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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Thursday, January 01, 2015

Builders' stilts 

I often think that discussions of new media place their emphasis on either representation or technology but rarely both. Thinking about the technological function of so-called everyday objects can therefore be an interesting point of departure. Colleagues whose work focuses on the digital tend to overlook the fact that technologies are implicated in such basic things as food preparation and consumption, domestic chores, and so on - indeed in the full range of daily activity. And as Latour's work implies, non-humans are therefore active in all aspects of our lives. These builders' stilts work well when plastering a ceiling and certainly reduce the labour of climbing ladders and trestles, saving on both time and effort. Whether or not they turn plasterers into cyborgs is debatable, but they do serve as an illustration of how our relationship with the world is constantly modified by the things we make and use. The plasterer isn't particularly concerned with meaning making - he's just getting the job done. Well, we might well ask whether a smartphone or laptop is any different, and why. After all, it's all stuff. In the closing minutes of the film 'Transcendence', when the internet goes down, there's a lovely image of someone using a keyboard as a doorstop. Is that act about giving new meaning to old stuff or just getting a job done? In an early paper, Latour refers to the way in which we delegate to non-humans. From this point of view, re-purposing a keyboard as a doorstop is perhaps just an act of delegation. One that uses the physical affordances of a piece of plastic with letters on it to keep a door open. On the other hand, I could thing of many other uses of builders' stilts - but keeping in touch with colleagues in Australia or Canada wouldn't be one of them!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Data driven? 

At this year's LRA conference I found myself repeatedly asking whether presenters felt that their video data was producing them, rather than the other way around. It probably sounded like someone trying to make a clever point, so I thought it might be worth trying to unpick what I was driving at. The thought first occurred to me a while back when it seemed as if researchers had 'discovered' mobility, as if it was something akin to a previously overlooked landmass - already there, but as yet unchartered. At that point I wondered whether that new interest in movement was simply a by-product of moving image technology. Were we simply seeing what our technology enabled us to see? Looking back then, was that earlier fascination with spoken interaction, turn-taking, transcripts and all the paraphernalia of oracy simply the result of affordable recording devices and magnetic tape? Thinking in this way might just exemplify how data produces us - and also at the same time how technologies of data capture enact exclusions. In our rush to study mobility do we ignore turn-taking, or indeed anything that falls outside the frame? You could take the argument to another level, as Barad does in Meeting the Universe Halfway, when she argues that 'technoscientific practices play a role in producing the very phenomena they set out to describe.' (207:2007). Or on an everyday level you could see how the way the iPhone camera gets used creates a new way of seeing the world. That wide angle lens, the heightened colour values, and also the simple ubiquity of the phone itself melds with our experience in new ways, creating radical departures from photography as it was. Put that into a slideshow (as above) and the way we participate in the world is changed.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014


In writing about virtual worlds and video games recently, I found myself reaching deep into 'the canon'  to illustrate the enduring appeal of imaginary worlds. Using the Tempest I rehearsed the idea that dramatic performance, and the imaginary world that is conjured up by it, is an 'insubstantial pageant', with a cast of characters involved in a sequence of events that we temporarily believe in. Following this I argued that a play could be seen as a prototypical virtual world - as an event-space that is real enough, and takes place in real time with all the material supports of a theatre or similar venue. Members of the audience are embodied and present, but yet the world they are transported into is constructed in their individual imaginations, and filtered through their own particular lived experiences. Of course video games are different in all sorts of ways- ways which I won't go into here, but my intention was to argue for the familiarity (and cultural history) of what you might call imagined worlds. Attending the launch of the Reading Digital Fiction exhibition on Thursday evening, I was struck by how a different discipline works its way into the same territory. In her succinct opening remarks Astrid Ensslin reminded us how digital fiction sits somewhere between literary fiction and video gaming, as well as how print fiction lives on whilst digitally-born narrative continues to evolve.  The common thread of how new and old narratives work to engage our imaginations emerges again, along with the idea that digital technology often end up troubling existing categories such as the distinctions between games and stories, art and life, the real and the imagined. It was a successful thought-provoking event, and underscores the fact that digital fiction is now old enough to have a history.

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