The role of new media, usually delivered via the internet, is central to your development as graduate students. As I will discuss in this post, taking a deliberate approach to learning and using new media applications can significantly enhance your academic transition to graduate-level education and your professional opportunities and growth as a scholar in and beyond graduate school. I will mention often distinct challenges and opportunities for international graduate students, but I write with all graduate students in mind.
We use the internet to connect with people, to find and use educational resources, to take courses, to consult with tutors and instructors, and so on. With the opportunities provided by new media (blogs, social media, open source scholarship, library databases, search engines, webinars, and the like), you face new responsibilities to learn how to use them on many levels. We become multiliterate individuals. If you are an international student, this means that often while you are learning new languages and new cultures, whether you are planning for or pursuing graduate study in the U.S., you may also be learning to adopt new technologies to learn about those very languages and cultures.
In Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004, SIU Press), Stuart Selber identified three major kinds of literacy related to the use of new media: functional literacy, critical literacy, and rhetorical literacy. Although these are in some ways hierarchical–the last depends on the second and all three rely on the ability to function or use programs, platforms, and applications effectively to get information and create your own content online–these literacies more accurately work hermeneutically, which means that the process of developing all three types of literacy is continuous and ongoing, for all of us, all the time. We don’t just learn to use a computer once but instead continue to use its many applications as we face new demands and opportunities.
Functional literacy is knowing how to use information technologies: how to open a program, use its key features, save, edit, and publish work, find information online, use databases, read and follow instructions, share work with others, and so on. Everyone at some point needs to learn how to use a program such as Microsoft Office to create text documents, for example. One can just open a computer application like Word on the personal computer and explore and learn through trial-and-error, or one can read the documentation that comes with the program, or one can go onto YouTube (another form of functional literacy is knowing how to find videos on YouTube) and search for a tutorial video. In 2018, functional literacy is quite different than it was when Selber’s book first arrived in 2004; now we have cloud applications like Google Drive and Dropbox and iCloud, and much of functional literacy has changed to focus more on getting access to accounts that will allow us to tap into these shared applications and their accompanying storage features. Cloud computing is defined as “the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer” (Google Dictionary). The boundaries between functional applications in the cloud, such as Google Apps, where we may create documents for work, and social media platforms (such as Twitter and YouTube) where we share not only personal updates with friends and family but work-related documents and information, have blurred. In some ways, functional literacy has become easier to obtain because of cloud computing.
The ironic nature of functional literacy is that the more one knows, the easier it is to obtain help. This may not seem fair. That’s because it really isn’t fair. Help should be most readily available to those who need it the most. However, this is the way getting information works; it’s like cracking an egg. When you look at the egg from the outside, especially if you’ve never seen an egg before, it seems absolutely impenetrable. It’s a perfectly sealed-off object. But if you crack the egg, you have access to the contents of the egg quite easily! Using the internet to enhance functional literacy (for instance, how to read, write, and do research to be successful in graduate school) requires that one knows how to find the right information online. Once you learn to use a platform such as WordPress, for instance, you can create a significant advantage for yourself by creating a professional website that will help you communicate, through writing and new media assets, your strength as a scholar. This can be very helpful especially for international students who may have achieved a lot of success or work very hard but cannot orally describe those things very effectively to others in person.
Another aspect of functional new media literacy is to learn new media skills. There are currently many resources, some quite good, many free and accessible to anyone with internet access, that can help you in your quest to obtain functional knowledge of how to use new media platforms and programs. Lynda.com is a well-respected organization that offers self-paced online training courses in everything from using word processing programs like Microsoft Word, to using WordPress to create your own blogs for personal use and business, to learning computer languages to code new computer programs on your own. However, unless you belong to an organization that pays for a subscription, it is rather expensive to use. Other organizations offer less expensive or even free online courses and tutorials, such as Udemy.com. There are also hosts of individuals who post useful tutorials on YouTube if you take the time to search for them, but there is no quality control so you need to take the time to find them. If you are enrolled at Stony Brook University, you may also partake of resources and workshops offered by CELT (Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching).
The second type of multiliteracy mentioned by Selber is critical literacy. This moves beyond simply learning how to use tools to work and communicate effectively online to looking at the context of how these tools affect the social, political, and personal realities of those who employ them. For example: a search engine such as Google operates through algorithms, mathematical formulas coded into its scripting that sort the results of a search you type into it. You don’t have control over the coding (although you have some control over the results by the way that you frame your search terms). The manner in which the results are sorted follows a hierarchy of choices coded into the backend of the search engine which you cannot see. That means that someone, somewhere, made sorting choices in the computer code that affect your results. Since most algorithms have feedback loops coded into them, that means that the searches and choices other users made when searching for similar terms also affect your results. Understanding this and acting with this knowledge in mind is a form of critical literacy. Critical literacy, like functional literacy, is always changing and developing as new technologies are developed, and as social and political influences make us aware of how those technologies interact with their realities. For graduate students, who must navigate new disciplines and specializations, social/cultural or professional contexts during and after graduate school (meaning even if you are a domestic students, you will move into new contexts), learning to use new technologies involves learning to use them for negotiating your place and position in the discourse community, making and improving your relationship with people, and so on.
Learning and using new media are shaped by the complexity of the context and purposes of their use. Those contexts can be political, requiring you to understand ongoing issues in the society where you pursue graduate education. You may, for instance, need to judge the information you use for research and communication more critically in the current political climate in the United States. For instance, it has become fairly common knowledge that social media like Facebook played a role in influencing important U.S. political elections through propaganda and false accounts, and Facebook has acknowledged this publicly and is currently working to counter it by flagging false news and accounts. Political propaganda has always existed in one form or another, but the affordances of media (key features of a medium that offer a specific communication strength) provided by online social media are being used in ways to accelerate these effects.
Access to media technologies is also an issue addressed through critical literacy. A good example of this is Cynthia Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century: The Importance of Paying Attention (2001, SIU Press), one of the first major scholarly works to explore how access to important computer technologies was affected in the U.S. by race, social, and economic status even though it was being promoted as a great equalizer by politicians and some educators. For international graduate students in particular, critical literacy is an important concept that you should not only embrace as you navigate global communities presented to you through online media, but as you understand the new society and culture–whether as background or focus of your research topics. Indeed, even scientists and engineers must understand the political situation and economic forces behind their research/scholarship. New media mediates that learning and it helps you to present yourself and your research effectively, with the right people in the right way.
The third form of multiliteracy discussed by Selber is rhetorical literacy. This is the dimension of literacy and new media that we as scholars of rhetoric, writing, and academic communication try to teach our students. Closely enmeshed with functional and critical literacies, rhetorical literacy is about creating and distributing new content, new information, and new forms via online technologies, keeping always in mind the basic concepts of rhetorical communication. These include awareness of one’s potential audiences (who will see and read this, and how will their situation affect their understanding of it?), of one’s intention and goal (your message), of rhetorical appeals (establishing credibility with your audiences as well as logical and emotional connections with them, and the timing and timeliness of your message), and of one’s use of multimodal approaches (the linguistic form of your message as well as the other modes of communication that may include visual (images), aural (sound), and spatial (how your content is either deployed in a space online, like a webpage, or through reproduction of experience as through a video, which uses many modalities together). Rhetorical literacy is tightly linked with the other two multiliteracies (functional and critical) because one must know how to use the affordances of the online space (functional literacy) and also understand how the audiences are affected by those uses. Rhetorical literacy can also be a way to change, or attempt to change, how audiences are affected by those uses. Rhetorical literacy can bring to light those effects, for example, in an effort to make the world more just. Of course, rhetorical literacy can be used to create a whole range of effects. But it is only through critical literacy that you can empower yourself to use your functional literacy to empower others with your online presence and work.
To bring this back down to your present concerns as a graduate student, it’s important to keep in mind that the tools we’re using to present concepts and materials in MASLOW are a part of this rhetorical cycle. You can and should be aware of this as you work through the course. It is part of a bigger linkage of “second selves” (to use a phrase popularized by Sherry Turkle of MIT and many others) that you encounter, and establish in your own name, across the internet. Especially for international students, your instructors and classmates, and your potential employers and others in the new communities/culture here may not always be aware of your experiences regarding these linkages. So, it is a good idea for you to learn and think about how best you want to use new media for making your instructors and others aware of your experiences. Even if you are a domestic graduate student and you are aware of political, social, or professional effects related to your growing knowledge and usage of media, you may need to to take a deliberate, reflective approach about what you may want to share publicly and what you may not.
The road to academic success and professional empowerment as a writer and scholar is a personal one that differs for each scholar; but it can be facilitated and enhanced by thoughtful learning and use of new media.
Works Cited: Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2004.