Interfaces, Infrastructures, and Interventions in State Institutions

Proposal Title: 
Interfaces, Infrastructures, and Interventions in State Institutions
Abstract: 

This panel examines multimodal literacy interventions in the context of two state institutions: an unemployment agency and a medium-high-security prison. In both cases, adult learners aim to use networked digital technologies in order to make high-stakes arguments. However, as both cases show, attempts to use these technologies do not always open doors to new opportunities; just as often, doors open to labyrinths, bear traps, and brick walls. The panel traces emergent infrastructures (Grabill 2003) ostensibly intended to transition individuals toward the social ideal of the law-abiding, employed citizen, but in practice serve to cast marginalized social groups farther out. Reflecting on our small-scale interventions in these complex, state-sponsored systems, we turn a critical eye on the digital practices and technologies that are regularly taken for granted as vehicles for civic participation and upward social mobility.

Proposal: 

This panel examines multimodal literacy interventions in the context of two state institutions: an unemployment agency and a medium-high security prison. In both cases, adult learners hope to use networked digital technologies to make high-stakes arguments. However, as both cases show, attempts to use these technologies do not always open doors to new opportunities; just as often, doors open to labyrinths, bear traps, and brick walls. The panel traces emergent infrastructures (Grabill, 2003) ostensibly intended to transition individuals toward the social ideal of the law-abiding, employed citizen, but in practice serve to cast marginalized social groups farther out. Reflecting on our small-scale interventions in these complex, state-sponsored systems, we turn a critical eye on the digital practices and technologies that are regularly taken for granted as vehicles for civic participation and upward social mobility.

 

Help Wanted: The Complexity of Technological Literacy in the Unemployment System

 

Speakers 1 and 2 discuss efforts to assist unemployed adults with online job searches in the context of a state-contracted employment assistance service in a geographically isolated region of northern Michigan. The exigence of our project arose from Michigan’s recent adoption of an online-only system for job seekers eligible for unemployment benefits, involving an ad hoc assemblage of platforms and services. Despite the promise of efficiency, the shift online has created severe disadvantages for the system’s most marginalized users. In an effort to intervene in and understand the “practices of access” (Powell, 2007) that so often cause problems for job seekers, we offered one-on-one technology and rhetorical assistance and, through ethnographic observation and screencast recordings of the help sessions, we documented the often painful process of searching and applying for jobs online through state-sponsored channels.

 

As we demonstrate through comparative screencasts of experienced and inexperienced computer users, the process for applicants in high-tech fields is simpler than for low-tech entry level positions, both because (a) the former applicants have established patterns of inquiry for using complex information systems, and (b) ironically, the online search and application systems are designed around a professional employment model, leading to a smooth workflow for applicants with a standard professional resume but a confusing patchwork of ill-matched services for others. In short, the "complex problem solving" online is required mainly for those who are least prepared for it.

 

Based on our findings, we offer two contributions to critical examinations of technology, including usability studies. First, Speaker 1 argues that the usefulness of complex information systems, most notably examined by Barbara Mirel (2002, 2004), must expand to account for less experienced users of digital information systems. Searching for a job is inherently a complex problem; taking it online through state-mandated information systems, however, creates an uneven playing field, adding levels of complexity for users who are less experienced with computers. Therefore, we call for further studies of complex information systems in domains outside those of seasoned professional users, qualifying “complexity” relative to the digital proficiency of the user, and examining how this complexity is both a consequence of and a contributor to socioeconomic disparity.

 

Having captured and theorized a dynamic set of problems with personal and institutional ramifications, Speaker 2 concludes the presentation by considering what might be done to intervene. While most usability studies would respond with recommendations for interface redesign, for political and economic reasons the tools provided for non-professional job seekers cannot be tailor-made. Using an activity theory approach to trace the polycontextual, polymotivational knowledge work involved in our participants’ job searches (Spinuzzi, 2011), we illustrate that top-down changes in interface design are an untenable solution. Instead, we consider scalable, local interventions that partner job seekers, employment service workers, and activist researchers.

 

Breaking Out: The Struggle for Multimodality in a Medium-High Security Prison

 

The affordances of multimodal composition are more widely available than ever before; as a result, facility with multiple media is now almost a requirement for full literacy and rhetorical power (Kress, 2009; Shipka, 1999; Wysocki, 2008). Accordingly, the University of Illinois course “Writing Across Media” (WAM) was designed to help students develop these technical and rhetorical skills through argumentation in a variety of media, including graffiti, podcasts, maps, comics, and video. In the spring of 2014, two WAM instructors adapted the course to be taught not in Champaign-Urbana but at a medium-high-security prison in eastern Illinois, a process that required extreme flexibility in the face of both material and rhetorical constraints imposed by the carceral setting. In this presentation, Speakers 3 and 4 explore how the complex negotiations of teaching this course highlight the need for intervention in the discourse about the relationship between incarcerated people and technology.

 

We approach the issue via three separate segments that are themselves multimediated--conscious of the ways that discussing our work as “intervention” risks reproducing problematic power dynamics and further suppressing already-marginalized voices (Plemons 2014), we work to foreground the voices of our students through audio and, warden willing, perhaps even video recordings. In our first segment, we begin by discussing the ways that multimodal and digital writing can act as an intervention in the carceral setting (Jacobi 2007, Pompa 2011), focusing on the ways in which that intervention is complicated and bears both reward and risk. While multimodal writing helped our students to imagine expanded possibilities for creating arguments, those possibilities came with more risks, as the administration viewed the content of multimodal writing to be more threatening than traditional, print-based texts. We then address the popular myth that their isolation causes incarcerated people to be technologically illiterate (e.g. Law 2014), unpacking the ways this myth reinforces the idea that incarcerated people cannot regain status as full members of society. Tracing the non-institutional, third-space (Wilson 2000) methods through which our students educate themselves about technology, we will take up how patchy access structures incarcerated men’s relationship with that technology in sometimes-unexpected ways. Finally, we examine how our students’ struggles writing papers for our class reflects how technology has become entangled in the writing process, and the ways in which the idea of multiple writing processes depends on having particular affordances that incarcerated people are generally denied. It is our hope that taken together, these three segments point to ways in which multimodality opens up space for intervention both in oppressive prison discourses and in cultural conceptions of prisoners as locked out of technological progress.

Context: 
We engage directly with the conferences theme by considering the ramifications for technological "inventions" that are called upon in the process of transitioning incarcerated and unemployed citizens toward the social ideal of the law-abiding, employed citizen. Through studies of individuals struggling to use technological inventions toward their high-stakes purposes, we critically reflect on university-led interventions into perceived problems with technological literacy in the context of state institutions.
Proposal Type: 
panel