Review by Gina Merys, St. Louis University

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Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times

Patrick W. Berry, Gail E. Hawisher, and Cynthia L. Selfe
Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital P/Utah State UP, 2012. Web.

Image from Transnational LiteraciesThe result of multi-year, multi-country research into the literacy practices of self-identified transnational people, Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times extends the work of Selfe and Hawisher's Literate Lives in the Information Age. Using both still images and video in addition to alphabetic text, Berry, Hawisher, and Selfe construct a richer, more triangulated understanding of the arguments [they] make here than is possible through printed words alone,” asking readers “to formulate their own arguments about the literacies of students with transnational connections” (Introduction). Beyond asking readers to formulate their own arguments, the real nexus of this project is the agency given to the 13 “co-authors,” the students whose literacy practices are the focus of study here, to tell their own stories and frame their practices within the context of their distinct activity, processes, and narratives. 

Chapter 1: “Digital Literacies, Technological Diffusion, and Globalization”

The first chapter orients the reader to the complex nature of both transnational identities and the project of studying the literacy practices of students who claim these identities. For instance, in reference to the project itself the authors note, “this sort of work struggles within the traditional confines of a classroom and becomes more productive when face-to-face encounters and conversations with individuals in the cultural and material settings that they inhabit are added to the mix.” It is clear that because the literacy practices employed by each person are inextricably tied to their personal identities and those of their friends, family, and colleagues, “as they move between locations, all coauthors tend to differ from one another in terms of their motivations, experiences, and positioning within the topographies fashioned by globalization,” which further complicates and enriches the observations and implications within this book.

Additionally, this chapter gives contextual evidence of the rise in communications technologies such as cell phones, text messaging and linked telephone and computer systems that coincides with these students’ lives in such a way that show the extent to which these technologies have been staples in their lives since childhood. The relationship between these communication technologies and with the rapid growth of travel, including, international travel, since the 1980s give added shape to the ways in which “transnationality” becomes a part of these students’ worldviews and actions.

Chapters 2-5

The format of chapters 2-5 is consistent; each has an introduction to a specific research question, often examining the methodology and the tools as much as the subtopic, followed by example cases of the coauthors’ literacy narratives in the form of traditional narratives, writing process videos, and digital collages. The chapter focuses range from: searching for clues into how these students are shaping a globalized future based on and divergent from their family values and worldviews; examining how the use of digital technologies aids and shapes the ways they interact with stories across borders; exploring cultural views on language and language acquisition in conjunction with technological usages; and researching “why and how people from around the world acquire and develop digital literacies. […] [and] how these literacies intersect with people's education and everyday lives” (Chapter 5: Global Digital Divide).  

By using the narratives of students from around the world with quite a variety of different life experiences and motivations, this book begins to uncover the rhetorical awareness innately necessary to cultivating transnational digital literacy practices.  As noted in Chapter 2: Digital Media & Transnational Connections, “[r]evealed in these stories—these tacit and often unconscious acts of world-making, of discursive and rhetorical coding—students reveal the cultural conventions of the world in which they want to live.” By listening to and seeing the ways each student uses her/his cultural and technological knowledge to explore and explain their worlds, we also vicariously experience how they are actively composing transnational identities—global lives—for themselves. 

While the students’ acts of shaping their “Selves” in a global world through the use of literacy narratives continues to be interesting and educating work, as it has been since before Jerome Bruner began exploring its implications, what is particularly compelling about this “born-digital” book is its additional focus on investigating and revealing how the research methods and digital tools are also agents that provoke, and transform the ways the students build and articulate their identities. In Chapter 3: Cultural Designs for Writing Digitally, the authors “point to how digital media can offer new images of the dispersed, networked character of writing and learning. […] explore how video, sound, and still and moving images might inform our understanding of literate activity when these tools are put in the hands of writers themselves […] [and] argue for the use of video and other digital media as tools for reflection, research, and representation of literate activity in this early part of the 21st century.”  It is the very act of giving the students the “tools of research” such as video cameras and editing software, and even more importantly, the act of including them as coauthors that changes both the ways they interact with and make meaning with their own stories and the ways the readers interact with and make meaning from the lessons of the students’ narratives.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this volume offers the kind of thoughtful and inclusive work we have come to expect from its esteemed authors.  Specifically, it is the “reliance on multiple digital resources—along with a methodology that prizes the words, thoughts, and images that coauthors create and offer—underscores, for [the authors], the importance of multimodal, feminist approaches to research,” which makes this book so important to the ongoing work in these areas (Conclusion).  While studying the social ecologies that the convergence of literacy in the 21st century with global identity formation continues to enrich our understanding of how “individuals with transnational identities […] have nuanced understandings of the rhetorical appropriateness or inappropriateness, desirability or undesirability—the fitness—of specific technologies within specific sociocultural contexts,” Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times does so much more.  Using the available digital media to help convey the narratives of the coauthors, while also studying the effects of those media on literacy and on the research itself, are the multilayered innovations of this text.

Gina M. Merys, Ph.D. researches and teaches pedagogy to faculty and graduate students at Saint Louis University through the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. Her scholarly interests principally focus on language practices and literacy issues. She adds to this research a keen interest in digital technology, postcolonial and gender studies, and the rhetoric of Jesuit education.

© 2012 Gina Merys, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 2 (2012)