A Review of Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom

  1. Barbara Monroe frames her recent book, Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom, as a response to Cynthia Selfe’s 1999 Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. In this book, she announces her intention to provide “’an understanding of the local and the particular’” (148 qtd in Monroe 1) that will enable teachers to incorporate technology productively into their pedagogy. Monroe depicts communities that a casual observer might lump together on the other side of the “digital divide” from, for example, the academically elite California high school Edward Humes depicts in School of Dreams. However, Crossing the Digital Divide does not merely map the divide between the affluent coasts and the impoverished interior. Instead, it continues the type of inquiry begun in Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words. Monroe’s series of case histories presents several communities’ approaches to literacy and technology.
  2. The first community that Monroe examines consists of African-American students in Detroit who are assembling hard-copy writing portfolios that will be mailed to the ACT and working online with writing tutors from the University of Michigan. For the first two months of the project, the relationship between each group is conducted exclusively online ( Monroe 34, 47). Therefore, students and tutors must come to terms with each other’s strategies of self-presentation as they correspond via e-mail. These strategies shape and are shaped by cultural beliefs about privacy and one’s membership in a community.
  3. In her chapter on Detroit High School (not its actual name), Monroe discusses a teacher’s refusal to accept a young man’s papers on how to use crack and marijuana, respectively. Overtly, the teacher justifies her action by stating that this “’good kid’” is “’talking junk’” in these process analyses (qtd in Monroe 56). The young man’s mother eventually intervenes in this dispute—by publicly berating her son for writing about these topics ( Monroe 56). (The paper that the teacher finally accepts explains how to fix a bicycle tire although she does question its truthfulness, in part because it depicts him as watching his grandfather fix the tire rather than fixing it himself (Monroe 57, 68-9).)
  4. With the background that Monroe provides about Detroit, African-Americans’ approaches to information-sharing, and the title of this chapter (“Putting One’s Business on Front Street”), the teacher’s action has a wider significance (33-40). Certainly, she is concerned about how outsiders will interpret the young man’s first two topics. More broadly, her action is aligned with students’ resistance to a collaborative “bio-poem,” a class exercise that teachers commonly use on the first day of class so that they and students can get to know each other ( Monroe 40-41). This exercise, as they understood it, forced them to embarrass their classmates by interrogating them and presenting the results of this interrogation to the rest of the class (Monroe 38-41). This resistance additionally informed their approach to representing themselves and their community in writing even as students established relationships with the tutors from the University of Michigan ( Monroe 41-49). Becoming aware of the underlying reasons behind African-American students’ resistance to information-sharing will help teachers tailor writing assignments to their classes, especially if they include students from a variety of racial backgrounds. With older students, teachers may even want to scrutinize strategies of self-presentation and withholding of information that literary journalist Ted Conover performs in Newjack, an account of his experience as a corrections officer, and that author Barry Lopez examines in his autobiographical essay, “A Voice." These strategies, in turn, may be compared to those performed by nineteenth-century author Harriet Jacobs in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and rappers like Biggie Smalls in his “autobiographical” lyrics that did not reflect his life (Carroll).
  5. Two other communities in Monroe’s study are made up of Native American students at a tribal school and white and Latino students from the small town of Garland. Both groups are studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Their dialogue has the potential for conflict due to local disputes over a dam ( Monroe 76). Yet, for the most part, conflict does not occur. This is not to say that students accepted each others’ assumptions; the tribal school students would question the Garland students’ and Garland students would question each other’s ( Monroe 79-80). Monroe ascribes this situation not only to technical difficulties experienced by both groups of students but also to the Garland community’s attitudes towards communication with outsiders (78-79). Nevertheless, she praises this particular project because it enables two groups of “have nots” ( Monroe’s term) to establish meaningful communication with each other (70, 84). The conclusion to this chapter (“Crucible for Critical Literacy”) accordingly explores ways for teachers to engage in similar projects with more productive results. Unfortunately, these suggestions do not include ways to incorporate Internet research. Tribal school students studying Hamlet would benefit from both discussing this play with white and Latino students from Garland and reading Canadian reviewer Danielle Valade’s response to Hamlet le Malecite, an adaptation that restages Shakespeare’s play as a young Maliseet’s attempt “to emulate Hamlet in an Aboriginal theater to save himself from a crumbling and contrived world” (34).
  6. The last community that Monroe examines is Rondo, a diverse, rural school district where students are working on personal and fictional narratives in preparation for a “state-mandated test” (89). Their work is certainly affected by cultural practices surrounding storytelling and children’s speech. Monroe also explores the extent to which television and movie watching have become the children’s “storytime.” She argues that educators can and must work with this circumstance. Her discussion of a Latino student’s narrative shows that his discussion of movies evidences the critical and rhetorical skills that a more traditional assessment might belie ( Monroe 104-5). This discussion may also help a teacher determine the ways in which video games, for instance, teach critical literacy.
  7. These projects that Monroe’s case histories examine serve as bridges to technological and critical literacy and, unsurprisingly, between communities. Together, the projects encourage students to feel a sense of agency towards technology. Here, this area includes alphabetical literacy and, in Rondo, popular movies seen at home on video. Learning about these projects, in turn, convinces readers to construct their own working definitions of technology that transcend hardware and software and embrace literacy.
  8. This process, for Monroe, begins with problematization of the term digital divide, an action set in motion by Victor Villanueva’s foreword, with its timeline of technological literacy events. The timeline reflects not only America’s history of computer technology from 1967 to 1998 but also the shift in Villanueva’s relationship to it caused by his success in changing careers. Had he become a manager at his first employer, for example, his relationship to technology would have been qualitatively different.
  9. Barbara Monroe’s first chapter, “Reconsidering the Terms of the Debate,” then provides a more general framework that traces the term’s history and its implication in American politics. Following Cynthia Selfe, Monroe links the term to the Clinton-Gore administration’s initial economic policy (7-8). Given this association, “[a]ccess to what and from where [was] never . . . consensual or stable in the public policy debate” ( Monroe 6). Lack of access proved the inability to afford access and unwillingness to conform to mainstream values ( Monroe 6-13). Indeed, in emphasizing the economic benefits created by Internet access, mainstream commentators like Thomas Friedman often dismissed minorities’ concern about the impact that unlimited access to the Internet might have on individuals, especially younger people (421-2). Conversely, the decision to gain access was represented as the act of entering this mainstream, especially once more “diverse” sites were created by the Black Entertainment Network and Microsoft; NetNoir, Inc.; and the magazine American Visions in the mid to late 1990s (Monroe 15). These sites, as Monroe observes, were designed for more affluent minorities and a national audience rather than for less affluent individuals and more local audiences (15-16).
  10. Monroe observes that a Vanderbilt University study conducted in 1996 and 1997 contradicted this representation. The study discovered that a significant number of African-Americans used computers at work and school but not at home (17-20). As Donna L Novak and Thomas P. Hoffman noted in this study (View with Adobe Reader), income and computer ownership were linked. Novak and Hoffman also stated that a number of African-Americans then without a home computer had voiced their intent to “acquire” one (italics theirs). This study emphasized the quantitative, so one may only speculate about these individual intentions and their local context in the late 1990s.
  11. Then, under the Bush-Cheney administration, the connotation of the digital divide changed. Monroe cites former FCC Chair Michael Powell’s “Mercedes remark” (22) that equated a person’s inability to afford Internet access with his own inability to afford a luxury car. Previously, as Novak and Hoffman have pointed out, the inability to afford Internet access was seen as a matter of serious national political and economic concern. It is true that, until 2004, the FCC continued to promote access to the Internet, at least for rural citizens (FCC and USDA). The programs are, however, contextualized by recent symposia on broadband access that define access in relation to providers’ expenses or patience with government regulations (FCC, “FCC Announces Agenda”) as well as by the widespread use of the Internet by individuals on both sides of the “digital divide.” This change of context evidences the term digital divide’s implication in outsiders’ arguments rather than in careful ethnography. As Monroe’s last chapter, “Revisiting the Access Issue,” shows, the process of maintaining the bridges that have been built requires attention and involves political and functional setbacks. In other words, it is an ongoing process.
  12. Barbara Monroe’s case histories encourage educators to apply Monroe’s insights to their own pedagogies and communities, and her notes direct readers to her course website for further information (131). If readers do not have teaching experience yet, Crossing the Digital Divide will help prepare them for what they may find in today’s diverse writing classrooms at the secondary and college level. As a composition instructor, I would have liked to see some attention given to the role that computer technology plays in students’ research. In the Washington, D.C. area, libraries increasingly rely on online databases like Opposing Viewpoints to meet the needs of student researchers. Is this an attempt to circumscribe students’ research and keep them away from the books and periodicals that graduate students and faculty use? Or do the online databases enable students to draw on broader and more contemporary sources than libraries in impoverished school districts could provide with print alone? Or does the cost of these databases and computer equipment force these libraries to make hard choices as they budget ever scarcer resources?