Reflections by Noelle Mischenko

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Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 1 Reflection.png

Chapter 2: What's the problem?

We use tools for the purpose of communicating with one another. This requires both tool-knowledge and content-knowledge. Crucially, both of these aspects of knowledge are in flux in the 21st century meaning that, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn” (p.16).

The Gerjuoy quote that Belshaw tacks on here really sums up the quagmire that is adapting to a new literacy. I think too often we've tried to apply the "rules" of traditional literacy to digital texts, and while there is some crossover, it's time to address that simply reading will not cut it. At the pace technology is evolving, it has become imperative that our literacy is flexible, ready to adapt, and eager for progress. But this process isn't easy; you won't wake up one morning and be on the high end of the digital literacy spectrum. I just think about how in schools so much of the focus is still on traditional literacy when the majority of the texts people engage with today are digital. While literacy can be developed in our social environment, Belshaw mentions that we expect most of our literacy to be tackled in the classroom, "And school, hopefully, is where we learn to become literate" (p. 12). I would guess that the goal in many classrooms is to create an environment where students learn how to learn (skills/practices), and love learning (attitude). But withholding or ignoring the changes in both tool-knowledge and content-knowledge puts a student's literacy development at an incredible disadvantage.

Therefore, adding a modifier (e.g. digital literacy) not only adds another layer of ambiguity, but raises the question of the relationship between the two words. We’re unsure as to how the modifying word does its modifying. We’re also unsure as to whether the modifying word is more important than the word it’s modifying" (pg.17).

I have never heard the term zeugmas before (or prozeugmas/hypozeugmas)! Sometimes looking at a term through a linguistic lens opens up some really interesting discussions, and I think Belshaw found just the way to introduce his "ambiguity" topic. From his description of zeugmas it sounds like contested/debated space is built into the equation. Previous to reading this, I hadn't considered the balance of power; does digital carry most weight, or does literacy? I had thought literacy was the foundation, and digital the add-on modifier, but I hope Belshaw's exploration of this causes literacy to be a little more dependent. Does adding digital only cause a superficial change in how we understand literacy, or does it require change (small or large) at its core? For some reason genetics come to mind, if "digital" changes the genetic make up of "literacy" will future forms of literacy also be affected?

Chapter 3: Everything is ambiguous

It is worth noting that terms and ideas can eventually lose almost all of their connotative aspect. These terms ‘fall off’ the spectrum of ambiguity and become what Richard Rorty has termed ‘dead metaphors’. These terms are formulaic and unproductive representations of ideas that die and become part of the ‘coral reef’ upon which further terms and ideas can depend and refer to. Invoking terms such as these tends to be avoided due to over-use or cliché. The terms usually cause people to roll their eyes when they hear them, or to say them with a smirk. ‘Digital natives’ would be a good example of this. It signifies nothing useful, not because it’s overly-ambiguous, but because it’s overly-specific and references an outdated way of looking at the world" (p.25).

I won't lie, I love everything about this paragraph, not just in terms of digital literacies, but also in general writing. I may have to borrow the phrase "dead metaphors" for my classroom. The most important part of this paragraph to me was the analogy of the coral reef. It isn't that we should get rid of these terms entirely, they are part of the scaffolding of our understanding, but we should be able to recognize when those terms become void of meaning and let them slough off. We know the terms are still around, and may refer back to them, calling them up from the deep. Funnily enough, we're discussing 'digital natives' in our Google Space right now and, in a sense, all we've done is confirm that the term is a "dead metaphor." We all agree that the term has been debunked, and share articles to confirm it; there's no real debate because the term has run its course. I was also surprised to see where Belshaw placed "dead metaphors" on the continuum of ambiguity, to the right of "Productive Ambiguity." At first glance, I would have placed them on the other side of the spectrum, but now I can see how it's the specificity of the term that causes its demise. If "dead metaphors" lived on the "Generative Ambiguity" side, there would still be potential for imbibing new life into them.


A good visual aid can take your argument a long way. This visual paired with the step-by-step "here's what this looks like in action" school example made this concept much easier to grasp. In my head, the visual was pyramid shaped to represent the top-down administrative process, but having the three equal bars run vertical gives equal weight to each type of ambiguity. Embracing ambiguity can be hard simply because it feels good to pin something down, but once you get over that I see how phases of ambiguity may actually be more productive. Part of me still questions how likely this is to happen in a traditional school environment. As a teacher (who would probably participate in the "Productive Ambiguity" step), I feel there is little opportunity for my ideas to live in happy ambiguity. If I want something done (or funded, or created) I'm required to tie concrete things to it (objectives, standards, assessments, lesson plans). What could embracing ambiguity look like on a classroom scale? How do you write learning goals that support/defend ambiguity?

Chapter 4: Why existing models of digital literacy don't work

There’s plenty of rhetoric about learning and jobs being available to all through the internet. What is often missing is the recognition of the multiple literacies needed to not only turn desire into action, but even to know what is obtainable" (p.39).

Availability does not equal accessibility. Simply because they can access online content, doesn't necessarily mean they know how. It may be productive to include the development of multiple literacies in our discussion of accessibility. Often the focus is physical accessibility (ex. I have a tablet in my hand), which can be easy solved with enough funding, but maybe the real crux of accessibility is literacy. This excerpt sounds like it refers more to adults than is does students, but I think there's an interesting parallel to be made here. With more tech in the classroom, we have to adjust our pedagogy so that it isn't just old curriculum with new tech tools, but a productive marriage of the two. Is there an equivalent for adults? Once you're out of school, who helps you develop your digital literacies? While we claim that sharing content on the web is the great equalizer, it strikes me that we actually do very little in the way of helping people access the content both physically, and in terms of their literacies development.

The problem with standard views of digital literacy is that they equate literacy with a ‘skill’ to be learned. This is known as the ‘unitary’ view of literacy" (p.38).

Dang it. I definitely have been thinking of digital literacy as a skill. But I'm ready to be converted! I'm still trying to wrap my head around the "multiplicity of literacies" idea what makes it different from digital literacy as a skill (p.39). It's more than just making it plural. My confusion is mostly one of scale, or maybe complexity? Belshaw uses the word "skill" a lot in his writing; skills are social, learned in context, and eventually are applied elsewhere. At a very, very basic level this ability to extrapolate skills is part of your literacy. So, is it just that thinking about digital literacy as a skill wraps too much up into one action when it should be broken down and examined in pieces as separate literacies? When I try and visualize it, I want to make it into something neatly nested (skills inside the 8 elements inside micro-literacies inside digital literacies), which I realize completely negates the whole point Belshaw is trying to make.

Chapter 5: The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies

"How can young people be expected to behave appropriately if they have not been guided through the communication protocols and norms of a given platform? We are setting them up to fail" (p.50).

Right? Often I feel like the firewalls are only trying to prevent students from distraction, which is an engagement problem, not a tech problem. We are not doing students any favors by "protecting" them from social media and YouTube at school. For goodness sake, we could work those things into the curriculum and teach students how to use them appropriately. There is also a trust issue here between adults and students. Can they not make good decisions online? Instead of telling them what not to do, how about guiding them through "the communication protocols and norms of a given platform." Just as with profanity, the more you tell students "no" without explanation, the more desirable it becomes (and let's not kid ourselves into thinking they never access those blocked sites). The Internet may actually be the blockable, not-school-appropriate place because people weren't taught digital citizenship in context. In a way, the school system is still prescribing to the idea of "digital natives," assuming that their behavior/communication online will learn to regulate itself outside of the school building.

"The digital world can be a scary place for those unused to it. We use skeuomorphs — details and designs that make the new look old and familiar — in an attempt to blur the boundaries" (p.51).

Another great word! I touched on this idea in an earlier chapter reflection that we can't help ourselves but to apply aspects of traditional literacy to digital literacy. Belshaw's examples of this, such as the visual and linguistic cues we use as familiar markers, bring to light how painful this transition can be. It can be difficult to engage with something that is entirely new, and even harder to sell it to the general population. It was interesting to learn how our dependence on skeumorphs actually makes our transition harder. You'd assume that digital literacies/environments would be more enticing with a sense of the familiar (like a crab moving into a new shell), but apparently we have a tough time giving up our old, comfortable home. A point he makes later in the Confident section is that we should be focusing on the differences between analogue and digital, not relying on the ways that they are similar (p.52). Certainly no easy task, but it's an important one. I wonder if we could apply this idea to our digital citizenship conversation. What would we find when we focus on the differences between citizenship and digital citizenship instead of the similarities?

Chapter 6: Curiosity created the LOLcat

While taking graduate Linguistics classes, we found the weirdly specific advice animal meme "Linguist Llama," which has been my favorite ever since. Llama.jpg

“Novelty, it would appear, is a highly desirable feature of a meme—but that in itself does not sustain its popularity. To survive it must be able to evolve into new contexts” (p. 70).

What I like about this quote is that it draws attention to the meme’s need to be full of meaning, but also an empty vessel. I don’t think this is, by any means, unique to memes. Any product/media/text that stands the test of time was at some point a novelty, and it’s through their ability to evolve that they are still able to reflect our current cultural moment. What I struggle to wrap my head around if it a person can design something with the intention of it being both full and empty of meaning at the same time to ensure a long lifespan. But then again, what person would be able to guess at what would remain culturally relevant in the future, even just a year from now?

“However, to remix that meme requires an understanding of why it works; it involves critical reflection. We have to ascribe intentionality, even if it’s theoretically possible that enough monkeys could create the works of Shakespeare” (p. 74).

This quote doesn’t quite get to the issue of intentionally of the original creator that I mentioned in the earlier excerpt, but it’s close. The remixing of the meme certainly takes critical reflection as Belshaw notes. There are levels of understanding necessary before someone can remix the meme in a way that conforms to the “rules” of that particular meme and is accepted by the rest of the online population. We’ve all seen the memes that just simply don’t work, whether the issue is in the wording, or a misunderstanding of the “norms” of that meme. But since memes are so prolific online, that necessary critical reflection is relatively easy because there’s an enormous sample to examine.

Chapter 7: Remix: The heart of digital literacies

“Just as a meeting held in a pub or a bar would be very different in tone to one held in a monastery, so the environment dictates what can or cannot (or is more/less likely to) happen online” (p. 83).

Thinking about this in relation to our recent talk with Gardner Campbell, it’s more complex than just the environment dictating norms of behavior. Yes, to an extent, the environment controls tone and behavior, but people created that environment to serve a certain purpose and, thus, set the tone/behavior themselves in a way. I think it’s less “chicken or the egg” than it is a combination of environment and people co-regulating the norms of a space. In the context of the chapter, Belshaw is making the point that digital literacies cannot be taught without bringing students into those specific online social networks and guiding them through the norms of behavior. Not only is their little crossover understanding between an offline social network and an online one, but also there are differences to learn between Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. It’s always about learning in context. Always.

“While we can learn by formal instruction, through step-by-step instructions and well-trodden paths, interest-driven learning is (I would argue) one of the best ways to learn in digital spaces” (p. 86).

And most teachers know that this is true! Now to just figure out ways to organize all of the paperwork around it... I truly do think that this can me implemented in a classroom but freeform anything rarely sits well with any prescribed curriculum. There’s also a classroom management/attitude piece that I haven’t seen any of our readings mention. Students aren’t used to the freedom to explore and may initially struggle in that environment. So, I think, the real question is, how do you create a classroom culture where students are motivated to work productively, and independently online?

Chapter 8: Coding and the web

“The final thing to say on the difference between digital and web literac(ies) is to reiterate the point that the web is a ‘bounded’ concept in the way that ‘digital’ is not. Focusing on web literacy therefore develops your digital literacies” (p .91).

That is such a good point! In the classroom we focus a lot of our time on web literacy, without tackling the larger issue of digital literacies. Consciously putting it under the umbrella of digital literacies helps me think about the concept as a piece of the whole instead of standalone. I wonder if we turn to web literacy first because it feels bounded and thus a little more comprehensible; there are skills and behaviors that you can immediately target in a class. Jumping into digital literacies can feel, well, unwieldly. It’s partially because of that ambiguity issue: we are generally uncomfortable with things we’re unable to pin down.

“What interests me is what would constitute a test of this: what does it mean to have ‘learned to code’? As a notion it’s not so much ambiguous as just downright vague. What I suggest is that we treat the learning of machine languages much as we treat the learning of human languages[...]” (p. 92).

This parallel is actually pretty awesome. For example we don’t have “Hour of Spanish” once a year, we have multiple years of Spanish language classes available. We often introduce students to the very basics of one coding language, without really going into what makes it different from other coding languages. But maybe this is just where it starts? There’s a clear push to get younger students into coding, but not every high school provides high level coding courses. So, it’s the equivalent of teaching them a couple songs in Spanish when they’re young, and then never expecting them to hold a conversation in that language. In my own classes, I see some students develop the ability to mimic in a coding language, while other get to the point where they can create and communicate.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

“Apply this work to your own context!” (p. 99).

I felt that Chapter 8 spoke directly to what I’m trying to develop in my own classroom. Getting a feel for where web literacy and coding live in relation to digital literacies shows both where I’m making progress, and what aspects still need support in my curriculum. You'd think of any department we'd have the easiest time integrating digital literacies development, but it's also easy to get distracted. Even I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that teaching “computers” or “coding” is a sub for digital literacy. Handing out the tools is easy and I get a lot of support from others teachers/administrators for doing so, but our focus shouldn’t be on the tools. And actually, I think it’s the focus on tools that scares away the more traditional teachers from using tech in the classroom because when used incorrectly they shadow the content instead of enhance it.