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Composition Forum 14.2, Fall 2005

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 240pp.

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Daisy Pignetti and James A. Inman

Stuart A. Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age opens by stating that its purpose is “to help teachers of writing and communication develop full-scale computer literacy programs that are both effective and professionally responsible” (xi). In many respects, Selber’s book operates as a response to Cynthia L. Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century, published in 1999, which calls for compositionists and humanists to recognize how technology affects literacy and to adapt their professional practices accordingly. Selber’s contribution to the Studies in Writing and Rhetoric (SWR) Series goes a step further, however, to consider ways in which “students can play a more active role in the construction and reconstruction of technological systems” (xi).

Rightfully acknowledging the persistence of a digital divide in education, Selber formulates an agenda for writing programs to “adopt a ‘postcritical’ stance, one that locates computer literacy in the domain of English studies” (3). He defines his “postcritical” stance specifically as a blend of pragmatism and critical consciousness since “computers in varying forms are here to stay in instructional contexts” and “teachers and students should be mindful of ways in which they can unwittingly promote inequitable and counterproductive technological practices” (8). With such a stance, Selber argues that we should move beyond situating technology solely in instrumental terms; instead we should situate it in broader, more socially contextual terms. His reasoning is straightforward:

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with institutionally driven programs, computer literacy is an area that will remain impoverished as long as its parameters are defined and understood primarily in technical terms or in terms that are dictated by the private sector. (22)

At the same time, we are mindful of the blurring between the academy and what Selber terms the “private sector” and the many innovations that collaborative ventures have produced.

With practice clearly in mind, Selber offers English departments a framework for how to include and encourage technology to best produce multiliterate students. The table below is reproduced from page 25 of his text and aptly summarizes “the literacy landscape that students should be able to navigate” (24):

Category Metaphor Subject Position Objective
Functional Literacy Computers as tools Students as users of technology Effective employment
Critical Literacy Computers as cultural artifacts Students as questioners of technology Informed critique
Rhetorical Literacy Computers as hypertextual media Students as producers of technology Reflective praxis

Selber firmly believes that “Students who are not adequately exposed to all three literacy categories will find it difficult to participate fully and meaningfully in technological activities” (24). Clearly this conclusion makes sense: how can students be effective users of technology if they are not also effective questioners of technology?

Functional Literacy

In the first literacy category, “functional literacy,” Selber names five specific parameters: educational goals, social convention, specialized discourses, management activities, and technological impasses. Together, these establish that teachers should be trained to offer detailed and explorative instruction. Students of writing with a new media focus, too, should be able to “confront the complexities associated with computer use” (31). Instead believing that a computer is an instrument that can solve all problems, “A functionally literate student is alert to the limitations of technology and the circumstances in which human awareness is required” (47).

We find “management,” or the ability to use a computer to handle the work of a writing course, to be especially key because Selber doesn’t limit the definition to operational functions, like storing passwords and deleting old files. In fact, Selber writes, while “management activities will probably vary from student to student, they almost always unite technology and literacy in ways that require social judgments” (65). Using the example of creating filters in an email program, he explains that students must “retrain themselves so that the Inbox is no longer the sole focal point of their asynchronous communication” (67). The point, of course, is not simply that students learn to operate mail filters, but that they begin to establish a larger and more complex organizational schema for their communication that utilizes but is not dependent on nor driven by the technology.

Critical Literacy

According to Selber, the essence of critical literacy is using language for social and political reconstruction (81). He explains, “a critical strategy would be to seek oppositional discourses that defamiliarize commonsensical impressions of technology in educational settings” (88). Selber designates four parameters to this literacy—design cultures, use contexts, institutional forces and popular representations—the latter two being the most dangerously ideological. An example of how critical literacy operates is Selber’s recommendation that students reflect upon their university’s use of Microsoft packages and then critically analyze that use as an example of “technological regularization” (128). Such reflection would open up classroom discussion and student understanding relative to each of the four parameters of critical literacy.

As teachers, we also found the following passage especially compelling to note:

Students need access to tenure-line faculty members who specialize in the study of literacy and computers, articulated English courses that take up the cultural complications of computer technologies, and computer labs that support collaborative work with a technical staff that canassist writers in development. (131)

While we share Selber’s perspective, we worry that many universities will not make the decision to provide such access right now, so we hope to join with Selber and readers in continuing to make this argument as many times as it takes. Recent years have seen strong progress, such as centers furthering the study of literacy and technology at such institutions as Furman University, Clemson University, and Michigan Technological University, but much remains to be done.

Rhetorical Literacy

Selber defines rhetorical literacy as “insist[ing] upon praxis—the thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities in the design and evaluation of computer interfaces” (145). Selber’s definition includes four parameters: persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action. In many respects, Selber’s definition and explanation of rhetorical literacy answers the inevitable “so what?” question for his entire project. Further it extends previous scholarship exploring connections between rhetoric, literacy, and technology, like the often-cited “Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using ‘Literacy’ As a Metaphor for Everything Else?” by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Anne Frances Wysocki, which suggests that meaning-making be more associated with rhetorical practices than with continued use of the term “literacy.” Selber does not come to the same conclusion, but his book unites rhetoric and literacy in an important way, and we find it to be the most compelling of his ideas.

Later in this chapter, Selber specifically refers to the work of two Carnegie Mellon professors, Daniel Boyasrski and Richard Buchanan, who “turn[ed] to rhetoric for insight into what orients computer users and encourages them to act—or not to act—in specific situations” (145). Selber, thus, considers human-computer communication (HCI) as one instance of a rhetorical act or persuasive speech (145). Though this connection is not necessarily new for those of us who study usability and/or design, it is important, and Selber makes a strong case for it and its interdisciplinary character.

Recommendations and Closing

Selber closes his book by recommending how a multiliteracies program can best be achieved. Of course, communication is key amongst the technical, pedagogical, curricular, departmental, and institutional contexts so not to reduce the change to the mere addition of computer technologies. It is never the case that the introduction of new software packages or interface changes alone can “engender the kinds of social, political and pedagogical reform the profession is interested in” (188). Echoing his earlier point about the need for specialized faculty and supportive technical staff, Selber recognizes that “teachers must be disposed to classroom settings that position them as true learners” (201), but recommends that such risks be scaffolded with “novel and familiar practices” (202). He offers examples of curricular reform, specific courses, and individual assignments, as well as departmental and institutional requirements.

Finally, Selber’s book stands out because it offers a theoretical framework important for both those already committed to using technology and those considering it at the same time it carefully considers implementation issues, a combination all too rare in scholarship.

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Return to Composition Forum 14.2 table of contents.