Transliteracy and Incommensurability

Hi everyone! I’d like to thank everyone here at Libraries and Transliteracy for inviting me to participate in a valuable discussion. Here’s a start…

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matt Richtel’s recent New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” This article has generated a lot of buzz and some fruitful conversations. However, in looking at some of the responses to Richtel’s piece, I have come to recognize an interesting form of binarism pervading certain attitudes towards the future of education in the digital age. Whether past vs. future, digital vs. analog, book vs. ebook, or focus vs. distraction, the binary standpoint manifests itself in many ways, but the message is usually the same: we are in the midst of a paradigm shift between incommensurable literacies, outmoded pedagogical methods, or technological biases. For my first post here at L&T, I’d like to say something about the role of transliteracy in a world of supposed paradigm shifts.

Incommensurability
For some, the incommensurablity of “traditional education” and the digital is symptomatic of the profound effects (real or perceived) of the internet on cognitive development. One group laments the intellectual life that will be lost as concentration is completely supplanted by instant gratification. Call this the traditionalist account. Counter to the traditionalists, another current of thought points to digital ascendancy as the final nail in the coffin of an outmoded Enlightenment or Industrial Age hegemony over education. This approach sees an immanent paradigm shift in which the “old” ways of teaching and learning are phased out to meet the demands of a new generation. Call it the revolutionist approach. In both cases, the “traditional” metrics for understanding and evaluating the educated mind are soon to be completely replaced.

Examples of the traditionalist approach are plentiful: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, or Maggie Jackson’s Distracted are just a few of the more recent jeremiads. To their credits, each author ultimately advocates a balance between the digital and analog, albeit with some hesitation and an unfortunate insistence on keeping competing literacies separated. For the traditionalist, the picture of civilization on the brink of an irreversible collapse into a digitally-induced attention-deficit disorder is pervasive.

As to the revolutionist approach, some theorists embrace the demise of traditional models of the intellect. These theorists see the digital age as the chance for a revolution in education. A prime example is the HASTAC project at Duke where the emphasis on incommensurability is clear, for example, in Cathy Davidson’s response to Richtel’s article:

We’re only fifteen years into the Information Age.  It took 150 years to build the educational institutions for the Industrial Age. It is a challenge to rethink education from the ground up, but we need to…[f]or the sake of our children, it is time to stop complaining and looking backwards.

Indeed, a quick read through the archives at HASTAC will reveal an organizational commitment to an educational paradigm shift away from the hegemonic Industrial Age model to an interconnected Digital Age model. It is argued that the advent of social media and pervasive contact with information sources is evidence that the old ways are holding us back. Just as the Industrial Revolution demolished the quadrivium as pedagogy, the Digital Revolution will demolish the remnants of 19th Century progressive education, setting the stage for an interconnected, networked pedagogy that plays off of the hyper-focus the traditionalists so lament. So long Sustained Silent Reading and essay assignments, hello collaborative media projects and real-time feedback.

Granted, I am describing each position in somewhat reductionist terms. There is a lot of nuance and even some points of agreement. But, generally speaking, these are two common trends in discussing the digital era, and on both accounts I call shenanigans. I would like to propose transliteracy as a “Third Way” approach to educating the digital millennium..

Transliteracy as an alternative
Transliteracy, by definition, is no party to the either/or approach to the digital future. In fact, incommensurability is anathema to the transliteracy project because transliteracy is predicated on the ability to maneuver between competing “paradigms” of literacy. From books to tweets, transliteracy as pedagogical practice seeks to encourage a literacy that crosses through several domains; rather than treat digital literacy as the successor to the analog, transliteracy sees digital literacy as a complement.

This is important for several reasons…not least of which is the fact that transliteracy qua theory allows practitioners to embrace multiple pedagogical practices: there is no need to reinvent the wheel as the revolutionists assert, neither is there a need to abandon the current methods, as the traditionalists fear. With respect to literacy as a cornerstone of education, transliteracy neither seeks nor accepts paradigm shifts; it rises above by acknowledging that humans have the remarkable ability to learn and create in multiple literacies simultaneously. This is what attracts me to transliteracy, namely, its answer to the question “How should we address the future of literacy in a digital age?” The traditionalist answer is to view digital literacies as bastardized versions of “real” literacy. The revolutionist approach is to move past quaint and homely literacies of the past. The transliterate approach, analogous to Andy Woodworth’s recent post about Big Tent librarianship, is a “big tent” approach embracing all literacies past, present, and future as integral parts of the human experience.

In coming months, I intend to explore the traditionalist and revolutionist attitudes towards literacy. I intend to discuss the philosophical underpinnings of transliteracy. I intend to examine the epistemic implications of transliteracy. But, above all, I hope to bring out some lively discussion.

18 Responses to “Transliteracy and Incommensurability”

  1. enough of ‘transliteracy’ for a while… | ruffl Says:

    [...] cries for more clarification and tighter definitions in response to lane wilkinson’s transliteracy and incommensurability. there was one particularly grumpy article by david rothman that roused some excellent responses. [...]

  2. IL Communication - hawidu - Brad Czerniak's site Says:

    [...] framing of transliteracy as a subset of Information Literacy was implied by Lane Wilkinson’s post Transliteracy and Incommensurability, further implied by Rothman’s, and elaborated upon by Meredith Farkas, Lane Wilkinson, and [...]

  3. Transliteracy from the perspective of an information literacy advocate | Information Wants To Be Free Says:

    [...] smarter than the average bear, but the more I read about this, the more stupid I feel. When I see sentences like “in fact, incommensurability is anathema to the transliteracy project because transliteracy [...]

  4. More transliteracy talk: metaphors and metonyms | Ink and Vellum Says:

    [...] post, “Commensurable Nonesense (Transliteracy),” responding partially to a post by Lane Wilkinson.* David brings up a few good points about transliteracy, most [...]

  5. davidrothman.net » Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy) Says:

    [...] in the conversation. Still, I never saw a post about Library 2.0 that was as bad in this regard as Transliteracy and Incommensurability, posted by Lane Wilkinson at Libraries and [...]

  6. Andy Burkhardt Says:

    This is one of my favorite takes on transliteracy so far. I like how you frame in terms of the traditional versus the revolutionary models of education. Sir Ken Robinson discusses these two models really well in his lectures.

    Working in higher education, I see this dichotomy often when talking with faculty. There are some that think any sort of digital tools or collaborative media projects are useless. Conversely, there are some who take it too far, and concentrating only on the digital experience, deprive students of more reflective, analog assignments. Luckily we have a mix of teachers in each camp and a number in the middle ground. It seems having a mix of both is beneficial though. We are pulled ahead in innovative ways and are grounded in tradition and don’t completely lose things that have worked for hundreds and thousands of years.

    As in almost everything, we need a balance between these two extremes. Seeing as we are in a revolutionary period in human history, students will need to navigate both analog and digital literacies in the foreseeable future. It seems that librarians, living very much in both worlds, are the perfect leaders in this arena.

    • Lane Wilkinson Says:

      Andy, you said it perfectly: it’s all about the balance.

  7. My favorite blog of 2010 | Ink and Vellum Says:

    [...] in library science. Recently, Wilk has been posting on transliteracy and wrote a guest post over on Bobbi Newman’s blog. His writing style is academic and acute, but still playful and just a delight to read… [...]

  8. Sue Thomas Says:

    Lane, you have it exactly right. Many of the approaches you criticise here are unnecessarily linear. It is much more fruitful to think in terms of an ecology, where different media rise and fall as the media ‘weather’ changes. Hence, oral traditions manifest themselves via campfire storytelling, telephones, pulpit preaching, and YouTube, to name just a few. All have shared qualities, and all have differing qualities. There is simply no need to talk about one process killing off another. It is like watching a garden grow, bloom, fruit, and return to the earth through many seasons. Yes, time passes, but the garden as a whole is more important than any given year.

    • Lane Wilkinson Says:

      Sue, that’s a wonderfully helpful analogy. Indeed, transliteracy points to an ecological framework rather than a linear progression; it was precisely this feature that attracted me to transliteracy in the first place. Thank you for bringing a little sanity to the debate over the future of education.

  9. transliteracy and incommensurability | ruffl Says:

    [...] wonderful piece on the ‘libraries and transliteracy’ website transliteracy and incommensurability (lane wilkinson) commenting on a few of the articles i’ve discussed in previous [...]

  10. Joe Grobelny Says:

    I think it’s already taking less time, and taking off in unexpected ways. Still, i see a lot of movement of learning applied lessons from analog to digital, are there any examples of the reverse?

    http://birdswithteeth.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/e-book-pagination-and-what-it-means-to-be-transliterate/

    • Brad Czerniak Says:

      Joe, the link in your post about pagination is fascinating!

      I think commenters at if:book make a really good point. Scrolling a screen’s worth of content at a time is pagination. Maybe a best of both worlds approach for eBook readers could very well be some form of gesture-based scroll-animated vertical pagination, with the option to scroll a smaller amount for continuous text.

      The issue, I think, for scrolling on touch screen devices (especially small ones like smartphones) is that your finger physically obscures the content on the screen whenever you make a gesture. You can see this as a design consideration, for instance, in the Google Reader iPhone app: (For LTR languages at least) the item toggle is in the upper-right-hand corner. You can gesture with only your right thumb near the screen, thereby not obscuring any content.

      Computers with other input methods don’t have the same scrolling problem. Scrolling on a laptop, even for book-length text, is fluid and natural because you can use the trackpad without covering up the screen.

      Maybe it’s just me; I find myself scrolling more often than I have to. To me, the text I am actively reading is most comfortable to read at the very top of the page. Rarely do I read a full page of text before scrolling. I think this is to mark my place in the text (I’m a rapid serial-tasker with a short attention span) and to use the top of the page as a guide for my eyes. In “speed reading” class we learned to follow the words with our fingers; maybe the top of the reading pane has filled that role for me.

      Wow, I wrote a lot. It really was a fascinating link! Thanks!

      • Lane Wilkinson Says:

        Agreed. This is a perfect example of transliteracy in action.

        As to the digital-to-analog direction, I’ll have to think about that, it’s a really good question that needs to be answered. I’ll blog some thoughts later.

  11. E-Book Pagination and what it means to be transliterate. | all these birds with teeth: this is not about science. Says:

    [...] RSSRSS – PostsRSS – Comments Google LinksTransliteracy and Incommensurability 12/11/2010Evidence of an Era: An Interview with David Plowden 12/02/2010Education and the social [...]

  12. Brad Czerniak Says:

    Glad to see you contributing here!

    I was curious about the rate at which the new school (forgive the pun) of education may be honed and adopted, per Cathy Davidson’s quote. Since many of the pedagogical principles can be adapted from industrialist education, and technological progress has accelerated in the computer age, will the revolutionist approach take less time to implement?

    • Lane Wilkinson Says:

      Short answer: I don’t know. But, I doubt a complete overhaul is in our future. I’ll add that the philosophical framework underlying the revolutionary approach (i.e., Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts) is often incoherent at best, but that’s a topic for another post. It suffices to say that the very notion of “Industrial Age” education is too bizarrely reductionist be meaningful.

  13. Tweets that mention Transliteracy and Incommensurability « Libraries and Transliteracy -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bobbi Newman, Robert Smith. Robert Smith said: RT @librarianbyday: Transliteracy and Incommensurability http://bit.ly/e1fHkQ [...]


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