The English language is a tough one to master. It’s a language full of contradictions, exceptions to seemingly nonsensical rules, and confusing homophones. English Compositionists have spent decades studying how we learn to read and write it, and for most of that time, studies have focused on the language itself; using pens, pencils, and paper—or even a typewriter—little else would likely interfere with or distract from a basic writer’s journey toward mastery. Our April 5, 2021 guest on the podcast, Dr. Annette Vee, studies how writing, and the entire concept of literacy, has changed since the proliferation of digital technologies. For a student to be considered “literate” in an English Composition today, they must not only master the ins and outs of English itself—the minutia of commas, i-before-e, their/there/they’re—but also the computer or device they use to compose: the administrative and participatory tasks of their class’ Learning Management System, their word processing application, the host they send and read class-related emails through, and so much more. And as Dr. Vee points out, a student or employee who pursues a career that uses computers might also be required to learn a programing language before they are considered truly “literate” in the language of their professional world. A lot more goes into language-based literacy today than just words on a page.
Dr. Vee is Associate Professor of English and Direction of the Composition Program here at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a participant and Co-Leader of our Sawyer Seminar, originated in the fall of 2019 (And she was also interviewed on our podcast’s very first introductory episode!). Her 2017 book Coding Literacy situates computer programming within a longer history of writing and literacy, suggesting that rather than a highly specialized professional skill, computer programming is among the communication skills we should value most as important to all of our everyday lives. In 2021, it is hard to argue against the fact that computers are absolutely everywhere. And yet, as Dr. Vee’s work points out, we treat the literacies that allow us to control, manipulate, and understand these computers as special skill only needed by a select few. And indeed, quantitative surveys of public opinion show that digital literacy is a “hot” topic, but not one that we actually find all that “important” to develop or invest broad funding in. This attitude coexists with the fact that only a tiny fraction of the world’s population knows a programming language—a striking historic parallel to how few people could read prior to standardized English language reading and writing curricula.
Framing literacy in the twenty first century as indelibly tied to computers allows us to truly come to terms with the implications of digital illiteracy. As Dr. Vee pointed out on the podcast, it can be highly challenging for an English instructor (or department) to feel that they can keep up with the rapidly changing digital landscape while also maintaining their highly specialized—and often entirely text-based—literary and critical expertise. But if text is not just text—and instead is framed by its necessary involvement with or reliant on computer software—being skilled or highly literate in this area may, when it comes down to it, include some significant digital literacies or basic programming familiarity. And lacking this literacy has helped lead directly to growing digital divides which fall predictably along race, gender, and class lines; teachers can’t reasonably provide instruction on elements of digital life that they themselves don’t understand, and thus, students who enter college without digital skills may graduate without them, too. In job talks in English departments, Vee shared on the podcast, she’s offered a striking summation of professional digital literacy: “the technology that I’m talking about,” Vee said, “is a space where basically most of you are not literate.”
A critical step, Dr. Vee shared, in creating wider access to and cultivation of coding and digital literacies is to admit that there really is no such thing as a “digital native.” There is no evidence to show that people born since the digital turn are innately more tech-savvy, better at multitasking, or more information-skilled; young people—even the ones born in the last few years—have just as difficult a time adjusting to the increased cognitive demands of our smartphone-infused lives as their older counterparts. Additionally, the supposition that digital natives are born computational experts hurts everyone. While job searches increasingly request that candidates display a growing array of software competencies, educators and school environments tend to assume that their students need very little help accumulating these skills, setting them up for inevitably frustrating job searches. Studies show that students do not typically leave school with significant exposure to any software their teachers don’t directly provide—meaning their access to and understanding of software is far more limited than teachers so often assume.
So, while not everyone is in need of the advanced, critical understanding of computer programming languages that a University instructor of the subject uses, it is safe to say we could all stand to do some brushing up on the devices we rely on every day to do just about everything. When things go wrong in big or small ways with our computers, we tend to rely on technological deterministic assumptions that “it will work all out,” or that “the experts will solve it.” But, as Dr. Vee shared on the podcast, there are no magical computer saviors who are waiting to fix all of our digital problems—there are only other people with learnable skills that we can—and should—learn some of, too. If you’ve ever written or spoken an especially tricky English Language sentence (there is no right way to write a blog post!), you know that such skills are just a matter of practice, and we hope that Information Ecosystems can be a good start to this practice.