Every literacy we acquire grants us access to things previously unknown, like a bridge leading into clouds so dense we cannot see through them to the other side.

Every time I teach the sophomore-level Introduction to Writing class, I face a number of apparent contradictions that never fail to amuse me. How can I introduce students to writing when they wrote an application to get to this level of education? (I treat the class as Intro to Writing Studies, which actually is new to students, so it works.) How can I complicate a concept that’s traditionally presented as formulaic? (Explaining the origins of the five-paragraph essay seems to help.) How can I illustrate the concept of multiple literacies and make it inherently and personally interesting? Turns out, asking students a simple question goes a long way on this one: What is literacy?

That one question usually takes a good twenty minutes to address. Someone, of course, looks it up. “The ability to read and write.” Those six words sound fine and make sense. We accept the definition at first, nodding with approval. But then I throw in a twist: “What, then, does ‘computer literacy’ mean? Is it the ability to read computer and write computer? That doesn’t make sense.” And with that, we’re off to the races. All told, I usually spend about 40–45 minutes discussing and generating definitions for three words: rhetoric, literacy, and fluency. The conversations are fun, and students generate impressively sophisticated definitions. I just sit back and take notes, letting the conversation shape itself.

Literacies Require Context

To make the concept of literacy make sense, we always need to consider it in a specific context. Because you’re reading this post, you obviously possess basic functional modern-English literacy. But if I throw in some pedagogical terminology, I might start to test the edges of that literacy for some readers while leaning into the professional literacies of others. The notion of “computer literacy”, which I bring up pretty early in conversation, highlights this point. Most people know whether they feel they have computer literacy. We can self-assess, and we have a standard against which we compare ourselves. Some of us feel competent; others feel woefully inadequate.

Things get more complicated when we’re in groups. For instance, if I ask students at the start of class whether they’re computer literate, many would say yes. But if I do some slightly technical work on my computer while it’s projected on the classroom screen, students sometimes feel less capable by comparison and start to doubt their self-assessment. Thus, our sense of literacy is always relative. Are we more or less literate than what we think is expected in a given situation? This point came into sharp relief this week when I used one simple, familiar (to me) feature on my computer and heard gasps and “whoa” reactions from half the students in the room. All I did was three-finger-tap a word I had typed to pop up its dictionary definition. You’d think I just discovered fire from the reaction. (Hint: System Settings > Trackpad > Look up & data detectors.) A few students suddenly questioned their own computer literacy because they didn’t know a Mac could do that.

Look up & data detectors in the Trackpad preferences panel

We are Born Into Contexts

Our sense of computer literacy might be easy to judge in comparison with others. But what about our ability-to-read-and-write literacy? Do we measure that in relative terms, as well? James Paul Gee probably thinks so. In “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” Gee explains how people first develop literacy through their Primary Discourse found at home. And the level of literacy/textual saturation normalized in that environment determines one’s baseline for future literacy development. If someone grows up in a household with a limited supply of reading materials, that person would likely compare the amount they read to their surroundings. People who grow up in text-saturated environments would find it easier (or at least more natural) to navigate those environments and use them to their advantage.

Someone born into a text-poor household would have to build a love of reading as a Secondary Discourse, which poses an additional hurdle to learning other, additional Secondary Discourses. This situation really feels like a “rich get richer” scenario to me, and I can’t help but think that Gee’s ideas could help prioritize early-childhood development programs. Interestingly, the importance of early-childhood literacy came up in an unrelated book I just finished reading. In The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation, Carl Benedikt Frey asserts the critical importance of language and literacy development in young children to help facilitate intellectual malleability later in life. That kind of flexibility is essential for today’s middle class, as we stare down the barrel of artificial intelligence and its ability to replace millions of jobs. Our Primary Discourses do a lot to shape our lives.

We Learn Our Literacies

Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe address the issue of literacy development in “Becoming Literate in the Information Age: Cultural Ecologies and the Literacies of Technology.” By examining how two students a generation apart in age view their own computer-literacy development, Hawisher and Selfe show the effort required to adopt new literacies and demonstrate the consequences of gaining technological literacies. Their fundamental conclusions, which I’m noting more to remind myself than anything, are these:

  • Literacies have life spans.
  • People can exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacies.
  • Schools are not the sole—and, often, not even the primary—gateways through which people gain access to and practice digital literacies.
  • The specific conditions of access have a substantial effect on people’s acquisition and development of digital literacy.
  • Families transmit literacy values and practices in multiple directions.

That last point relates to what I said above about families’ literacy norms, but Hawisher and Selfe take the idea a step further. They point out how parents develop literacies with the help of their children. At first, that seems backward. But anyone who has used a VCR knows kids learn first, then pass the familiarity up to their parents. Similarly, any kid who provides tech support to their parents (and what kids don’t, really) knows that computer/tech literacies often travel up a family tree, not down like reading and writing do.

Learning Tech Literacies in School

The movement of tech literacies from youth toward adults has significant implications for teachers. As Hawisher and Selfe observe, “Raised and educated in a culture that valued…alphabetic and print literacies, many…teachers remain unsure of how to value new-media literacies, unsure how to practice these new literacies themselves, and unprepared to integrate them at curricular and intellectual levels appropriate for these particular young people” (671). How, then, should we train teachers to incorporate tech into the classroom? Do we assume students will have greater computer literacies than their teachers? Can our “incorporating tech in the classroom” courses address this situation effectively? Why do I so often feel like, aside from Snapchat and Instagram, I have more computer literacy than students in my classes? Isn’t that backward?

I’m curious to learn how students this semester respond to the Hawisher & Selfe article. I wonder whether they’ll see themselves more in the character of the older Melissa or the younger Brittney. I can see reasons they might connect with either, and I look forward to our conversations.