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Global Literacies and the World Wide Web

Editor: Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: November 2000

 REVIEW 1: Virginia Montecino

Global Literacies and the World-Wide Web, edited by Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe, explores how the Web influences the literacy practices of people in various countries and cultures and what various cultures bring to reading and writing the Web[1]. The text also examines whether or not the Web spreads democratic principles and creates a global market which can cater to consumer needs and desires.

Anyone in the field of computer-mediated-communication for teaching and learning knows the names of Hawisher and Selfe. Early works include Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction and Evolving Perspectives on Computers and Composition Studies [2]. Between them they have published numerous articles and textbooks, and have presented at many conferences on the educational, cultural, and social issues surrounding literacy and technology.

The collection has three parts: "Literacy, culture, and difference on the Web;" "Literacy, diversity, and identity on the Web;" and "Literacy, conflict, and hybridity on the Web," with ten pieces in all, each with bibliographic citations.

Each piece in this collection is co-authored; one author for each piece was either born in or lives in a country other than the United States. The countries the authors investigate are Hungary, Greece, Australia, Palau, Norway, Japan, Scotland, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States. The offerings range from a look at post-revolutionary Cuba, to a comparison of Japanese and American uses of the Internet, to a look at Hip-Hop online by Americans and South Africans.

Social Literacies

The co-authors were asked to read a common text, Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education, to give them a common ground from which to examine Web literacy and its complexities [3]. They were free to select Web sites of their own choosing and were also given a common set of Web sites to investigate.

One problem I did have was trying to decipher which Web sites the co-authors were asked to comment on, why Hawisher and Selfe had chosen these sites, and what common criteria there were, if any. In the introduction, "Testing the Claims," they mention there is a set of sites, but, alas, I could not find a list of the sites and their Web addresses anywhere in the text. Based on evidence from the Austria-Hungary and Greek pieces, I assume the Web sites were the International Herald Tribune, HotWired, Council of the European Union, and Graffiti.

The issues Hawisher and Selfe began with include: the social and material conditions of specific cultures as influences on literacy practices; the social construction of literacy practices in a culture; the multiple social groups and purposes for literary practices; and the specific ideological constructs that can help or hinder social and educational progress and active citizenship.

Hawisher and Selfe challenge the concept of the utopian -- "we are one world on the Internet" -- online community, espoused (often with an appreciation of their problematic nature, often not) by Negroponte, Rheingold, and others, and hope this collection will help shatter the myth of a "culturally neutral global network" (2). Hawisher and Selfe point out, and rightly so, that these fragments are not "exhaustive or representative" and do not "comprise the whole of the story, nor do they offer satisfactory representations of the literacy practices in other cultures" (4 - 5).

Influences of the Web

The co-authors of the pieces do offer fascinating insights into some traditional and Web literacy practices. Greeks, for example, have a "multi-layered literacy experience" (68), say Aliki Dragona and Carolyn Handa, authors of "Xenes Glosses." This view, of course, is true for all cultures. Dragona and Handa say they cannot help but "approach . . . this subject from the perspective of 'intellectual insiders'" (54). They point out erroneous assumptions such as all people have computers with sound and color capability, modem use is relatively inexpensive around the world, and the Web always addresses English-speaking people. The users of and publishers on the Web are, in general, privileged and fluent in English, the dominant language of the Web. Laura Sullivan, an American, and Victor Fernandez, the Web master of the electronic version of the Cuban workers newspaper, Travajadores, point out that most Cubans do not have any access to computers or, for that matter, to pens and paper.

Some of the pieces relate long traditions of entrepreneurship, education, and political, cultural and social identities. It is impossible, granted, to separate such issues from literacy, but, in some cases, the history was hard to situate and became distracting. But fascinating tidbits about the influence of the Web include how the institutional Cuban networks are bombarded with e-mails from Cuban exiles in the United States, and intriguing examples of the cultural differences in uses of emoticons in Japan. For example, the basic Japanese "smiley" emoticon, is ^_^, while the U.S. version is :-) because the Japanese smile with their eyes, not their mouth.

Hawisher and Selfe suggest using the text for "literacy studies, technical communication, graphic design and representation, international studies, and communications." The graphics design and technical communications suggestions are a stretch. The graphics are few and in black, and there is little attention to design considerations. There is a tiny picture of The Femina Borealis logo (128) and a "She can do it!" NIKE logo (129). The text could have benefitted from more graphical representations of Web elements and Web sites from the countries investigated.

The Internet and the Web use many forms of speaking, writing, and graphical representation (chat, email, Web publishing, etc.), bringing influences from non-digital media. Many of the influences on multi-layered literacy are difficult, if not impossible, to separate. This text, with its fragmentary views, written by "intellectual insiders," raises some provocative questions. Will shared literacies via the Net cause us to converge? How strong will cultural and social influences be on Web identities? How effective is the Internet at breaking down the barriers between the "haves" and "have-nots"? How much control do countries have over the access by the people to literacy in general, much less Internet literacy? While many of these questions will take years to answer, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe's Global Literacies and the World Wide Web leads readers in the right directions.

1. This review first appeared in inventio: an online journal of creative thinking about teaching and learning in February 2000.

2. Gail E. Hawisher & Cynthia L. Selfe, editors, Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989); Gail E. Hawisher & Cynthia L. Selfe, editors, Evolving Perspectives on Computers and Composition Studies (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991).

3. Brian V. Street, Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography, and Education (London & New York: Longman, 1995).

Virginia Montecino:
Virginia Montecino presently teaches courses in digital information; cyberculture; Internet literacy; "Community of Learners," the freshman interdisciplinary entry-level course in New Century College at George Mason University, and advanced composition for natural and applied science majors. Her research centers around enhancing and assessing teaching and learning with computer-mediated-communication.  <montecin@gmu.edu>

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