Interview with Gunther Kress

Bearne, Eve. “Interview with Gunther Kress.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26 3 (2005): 287-99.

In this 2005 interview, Eve Bearne from the University of Cambridge, UK discusses multimodality and new media with Gunther Kress, a Professor at University of London and expert on the topic. She grounds this discussion in Kress’s statement that language-based practices, influenced by developments in digital technology are creating some new social relations and are giving way to a “new communications landscape” that is inherently multimodal. Furthermore, these changes reshape social practices and views relating to literacy.

What is Literacy?
Asked to define literacy in the realm of emergent digital technologies, Kress notes the need to first identify what sort of literacy one is referencing. The two options here are to a)apply ‘literacy” largely to just written language, and b)apply the term to all representational means/resources, such as computer literacy. Kress prefers the first option, since the second can become to broad and ambiguous in the sense that one is not always exactly sure to what another is referring when using the term in such a way. To help resolve this issue and clarify meaning, Kress presents three cultural technology caegories: “technologies of representation–the means of representation; technologies of production–how its it actually produced; and technologies of dissemination–how do we distribute the message-text we have made” (288). In this way, whether one chooses the first or the second application of the term “literacy,” it is about representation, perhaps with some element of production. It would not, generally, include elements of distribution.

Kress goes on to note that because there is such confusion over the term’s definition, there is a certain amount of education to be done in regard to clarifying for all what “literacy” is, or more so what we mean when using the term.

How are emergent communications technologies impacting new textual forms?
Kress discusses that digital technologies seem to make the production and distribution of texts more widely available and extend the facilities for production. This is to say that who can produce text (publicly) and what can be produced is changing and expanding. While not completely egalitarian, even the 12 or 14-year-old who was once very restricted in the tools and media with which he or she could produce text, can now not only produce text on a computer, but also distribute it. “The gap between the professionally produced and the non-professionally produced is reduced” (290). The situation now raises the question of who can be a producer of text and makes it a social question. “It’s a question of authorship really, who can be an author as a producer of things which have their place in the world.

Additionally, now that virtually anyone CAN be an author, each individual must question for whom he or she is producing the text. This is a most basic question of audience, which and writer, designer, or producer of media should answer. Of course, for the sake of my argument, there is crossover to producing video as well. For example, for the setting of the OVC in the AOC, the students are producing videos (and text) as part of class assignments. However, even in this seemingly obvious situation, there is ambiguity, Clearly, the student is creating the media for a grade in the class, but is the instructor really the audience or is it the other students or even the public? The reality is that we are often creating texts and other media in such new situations that we may not be entirely sure of the purpose or the audience until embarking on the creation of the item(s). “[E]ach communicational environment has to be seen as new and has to be seen as one that I have to understand newly; in it’s potential it’s likely to be different to other communication environments” (290).

Beyond assessment, what are the key issues for future educational research in the field?
Positioning his response again in the new possibilities of production, Kress states that learning and knowledge are the real issues, since knowledge doesn’t exist other than in its materialization, it has to be realized in some form. (291). In other words, someone must produce something that another can experience and gain some realization of the conveyed content.

But [knowledge] always comes in a particular formation. And these formations are not equivalent. They configure the knowledge in specific ways. So given that the new technologies allow you to configure, to materialize, to realize knowledge according to your interests, and according to interests which you as a rhetor imagine your audience has, the question of how knowledge is configured and constantly reconfigured and constantly reconfigured becomes really important because the learner engages with knowledge in a really particular configuration, either written, or in image form, or in a teacher’s gesture, as a teacher demonstrates. The way that bit of the world is configured, materialized, sets the ground on which the learner engages with it, it shapes the learner’s learning” (291).

The idea here is that an idea or element of information can be presented in many different methods: live (oration), text, image, video, etc. and with any combination of these methods, each of which has varying modes. Each person experiencing these modes might gain different levels of knowledge based on preferred learning style, interest, etc. This way in which the student engages with the information affects their understanding and learning of the material. A method such as the OVC combines many of these methods in such a way that it might appeal to a wider number of students than might a single delivery method. However, to use such a method is to apply a newer technology and one that can raise interest in students for this reason alone (an idea I have supported in other posts and writings).

So, does this mean one must pay more attention to how knowledge is created and represented?
Kress responds noting that changing from one method of delivery to another creates an epistemological shift, which one must identify. There is cause coded into each method and each brings with it a causal interpretation. Therefore, one must consider how information is being represented through a given delivery method and how it can/will be interpreted. “And then the rhetor’s corollary is: how does my representation fit with the preferred representation of the person who is to learn?” (292).
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In considering Kress’ larger perspective from this article, any shifts in available technology, in the way that we in general or we as instructors apply such (multimodal) technologies, and in how recipients (learns/students, in this case) receive and interpret information requires us to ask certain questions, such as who is creating it, where (in what setting/context) is it being created, and for whom is it being created. Additionally, in order to examine some change and whatever effects it might bring, one must consider the aspects of any previous situation. “So first of all we need to understand what we had and what we didn’t have in that older regime. And what we’re getting or what we’re likely to get if we look at the question of making meaning in the new regime. So a whole new vista opens up” (295).

Applying this to education, specifically to the OVC in the AOC, by empowering and urging students to be authors and sharing their creations, be it text, image, video, we help them feel more secure in this venture and in sharing future creations. “It is simply said and assumed… in terms of the social relations as pedagogic relations, that you are somebody with interests, you are a producer, you are an author. And make that a naturalized kind of perception of young people in school. And they will go out into the world and think and act differently” (297). And finally, in regard to educational policy: “Educational institutions, in whatever form they might continue, will in the end simply need to recognize what the new social relations are and what the semiotic dispositions which go with these social relations are” (298).

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