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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Uncertainty 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Saturday, December 02, 2017

Fifteen years blogging 

I thought I just might post something on the anniversary of my blog. It's exactly fifteen years ago that I registered this account with Blogger and, although the frequency of my posting and some of the old enthusiasm has waned, I still keep showing up. Why? Not for the same reasons for sure. That first day, that first post was undertaken with a particular kind of excitement. Little old me could type something on my keyboard, in Sheffield, and then, magically, there it would be on the internet for all to see! It seems rather gauche now, but back then the internet still seemed rather new and most of what you read was written by geeks or by companies that employed geeks. It felt with a blog you could get hold of the printing press and publish, just like that! But of course that feeling completely elided the fact that writers need readers - but then that small detail wasn't going to put me off either. And in fact it was only when Colin and Michele commented on my blog from Australia, Canada or Mexico, or wherever they were at the time, that I thought oh my god, people will read this stuff, too! That actually fired more enthusiasm. The posts were still highly experimental and at that stage I was more or less stringing together links about strange, quirky things on the web - a bit like the original bloggers did. Colin and Michele rather flatteringly described my blog as a wunderkammer. Perhaps that was just a kind way of calling it a mess. But all in all it meant that writing could change. Pictures, links, tags and all the rest were new. And what's more a small band of academics began exploring blogging. Working with Julia Davies, who started blogging around the same time as me, I began to write about this phenomenon. A community of literacy academics started blogging too, and there was a tangible feeling of being on the edge of something important. Then that something changed. Blogging lost its playful, experimental edge, it became popular, it became formulaic and in came the 'A-list bloggers'. Usually white, mostly male, and predominantly American, this group effectively standardised blogging. It became - dare I say it - a genre. And now commercial outfits, media companies, universities, this group, that project and just about everyone else has a blog. Slowly my own posts began to shift from that heady 'isn't the internet weird' phase into more critical and reflective pieces. I began to use my blog to try out ideas. Ideas that might later get absorbed into articles or book chapters. And that's what it has become for me - just another opportunity to write, to publish. Guess what, I'm fifteen years older and my priorities have changed! But if I've changed, so has the online environment. I care less about who reads my stuff and in that sense I'm right back to my first post. But strangely enough, I care more about what I write than I ever did before.

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