Media Literacy (part 2)

One of the key moves in Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the Lecture (which I’ve written about before) is to approach his eponymous forms as media. He follows the OED in defining media as “an intermediate agency, an instrument or channel; a means, especially a means or channel of communication or expression” (p. 13). Of relevance to the issues of my last post, he points out that “a textbook, a Twitter tweet, a click of a mouse or a tap on a screen, even a whisper at the back of the classroom can all be seen as instances of ‘mediation’.” That is, we can use the concept of “media” to compare essays and tweets as forms of communication. Indeed, Friesen traces the lecture and the textbook back to the technology of writing, construing them an essential part of the historical development of literacy, the “long moment” of humanity’s ability to read and write. I guess what I was arguing last week is that the tweet, and often even the blog post, doesn’t actually participate in this moment.

A great deal depends on what we mean by “writing”. Indeed, much confusion, and some conflict between writing instructors, stems from the referential opacity of this word. I want to suggest that it can be used to name either a skill or a medium. When someone says, “Writing is hard,” they are using it in the first sense; but when they say, “Put it in writing,” they are using it in the second sense. Brian Street’s (1984) distinction between the “autonomous” and the “ideological” model of literacy also seems to play on these two senses of the word, where the first model sees writing as a skill that lets individuals and communities accomplish particular goals, while the second model sees it as a set of values and conventions that do more to define the goals of the community than to reach them. James Gee (1990) goes so far as to call the first model a “myth” and hopes to draw attention to our “moral complicity” in promulgating it.

I suppose he’s talking about me. I generally approach writing as a skill, and I try to teach people how to become better at it, to better express their thoughts. But there are others, people like John Warner, who see it more like a medium, i.e., something that both carries and shapes their thinking. That may help explain why I’m a supporter of the five-paragraph essay, and Warner is strongly opposed to it. Since I see writing as a skill, I see the paragraph and the essay as “tools” — as means to various ends. But since Warner sees writing as a medium, he sees these forms as ends in themselves, or at least he worries that that is the impression we’re leaving on our students through our teaching. I assume that the writer is getting more powerful through mastery; Warner is worried that the very same forms are disempowering the students, perhaps even oppressing them. Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, as the saying goes. Every building, by a similar token, can serve as a prison.

Recall Friesen’s definition. The difference between a tool and medium, let’s say, is that a tool doesn’t have any agency, while a medium does. A tool is really only a lever to amplify a person’s agency, while a medium gets between the actor and the act with its own, if you will, agenda. Warner approaches the five-paragraph essay from the point of view of this “intermediate agency”, the power it exerts on the writer, especially the relatively powerless student writer. He is concerned about its formative influence. I approach the very same form as a way of extending the agency of the writer by more efficiently transferring the force of their argument.

In the end, these distinctions are not hard and fast, but differences of emphasis, matters of degree. Media are themselves tools, if you hold them right. It depends on whether you see them as things you use or things that use you, as equipment you deploy or situations* you are immersed in.** But I do think this difference between construing writing as a skill and as a medium and, more specifically, construing particular forms of writing as tools or channels, can go a long way towards explaining the confusion among both students and teachers about why, to use Warner’s title, “they can’t write”. Hopefully we can also use it to resolve some of these differences and then begin to pull in the same direction towards reforming the institution that conserves our cognitive faculties, i.e., the university. The common cause, after all, is to figure out how to help them to write better.


*Warner emphasizes that writing should be approached through “the rhetorical situation”. My response to this has been to say that, at university, this situation is relatively well-defined, allowing for particular efficiencies students should be taught to exploit. I should think more about this for a later post.

**In trying to come up with a good tweet-sized summary of this post I hit on the contrast between “equipment” and “predicament”. Also worth exploring. (With a nod to Heidegger, we can think of Zeugzusammenhang and Zwangslage — more basically, Zeug and Lage.)

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