By Jan Holmevik
For the Spring of 2010 I was assigned to teach a 400-level course on Digital Literacy in the English Department at Clemson University. Having worked with digital technologies for the better part of 15 years in three countries and across various academic fields, I had a choice to make. Should I design the course as a practical hands-on skill building exercise, or should I perhaps do something more adventurous? I knew that students would come to the course with certain expectations of actually learning how to build a web site, make a digital film, in short, become “literate” about how to make multi-modal digital compositions. Thus, the course had to meet these expectations in order to accomplish part of what it needed to do. On the other hand, I also wanted the students to problematize and deconstruct the very concept of digital literacy itself, and that in effect became the impetus for the more inventive meta focus of the course.
In popular discourse, both academic and otherwise, the term digital literacy is frequently used to describe the skill set that new digital media require. This is not simply a matter of what some might claim to be terminological convenience. It is a dangerous grammatological misappropriation on the part of the Literati that, in a very real Foucaultian sense, attempts to name and relegate new digital media forms as subjugated practices to the old print media discourses and its established literate institutions. In Of Grammatology (1967), Jacques Derrida argues that writing is not merely a reproduction of speech. The very act of writing in itself strongly influences how knowledge is constructed.
Similarly, the act of composing in digital space can draw upon so many different expressive forms and formats that the traditional literate apparatus, with its age old ties to alphabetic writing, is bound to come up short when it comes to the kinds of skills that the composer of digital expressions must master. In previous graduate seminars I had invoked Gregory Ulmer’s electracy apparatus theory as a heuretic framework for the development of digital composition skills, and I wanted to see if I could do the same in this course on the undergraduate level. Ulmer’s work is both theoretically complex and intellectually challenging, and I knew that in order to succeed I had to make it relevant to the students’ own discursive realities and experiences. You cannot simply lecture on electracy and expect the students, graduates or undergraduates, to get it. They have to work with it and experience the conductive inference logic for themselves in order to begin to make sense of what it is and what it can do for our understanding of digital media expressions. Thus, Ulmer’s heuretic Mystory genre became the natural vehicle for the development of both practical skills and theoretical understanding about electracy.
A central pedagogical feature in all my classes is that students help teach by blogging about readings, and presenting their thoughts and insights to the class. As a class we collectively tried to unpack Ulmer’s thinking on electracy and translate his ideas into concrete practices through the development of websites, as in the case of Moxley’s mystory, or short films as in the case of Mullikin’s mystory. I let the students choose which development platform and tools they wanted to use, and teach each other about how the different tools worked. Toward the end of the course we were fortunate enough to have Ulmer come and visit the class in a face-to-face seminar where a select group of students (Moxley and Mullikin included) got to present their works in progress and receive Ulmer’s feedback and insights on their work. The upshot of this pedagogical approach and heuretic methodology was that students got to work with electrate expressions that were of immediate relevance to them, and furthermore, become skillful with digital tools of their own choosing.
Working with Ulmer’s electracy apparatus theory was oftentimes a great challenge for the undergraduate students because of how completely different it is from the traditional literate ways in which we have all been conditioned think. However, I am very pleased with how it all turned out, and I am both proud and pleased with the work that they produced. I hope that you will enjoy the two mystories by Leanna Moxley and Erin Mullikin as much as I do.