Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Competing Literacies and the 21st Century Research Paper

As I teach writing during this transitional period from print-based knowledge and teaching processes to digitally mediated varieties, I have become keenly aware of competing literacies that are now in play: print-paradigm literacy, and digital literacy. 

I think that college students should be getting trained to succeed within their current context, and that context is not primarily print-based -- not anymore. A the same time, I recognize that traditional print-based ways of thinking and producing knowledge remain valuable. And the pragmatic reality is that most teachers of writing are going to continue to expect traditional academic writing for some time to come. 

How do I reconcile these competing literacies? How can we connect traditional academic writing to the ways knowledge is meaningfully produced and shared in the digital age? What should the research paper become in the 21st century?

Well, I am attempting to create a hybrid pedagogy, one in which students end up producing the expected variety of academic writing, a typical 8-10 page research paper. But as they do so, they learn to use 21st century tools for learning and sharing that bring them to an awareness of digital literacy. Hopefully, they will learn to be critical of, and fluent in, both types of literacy.

That sounds good, and I do think that such a complementary or hybrid approach is both workable and appropriate. However, bridging old and new is a tough thing to pull off, let me tell you! At a certain point, these modes of knowledge production do not complement one another, but are fundamentally at odds with one another. So, before I lay out my proposed hybrid writing assignment, I'd first like to outline how these two literacies can actually be potent threats to each other.

Threats to Traditional Writing in the Digital Age
Viewed from the perspective of traditional academic writing, the digital realm is fraught with problems.
  • Online communication in general is fragmented, riddled with the superficialities and nonsense of popular culture, and is generally the antithesis of libraries and the serious study of topics made possible through books and scholarly treatments of subjects in appropriate journals.
  • The internet accommodates plagiarism rather well
  • Students writing online substitute the referencing of things for the serious analysis of texts or topics
  • Students tend to rely upon unreliable online resources (like Wikipedia);
  • Communication tools like cell phones or social media are potent distractions that keep students from serious analysis, research, and writing.
Believe me, every time I encourage my students to enter the digital age, I do count the cost. Lately, to counter some of these very problems, I’ve required students to conduct offline research in order to rediscover the highly developed multitude of print-based resources for literary study and research. Some of my students need help in learning to browse library shelves, to use indexes at the backs of books, or to read and use bibliographies. I join my colleagues who roll their eyes at how glued to their phones and screens my students have become. Take away those aids, and they are functionally disabled. I do worry about whether students can seriously concentrate on single topics or texts when they have been conditioned to multitask with multimedia 24/7.

Threats to Digital Literacy from Traditional Research and Writing
Viewed from the perspective of digital literacy, the traditional academic paper is fraught with its own problems.
  • Students write a traditional academic paper in isolation. Students are trained to think that sharing or collaborating while composing threatens the integrity of the finished product.
  • Students are taught to rely for supporting sources upon books and articles that lack both currency and ready availability.
  • Traditional academic papers receive limited (if any) interim feedback from a teacher or peer
  • The traditional paper is constructed as a monologue lacking the dynamic interchange of interactive discussion or collaboration. It does not truly contribute to a larger discussion, because students are not actually encouraged to join active discussions of their subjects.
  • That final product, pages of paper, is written for a pseudo-audience but ends up having an effective audience of one.
  • Feedback on the finished product is limited to one person’s evaluation and in a format that others can never see, add to, or critique.
  • The paper has no life beyond the semester but gets filed away or forgotten.
  • A traditional paper lacks potent channels of communication (audio, video) or even basic hyperlinking to relevant sources and sites.
  • Such papers supposedly train students to think well and express themselves well, but in fact train them to think privately and not to value their ideas as being worth sharing unless through formal traditional publication, which is a great rarity for most students. A traditional research paper is an island of disconnected knowledge.
What do you think? Have I identified the chief points of conflict here? As I said, I do believe a compromise can be achieved, but not unless those championing both types of literacy are willing to see the weaknesses in the system that they favor. I think a lot depends upon navigating these two kinds of literacy.


  1. I think this is an especially important discussion to be having right now, one that is actually being picked up in popular sources like the New York Times ( and Atlantic (, and responded to here (

    I think it's a useful first step that this sort of discussion is happening. A little overdue, maybe, and a bit too simplistic, but at least it's happening.

    1. My apologies--I assumed the links would automatically go live once my comment posted. That's all just a bunch of mumbo jumbo right now.

      Just copy/paste to get all three links opened at once:

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