in New Literacies

Why digital literacy != the ‘aftermath’ of literacy

'Delta Burning' by lucianvenutian @ Flickr

Image by lucianvenutian @ Flickr

We don’t own a dishwasher. Logic and social norms would suggest we should: they save time, we can afford one, and there’s currently an unfilled gap for one in the kitchen at our new house. We don’t have one for several reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is what marketers would deem a ‘lifestyle’ choice. We’ve found that washing-up manually has several benefits, not least either a) social interaction (if one of us washes and one dries) or b) contemplation and slowing-down if done alone.

I can remember in our first year of marriage living in Gateshead and washing up whilst listening to Kings of Convenience and watching the queues of traffic with their white headlights and red tailights cross the various bridges that span the River Tyne. Now, my view’s somewhat more prosaic, but I still appreciate the time that washing-up manually gives me. Coupled with the time I spend in the shower, it allows me to collect, reflect upon, and synthesize my thoughts.

It was during one of these moments that I realised that the concept of ‘digital literacy’, the term I’m investigating as part of my Ed.D. thesis at the University of Durham, is, in a way, linked to the word ‘aftermath.’ The latter is an everyday word (and has been for a long time), being used for everything from parties to the War on Terror. Aftermath did, however, once have a very precise meaning – which not even Google lists.

Thankfully, dictionary.reference.com manages to nail it:

[A] new growth of grass following one or more mowings, which may be grazed, mowed, or plowed under.

…as does thinkexist.com:

A second moving; the grass which grows after the first crop of hay in the same season; rowen.

This second crop would be forced by the farmer by burning the stubble left after the first crop was harvested – a familiar sight in Northumberland during my childhood. The burning put nutrients back into the soil ready for the next crop. As a result, the word ‘aftermath’ became synonymous with destruction and with burnt fields akin to the Harrying of the North. The term is now used indiscriminately to simply mean anything remotely negative that happens in the wake of an event.

I think the same has become true of the term ‘literacy.’ It used to have a precise meaning involving reading and writing using hand-written or carved letters. I believe that, just as sentences including the word ‘aftermath’ are devalued to an extent because of abuse of the term, discussions building upon ‘literacy’ – and especially its derivatives such as ‘digital literacy’ – have diminished explanatory power because of indiscriminate use of the term.

The question is, do we jettison the term or rescue it? :-p

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  • http://bengrey.com/blog Ben Grey

    The same can be said for the word consequences. It isn’t inherently negative, but that is what people associate with the word.

    I still don’t think literacy was ever exclusively about reading or writing. I believe it has always been about communicating. It’s how we process the input and output of communication. The mediums change, but literacy remains the roots of how we communicate.

    If we’re going to use monikers like digital or attention or financial or media, then yes, we will need to carefully consider what happens to the meaning of the base. The issue as we’ve discussed quite a bit in the past is that we’re losing sight of the forest for the trees in a way here. We’re getting caught up in all the descriptors, and by so doing, we’re losing literacy.

    Teaching kids to be better at paying attention, managing finances, dealing with multiple forms of media are all important things, but I don’t think they are necessarily about how we’re communicating directly one with another.

    These are certainly only brief thoughts, and are entirely my opinion on the issue as I continue to wrestle with it as you are, Doug. Keep up the conversation; it’s an important one to continue.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    I think that the fact that you (and I, to some extent) interpret literacy as being about ‘communication’ gives away our prejudices. Literacy’s as much about power as about communication. It’s about inclusion and exclusion.

    But that’s not the point of this post. It’s about ‘literacy’ as a term being hijacked and being devalued as a word that connotes any useful meaning. It no longer, to my mind, delimits and sets boundaries. If that’s the case, then it’s no longer a useful term…

  • http://www.L4L.co.uk eyebeams

    Tough one Doug – wearing my poetry hat I can see the point and exaclty why I included your thesis on the word in a CPD ICT resource I am writing with Theo for ICT teachers – the word itself has quotation marks around it but I’m stuffed to think of another term…

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting. There is a word for a term which becomes so ubiquitous that it is meaningless, but for the last year or so I have been struggling to remember it and can’t! Digital literacy seems to be here to stay… or digital fluency….or digital competence…

    Because the tools that are used to demonstrate these literacies are ever changing there is a feeling that we should look to the underlying literacies if going to instruct students. But are we clear about what those literacies are? Do they change as the tools change? Should we just be leaving students to find their own way?

    As I say, really interesting.