Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reading with mouse in hand

I was recently notified that I'm not appropriately sensitive to how difficult the act of writing is for some people. This notification came as my friend and colleague Katie Clinton was finishing up co-authorship of a paper with two of our colleagues for an upcoming conference. I was in the process of complaining that my normal flood of email to the three of them was garnering little response.

"Why is everybody ignoring me?" I whined.

"For some people," she explained patiently, "being in writing mode takes all of their energy, and they don't have the headspace to think about other things. It's hard for you to get it because it comes so easy to you."

Fine, yes, Katie's right: Writing comes easily to me. But it's more that--writing comes easily to a lot of people, but that doesn't mean they spend literally all of their free time posting to their blog (unlike some people I know). In fact, there are entire groups of people--I include myself in this group--for whom "writing" is inseparable from the everyday activity of making meaning of the world. This is a break from traditional notions of writing as separate, as requiring a separate focus, a separate head-space. Something else--something extra and much more complex--is going on here.

I'd like to introduce the concept of "reading with mouse in hand," a notion developed by my colleague and friend Katie Clinton. It emerged through a collision of the work we've done for Project New Media Literacies on curriculum for high school ELA classrooms and our thinking about Spreadable Educational Practices (here and here) in collaboration with my sensei Dan Hickey and my mentor and partner in crime Michelle Honeyford. This work has been heavily influenced by media scholar Henry Jenkins and tech guru Clay Shirky, and we've recently been circulating the video below of Shirky talking about the revolution in and via social media (originally posted at It's 15 minutes long and worth every penny:

Today's youth, as Shirky explains, understand that a product that ships without a mouse ships broken. They exist in a world where writing is one practice among a host of generative activities that are inseparable from media consumption.

This is not, in some important ways, fundamentally different from the act of "reading with a pencil in hand," a common practice among professional writers and voracious readers. The difference, though, is in what happens to the generative activity linked to reading: In the video example below (featuring Wyn Kelley, Melville Scholar and Senior Lecturer in Literature at MIT, and edited by Debora Lui, an alumnus of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program), annotation and ornamentation are introduced as a means of filtering information, possibly for future publication or, at the least, generative work. These activities adhere to a traditional "filter, then publish" format of information transmission.

In contrast, reading with mouse in hand adheres more closely to the "publish, then filter" approach defined by Shirky. In a "publish, then filter" world, everything goes live, most of it open for public consumption and appraisal, and it's now our job as readers of all of that generative work to sift through it and figure out what matters to us or to our interests and work.

A few months back, I attended a talk by literacy theorist Deb Brandt, who made a compelling argument that we're in a second stage of mass literacy. In the first stage, she argued, reading literacy was key--and it was during this stage that the assumption of reading literacy as a basic human right was established. This second stage, according to Brandt, is characterized by writing as a more common practice than reading.

"[People are] reading to write," she explained, "and they're learning to write by writing to people who write."

Not only that, Brandt argued, but what we write is increasingly available for co-opting by corporate interests. "Your language is for hire," she said, "and that's...weird."

I suppose so. On the other hand, instead of "weird," we might say "complex in ways we hadn't anticipated." As physicist Philip Anderson says, "more is different."

As a blogger, I write more now than I ever have, even when I was a graduate student in a creative writing program. These days, I'm up to thousands of words a week just on my blog, and that's in addition to the writing I do for my day job, in emails, internal and public documents, and reports to colleagues and collaborators. What's more, I always read with my mouse in hand, which is to say that I read with an audience--a public--in mind. As what Howard Rheingold calls an "intelligent filter," I am conscious of my role as a sifter of information, a synthesizer of news items, a writer for an audience, however limited.

What happens when "writing comes easily to me" and "I always got good grades on my papers" become "I know how to act on what I consume" and "My blog gets hundreds (or thousands) of visitors a week (or day)"?

We can--and should--start thinking about ways to address the concern Brandt and others have raised that education institutions have not figured out how to accommodate the shift toward a generative literacy. Shirky writes that "the future belongs to those who take the present for granted." It's a nice sound bite, and as such, perhaps somewhat more sweeping than it is strictly true. But the deeper truth that Shirky points to--that a revolution is underway, and that no amount of nostalgia can turn back the tide of social change--is a deep, important truth that once accepted will change, dramatically and forever, the terms and frame of the conversation.

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