Expanding notions of literacy continue to play an important role in first-year composition scholarship. In Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention, Selfe (1999) lays a foundation:
Technological literacy refers to social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication as well as the social and linguistic products and practices of communication and the ways in which electronic communication environments have become essential parts of our cultural understanding of what it means to be literate (p. 11).
This, too, is a relatively recent development. I recall a fifth grader named Claire who loved to write, but hated computers. Her teacher required typed work, and Claire would take sheets and sheets of her handwritten stories and spend her computer lab time transcribing them into the required form. She slumped over her keyboard, head cradled in her hand, typing one letter at a time with her other hand, bored, angry, and frustrated. I showed her the wonders of spellcheck and pointed out that she could be sure of perfectly spelled papers from now on; she smiled politely. I showed her that she could move paragraphs around and then move them back; she shrugged. Finally, one day, she came to the lab without her latest story: she had left it at home. I suggested that she try typing her story directly onto the computer – something I had wanted her to do all along. She agreed.
Within the space of thirty minutes, she had finished a new story and printed it out. She wasn’t slumping anymore. Sure of my success, I asked her what she thought of computers now. “It’s okay, Ms. Lewis,” she said. “I don’t hate computers anymore. But I hate the way they tell me how to do things.” For Claire, the act of typing her stories constrained her ability to perform the literate acts she loved so well. Her complaint is not merely a marker of how times have changed.
The complaint is familiar. I make it myself.
Open up Microsoft Word and type the word “dear” and a paperclip icon balanced on a yellow legal pad appears in a small window, asking me if I want to type a letter and offering me the proper business letter format. Save my file and Clippie does a little flip. Cute or distracting – take your pick. Clippie is male. Clippie belongs in an office. Clippie knows more than I do, but he is willing to be a clown about it. (Interestingly, Microsoft’s programmers referred to these helper icons as “clowns” in their first discussions.)
Type a line of dialogue without a subject and verb and green lines appear under the words with the reminder that I have written a sentence fragment. Begin a sentence with a conjunction and Clippie, the icon, may just wag a finger or blow a raspberry in my direction.
I do not mean to suggest that a Luddite protest of technology is the best response here. The word processor brings obvious, enormous benefits with it, not least the easy production of professional-looking, literate documents But who is defining professional and literate and how are these important terms being defined?