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Composition Forum 48, Spring 2022

Review of Stuart A. Selber’s Institutional Literacies: Engaging Academic IT Contexts for Writing and Communication

Pooja Narang

Selber, Stuart A. Institutional Literacies: Engaging Academic IT Contexts for Writing and Communication. The University of Chicago P, 2020. 281 pp.

Stuart A. Selber’s Book, Institutional Literacies: Engaging Academic IT Context for Writing and Communication, was published when the COVID-19 pandemic created huge challenges for IT departments and teachers to support education and learning worldwide. The global pandemic forced teachers to redesign their face-to-face learning and pushed them to adopt advanced levels of digital education competencies in order to sustain learning. In this regard, Institutional Literacies provides resources and practical implications for teachers to collaborate with academic IT units to improve literacy practices. To be more explicit, the book discusses not just theory (the three-part heuristic), but also provides strategies and resources for teachers to engage with academic IT units to build their courses and related activities in digital environments.

Selber emphasizes the centralized role that academic IT units play in shaping institutional literacies, given the integration of information technology in the universities—in particular, teaching and learning of writing and communication courses. Selber argues that literacy practices operate in academic IT contexts, and therefore, teachers of writing and communication, administrators, directors need to work in partnership with academic IT units. In other words, Selber encourages teachers to participate actively in institutional literacies by working closely with IT units that account for planning, implementing, and expanding tech-mediated academic courses, projects, or tasks. To this end, Selber proposes a three-part heuristic for teachers to understand how academic IT functions “as a unit, product, service, event, or other institutional formation” (3). The partnership heuristic involves understanding the historical, spatial, and textual dimensions of academic IT units. Teachers who often rely on these dimensions to make decisions about introducing technology into the teaching and learning process will find the heuristic particularly beneficial. Throughout the book, Selber argues that a thorough understanding of these dimensions for (writing and communication) teachers can lead to positive changes in higher education contexts that mostly rely on technologies for learning.

The three-part heuristic of academic IT units constitutes a major part of the book; each of these heuristics are discussed in detail in chapters two, three and four separately. Together, the three-part heuristic provides a framework to the teachers to have a thorough understanding of how literacy practices are shaped by academic IT units and why they need to work in collaboration with them. Each heuristic can be applied independently to improve teaching and learning of writing and communication skills in distance education programs or other online platforms. Further, throughout the book, Selber provides various examples from his experiences with academic IT units at Penn State University—in particular, these examples can be helpful to IT specialists and novice teachers and students. For designing online courses and course projects, the book introduces resources such as EDUCAUSE, Lynda.Com (LinkedIn learning now) WordPress, and so on. The most notable resource is a development event called ‘hackathons,’ (discussed in chapter 3), which are like Wikipedia edit-a-thon events that focus on improving Wikipedia pages. Hackathon events at Penn State (HackPSU) provide students with the opportunity to improve technology and solve real world problems (Lakatos ).

Chapter 3 also discusses short courses offered to teachers and students at Penn State that other teachers and students may find valuable. The courses instruct students and teachers on how to use software in computer classrooms. It's worth emphasizing that teachers have the option of inviting a member of the training group into their classroom. Selber often invited the IT department to present the WordPress publishing system to students to assist them in creating e-portfolios. Although these trainers are not subject matter experts, Selber points out that with their help, teachers can learn “how to accomplish things with academic IT” (96). These types of examples are discussed throughout the book, which allows readers to easily contextualize Selber's arguments using these examples and resources. Readers may also find these examples and resources useful in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed learning and teaching in higher education and other sectors into online environments.

The book’s five chapters follow a logical sequence throughout, which makes the content and the text readable, though, at times, readers may find the discussions—in the first half of chapters 2 - 4—exhaustive and lengthy. The first (introductory) chapter, Situating Academic IT, discusses the omnipresence of academic IT units in university campuses, their “shaping power” (Selber 1) on literacy practices, and the various roles they play in institutional design and development. Based on the role that academic units play in higher education, Selber argues that in addition to collaborating with academic IT units for the course, program or disciplinary activities, writing and communication teachers need to “involve themselves in the working lives of academic IT units” (3). Selber discusses the various contexts in which IT units are situated and introduces the three-part heuristic he discusses in each body chapter. Selber suggests that knowledge and implementation of the heuristic—a suggestive framework for teachers—will enable teachers to “order their thinking about what academic IT units do, how they are arranged, how they accomplish work, what drives and shapes them, and where interventions might be made to improve things” (31). Selber asserts that academic IT units are dynamic and complex, and that examining their historical, spatial, and textual dimensions will provide a holistic picture of how they work and why they matter. The chapter closes with enduring field questions about academic IT that Selber addresses in the body chapters. These questions are listed in Table 1.2 and are meant to serve as “disciplinary commonplaces for invention, investigation and discovery” (33).

In the second chapter, Historicizing Academic IT, Selber discusses Russell McMahon’s 2007 piece, Researching your institution's computer past, which was primarily based on a project that asked undergraduate students at the University of Cincinnati (UC) to write about the computing histories of their institution—a way to connect the future to the past. Students were required to conduct interviews with professionals in the field of computing as part of the assignment. The historical writing project benefited not just the students in terms of bringing history to life, but it also benefited the institution in a variety of ways. When McMahon was requested to expand the project, UC's academic IT divisions successfully developed a training course for disabled students to teach them how to become computer programmers. The advantages of such initiatives by IT units are numerous. Readers can find many other examples on pages 35 and 36, which further illustrate how histories can be valuable, specifically in connecting Generation Z (also known as Gen Z, iGen or centennials)—that has been raised on the internet—to the past.

Based on McMahon’s work and other literature reviewed in the first half of the chapter, Selber contends that knowing historical contexts of academic IT units and relating it to present day context is consequential to current problems and future actions; “histories can and do matter to decision-making” (37). It can contribute to a better and fuller understanding of future needs of institutions, IT specialists, teachers and even their students—even if it is “useless knowledge” (McMahon qtd in Selber, 37). Selber’s argument is relevant in the context of academic literacy practices, specifically writing practices and communication. As a writing teacher, without being cognizant of the history of writing practices and theories, how can I imagine employing modern teaching in my classroom? As a teacher, it is important for me to evaluate present practices in relation to what worked (or did not work) in the past and why. Throughout the chapter, Selber clearly argues that continuity between past and present is a must, as it “avoid[s] going mindlessly into the future” (39). The second half of the chapter discusses the enduring historical questions that Selber finds significant for teaching and learning, followed by the four elements related to the heuristic: standards, legacy, conventions, and rituals. Selber argues that these elements are instrumental in understanding the complex and vital histories of local academic IT units.

The third chapter, Spatializing Academic IT, addresses how spatial structures in an institution play a role in arranging, regulating, and implementing academic IT units and vice versa. The chapter follows a similar organizational pattern as chapter 2 by starting with a discussion of a project(s) to contextualize the institutional spatial issues, followed by spatial perspectives on academic IT units and Selber’s viewpoints on these issues. Through these opening discussions in chapters 2 - 4, undoubtedly, Selber has been successful in defining and contextualizing the heuristic, and most importantly, highlighting issues related to each dimension of the heuristic, though, at times, readers may find these discussions lengthy. The discussions of enduring questions and elements of heuristic in the second half of these chapters are, however, more useful in having a better grasp of each heuristic. The spatial elements that Selber proposes in this chapter include hierarchies, the organized structures in academic institutions, processes that guide and manage work, methods that create knowledge and bodies that initiate human-machine interactions. These elements provide “different spatial vantage points” to clearly view learning spaces/spatial structures and relationships that are managed by academic IT units (Selber 32).

The fourth chapter, Textualizing Academic IT, focuses on Selber’s own experiences with texts, in particular, a grant proposal at Penn State, which illustrates the way academic IT units treat texts. Selber then offers his perspective on how texts should be treated in university contexts for teaching and learning. Finally, like previous body chapters, this chapter discusses the enduring questions and textual elements—metaphors, subjectivities, genres, and stories—of the heuristic, as well as the function that texts created by IT units and these textual elements play in shaping academic IT units. Selber defines these texts as “written institutional artifacts, such as proposals and reports” (137). As academic IT units produce an array of texts or documents—texts that are not only informative and useful for documenting activities but are also persuasive and promote values—Selber argues that understanding the textual dimensions of academic IT units is consequential to improving teaching and learning in digital contexts. In addition, these texts contain textual elements, such as metaphors, subjectivities, genres, and stories. Specifically, metaphors have “epistemic dimensions” (Selber 167), meaning they are responsible for filtering and delimiting experiences. Subjectivities refer to understanding workers’ roles, responsibilities, and performance. Based upon the core argument, Selber provides various useful strategies to tackle issues that may arise from institutional subjectivities.

The genre examples in chapter 4 are incredibly valuable for writing teachers and administrators. Selber provides a list of genres employed in academic IT units on page 175. These genres, as Selber highlights, help textualize activities as well as create and maintain relationships (177). To illustrate this point, Selber provides an example of his failed institutional proposal. Finally, the chapter discusses that stories have a “reinforcing role” (Selber 182) as these stories, as opposed to narratives, are constituted by the events and experiences; these stories act as a bridge between (institutional) concepts and (audiences) experiences. Since all these elements account for both continuity and variations in institutions and influence academic IT units, Selber proposes that a comprehensive understanding of these textual elements is a must for teachers and others who are involved in digital learning contexts. The texts, textual practices, and genres discussed in the chapter and the roles they play in shaping literacies are useful for teachers and students of composition. Though each heuristic is linked to each other, the organizational pattern in body chapters makes it easy to apply the three-part heuristic independently, so each body chapter can be read as a standalone chapter. Overall, writing teachers may find the fourth chapter especially interesting as it emphasizes the impacts of texts and textual practices on information technology and how the IT team perceives institutional texts.

The concluding chapter, Engaging Academic IT Units, integrates the heuristic and demonstrates how the historical, spatial, and textual dimensions work together. The chapter first reiterates key concepts and reminds readers of the key role that the heuristic play for teachers and institutions. I particularly liked Selber’s tone and approach toward the change that he intends to bring in the educational contexts. For example, in the concluding chapter, Selber once again encourages teachers to think of the lasting institutional changes that they could bring with their actions, if not, they should at least take “micropolitical actions” to think of momentary changes (188). From such a perspective, teachers are encouraged to think of both short-term and long-term goals. However, questions arise: how exactly can teachers achieve this goal? What can they do to improve things for their students? How can they engage academic IT units? Selber offers three steps to answer these questions: locate, analyze, and engage academic IT units.

First, Selber asks teachers to locate their IT units and determine how IT is positioned using a positioning chart on page 192 (Figure 5.1). The chart contains four quadrants that position academic IT differently. What is important to note here is that the positioning of entries is not static; it can change. Further, these entries are always related to contexts. In the next step, Selber asks teachers to employ the three-part heuristic to conduct a multidimensional analysis of academic IT units and provides various prompts for teachers to think about how individual elements of heuristics shape institutional literacies. Selber’s third step asks teachers to consider six modes of engagement (Figure 5.2) with academic IT units, which shed light on strategies or roles that teachers can adopt.

Selber’s representation of the six modes of engagement and their order on the continuum (passive to active engagement) reminds me of Bloom’s taxonomy in which teachers first engage students in lower-order skills before moving on to higher-order thinking skills. Selber wraps up the chapter with two touchpoints: the everyday point of contact between writing and communication teachers and their institutions. His discussion of the touchpoints further illustrates his three-step approach to engaging academic IT units, which readers might find repetitive after reading other chapters. That being said, the examples from Selber’s lived experiences, several prompts for teachers to analyze the heuristic, and most importantly strategies to engage with academic IT units have fulfilled the chapter’s aim.

In conclusion, Selber’s Institutional Literacies expands our understanding of how academic IT units function to enable, constrain, and shape literacy practices. This understanding is particularly useful for teachers in the pandemic context that has significantly increased the need for online education as well as reliance on and collaboration with information technology for teaching and learning purposes. Writing teachers need to be cognizant of not only the online pedagogies that help students but also the digital tools that create a collaborative and positive learning environment in online contexts. In this regard, this book broadens our understanding of digital and academic literacies that perceive literacy as a social and cultural practice and activity (Barton and Hamilton; Kobayashi et al.; Perry) and how people engage in these activities; (online) communities of practice (Lave, Wenger), language socialization (Schieffelin), and academic discourse socialization (Kobyashi et. al). Institutional Literacies encompasses the idea of collaborating with the IT team, and thus, teachers taking an active role to bring positive changes in the academic contexts for learning and development in writing and communications courses specifically. Therefore, the three-part heuristic that the book proposes should be consequential—both pedagogically and methodologically—to all teachers, including teachers of writing and communication courses. The heuristic should be of interest to students, administrators, program directors, IT units, and all those who are responsible for facilitating learning in digital or online contexts. In short, Institutional Literacies provides a nuanced understanding of literacy practices by taking into consideration social interactions and collaborations with IT teams for improving literacy practices.

Works Cited

Barton, David, and Mary Hamilton. Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community. Routledge, 2012.

Kobayashi, Masaki, et al. Academic Discourse Socialization. Language Socialization, edited by Patricia Duff and Stephen May, 3rd ed., vol. 8, Springer Press, 2017, pp. 239-54.

Lakatos, Megan. Students from around the world participate in a virtual version of HackPSU. NEWS, 7 Apr. 2021.

Lave, Jean. Situating Learning in Communities of Practice. Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, edited by Lauren B. Resnick, et al., American Psychological Association, 1991, pp. 63-82.

McMahon, Russell. Researching your institution's computer past. Proceedings of the 8th ACM SIGITE conference on Information technology education. 2007.

Perry, Kristen H. What Is Literacy?—A Critical Overview of Sociocultural Perspectives. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, vol. 8, no.1, 2012, pp. 50-71.

Schieffelin, Bambi B. Teasing and Shaming in Kaluli Children's Interactions. Language Socialization across Cultures, edited by Bambi B. Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs, Cambridge UP, 1987, pp. 165-181.

Selber, Stuart A. Institutional Literacies: Engaging Academic IT Contexts for Writing and Communication. The U of Chicago P, 2020.

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge UP, 1999.

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