Transliteracy & Learning Symbiosis

Engl 102 Multimodal Fictions 016 If Walter Ong suggests that it is impossible for societies to function in the same way as literate ones, then would one also say that it is impossible for transliterate cultures to operate like pre-transliterate cultures?  I'm thinking about this as a re-read Ong's thoughts on technology and learning:

"technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but
on the contrary enhances it”

and to understand the technology of writing means

"to understand it in relation to its past, to
orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced” (

It is with these thoughts in mind that my students and I began our final unit of the term: "Inanimate Alice and Transliteracy." Having spent time giving students an overview of online narratives and various examples (blog fiction, flickr stories, tweet narratives etc…), a background of narrative theories, and the current definition of transliteracy, we were ready to put our learning into practise.

As my students made their way through the episodes of Inanimate Alice their reading developed alongside Alice's own maturing. When eight years old Alice's thinking is abrupt and superficial, so too were our interpretations. But, as Alice grows and becomes critical of the world around her, so too did my students. They became transliterate readers.

When students finished reading "Episode One," responses focused on the textual narrative.  "Alice seems to be independent since she moves a lot and does not have
many friends. Her only friend is Brad and she gets lost in a world of
technology" (Sara). "The story is from the POV of a young girl, so her views and story telling are also simplistic, so it adds to the theme" (Matt).

However, after several more lessons on transliteracy and multimodality and some teacher modeling (I *read* scenes of Inanimate Alice and then performed analyses of each of the modes and how they work with/against each other), the student responses deepened. Dana explains, "this piece requires the reader to think in depth about what they're
watching. I felt overwhelmed at first but slowly got used to this new
kind of narrative. Inanimate Alice entails you to listen, watch, read,
and interact, which is different that the average person is used to
when sitting down to read. I really liked how every so often you get to
play a game; this made me be more alert. Another aspect of the story I
thought was interesting was that we never get to see any of the
characters, is there a deeper meaning to this?"  One student, Scott, re-read the episodes in order to better understand and then analyse the role of sound, text, image and interaction:

"While watching the first few episodes a few times over, some details
about the story aren’t as clear as I originally thought they were. For
example, in episode one there’s a heavy buzzing noise near the end of
the episode, as well as statically hazy or overlapping text throughout.
As a viewer, I’m curious if these are to just simply add to the effect
of what’s going on around Alice, or is there a deeper meaning relating
to memory? The answer to this question may come about watching all ten
episodes. But, thus far I’m curious to know if the concept of Inanimate Alice is that of a person looking back on their life and
recalling child hood memories? Or is the story of Inaminate Alice
intended to play out in real time?

It’s easy to note for a
viewer how important the lighting effects are, and how they come into
play. Until about episode four, everything seems to be dark and gloomy
like. Backgrounds, imagery, and even the guard at the Russian toll
booth all appear rather dark. The only images that tend to really pop
out with vivid colour and brightness are Alice’s games. When Alice's
games come onto the screen they’re colourful and bright, and seem to
portray Alice's joy. Is this an indication of how Alice views the world
during her younger years? Is it that she finds hope and mental shelter
in her imaginative video game world because her world is dark around
her? Moreover, do the Matryoshka dolls act as a symbol for money?
Essentially, having the viewer search for them, and bribe the Russian
guard makes it feel that way. Perhaps having the dolls take place of
money might be a way to show how Alice’s vivid imagination plays a role
in her child hood memories?"

Reading Inanimate Alice in this undergraduate English class emphasises for me the meaninglessness of terms like "digital natives." All of these students were born into a culture where digital technologies are ubiquitous. However, that very ubiquity and even use of technology (mobile 'phones, SNS, mp3 player) is not synonymous with critical thinking or an ability to be transliterate.

If learning is to be relevant to students it must align with students' "subjectivities, interests, intentions, commitments, and purposes that students bring to learning" (New London Group). One might also say then, that for transliteracy to be relevant to students (at least in my recent pedagogical experience) it must somehow align with the *work* in question. Some works won't require a transliterate reader (just like reading a novel won't require information or visual literacy). Transliteracy comes into play perhaps like Ong's "technologies," it is not merely an "exterior aid but also [an] interior transformation of consciousness…"

Some of the students' final transliterate thoughts:

"Almost every slide in the reading requires some form of transliteracy.
Examples include Episode 2 when Alice is along and afraid without her
parents. Her world is dark but when she calls her tutor the screen is
bright even though the world around her stays dark. This suggests that
when she focuses on the screen she is happy and at ease but when the
frame around the screen is shown it is to represent how she still feels
uneasy about her situation. Another example could be the ways in which
words that describe voices from different parties enter the screen,
such as in episode 3 in Moscow. When her father is arguing with men,
when she talks about the voices of the men they creep into the screen
also when her parents are talking, her mother voice takes one side and
her fathers another" (Braden).

One thought on “Transliteracy & Learning Symbiosis

  1. Hi Jess –
    Thanks for this fascinating post. It is fantastic to see you using Alice in this way with your students; their comments and insights, quoted here, and on your course blog, are great. As a practitioner I find it hard to theorise transliteracy onto my digital work; I know that this work is a form of transliterate practice, but when asked how or why, my response tends to be, ‘hmm, let me think about that’ or worse, ‘hmm, tell me what YOU think.’
    I’d be interested to hear more about how you ‘perform an analysis of each mode’.

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