Critical Framework

Cindy Selfe gesturing with both hands, holding a marker in her left hand

Cynthia Selfe and her work with the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) are situated at the intersection of three theoretical frameworks within literacy studies: the New Literacy Studies view of literacy as socially constructed, the influence of digital media in reconstructing literacy practices, and the impact of narrative as a means of understanding literacy. These three aspects to Professor Selfe's work informed my interview and shaped the questions that were asked. Additionally, all three of these converge to help explain the DALN and how it serves as both a common corpus to literacy studies and as a legacy of Professor Selfe's work within digital media scholarship.

As I interviewed Professor Selfe about her views and scholarship of literacy, she often mentioned the social embeddedness of literacy. Rather than literacy being purely a cognitive function, Selfe argued that

The practices and values of literacy...are shaped by the cultural context, the historical context, your economic context, your linguistic context, and your geographical location in the world.... Literacy varies widely, those experiences, those understandings, those values, those practices, those events, they all vary widely depending on the context where they are practiced.

Thus literacy becomes a reflection of the society in which it is practiced. To better understand literacy then, it is necessary to view it from within the contexts in which it is being practiced. Professor Selfe's perceptions of literacy align with how theorists such as Brian Street (1993) have described literacy within the New Literacy Studies movement: "An understanding of literacy requires detailed, in-depth accounts of actual practice in different cultural settings" (p. 1). Selfe and New Literacy Studies push back against older schemas of literacy such as the "autonomous model" where literacy functions completely outside context and can be decontextualized when studying it.

Selfe also spoke to the complexity of "literacies" as she explained her own metaphor of how literacy functions. She drew from physics and the understanding of how light functions simultaneously as a particle, a wave, and a field. She said that literacy practices or events act like individual "particles" that also exist within a history of time (wave), that makes up the "field" of context. It is impossible to fully understand light without taking into consideration its aspects as a particle, wave, and field; similarly, it is impossible to comprehend particular literacy practices or events without understanding the wave of time that they are a part of as well as the context in which they are found. This view of literacy shows its multiplicity: literacy’s ability to be different things in different places. Selfe said that she would "encourage people to think in multiples" because this view "shed[s] light on that infinite variety or human understandings, values, and activities that we term literacy in 'this point in time,' in 'this culture,' in 'this environment.'" This perspective is shared by another New Literacy Studies scholar, James Gee (2008) who argued that literacy is best understood "in its full range of cognitive, social, interactional, cultural, political, institutional, economic, moral, and historical contexts" (p. 2). The DALN captures this socially and contextually constructed perspective of literacy from the differing narratives that are presented by each person.

As both an epistemological framework and a method, Selfe's conception of the DALN uses individual literacy narratives to capture a better understanding of literacy. Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary M. Gergen (1983) explained this approach to understanding society (and thus literacy) when they said, "Although self-narratives are possessed by individuals, their genesis and sustenance may be viewed as fundamentally social" (p. 256). That is to say that these literacy narratives inform our understandings of social structure and action, and how literacy is embedded within the social structure.

One of Selfe's approaches to teaching students about literacy is to gather these literacy narratives by inviting participants to "tell a story" about certain experiences they have had with literacy. She defends this approach by stating that narratives and "stories" are one of the most natural means of communication. Moreover, theorists such as Trevor Lummis (1987) assert that "oral evidence stands alone as the only major resource for large areas of experience" (p. 21). Although Selfe said that stories do not necessarily give a "capital ‘T’ Truth," they do provide "perspectival glimpses" into the social and contextual layers that comprise the story. Additionally, these stories, often expanded to "life histories" give the readers a better empathy into the context of lives outside their own. Linda Shopes (2002) asserted that "edited carefully, [life histories] can open the listener to a life very different from his or her own in a non-threatening way. Contextualized thoughtfully, they can help a reader understand personal experience as something deeply social" (p. 5). By viewing these individual literacy narratives within the DALN collectively, researchers can understand how the social context of the communities of these individuals shapes their own development of literacy.

The third major component of Professor Selfe's scholarship and the DALN lies in the "new literacies" of digital media. Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2011) argued that because of the global shifts due to the expanse of the Internet, what literacies "are" has ontologically or essentially changed based on new technical "stuff" and new ethos "stuff." New digital technologies of participating, collaborating, and composing have exponentially expanded and are continuing to expand (the new technical stuff), and "at the heart of the idea of new ethos stuff is the idea of technological change aligning with a range of increasingly popular values" (p. 55). Selfe followed this trend when she explained that "digital contexts changed and altered and shaped literacy practices and values so dramatically from the very first. It was speed, reach, extension; it was the velocity with which communications went different places." The apparatuses of literacy, to borrow a term from Deborah Brandt (2001), in this case the "digital tools" that are often used to communicate, impact the ways in which literacy is used. Multimodal compositions, networks, and social media have all created new contexts for literacy practices to develop and flourish. Selfe explained that the DALN has served as a repository for stories of people as they have made a transition from print to digital composition. She explained that documenting this change will be helpful in letting us remember and understand transitions that we will be facing in the future. Lankshear and Knobel's (2011) new literacies are important to understand, but also, as Stuart Selber (2004) explained, developing a critical literacy of such literacy events is needed for students to use computers effectively and participate in computer-mediated communication (p. 7). Understanding the implications of digital technology on literacy is essential for understanding our own era. Selfe argued, "If you think you can talk about composing today without talking about digital environments, you'd be missing a huge swath of the literacy practices and understandings that people are engaged in during the 21st century."