Sunday, June 26, 2011

Complexity and Connectivist Rhetoric

So I read Berlin's 1985 book and found the absence of any mention of the Net a glaring hole in the discussion. What if I read something current? As you might expect, I am rewarded … richly rewarded.

I read the first article in the current issue (June, 2011) of College Composition and Communication, an article by Lauren Marshall Bowen entitled Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research (586-607), in which Bowen explores the age-based bias against older people being regarded as digitally literate. According to Bowen, most scholars and the popular media have decided that when it comes to blogs, wikis, and Twitter, most older people just don't—perhaps can't—get it, certainly not the way young people do. As you might suspect, Bowen says that this bias is a mistake that blinds us to the literacies of older people, and she cites as evidence her case study of the digital literacies of Beverly, born 1927.

Of course, digital literacy is at the heart of Bowen's discussion, so I am in familiar territory; however, her rhetorical framework also appears to me to be informed by complexity and networking, core concepts in a Connectivist rhetoric. She says up front that she values "the Internet as a productive, participatory space, qualities sometimes credited to technologies and practices labeled 'Web 2.0'" (588). Literacy in this participatory space is "embedded within everyday contexts, … distributed across social domains, and … developed and evolved over time" (588). This situated approach to literacy means "examining not only the physiological and cognitive barriers to literacy but also the impact of affective experiences (such as feelings of desire or anxiety) in which literacy practices can thrive or become mired" (589). Finally, this literacy "can only be understood in relation to broader sociohistorical context, including nondigital literacies and technologies," and "we must look to the stories individuals tell about literacy and how those stories are embedded within evolving social, technologica, and cultural histories over time" (590).

Bowen's literacy, then, is not a cognitive skill belonging merely to an individual and measurable merely within that individual—a definition that might be common to traditional education and to both objective and subjective rhetorics—rather, literacy is the dynamic interaction of a unique individual (in this case, Beverly) with a unique ecosystem over the course of a unique lifetime. Literacy is not a thing but a web of connections that Beverly weaves out of her own body, heart, and mind and across her social, economic, intellectual, emotional, physical, and other domains. This is a very complex, rhizomatic view of literacy—a view made obvious by digital technology, though not dependent on digital technology. In this context, rhetoric is the skillful use of language to cultivate those connections among ourselves, our communities, and our ecosystems. That web of connections forms our respective realities, and that web is in part formed by and informed by rhetoric, or our use of language.

I don't see anything here that the 1985 version of James Berlin would disagree with. This rhizomatic, connectivist view of rhetoric would fit quite easily into his general view of transactional rhetoric. The only difference is that Bowen and I have the advantage of two decades use of Web 1.0 and almost a decade of Web 2.0. Berlin v.1985 just didn't have that advantage.

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