This semester, I’ve assigned a technological literacy collage as the first assignment in both the first-year composition course (Rhetoric and Composition: Media and Their Effects) and the advanced composition course (Advanced Composition: Image, Sound, Text). The assignment is a technological literacy autobiography done in the form of a collage. Call it a mash-up of assignments from Cynthia Selfe, Dickie Selfe, Gail Hawisher, and Karla Kitalong with that of Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff because, really, that’s what it is. (The advanced composition course is an accelerated half-semester course that starts this week.)
I so much enjoyed reading the first-year students collages that I decided to write one myself. I meant to write one before the semester started but didn’t, so I’m sharing what I wrote with the advanced composition class. Since it’s going to be up on the course web site, I thought I’d post it here too. So, here you go, my technological literacy collage, the full title of which is:
On the Dangers of Reading Conan Stories and Playing Computer Games; or, The Making of a Technorhetorician: A Technological Literacy Collage
I’m the new media specialist in Creighton University’s English Department. Terms to define my academic specialty include computers and writing, technorhetoric, digital rhetoric, and new media studies. I’m an English professor, but I read books with titles like What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning; Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print; The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media; Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace; Writing Machines; and Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. I teach classes with titles like Rhetoric and Composition: Media and Their Effects; Advanced Composition: Image, Sound, Text; New Media Writing and Online Design; and Composition in the Digital Age. I write essays with titles like “Memoria as the Technologization of Memory,” “Database Rhapsody from the ‘Singer of Tales’ to ‘Geek DJs’,” “Old Practices and New Literacies: Composing with Words and Images,” and “Walter J. Ong’s Digital Turn: Published and Unpublished Writings after Orality and Literacy.”
By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I intended to be a medievalist, and when I started my Ph.D. program, I wanted to write a dissertation exploring Old English and Old Norse literature as products of oral-literate transitional cultures. How did I go from wanting to be a medievalist to becoming a technorhetorician? The truth is, I see them as part of one continuum. When you start with the realization that all communication requires the creation of a shared system of meaning making, then you realize that all communication is mediated through technology. Whether we’re talking about hand signals, the words “hello” or “góðan dag,” the alphabet, a printed book, a radio broadcast, or a text message, we are using at least one technology. From this perspective, studying the Anglo-Saxon and Viking transitions from oral to literate cultures is not all that different from studying our transition from a print to a digital culture. In fact, all four essays I mention above contextualize digital technologies and literacy practices within the context of oral, chirographic (hand-written), print, and electronic (analog) technologies and practices.
At least that is the official, professional explanation of my growth as an academic. Closer to the truth may be the simple fact that I figured out I how to combine a number of “non-academic” hobbies and interests in such a way that they became my academic work.
As an English professor, teaching, reading, and writing are my trade. I’ve been doing all three for a very long time. By kindergarten, I was well on my way to becoming a voracious reader. When I’d get sent to my room, I’d grab a few books on the way. Eventually, my mother would come by to tell me I could leave my room, and, more often than not, I’d stay to keep reading. I was a bit older before I started writing stories. I don’t think I ever finished one, but I remember sitting down with paper and pencil to write stories titled “Animals in Space,” an idea inspired by The Muppet Show’s “Pigs in Space.” It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I started teaching. By seventh grade, I was an Assistant Patrol Leader in Boy Scouts and by the time I was in tenth grade I’d become the Senior Patrol Leader of my whole troop. Throughout my time in Boy Scout leadership positions, I was responsible for teaching various skills to other scouts. Teaching, reading, writing: not only are they what I do; it seems they’re what I’ve always done.
As I began writing fiction in high school back in the late 1980s, I wrote first drafts by hand. No laptop, you see, and I wanted to write whenever and wherever I could. Even before that, however, all my first drafts were by hand. Until I learned to type well enough to type my own papers, I would write and revise a paper and then give it to my dad to type up for me.
Today I don’t handwrite all drafts—sometimes I do compose at a computer—but I still do handwrite drafts regularly. In fact, as I write this I have two computers within 10 feet of me. This notebook I’m writing in is touching my laptop, which I’ve just used to look up some information while writing passages for this collage.
I can’t say why I’ll start one project by hand and another on the computer, but I do. Sometimes I move from one technology to the other as I write. If I feel stuck when writing by hand, I sometimes find that switching to the computer can help. Likewise, when I find myself stuck at the computer, I’ll often print out what I’ve got and start writing by hand.
Regardless of how I draft a project, I do major revisions on paper. I’ll print the document out and handwrite my revisions, which I then use to revise the digital document. I find that I work better this way, and it has the added benefit—something I realized long after I’d started this process—it is easier to save drafts as distinct drafts when I revise this way.
A list of some of my compositional tools:
- Index cards
- Books, articles, and other writings
- Machina Memorialis (my blog)
- Face-to-face discussion
- Interior dialogues
- Microsoft Word or Pages
- Laptop computer
- Desktop computer
I’m sure this isn’t a complete list. Do I, for instance, include pacing/walking as a compositional tool? When I need to think I do, in fact, get up and walk around my house.1 Do I count mental imagery and visualization? After all, I do use them and I teach them as compositional techniques. And there’s wikis which I’ve used to collaboratively write presentations with others. Or what about all those emails I send to myself with snippets of text I come up with while doing something else. And what about tea, water, and whiskey? If I rarely write without at least one of those drinks on hand, do I count them as part of my compositional tools?
I prefer pencils to pens. I always have. I’m a messy writer and as I can’t spell and often draft quickly, I prefer the pencil for its erasability. Also, I think pencils offer more resistance and need more pressure to leave a mark. With a pencil, you have to push the graphite into the paper. With a pen, however, the ink is absorbed by the paper through capillary action. When writing with pen, not only do I have to worry about erasure issues, I have to deal with the pen too easily gliding across the paper making my illegible writing that much more messy, and I have to try to avoid leaving unintentional lines and drops of ink. Pens force me to focus on penmanship when what I want to focus on is writing. When it’s on paper that I am going to write, I reach for the pencil so that I can write.
What does it say about my conception of technological literacy that I include face-to-face discussion and interior dialogue as composing tools? Or that I wonder if pacing and tea should be on the list as well? Does it mean that technological literacy should include the material world, including our physical bodies and social interactions? Or at least an awareness of their role? Marshall McLuhan, after all, defines media as any extension of our faculties, psychic or physical (26). If walking is an aid to thinking, to mental composing, is it not then an extension of my mind? Am I pushing this idea too far? Or is that the point, turning technological literacy into an awareness of how our practices of reading, writing, and exchanging information are part of a much larger network of things and circumstances that make up our day-to-day existence? If so, is this what Henry Jenkins et. al. mean when they define new media literacy as “a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world, the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated, the motives and goals of the media they consume, and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream” (31)? Maybe it is, but think Jenkins et. al. don’t have it just right.
In the summer between ninth and tenth grade, I spent much time playing Adventure Construction Set and Ultima IV. I enjoyed ACS more for the ability to create adventures than to play the finished products, but to tell the truth, I enjoy creating stories as much as I enjoy experiencing them. (That’s why I think I also spent so much time playing and running old table-top role playing games as well—they’re nothing more than collaborative story telling.) Between the two games, I was involved in story and I was happy.
At some point, my mother started commenting on how much time I spent playing these two games. Even spending hours each day on the computer, I was still burning through 3-4 novels a week, still designing and playing role-playing games with my friends, and I was still putting in plenty of time outdoors, so she didn’t push the issue too hard, but she would wonder out loud what good might come from all this game playing.
After one of her increasingly frequent comments, I told her just what I thought the benefits of these games where: they involved problem solving, logical reasoning, research and application of learned information, historical knowledge, and story telling. My mom was an elementary school teacher and I knew what would convince her the games were worthwhile. More importantly, however, I was aware that these games required me to do these activities. They’re what I enjoyed and what kept me playing them.
It’s the first term of my second year of graduate school. Lisa, Bruce, and I have a few hours between our late morning Romantic literature course and our early afternoon Old English course. Often, we’d go get lunch and shoot pool. Old English was a language course—most of what we know about Old English comes from written texts and most Old English courses, ours included, focus on learning how to read Old English literature, but it was a language course nonetheless. As we’d shoot pool, Bruce and I would often discuss the possibility of using HyperCard—a pre-Web hypertextual authoring program—to create student editions of Old English poems. Being hypertext, a student could see the passage in Old English with no commentaries or aids and then click on a word or a button and choose to see grammatical information, or the infinitive form of a verb, or have the Old English word glossed, or even be able to read scholarly commentary and notes. Neither of us had the knowledge of Old English to pull this off, but we would talk about its possibility. Those discussions got me thinking, the very fall the first graphical web browser was released, that we’d barely begun to understand the potential computers might offer education.
While a Ph.D. student, I spent time as the English Department’s “Computer-assisted Instruction Coordinator.” It was my job to give “teaching with technology” workshops to my fellow graduate students. A number of those forced to attend the workshops resented the idea of computer-assisted instruction. They were English majors, after all. We English majors are okay with using computers to write, access email, and search the web, but, as they would tell me, we’re not “computer people.”
I would begin each workshop with some variation of the following routine: I begin by announcing that I will conduct the first minute of the workshop without using any technology. I would then walk over the light switch, turn off the lights, and silently count off 60 seconds. At that point, I would turn the lights back on and apologize for lying to them. “You see,” I tell them, “I insisted on wearing clothes during those 60 seconds.”
After their nervous laughter, I’d make my point: there is no teaching without technology because language is a technology. Then I’d point out that no one ever ran around saying we shouldn’t teach with the technologies we call pens, books or chalkboards. Well, actually, Plato did argue that books only offer false knowledge and that true learning can only occur through face-to-face dialogue, but if anyone tried to bring that up I’d reply that Plato also believed that fiction and poetry should be banished because they were about “false” things, so if they, as a teacher of composition and literature wanted to side with Plato, they should look for another line of work.
From the first few paragraphs of “Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and Pratchett’s The Last Hero: Comedic Fantasy and the Reception of Old Norse Literature,” a presentation I gave at the 2004 Modern Language Annual Convention:
Upon graduating from middle school, my aunt and uncle gave me five or six Conan books. I mention this because my uncle wasn’t entirely comfortable with the gift. Like a number of boys my age in 1985, I read a lot of fantasy and I played Dungeons and Dragons. My uncle’s knowledge of fantasy began and ended with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Dungeons and Dragons had that reputation of driving adolescent boys mad, and he wasn’t sure he approved of the Conan books either, with their lurid illustrations and even more lurid covers. He was worried that they were just the sort of thing that might push a young mind teetering on edge of reality and fantasy right off into the deep end.
I don’t remember exactly what my uncle said, but it was something along those lines, about recognizing the difference between fantasy and reality and how these were just stories. As with most of my family, my uncle wondered if something Good would ever come out of my enthusiasm for fantasy. That enthusiasm, I believe, is closely tied to, or even the cause of, my becoming a medievalist and my specific interest in Old English and Old Norse literature.
While the focus of this paper is Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and Terry Pratchett’s The Last Hero and their connections to the Victorian reception of Old Norse literature, Conan and his creator Robert E. Howard play a large role as well. Unlike the works of Robert E. Howard, which I stopped reading in the early part of high school (because I’d read them all), I encountered Holt and Pratchett’s work while in graduate school. Holt specifically for his use of Old Norse material in two novels and Pratchett because, as my professor Tom Shippey puts it, “Everyone should read Terry Pratchett.” Both authors write what is best described as comedic fantasy, and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? and The Last Hero both fall within the subgenre of heroic fantasy better known as sword and sorcery. In this presentation, I’m going to suggest that the sword and sorcery genre is deeply rooted in and reflects the Victorian reception of Old Norse literature, that both Holt and Pratchett consciously draw upon this tradition, and that Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories serve as an important bridge between Victorian medievalism and contemporary sword and sorcery fantasy.
By technological literacy, or literacies, we mean the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices—cultural, social, political, and educational. For us, the term differs from computer literacy in that it focuses primarily on the word literacy—thus, on communication skills and values—rather than on the skills required to use a computer. (Selfe and Hawisher 2 n.4)
I want to rewrite Selfe and Hawisher’s definition of technological literacy. It’s too narrow, I think. Too limiting. Implicit in their definition is the idea that only online technologies are technologies and that’s simply not the case. Selfe and Hawisher, I know, don’t actually believe this. I know that they would agree with me that a pencil is as much a technology as a computer, and that the telegraph is as much a technology as the World Wide Web. Because language is itself a technology, reading, writing, and exchanging information are always technological activities. All acts of communication are technological acts. I understand why Selfe and Hawisher wish to make a distinction between computer literacy (i.e., knowing how to use a computer) and the “practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments,” but I resist their use of technology here that equates technology with being online. Online literacy would seem to be a better term, leaving technological literacy open to encompass all technologies.
So, yes, I want to rewrite their definition of technological literacy so that it includes all technologies we use to read, write, and share information. But, then, how is technological literacy different from literacy itself? Why use the adjective “technological” at all if all literacy relies upon technology? Maybe I want technological literacy to not just be about the values and practices associated with reading, writing, and exchanging information, but to include the awareness that all practices of reading, writing, and exchanging information are inherently technological acts.
When you see ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚴ, what do you think? If you’ve read Peter Elbow’s “Your Cheatin’ Art: A Collage,” or if you’re familiar with the professions of printing and publication (or at least study them), you might reply that ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚴ are dingbats. Dingbats, Elbow explains, are the symbols that printers use to indicate separation (301). In “Your Cheatin’ Art: A Collage,” he uses dingbats to indicate that one passage of his collage—what he calls a croit or a blip—has stopped and a new one has begun. They are “[p]laceholders for nothing,” he says. While I might be using them as dingbats in this collage, they’re not dingbats, that is, they are not standard decorative symbols designed to indicate separation in a printed text. Sure, to you “ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚴ” might just placeholders, but what they really are is runes. Specifically, they are the first six letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, the alphabet used by the Anglo-Saxons before they adopted the Roman alphabet with which we’re familiar. This Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet is known as the fuþarc. Just as all alphabets are called alphabets because they get their name from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet—alpha and beta—the Anglo-Saxon fuþarc gets its name from its first six letters of the Anglo-Saxon alphabet: ᚠᚢᚦᚨᚱᚴ.
Runes have fascinated me every since fifth grade when I saw the reproduction of Thorin Oakenshield’s map in The Hobbit. While Tolkien created a fuþarc-like script for the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, he used the actual Anglo-Saxon fuþarc in The Hobbit. It was because of Tolkien that I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, became a fantasy and science fiction fanboy, and became interested in medieval literature and culture. Tolkien was himself a medievalist, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature and language. And in case it needs mentioning, Tolkien liked Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. He even said so in writing.
Drawing from Greek philosophy, we can divide human ways of knowing into two broad categories, that of logos, which gave rise to logic and dialectic, and that of mythos, which gave rise to rhetoric and poetic. Plato may not have liked story, but then, he wasn’t all that keen on rhetoric either. He was squarely in the logos camp. But story, which in its broadest sense includes rhetoric and poetic—definition 6.a. in the Oxford English Dictionary defines story as “An allegation, statement; an account or representation of a matter; a particular person’s representation of the facts in a case”—is a way of knowing.
Teaching, reading, and writing. Mythos. Rhetoric and poetic. Story. That’s what I do. And it’s all technology.
Elbow, Peter. “Your Cheatin’ Art: A Collage.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 300-314.
Jenkins, Henry, et. al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingo Press, 2001.
Selfe, Cynthia L., and Gail E. Hawisher. Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy From the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.