What About Some Good Old 20th Century Literacy

Just a few months ago ACRLog reported that the nation was shocked by studies that pointed to alarming decline in the literacy skills of college graduates. Studies from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pew Charitable Trust indicated that college graduates had difficulty reading and understanding text, and that they lacked three basic types of literacy including analyzing news, understanding documents, and solving math problems.

Well, according to an MIT professor we may need to broaden our perspective on what constitutes literacy. If we were to consider 21st century literacy, teens and college students would demonstrate vastly improved literacy skills. That professor is Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. In addition to old standards such as reading and writing, Jenkins says that 21st century literacy includes the digital skills needed to participate socially and collaboratively in the new media environment. This new kind of literacy is based on an understanding and use of IM, Myspace, sampling, zines, mashups, Wikipedia, and gaming. While those other literacy studies were raising concerns about student preparedness for the workplace, Jenkins suggests that by encouraging students to collaborate and share knowledge in large communities they will be better adapted to the team work and collaborative problem solving that is expected in the workplace.

I would like to believe that student literacy need not be of either the 20th century or 21st century type, but that our higher education institutions will succeed at producing the most competent and workplace ready graduates by encouraging both types of literacy – as well as other critical competencies such as information literacy. The problem is that it’s easier within an education system to pander to what’s popular rather than develop high expectations and rigorous assignments that challenge students. I imagine it could be more fun to develop an assignment around free-form blog and wiki participation, as opposed to an assignment that demands the reading of a challenging text followed by an analytical essay. But there are clear dangers in offering too much of one and not enough of the other. Perhaps one thing we need to do as a profession is to be sure we are well versed (or have some level of comfort) with these new media technologies, and able to communicate with both faculty and students about them. As academic support professionals in higher education our challenge will continue to be how we can best help our students to obtain the literacies they will need to succeed in the workplace and as life long learners.

3 thoughts on “What About Some Good Old 20th Century Literacy”

  1. “Literacy” is one of those concepts that is hooked onto any cause like the little engine that could. Nobody can be against literacy, so whatever it is you want to emphasize or promote, tag it with “literacy” and off you go. (It’s nearly as good as wailing “what about the children?”)

    The other thing to bear in mind about how we all frame our pet issues rhetorically is that we compete for attention, so literacies are always a site of contest. My literacy is far more important than your literacy. And it’s more up-to-date, to boot. Librarians are just as guilty as anyone else of hype when it comes to the Xtreme Literacy Smackdown.

    In some ways, I think (at least based on the press release) Jenkins is making a profound mistake in assuming that new social networking is largely about technological skill (sort of like saying media literacy is about being able to program your TiVo) and in assuming that “old” literacy is not social. Engaging with texts, whether printed or online, is always a social experience, and understanding texts depends on having certain “social networking” skills of understanding contexts and being able to see connections among texts and with one’s own experience. That wasn’t invented by Web 2.0.

    One final point that occurs to me reading your analysis, Steven: there are two kinds of reading that people need to be able to do: close reading and reading for the gist. You have to be able to do the latter so you can decide which texts you want to read closely. That’s in many ways an information literacy issue we only glancingly address when we talk about “evaluating sources” – but it deserves more attention. Students I work with are being trained to do close reading in their courses, but aren’t given much help with skimming through a number of choices quickly in order to identify the ones that are most promising. It’s a skill as necessary as framing a search strategy. How do you read the results so you can choose among them? It’s a big challenge for non-experts, and one we all need beyond the college years.

  2. Hello, stevenB
    Your comments are giving me some needed perspective on a difficult subject. I just could not get a handle on it: Characteristics of Scholarly Discourse.

    My Gawd! I do not think anyone really knows what that is, yet, so i am happy to find your response in this blog. i will quote you, too for illuminating the difference between 20th and 21st century information literacies. oh no! how do i quote a blog?Your wisdom is very imnportant. Thank you. Bye.

    Hello, Barbara Fister,
    I like your response to StevenB. The smackdown says it all! I am writing a small paper on IL and discovered some squabbling among prominant, powerful librarians. It was awfully amusing to find so much confusion among the leadership. I think the needs of clients should be first considerations in any scholarly discourse published or not so that learning is continuous and not subject to the whimsies of power and control. Thank you, too. Bye.


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