Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.