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CCCC 2006 in Review

I23 Women of the Information Age: Cross-Generational and Cross-Cultural Reflections

These three panelists sought to answer the question, "Is technology still a gendered issue?"

Lisa Gerrard, "Women and Technology for the 21st Century"

Gerrard began by revisiting "Modem Butterfly," her first talk on gender and computers based on research she conducted in the 1980's, when the statistics about women and computer use were "really depressing." She reminded the audience that in the 80's, parents were sending their sons, but not their daughters, to computer camps, computer science teachers were consistently paying more attention to and privileging the male students in their classes, women on the Internet were being bullied in chatrooms, software ads featured savvy men and clueless women, and computer games prominently featured over-sexed women characters such as Laura Croft. Happily, despite such obstacles, Gerrard explained, women were not left out of the Information Age.

In the 21st century, she proclaimed, the Internet is no longer a male domain. Women are highly visible, for instance, in the "blogosphere," where nearly 65% of LiveJournal writers are women, and the most active bloggers are girls between the ages of 15 and 17 who use their blogs to communicate with their friends. Gerrard then displayed an overhead with a sampling of feminist blogs, but she quickly followed up by saying that not all women in cyberspace are feminists, and that websites comparable to stereotypical women's magazines, complete with the requisite quizzes and fashion advice, are prevalent on the Internet as well.

For women in the United States, access to computers is no longer such a problem either. While in the 1980's the majority of computers in schools were located in male-dominated math and science classes, most US schools now install computers in many different, non-gendered classes. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in 2000 there was a slight 5% gap between male and female computer users, and that gap decreased to an almost negligible 2% in 2005, with several age groups containing more female users than male users. In fact, computer use has become so mainstream that the category of users that is growing most rapidly is women in their 50's. The real gap in the US, says Gerrard, is based on education and income.

Despite all the good news for female computer users, Gerrard told the audience that gender is still an issue in the US, particularly in terms of attitude towards and perception of computer use. Although males and females generally spend the same amount of time using computers, women and girls consistently underestimate their abilities as computer users, while men and boys consistently overestimate their abilities. In addition, men still dominate women in chatrooms, and women are still inhibited in cyberspace because online communication encourages the most aggressive to dominate the least aggressive, and since men, in general, are more combative, they prevail while the less aggressive women are silenced or ignored. Moreover, men are still more visible online. A recent study concluded that only 4% of "political" blogs are composed by women, but the definition of "political" was limited to military, big business, and economic topics, while blogs concerning child care, elder care, and other "women's issues" were dismissed as "personal diaries." Women also still trail men in Computer Science classes and careers. In fact, Gerrard stated, female Computer Science majors have decreased by 33% since the 1980's. According to Gerrard's research, girls interested in pursuing Computer Science careers are repelled by such factors as the "geek" image, the emphasis on speed and competitiveness, and the "tough language" associated with computing (e.g., hard drives, hard boots). In addition, girls are still less likely than boys to play computer games, and women are still not taken seriously by instructors and peers in Computer Science courses or in the profession. Finally, Gerrard pointed to the discouraging fact that the fewer women there are in the profession, the fewer women are likely to join the profession, since female colleagues are the number one attraction for women considering a computing major. The human context of computing and its emphasis on problem solving were other potential attractions. Gerrard found that early science and math education are critical for women's participation in computing. She suggested that such courses ought to be required for all students, since girls do fine in such classes when they are required to take them, but tend to gravitate toward gender-stereotyped classes when math and science are offered as electives.

Gerrard concluded by calling attention to the serious computing obstacles that remain for women in non-industrialized countries, specifically Africa, where lack of funding, lack of electricity, lengthy commuting distances to telecenters, lack of childcare, the assumption of literacy and an understanding of English, and other cultural obstacles prevent these women-the very people who could most benefit from the educational and communication capabilities of the Internet because of their limited mobility-from obtaining access to computers. Gerrard left her listeners contemplating the fact that the only technology that can reliably reach a majority of women in the world, even in the 21st century, is the radio.

Gail Hawisher, "Global Feminist Encounters on the Internet"

Ironically, Hawisher's presentation began with "technical difficulties," which were fortunately soon resolved. Hawisher stated that in the process of collecting interviews, talking through their research with the interviewees, and presenting talks about their most recent book, Literate Lives in the Information Age: Narratives of Literacy from the United States, she and her collaborator Cindy Selfe came to a realization about their process. Although they were trying to be conscientious feminist scholars while doing their ethnographic work by inviting the participants to be active agents in the process of co-authoring the literacy narratives, as the professional scholars, Hawisher and Selfe still maintained control of the printed narratives, which left some "co-authors" feeling as if they were merely "verifiers."

Already aware of the limitations of the print medium, Hawisher and Selfe further reconceived their project on the advice of a young woman they met while giving a presentation at the University of Oslo at Norway. This young woman, Synne Skjulstad, suggested Hawisher and Selfe might want to think about presenting their research via the Web using video clips and sound bytes. Why, she wondered, were they not taking advantage of the Web as a collaborative feminist digital tool? And thus Hawisher and Skjulstad began a cross-cultural collaborative project to collect and record Skjulstad's literacy narrative about her experiences with computers, which Hawisher proceeded to play—allowing her co-presenter, Skjulstad, to "speak" through still images, projected quotes, and video clips.

Cindy Selfe, "Composing Women in the Digital Age"

Selfe also used the Literate Lives project as a starting point for her presentation. While doing the Literate Lives interviews, she and Hawisher spoke to many young people about the multimodal contexts in which they compose, and how they communicate across national and geopolitical borders and cultural groups in a variety of informal environments. How, she wondered, do these literacies transfer to the more alphabetic environments of schools and colleges? In composition programs that are still principally grounded in alphabetic literacy, how can professors and students take advantage of these young people's facility with multimodal composing? Referencing Gunther Kress, she suggested that First-Year Composition (FYC) programs should not neglect, overlook, or suppress the communicational modes these students arrive at school with, should not dismiss students' literacy practices as "just gaming" or "playing on the Internet," but rather that FYC programs need to "pay attention" to these multimodal communicative structures. Paying attention and valuing multiple literacies, she clarified, does not mean leaving alphabetic literacies behind; it means adding new literacies. She also recognized that FYC must have active support and cooperation from faculty and administrative "allies" in order to "expand the bandwidth of literacy education" at programmatic and institutional levels. Changing the curriculum to support new literacy studies also requires an institutional ability and willingness to invest money and resources into technology so that students have the ability not only to read, interpret, and analyze texts in multiple modalities but also the resources to produce their own multimodal texts. In other words, Selfe emphasized that both reception and production are crucial literacy abilities for student rhetors who want to be able to take advantage of all the "available means of persuasion." In addition to funding and resources, the institution must have the ability to assemble a critical mass of faculty who work in digital composing environments and who understand how meaning is made with still images, video images, visual elements, color, and sound, as well as alphabetic elements.

Selfe then proceeded to provide one example of a "literacy change agent," the chair of the English Department at Selfe's new institution, The Ohio State University. Although Selfe's Chair, Dr. Valerie Lee. does not teach with computers or practice much multimodal composing in her own scholarship (she's a folklorist), she has begun to employ multimodal "literacy tactics" in her role as chair, and she is thus sending a signal to the faculty in her department that meaning can be made in these ways. For example, the first email Selfe received from Lee to welcome the faculty to a new academic year included a poem and a video attachment (or text and context, as Selfe explained). Since that time, several more video and audio memos have been emailed throughout the department. Lee has also demonstrated her openness to multiple channels of literacy by supporting 11 sections of multimodal composition in which writing goes on around the central activities of audio and video composing.

Following Hawisher's example, Selfe allowed Lee to tell her own story, her literacy narrative, through video; it is a narrative in which Lee, a woman of color, demonstrated that she has had a life steeped in multimodal literacies—from the cardboard letters she played with as a child to the experience of helping her illiterate grandfather decipher letters that didn't match the memorized shapes he used in his job delivering mail in an office. Perhaps, Selfe suggested, many of the change agents at other institutions might, like Lee, be from under-represented groups: women, people of color, the disabled. Such groups, Selfe postulated, are already familiar with different modes of literacy, are familiar with "making do," and therefore they may not only be tolerant of difference, but actually view difference as value added.

The future, Selfe concluded, is about digital media studies.


In the question and answer session, one audience member pointed out how even Hawisher and Selfe, veritable "giants in the field" (despite their diminutive statures) made apologies for the inadequacy of their technological competence and experienced equipment failure. Given that fact, he asked, what might await less well-established teachers and scholars who risk segueing into multimodal composition? What, for example, might their students say on evaluations when equipment failed, etc.?

While the panelists acknowledged that the resources or the recognition won't always be available at an institutional level, they assured the questioner that students will become engaged in classes that incorporated multiple literacies, and they reminded the audience that students and teachers take risks in classrooms everyday because experimentation is a part of learning. They suggested keeping a sense of humor, always having backups in case the technology failed, and enjoying the chance to become a student of your students when they have more facility with the technology that you do.

When asked what the relation of multimodal composition was to cinema studies, the panelists stated that the distinction was one of analysis versus production. In film classes, they responded, students don't take a rhetorical approach to production.

— Alexis Hart

CCCC ConventionFor more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.