On Bowen’s “Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research”

I actually read Lauren Marshall Bowen’s “Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research” in the June 2011 issue of College Composition and Communication a couple weeks ago when I was visiting family at a reunion of sorts in Minnesota.  Now I’m writing this as my in-laws are visiting from Florida.  I think there is a connection here.

In the nutshell, Bowen’s essay is a case study of eighty-one year old “Beverly” and her literacy practices with computer technology.  Beverly is a retired and widowed woman who has actually worked with various computer technologies for quite a while; she worked her way up from secretary to purchasing agent at her town’s paper mill and worked with spreadsheets and other software.  Her technological practices include Flickr, developing scrapbooks (which she prints– Bowen talks about this as a form of remediation), and she seeks help from friends, grandchildren, etc.  Along the way, Bowen makes lots of excellent connections with the scholarship regarding technology and literacy and technology and older people, too.

I have mixed feelings about this piece.

On the one hand, I think it’s well-written and Bowen does a good job of weaving/connecting this work to the scholarship in the field.  I think it would be a good model essay to share with students in English 621 this fall.  Bowen demonstrates classic research methodologies of the field– literacy narrative, ethnography, participant-observation, more or less case study– and it is very good evidence that researchers in our field can do “legitimate” subject-based research with a very small sample.  A lot of times, students in our MA program in Written Communication get to the point of working on their thesis or writing project and they start with these giant and pretty much unworkable ideas: “I want to interview all the teachers at my school about ‘x’,” “I want to give a survey of all the students at EMU about their attitudes about writing,” etc.  It’s not unlike the first year writing student who starts with a working thesis for a research project along the lines of “Drunk driving is bad.” Anyway, what I like about Bowen’s essay is that it is in itself evidence that our field values and certifies as scholarship very small and precise studies, so instead of contemplating dozens of complex case studies, why not focus just on one?

On the other hand, I think this is an essay that raises some largely philosophic questions on the definition of “research” in our field.  There was a discussion that kind of touched on this on the WPA-L mailing list a while ago.  While we as comp/rhet people are willing to call this research, I wonder to what extent scholars in other fields– even other social science kinds of fields– would value a study based on a single subject.  And if it is research that is only valued to people within our field, well, what’s the point?

The story of Beverly’s literacy practices that Bowen tells is interesting, but for the most part, it remains for me only “a story,” one that is difficult for me to make larger conclusions and generalizations.  Granted, when this particular story is read in relation to lots of other literacy narratives regarding technology (I’m thinking in particular of Selfe and Hawisher’s excellent Literate Lives in the Information Age), and I think that’s why Bowen’s essay “works” here.  But I’m not completely sure that’s enough.

I also have a bit of a problem squaring some of Bowen’s arguments in relation to senior citizens and technology.  Without going into any great detail, I’m thinking in some ways of my own parents and of my in-laws (who are quite a bit younger than Beverly), and I do wonder to what extent Bowen might be “reading into” Beverly’s own technological literacy and making claims about her practices that might be a bit of a stretch.  I see with my parents and in-laws the ways in which affinity and affect can motivate people into doing new things with both literacy and technology.  My mom (and my dad, too) recently bought an iPad, I think mainly for my mom to read and to play games.  My in-laws have been working a lot lately with eBay to sell the many clocks and parts my father-in-law has collected and worked with over the last 45 or so years.

But I’m not sure that any of these new activities constitute a particularly sophisticated literacy practice.  I mean, the idea that Beverly is still printing out those Flickr sets is sort of frustrating to me.  We used to have faculty who would insist on printing out email messages, and I think it is fair to say that no one thought of that was a smart adaptation, right?

I digress, but you get the idea.  It’s an interesting essay and interestingly problematic, too.

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