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Lewis Ellison & Solomon. African American Families and the Digital Divide. RTE, Feb. 2019. Posted 04/04/2019.

Lewis Ellison, Tisha, and Marva Solomon. “Counter-Storytelling vs. Deficit Thinking around African American Children and Families, Digital Literacies, Race, and the Digital Divide.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.3 (2019): 223-44. Web. 25 Mar. 2019.

Tisha Lewis Ellison and Marva Solomon address mainstream narratives that depict African Americans’ relationship with digital resources through a deficit model. Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that “counter-storytelling” as a research methodology reveals a more accurate picture of the ways African Americans interact with digital environments.

The authors define digital literacy as “multiple and interactive practices mediated by technological tools . . . which include reading, writing, language, and exchanging information in online environments” (223). They see the dissemination of this literacy as imbricated in racial identity, yet believe its impact is overlooked in scholarship on race (223). In their view, stories drawn from African American experience with computers and other technologies must be “honor[ed]” rather than marginalized if a full understanding of the role of digital experiences in this community is to be fully understood (224).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon quote Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic to define “counter-storytelling” as a kind of narrative that “aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (qtd. in Lewis Ellison and Solomon 224). Such stories, in the authors’ view, are an important methodological resource in the attempt to move beyond misconceptions about cultures (238). Such stories, in this approach, are more revealing than data collection about actual practices in their portrayal of the ways people interact with and see themselves in relation to digital literacy (225).

The literature review lists studies that explore the use of digital resources among African Americans and that counter prevailing assumptions about the existence and nature of a digital divide. In addition, scholarship has explored how listening to counter-stories has helped educators improve learning opportunities for minority students in school settings (226-27). Still, the authors maintain, there is a “shortage” of studies of African American counter-stories about the interactions of race and digital access (227).

The authors write that the concept of a “digital divide” imposes “strict binaries” along social, educational, and economic lines (227). Citing Pippa Norris, they break the divide into the “global divide” among rich and poor geographical areas; the “social divide” that delineates “the information the rich and poor receive within various nations or social groups”; and the “democratic divide,” which addresses the degree to which “access plays a major role in an individual’s agency and power” (227-28). Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that most discussions around the digital divide locate African American users among the poor with limited access and depict users as White, thus furthering a misleading narrative about “what Internet access looks like, who has it, [and] who does not” (228), with the result that digital resources are often not directed toward communities of color. In fact, the authors contend, research shows that African Americans are making substantial gains in Internet use (228).

The authors’ current research derives from two studies. Lewis Ellison used survey, interview, and observational approaches along with analysis of digital story-telling practices for a qualitative case study of the use of computers in the home by five African American families. Her discussion centers on “Chant,” a professor in an urban university in the south, and Chant’s nine-year-old son “Rem” (229). She asked,

In what ways did the digital literacy and story-making practices of an African American family dyad (mother/son) display evidence of agency in the context of a family-focused digital storytelling activity? (231)

Solomon conducted a “naturalistic inquiry” with eight African American first-graders at the school where she had taught for fourteen years in order to learn “what would happen if first graders had the opportunity to use digital tools in their own storytelling” (231). This study also collected surveys, artifacts, observations, and transcripts. Seven of the eight families studied had home computers. Solomon focuses on two girls, “Penny” and “Jordan” (232).

Lewis Ellison’s study of Chant resulted in conversations in which Chant provided counter-stories challenging the view that African Americans were emblematic of a digital divide. As a professor, Chant spent much professional time using digital resources, and she and her son did so at home as well (229, 237). Chant emphasized the importance of being included as “part of the conversation” for minority communities (233). She revealed the effects of the deficit model in that the less-affluent community where she chose to live was seen by Internet service providers as not in need of advanced online options; as a result, her community was forced to pay higher prices for home service (234).

Solomon’s study of Penny revealed another effect of inaccurate assumptions about African American use of digital resources. Penny did not have access to a computer at home, a fact that drove assumptions about her online competence. However, the authors note that she had access through her extended family, and in fact, Penny proved very adept at telling stories with computers (235).

Jordan’s teacher characterized her as “very creative,” and stated that students had many opportunities to use digital resources creatively (236). The authors state, however, that these opportunities were school-based prompts that prevented Jordan from exercising agency (236). Once permitted to write on her own for the study, Jordan produced images that “announce[d] her status as multiracial in a bivariate family and world,” revealing sophistication that had gone unremarked in comments from the teacher 237).

The authors urge educators to invite counter-stories from students and also from families in order to understand more fully how African Americans interact with digital resources and to dispel oppressive assumptions based on the expectation that they will be constrained by a digital divide (238). Using Adam J. Banks’s model of digital access (233), the authors found that their study subjects exercised all five kinds of access Banks listed: material, experiential, critical, functional, and transformative (237-38).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon conclude that

to date, there are no known opportunities to cultivate discussions and strategies for learning between teachers and parents (and particularly parents of color) concerning digital and nondigital practices. (239)

Awareness of counter-stories as a research methodology, the authors state, can serve as a corrective to deficit models that adversely affect classroom practice.