Transliteracy has received much attention in the last few weeks.  Two posts by respect librarians spurred on a recent debate.  Meredith Farkas wrote a post entitled “Transliteracy from the perspective of an information literacy advocate“.  In this thoughtful and through-provoking post, Farkas compares transliteracy to the Library 2.0 movement.  She also compares transliteracy to information literacy and the instruction thereof.  In a comment reply, Farkas gets the the crux of her questions surrounding transliteracy, “what does a transliterate person look like?”

David Rothman wrote a post entitled “Commensurable Nonsense (Transliteracy)“.  Again transliteracy is compared to information literacy as well as computer literacy.  Moreover, a comparison is made to Library 2.0.  First, let me say that as someone who does not understand Library 2.0, I cannot really debate this issue.  I can say that Library 2.0 is a “concept” found in libraries only.  Transliteracy is a concept that is interdisciplinary by creation and design.

The difficulty in describing what a transliterate person looks like is the same difficulty we find in defining a literate person.  Is a literate person someone who can read and write, as Rothman suggests?  If so, at what level? Rothman, in his post, alludes to the fact that many students enter college while barely being able to “to string together a coherent written sentence”.  Are these students literate?  Having spent two semesters focused on literacy, reading and writing in my doctoral studies, we concluded that it is nearly impossible to define a literate person.

Furthermore, notions of literacy as the ability to read and write seem to be antiquated.  For example, the National Council of Teachers of English have expanded their definition of literacy to include “viewing and visually representing” information.  The International Reading Association expands their definition of literacy even further.  They include “one that encompasses the use of print, oral language, visual language, and the six interrelated language arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing.”  The lack of consensus surrounding the definition of literacy  does not devalue it as a concept.

A second issue that needs to be addressed is the comparison between transliteracy and information literacy.  Information literacy is defined as the abilities to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”  Information literacy seems concerned with the consumption of information, not the creation thereof.  Please don’t misunderstand, this is vitally important, but is very different from the concept of transliteracy.  I define transliteracy as “the ability to create, express, participate or interpret abstract representations of knowledge or thought, via whatever medium they prefer, so that one may more fully participate in the society, community, legacy or political system in which they reside.”  For me, transliteracy focuses equally on the notion of content consumption as well as content creation, and inasmuch, is vastly different than information literacy.

Why focus on literacies outside of traditional literacy?  There are many theorists who believe that the Gutenberg Parenthesis is coming to an end and that a Secondary Orality is emerging.   Why is this important.  The first question that one needs to ask is what is the purpose of literacy to begin with?  Is literacy an end in and of itself or a means to an end?  If it is a means to engage in society at large, then have communication technologies emerged that require a new or different way to communicate?  Can someone now fully function in society without the ability to read and write, such as the students Rothman mentions?  Moreover, is literacy a means to transmit knowledge and/or entertainment?  Again, have changes in communication technologies emerged that allow someone to consumer and create knowledge in forms other than print?

Secondary Orality, and the end of the Gutenberg Era, focus on a return to the oral tradition.  While nether idea argues that print is going away, nor that its importance is diminishing, they do hold that print as the primary vessel for imparting knowledge is no more.  A great example of this are TED talks.  While lectures have been around for almost all of human history, they have never been recorded, transcription aside.  The crux of their view is something like experiencing a Shakespearean play is different than reading the play.   Hearing oral stories is different than reading them.  Being able to tell stories is different than writing them down.  Libraries understand this greatly.  We rush to record oral accounts of WWII, because we recognize that the oral story telling is closer to the account than a written record.

Can you be a fully functional citizen today with just the ability to read and write?  If so, for how much longer can you be a fully functional citizen? Literacy is a fundamental and necessary ingredient for democracy.  Moreover, literacy helps one achieve critical awareness and freedom.  While literacy is “not the equivalent of emancipation, it is in a more limited but essential way the precondition for engaging in struggles around both relations of meaning and relations of power.  To be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 11).

Transliteracy is a concept that does not place emphasis on print, digital, multimodal, visual or any other literacy.  It holds all literacies as equals.  It does, however, give slight emphasis to the ability to create (write) over the ability to consume (read).  A transliterate person is someone who can engage in the flow of knowledge via any medium (whether print, oral, digital, or other) so that they may be a fully functional citizen and participant of society.  A transliterate person can create a storyboard for a video as well as a draft outline for a printed document.  A transliterate person can edit a video as well as edit a paper.  They understand the sentence structure regardless or oral or print constraints.  They can recognize that sentence structure has nothing to do with the printed word, but is actually rooted in oral tradition and orality.

Why is this important for libraries?  Because libraries are leading the charge in creating digital media labs and similar environments.  Just as libraries have focused on the abilities necessary for learning how to be literate, libraries now focus on the abilities to be transliterate.

Is it possible that translitearcy is a buzzword?  Sure!  Just as some consider information literacy as an ill-defined concept and buzzword.  Are buzzwords bad?  I used to sit in meetings with colleagues and we would count the number of times we heard collaboration, authentic, or participation.  Buzzwords are not bad in and of themselves.  And yes, Farkas is correct in her point that there is a vast graveyard of Library 2.0 failures.  Failing is not bad either, nor is trying.  The ventures came at little or no cost other than the labor and books purchased on social software.  Little is known about the success of any of these ventures, but it would not be foolish to believe that some where successful.  Perhaps in five, ten or twenty years there will be a graveyard of transliteracy attempts.  I do know the digital media labs in the area are highly used.  Life does lead to graveyards, fear of graveyards leads to a lack of life. I choose graveyards.



Filed under transliteracy

8 responses to “Transliteracy

  1. Anthony,

    You’ve touched on some really important points here. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to provide a slightly-differing perspective on a few of them:

    Philosophically, it may be impossible to tell who is or isn’t literate. However, from a practical perspective it’s really quite easy. UNESCO provides a baseline for functional literacy: “a literate person is one who can, with understanding, both read and write a short simple statement on his or her everyday life.” The Education for All 2000 Assessment had a similar working definition []. These tests provide usable, if skewed, statistics for literacy.

    To me, this gets at the functional requirements of a particular transliteracy. Andromeda asked, as the TRG has discussed, whether someone who is transliterate must be omnipotent. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of transliteracy.

    A test of one simple way in which someone could be transliterate would establish that the person is transliterate in at least one way. So, going by the PART definition that deems print and orality to be literacies that a transliterate person could go across (this example also works in the language model), a simple functional transliteracy test would be “a transliterate person is one who can, with understanding, read aloud a short simple statement on his or her everyday life.”

    Someone being literate in all possible/practical ways AND being able to read & write across them would make the person omniliterate and transliterate. Omniliteracy is impractical to the point of absurdity.

    Rothman misses the mark on IL because:
    1. He seems to believe that, despite the most common definitions of transliteracy talking about reading and writing, that the literacies that make up transliteracy are “Knowledge of, skill in, or competence in an specific area or subject.” Thus, he constructs his straw man.
    2. He neglects to point out that information literacy is neither an ability to read and write nor knowledge of a particular field. Information Literacy is a critical ability — and I contend, not a literacy in the way people who seriously talk about literacies define them. This makes IL prima facie incompatible with transliteracy.
    The rest of his criticisms cannot escape these fundamental fallacies.

    Looking at the discussions surrounding literacy studies and transliteracy, I think it’s a little premature to expand our existing definitions. People are confused by a murky ecosystem of literacy where there was once clear principles. I suspect a lot of these expanded definitions stem from design-by-committee and fund-seeking behavior rather than stringent consideration for literacy semantics.

    I like TED videos because they’re edutainment. The entertaining aspects and my appreciation of articulate speakers attracts me to them. For ingesting large amounts of usable information quickly, text is still a clear winner IMO.

  2. Brad,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, UNESCO’s test is a standard literacy test, but when you start questioning the basic test, it tends to fail. But you are absolutely correct, they are useful even if skewed.

    Moreover, you hit the mark when you argue the straw man created when discussing transliteracy and information literacy in the same context. The same fallacy would apply to music and information literacy as well.

    Thank you for your GREAT comment.

  3. A.: love your blog. i liked the frierian definition of transliteracy you used in your comment on Dave’s blog.

    B.: “Information Literacy is a critical ability ” i will be quoting that for years.

    thanks to you both!

  4. Cristóbal Pasadas Ureña

    #Anthony: reading carefully what you write about IL being -seemingly- “concerned with the consumption of information, not the creation thereof”, I can not but ask myself about the kind and type of IL programs poor transliterate Anthony has suffered throughout his college years. Since the IL definitions (see the one you offer in your very post), standards and frameworks available can not be seriously blamed for this absolutely unjustified reductionism, the only reason I can imagine is an extremely poor IL program in his college, stressing only the searching/finding/evaluating/managing part of the IL continuum, but leaving aside the effective and ethical use of the information accessed (including creation of term papers, blogs, wikis, oral and ppt presentations and panels, videos, etc. within the course program).

    #Brad: there are many serious researchers and practitioners in the “murky ecosystem of literacy” who have no problem in equating literacy with competence (and even education, for that matter), so long as all of us are well aware of the meaning we are using in a particular piece of discussion; so information literacy is information competence, just as ‘digital literacy’ is digital competence (according to several definitions, not all, of digital literacy). So IL is the competence a person has to search, access, understand and use/create the information/message/content /text conveyed through any mode and medium of communication. So where lies the prima facie incompatibility of IL and transliteracy?

  5. #Cristóbal: Perhaps it was slightly hyperbolic to say that people talking seriously about literacy exclude Information Literacy. However, my main point is that transliteracy operates via Rothman’s first provided definition of literacy (reading and writing), while he addressed it via the second (competence) incorrectly.

    I go into more detail about my qualms with Information Literacy as a term on my own blog, and would be grateful for your input.

    When I say that IL researchers claim it is all-encompassing, I mean that they believe reading and writing are inherent parts of IL. I disagree with this notion. A Social Studies teacher requires his/her students to be able to read and write (and assumes such). If the student cannot, it is not the social studies teacher’s sole responsibility to bring them up to speed. Reading and writing is an important requirement and a matter of discussion in the social studies education field. But, social studies does not encompass reading and writing just because it is dependent upon literacy. The same is true of IL.

    I think “Literacy is a competence” isn’t very useful reductionism (apropos to discussing literacies) because competence has more variable properties of comparison than, say, language does. For instance, the competencies of “Archery Literacy” are quite different from the competencies of “Wine Literacy.” I propose taking a somewhat-Structuralist approach and viewing these abilities not as field-specific competencies, but as language skills. This allows us to compare even starkly-different literacies using a semiotic lens.

    • Cristóbal Pasadas Ureña

      #Brad: thanks for this exchange. It is out of discussion your absolute right to have your qualms with IL as a term, and I do not think/hope/wish this field of literacy, IL, new literacies, multiliteracies, transliteracy or whatever name to be fixed for ever. That would be an absolute loss in the end.

      So let’s be practical and see wether we can agree on the following scenario:
      a) as a public librarian, in my community I know there is a substantial group of non-users of my library’s mainly printed stock because they are almost illiterate in reading and writing the standard language. This is the reason why they do not come to use my computers and digital resources. I know as well that they are heavy users of TV and cell phones, or that they rely heavily on oral/face-to-face communication for everyday matters of importance for their lives
      b) accountability for my service means that I must address the needs of this group as an absolute priority, planning those training activities best suited to their taking advantage of the resources/access available in the library (being a node for e-government, for ex.)
      c) for this to be done, my planning of training for these persons must encompass several literacies right from the start, as a constellation of literacies: learning to read and write (basic literacy), which can be done by means of the keyboard and the screen, and their expertise with cell phones can be turned into a big advantage for this task. Of course, learning to use the keyboard and the computer (basic ICT literacy) simultaneously is a must. The content they create in a word processor while learning to read/write with the computer could be designed so as to convey their experience/problems/everyday situations in the community (through some posting in a blog of the library, or saving the files under the local collection) thus raising their level of self-esteem and sense of belonging. Or they could start using the search box of a browser to enter/write terms of inmediate importance for their information needs (how to apply for local services, for ex.); or even could learn to upload their mobile videos with captions and some written explanation of the content.
      d) their progress will give way eventually to the introduction of elements in the IL agenda such as reading comprehension of signs, charts, ads, etc. within the library and outside, or discussing and preparing written summaries of TV documentary films or movies, out of their level of ‘reading comprehenson’ of the audiovisual

      My contention is that in all libraries across the world these kinds of training activities are being offered for different cohorts of users, either by the library staff or by agreement with other members of the community, without much loss of energies in discussing about names: these activities are at the same time IL, ICT literacy and basic literacy activities since they are to do with content understanding and creation, as well as selection of mode (oral, visual, written, spatial, …language) and medium/channel (technologies old and new) of communication.

      If you call transliteracy the ability to create content/message/text through as many media as available for a particular time/situation and compatible with the mode/language selected, that’s OK with me. It is to do with the use/create element of the whole IL paradigm. By the same token, “digital literacy” as most commonly understood would be that mixing of IL + ICT literacy to do with search, access, understand, manage and use/create meanings/texts in digital format.

      I contend, however, that the ‘multiliteracies’ approach offers a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the multimodality of communication as well as of the multilingualism and multidiscourse inherent in every human and social situation around the world.

      • Cristóbal,

        Thank you for replying.

        I absolutely agree that conventional literacies and IL intermingle all the time. IL isn’t conventional literacies, though.

        The problem I’ve had with discussion of mode and medium is that what’s considered a mode or a medium appears arbitrary; and in media especially, different definitions of media are used in concert with each other as if they’re comparable when they’re obviously not of the same scope. There’s also overlap of properties between modalities, media, “platforms”, “tools”, etc. that nobody I’ve found has addressed adequately.

        While the same accusation can be levied against language and how the term is applied, I like to treat languages as semiotic systems, and also taxonomically, starting from the sense used to input the language to the brain (or processor). In some modal views, however, written language and other visual languages are distinct from one another, despite both obviously being read by the eyes. I haven’t worked out enough of the kinks of this language classification to even write a blog post about it, but I figure it’s important to explain exactly where my language model of literacies comes from.

        I don’t call transliteracy “the ability to create content/message/text through as many media as available for a particular time/situation and compatible with the mode/language selected.” I define a transliteracy as “an ability to encode and decode information across or between languages.” Since this definition stems from a very inclusive model of literacy, I find it natural that certain literacies overlap with IL principles. However, IL is defined as non-reading/writing competencies, so any comparison is necessarily informal.

        Even if multiliteracies and transliteracy were exact synonyms with multiliteracies being the “prior art,” does it matter? I see multiliteracies as someone having more than two different literacies (whatever you consider a literacy to be). On the other hand, transliteracy speaks to possessing multiple literacies, and specifically the ability to read/write across them. I don’t thing the across/between nature of the trans- prefix is implicit in the multi- prefix, hence the usefulness of transliteracy apart from multiliteracies.

  6. Pingback: Transfluency « Ms.Becs Blogs…

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