Media Fluency?: NITLE Summit 2010

An image of fluency from They had me at "recursion."

In late March of this year I was privileged to speak at the 2010 Summit of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. It was my second time at a NITLE Summit. The first time was 2008 in San Francisco, when one afternoon I found myself talking to Provost Randall O’Brien of Baylor University about a job there…. These little details do stay with you.

This time nothing quite so fateful happened, so far as I know, but I did have an entire breakout session to explore some ideas I’d been kicking around, ideas related to Media Fluency, a term so variously defined that I had plenty of room to develop my own, sometimes contrarian positions. Bryan Alexander moderated the session–for which many thanks. He’s every bit as good a moderator as he is a speaker, which is saying something.

The recording of the session has some difficulties, as you’ll hear. Technically, there’s a weird rustling noise that I suppose is either the sound of my sport coat rubbing the microphone or a flaw in the mike cable itself. Conceptually, it’s difficult to tell when I’m speaking in my voice, when I’m quoting someone else (the text was generally on the slide, so I didn’t feel compelled to say quote-unquote), and when I’m being ironic and seeming to approve of something that in fact I do not, at all. I’ve posted the slides on Slideshare; I hope they clarify some of the trickier bits in the address.

Even with all the difficulties, the talk does get at some new ideas that are important to me:

  • Media Fluency is more than technical skill with images, video, and audio.
  • Media Fluency in a digital age must include meta-medium fluency, the crucial step in understanding computers as tools for thought, to use Howard Rheingold’s lovely phrase. In later talks, building on this idea, I’ve identified five steps to full digital citizenship: information literacy, then digital fluency, then metamedium fluency, then a personal cyberinfrastructure, then digital citizenship. More on this in a subsequent post.
  • We must stop using the phrase “digital natives,” for three reasons: milennials and younger are not necessarily meta-medium fluent, baby boomers and older don’t get a bye just because they didn’t grow up with the stuff, and (most important of all) I think the word “native” can also be a none-too-subtle euphemism for “savages,” with all the imperialist/colonialist baggage that comes with that word. I develop this argument in the talk, but there’s much more to say.
  • I’m coming at deschooling another way these days under the influence of James Fernandez’ extraordinary essay “Edification by Puzzlement.” In this essay, Fernandez warns us to beware of “administered intellectuality.” The phrase and his caution resonate deeply with me and in fact go a long ways toward describing some of the things that have bothered me for decades in my own education and practice within academia.
  • In this talk, I introduce the idea of moving away from “signature pedagogies” such as the term paper, and toward “pedagogies of signature” that help students imagine and create their lifes’ work, that is, work that they want to sign, work that emerges from intrinsic motivation and reflects personal commitment. (EDIT: The idea was inspired, in part, by Claudia Emerson’s talk at an Honors Convocation at UMW many years ago, where she spoke of the symbolic importance of the signature. Thanks, Claudia.)
  • I also pun on the venerable “long tail,” inviting academia to imagine both a flourishing diversity of work (diversity empowered and preserved in the long tail) and a larger communality of effort and direction, the “long tale” that is the story of civilization we all write together.

The Q&A was interesting, but most of it was so far off-mic that I doubt it can be heard, and in fact I’ve excised a fair amount of the Q here. To sum up:

  1. The first question was mostly pushback on the slide with John Hancock’s signature. The questioner took me to task, politely, on the idea that the flourish was inherently meaningful and challenged me to articulate how the idea of the “signature” was more than just self-display. I hope I’ve summarized his objections faithfully. I gave the answer my best shot–but clearly there’s more to say here, particularly about the charge of self-indulgence and narcissism. (These charges routinely come up with things like social media, and they deserve to be taken seriously up to a point.)
  2. The second question was about how to get faculty on board/excited about multimodal expression when they’re unhappy with students’ writing skills. Shouldn’t we be concentrating on bringing those basics up to scratch before we launch into multimodal/media fluency territory?
  3. The third question was for the second questioner, as the group began to talk to themselves (a good moment, as it always is when the discussion isn’t automatically funneled through the speaker). A woman asked when writing became a core skill—and who gets to decide what’s a core skill.
  4. The fourth questioner asked how much pushback I get from faculty who see anything besides writing as merely a vocational skill to be learned after college. “Go to Community College later if you want to learn CAD,” etc.
  5. The fifth speaker didn’t ask a question, but tried to answer one. She spoke up in favor of disruption: asking questions, going deeper in the answers she’s given, challenging the answers she’s given. As you can hear, these comments resonated pretty strongly with me (no surprise there)
  6. Bryan Alexander then asked about the social nature of these new media—are they daunting for faculty because they go beyond the class or the professor. Our closing keynote speaker, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, noted that she uses social media frequently in her own classes, and said a) it creates some anxieties for the students and b) it creates great excitement too. She went on to say she encourages her students to choose pseudonyms so they have a little bit of shielding for themselves if they want–their future employers won’t necessarily know their “kung-fu videos” are by them.
  7. Finally, I ask the “get out of the way” question. A librarian says the lesson for her is that she should be more respectful of what young people are using for their social and communicative lives, and not be so quick to imagine these modes as impolite or irrelevant.

Bryan wisely ends the session just when I was getting stirred up by memories of listening to Jethro Tull in my room as a teenager.

Here’s a good summary of the talk. The last part is my favorite, as it demonstrates the writer was truly paying attention: “Teaching media fluencies is akin to teaching fundamental mechanisms of thought (no pressure). Takeaway question: If we believe this, how do we communicate this to faculty and get buy-in? If you follow this out to its conclusion it rattles the foundation of many of our assumptions around education.” Indeed!

Here’s the talk.


7 thoughts on “Media Fluency?: NITLE Summit 2010

  1. Hi Jim,

    Sure thing. Slideshare was borking my upload yesterday. Today I saved the ppt as a pdf and the upload/conversion finally took. I’ve altered the link in the post to reflect the new location for the slides.

    Sorry for the inconvenience–and thanks as always for your interest!

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  3. Gardner — thanks for the very useful thinking through of media fluency and associated ideas. And thanks for reminding me of Fernandez’s excellent essay — which, by the way, was received well by the cultural anthropologists in my circle.

  4. @Rafael You’re very welcome. Good to hear about Fernandez’ reach and reception. The essay continues to inspire me through and through.

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