Literacy is changing. At BYU, we’re retooling first year writing courses and implementing “multimodal literacy.” It boils down to learning how to communicate using media in combination with words, mostly. Literacy is starting to be about design, about the combination of elements, not just text, nor just text + illustrating picture. There is a dynamic at play between the two, and there are different ways one engages audiences through adding image, video, audio, or hyperlinking to one’s communication.
I notice now that I think very differently about reading. I’ve been reading Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Discoverers, a very good layman’s history of famous voyages, inventions, and cultural changes. As I turned the pages, I found myself impatient with the fact that there was no image of the Ptolemaic world maps that he was discussing at length. I quickly pulled up very good images of the various maps he was talking about on my iPhone. Sure, I followed his words, but suddenly his words meant a lot more when I could see the thing he was talking about. How could anyone publish a book today and keep such readily available media from those who could profit from it?
And yet, at the same time, I feel like resisting the allures of non-texts. Yesterday my wife was re-doing her blog design, and this got me playing with mine. I spent two hours finding and cropping and trying out various images. In the end, I got my new blog banner up but (shock!) I didn’t manage to actually update my blog, which has lain dormant for months (as I’ve been writing for Academic Evolution and a bit on this one). Lesson: creative energy and time spent on pictures and design is time subtracted from actual writing. As a writing instructor, I shiver at the prospect of encouraging students toward more superficial elements while the substantial thinking goes undone.
And yet, I see the way that those who use photographs on their blogs invite me into their worlds in ways that not even a finely crafted piece of prose can do. Clearly, the media and design factors have a very consequential social element. My wife involved me in figuring out her new blog look. We debated the message that a given arrangement of colors conveyed. It felt creative, and fun to do together. And then, today, she got her photographer friend to come over and take her picture for the blog. They laughed and laughed, and when the friend sent over the proofs, it became an occasion for all the family members to vote. (Highlight: my returned missionary son summoning others to the computer saying, “Come look at your sexy mom!!”). An ethical discussion ensued about possible Photoshopping out of a wrinkle or two. I’m left with the distinct impression that my wife’s venture in multimodal composition was a distinctly more enjoyable thing for her and for many others than my chiseled paragraphs about oh-so-serious this-and-that that I spend so much time on in my essayistic online installments.
Oranges and apples? I don’t know. I think literacy is becoming more social, that literature can and should be so, and all of this is necessarily mediated through digital and online means. What is sacred about the barren text, untouched by the sensationalism of photography or video? I actually think there might be some very good answers to that question. But be it vanilla print or animation-enhanced anecdotes, I’m definitely in favor of whatever creative medium honors experience authentically. To me, that means honoring the nuances of our thoughts and feelings (often best communicated through the written word), honoring the fully sensuous range of human experience (meaning appeals to the eyes and ears), and honoring the people that truly bring to life our art either as we produce or consume it. Different media, and combinations of media, play to different important modes of experience and of art. I hope we can be patient enough to figure out the newer modes, even while honoring the tried and true.