“Beginnings Are Always Messy”: Thoughts on Transliteracy and Inquiry from a Learning Advocate

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In recent weeks, the blogosphere has been abuzz with  a flurry of posts debating the value of the term transliteracy in library circles.  Some of the conversations about transliteracy–what it is, why librarians should care, what it looks like–have been constructive; however, some of the discussions have been outright petty, mean-spirited, and unprofessional, particularly those in David Rothman’s post that question the motives and integrity of Bobbi Newman and others’ work on transliteracy, which really detracts from the more important discussion of why librarians should not only care about transliteracy, but also pay heed to other disciplines whose work informs our practice.  If libraries are about learning (and I think they should be), then you certainly need to be tuned into the conversations in other information landscapes.

One of the problems I see with the conversations in these recent posts is that some view transliteracy as a synonym for “information literacy” when in fact, it is not.  I can see how you might struggle to conceptualize the term if you are looking through just the lens of information literacy, but if we look at the working definition of transliteracy, we’re looking at a much broader picture:  multiple literacies for reading and writing the world.  I interpret transliteracy as an umbrella term that examines how traditional literacies transact with new and emerging literacies; the intersection of these literacies,  I think, is where transliteracy can help us theorize how people may use a combination of literacies in transformative ways to access, create, and share information through diverse mediums.

Like others, I’m still mucking around with this notion of transliteracy; I enjoy examining how it plays out in my practice and my services to high school students in our library.   I think this effort is particularly evident in the work Susan Lester and I have done for the last year and a half with the Media 21 project, but as I’ve shared in several presentations this fall, other librarians at the elementary and middle level are also applying the transliteracy lens to their practice and work with students through collaborative learning experiences they facilitate with classroom teachers.  In 2011, I would like to further explore how libraries can be sites of literate communities (and I use literate in a broad sense of expanding beyond the standard definition of the word) where people are engaging in many kinds of literate practices to consume and create content in thoughtful, meaningful, and new ways that meld traditional and new literacies.  I also will continue to explore how participatory culture and librarianship dovetail with transliteracy.

My inquiry stance on literacy and background study in critical theory in Literacy and Language Education at the University of Georgia  most definitely color my thinking—I am perfectly fine with a working and most likely, imperfect, definition of transliteracy, but I think the cognitive dissonance we’re experiencing as we try to unpack the concept of transliteracy and the process of inquiry is where the real learning takes place.  Whether we (and that includes me) ultimately accept or reject the term transliteracy in the future, there is value in the exploration, questioning, and testing of these ideas.

I think it is important for us to embrace the chaos and messiness of inquiry and learning (as Dr. Bob Fecho at UGA would often tell us) and model risk-taking and being comfortable with being imperfect or “beta”, in finding joy in the joy of learning and of asking questions (isn’t that what libraries  are about?) rather than feeling compelled to finalize answers right now and dismiss the inquiry.  For now, I accept “Beginnings are always messy” (John Galsworthy) and am approaching my disquisition of transliteracy anticipating that ideas may be fuzzy for a bit and not yet clearly in focus.  I will continue to contemplate my inquiry as thoughtfully and purposefully as I can and share those reflections with you through my blog postings and presentations, which I invite you to read in their entirety and not try to interpret out of context or in a piecemeal fashion as some have.    I encourage you to share your thoughts and any examples you may have of how libraries are supporting transliteracy.

Here are some thoughtful reads for your consideration:

12 thoughts on ““Beginnings Are Always Messy”: Thoughts on Transliteracy and Inquiry from a Learning Advocate

  1. Buffy, I’m honored and surprised to have my comment highlighted here. I’m glad you find it helpful within the larger conversation about transliteracy.

    My personal mission as a librarian is not only to facilitate access to information, but I also truly believe that information is power. Anything I can do to help my students and patrons to find, use, create, publish, combine, critically evaluate, organize and ethically use information is crucial. That sounds like a slightly expanded version of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards, which I generally like and respect, although I think it is time to revisit them for the new millennium. The other piece of this is that I *know* that my students and patrons must learn to interact with information via digital technology if they are to be successful professionals, students and empowered citizens. To be lifelong learners, folks need to be able to interact with information across a wide variety of digital platforms. Most importantly, I want them to learn how to learn how to use new digital information tools, platforms, devices, etc. I’m still learning this myself.

    Anyway, I’m not so concerned with whether or not transliteracy is the perfect term or whether we all define it the same way. It works well enough for my purposes. I’m much more concerned with doing the real work of supporting transliteracy, whether it is teaching someone how to use a mouse or how to read the help menu to teach themselves how to use a new online tool.

  2. I defend the use of messy terms like transliteracy, but one of the most important questions about it that is being missed to the ability to move from analog to digital. Not all of the conversations and interactions we have happen in the digital realm, and the ability to translate them into shareable parts of a digital conversation are also important. As an example:

  3. I love reading your posts.
    As a school librarian working on a shoestring budget, everyday here on the job is messy. I mean “messy” on many levels: from the dust bunnies on the bottom shelves to the lack of signage on the tops of the shelves, to the insufficient bandwidth in my building, to the insufficient number of computers for the information needs of my library patrons. I’m just grateful I still have a job. I make do with what I have. Messy is good.

  4. This is fascinating, Buffy. MY comments are unprofessional, petty, and mean-spirited? Why, exactly, is that? Because I insist that people be able to define terms they use? Because I reject the notion that use of undefined terms is acceptable or that in the ~year the blog has existed, that it’s contributors haven’t had time to define the term that is central to their manifesto? When they have have plenty of time and it is unacceptable to use a term one can’t define, what conclusions are we left to draw? Sincerely, I look forward to a supported critique of why anything I wrote was unprofessional or petty. I also look forward to the day when all libraryfolks, at least in their professional materials, manage to display a mastery of the English language befitting their positions.

  5. I got to meet both Buffy & Bobbi at the Internet Librarian in Monterey this last year, so I at least have faces and a little personality to go with the names. I’ve been reading Bobbi’s musings on the T-word, and also the converse opinions as well.

    It is ridiculous and rude to blast anyone over a definition of this concept when they are thinking out loud and studying, poking and prodding trying to figure it out.

    To be transliterate would imply that one has the ability to be literate across many media, whether it is print, digital, visual, or whatever; to be able to take that ability and apply it to other forms, akin to an artist being able to paint a landscape on canvas from what is seen to what the artist interprets.

    To be information literate is to understand information and how to use it. Transliteracy takes that to the next level, by knowing ways to access information, convert information from one medium to others, and to be able to pass that knowledge to the next person.

    Just my $.02, and it may not even make any sense!

  6. I hope you will not take for granted that I behave in an unprofessional manner if I put in writing some of my concerns about this new term/concept of “transliteracy”:
    1. – No problem with the issues dealt with in this literature. On the contrary, there is too much food for thought for librarians. I say `too much’ because not all LIS professionals around the world do have the background, the time, the energies and the local and personal circunstances to think about the practicalities of transliteracy for their everyday work within their communities.
    2. – “Transliteracy” is not a new word. As far as I know, Thomas et al never explained why did they turn the plural of Liu’s project into the singular. Must be some linguistic/academic explanation to this shift.
    3. – As far as I know, there is nothing new (no “messy beginning”, then) in the “transliteracy” approach. If you look to the references in the First Monday piece of 2007, there is no mention at all of so many literacy scholars, mainly in the learning and pedagogies field, who have been dealing with these same issues for such a long time. I miss specifically references to Lankshear and Knobel, Kalantzis and Cope, Kress, J. P. Gee, etc. Strange, since they are a must in all aspects of technologies and the mindset 2.0 applied to the educational setting and the teaching/learning of all new literacies. However, I’m quite happy with Jenkins and Stiegler being cited and commented upon.
    4. – If we read something coming from the New London Group (some authors above) we will discover inmediately the centrality of multimodality in the present-day communication landscape and the accompanying concept of “multiliteracies”. In my view, Thomas et al can not sell their “transliteracy” term as a new concept, since the ‘multiliteracies’ construct pre-dates theirs. Or at least, out of academic courtesy, they could give their readers some hints as to the availability of other terms covering the same issues (btw, what about “metaliteracies”?).
    5. – The above point is quite important since there is a substantial inconsistency between the “standard” definition given by Thomas et al, where they refer to “a range of platforms, tools and media”, and other definitions interspersed throughout their FM text: transliteracy is to do with “communication types across time and culture”; with paying “attention to the whole range of modes and synergies between them”; or with “read, write and interact across multiple modes”. Now, it seems to me that these alternative definitions are better in getting the whole picture of transliteracy, multiliteracies or whatever you call it. Because all literacies, old and new, are to do with modes of communication first and then with whatever kind of media and channels compatible with the mode selected. As Lankshear and Knobel would put it, “technical stuff” would be more of a ‘contingent enabler’ than a ‘prime mover’ or a ‘heart of the matter’. The stress should be on communication, not media.

    All in all, call it transliteracy or multiliteracies or any other name; no problem as long as we can clearly tell the difference between mode and medium of communication and train our learners to be able to choose the mode and the medium most suited to the design/meaning/representation/text they want to communicate for a particular situation/audience.

    I cannot imagine a better way of declaring the war is over. Thanks for your attention.

  7. ¡Congratulations, Unquiet Librarian!

    Two additional comments to my previous comment:

    1. – #Jimmy the Geek: sorry, but I hope your understanding of ‘information literacy’ and even ‘transliteracy’ does not become mainstream overnight.
    2. – I forgot to mention Mark Warschauer among my missing authors in the Transliteracy literature. Please, have a look to his recent piece “Digital literacy studies: progress and prospects” (http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/warschauer_m/docs/dls.pdf#warschauer_dis). You will be able to discover for how long and how deep the issues in the transliteracy literature have been discussed among literacy scholars and researchers; and no need for new words/constructs!

  8. Buffy, thank you once again for a very informative blog post! I have been following you and Bobbi on the transliteracy front and you both have significantly helped me as a librarian make sense of the many continuing changes that have been occurring in the library/student world and giving meaning through words, posts and student work to the “multiple literacies for reading and writing the world”—I look forward to many more posts from Hamilton/Newman/Cordell/Thomas/Nadel…you get my drift. You are all very inspirational.

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