More transliteracy talk: metaphors and metonyms

December 20th, 2010 § 11 comments

The discussion surrounding the definition of transliteracy has been sending waves throughout the internets this morning. David Rothman took the concept to task in yesterday’s post, “Commensurable Nonesense (Transliteracy),” responding partially to a post by Lane Wilkinson.* David brings up a few good points about transliteracy, most notably:

  1. its lack of a definition
  2. its unoriginality

The first of these has been dealt with extensively, so I won’t do into it here. The lack of a concise definition is certainly problematic and, until one such is developed, it will difficult to bring the concept into the academic arena, much more so to the desks of administrators and policy makers. The second point, I think, deserves more attention. The ideas that make up the amorphous concept of transliteracy may not be anything that hasn’t already been discussed, but they may be beneficial to libraries and their users if the ways in which they are discussed (either conceptually or practically or as a methodology) provide unique perspectives.

So does transliteracy give us a unique perspective? Rotham asks this and essentially concludes that the levels of discourse that transliteracy provides can already be attained through discussion of information literacy. He also compares attempted definitions of transliteracy to more established definitions of other literacies.

We’ve come to a point in the discourse where the term “literacy” is used in far too many ways. One can be information literate, health literate, financially literate, digitally literate, statistically literate, or emotionally literate. How do all of these relate to the broader concept of literacy? As I was reading over these, I started thinking about this and discovered two predominant approaches: metaphorical and metonymical.

Let’s begin with a literal approach to the definition. The OED defines literate as “acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned; a liberally educated or learned person; one who can read and write.” Webster’s Third defines it as “characterized by or possessed of learning; able to read and write; well executed or technically proficient.” Literacy is defined as the characteristic of possessing any of these traits. So a strict definition focuses on either “learning” or “reading” and this is generally how the term is used in everyday conversation. A somewhat broader definition implies understanding and comprehension, not just the ability to read and write but the ability to do it well. From here, the splintering of definitions takes off.

Literacy is then extended metaphorically to mean an understanding or comprehension of other subjects beyond written text (most of which require reading and writing): being health literate  is the ability to understand health issues and read medical documents; being financially literate is the ability to understand markets, economies, and fiscal concerns.  These “other” literacies require many of the same skills (ability to read and write, most notably, but also the ability to seek and retrieve documents) but do so in entirely different contexts. They require a specific domain knowledge which adds value to the understanding gained through simple reading comprehension.

Literacy can also be extended metonymically to mean any of the skills related to or comprising the ability to understand information. This use of the word tends to play on the various meaning of “reading” and “writing” to included activities such as choosing the right font for a business letter, evaluating a website or editorial for bias, or deconstructing body language. One is digitally literate if they have the skills necessary to navigate online or use electronic databases. One is orally literate if they have the ability to interpret the subtleties of human communication or understand the complexities of storytelling. While domain knowledge still plays a significant part, the focus here is on the ability to “read” signs (e.g. verbal, written, performed) and “write” effectively (e.g. compose, format, design)

Transliteracy seems to straddle the fence between these two uses (hence, its prefix kinda works in this regard). It attempts to encompass both the skills necessary for understanding “texts” in a [mostly digital] environment (metonymical) and the understanding of how different contexts require different domains of knowledge (metaphorical). Herein lies the problem: Which connotation of literacy are we using when we say someone is “transliterate?” Is it problematic to imply both?  And most importantly: if we imply both, how is that different from the all-inclusive term “literacy” defined in a less-than-strict way, i.e. the ability to understand and comprehend “texts” and to do it well?

Perhaps the answers to these questions could be the foundation for further development of a definition of transliteracy. Or they could be its negation. Whatever the outcome, the discussion will continue into the near future and it will be defined by its ability to add value to our understanding of how individuals interact with the world around them, one which is increasingly becoming more digital.


*As a side note, I didn’t find Lane’s post to be either inaccessible or “needlessly” linguistically elite, as David suggested. It is academically sterile, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone should be faulted for trying to use language specifically and intentionally, in a way that suggests the style of scholarly communication. It deserves its place just as much as the more casual or snarky language that comprises most of internet. But then, I’m biased given that I spend most of my day in an academic library.

§ 11 Responses to More transliteracy talk: metaphors and metonyms"

  • Excellent food for thought. I’ll have to chew on the metaphor/metonym distinction for a bit.

    As to the issue of meaning and transliteracy, I hope my follow up on L&T will shed some light on how I approach the T-word.

  • John,

    I think you’ve found the core here. Also, I appreciate the link to my post!

    A hypothetical:
    Say there are two people, a doctor and a medical librarian. The doctor has a wealth of knowledge about medicine. The medical librarian doesn’t have the same knowledge, but knows how to look it up. The librarian has learned the interfaces for databases and indices (both online and paper-based), the common abbreviations and lingo, and many other nuances of health industry communication.

    Now let’s say the doctor, despite having tons of medical knowledge, has unlearned the ability to parse new medical information. Is the doctor still medically-literate, simply by having the domain knowledge? Is the health librarian medically-literate, simply by being able to look up medical information?

    It appears, to me, to be homonymy. To me, I think the knowledge-of-a-field type of literacy is interesting, but not practically significant to the going across of literacies that transliteracy concerns. I’m not sure how there would be a going-across of my knowledge of NASCAR and my knowledge of Astronomy, for instance. On the other hand, there are likely parallels to how I read and write (used loosely) about those subjects. Given this, I think transliteracy may have better clarity by focusing literally on the one definition.

  • John says:

    Thanks, Brad! And I’m glad I stumbled across your blog in the process of writing that post. =)

    That’s an interesting binary you’ve set up, but I think we’re playing fast and loose with terminology. Let’s assume first that there is a defined term such as “medically-literate.” What does that mean? Does it mean “knowledgeable about the field of medicine and its information practices” or “able to function within a medical-information-rich environment”? The answer to your question “Who is more medically-literate” depends on our answer to that first question. And I would argue that it is confusing the two interpretations of literacy (metaphoric and metonymic) by setting them up as equivalents, which they are not.

    But you are right in that, from the perspective of information professionals, the ability to use the same skill (searching, assessing, interpreting info, communicating) in multiple contexts or media environments is more significant. My purpose of highlighting the metaphorical and metonymical uses of the term “literacy” was to show the two predominant ways of extending the term beyond its narrow definition, “the ability to read and write,” and to suggest that the discourse around transliteracy tends to confuse the two: is it about context, skills, or both? If it is about skills, how is it different from already established definitions of information literacy (which, granted, need some updating). If it’s just about contexts… well, it’s decidedly not, based on what I’ve read. If it’s about both, then the term “literacy” will do just fine, IMO.

    I realize I need to spend more time explaining this. Thanks!

  • Andromeda says:

    This reminds me of one of the things I came across a lot teaching Latin, and came across even more when I read about the teaching of reading; domain knowledge is part of reading comprehension, and a bigger part than we give it credit for. I’m happy to extend that to the more metaphorical kind of reading required by literacy (though with an open question as to how much domain knowledge is required to be literate).

    That said — while I must say I’ve found your treatment of it the clearest and most interesting to grapple with of those I’ve yet encountered — if transliteracy is about a variety of domains, does it implicitly require omniscience? (Which is, while a worthy goal to strive for, not a practical one.)

    I also wonder if the metaphorical and metonymic can really be separated. Surely some domain knowledge is required to function competently in an environment? (To take the medical library example — you might not need the domain knowledge of a doctor — but you’d certainly need a working knowledge of, e.g., medical vocabulary.) And it’s hard (though not impossible) for me to imagine how one could acquire any significant amount of domain knowledge without acquiring some degree of functional competence.

    The husband and I were talking about a related topic earlier today; he was displeased with a definition of information literacy which he found to be basically vacuous. I hadn’t; I realized as the conversation went on that the terms had obvious connotations to me, because of my situation within particular discourse communities, that they didn’t to him, outside of them. The terms, to him, had a vagueness that my experiences had filled in for me. (Which raises its own problem: does this mean the definition really was vague, or that statements are written within particular discourse communities anyway and have no obligation to make sense outside of them?) Anyway, he wanted the definition to have a clause about to what end — OK, so you find or analyze or use or whatever information, but to what end? Surely we are constantly finding, analyzing, and using information — to determine what’s available for breakfast, to escape wildebeests on the primitive savannah — in ways that fly under the radar of info lit definitions. (His examples, not mine.) Maybe there’s a role in transliteracy definitions for a purpose clause — one that narrows down the domain knowledge required to something less than omniscience (while at the same time keeping them within the realm of the meaningful).

    (Heck, maybe there are plenty of definitions that include this; it’s not like I’ve done more than dip my toe in the waters here.)

  • John says:

    So you are saying that your husband is not information literate literate? J/k

    I don’t think the metaphorical or metonymic can be separated. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin; two different ways of looking at the problem of definition. The concept of the M&M comes from Roman Jakobson’s study of aphasia and Georg Lakoff’s work in linguistics. Jacobson’s work deals with metaphor and metonymy on the syntactic level, and I have taken some liberties by extending his analysis to the act of defining, but what he discovers is applicable to our situation: individuals use language to describe their perception of objects either metaphorically or metonymically, usually both, but often with a preference for one or the other. You can do some really rich analysis of literary texts over time using this theoretical concept. But I digress…

    I think your husband is right: we DO need to state for what end we pursue information literacy (or any literacy for that matter). But those statements do exist, most of which boil down to “to be able to function [well] in an information-rich society.” For example:

    1) ACRL Info Lit Standards: “Information literacy also is increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. [...] Information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. [...] It enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning. [...]”

    2) Standards for the 21st-Century Learner: “The degree to which students can read and understand text in all formats (e.g., picture, video, print) and all contexts is a key indicator of success in school and in life. [...] To become independent learners, students must gain not only the skills but also the disposition to use those skills, along with an understanding of their own responsibilities and self-assessment strategies. Combined, these four elements build a learner who can thrive in a complex information environment. [...]”

    Is it necessary to to define the ends of information literacy further? I think it is good idea to have a mix of specific learning outcomes and generalized educational goals: otherwise, our approach to education becomes too utilitarian. But that is a discussion for another day.

    Thanks for commenting, Andromeda! As always, very astute and well put. =)

  • Laura says:

    Just a quick note – it’s Rothman, not Rotham.

  • John says:

    Ack! Thanks for catching that, Laura.

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