Do youth need thoughtful, guided practice composing for potentially global audiences?
Recently, a friend on Facebook posted a question asking what age it is appropriate for a child to have an email account. About 29 comments later, it had became apparent that in the 3rd and 4th grades in this school district, teachers were setting up email accounts with students. Many of these comments were ones of frustration over the lack of parental notification and participation in this activity, but one in particular stood out for me. One person asked: “What possible reasons could there be for a 4th grade child to have an email account?” I don’t typically engage in Facebook conversations, especially emotionally-charged ones, but I felt that I could contribute a few “possible reasons why” youth should be participating in digital communication in thoughtful, guided ways.
Even with the digital divide present and growing, the nature of composition has changed in the digital and networked age in such a way that the capability to be producers and critical consumers of knowledge is now more widely available. Take social media outlets: More people of all ages, nationalities, genders, and socio-economic positions produce news, comment on social issues, and even stage revolutions. These possibilities disrupt our existing societal power dynamics, and in turn, necessitate a new ethic of exchange with distant, unknown, imagined others. Critical reader-writers must take into consideration not just the interpretations they have intended as authors, but also the possible interpretations of audiences previously unimagined and out of reach.
In a chapter I just finished writing with Glynda Hull at UC Berkeley for the forthcoming book Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges in Knobel and Lankshear’s series on New Literacies, we explore the new ethics of digital composition that we saw at play in an alternative college prep program called EXCEL Academy @ NYU, in which youth participated in Space2Cre8, a closed, social network with participating youth from around the world.
The new ethic of digital literacy we interrogate is cosmopolitan practice—reflexive and hospitable habits of mind during the several decisions made while composing. Such an ethic includes, importantly, a sensitivity to the range of possible interpretations and responses to their own and others’ postings. This obligation to listen implies a thoughtful openness to possible meanings in a pluralist sense and an acknowledgement that we can’t assume what to expect in terms of others’ reactions and intentions.
- Self-reflexive Composition. As youth revise profile pages, create movies, post links to share, they must imagine others’ possible interpretations of their work. We acknowledge that we may not be cognizant of our own intentions and reactions, and thus must be open to critical reflection not only about others’ meanings, but also of our own actions and motives as well. Compositional decisions are not isolated to the page or screen, but are decisions of social positioning and engaging with others.
- Hospitable Stances. We work with and are ourselves audiences in a sense that is new to the human experience—audience as distant and local, intended and possible, particular and en masse. We constantly contextualize and re-contextualize text and visuals we experience digitally in order to understand. This can be done in autonomous one-word-has-one-meaning ways or in ways authentic to our human experience that acknowledges that reading is interpreting whole world views that have been infused into the words we use. Being hospitable readers, writers, and viewers includes tolerating the discomfort that comes with honestly engaging with another around the uncertainties of attempting to understand meanings as interpreted—as intended and unintended.
Email addresses do not grant access into the Web 2.0 activity that I have been describing. So, to some extent I agree with this concerned parent who wonders why 4th-graders need email addresses. But I want to argue for the other extreme, our 4th graders need thoughtful, guided experience in this new type of exchange. Youth develop self-reflexive, hospitable stances in their reading of distant others’ work and composing for not just one intended audience, but ever-shifting potential audiences. How do we learn and develop such ethical dispositions without engaging in them?
- When is the last time you read something that you realized could be interpreted in more than one way? How did you notice that? What was that reading experience like? How did you make sense of multiple possible meanings?
- When have you revised something you’ve written based on who might potentially read it? What did you take into consideration? How did you finally decide to compose the piece?
- Have you ever seen something you’ve composed remixed, revised, quoted, paraphrased, distributed by others? What was this experience like? What did you like/dislike about what was done to your composition?
- From these kinds of experiences, what practice could we provide for youth in our school and non-school places of learning to engage in ethical ways?