Bridging a Textbook Gap? A Review of Robert Yagelski (Editor). (2000). Literacies and Technologies: A Reader for the Contemporary Writer. Longman. ISBN: 0321051181. Paperback - 593 pages.

– Reviewed by Jonathan Alexander, April 19, 2001
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I'd like to begin this review by doing something dangerous in the post-postmodern world. I'd like to risk a binarism--specifically about textbooks for writing students in the late age of print, and specifically about textbooks that attempt to grapple with the impact of technology on the writing process.

On one hand, we find a growing body of compact texts that introduce students to the various formats, protocols, and possibilities of writing with emerging technologies. For instance, Victor Vitanza's Writing for the World Wide Web (1997), William Condon and Wayne Butler's Writing the Information Superhighway (1997), and, to a lesser extent, Jeanette A. Woodward's Writing Research Papers: Investigating Resources in Cyberspace (1999), all seek to acquaint--and excite--students with the potential offered for writing by the Internet.

On the other hand is a growing body of essay anthologies, or "readers," that offer provocative thinking from scholars, intellectuals, and activists puzzling over interpreting the intersection between technology and contemporary culture, society, and politics. Vitanza's CyberReader (1998), Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher's Literacy, Technology, and Society: Confronting the Issues (1996), and Richard Holeton's Composing Cyberspace: Identity, Community, and Knowledge (1998) are indicative of this camp.

Emerging from this second camp is Robert P. Yagelski's Literacies and Technologies, subtitled "A Reader for Contemporary Writers," which offers one of the most engaging collections of such essays currently available on the market. Yagelski has very carefully chosen a series of short, accessible texts that, collectively, grapple with the ways in which writing processes--and, indeed, the very nature of writing itself--is being impacted by contemporary computer technologies. As such, Yagelski's reader often seeks to be more than just an anthology; it addresses important writing and literacy issues in the cybernetic age while introducing students to (and even getting them excited about) the changes and possibilities that new technologies may bring to the process of writing. In this way, Literacies and Technologies may begin to bridge the binary gap (or reroute the alternating circuits) I introduced a few paragraphs back.

Does it succeed? That's a complicated question--for a complex and challenging book.

One of the most attractive features of Literacies and Technologies is that Yagelski pulls no intellectual punches; the selections frequently offer substantial portions of works by some of the leaders in the growing field of literacy and technology studies, including Neil Postman, Jay David Bolter, Umberto Eco, Sherry Turkle, and Richard Ohmann. At the same time, it's refreshing to see more general and even classic pieces on literacy by authors as varied as Henry David Thoreau, Malcolm X, E. D. Hirsch, Paulo Friere, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and June Jordan. Including such pieces allows Yagelski to contextualize and historicize the debates about technology and literacy. And while it would be very easy to "stack the deck" with essays that mostly laud the ways in which technology facilitates writing and the exchange of ideas, Yagelski readily concedes that not everyone is pleased with the way computers are shaping the way writers and readers think, and he includes pieces by Wendell Berry ("Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer") and Sven Birkerts. The result, for teachers and students, is a balanced collection that should provoke much discussion and that offers multiple bases for productive argument and exchange--in both writing and chat (electronic and otherwise).

As such, Literacies and Technologies is an engaging, readable, and challenging text that refrains from offering a simplistic approach to thinking critically about the mutual impact of technology and literacy on one another. Indeed, the selections seem chosen to provoke dialogic thinking as one set of ideas challenges another, creating a nearly hypertextual sensation as one reads through the collection. Moreover, as Yagelski suggests in his introduction, the organization of selections in Literacies and Technologies offers "a sustained attention to rhetorical issues" in that the readings encourage students "to examine not only what and how they write but also why they write as they do" (xi). And, by doing this, Yagelski's textbook builds on a growing tradition of "cyberreaders," which offer readings on the politics and pedagogies of the new computer and Internet technologies. The added value of Yagelski's text is that it attempts to situate emerging technologies in a history, dialogue, and even politics of literacy and writing, so that students are encouraged to reflect on the ways in which technology impacts writing processes.

Even though the book attempts to close the gap between the two types of textbooks I outlined at the beginning of this review, its one potential shortcoming is that it is primarily a "reader." As such, Yagelski's work does not easily offer students advice about or pathways toward engaging the kinds of technologies that are shaping both literacy as a practice and writing as a process. In all fairness, Yagelski suggests that his textbook might work well as a "supplement"--perhaps to a course requiring that students write using the new technologies. But I am enough of a utopian pedagogue to envision--and to be charmed by the vision of--a textbook that argues about the new technologies while immersing students in them: a textbook, in other words, that discusses the politics of writing while having students write with the technology they are critiquing. Of course, I could simply have my students buy both Yagelski's and, say, Vitanza's Writing for the World Wide Web; but then again, my politics--and my conscience, evolving in part from having taught at both regional and urban campuses--says no; textbooks are too expensive, and the politics of their cost remains largely unaddressed in most academic forums.

Still, combining Yagelski's text with well-designed assignments utilizing computer technologies (such as crafting Web pages, having discussions via listservs and MOOs, and critiquing the rhetorical biases of software such as PowerPoint) seems the best way to facilitate student thinking about the mutual impact of literacy and technology on one another. Used in such a way, Literacies and Technologies becomes a ground-breaking, binary-bridging text. And while not quite utopian, the book prompts me to look forward to the possibilities of a second, even more visionary edition to an already outstanding book.

Publication Information: Alexander, Jonathan. (2001). [Review of the book Literacies and Technologies: A Reader for the Contemporary Writer]. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: May 15, 2001

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Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Alexander. Used with permission.