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Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric)

Ph.D. Selber, Associate Professor Stuart


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Just as the majority of books about computer literacy deal more with technological issues than with literacy issues, most computer literacy programs overemphasize technical skills and fail to adequately prepare students for the writing and communications tasks in a technology-driven era. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age serves as a guide for composition teachers to develop effective, full-scale computer literacy programs that are also professionally responsible by emphasizing different kinds of literacies and proposing methods for helping students move among them in strategic ways.

Defining computer literacy as a domain of writing and communication, Stuart A. Selber addresses the questions that few other computer literacy texts consider: What should a computer literate student be able to do? What is required of literacy teachers to educate such a student? How can functional computer literacy fit within the values of teaching writing and communication as a profession? Reimagining functional literacy in ways that speak to teachers of writing and communication, he builds a framework for computer literacy instruction that blends functional, critical, and rhetorical concerns in the interest of social action and change.

Multiliteracies for a Digital Age reviews the extensive literature on computer literacy and critiques it from a humanistic perspective. This approach, which will remain useful as new versions of computer hardware and software inevitably replace old versions, helps to usher students into an understanding of the biases, belief systems, and politics inherent in technological contexts. Selber redefines rhetoric at the nexus of technology and literacy and argues that students should be prepared as authors of twenty-first-century texts that defy the established purview of English departments. The result is a rich portrait of the ideal multiliterate student in a digital age and a social approach to computer literacy envisioned with the requirements for systemic change in mind.

Praise For Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric)

“Over the past several years, I’ve read dozens of books on digital rhetoric, digital media, online communication, new media, and the like. None of them is as stimulating or as important to our understanding of online literacy as Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Selber reviews, critiques, and synthesizes an immense body of research—which is impressive in itself—and then goes on to develop a post-critical approach. The significance of this approach is that it emphasizes the social scene for computer-based writing, offering a contextual view of technology that challenges the predominant instrumental views. This is breakthrough work, showing how technology theory should matter to literacy scholars and teachers.”—Jim Porter, Michigan State University

Today, computer hardware and software permeate many aspects of our daily lives, and university life, of course, is no exception. Computer labs, course management systems, e-mailsystems, blogs, online grading programs, and interactive videoconferences have become common features of today's academic life, not to mention the off-campus role computer technology plays in students' lives in the forms of wireless laptops, chat rooms, instant messaging, and the many college-oriented websites such as Myspace, Facebook, or In this dynamic, technology-rich environment, Stuart Selber has written a book that speaks forcefully to faculty in colleges of the humanities, professors of English, and teachers of writing and communication. In his five-chapter book, Selber provides a heuristic approach to computer literacy combining rich theoretical frameworks with practical pedagogical suggestions. He challenges us to utilize the special tools and expertise we already possess, and attempts to show teachers, department chairs, and other administrators ways they can cultivate comprehensive programs to address technology instruction in higher education.

       Selber acknowledges that teachers in the humanities have not always seen the teaching of computers and technology as within their purview, and, indeed, there is even an antitechnology stance taken by many within the humanities. Yet, Selber's focus is not on cheerleading or persuading reluctant teachers to venture into the worlds of technology; rather, Selber lays out a clear vision of what students need in order to be computer literate, which for Selber means more than being automatons or good consumers of the latest technology. Throughout the text he explains patiently and in fine detail ways in which teachers in the humanities not only are well positioned to richly educate students, but are also indeed essential in helping universities make better decisions about the implementation of technology in higher education.

Selber's approach to computer literacy transcends the needfor students or teachers to be up on all the latest hardware and software releases. Instead, he lays out a tech savvy, complex, and scholarly foundation upon which teachers can build a reflective practice, one that addresses the discourses of technology within the purview of English departments. Selber's book addresses the key issues of literacy education in the information age, and is written to stand the test of time.

       Multiliteracies for Selber is a term intrinsically tied with computers. Selber divides this term into three components ­functional literacy; critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy ­and the chapters he devotes to each form of literacy are the heart of the book. For each division Selber elaborates a fitting metaphor: for functional literacy, the computer as tool; for critical literacy, the computer as cultural artifact; for rhetorical literacy, the computer as hypertextual media. For each metaphor he also positions' students within a clearly defined role or "subject position": the functionally literate student is a user of technology; the critically literate student is a questioner of technology; the rhetorically literate student is a producer of technology. Moreover, for each one of his categories Selber provides detailed outcomes, laid out in easy-to-read diagrams, that make visible the qualities of a functionally, critically, and rhetorically literate student. This basic framework holds throughout the book, and Selber explains his positions throughrich forays into theory and scholarship and by drawing heavily on his own classroom practice.

In his introductory chapter Selber clearly locates computerliteracy within the domain of the liberal arts, calling for teachers to abandon any imaginary high ground that is free from the influence of technology, and to develop instead a deep and complex view of computers and their role in teaching literacy. His view is "that teachers should emphasize different kinds of computer literacies and help students become skilled at moving among them in strategic ways" (24).

       Selber begins his detailed view of computer literacy focusing on functional literacy because, of course, students must be able to use computers effectively to succeed in their academic and professional lives. In his second chapter he describes functional literacy, which for many teachers and administratorsmay be the most familiar category of computer literacy. Selber's treatment of this common tool approach to computers is thorough, as he tracks the history of functional approaches and the way functional literacy has come to be assessed throughstandardized tests. Following this, he outlines an alternate view of functional literacy comprised of "educational goals, social conventions, specialized discourses, management activities, and technological impasses," and illustrates these parameters with classroom-based examples (31).

Selber's functionally literate students are those who "not only recognize that social conventions limit and shape communication online but are capable of analyzing the discourse forums in which they are interested and discerning productive modes of engagement" (55). Selber provides numerous practical examples of assignments and classroom activities, such as examining the etiquette of student-selected usenet groups; modifying colors, fonts, and other features of customizable websites; using e-mail filters, file organization systems, and grammar checkers; and employing professionally based task analyses-a tool of professional software developers.

Selber claims that there are "some good reasons for helping students confront the complexities associated with computeruse" (31); yet, functional literacy is only a "necessary if not sufficient" condition of all other forms of computer literacy (33). Merely training students to use software is not enough; teachers should aim toward empowering students as citizens and economic actors. He argues that students must be able to control technological resources in order to attain critical and rhetorical literacy, achieve their own academic objectives, and move toward satisfying occupational lives. He also provides examples from more than one leading university that demonstrate how many common approaches to functional literacy are missing the mark.

One of the difficulties of envisioning a comprehensive literacy program that goes beyond mere functional approaches is the very ubiquity of computer technology and the tendency for it to blend invisibly into our environments. But, in the third chapter, Selber manages to defamiliarize computers by the application of critical theory to computer technology. He clearly demonstrates how critical tools that are well established in today's English departments can illuminate the social, political,and economic contexts of technology. He does this meticulously, in ways reminiscent of the work of Charles Bazerman, who fruitfully applied literary methods of close reading to scientific and social scientific texts.

       Teachers familiar with critical theory will recognize the move Selber makes: identifying computers as cultural artifactsor texts and making them the objects of analysis. Selber's goal is to prepare "students to be social critics rather than indoctrinated consumers of material culture" (95). English professors, of all stripes, familiar with critical approaches to literacy will find themselves at home in this chapter, which is filled with high-level examples, rich theoretical discussion, andmany detailed references to which people could turn to further their understanding. And, while Selber brings highly complex postcritical language to bear on the problem of computer literacy, demonstrating how these approaches can illuminate the role of technology in culture, he does so with extremely accessible examples. One of these is Selber's discussion of thehighly elaborated critical approach of Bryan Pfaffenberger, whoexplores the relationship of power and technology; furthermore, Selber brings this scholarly discussion to the level of classroom implementation through the study, rather than the mere use, of a web search engine known as Girlhoo.

       Selber employs this pattern of combining discussion with practical examples throughout his book, and this is one of its great strengths. This chapter provides many examples of critical literacy projects, which illustrate plainly Selber's hypothesis that humanists indeed have something invaluable and unique to offer the university in the development and implementation of computer literacy programs. Moreover, he lays out tasks for the profession, including developing a wide array of inquiry projects based on critical perspectives, gender, power, and class.

The final aspect of Selber's definition of multiliteracy is rhetorical literacy that positions students as producers rather than users and questioners of technology. Rhetorical literacy for Selber means the dynamic integration of functional and critical literacy in the design and evaluation of human computer interfaces (HCI).

       Selber provides an extremely balanced treatment of complex aspects of technology such as hypertext and open source, resisting any tendency to technological positivism, balancing out the possibilities of computer technology with its limitations and perils. Selber offers four outcomes for the rhetorically literate student: persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action. His treatment of each is thoroughly rooted in the corresponding literature and aims at producing students who "can effect change in technological systems," claiming "the timeis ripe for students and teachers in departments of English to have their say" in the arena of interface design (182).

If there is one weakness in Selber's book, it is based on its strength. Namely that in order to write a book that will act as much more than a guide to the latest software release to be outdated with next upgrade, Selber's unit of analysis, HCI,is a term that at times left me searching for landmarks to ground the discussion. In his defense, however, he does provide detailedexamples of classroom-tested assignments, including analyzing websites and designing alternate versions of existing websites.

In the end, Selber's book is about implementing a comprehensive computer literacy program, and in his fifth and final chapter Selber lays out the practical realities of implementing systemic change. His treatment is based on very real institutional, departmental, curricular, pedagogical, and technical constraints, yet reinforces the point that humanisticperspectives can help a university develop a stronger computer literacy program. His advice, obviously rooted in experience, will sit well with experienced WPAs and department chairs who understand experientially the slow-moving layers of bureaucracy common to the universities of today. Moreover, his suggestions are strong enough to be valuable in the real messiness and uncertainty of university budgets and politics.

Selber's book is written for active readers, experimentally oriented teachers, and persistent administrators who are determined to find a better way when it comes to teaching computer literacy. He follows the adage attributed to Einstein, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." His book will surely raise teacher and reader awareness of the most important technology related issues facing teachers of writing and communication with an emphasis on fulfilling our obligation to students. In it no theoretical lenses are out of bounds or beyond critique; the breadth of scholarship is impressive, as is the careful balance Selber strikes between the Luddites and the technophiles.

I would recommend this book without reservation to graduate students in English or education interested in literacy in the information age; faculty members and administrators looking to change their approach to technology who also wantto root their decisions in rich scholarship; and to upper-divisionEnglish majors headed for graduate study or teacher education programs. In an environment where instrumental approaches to technology and the interests of the private sector are exerting greater pressures on university structures, Selber has done a lot of the work for us by shining scholarly light on one of the most pressing issues facing modern higher education.

— Paul M. Rogers

Southern Illinois University Press, 9780809325511, 288pp.

Publication Date: January 23, 2004

About the Author

Stuart A. Selber is an assistant professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University. He is the editor of Computers and Technical Communication: Pedagogical and Programmatic Perspectives andthe coeditor of Central Works in Technical Communication.