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Negotiating Place and Space Through Digital Literacies: Research and Practice

reviewed by Carla D. Blackwell & Leah K. Saal - November 16, 2020

coverTitle: Negotiating Place and Space Through Digital Literacies: Research and Practice
Author(s): Damiana G. Piles, Ryan M. Rish, & Julie Warner
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641134844, Pages: 336, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

In 2020, space is at the forefront of public consciousness. Inherent in the term “social distance” is a physical definition of space.

But how do we define space? If we consider that space, action, and interaction are byproducts of social engagements, and if we consider that space is created and destroyed, that space is dynamic, recurring, and evolving, and arising from recurrent negotiations and renegotiations of social interactions, then we must also trouble our conceptualizations of literacy practices.

As this country simultaneously reckons with its history and current practice(s) of systemic racism and a significant presidential race, a global health crisis has thrust us further into the creation and termination of digital (virtual) spaces in which to act and react in response to it all. This broadened space both replicates and, in some cases, foregrounds the racial and economic disparities occurring offline. With the current mashup of sociopolitical navigation and engagement within and across digital spaces, Pyles, Rish, and Warner’s text is both timely and significant. Negotiations of digital places and spaces in the studies of this edited volume highlight the ongoing mediation of identities, relationships, and agencies across ever-evolving multiliteracies.

In Part One, “Reconsidering Digital Literacies from the Edges,” the editors position a group of studies as challenging the atomization of literacy events and literacy practices within and across digital spaces. While the sociocultural view of literacy highlights the ways in which people use reading and writing in their daily lives (Street, 1993), in the chapters in this section, the definition of literacy events and literacy practices becomes more opaque.

For example, Neal and Vicars introduce a project designed to pair groups of teacher education candidates across the United States and Australia in order to create “shared knowledge-building communities across two very culturally different tertiary educational settings” (p. 62). While both groups of participants identified several affordances of online asynchronous collaboration, including choice and concurrent content consumption and creation, social loafing was identified as an impediment to team productivity and performance. However, Neal and Vicars interrogate students’ deficit understandings of social loafing in a digital asynchronous learning environment. Instead, they posit social loafing as an opportunity for students to navigate and negotiate the authentic habits and values (literacy events) of other readers and writers.

In the final chapter of this section, Song and Cho’s empirical study of adolescent bilingual learners’ use of comprehension and translanguaging strategies in online environments challenges the notion of dichotomized literacy events and literacy practices of emergent bilinguals. Specifically, the study showcases the diversity and depth of metacognitive tools the students employ as they traverse “in-school” and “out-of-school” literacies. Specifically, this study showcases how students’ literacy events are undergirded by their literacy practices and vice-versa. Dichotomizing practices and events by space can divorce the learner from their full linguistic repertoire (Song & Cho, 2019). Further, digital space, in particular, is offered by the researchers as a place of multilingual possibility where out-of-school knowledge and skills may be cultivated for use in other formal learning spaces.

All of the studies in Part One call upon the audience to interrogate our assumptions of digital literacies and how they impact social space and corresponding learning with/from “the edges.” Just as Pinar (1975) proposed the framework for the method of currere, we are again called in this transient space and time in education to move through the recursive steps of the regressive, the progressive, the analytical, and the synthetic. After reflecting on the past and postulating on the future, we are called to reconsider the present and mobilize for shared pedagogical action. How do each of these chapters speak to the affordances and challenges inherent in collaborative pedagogies? Given these chapters, how can we reconceptualize the connections between literacy practices and literacy events in order to see them both as curriculum (verb and noun)?

In Part Two, Digital Literacies from Within, the editors position a group of studies which explore the intersection of space, positionality, and agency. According to Lewis Ellison and Solomon (2019), “the term digital divide implies strict binaries between those who are educated and uneducated, rich and poor – particularly for unrepresented diverse populations, geographics, and languages” (p. 227). They refute this false binary of the digital divide and associated deficit thinking around digital literacies and race using counter-storytelling of African American children and families. The studies in this section also serve as an eddy to current conceptualizations of the digital divide and corresponding practices by troubling presuppositions around expert and novice, creator and user, tangible and envisaged.  

For example, the chapter “Indigenous Activism in the Digital Sphere” explores how the Kiowa people’s “rhetorical practices from various locations and times travel through and interact with other rhetorics and rhetorical agents” within the Save Longhorn Mountain (SLM) Facebook page (p. 138). Specifically, the author positions the Kiowa’s expert actions and alliance-building through digital literacies and connected media to save the geosacrality of Longhorn as transrhetorical. By moving from “past to present, from physical space to digital and back to physical again,” the Kiowa are able to build and propagate diverse audiences who support their efforts to protect the Longhorn Mountain from mining (p. 151).

All of the studies in this section call on the audience to question what/who constitutes digital literacies from within. In her book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2013), articulates how the western conception of time and space as divorced, separate from people and politics, is a central project of colonialism. She presents the spatial vocabulary of colonialism in the 19th century as drawing rhetorical and actual hierarchies centering colonial power and othering indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. While the chapter authors Opmeer et al. utilized portions of Smith’s frame for their study, the frame would be appropriate to apply to the remainder of the chapters in the section as well. Particularly, how could this frame challenge the findings of some of the chapters? Who decides what constitutes within, or insider, knowledge? Who do the products of western research traditions center? How are space and time divorced or held in tension in all of these studies? How does the answer to each of these questions challenge or bolster the concepts of positionality and agency central to Part Two of the text?

Part Three, titled “Tracing Literacies Across Time and Space,” consists of five studies illuminating ways in which lived experiences of youth, academic professionals and scholars, and global citizens can collide, intersect, and play off of each other in critical, nuanced, and affectual ways.  

In Chapter Eleven, Rust’s study examines the “immobilizing” effects of transliteracy practices of students in the Digital Dialogue Project. In the project, students from varying grade levels and from different racial and socioeconomic communities are brought together within a structured pedagogical framework in order to share compositions in virtual spaces. The project originates with virtual engagement but concludes with an intentional, in-person “embodied performance of key lines from those compositions” (p. 199). Rust conceptualizes the term “immobilizing literacies” in relation to the practice of “socially-situated meaning-making that provokes lived experiences that are categorized as constraining, disorienting, lacking, misunderstood, and/or silencing” (p. 200). In particular, she highlights how these immobilizing literacies unfairly and inequitably impact students across race, class, and ability, and how educators and researchers must become more contentious and intentional in designing equitable digital collaboration spaces.

In the following chapter, “Adolescents in the Wild: Critiquing and Arguing Back Through Mediated Social Spaces,” Saunders (2019) highlights and examines critical media literacy practices of adolescents in a journalism class as they engage with popular social media platforms. In their critical pursuits, guided and monitored by their journalism teacher, they pushed forward their agency while “negotiating public discourse and [consequential] disagreement” (p. 237). According to Saunders, the study serves as a tool to guide teachers who want to attempt a more consequential use of the vast, unpredictable, and ever-morphing social media/media spaces with their students. “This chapter suggests that helping students ‘read the world’ and critically examine media is invaluable to navigating their lived experiences – both in person and online” (p. 237).

Each of the studies in this section troubles the methodological and/or epistemological approach to digital and spatial literacies. They show how an expansive definition of space and consideration of time provide opportunities for multiliterate practices to reflect, cultivate, disrupt, or elevate critical communities, perspectives, and narratives. However, some queries endure. Given the presentation of topics that reach beyond the boundaries of traditional place, space, and time engagement, how might the agency, efficacy, and awareness of global communities, in particular, be altered through more intentional and expansive digital practices? How can social justice and social change be spurred in more impactful ways utilizing digital platforms across geospatial boundaries/planes and timescales? In what ways can broadened knowledge produced by such studies inform K-12 digital pedagogies in critical response to the charge of cultivating college- and career-ready students in our current sociopolitical context?

The research presented in Negotiating Place and Space Through Digital Literacies: Research and Practice brings questions and nuance to definitions, concepts, and realities in the fields of literacy and geospatial studies. Particularly, at the forefront of this text is the concept that digital places and spaces are not inherently progressive or agentive, particularly for marginalized populations. We agree with Mills’ assertion in the Foreword that central to this text is a critical “spatial justice” (Soja, 2013) stance. Consequently, this text could assist educators (emergent and veteran), academicians, policy makers, and communities to consider how digital and multiliteracies could provide equitable ways forward in digital or “real” spaces throughout, and on the other side of, these shifting times.  


Lewis Ellison, T. & Solomon, M. (2019). Counter-storytelling vs. deficit thinking around African American children and families, digital literacies, race, and the digital divide. Research in the Teaching of English53(3), 223–244.

Pinar, W. (Ed.). (1975). Curriculum studies: The reconceptualization. Educator's International Press.

Soja, E. W. (2013). Seeking spatial justice. University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. Zed Books.


Street, B. V. (1993). The new literacy studies. Journal of Research in Reading16(2), 81–97

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23515, Date Accessed: 11/30/2020 9:06:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Carla Blackwell
    Loyola University Maryland
    E-mail Author
    CARLA D. BLACKWELL is an affiliate instructor of Literacy at Loyola University Maryland, School of Education. She is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Alumnus, having served in South Africa as an English Teacher Assistant. She served as a Secondary English/English Language Arts teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools for nine years. She has presented her graduate research--a photovoice project on African American male adolescent literacy practices--at the state and national-level literacy conferences, including the 2017 Maryland Cultural Proficiency Conference and the 2018 Literacy Research Association.
  • Leah Saal
    Loyola University Maryland
    E-mail Author
    LEAH K. SAAL, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Literacy at Loyola University Maryland, School of Education. Her engaged scholarly agenda focuses on the intersectionality of literacy and social justice. Her research includes two dovetailing strands: 1) the literacies of adults and older students in and out of educational programs and 2) the preparation and support of literacy leaders to work for social justice. In her recent scholarship, the LEAD Program, she and a colleague have created a curriculum and corresponding training program for adults with disabilities to serve as self-advocate educators for first responders (police, EMS, firefighters).
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