Tag: Gunther Kress

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: ‘aspirational naming,’ hegemonic power and finishing early?


Image by gagilas @ Flickr

Last Wednesday I met with Steve Higgins, my Ed.D. supervisor at the University of Durham. I enjoy the level of intellectual conversation I have with him and this meeting was no exception. Our discussion ranged from everything from Foucault to doing online shopping for your grandmother(!) and seemed to fly by. This post serves as a reminder for me and an insight for those interested in my chosen topic of ‘digital literacy.’

Concept maps and ‘umbrella terms’

Those familiar with the enormous Ed.D. concept map I produced will be familiar with the fair amount of complexity it contains. Steve suggested that I go back to it and attempt to synthesize some of the elements, perhaps by reworking it into a kind of Venn diagram. I replied that at the moment it’s something I don’t want to spend too much time looking at (because it took so long to produce), but will go back to it eventually!

I expressed my (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) annoyance that Lankshear and Knobel in the introduction to their 2008 Digital Literacies had pointed out and drawn attention to something I was going to present as a new analysis in my thesis: the ‘umbrella term.’ Many theorists take their conception of literacy and consider all others in the light of it, usually relegating them to some type of ‘sub-literacies.’ Steve suggested I try a different metaphor than umbrellas… 😉

Intentionality and trajectories

Steve reminded me that there is a ‘rhetoric’ to everything produced by theorists, even those who are leaders in the field (e.g. Lankshear and Knobel). There is an intention behind what they are doing; they are, to some extent, ‘tussling for position’ and attempting to prove a point.

All theorists in the realm of ‘new literacies’ deal in neologisms. That is to say they coin terms that they hope will enter common usage. Steve posited the idea of a ‘trajectory’ – that I need to show in my thesis where theorists are ‘coming from,’ what their definition is, what they’re trying to achieve through that definition, and then the logical implications and practicalities of this.

Language issues

At some point during the discussion I mentioned that I’d read that Norwegian has no word for ‘literacy’ as they use a different, but related term. I suggested that this might allow Norwegians to bypass some of the historical baggage bound up with the term ‘literacy.’ Steve pointed out that Norwegian also makes no distinction between ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ which, if you think about it, is rather problematic. I can think of lots of efficient yet ineffective people vice-versa! :-p

I moved on to Gunther Kress‘ argument that because many languages don’t have the term ‘literacy’ then sub-dividing it into ‘visual literacy,’ ‘digital literacy’ and the like was problematic. I mentioned that I wasn’t convinced by his argument. Steve pointed out that English is a richer language (in terms of number of words) than other languages. This means that there may be actually an advantage in breaking down terms in English into sub-areas as it may be difficult to work out of a genuinely complex ‘super-concept.’

Thesis structure

The structure of all theses tend to be in a state of flux until towards the end, and mine is no different. Given that I’m doing a rather bizarre thing – a conceptual, vocational doctorate(!) – the structure is not prescribed nor, indeed, self-evident. I pointed out to Steve that although it is usual to write the ‘methodology’ chapter after the ‘literature review,’ it might actually be a better idea and more coherent to the reader if the methodology comes before the literature review.

I’m planning to write a chapter on ‘digital flow,’ after being inspired by Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. One of the issues with ‘digital literacy’ is, as Steve put it, ‘aspirational naming’: we come up with terms describing states to which we aspire. ‘Digital flow’ (as I shall define it) would be on the same spectrum and would, inevitably, include value judgements and aspirational statements about how I want the world to be. We’re came back our earlier mention of intentionality.

After coming up with a (tentative) definition of ‘digital flow’ I shall be doing some policy analysis looking at whether conceptions of digital literacy and/or flow are embedded in pronouncements and practice in countries ranging from the UK to Singapore. Steve suggested that I look at the relation between literacy and hegemonic power; ‘the position of the individual relative to the discourse.’ Steve’s of the opinion that power comes as a ‘valuable incidental’ to those in power and control and that they don’t necessarily reinforce this on purpose through such things as literacy practices. It’s a question of ‘coherence and complexity’ despite Marxist rants to the contrary. He suggested I look at the difference between devolved and ‘real’ power (c.f. Foucault).

The nature of literacy

I’ve avoided in my thesis up to now discussion of ‘media literacy’ as I thought it would take me down a rather tangential rabbit-hole. However, as Steve pointed out, at the end of the day it’s all about semiotics and the encoding of meaning. It’s about production and reproduction, said Steve, as letter-based literacy is a ‘dense’ and precise method of exchange. Visual literacy, media literacy and the like points towards more metaphorical use of language. Poetry, for example, would be somewhat of a ‘halfway house.’

It was at this point that I re-conceptualized what Steve said as being almost a continuum ranging from the ‘literal’ use of language in literacy left to ‘metaphorical’ use of language on the right. Text-based literacy would be on the left whilst umbrella terms – metaphors of metaphors (or ‘second order metaphors’) would be on the right. It may be interesting to plot conceptions of literacy on such a continuum in my actual thesis.

This reminded Steve of C.S. Peirce‘s idea of ‘firstness,’ ‘secondness’ and ‘thirdness.’ This relates to something which equates to ‘raw perception’ (‘firstness’), the ‘idea’ of it (‘thirdness’) and the way of trying to express this (‘secondness’). I think this could be a really effective addition to my discussion of the ‘red pillar box’ in my phenomological introduction (sample below):

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’, then meaningful discourse can ensue.

Returning to the policy document analysis, Steve re-iterated that I need to concentrate on producing an ‘interesting synthesis’ rather than getting bogged down in detail. I also need to separate out in my thesis the difference between ‘digital literacy’ and ‘being digitally literate.’

Finishing early

I mentioned to Steve – as I have done at previous meetings – that I’d like to have my thesis finished by next summer. That’s a year before my official end date, after which people are still allowed a year of ‘writing up.’ There’s three reasons why I want to finish early:

  1. I want to finish before I’m 30 (December 2010)
  2. It’s costing £thousands every year.
  3. Every additional year I take is another year in which I have to consider and attempt to synthesize other people’s work into my thesis.

The official line for the Ed.D. is that the taught elements give the skills to undertake something at equivalent level to Ph.D. This is usually done where there’s a professional dimension to this ‘something.’ However, overlaps with other areas (in my case, for example, politics and philosophy as well as education) is inevitable. The examiner will ultimately be looking for ‘doctorateness’ and whether the thesis is sufficiently conceptually rich. 🙂

Steve said he’d get back to me with whether I’d be able to finish early, which he did the next day. It turns out that, officially, the earliest I’m allowed to submit is January 2011. I could apply for a concession to submit early, but given Durham’s ‘glacial bureaucracy’ and the second point in the list above, it’s unlikely that would be successful. I’ve decided that to have ‘finished’ by December 2010 and to submit on 1 January 2011 is fine by me!

Final thoughts

Other things we mentioned that I need to consider:

  • How would you go about ‘teaching’ digital literacy? (Foucault & power, etc.) Mention the ‘digital divide’ etc. and equality in society.
  • Make sure show aware of Prensky, ‘digital natives’ etc. – so ‘immersed’ and it is ‘second nature’. Two-edged sword – miss the ‘critical’ element. Intentionality? (step back, underlying conceptions – HTML, programming, etc.)
  • At the moment, people can still refuse to engage in digital world, and still function. Link to power and authority? Teenagers can’t do this? Bridging technologies (chequebook and Switch card)
  • Need to define ‘digital’ (definitions often aren’t bounded) – more than text (images, other media, etc.)

Very finally, we discussed the rather problematic issue of how I should submit my thesis. Given the nature of my thesis it would be more than a little anachronistic to only submit it in a printed paper format. Therefore we’re going to look at ways which would satisfy the university as well as ourselves (and the wider community) for the final thesis. Steve’s thoughts are that the appendices at the very least should be some sort of website. Given issues relating to ‘digital permanence’ Steve pointed out the very useful website snapshot-archiving tool iCyte which I’ll be exploring in more depth…

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Gunther Kress on Literacy

I’ve been doing more studying this evening, this time looking again at Gunther Kress‘ 2003 book Literacy in the New Media Age. There’s lots to like and agree with in Kress’ writing, but there’s a couple of things I’d take issue with, not least his definition of literacy:

…for me literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the mans of recording that message. When we communicate through numbers, we use the term ‘numeracy’, and for very good reasons: the meaning-potential and the meanings made with numbers are very different from those made with letters. (p.23)

This is a fair enough point, that literacy should mean something specific. But I’ve decided that I don’t agree with what he goes on to say about adding prefix modifiers:

My approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms of the use of different resources: not therefore ‘visual literacy‘ for the use of image; not ‘gestural literacy‘ for the use of gesture; and also not ‘musical literacy‘ or ‘soundtrack literacy‘ for the use of sound other than in speech; and so on. (p.23)

I think he’s used unfair examples. If we substitute instead ‘media literacy’ and ‘digital literacy’ I think that many would argue that these are different in the way that he accepts numeracy to be. If literacy is, as Kress believes, simply creating messages using letters, there would seem to be no point in his work and the following statement earlier in his book:

Given that in the world of the new media there are numerous modal resources involved in the making of ‘messages’ – word, spoken or written; image, still and moving; music; objects as 3D models; soundtrack; action – it has in any case become essential to ask what we mean by ‘literacy’. (p.21)

Clearly, he feels that there is something that is not quite being described by our current terminology.:

They make it easy to use a multiplicity of modes, and in particular the mode of image – still or moving – as well as other modes, such as music and sound effect for instance. They change, through their affordances, the potentials for representational and communicational action by their users; this is the notion of ‘interactivity’ which figures so prominently in discussions of the new media. (p.5)

This element that Kress terms ‘interactivity’ is what sets digital/21st-century/whatever ‘literacy’ apart from its standard definition. Kress would deny that it is in fact a literacy and instead claims it’s a skill:

[W]e can have writing or speech as the names of two resources for making meaning. Using pencil, pen, (computer) keyboard or whatever else are then separate and different matters, involving the skills of both production and dissemination, which may be more or less closely integrated with the potentials of the resource. Literacy remains the term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource in writing. The combination of knowledge of the resource with knowledge of production and perhaps with that of dissemination would have a different name. That separates, what to me is essential, the sense of what the resource is and what its potentials are, from associated questions such as those of its uses, and the issue of whether skills are involved in using a resource in wider communicational frames. (p.24)

However, this does not make clear as to whether ‘literacy’ under Kress’ conception and definition can be deemed a skill, item of knowledge, combination of the two, or neither. Whilst he quite rightly points out that the term ‘literacy’ has, and is being, used to lend credibility and legitimacy to questionable ideas (p.24-25), this does not mean he needs to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, so to speak.

One of his main arguments not to extend ‘literacy’ to mean more than creating messages using written forms is that other languages do not contain the word. I believe this to be a weak argument. He asks rhetorically whether English, as the dominant world language, should impose the word ‘literacy’ and demand that other languages have a translation of it. He conflates this with the quite valid point that the more things to which a concept can be applied, the less it means. To my mind, there’s absolutely no valid reason Kress gives why a modifying prefix such as ‘digital’, ‘media’ or ’21st-century’ cannot be placed in front of the word ‘literacy’ to make it apply to a specific context.

I’m going to be thinking more about this. These are just my initial thoughts. You can see more over at my wiki. 😀

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The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies

I’d really appreciate it if you tagged anything related to this post or topic literacyconversation.  It will help me (and others) collate ideas and conversations. Thanks! 🙂

As most people reading this will already know, I’m studying towards an Ed.D. at the moment. My (tentative) thesis title is What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’? The impact of ICT and the knowledge society upon education in the 21st century.. You can find my thesis proposal here and bookmarks related to my studies here. My current thinking is that I’m just going to focus on the concept of what ‘literacy’ means in the 21st century as it’s a huge and confused (confusing?) field.

Because of my studies and deep interest in this field, I was delighted to come across Ben Grey’s blog post entitled 21st Century Confusion, which he followed up with 21st Century Clarification. Ben’s an eloquent and nuanced writer, so I suggest you go and read what he has to say before continuing with this blog post. 😀

The above blog posts sparked a great conversation on Twitter, of which I was part. The hugely influential Will Richardson suggested, as we were getting a little frustrated with being limited to 140 characters, that we have a live session via Elluminate the following day. You can find a link to the archived session here.

My own thoughts about that skillset/mindset/ability range we’re trying to quantify and describe by using terms such as ‘digital’ or ’21st century’ literacy are still a little jumbled. I’ve read, and am continuing to read a lot on the subject (and related areas), notes on which you can find on my wiki.

For now, though, here’s some highlights:

1. Literacies as ‘umbrella terms’

Many of the literacies or ‘competencies’ that are being put forward are described in ways that suggest they incorporate other literacies. Take for instance, this definition of ‘information competence’ (Work Group…, 1995):

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills.

And again (Doyle, 1994)

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

Ryan Bretag’s post, The Great Literacy Debate, introduced me to a word to describe this that I hadn’t come across before – deictic. This means that ‘literacy’ tends to be used in a way heavily dependent upon context. I couldn’t agree more!

2. Literacies defined too broadly or narrowly

As referenced above, if a type of literacy being put forward by an individual is defined too broadly, it becomes an umbrella term and of little practical use. Initially, I liked Judi Epcke’s comment that she’d heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of the day”. But this began to trouble me. Aren’t consuming and producing different skills? And if they’re skills, is ‘literacy’ involved?

But then, defined narrowly, it’s easy to come up with counter-examples. For instance, if we define 21st Century Literacy in relation to technology, it begs the question ‘does literacy in the 21st century relate to printed matter at all‘. The answer, of course, would have to be yes, it does.

3. Do we need new definitions?

I share the despair of Gunther Kress (2003, quoted in Eyman) when he sees new forms of ‘literacy’ popping up all over the place:

…literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message….my approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms for the uses of the different resources: not therefore “visual literacy” for the use of image; not “gestural literacy” for the use of gesture; and also not musical “literacy” or “soundtrack literacy” for the use of sound other than speech; and so on.

Semantics are important. Whilst we can’t keep using outdated words that link to conceptual anachronism (e.g. ‘horseless carriage’) we must be on our guard against supposed ‘literacies’ becoming more metaphorical than descriptive.

Concluding thoughts

One educator left the Elluminate discussion on 21st Century Literacies before had really got going. He mentioned that he was in favour of deeds rather than words. I can see what he means, although as I have already stated, semantics are important.

But there comes a point where one has to draw a line. In my thesis, I’m using a modified version of the Pragmatic method, as spelled out by William James (1995:82)thus,

To ‘agree‘ in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed… Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement/ It will hold true of that reality.

Thus names are just as ‘true’ or ‘false’ as definite mental pictures are. They set up similar verification-processes, and lead to fully equivalent practical results.

I’m looking for a definition that doesn’t ‘entangle my progress in frustration’. I’m yet to find it, but I’ll keep on looking! :-p


  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age, DIANE Publishing
  • Eyman, D., Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12, no date)
  • James, W. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions, 1995)
  • Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology (1995), quoted by Spitzer, K.L., et al. Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age, 1998, p.25