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Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States

Author: Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher
Publisher: Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Lisa A. Kirby
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Cynthia L. Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher

Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe undertake an impressive and compelling project in Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States: "To begin tracing technological literacy as it has emerged over the last few decades within the United States" (3). Thus begins the text, a collection of twenty narratives that represent the variety and evolution of digital literacies in the United States. In compiling their research, Selfe and Hawisher conducted interviews with some 350 people in an attempt to "learn much more about how various social, cultural, political, ideological, and economic factors have operated dynamically, in relation to each other, at various levels of influence, and over time, to shape the acquisition and development of digital literacies within peoples' lives" (3). Their resulting text presents a sampling of some of these narratives, as well as Selfe and Hawisher's historical and cultural contextualizations.

This is an ambitious project that Selfe and Hawisher undertake, and the authors are quick to point out that their project is rife with complexities, both in the collection of narratives that will accurately represent "technological literacy" in the United States as well as in the "thorny issues entailed in the politics of representation" (23). It is clear that Hawisher and Selfe recognize the difficulty in justly representing the voices of those with whom they conducted interviews, and the authors are diligent in trying to accurately capture the voices of their study participants. Much of the introduction, in fact, deals with these very issues of how the interviews were conducted, how the participants collaborated with Selfe and Hawisher, and how the interviewees ultimately became co-authors as a way to give the participants more authorial control and ownership. Hawisher and Selfe make clear that authenticity of representation was foremost in their minds: "We feature participants' own voices as frequently as possible and try to keep intact their words and their phrasing, their grammatical structures and their distinctive word choices, even the oral markers of their speech (for people who completed oral interviews)" (9). For anyone familiar with the complexities of collecting life histories, it is clear that Selfe and Hawisher gave careful consideration to the reliability of their collection methods as well as their own roles as interviewers/collaborators. As such, Literate Lives in the Information Age becomes an important work not only in its contribution to the field of digital literacy and technological history but also in terms of its investigation of the complexities of literacy narratives and the role of the interviewer in the collection of oral histories. In fact, Selfe and Hawisher's introduction as well as the "Interview Protocol" included in the appendix chronicle the authors' struggles and concerns with issues of representation and serve well as guides for others interested in collecting and/or collaborating on "literacy autobiographies" and "life histories" (20).

What is equally impressive about Hawisher and Selfe's text is not only this honesty about and examination of how the project came together but also the unique groupings of complementary narratives and the way in which the authors organized their book. For instance, in Chapter 2, "Privileging -- or Not -- the Literacies of Technology," Selfe and Hawisher look at the "experiences of three White women all born in the last years of the 1960s and attempt to relate notions of class, gender, and identity with the prevalent cultural ecology of the times" (25). This chapter highlights three women from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and investigates how "family and community stand out as contributing -- or not -- critical early resources to the women's literacy efforts, technological and otherwise" (75). The investigation of these women, Paula Boyd, Karen Lunsford, and Mary Sheridan-Rabideau, from their early educational environments where computers were not yet present in their classrooms to later graduate school and professional experience, demonstrates how computers played important roles in their literacy development. The conclusion that Selfe and Hawisher draw in this chapter is how "regardless of their traditional masculine associations, computer games played something of a role in Mary, Paula, and Karen's lives as far as introducing them to computers" (80). This examination of gender roles and their impact on technology demonstrates a real strength of Literate Lives in the Information Age. For a feminist scholar like myself, I found these particular narratives especially interesting and revealing. I was drawn to these women's narratives, it seems, for many of the same reasons Selfe and Hawisher were: because as academic women and teachers of literacy "they share similarities with parts of our own stories, as they are situated historically and culturally: our backgrounds and gender" (212). Selfe and Hawisher are clearly interested in how one's gender plays a role in the evolution of digital literacy.

Another interesting pairing is in Chapter 3, "Complicating Access: Gateways to the Literacies of Technology," where the authors group two very different participants: "Dean Woodbeck, born into a White, middle class family and Carmen Vincent, born into a poor, Native American family" (26). While these two may seem quite different, and they are, they are united in the fact that they both grew up in the 1950s, yet their access to technology was quite incongruent. As these two chapters and others reveal, Hawisher and Selfe are concerned with examining how a variety of issues, such as race, class, gender, and community, affect one's access to technology and, subsequently, digital literacy. In the narration of Woodbeck and Vincent's experiences, Selfe and Hawisher point out how both took control of their technological needs and worked hard to provide access for their families. For Woodbeck, this move was not difficult. Having grown up in a house that emphasized traditional literacy, Woodbeck then went on to graduate from college and pursue graduate studies that led to a job as Director of Alumni News and Information Services at his alma mater (89). As such, "fortunately, Dean could afford to determine the conditions of this access to technology" (90). However, for Vincent, whose socioeconomic status was not as stable, this move to improve her family's digital literacy did not come as quickly. It took years, but Carmen Vincent was able to eventually "[establish] a technology gateway for her children at home, [and] Carmen made sure that the conditions of access addressed both their needs and their interests" (103). Again, Hawisher and Selfe's come to an important conclusion: "these case studies demonstrate how [. . .] poverty, literacy and illiteracy, money and access to technology are linked in the complex cultural ecology that characterizes the United States of America -- and how inventive individual people can be in shaping the conditions under which their access to technology can work most effectively" (107). Woodbeck and Vincent's narratives both prove compelling in their look at how two individuals from very different backgrounds were still able to evolve their digital literacy, despite a variety of challenges.

In all chapters, Hawisher and Selfe provide an interesting combination of cultural, social, technological, and personal history. This contextualization allows the reader to understand the historical moment in which the various interviewees were gaining technological access and literacy (or the reasons for the lack thereof). For instance, in Chapter 5, titled "Those Who Share: Three Generations of Black Women," the chapter begins by telling the reader about growing up African American in rural South Carolina amidst such events as World War II and Jim Crow laws in the South. This historical introduction transitions into personal, educational, familial, and employment histories of the three women featured in this chapter. This emphasis on history is important in that it makes universal many of these individual participants' stories. In an effort of making the personal public, Selfe and Hawisher make clear that these individuals' narratives carry much larger meaning in terms of constructing a digital history of the United States.

Though just a sampling of chapters are examined in this review, all of the sections in Literate Lives in the Information Age provide equally noteworthy and complex narratives of cultural, personal, and digital histories. Chapter 4, "Shaping Culture: Prizing the Literacies of Technology," for instance, explores how "local cultures" impact digital literacy (26); meanwhile, Chapter 6, "Inspiring Women: Social Movements and the Literacies of Technology," demonstrates "how second-wave feminism -- and other calls of societal change -- influenced the lived experiences of three women who came of age in the late 1960s" (28). Finally, Chapter 7, "The Future of Literacy," examines the future of digital literacy through the words of two students who completed their interviews while high school students. In all, these chapters lead the authors to ten assumptions or "themes" that they discuss in the conclusion to the text. The themes that Hawisher and Selfe reveal demonstrate their examination of how such complex factors as "cultural ecology," gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and educational structures all contribute to an individual's access to and understanding of technology.

For those interested in issues of literacy, digital history, technology, composition, and even the collection of life histories, Selfe and Hawisher's text proves indispensable as both a guide and model of literacy narratives and digital histories. Further, the authors' own considerations of the complexities of their project and even their admittance that there are limitations to any collection of life histories really makes clear that these are two scholars who are responsible and self-reflective. As they state, "these stories do not purport to be a complete or entirely representative history" (211). It seems the authors view Literate Lives in the Information Age as the start of a much larger project that will most likely continue to evolve as they and other scholars contribute to the literature.

The narratives Hawisher and Selfe offer highlight issues of gender, race, class, and access in ways that are important for a complete understanding of the issues pertaining to technological literacy. Literate Lives in the Information Age truly makes the personal public by offering a variety of case studies that serve to paint a larger picture about digital literacy in the United States. Perhaps Selfe and Hawisher sum up their project best in their concluding thought: "We have found each story, each literacy autobiography, each life history interview to be a compelling narrative about extraordinary human beings -- even when they seem to be living the most ordinary of literate lives in the information age" (234). This seems to be the most important aspect of what Selfe and Hawisher's Literate Lives in the Information Age offers: They take what seem to be "ordinary" stories and weave them into a remarkable history of digital literacy in the United States.

Lisa A. Kirby:
Lisa A. Kirby is an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College. Her research and teaching interests include working-class studies, 20th-century American fiction, women's literature, and composition studies.  <lakirby@ncwc.edu>

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