A Review of Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

  1. The word literacies has apparently not yet been added to Microsoft Word’s dictionary, as it repeatedly comes up underlined in red every time it’s typed. While this sort of occurrence can be generally dismissed or brushed aside as simple technological error, it’s become particularly alarming in light of software packages such as Microsoft Word’s place amongst the growing din of “solutions” touted as cornerstones of our new found digital, computer literacies. Perhaps the software engineers behind the current version of Word never gave pause to consider sentiments currently found in such books as Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher’s Literate Lives in the Information Age, where they write: “because students from different cultures, races, and backgrounds bring different literacies and different experiences with literacy to the classroom, focusing so single-mindedly on only one privileged form of literacy encourages a continuation of the literate/illiterate divide that perpetuates violence and functions in a conservative, reproductive fashion to favor existing class-based systems” (Selfe 232).
  2. Since the first appearances of digital literacies in academia, the focus hasn’t been so much on whether or not the concept is valid, so much as which discipline has the right to become the authority on it. Computer science departments, art departments, and even education programs all have some vested interest in the growth, development, and proliferation of the concept of digital literacies, creating multidisciplinary shifts in various programs just to stake their claim as gatekeepers and experts. Often, however, it’s the champions of the old, foundational literacy, the English departments, which become surprisingly silent and passive. Penn State University assistant professor of English Stuart A. Selber, however, sets out to reclaim the English discipline’s place at the forefront of digital literacy study and education with his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age.
  3. Selber begins by establishing a different perspective on what computer literacy in its most basic form actually is. Selber seeks to release the concept of computer literacy from the actual tools and hardware that currently binds it to ‘hands-on’ workshops and laborious tutorial documentation. Instead, he reestablishes digital literacy as a ‘multiliteracy’, wherein the conversation can open up beyond the computer lab, and connections can begin to be established across formats, functions, documents, and disciplines. As Selber puts it, “although it is sensible and helpful to begin with current ways of knowing and working, such a model is ultimately limiting because it becomes non-dialogic: Not only does the model assume that technology is neutral, but if it fails to recognize that technology can encourage teachers to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions, goals, and practices” (Selber 23).
  4. At the heart of the book, Selber establishes three separate areas of digital literacy: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Each section provides a basis and framework for each concept, generally followed by explorations of Selber’s own experience and research. In his chapter “Functional Literacy: Computers as Tools, Students as Effective Users of Technology,” Selber assumes that computer literacy starts with a rudimentary acquisition of skills and the utilization of various ‘tools’; however, his inquiries ask us to reflect on the political assumptions that exist within “tool metaphors” (Selber 36) that are generally presented as being politically neutral. Selber goes so far as to write that “functional literacy often becomes a blunt tool with which ruling classes create minimally skilled workers” (Selber 33), though he later modifies this idea by suggesting that rhetoric and composition faculty can help students “situate technological impasses in a broader context so that their characteristics can be organized and understood” (Selber 70). Students can begin to accomplish this through the use of a systematic heuristic approach to technological and web-related problems, wherein they set up qualitative inquiries into these problems, identify them within an empirical framework , and then apply the “appropriate forms of assistance” (Selber 71), thus empowering the students to overcome what Selber calls “performance-oriented impasses”(Selber 72).
  5. Selber then moves into a call for critical literacy amongst both students (asking them to question the technologies as ‘artifacts’ of potential political and social use and abuse) and teachers (whom he calls on to guide and foster such inquiries). It’s here, within a framework bolstered by pedagogical theory (including a useful discussion of constructivist and post-constructivist theories), that Selber’s argument for multiliteracies as the domain of rhetoric and composition begins to shine. Selber makes the case that students should be asking why and how technology institutions such as websites, campus computer labs, software packages, etc., have been set up to persuade, control, direct and use them. He then points to areas where the digital divide has worsened and deepened, though he is “not suggesting that this troubling state of affairs has been brought about solely by the politics of design cultures, only that these politics are implicated with crucial issues of access, a fact that can help students focus their critical analyses of computing infrastructures” (Selber 108).
  6. Selber then turns his attention to rhetorical literacy to engage students in an increased understanding and perception of social and cultural climates and changes. He does this by issuing a call for faculty to help students evaluate technology in rhetorical contexts and then re-evaluate and even reproduce the technology in positive ways (he refers to this practice as ‘reflection in action’). Ultimately, Selber hopes that students will move on from just being functionally adept computer users to becoming fully aware, fully critical interface designers. Here, Selber perhaps misses an opportunity to reshape the conversation as an interdisciplinary ‘call to arms’. Interface design, in its fullest implementation, could branch out to embrace a truly interdisciplinary effort between rhetoric, graphic design, computer science,and many other fields. This isn’t to say that Selber doesn’t mention and acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of interface design and digital literacies, though one cannot help but feel that a slight opportunity for additional elaboration was missed. The discipline of rhetoric itself, for example, continues to undergo various transformations, most of which involve further integration with disciplines such as philosophy, communication, computer science, education and the like.
  7. Whatever may be said about missed opportunities, Selber’s audience remains clearly identified from the very beginning: rhetoric and composition teachers and professors. Throughout Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, teachers can expect to encounter various ideas for implementation into multiple classroom settings, as well as a hefty amount of theory that supports and highlights their own attempts to establish a rhetoric of multiliteracy education.

Works Cited

Selfe, Cynthia L. and Hawisher, Gail E. Literate Lives in the Information Age. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2004.