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.

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?

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'.

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.

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!

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 '' 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!

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.

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.

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.

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 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?

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!

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!