During the Fall 2006 semester, I taught a course entitled "Special Topics in Web Writing: Community and Collaboration on the Web," which had a typical ambitiously vague description present in so many course catalogs:
A course which focuses on how people write collaboratively and build communities on the Web in social, educational, and professional contexts. In addition to researching a particular type of collaborative or community Web writing, students will produce a collaborative Web resource using content management software and participate in online communities.
The students read and discussed work in-class and in an online community; wrote a Web literacy autobiography; conducted an analysis of an online community or collaborative writing situation; and finally built a small collaborative Web resource as an entire class. Class time was split between discussion and analysis activities and "studio time" for the production of the projects.
Eight students signed up for the course: five women and three men who spanned all four academic years. All of them were "traditional" college students in terms of age range (18-22); most of them also fit the profile of the "milennial student" in terms of having chosen to attend college close to home and maintaining close relationships with their parents.
This webtext discusses the literate practices -- what they wrote about and how they saw themselves while/through writing about it -- which students engaged in during the course through an analysis of their online discussions and two of their analytical projects.
Some Ideas Informing This Analysis
Web-Based Self Presentation and Identification
Identification as defined by Burke (1969) is used for analysis and discussion of student work and literate practices in this article. Identification, which Burke calls the central aim of rhetoric, is a real or imagined alignment of interests, an assertion (linguistically) of identity between two things/people:
In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. [...] Similarly, two persons may be identified in terms of some principle they share in common, an “identification” that does not deny their distinctness. (p. 21)
Students made choices about the work they did in the course and the work itself was shaped by the identifications they had with outside groups or people.
Research on Web-based self-presentation also informed the class and this analysis. Lenhart (2005) focused on self-perception in a small ethnography of bloggers; McLellan (2006) also surveyed users on LiveJournal and reported in part on their self-perception, especially how the roles of “friending” and commenting engaged in by other people had an impact on people’s self-presentations and self-perceptions. Boyd (2004) studied the users of MySpace and provided additional insights into a population engaged in Web-based self-presentation, by discussing the role of identification and writing in social networking sites where users engage in Web-based self-presentation. Students in the course read some of these analyses and discussed the ideas, and the studies’ categorizations and considerations of people who self-identify as "digital natives" or who choose to engage in Web-based self-presentation stand in sharp contrast to the ways in which my students complicated and challenged those titles.
Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Digital Literacy, and Digital Divides
It has become common to classify the current generation of traditional-aged college students, who "have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV)" (Prensky, 2001, p. 1) as "digital natives" and the generations which preceded them, who grew up with rotary phones, printed books, and the pre-World Wide Web, as "digital immigrants." Prensky (2001) coined the terms, and explains them thusly:
What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.
So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants. (Prensky, 2001, pp. 1-2)
According to Prensky and others who have adopted the terms, digital immigrants who possess "accented" behavior due to their untechnologically saturated backgrounds, struggle to teach and engage with digital natives who think, learn, and respond differently than previous generations due to their immersion in technology. Digital natives are not physically or mentally wired to respond to the "old" methods of teaching but instead require new pedagogical methods and educational content which responds better to their multi-tasking, fast-downloading, hypertext-surfing ways.
Prensky's description of digital natives and digital immigrants and call for a change in pedagogy is similar to depictions of "digital literacy" within the field of computers and composition which also focus on the need to transform pedagogy and educational content to provide students with necessary skills to succeed in an information age. Theorists such as Kress (2003), Hawisher and Selfe (2004) Selber (2004), and Landow (2006) also present the idea that literacy is now multiple or "multimodal": students must be capable of fluently negotiating technologies, information-gathering tasks, and multiple forms of media; additionally, students are not necessarily receiving such instruction in classrooms which are still founded and committed to an increasingly archaic model of literacy. Therefore, it is the job of compositionists to create new pedagogies to teach these new literacies.
In the last chapter of Literate Lives in the Information Age, Hawisher and Selfe (2004) describe the "future of literacy" through case studies of four digital natives (although they are not labeled as such in the text) and discuss extensively how Danielle, Brittney, Joseph, and Charles (but especially Brittney and Charles) have had to acquire their digital literacy skills (such as manipulating images, making Web pages, creating and programming video games) outside of an educational system that is still committed to print-based literacies and numeracies. Hawisher and Selfe conclude:
Their teachers prepared them well for a world of print-based, alphabetic literacy, but those instructors provided very little official instruction or systematic guideance in those literacies that lay outside of that narrow berth. In contrast, it is clear that Danielle and Joseph, along with Brittney and Charles, consider the reading and composing skills they acquired informally in electronic environments -- literacies marked by the kinesthetic, the visual, the navigational, the intercultural; by a robust combination of code, image, sound, animation, and words -- to be far more compelling, far more germane to their future success than the more traditional literacy instruction they have received in school. This response should not surprise us. (pp. 204-205)
Although he also does not use the native/immigrant binary, Selber (2004) also discusses the need for additional computer literacy instruction within education and the revision of the curriculum to account for this; he situates this need within the humanities and more specifically within English departments. Teachers should help students to develop mutiple literacies (multiiteracies) with computers and other technologies which include functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies that lead to "effective employment; informed critique; reflective praxis" (p. 25). Furthermore, Selber cites research which would seem to disprove Prensky's immigrant/native binary such as a 1999 Cornell study that indicates that "teachers often assume that students have specific computer skills and thus fail to provide any support or training. Such a situation is a source of considerable frustration and stress for many students" (p. 30). However, Prensky might argue that the study is now ten years out of date, and the generation which has grown up since then now possesses the necessary fluency.
Vie (2008) defines digital natives as "Generation M" and argues that
The problem is not so much providing access for Generation M students surrounded by technology but rather to effectively integrate technological literacy instruction into the composition classroom in meaningful ways. Compositionists should focus on incorporating into their pedagogy technologies that students are familiar with but do not think critically about: online social networking sites, podcasts, audio mash-ups, blogs, and wikis. To do so, however, instructors first need to familiarize themselves with these technologies. In essence, compositionists must catch up with the Generation M students who have left them behind. (p. 9)
While Vie does argue for the necessity of teaching critical literacies with technologies, she also assumes, like Hawisher and Selfe, that the current generation of students have "left behind" their professors in terms of their fluency with and access to technologies and therefore are not getting such necessary instruction in their classrooms. By adopting the tools that digital native students use without thinking, the slower digital immigrants who are their professors can make Generation M students more informed and critical consumers and producers.
Unlike Prensky, digital literacy scholars in computers and composition do not automatically assume that students are already fluent consumers and producers of technologies. To use Selber's terms, while some or all of them may be functionally literate with computers, they are not necessarily rhetorically literate, and it is the job of composition courses and/or English departments to help make them so. Additionally, much work has also been done in the last three decades about the pernicious effects of "the digital divide" and how all students -- or any population -- do not have equal access to technologies; for an excellent recent example, see Powell (2007)'s work on how simply granting access to technologies does not necessarily change student attitudes and habits.
Yet many digital literacy scholars, especially in recent scholarship, have "bought in" to the digital native/immigrant binary in terms of how it defines and restricts student and teacher roles and the assumptions it forwards about pedagogical necessities such as curriculum and assignment design. For example, both Vie (2008) and Anderson (2008), writing in a special issue of Computers and Composition, assume that it is the job of the composition classroom to "build bridges from alphabetic literacies" (Anderson, 2008, p. 40), and that students will find the genres and technologies of Web 2.0 and remix culture to be fluent and familiar while professors will find them alien and inaccessible. While not a nuanced definition, generations as digital immigrants/natives and the inherent assumptions about behavior and pedagogy which this binary creates happens frequently. Furthermore, most of the discussions on digital natives mandate adaptations by educators. However, this evolutionary state is not uncomplicated or unchallenged.
Outside of computers and composition, the most recent discussion of the accuracy of this binary comes from a series of articles and blog posts in the Chronicle Review (2008) and the Brainstorms blog of Vaidhyanathan (2008) and Bauerlein (2008) hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Bauerlein (2008) argues generational groupings are not entirely useless, and he suggests the current generation does share some -- in his opinion, markedly negative -- traits caused by their immersion in technologies. These negative traits include "humility in the shadow of others, self-criticism in the light of tradition" and a lack of critical reading and writing skills that he blames on the prevalence of hypertext and adaptations made when consuming information via the screen. He argues for a "return to slow reading" where students will be forcibly disengaged from technologies and made to engage with -- for him -- privileged and primary print-based literacies and oralities, including reading long novels and memorizing poems.
Vaidhyanathan (2008) disagrees somewhat with the necessity of disengaging students from digital media and privileging print literacies and calls the native/immigrant binary a "generational myth": “Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number who can’t deal with computers at all." Vaidhyanathan argues for a more nuanced view of students as people with varying degrees of technological literacies and calls attention to the ways that race, class, and gender problematize a monolithic view of a "digital native" generation: "This current condition is not some accident, not a matter of some 'evolution,' and certainly not a 'revolution.' It is the result of a complex series of policy, market, inventive, and cultural confluences." He also argues that access does not equal fluency: "Just because they can text and use Facebook does not mean they know or understand anything about digital media." Vaidhyanathan's complication of the digital native/immigrant binary is the most accurate representation of the students in this case study as the students themselves expressed many of the same sentiments in their narratives about using technologies.