At the 2018 SXSW EDU conference danah boyd discussed media literacy, and contemporary struggles with media literacy. Namely, she pointed that the focus on skills and practices as applied through various digital tools can do as much harm as good. When we support student development of digital literacies and media literacies – they may use those skills to weaponize extremist groups (on both the left and right – using the American political system).
boyd points to the need to consider, discuss, and reconsider epistemology – how do we make knowledge, how do we discuss knowledge, how is that knowledge valued. Practices and knowledges have significant amounts of overlap – but they are different. That difference between the two is where media literacy falls short. Even incorporating information literacy, and many other xxxxx literacies, these approaches tend to focus on the skills and abilities, how students make knowledge of these existing communication acts without considering the larger cultural context, how knowledge operates, is made, is valued (or devalued) within the larger culture. Essentially, we are in the middle of a culture war that media literacy is ill equipped to engage in.
What I found so compelling about her discussion is the connection to Composition Studies. For decades, Composition Studies has been in a similar culture war. I re-read Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” last night and was struck by her bleak picture of diminishing English departments, her tracing of the devaluing of ‘writing’ because of the numerous definitions, ideas, and assumptions held about writing. As we currently read about universities in Wisconsin cutting English programs and majors – reducing English faculty to Composition Instructors (not by title, but content area valued at the institution) it’s clear there is a similar culture war within higher education – or simply an area of the same culture war boyd mentions.
As a Composition Instructor I often hear “students can’t use APA and it’s just a series of rules,” or “students don’t understand grammar,” or “students can’t write.” My job is reduced to rule memorizer and grammar teacher. The understanding of writing, the value it lends to the university is rule based – ignoring the significant evidence that writing supports and develops reading, thinking, agency, identity, and so much more. boyd’s point really resonated with me – I do think that media literacy as supporting skill development is as useless as composition lecturing on grammar and MLA/APA rules. That decontextualizes information, knowledges, ideas, values. It removes these skills/practices from the real-lived situations where writing happens, where media making and consuming happens as if the ideas presented through the use of the correct rules doesn’t matter. It potentially weaponizes writing abilities, similarly to boyd’s discussion of weaponizing media literacy skills.
As a discipline, many within composition studies are focused on ideas and explorations of transfer. How do we help students understand the contexts they write within, the audiences they write for, the arguments available within those spaces, the practices expected, and the ideas valued as the approaches to helping students recognize the grammar and style guide rules. We spend more time developing epistemology than we discuss rules. Could this be the answer to media literacy – contextualize the skill development, ask students to determine the appropriate media for their message. Both approaches place significant value back on the message. Words matter, ideas matter – let’s spend time discussing that.
The downside to this discussion is always time and content. K-12 teachers prepare students for graduation requirements and standardized testing. Adding one more area of discussion that’s difficult to assess (if 30 students use 30 different media how can that be assessed?) is asking a lot of teachers. Similarly, college composition faculty spend so much time trying to help students think creatively and analytically and critically is there time to add more media literacy into the composition curriculum. I only have students for 15 weeks their freshmen year, and if i’m lucky, 15 weeks their junior year. That is such a short period of time to engage with epistemology, and writing, and disciplinary writing, and discourse community, and and and and…….
I know boyd’s video has been somewhat controversial and my aim is not to critique or defend her. Instead, I want to consider her struggle, the struggle of media literacy, through the lens of the struggle of composition studies as a discipline. Is there anything media literacy can learn from composition studies, and is there anything composition studies can learn from media literacy to help students as they wade into the contemporary culture war?