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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.

 


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Cunningham, Jennifer. African American Digital Language. C&C, June 2018. Posted 06/07/2018.

Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘“wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 67-84. Web. 30 May 2018.

Jennifer M. Cunningham reports a study of three male African American college students living in Ohio as they communicated with each other via text messages (73). Cunningham analyzed the messages for features of digital language (DL), African American language (AAL), and digital African American language (DAAL). She compared the results with those from a 2014 study of 100 comments posted by 19 African American college students on My Space (72). Her goal was to determine whether the features of the three language classes remained consistent across the different purposes, audiences, and platforms. In her view, consistency across these different contexts indicate the degree to which a form of language use is a stable, rule-governed literacy (72).

The author contends that efforts within writing pedagogy to build on languages with which students are familiar and in which they are already accomplished in order to build a bridge to Standard American English can benefit from learning more about how people communicate outside of the classroom (82). Cunningham reports research showing that text messaging is a favored form of communication among both adolescents and college students (68). She argues that studies of digital communication provide a view of how literacies are used for “authentic communicative purposes in . . . non-academic spaces” (67), and, as such, offer important lessons for writing pedagogy.

Cunningham reviews work by scholars who have examined and classified features of DL and AAL language groups. However, her previous study of DAAL is unique in that, except for her work, “there are no existing theoretical frameworks or coding categories that specifically address AAL as it is used to communicate in a digital environment” (73). As a result, for coding, she drew on tables she developed for her 2014 My Space study (73-74).

The author notes that in some views, digital language is considered a substandard form of communication with deleterious impacts on the literacy of users (68, 70). Scholars, however, have argued that the ability to exploit “textisms” like “initialisms” (e.g., “lol”), “letter/number homophones” (e.g., “b4”), and various forms of “shortenings” or “deletions” indicates a larger language-use repertoire rather than a deficit (68). Research suggests that fluidity in the “code-meshing” (69) involved in DL correlates with better reading skills (68, 82).

Cunningham writes that, similarly, African American Language has been labeled “an inferior form of communication that can negatively affect literacy” (69). Scholarship has recognized AAL as a “rule-governed language and literacy” with West-African roots and an English vocabulary (69). Cunningham discusses use patterns in AAL that demonstrate the affinity of AAL with West-African grammar and phonology, including “zero copula,” which occurs because in these language families there is “no form or conjugates of ‘to be’” and the conversion of “th” sounds, which do not occur in the African phonologies, to various alternatives such “d” sounds (71).

She explains her coding process for analysis of 380 messages consisting of 3136 words (73-74). “Open coding” classified the 3136 “instances” into “one of eight DL subcategories, one of six AAL phonological subcategories, and/or one of eight AAL grammatical subcategories” (73). In both the text messages and the social-network posts, Standard American English (SAE) accounted for most of the instances, (54.9% and 59.1%, respectively), but “SAE was not further coded” in the study (73).

In each subcategory, Cunningham reports substantial consistency between the text messages and the My Space posts. She notes some areas of difference. For example, in the subcategory DL, punctuation tended to be missing in the text messages but “excessive” in the social media posts (e.g., !!!) (75).

Some differences could be attributed to specific word choices by participants. In the AAL phonological subcategories, the two sets of texts differed considerably in the feature Cunningham designates as “Syllables”: “Unstressed syllables may be omitted and two pronounced words in AE may become one construction in AAL” (76). The more prominent occurrence of this feature in the text messages may have resulted from the three men’s regular use of “ight” to mean “all right” (76). Similarly, the verbal choices of “specific interlocutors” accounted for a disparity in the use of “Replacement th” in which the “th” sound is replaced with “d”; “several participants” in the social-media posts tended to use a particular example of this construction (76-77).

The author analyzes the degree to which the features she examined affected “functionality” (78). DAAL appeared designed to “creat[e] concise words, phrases, and sentences that are noticeably different from SAE while also approximating spoken AAL” (78). Writing that AAL is already “a more concise language” (78) and “a pragmatic language” (81), Cunningham contends that DL as used by African American speakers reflects these tendencies.

The author examines scholarship that contends that DL itself is “a hybrid between speech and writing,” creating “a new linguistic system” (69). Cunningham contends that the combination of DL and AAL creates a literacy, DAAL, that employs representations that differ from Standard American English both visually and by “approximating spoken AAL” (78). She found that the features of AAL that were incorporated into DAAL were more consistent across the two corpora than were the DL constructions, suggesting that DL is evolving as it is used in different contexts while “AAL is a more established and less fluctuating form of communication” (80).

In her view, her results reveal DAAL to be a hybrid practice with features that are consistent across contexts and therefore can be identified as a literacy in which users “follow innate and learned linguistic and paralinguistic rules to compose consistent and somewhat predictable written messages” (81). She argues that as an example of enhanced “heteroglossia” and as a way for students to “combine, alter, and mesh” both academic and non-academic language forms in response to differing contexts (81), DL and DAAL should be valued not only as stable, rule-governed linguistic practices but as contributors to “rhetorical awareness and writing ability” (82).