“Studying Literacy in Digital Contexts” by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe


In this chapter from Exploring Composition Studies, Hawisher and Selfe argue for research in and scholarship about the relationship between computers and writing. They begin by noting the intimate connection that has developed between the reading, writing, and computers over the last 30 years.  Hawisher and Selfe assert, “Studying almost any aspect of rhetoric and composition without acknowledging the significant roles that digital environments play as people make meaning in their homes, in schools, in communities is, in sum, to be blind to the realities of contemporary communication” (188).

The authors acknowledge that many departments and programs  “retain long-standing historical and cultural values” and therefore still emphasize traditional forms of literacy and knowledge production: essays, print journals, the work on individuals over collaborative efforts, and books from scholarly presses (190).

Hawisher and Selfe note that despite this focus on conventional academic literacy, pedagogical practices concerning “mulitmodal composing” has a long-history of support. As far back as 1996, advocates such as the New London Group argued that multimodal literacy  is needed to meet “rapidly changing social, economic, linguistic, and technological demands of complex and globalized environments.” Moreover, these theorists hold that “…contemporary authors, faced with complex rhetorical situations, need the ability to draw on an increasingly varied set of design resources and representational modalities to make meaning and create texts…” (191). In addition to visual and text “semiotic channels,” Selfe also promotes the use of audio as an element to convey meaning in a digital world (192-3). Essentially, multimodal composing recognizes that digital environments not only allow for, but indeed require, authors to include photographs, graphs, charts, video, animations, and much more–and they must be able use them effectively.

Along with the need to teach students about digital composing, Hawisher and Selfe attest to the rise of digitally composed scholarship. Journals such as Kairos and Computers and Composition Online now promote the submission of  “new forms of scholarly texts”  (193). They point out that as early as 2007 composition studies scholars, especially those familiar with digital media, understood “that the flattened spaces of printed pages, while privileged by the academy and its traditions, were less than ideal” when compared to “the multidimensional landscapes that digital media could offer” (194). Many of these alternative scholarly texts include graphics, video, and audio; while many follow a traditional print text format, some have a non-linear hypertext format (193).

Finally, Hawisher and Selfe outline the importance of creating rigorous, multimodal scholarly texts. To that end, they began the Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP), in cooperation with Utah State University Press. Through this open-access publishing house, they hope to balance “convention and innovation, tradition and change” (195). While looking for cutting-edge digital texts, the editors vet submissions “against the traditional academic value on peer review, scholarly excellence, and intellectual reach” (195). The vision for such scholarship is to promote collaboration within multimodal texts rather than the “single-minded focus on single-authored, mono-dimensional texts that remain confined to the printed page” (198).


With some vague personal interest in creating digital texts, I applied for a grant and was able to attend Cindy Selfe’s Digital Media and Composition Institute in 2007. After that, I was hooked. I came away convinced that students need to be composing in digital environments. However, since I worked  in a very traditional, print-based composition program (and still do), have students create digital compositions has been hard. I used a wiki for awhile and had my student do a series of smaller, project usually as reflection assignments.

About six years ago, I was introduced to a non-profit, Malartu, based in the Detroit area, which gives teachers and their students web space to work and write in open digital spaces. About two years ago, my college started a program called the “Open Learning Lab” which now provides me and my students with our own webspace and WordPress installation. Now, my students write an assignment on their personal blog about a given topic and categorize that post appropriately so that it “flows” automatically into what we call our course hub. Because I teach at an open-enrollment community college, which draws students equally from inner-city and rural environs where digital resources are scarce, this approach to digital composing has been a godsend. It provides an easy-to-use but flexible platform that allow students to create alphabetic texts that they can easily enriched with pictures, videos, and more. In this way, I’m able to introduce my students to the types of composing Hawisher and Selfe promote while meeting the requirements of my program.

One of my biggest take-aways from the Hawisher and Selfe chapter is that both instructor-scholars and student-scholars should be working in the digital world, creating texts that are more than flat, print pages. I think if we stick to grey pages of text on paper, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant. In fact, I would say that we already are irrelevant to many students. Instead, we really need to be setting the standard for how high-quality, multimodal composing can be done. We can create rich scholarly environments that meet all of the expectations currently set for scholarly publications. Doing one type of composing does not mean giving up the values of the other. Moreover, if we expect students to create such compositions, then we need to set the example.

The Digital Scholar. Word cloud by AJ Cann, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

My other big take-away was the idea of collaboration, believing that a group effort can be more powerful than an individual effort. Particularly interesting to me when it comes to literacy in digital contexts is the possibilities of “open education.” We generally think allowing anyone to contribute as bad practice: How in the world can a non-expert really add anything of value? To many of us, Wikipedia is the iconic example because some unfortunate, malicious edits have happened. Yet, scholars like Cathy Davidson, who began the HASTAC project, feels that an open, digital scholarly commons are exactly what the humanities need in a world where science and technology usually receive first priority. Along with David Theo Goldberg, she writes, “As we think through the revolution in electronic communication, we need to create new models for researchers to work across disciplinary boundaries, making use of databases and resources that no one scholar, or department, can maintain…We need, too, to stop talking around the issue of the single-author monograph as the benchmark for excellence, and to confront what new kinds of collaboration mean for tenure review, accreditation, and more.”

To me it’s clear that digital composing is moving us in a direction of shared scholarship and rich, multimodal texts. A colleague of mine is using our Open Learning Lab to have his history students create a scholarly timeline as they go through the semester. If this is the kind of composing our students will be asked to do in other courses, it really is past time that we started teaching such skills in our first-year writing classes.

Works Cited

Hawisher, Gail E. and Cynthia L. Selfe. “Studying Literacy in Digital Environments.” Exploring Composition Studies. Eds. Kelly Ritter and Paul Kei Matsuda. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2013. 189-198. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N. and  David Theo Goldberg.  “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age.” Chronicle.com. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 Feb. 2004. Web. 6 Aug. 2017.