Literacy Is an Elephant (and I Can’t See)

More than anything, I think this week’s readings left my head spinning. Simply reading an overview of what’s to come touched on so many aspects of my career and day-to-day work with students. The ability to compose and instantly transmit texts to the world, especially when viewed through the lens of this week’s reading, reminds me of the poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John G. Saxe.

The point of the poem (especially in reference to the idea of God) is that we only perceive a tiny part of the whole. I really don’t think we’re able to see the complete impact that digital communication can and will have. This week’s readings have me seeing different small pockets of my life in different ways, but I haven’t yet reassembled them into a coherent picture.

When I read Purcell, Buchanan, and Friedrich’s report on the impact of digital tools, I thought the answers to the question about the effect on teaching writing was most telling. Fifty percent said that digital tools make it easier to teach writing, and for the most part, I have to agree. The very first class I taught at Lansing Community College included a young man who had been discharged from the Army just a few months earlier. He was extremely committed to his education, so he was incredibly disheartened when I wrote my feedback all over his essay. “Now, I have to retype it,” he said. It was 1998, but I still couldn’t imagine that someone would still be typing—and not word processing—their essays. After all, I had abandoned my typewriter for a “portable” computer with WordStar over ten years previous. It was then and there that I realized the word processor had truly made revision a possibility for many students.

Still, I can understand how 18% would answer that digital tools had made teaching writing more difficult. I’ve been teaching writing a long time, and I’ve seen how students have become less apt to utilize the library (unless forced to do so) and more apt to “copy and paste” without proper attribution. Any teacher who assigns writing must deal with issues not present in student writing 20 years ago. I hear those complaints regularly, and they are not totally unfounded.

What I don’t get is the 31% of teachers who said digital tools have no impact. My brain wanted to immediately fire back, “What planet have you been living on?” As Kelly says, “A significant effect of accumulation and acceleration is that what counts as effective reading and writing becomes a moving target—over time and from context to context” (8). To me, the only way digital tools could not have made teaching writing more difficult is if they are teaching writing exactly as it existed pre-internet, especially Web 2.0. If someone is only having students create chunks of gray text on white paper—and putting handwritten comments back on those printed pages—they are doing students a disservice. They are ignoring the myriad ways that we need to assist students in becoming responsible, adept communicators.

Sadly, when one works with a first-year writing program that teaches over 150 sections of composition every semester (with little or no controlling philosophy set by those in charge of the program), one still sees lots of colleagues putting red ink on printed pages. I realize that we are in the middle of massive change, but I feel as if some people are fighting the change and want to privilege those traditional forms of writing. However, I understand some of it is largely due to age and unfamiliarity with digital tools and pedagogy. The Pew Report also noted that teachers over 50 years old were less likely to adopt digital tools in their teaching than their younger counterparts (Purcell, Buchanan, and Friedrich). That’s why, I keep coming back to the ideas that what one thinks about the digital revolution in writing depends on where one is standing.

The view from above is Brandt’s assertion that writing has become a “mass daily experience” (3). My job is indeed largely writing. I write emails, blog posts, handouts, memos, comments on student papers, and so much more. Similarly, my students must prepare for their future jobs by learning to write in my class. I often point out to them the results of a College Board study: 80% of jobs in the finance-related sectors consider writing skills when hiring; 50% of all companies consider writing skill in employee promotion; American firms spend an estimated $3.1 billion annually to provide writing instruction to employees who need it (The National Commission on Writing). As Brandt says, “As the nature of work in the United States has changed—toward making and managing information and knowledge in increasingly globalized settings—intense pressure has come the productive side of literacy, the writing side” (3). As I continually was given more and more responsibility at my current institution, I always thought that it was because I worked hard. Now, I’m beginning to see what role my writing skills probably played in my career.

A more ground-level is my own classroom teaching. I must absolutely agree with Keller when he states, “…composition should renew its interest in reading pedagogy and research” (1). For several years now, I have struggled with how to handle reading in my writing classes. I have tried several different approaches, but there never seems to be much time to really prepare, and I’m not really sure what would work if I did have time. Still, I know that Keller is on to something here, and I’m excited to read what he has to say.

So much of what I read this week actually impacted me more in my role of “faculty developer” than in my role as “writing teacher.” I lead a 12-week seminar required of all instructors seeking “professor” status at my institution. This week’s topic was “Characteristics of Community College Students,” and a big topic of discussion was Generations Y and Z. Almost predictably, the discussion came around to the I-don’t-have-to-learn-anything-I-can-google-it mentality among younger students.

This week’s reading truly helped me frame the discussion in a way that worked for the participants. I explained about Brandt’s notion of accumulating literacies and how the don’t-memorize-google-it strategy makes sense. Keller is absolutely correct when he says, “…the vast expansion of genre and media has increased the range of literacies while also demanding more of literacies…we embrace the wealth of information and technology options available to us, but we feel overwhelmed” (4). If people feels overwhelmed by the vast amount of reading and writing laid before them, they are going to find such survival strategies and simple internet searches.

From there, I was able to build on the idea of “threshold concepts” that Addler-Kassner and Wardle discuss. I explained how they, each working in a different discipline, all represent a specific literacy. I explained Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s thinking that “a threshold concept operates both as a propositional statement and a heuristic for inquiry” (xxvii). In other words, threshold concepts are both claims made by a discipline and a lens for scholarship within that discipline. After that, I had them share with each other what they considered to be “threshold concepts” within their discipline. What must students actually have committed to memory to be literate in their chosen field? If you teach a general education course, what do students need to understand about your field to be an overall literate person? My impromptu lesson was intended to help my participants think about how they are going to teach in a world where students have the whole of human knowledge at their fingertips (and it kind of worked).

I feel as if the readings this week truly left me seeing only pieces of the whole, and I’m unsure how they’ll all fit together. I’m not sure that anyone can see the whole picture since we are in such an intense time of mass change when it comes to literacy. I’m looking forward to diving deeper into our texts, though. I feel as if it will give me firmer ground to stand upon as I help my students navigate the increased literacy demands the world is putting on them


Works Cited

Brandt, Deboarh. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Keller, Daniel. Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in the Age of Acceleration.

The National Commission on Writing. Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out. The College Board, September 2004.

Purcell, Kirsten, Judy Buchanan and Linda Friedrich. The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools. The Pew Research Center, 16 July 2013.

Saxe, John G. “The Blind Man and the Elephant.” Read by Tom O’Bedlam. SpokenVerse. YouTube. 31 Aug. 2010.

Yancy, Kathleen Blake. “Introduction: Comin to Terms: Composition/Rhetoric, Threshold Concepts, and a Disciplinary Core.” Naming What We Know Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, eds. Boulder, CO: Utah State UP, 2015.