Digital Media Literacy & Writing Instruction

As discussed in a previous post, this semester I’m thinking about digital media literacy and its relation to writing instruction.  James Potter’s Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach is my starting point.  So, if we follow Potter, what might digital media literacy entail?  How might it relate to the writing classroom?  In this post, I’d like to posit some tentative answers.

First, to define digital media literacy, we need to specify our goals.  What are we trying to do?  At what level of the media ecology are we seeking to intervene?  Potter, as the title of his book indicates, works at the level of individual.*  “The primary responsibility for increasing media literacy,” he writes, “resides with the individual person” (65).  As I see it, his claim here is that we (as scholars, educators or policy-makers) can’t force anyone to do anything.  Individuals, as media consumers, are the ultimate decision-makers.  This means that literacy promotion must be inherently rhetorical—we have to convince people of the benefits (to them) of certain ways of thinking and being.

Relatedly, Potter puts great emphasis on tracing the effects of media consumption.  “Any theory of media literacy,” he writes, “must at its core be a theory about how people are affected by the media” (66).  I think this is an important insight.  It reminds us to focus on the real-life consequences of our media consumption habits.  The underlying idea is that individuals are impacted by both the form and content of the media they consume.  We should seek to trace the nature of this impact.  Such inquiry, Potter believes, will reveal that some ways of watching TV or using your phone, say, are better than others, in that they lead to more desirable personal and social consequences.  Media literacy scholars should seek to identity and promote best practices.

So Potter urges us to study (and try to influence) individual media consumption habits.  Now, the question arises, how does this relate to writing instruction?  Some would argue that it does not.  They believe that writing instruction should focus on the production, rather than the consumption of texts.  The type of text to be produced varies, but the key point is that those in this camp devalue interpretation.  I take the opposite approach.  As I see it, the primary move at the heart of all writing instruction—whether teaching academic writing, creative writing or digital media—is the enhancement of the student’s meaning-making ability.  And meaning is never made in a vacuum.  Instead, we write and think using resources we draw from the world.  Writing, as Thomas Kent argues, is intractably hermeneutic.  It presupposes interpretation.

If we assume that all writing involves interpretation, we start to see how media literacy might intersect with writing instruction.  Our goal is to enhance meaning-making ability.  To do so, we must hone interpretive skills.  Media literacy theory, I’d argue, can provide guidance to this end.  In particular, the concept of filtering seems key.  According to Potter, interpretation involves not just how we understand what comes into our field of view, but the practices and habits by which we decide what comes into view in the first place.  These habits of attention are engrained in us through media exposure.  Taking this to be true, it’s only reasonable to assume that these engrained habits impact how students read and write.  Undoubtedly students spend more time texting and on Facebook than they do writing essays or creative non-fiction.  The practices learned in the former very likely shape the latter, both as to form (how we write) and content (what we write about).  Media consumption habits must thus be a concern for writing teachers.

So to summarize, the goal, when thinking about media literacy, is to identify and promote healthier media consumption habits.  For purposes of rhetoric and composition, “healthier” equals those habits which allow students to construct more expansive meanings.  And what might these habits be?  This is complex question, but I think more attention to our filtering practices is important.  What have we been trained not to see?  How can we engage with Facebook and Netflix in ways which gives us a more complex and complete repertoire of facts and ideas with which to write and think?  To promote media literacy, writing teachers will have to devise strategies to help students ask and answer these questions.  Potter’s ideas provide some guidance, but there is obviously much work to be done.


*Some complain that media literacy education of the type Potter promotes, by emphasizing individual choice, ignores the determinative effects of larger social structures.  They argue that media literacy should entail elucidating these structures and engaging in collective action to change them.  While I’m all for change, I’d argue that this work—while important—isn’t the work of writing teachers.  Simply put, in the writing classroom our primary goal is not/should not be to shape policy at a national level.  Instead, it is to help our students (as individuals, necessarily) survive and thrive in the current discursive environment.  Of course, it’s not an either/or choice.  As Potter shows, intervention at the individual level can and will promote broader change.  We just have to be satisfied working from the “bottom up.”

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