Saturday, February 06, 2016

Personal, colonial  

I'm back! Back from what friends fondly refer to as my gallivanting, which roughly translated means making the most of my time to explore new places, or places that interest me - alternatively rendered as going to warm and exotic locations just because I can.  This time Sri Lanka. And from my humble iPhone snaps this Hillman was the best, parked up on a sidestreet it strongly resonated with my 1950s boyhood whilst also being totemic of the whole colonial legacy. Corny as hell, I know, but cars seemed so important to me back then.  That beige two-tone was the colour of my childhood and the taste of milky tea all wrapped up in one. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as we then called it, was something we did in geography as a prelude to getting on with life. So much for innocence. In Sri Lanka the communication system, both road and rail, put in place by the British, constituted an elaborate net to capture the country, to suppress resistance and to strip the hillsides first for coffee and later, when that failed, for tea. The road system is still there, you can see some well-preserved classic cars and tea is still big business. But amongst all that are centuries of culture, a whole history of art and architecture as well as an exquisite and diverse natural habitat. Returning to work might seem dull in comparison if it weren't for the enthusiasm of colleagues, the promise of new projects and the slow closing stages of previous work, all of which may well get reported on here in due course. As a corrective, before I stop for a cup of tea, I do want to make it clear though that I am not remotely interested in classic cars but it's just that I learnt at quite an early age that my father earnestly believed that owning a Hillman would make him happy, that it would be a step up in the world. That was abandoned when he splashed out on an MG in cream and British racing green...and just as I know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, these sorts of things remain with you.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

New work in new literacies 

I was flattered to be asked to present for the Global Conversations in Literacy series. The video is a screen capture of the talk, probably a reduction of the live experience, but useful to share anyway. What Peggy Albers and her colleagues are doing here is important, and although I'm familiar with all the affordances of elluminate and other similar video conferencing/virtual classroom environments the idea of doing what is in essence a large scale public lecture online is significant in bringing ideas and scholarship to a wider audience. I definitely recommend this to students, researchers and fellow scholars. In playing with the idea of mobile literacies in that talk I was acutely aware of what exactly becomes mobile and what doesn't with the advance of new technoliteracies, and this will be a theme I'll be pursuing soon. In the mean time, it's good to see the Handbook of Research on the Societal Impact of Digital Media published. I have an overview chapter on virtual worlds in there. There's also  a new paper co-authored with a former doctoral student of mine (Ruth Barley) in Childhood based on her fascinating ethnography of young children in a cultural diverse classroom setting. A fuller account of her work is available in the book Identity and Social Interaction in a Multi-ethnic Classroom. And finally, you can read about The Challenge of 21st Century Literacies in the current edition of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

New mobile literacies 

I hope there will be a good audience for my talk on Sunday. It's called 'New Mobile Literacies' and here's a bit of a taster. ....Mobility is one of those signature themes of early 21st Century living. On a macro scale we are preoccupied with the movement of people, whether it takes the form of the ‘migrant crisis’ that has tested Europe’s ability to act with humanity, the contagion and spread of Ebola that has troubled the medical community, illegal border crossings and their generational legacy, or the carbon footprint left by mass tourism and big business. Within liberal democracies we agonise about social mobility, about the rising gap between rich and poor. At a local level about the ability of the transport infrastructure to get people from A to B, and with our growing sensitivity to disability, and ageing, how access and mobility can be enhanced. None of these are new to the 21st Century, but a concept of ‘mobilities’ sensitizes us to how we put ourselves about, how we get around, who moves where, and how. So how do any of these instances of mobility connect with our idea of literacies? Perhaps the answer lies in something that has always intrigued me, the other dictionary definition of communication. It’s the second in my Concise Oxford, in which communication is described as ‘a means of connecting different places, such as a door, passage, road or railway’. Then communication, by whichever definition, always implies a sort of movement, whether that is a movement of people, things or ideas. Yes, a mobility. And if this holds true we could argue that all literacies are in some way mobile. If that is the case, no need to go on, except of course, for the fact that we  see rather a lot of people wandering about holding these things, these rectangular objects of different sizes – talking to them, tapping them, stroking them as if they were pets. Maybe you do the same, temporarily stashing a phone in your back pocket as you walk along or rummaging around in the dark recesses of a bag to locate the pulsing feel of an incoming call?

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Saturday, October 10, 2015


In a current writing project we've been exploring Bennet's notion of enchantment - eloquently developed in her book The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001). Bennet has become a bit of an academic superstar, and most people seem to rave about Vibrant Matter which apart having a cover design to die for is, in my humble opinion, not nearly so good. Although the argument about a politic of enchantment is hard to sustain, it can work. In an educational context, I think we may have resolved it adequately if somewhat simply. Here I'll just put it in a sort of aphorism - better to be enchanted by the inventiveness of children than fall under the spell of a stultifying curriculum. It all stems from a simple question. How can we, as educators work with teachers who are labouring under the dead hand of a one-size-fits-all lockstep curriculum driven by a draconian regime of accountability? To me it seems that most teachers are attracted to the profession because they are interested and inspired by children, by watching them play and learn, and being with them and not by measuring their progress against arbitrary measures. If we can re-orientate towards some basic professional values, or become re-enchanted by the actions and activity of young children we unlock what Bennet would call 'virtual possibilities'.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Children reading on tablets 

Last week the Guardian newspaper carried a well-researched piece on the possible effects of tablets on children's reading. Stuart Dredge's piece rehearses the different points of view with some balance and it certainly would make a useful discussion prompt for students. For me three issues come to the fore: 1. How we think about reading 2. What we think about the relationship between print and narrative 3. How we think about screen time. So first, if we think that reading involves some sort of universal, unchanging set of skills and behaviours that somehow float free from the people that use them - in other words from culture and society, the changing technologies of reading are going to come as a bit of a shock. We won't be able to cope with new skills, new attitudes or new ways of knowing, and we'll bemoan the demise of the old ones. We'll worry that under some conditions we'll learn more from YouTube than from a cookery book, for example. We'll worry that our reading has become superficial. And we'll worry about the advance of abbreviated conversational writing in text messaging or short-form expression on Twitter. But if we see reading as an evolving meaning making system that changes with social conditions, with culture, with technology, with and through the people that use it, then we'll see the emergence of new practices, often overlying old practices, with curiosity and an open mind. Sure, we may still see the demise of valued practices, but that, as they say, is the way of the world. Which brings me to the second issue. If we remain strongly invested in the virtues of print fiction, we'll worry about the popularity of movies, the advance of video games, and some of the directions taken by the book trade. Delightful as print narrative can be, it has achieved an almost unassailable position with some of our cultural elite. Humans love narrative. And you find narrative whereever you find people - in their oral stories, anecdotes, and epic poems, as well as in their play, their theatre, their movies and their games. Narrative has a very special magic and print books can have us spellbound, but for me the importance of narrative over-rides the specifics of a particular medium, and screens carry great narratives (as well as average ones). But can we have too much screen time? This is the worry underlying the final issue. Well, I must say I'm concerned by the way this term 'screen time' has slowly crept up on us. What exactly does it mean? Does it include the time I spend getting cash out of ATMs, reading information at travel hubs, watching scoreboards or electronic hoardings? And what about those flickering screens I walk past in town, the TVs on in the background? If screens were harmful, then most academics would be dead by now, because their usage must be as high as anybody's! If there's any suggestion of harm from the glare of those flickering screens then those high tech companies better get on to it now - after all they wouldn't want anything to dint their sales.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015


Observational studies of children working on desktop computers sometimes drew our attention to how those particular material conditions established a new sort of physical discipline. In schools early digital literacy was predominantly a sedentary desk work with the textual display on the vertical axis. In contrast navigation, control and transcription was on the horizontal plane. As in traditional reading and writing students were seat bound but what had changed was the direction of the gaze as well as the work of the hands. So the move from page to screen involved, amongst many other things, new bodily engagements. The most challenging of these often turned out to be the keyboard and mouse operations. Young hands had to learn how to do new things - yet, perhaps unsurprising these new forms of dexterity were quickly mastered. The more recent adoption of tablet computers shifts this yet again. As always literacy practices have an embodied dimension, but now new literacies are more like the old ones in the sense that the text is portable. More or less the same weight as a print book, or notebook, the tablet has portability in its favour. And touchscreen control involves a close physical interweaving of production and consumption. In common with earlier practices this literacy involves the work of the hands, but those movements are new all over again. New for young hands, but quickly learnt. And as with other technological innovations the name of the inventor or the brand has become interchangeable with the thing itself. We tended to prefer to use the name of the Hungarian inventor 'Biro' to refer to the ballpoint pen, and like substituting the verb 'google' for looking something up, 'iPad' has come to stand for all things tablet - even though tablet computers preceded this particular product. It's as if literacies have become mobile all over again. This just could mean something new in learning situations. iPads are unlikely to blow away in a breeze, writing on them is free from blots, but you can still drop them, crack the screen or run out of power. Same same, different different!

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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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