups come together not only to raise good slogans but also to figure out how, through mainstream and alternative channels, to make their slogans heard while facing multiple foils” (2008, p. 17). A few years later, we are witnessing the use of digital literacies and digital networks for the sharing of slogans from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and cities all over the nation. Harnessing the potential political agency of students, and providing access to literacies that can circulate the products of those agencies, is the highest immediate hope I can fathom.
And yet, I see further promise in fulfilling the ethical charge of teaching digital literacies. Already in this article I have referenced the use and denial of access to digital networks in the Arab Spring and in the Occupy Wall Street movements. Heuristically, the abundant political strife of 2011 provides an occasion for writing and rhetoric scholars to think about digital writing-in-action from a transnational perspective, taking up Schell and Hesford’s urging in the introduction to their special issue of College English on transnationalism and feminist rhetorics. They write that we can expand our thinking by:
1) questioning the ways in which the nation-state and Western rhetorical tradition(s) are still the originary units of analysis, and 2) addressing a larger understanding of transnational connectivities that condition practices of rhetoric across and within the borders of the nation-state. (2008, p. 464)
Hence, in linking the rhetorical strategies of protesters in the US and in the Middle East, we can consider common exigence and kairotic opportunities that make digital literacies so important. In both political circumstances, a weakened global economy has left millions of college-educated youth without jobs or prospects for financial security. We have witnessed leaderless movements with similar purposes rise up in localized demonstrations in which people are appealing to their governments, private sectors, and global systems for recognition of their plight; and they have used digital literacies to organize on-the-ground action, share ideological perspectives, and garner global support.
In their Empire trilogy, Hardt and Negri articulate the problem of empire as an incomplete project that we’ve called into being (2000), the multitude of the poor in which global individual subjects are united through their oppression in the republic of property (2004), and the biopolitical project of altermodernity through which the multitude can reclaim that which is and should be common (2009). Commenting on the use of social media in the Arab Spring in a Guardian article called “Arabs are Democracy’s New Pioneers,” Hardt and Negri (2011) clarify that:
the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre–… the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously.
All available means. The multitude, as Hardt and Negri theorize, can use the conditions and features of its make-up toward the constitution of a new global, democratic political system that acts in the interests of the common (2004, p. 355). Franz Fanon explained once that the violence of colonization both breeds and constrains violence within the colonized, simultaneously enabling their colonization and providing the very power through which the colonized might liberate themselves (2004). Similarly, Hardt and Negri describe in Commonwealth that the conditions out of which the empire emerges–and the production of bodies-as-commodity in the republic of property–engender within those bodies the very power needed to overthrow it (2009, p. 27).
The realities of high-tech global capital, in which workers are asked to yield every creative aspect of their subjectivity toward corporate goals–what Hardt and Negri refer to as “that labor of the head and heart” (2009, p. 132)–have provided the very circumstance out of which those same workers can use their creative potential toward the ends of self-liberation. Ross Collin and Michael Apple (2010) agree when they contend that what literacies fast capitalism and the global economy expect, cultivate, and make ubiquitous are the very same literacies through which those systems demand heart, mind, and body worker-devotion, and those literacies which engender the very spreading of surface area (or, hierarchical flattening) that makes political interruption possible. As they describe it, critical education in digital literacies provide the tools for students and activists to “exploit key tensions in high-tech global capitalism so as to advance the causes of social justice” (locations 1305-1309).
In some ways I am suspicious of my own digital optimism. I recognize how, like Clinton (2011), I want to “play both sides,” in espousing that students whom we equip with digital literacies can potentially work toward a more democratic world, but at the very least will be rewarded personally with the high-tech skills necessary for participation in the information economy. In this way I am perpetuating the project of the university of excellence that Bill Readings (1996) describes, complete with fears “of producing a subject who is no longer tied to the nation-state, who can readily move to meet the demands of the global market” (49).” This year, the Obama Administration has released DigitalLiteracy.gov in an effort to help citizens learn and teach the digital literacies required for full participation in the current job market. In the “Digital Literacy Fact Sheet,” linked to from the site, the administration cites that “Ninety-six percent of working Americans use new communications technologies as part of their daily life, while sixty-two percent of working Americans use the Internet as an integral part of their jobs,” and that “High-speed Internet access and online skills are not only necessary for seeking, applying for and getting today’s jobs, but also to take advantage of the growing educational, civic, and health care advances spurred by broadband” (2011, p.1). Workers, and citizens, need these literacies for quality of life and livelihood, suggest the studies upon which our government relies.
Simply equipping students with the functional literacies of digital textual production is not enough. A critical education, rather, must “maintain a delicate balance between social change and cultivating the intellect–developing a rigorous education in a hostile environment that accomplishes both goals” (Kincheloe, 2008, p. 21). And that environment, I would add, can no longer be conceived without attending to the confluence of the local and the global. Bertrand Bruce (2002) explains that students:
…need to learn how to integrate knowledge from multiple sources, including music, video, online databases, and other media. They need to participate in the kinds of collaboration that new communication and information technologies enable, but increasingly demand. Considerations of globalization lead us toward the importance of understanding the perspective of others, developing a historical grounding, and seeing the interconnectedness of economic and ecological systems. (pp. 17-18)
Blending traditional print literacies with digital one must be accompanied by critical education because of the ways in which people’s literacies can be co-opted and exploited by the interests of others. As Brandt (2001) phrases the problem at stake:
…the role of the writer has never really been mass-distributed in society before. And if the history of the struggle over writing is any indication, potential tensions are rife between the sponsors of writing and the sponsored, between institutions that teach and exploit the powers of writing and the individuals that seek them. The productive skills of interpretation, critical reasoning, and creativity so coveted now by American capitalism are also skills that historically have been used for resistance, rebellion, the claiming of voice, and the development of critical consciousness. [...]perhaps the question today is how to instill a dutiful writing while constricting the other, latent powers of writing. How will the “profane” skill of writing be sanctified and controlled? (p. 148)
In other words, both traditional print literacies and digital literacies are the skills through which students will be recruited for economic projects with global impacts. And, it is through those skills that we can help students learn to actively reshape local and global conditions.
Realistically, we have no way of knowing to what ends our students’ digital literacies will be employed. But we are aware of real and devastating ways in which others’ digital literacies work toward furthering hate, oppression, and violence. As I see it, the teaching of critical digital literacy is an ethical obligation for writing teachers, specifically because it is in part through digital networks that economies are linked, labor is organized, ideologies are circulated and combated, wars are fought, and coalitions are built. But the critical education is ultimately the most important factor when including the digital in our writing classrooms’ literacy outcomes because it is the ability to think about power and consequence that will arm students with the ethical situatedness to make decisions toward global justice. In the next section, I will describe a course architecture and an assignment therein that demonstrate the critical digital literacy education I advocate as an ethical project, before raising ethical challenges that were highlighted by actual student-generated content.