Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

I read this book two years ago, as a Master’s student in the Professional Writing & Editing program, and revisiting it recently was an interesting measure of how much I have read and learned. I felt more comfortable with the terms, the scholarship referenced, the importance of Selber’s work. Which is good, since it’s an exam book.

“This book was written to help teachers of writing and communication develop full-scale computer literacy programs that are both effective and professionally responsible.” xi

Selber begins by establishing his postcritical stance toward technology and tech practices. This perspective acknowledges that because of their increasing presence and relevance, we must use computers productively and responsibly (Aronowitz), guiding our students and ourselves toward a “critical consciousness” (Sullivan & Porter) regarding digital literacy and tech practices (8). This means viewing computers as more than instruments and teaching students more than functional skills. Selber warns that if instructors don’t adopt a postcritical stance, students will lack critical/contextual/historical understandings of computers, and technology designs will be beyond our control, thus redefining literacy practices (13). And, as Cindy Selfe reminds us, if approached uncritically, computer literacy programs will [continue to] perpetuate social inequities (13).

Instead of a technical approach, then, the postcritical stance advocates a humanist, more disciplinary approach to computer literacy that is not too prescriptive, is generative and directive, and is flexible and adaptive to local needs (22-23). This book is an attempt to sketch out a framework for such an approach—what Selber terms a computer multiliteracies program. These computer literacies are broken into three categories: functional, critical, and rhetorical (broken down in the table below through metaphor, student subject position, and objective).

The Conceptual Landscape of a Computer Multiliteracies Program (functional, critical, rhetorical literacies)
The Conceptual Landscape of a Computer Multiliteracies Program – functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies (25)

Functional literacy is frequently reduced to a basic skill where computers are seen as tools that students master. The tool metaphor masks the political dimensions of computers—rendering them neutral—and discourages critical thinking about how computers impact our everyday lives (40). But although the tool metaphor has its limitations, it is useful for discussing agency (providing students with a sense of control in a digital age), foregrounding disciplinary values (allowing teachers to start with what they know about writing and build technology onto that), and reinforcing particular ways of knowing (40-43).

Functionally literate students are able to use computers to achieve educational goals, understand the social conventions and specialized discourses associated with computers, effectively manage online workplaces and existences, and work through tech impasses (45). Students can only achieve these things, however, if comp instructors don’t assume that students are already computer literate and if computer skills are carefully incorporated into the curricula. Functionally literate students are prepared for computer-based work and are able to understand computers, use advanced software, and customize interfaces (46), but Selber claims this isn’t enough: “such work will remain obsequious and underdeveloped without the richly textured insights that critical perspectives can provide” (73).

Critical literacy, in contrast, imagines computers as cultural artifacts and students as informed questioners of technology. Selber describes the difference as a challenge of dominant discourses in order to enact change:

“Instead of reproducing the existing social and political order, which functional modes tend to do, [critical literacy] strives to both expose biases and provide an assemblage of cultural practices that, in a democratic spirit, might lead to the production of positive social change” (81).

Perhaps one of the more significant differences is critical literacy’s emphasis on the human, as opposed to functional literacy’s emphasis on the technical. Selber writes, “A critical literacy, in contrast, interrogates biases, power moves, and human implications” (86, emphasis added). This humanist emphasis shifts the computer from a tool to a cultural artifact, drawing attention to political and social assumptions of computers, as well as the acknowledgment that computers are “material products of human activity and agency” (86). Computers are not tools as much as they are products of humans intended for human activity. And the artifact metaphor, though idealized, positions students not as technical masters but as critical questioners (95).

Here, Selber introduces metadiscourse heuristics as critical (and political) strategies that focus students to work through writing problems:

“Such heuristics invite students to approach an artifact with inquires about it that are different from the ones directly imagined by author-to-readers intention structures, making available an oppositional discourse that can be used to critique a dominant discourse.” 97

These approaches can be seen in the different qualities that shape a critically literate student. Critically literate students interrogate dominant perspectives of computer design cultures, understand that use contexts (policies, classroom designs, curricula, etc.) constitute computer accessibility and use, know that institutional forces influence computer use, and are critical of public and popular representations of computers (96). That is, critically literate students are savvy to the power relations within different technological contexts (133).

Rhetorical literacy is the final component of the computer multiliteracies program, which imagines computers as hypertextual media and students as reflective producers of technology. For Selber, part of this production can occur within interface design, something that composition should influence “because there is so much at stake in the representations of literacy online” (140). More specifically, the interface is the central space where texts and users meet (141). A rhetorical approach to computer literacy is defined by persuasions, deliberation, reflection, and social action as outlined by the table below.

Parameters of a Rhetorical Approach to Computer Literacy - persuasion, deliberation, reflection, social action (147)
Parameters of a Rhetorical Approach to Computer Literacy – persuasion, deliberation, reflection, social action (147)

Through these parameters, students must recognize the persuasive forces at play within interface design and analyze those ideological forces rhetorically (from context to context). Beyond this external analysis, though, rhetorically literate students must be able to turn that critical eye inward, examining and challenging their own actions.

Students must be more than effective computer users and informed questioners. They must become reflective producers of technology, combining functional and critical literacies, in order to act as agents of change.

Change, though, must be systemic. A systemic perspective reminds teachers that many different aspects of the educational system contribute to enacting change, and it emphasizes that change is an ongoing process (184). The pedagogical requirements of such change require comp instructors to experiment with different technologies in the classroom, to evaluate the experiences and attitudes of their students, and to understand that pedagogy and technology are interconnected and “mutually constitutive” (199-200). Finally, Selber claims that we need to reimagine our individual, disciplinary, and institutional values:

“What is needed, without a doubt, are significant departmental and institutional structures that value and support teachers in career-sustaining ways and that consider graduate students, who represent the future of the workforce, to be a special responsibility when it comes to technology education.” 224-25

What this means for comp, and humanists more generally, is a reimagined relationship to technology. It means imagining technology (e.g. computers) not as a burden or something extra-curricular but central to the very way we teach and learn.


Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.


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