Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The MultiLiterate Student

Stuart Selber defines the ideal multiliterate student as one who masters functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy. In terms of computer skills, Selber characterizes functional literacy as the ability to use technology, whereas critical literacy requires students to question technology, and rhetorical literacy means the student can produce technology (25).

The same categories characterize composition – functional literacy is the ability to write (you know the alphabet, basic grammar and syntax rules, etc., and you can use those basic skills to express your ideas); critical literacy is the ability to interpret and evaluate your own and others’ writing within the appropriate social, political, and historical contexts; and rhetorical literacy is the ability to communicate ideas via text using an appropriate approach for the given audience and writing situation.  

Of course, these literacies do not exist in isolation, nor are they stepping stones; we constantly move between the three. Knowing when to focus on which skill is the mark of a good writer.

For me, the big question, as we’ve frequently discussed in my Literacy & Technology course this quarter, is how to think about these literacies in a way that adequately promotes both computer and composition skills.

But maybe this isn’t as complicated as I’ve been trying to make it. Maybe the synthesis of computers and composition simply means that the digitally literate student knows enough about a technology to accomplish her composition goals. If she wants to write a blog, she needs to be able to use the blog, which means understanding how the blogging platform works and what the composing standards are (e.g., how to insert photos and hyperlinks). She also needs to be able to question the blog, which means realizing how people can find her blog, what social and political factors are at play in that community, and how her blog engages with those factors. Finally, she needs to produce the blog, which means understanding enough about the programming of the blogging platform to personalize the templates and enough about the blogging community to produce content that people want to read.

Of course, we can’t go through and teach our students how to obtain functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy for every tool out there; composition instructors have to think carefully about which digital tools are most appropriate for a specific assignment. This question of appropriateness leads to the concern that if we shift our focus to digital products like blogs, we may be losing critical thinking skills that are uniquely developed through writing academic papers.

But do we really think that’s true? Is writing a blog less critical than writing a one-page reading reflection paper? From my experience in this course, the writing process is not that much different (in fact, I’m composing this in a Word doc). The only difference is that I have a broader audience and a more involved process for preparing the final product, which, if anything, requires me to be more attentive to functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy.


  1. Mary,

    The parallels you draw between a multiliterate student in composition (traditional sense) and in digital environments seem useful in characterizing literacy views for a print composition paradigm and literacy views for a digital composition paradigm.

    In the move towards multimodal composition, we certainly don't want students to lose the ability to write, to evaluate and interpret others' writing, and to effectively communicate ideas via text. But we do want them to think beyond writing and texts--to think about how communicating meaning happens (or might happen) in digital environments. We want them to be critical users of technology, to understand the possibilities and limitations of using different modes and mediums to communicate meaning and engage "readers." Composing in digital environments offers students so many more choices--we want their choices to be informed ones, demonstrating awareness of social, political, and historical contexts.

    I agree with your statement that a "digitally literate student knows enough about a technology to accomplish her composition goals." To achieve one's goals in a digital environment, one needs to be able to use, question, and communicate (through) a technology. Do you think it makes sense to expand your definition of a digitally literate student to include a focus on communication and reader goals?

    Thanks for sharing your useful insights!


    1. Yes, I think you're right that we need to think about communication and reader goals, but I also wonder how explicitly we should be teaching these things? Do we want to give students the traditional academic vocabulary surrounding composition, communication, and reading, or do we want to teach the skills more indirectly through the practice of composing and reading online?