Monday, October 03, 2005

Reading :: Literate Lives in the Information Age

Originally posted: Mon, 03 Oct 2005 08:58:59

Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States

by Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher

The book Literate Lives is a set of 20 case studies selected from over 350 people who filled in questionnaires or conducted interviews with the authors over a six-year period. It has many virtues, summed up nicely by the conclusion. Here, the authors discuss how these case studies cover the years during which personal computers came on the market and became pervasive.

Today, personal computers have become embedded so deeply in the landscape that they are disappearing, becoming invisible, much like electricity or cars or ballpoint pens, all emergent technologies from previous periods in U.S. history. When this disappearing act is complete, when the memories of what some have referred to as the computer revolution have faded, these first-hand accounts of people's lived experiences will help us remember how computers dramatically altered our lives, and literacy, at one particular point in history. (p.211)

A virtuous project indeed, one with considerable promise. Selfe and Hawisher further connect these micro-level case studies with the broad sweep of technological and social change during the times they cover, a technique that helps us to contextualize them.

But virtues without moderation can become vices. The broad sweep or macrolevel picture comes from the extensive digital divide literature, particularly the series of reports entitled Falling Through the Net published during the Clinton years. The statistics in these reports are closely reflected in the 20 case studies, so closely that the case studies' microlevel narratives appear to be selected primarily to illustrate the extant macrolevel data. And that's exactly what they do. The problem is that we already know the stories from the macrolevel data; the case studies don't appear to have anything further to offer, or at least we don't discover anything more about literacy from the case studies than we do from reading the statistics.

The case studies would be much more useful -- and differentiated from the macrolevel narratives, and lifelike, and surprising -- if they were more systematically analyzed. We get narratives of how the participants first encountered computers and how they gained access to different programs, but not much detail about how these literacies can be categorized, mapped, or systematically studied. The case studies, as Selfe and Hawisher tell us in the conclusion, are analyzed along the axes of race, sex, and class -- not a very sophisticated analytical framework. Imagine what this book could have been if it had adopted Stuart Selber's comprehensive and well developed "multiliteracies" framework instead.

For me, this was the most disappointing aspect of the book. Its corpus could have been a goldmine with some systematic analysis, shedding insight into the interplay among literacies across different generations and cultural lines. But instead we get a stream of narratives with lingering attention on the race/gender/class struggles and with frequent adjectives such as "courageous," "undaunted," and "inevitable." You know these stories, you've seen them on American Dreams. They hold no surprises -- and in a study like this, that's the most disappointing thing of all.


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