Friday, December 21, 2018

Who needs pockets?

Denim used to be a signifier of rebelliousness, and that may partly explain why I’ve been wearing blue jeans for the last 50 years. Not the same pair I hasten to add, but successive variations on a theme. Small but important shifts in length, leg-style and waistband have reflected the various whims of the fashion industry, but really they’re more or less the same thing. Perhaps no longer so edgy - in fact they’ve somehow accrued a sort of staid, conservative image, unsurprising perhaps, given how little they’ve changed compared to everything around them and in them. The other day, though, it occurred to me that the pockets seem to be getting shallower. Either that or my hands are growing, which seems extremely unlikely. And that reminded me of how pockets used to be stuffed with loose change, a rarity these days when all you need is plastic. Nearly everything I buy goes on a card. And apparently there are places now that will only accept card payment. Phone, watch and contactless transactions are on the rise - your pockets may be empty, but you can still pay. It’s part of the sublimation of everyday interaction, the cashless society. But pockets are here to stay. I mean where else would you put your hands when slouching against the wall? And where are going to keep that all important rectangle of plastic?

Friday, December 14, 2018

Biometrics on the move

I've often wondered why the seating in airports is so uncomfortable. Is it to prepare you for the inevitable discomfort of the journey ahead or is it just a total failure of imagination? Anyway here we are again in our serried ranks, this time in San Francisco, uncomfortable as usual when there's an announcement. US immigration are staging a 'biometric exit operation' just before boarding. Just when you thought you'd escaped notice and could slink off they're tracking your departure. In the end it's not as bad as it sounds. You just step up - when you're told, of course - and stand on two large yellow footprints glued to the floor while they take your picture. That's it, and off you go. They could have just announced that instead, 'We'll take your picture as you leave'. Biometric exit operation sounds better, but then again it's slightly more honest. Yes, they take your picture, it's simple....and then. It's the and then bit which is hidden. Hidden, like so much in our machine age. You have to imagine how your image becomes data, matched by face recognition software, tallied against finger and thumbprint records and passport details that connect your age, sex and nationality with where you've been and what you said you were doing, and it's all done behind the scenes. Then and there you just get a polite but slightly officious person in uniform who presses a button before telling you you're done. And this because you are - you're done again.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Radio isn't dead

I like radio, I grew up with it on. In those days it was mainly the Home Service and the Third Programme, and it was the hey day of British broadcasting. We called it the wireless. We called it listening to the wireless, but wireless means something else now - but then so does radio. Radio isn't dead. I don't have radio on in the house any more although I do own three old valve radios - wirelesses from the late '50s and early '60s. Not a collection I've just ended up with them. They're all in good working order but I never listen to them. I do go through phases when I flip on the radio in the car though. I listen to bits of things - very 21st Century. Last week, for instance, it was lovely hearing Isaac Julien interviewing Stuart Hall. Slightly creepy though. Stuart Hall died in 2014. But he had a really beautiful and sonorous radio voice. Listening to him is like sinking into a really comfortable, well-upholstered armchair. It's a luxurious comfort. His voice is (the present tense seems appropriate) always reassuring, it's reasonable and it's deeply critical all at the same time. You could say that he was one of the last great public intellectuals. And he was a staunch advocate of  British diversity, an insightful commentator on what it means to be black in Britain, and a key theorist of identity politics. But how could Isaac Julien be interviewing him live? It turns out it's an engaging format in which the guest - Julien in this case - interacts with someone, now dead, that they admired. The producers use excerpts from audio archives to simulate conversation. Meanwhile the guest has no idea what material will be used. Ingenious. And it makes for good radio. As it turned out we had a fascinating exploration of art and politics, identity, diversity and the Windrush generation. Stuart Hall was as engaging and eloquent as ever and his mellow tones reminded me of how good radio could be. If only I could listen again on a valve radio I would.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Having been a teacher

I used to be a teacher, a primary school teacher, but unlike some of my colleagues I don't really think of myself in that way any longer. I've often heard people in teacher education say 'I'm still a teacher, really' meaning that they don't really consider themselves to be a lecturer, an academic or a researcher - part of them is still in the classroom. It's one of those funny things about identity, no matter what you actually are, it's what you think you are that counts, that guides you or gives you anchorage. Moving into a university environment relatively early in my career and into research rather than teacher education perhaps gives me some distance from the classroom and helped to forge my particular professional identity. I think of myself as an education academic, researcher and writer rather than a teacher. Of course a lot of my work is still rooted in schools and classrooms but I'm not a teacher, although I could probably still do it - at a stretch. As a result, visiting a school I used to teach in, as I did last week, was quite a strange affair. Now I've been visiting schools most of my working life and so going in, signing the little touchscreen and wandering around was all quite familiar. That said, the usual sort of atmosphere and environment was in this case overlaid with a memory of how things looked forty years ago, which teachers used to teach in each classroom and a strange bodily sensation of standing again where I'd stood many times before, separated only by the passage of time. And in amongst all this I could just about recall something of what it was like to be a teacher or at least to feel like a teacher. Never mind the fact that they'd closed down some of the spaces we'd opened up, and that looking around it all seemed far more old-fashioned than it had forty years ago - there was an embodied memory. But there were also stories - histories if you like, readily prompted by the shape of a particular room, the look of a corridor, a doorway or stairwell. These were stories about people all of whom seemed to have disappeared without trace. In fact it was if they'd all been wiped out, all except for the young teacher, a contemporary of mine, who'd taken his own life. For a small plaque announced that a large and colourful mural had been commissioned in his memory and a riotous assembly of characters from children's literature clambered up one wall - just dull brickwork in former times. It was a fitting tribute. Of course no-one in the school had the faintest idea who he was, but it was moving to think that he'd left his mark in the way that nobody else had, even though we were all teachers once.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Rethinking the library

'Digital communication and new media have rapidly become an important feature of daily life for all age groups. Although the global spread of new technology has opened new opportunities for many, public institutions such as libraries, schools and universities still have an important role to play. Librarians, as gatekeepers and stewards of information, are uniquely placed to encourage new forms of reading for pleasure and the kinds of critical habits of mind needed for the information age.' That was the headline for my keynote at the Innovatics conference in Chile last week and I made a bold attempt to connect what I know about children and young people's digital practices with what I'm rapidly learning about libraries. In all honesty I've given little thought to libraries during my research career - and my most enduring engagement with them is through my own institution's digital library, but I do believe that new practices and new habits of mind are reconfiguring what it means to know and what it means to find out and that this has profound implications for how we think about learning, information and knowledge - and that's got to include libraries and librarians. I support the move to reinvent libraries as welcoming, comfortable and user-oriented community spaces where you can 'take your shoes off'. Santiago Villegas-Ceballos illustrated that well with vivid examples from Colombia of new library spaces. Access is obviously a key concept for libraries and one that works on many levels, but the other keynote Cristina Azorín focused more specifically on digital repositories, based on work she's been involved in at the Universitàries de Catalunya (Catalonia). As someone with vested interests in academic publication some of what she said about publishers, open access, and peer-review was challenging, but food for thought. Perhaps in some ways I've grown used to the status quo! Regardless of all this I came away from my visit with some great memories - meeting Carlos from the world's southernmost city, Puerto Williams who has found out how videogames can work to attract teenagers into the library was great. And then there's stories of quirky sociomaterial arrangements that bring books to remote communities. All I have are mental images of what a donkey-library or a canoe-library might look like, but maybe there are some open access free-to-use pictures out there somewhere!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Doing data differently

Reading that 8 million horses died in the First World War or that 200,000 were slaughtered with the collapse of the equine market after the Second is extremely disturbing. More so than if it had been a 'large number' or a 'great many' - and so, in such matters, numbers count. Being a literacy scholar with a background in the humanities and qualitative research often puts me in a particular position with respect to numbers. When paradigm wars break out, as they do from time to time, I repeatedly find myself in opposition to the bean counters. But as Jackie once pointed out to me, quantitative studies can be really useful in offering a broad view of trends and patterns. I just didn't listen. But now, working on the British Academy funded project Doing Data Differently I'm beginning to learn the error of my ways. In fact I'm learning a great deal, most of which I'm still mulling over. But here's a random collection of thoughts. First - and central to the Doing Data Differently project, is the significance of what you measure and what you don't (the shadow side if you like). Second, and related to this, is the sheer power of numbers, the 8 million horses effect as I shall now call it. Third is about how you visualise data. Visualisation is representation, and as a result it can highlight, it can exaggerate or it can distort information And finally, in this whole quantitative field it's all about relations, what can be mapped on to what, who or where. This can be a highly creative act (highlighting new relationships), or a selective act (implicitly suggesting that some relationships are more important than others) and probably much more, too. I'm guessing that this sort of critical perspective is all very familiar to those working in this tradition and it's probably part of the basic mathematics that I've conveniently forgotten - but it's a useful antidote to the intoxications of post-qualitative theory and is certainly helping me to think about educational data differently and equally importantly, we're sharing this journey with a wonderful group of teachers.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

New media in the classroom

Over a number of years and across a variety of projects Cathy Burnett and I have been working with groups of teachers to develop authentic ways of using technology as literacy in primary school classrooms. Along the way we have developed a set of principles for 21st Century Literacies (with Julia Davies and Jennifer Rowsell and published in New Literacies around the Globe). We like to think of our work with teachers as a partnership of equals and are always mindful of how challenging classroom life can be. Yet we are continually reminded of the enthusiasm, commitment and creativity of primary practitioners - and, of course, the children they teach. Our new title New Media in the Classroom: Rethinking Primary Literacy is hot of the press. Published by Sage it describes a lot of this development work, unpacking the nine principles of 21st Century Literacies and setting them in the context of our ongoing work on sociomaterialist approaches to understanding literacy. We've tried to write it in an accessible style so that it speaks to student teachers, practitioners and literacy scholars. There's more work on the way, but in some senses this gives an overview of our recent work together. Am I trying to sell it? Yes, I am - the royalties won't make us rich, but it is a celebration of a number of collaborations and we hope it captures some of the enjoyment and some of the surprises of the journey - and of course we want it to be useful, too.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Dwelling in error

Creative processes can be as interesting as their final products and that's partly because they are occasions in which thinking really is live, where something different could always come into being, or fail, or just remain in potentiality. I was reminded of this listening to dramaturg Ruth Little speaking about her collaborations with award-winning dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Part of a Radio 4 series Behind the Scenes followed the development of their project Xenos, the story of the 1.4 million Indians who fought in the Great War. It is reported to be Khan's final outing as a dancer. The process of developing the piece is all about exploring possibilities, working on a difficult theme with a challenging set design. 'It's dwelling in error that takes us forward' explains Ruth Little, working with 'things that are right on the margins of possibility, or likelihood, or logic, in order to discover where they collapse.' I'm convinced that all the experimentation somehow gives weight and texture to the final performance. In the process, though, there's a wonderful sensitivity or faith in what emerges out of uncertainty. What's more, the very idea of dwelling in error is very appealing to someone, like me, who's always making mistakes!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fifty years on

In the recent history of radical progressive politics the student unrest of the late '60s holds a very special place. The momentum for social, cultural and political change, although diffuse in its aims, spread like wildfire particularly across Europe and North America leading to sit-ins, demonstrations and student occupations, often resulting in fractious clashes with the State. This unrest was relatively short-lived but arguably it sowed the seeds of some more lasting social reform as well as a variety of struggles which continue to this day. One of the more colourful, violent and potentially revolutionary manifestations of unrest took place in Paris - culminating in civil disturbances between May 15th and May 29th, 1968 - fifty years ago this week. The dissatisfaction of a growing student population, subjected to archaic regimes and routines was vociferously expressed. Their protests were supported by many public intellectuals, artists and cultural luminaries. At the same time a simmering resentment of the economic conditions under the Gaullist government led to a General Strike and for a short while, at least, France teetered on the edge of revolution - or chaos, depending on your point of view. Les événements (the events), as they came to be called, had a profound effect on French intellectual life. Those working in the social sciences that look to contemporary European thinking - and particularly to what is sometimes dismissively referred to as 'French theory' could, and perhaps do, reflect on this. Like it or not, les événements profoundly influenced Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and many other too. Given that we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of these events it's hard to work out whether we should mourn the lost opportunity, celebrate their impact or draw a veil over those heady times. I half expected more media interest. The BBC's Vive La Revolution was rather disappointing being more about Joan Bakewell than anything else. An extended interview with one-time student leader Tariq Ali is a lead feature in this month's London Review of Books. Although That Was The Year That Was is both informative and analytical it again tends towards the autobiographical. Hazanavicius's movie Le Redoutable (or Godard Mon Amour) adopts a different approach by explicitly focusing on New Wave filmmaker and political activist Jean-Luc Godard, offering a humorous and rather unflattering portrait of his political activity. This has the effect of lampooning the political rhetoric that circulated around the events May '68. History is inevitably selective and what matters for one generation may not for another. However, it would be a loss if les événements ended up being the story of a few individuals. In fact it would be a grand irony.  The very least we should expect is a reprint of Julian Bourg's excellent study 'From Revolution to Ethics'.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


One of the things I admire about Virginia Woolf's writing is her precision in describing uncertainty. The most obvious example is her first published piece, The Mark on the Wall, but I suspect it was an ungoing preoccupation or predisposition in her writing life. It's something you can't do so well in academic work where claims, warrants and certainties are only slightly softened by talking about caveats, limitations or alternative perspectives. No matter how uncertain I feel, the writing I do often sounds certain as I read it again. So here is an arena of uncertainty....when I hear about 'data as the new oil', I get that not sure sort of feeling. Of course the analogy - data as oil - has well-rehearsed shortcomings, but I think it may be in danger of missing the point (although note the same theme of exploiting natural resources is found in 'data-mining' and 'harvesting'). The Cambridge Analytica story seems to me to be more about exploiting and monetising private information than about data itself - that comes later. And this monetising is made possible by the ways in which we leave trails of personal information. The way we overtly make our private lives public on social media couples up with the surreptitious tracking of our online activity and that's how we come to produce data - which some argue is the digital labour that fuels a new sort of capitalism. All this may be the case, but where does that leave the poor knowledge worker who is now continually required to update his or her academic profile, to maintain a healthy score on Research Gate, accumulate impressive ratings on Google Scholar and use Twitter to generate impact? I suspect that sort of performativity may be beginning to eclipse the actual contribution made, although I hope not. But that's not the source of my uncertainty. No, it's more about who benefits from such activity as institutions, colleagues and publishers all encourage us to market ourselves. Does our labour just become someone else's data, and someone else's profit? Or is it genuinely a good idea, a more open gesture to draw things to people's attention? Well if that's the case, then I'm encouraging you to look at our piece on reading for pleasure in the digital age, and the paper that's had a longer gestation period - literacy as event. Which leads me on to a whole string of other uncertainties, but you'd have to be Virginia Woolf to get into all those.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Synthetic reading

Sometime in the mid '60s my father discovered drip-dry shirts. They were one of the many products of the modern world; a world in which science and technology seemed to know no bounds. They released my mother, at least temporarily, from the chore of ironing, because that's how the domestic economy was for them back then. The shirts were hung, rather unceremoniously, over the bath to drip and dry, and that could take rather a long time in the days before central heating. But they were something different, and they were, my father explained, man-made (not that other shirts weren't), and  they were artificial, they were synthetic. And therein lay their downfall. They were still a little creased after drying and what's more they didn't perform particularly well when it, or should I say he, heated up, which happened on regular occasions. Soon he'd had enough of what he called 'that synthetic rubbish', and as a result, synthetic, the very word, became associated in my impressionable mind with the artificial, or the inauthentic - something rather inferior that imitated the real thing but clearly wasn't. So now, when I see that word synthetic associated with reading teaching, I can't help but think that the obsession with phonics-above-all, and particularly phonics taught in a very specific way kind of way, is just that - an artificial product. To cling to that particular dogma, because I'm afraid that's what it is, seems rather like exhuming those shirts from the '60s, hanging them up to dry without central heating and somehow conning yourself into thinking that they perform better than any others. They don't.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The future of handwriting

It's perhaps unsurprising that in a discipline so firmly anchored to immediate and practical concerns, educational debate finds it difficult to float free of historical preoccupations. In fact, since the demise of educational philosophy - a useful, but by definition entirely unpractical sub-discipline for teasing out values, purpose, concepts and other fundamentals - there has been precious little scope for the development of rigorous, critical thinking. That seems a shame, because rigorous, critical thinking is just what we need right now. In England, hamstrung by a backward-facing curriculum, education is hobbled by an unpopular and draconian regime of accountability. Furthermore the system has been vulnerable to the capricious meddling of a succession of ill-informed politicians. Thinking clearly about what we might do, how we might respond to a wide array of changing circumstances - environmental degradation, climate change, economic uncertainty, population mobility, shifting social norms and patterns of employment (to name just a few) is important. They are fundamental, educational challenges. The gradual insinuation of new technology into different facets of social and educational practice is another, more immediate concern. And it's one that was hastily resolved into pen or keyboard skills at last week's Guardian Roundtable on the future of handwriting. It is to their credit that the participants agreed that the 'or' choice simply reinforced an unhelpful binary. But there were some old ghosts in the room: penmanship as the mark of good character, handwriting as something that novelists do, the seamless fusing of body and mind in the creative process, the significance of making letter shapes in learning to read. All are open to question. I modestly proposed that we might re-channel the debate to consider 'writing by hand' which seems to me to be inclusive of a much broader range of communication, including, as it does, nearly all of the writing we do. We might also recognise that handwriting (in the traditional sense) can become yet another obstacle to those who are already struggling to keep up with a demanding, traditional curriculum. So what should we do? Perhaps we could allow teachers a little more freedom and discretion, perhaps we should not imagine that yet another debate could be resolved by an RCT, and perhaps we might allow ourselves more time to think, discuss, and evaluate - after all these are central to the business of education - aren't they?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Here come the non-humans

It's not just the fact that we're sailing in the wake of Latour's Re-assembling the Social - the growing appetite for all things socio-material or post-human represents an impulse to think differently about our place in the world. Suddenly, or so it seems, the non-humans have risen up to challenge the endeavours of social science. Is it strictly social anymore, you might well ask? That challenge, if taken seriously, is a challenge to what we focus on in research, how we go about studying it, analysing and even reporting it. Conceding to material agency must surely be an all or nothing affair. I've just been reading Adams and Thompson (2011) on 'interviewing objects' - yes, that's right, interviewing objects. Well, the sort of objects they are concerned with are technological, and if we allow them the temporary grace to separate (human) subjects so cleanly from (technological) objects, they make a compelling argument. I resonated with this observation, for instance, 'The technological milieu is shaping substantially - insinuating itself, habituating us and simultaneously informing and interpreting - how we act in and perceive the world (2011:13), and I enjoyed reading about the 'invitational quality of things'. I remembered a conversation with Julia a while back when she wondered out loud if the idea of affordance still worked in a socio-material universe. I suppose in a way an affordance is rather weaker than an invitation. Perhaps it suggests less agency? I can't help thinking that Twitter's 'What's happening?' prompt is a bit more like an invitation, and similarly that the little red dot that says 158 next to the envelope icon on my phone is an invitation - an invitation to worry or to read and delete. So, here come the non-humans, and really when you think about it they're all over us; they have us surrounded.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Immersive reading

I think I may have coined the term 'immersive reading' in an attempt to draw parallels between the experience of dwelling in the imaginary world of gameplay and the more traditional experience of reading print fiction. It still works for me, and I imagine a continuum that runs from lightweight to immersive engagement. Not that immersive is in anyway better, it's just a different sort of experience, and one that may, on occasions, be appropriate. Having just spent 3 weeks in India, and a considerable amount of that time on very long train journeys, immersive reading was certainly appealing. I'd taken with me a substantial tome - what you might call a European classic - slow moving and highly descriptive. That turned out to be quite a challenge, partly because of frequent disruptions to my reading, but also because the narrative context (the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) seemed so far removed from the dust, heat and general mayhem of the sub-continent rolling past my open window. Somehow or other there was a dissonance between the jolting carriages, the clanking of couplings and the click-clacking of the train and the slow, dignified conduct of the story's characters. I had to work in order to conjure this faraway place, despite the fact that it was so meticulously described. I returned home with a few chapters to go, and this seems an altogether more fitting context for an immersive reading - at least of this particular book. I now feel I've missed out! Thinking about this, I was reminded of how I'd become completely hooked when I picked up a copy of Panjak Mishra's novel 'The Romantics' where I was staying in Kathmandu a few years ago. It just seemed to fit my mood. Context is a strange thing. Clearly there are no golden rules; if there were, stories would never travel, but nevertheless immersion appears to be a delicate experience and subject to all sorts of complex factors.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Waxed jackets (short form)

Reflecting on my last post I realise that I'm quite drawn to what you could call 'short form' writing, and that's what blogging seems to invite. My research collaborations with Cathy have really brought this out. After all, the idea of stacking stories depends on short narratives (or narrative extracts) based on research observations and field notes. In recent iterations of this I've been trying to capture the essence of an event without faithfully rendering every detail. In some of these attempts, I've been inspired by the short prose poems of Francis Ponge. I suppose the idea of drawing out the detail or the nuance of small ephemeral things can, if successful, work on the reader in interesting ways. There's something similar going on in the journalism of Joseph Roth. His shorter pieces, sometimes referred to as feuilleton, often draw attention to the minutiae of everyday life but, in doing so, also manage to comment on larger issues. For example, ahead of his time Roth, to whom the idea of the anthropocene would have been unknown, was keenly aware of our tendency to separate out something called 'nature' as a thing that has to satisfy a human function, to be of use, even if that is just as a place for recreation. He disdainfully describes that sort of attitude as a 'waxed jacket relationship with nature'. At the same time, however, he manages to celebrate 'the sudden, unexpected, and wholly meaningless rising and falling of a swarm of mosquitoes over a tree trunk. The silhouette of a man laden with firewood on a forest path. The eager profile of a spray of jasmine tumbling over a wall.' (Roth, 2003). It's a kind of attention to detail that works well for me. Detail, but in a compressed piece of writing (four pages in my paperback copy). Well then, the short form is at least something to aspire to, an ongoing project for 2018.