Saturday, June 13, 2015

Professor Hashtag @GuyMerchant 

If anyone was in any doubt that written language is changing, or that children are active members of writing communities they need look no further than this story on the use of hashtags in their work. Asked by the BBC to comment on this phenomenon I was unremittingly positive, although as you'll see I refused to be drawn on predicting the shelf life of the hashtag! The origins of the symbol itself are interesting, and you can trace its history as a way of denoting a number through to its adoption by early programmers. Bringing the hash symbol to the practice of tagging (from meta tags) has been an interesting user-driven innovation. Hashtags weren't written into Twitter, they have just become a useful convention. Of course it makes your tweet, or your post on Instagram, searchable and also helps to define the audience, topic or conversation you are addressing. There are many other uses, too and I'm sure linguists have coded the various functions that hashtags perform. For me it's their adoption into language that is intriguing, and like @GuyMerchant the hashtag is primarily a written form. But new writing features do seem to enter spoken language, too. It's not uncommon to hear people saying 'lol'. And 'confused.com' has become quite popular. I've also recently witnessed a four year old asking 'go to the park hashtag orange slide?'. We live in interesting times!

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Digital literacy in the classroom 

In a current piece of writing we've been asking why an expansive view of new literacies is hard to realise in practice. We note that some innovative teachers are able to incorporate 21st Century literacies in their classroom practice whilst others find it hard. Part of that difficulty comes from competing curriculum priorities, the extensive blocking of websites, and conflicting messages about the role of technology in learning. For example, media discourses continue to polarise opinion, reporting here on the positive influence of banning mobiles in school, here on the negative effects of video gaming and here on girls' online reading. As always the studies are more nuanced than the headlines suggest, but the media reports still bolster dichotomous viewpoints. In the face of this it is timely to consider something a bit more sophisticated than the old 'is technology good or bad' question. We should be asking how particular digital literacy practices relate to activity, interaction and engagement, and then how they might benefit (or disadvantage) their users. New literacies won't go away - and anyway we're rather powerless to check their advance, but we can as educators help in promoting efficacious uses of hardware and software.

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Sacrifice and punish 

In the wake of an unexpected election result, three of our political leaders have resigned, sacrificing themselves in order to shoulder what must be seen as collective failure. Resignation from public office has a respectable history as a ritual, and it is one in which the individual takes responsibility for collective failure. It could be read as an extension of the techno-politics of punishment, a condition in which an individual must ultimately and symbolically be held accountable. In this morning's newspaper the report sits cheek by jowl with the story of a public execution. The execution in Guild Wars 2 of the avatar of a player who had been guilty of cheating. DarkSide, the avatar in question, was executed in front of an audience of 325,000, symbolically punished by AreaNet to underline that cheats will not be tolerated (perhaps also to attract interest in Guild Wars 2). In a mediascape in which more alarming videos of real-world execution have been circulating the intermingling of real, virtual and symbolic acts of punishment and sacrifice is uncanny. Uncanny because of their multistability - the individual accepts, or is forced to accept responsibility, but the crime and the authority to punish is ambiguous. Throughout history the techno-politics of punishment are in part a spectator sport. We feel a certain sense of closure when an ineffectual leader falls on his sword, a sense of outrage when an innocent journalist is executed by militants, and maybe we are unsure what to feel about DarkSide.

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Sunday, March 08, 2015


Discourse and Digital Practices - the outcome of a lively symposium in Hong Kong, organised by Rodney Jones and his colleagues, is out now in the UK. In my chapter, I took some of the iPad data (also published here), and tried to relate my analytical methods to the more familiar practices of discourse analysis. Whether or not I succeed in doing this is, of course, for readers to decide, but to me it felt a little like retracing my own footsteps. I was trying to think through how discursive practices, media narratives, digital technologies, adult-child relationships, notions of literacies... and so on, all mesh together in the story-sharing episodes captured on video. In doing this, I probably focused too intently on the micro-analysis, applying a rather simplistic multi-modal framework to make sense of the interactions between adults, children and iPads. So although this generated interesting thoughts about pointing and touching, it bypassed embodiment and feeling altogether. But more importantly it excluded the intervention of researchers, ignored the representational nature of video and foregrounded human interaction. I was drawn into a comfortable world - one in which we can watch and describe 'fluctuating modal hierarchies' (Norris, 2004) from outside. But recently, and particularly in my collaborative work with Cathy, that idea that there are distinct actions, interactions and even episodes 'out there', waiting to be described, labelled, and interpreted becomes rather problematic. It's not that I've come to embrace a rather extreme form of social constructivism in which everything dissolves into being a sort of collective hallucination (although it must be said that the time spent looking at virtual worlds often made me question the distinction between the virtual and the actual, and sometimes to the extent that there seemed very little difference), but more that the work on multiplicities, socio-materialism and post-humanism that we've been reading prompts some rather challenging thoughts about what we do as literacy researchers - well, let's say social science researchers in general - with our dominant structuralist accounts of meaning-making and our almost doctrinal acceptance of social constructivism.

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Sunday, February 08, 2015


Scissors. A whole book could be written about them. And maybe it has - but what layers of interest! Perhaps a starting point could be the surge of enthusiasm for hand-finished scissors. Ever since videos about Sheffield putters went viral they've been unable to keep up with the orders. Demand is peaking. Putters, the 'putter-together-res' of scissors are makers. And yet by avoiding some of the craft romanticism that colours Ingold's account, they show the intimate and fluid gathering together of the human and the material. You see skilled hands at work, the small adjustments, the smoothing off of the fash, those rough extrusions around the join in the mould. And then, the more 'arty' video produced by Storying Sheffield eschews commentary and in so doing invites you to experience, even to feel in a very different way. To feel (of course, once removed) the texture. As Sedgwick suggests it is '...sedimented, extruded, laminated, granulated, polished, distressed, felted or fluffed up.....to perceive texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous to grasp, to stack, to fold, to shred, to climb on, to stretch, to slide, to soak' (Sedgwick, 2003:14) - or in the case of scissors, to cut, to snip. to trim. At the same time this is all woven in with a deep sense of the local, the tradition of that which is 'Made in Sheffield', and the ways in which that extends and has extended outwards, to the Bowie knives and bayonets of combat and the cutlery that famously travelled the world before trade slumped, workers were laid off and mass unemployment set in. But what an interesting turn of events, as our narrator explains; 'That's internet for you - i'n't it?' Obviously not a going back, a return, but nonetheless a new twist in an ongoing story. A different cut. Can we think about humans and technology again, please?

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Writing, thinking, knowing 

It's good to see the Second Edition of this book in print. and I think it provides a very useful overview of contemporary work in literacies. The case study I wrote with @Kate Cosgrove looks good, and the carefully-crafted introduction references the great work done by the DeFT project. It's also nice to see some acknowledgement of the Points of View paper, too. Sometimes it all seems a bit like a production line - the next lot of proposals are in, there's something new to write, something to revise, something that needs proof-reading and usually no time for reading! So, as much as I dislike New Years resolutions, this is going to be mine: read more. That's it. I'm trying to get involved in some academic reading groups, and I'm particularly interested in one Chris Bailey's setting up, in which we'll be exploring the literature on children and video games. Having just finished a chapter that deals with the topic of virtual play, I think I've just about worked out what I don't know about the topic - which is quite a lot really! And I suppose, for me, that's the whole cycle that I'm referring to - from proposal to proofs it seems like a continuous process of finding out what I don't know, working out what other people know, trying to work out what I think and then realising that there are whole lot of other things I don't know. If experience counts for anything, it must be about being quietly confident that you don't know very much at all.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

New literacies around the globe 

I don't usually gloat over reviews, but if we live in an age of self-promotion maybe we are compelled (?) to put things out there. So I'm quoting Sam Duncan's review of last year's edited book 'New Literacies around the Globe' (Burnett, Davies, Merchant and Rowsell, 2014) sent to us by or publisher, Routledge. I'm not sure where this review will appear but it picks up on some of the high points of that work. (Sam, by the way, is an expert on adult literacy. ) Here goes: 'Of all the literacy-related books I have managed to get my hands on this year, this is the one I am most pleased to own. By far. This is a wonderful book: stimulating, engaging, exciting, varied and just so useful. It is useful in providing new ideas for practice and it is useful in providing new perspectives on research. It begins with a foreword (by Peter Freebody) asking: “aren’t we all, perhaps, a bit tired of seeing words like ‘new’ and ‘global’”? And don’t we need to examine what exactly is ‘new’ about literacies and what is ‘global’ about literacies? Freebody’s explorations of these questions alone make this book worth reading; he examines how relationships between technical, economic and social factors produce new literacy demands, and encourages us to think about the ways in which these demands reconfigure how we may understand the local and the global, and what it means to be literate. He asks us to think about, as this entire volume asks us to think about, the relationship between ‘school’ literacies and the other, the wider, the more ‘multiple’ literacies of our lives, “because many of literacy’s riches haven’t been missed; they’ve been omitted” (p. xviii).Each chapter has something important to say about literacy development, each chapter provides valuable references and ways of expressing, imagining and reimaging puzzles of teaching and research.  Like most books concerned with ‘literacy’, the focus is more on children than adults, but there are chapters with specific foci around teenagers and young adults (for example Davies on young women’s Facebook spaces or Williams on university students’ engagement with digital texts). Yet, every single chapter addresses issues of relevance- of importance- to adult literacy educators and researchers. For example, Beavis’ chapter on ‘Literature, Imagination and Computer Games’ forces us to examine what we mean by the subject of ‘English’- something of increasing importance as adult literacy provision is labelled, by some, as ‘adult English,’ and Merchant’s chapter on ‘Interactive Story-Apps’ reminds us to keep broadening our conceptualisations of reading (that reading is not one practice or process; it is multiple and ever-evolving). Reading this volume (and I did read every chapter; I would have been unable to resist it) also reminded me that though we want, as adult literacy specialists, to emphasise differences between ‘our patch’ and that of children’s literacy, we are still part of a larger literacy context- and thank goodness. As people concerned with literacy (or literacies), we are part of a huge and extraordinarily interesting group. We have so many colleagues from whom to learn. My favourite part of this volume is in the last few pages: ‘A Charter for Literacy Education.’ Burnett et al have created nine key points, all of which are of fundamental relevance to adult literacy scholarship and practice. I’ll end with three of these: 1. An empowering literacy education involves a recognition of the linguistic, social and cultural resources learners bring to the classroom whilst encouraging them to diversify the range of communicative practices in which they participate. 2. An empowering literacy education involves a range of activities that include improvisation and experimentation as well as the production of polished texts. 3. An empowering literacy education involves a recognition of the affective, embodied and material dimensions of meaning-making. And there are six more, each helping us to understand what it means to think about what is ‘new’ and what is ‘global’ about literacy.'....Thank you, Sam!

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