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.


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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Friday, October 20, 2017

From Derbyshire to Alberta 

I'm recently back from a week in Calgary on a fascinating project which I may write more about later.  The preparatory task was to write a 'possibility' piece, and that in itself was an interesting exercise even though, as things turned out, that got shelved. But the writing got me thinking about how meanings get made in public spaces, like those in and around the iron age sites of Derbyshire. Here's part of what I wrote: ">Various objects decorate an old oak tree. The oak, bent and gnarled juts up from a fissure in the gritstone crag. Wicker, woven into heart shapes, strips of coloured fabric, ribbon, metal rings and bells dance in the wind. The wind is an unseen force; there is no-one about. This is an ancient landscape. A stone’s throw away the Grey Ladies of Harthill Moor stand tall and serene, Bronze Age megaliths marking an enduring relationship between land and people. Now they quarry for stone here, in and around honeypot villages of the Peak National Park. Sheep snatch at the grass at the foot of the rocks, cattle graze in a field below. Each of these decorations has been crafted with a purpose in mind – recalling the life of a friend or family member, marking a lovers’ tryst, celebrating a significant date – wishes and hope, fashioned from the materials at hand. On some there is message, a name, a date, but others are read by the wind whispering to one another, then blown across the land, carried like spore. It’s not always windy up here, but the bent limbs of the oak record a century or more of turns in the weather. Unseen, far underground, its network of routes fan out, a hidden web of fungal fibres in communion with others, the thinking trees. And three thousand years ago these crags served as a look-out and perhaps that still matters. This place has a tangible, magical atmosphere. I’d expected initials old and new carved into the gritstone - that, and a good view. But I just hadn’t imagined a tree decorated in this way. Maybe there’s a sort of animism at work here, connecting the landscape, the ancient world and the intimate secrets of the people who have been here before me.' And even though that fragment of writing didn't connect directly with what we did in Calgary, it did in another way. To get another sense of the place we visited the Blackfoot Medicine Wheel on top of Nosehill, and again became part of, or witness to, meanings being made 'on the land' and making connections to other places, other times, and other ways of being.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

21st Century Literacies 

I'm just putting the finishing touches to a co-authored book on literacy and digital media for Sage with Cathy Burnett. It's been an exciting project and one that brings recent work into dialogue with some older material. Nine years ago I wrote a similar book with Julia Davies, called Web 2.0 for Schools and I've been reflecting on the shifts in my thinking. Of course, it's partly the case that different collaborators enrich your thinking in different ways, but it's also inevitably the case that other changes occur with the passage of time. The shift from unbridled enthusiasm to a rather cautious, perhaps more critical stance to new media is clearly apparent to me, although it may not be so clear to readers - we'll see about that. Changes in digital technology itself are one cause of this, but actually that's mostly about ubiquity and the notable distribution and take up of mobile devices and apps. The more significant thing for me is what digital communication - and social media in particular, has become. Rather like Matt Haig, I think there are good reasons for taking a wider and more critical view.  I still think its crucially important for teachers to look at what literacy in everyday looks like and to adjust their own practices so that they are in step with this. And its equally important for policymakers to remove the obstacles that prevent this. But, promoting practices that help children and young people to navigate new literacies in ways that are ethical and empowering seems to be crucially important. It's actually untrue to say that was absent from Web 2.0 for Schools - it certainly wasn't - but it seems a more pressing agenda now. The current book attempts to emphasise this by exploring the nine principles of the Charter for 21st Century Literacies that we developed in New Literacies around the Globe and are shown at the end of this document. 


Saturday, September 02, 2017

Event, eventually 

Trying to think differently about literacy, emergence and potentiality (amongst other things) has led to some experimentation with the concept of literacy-as-event. Here we've been drawing on the work of Massumi who writes 'Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity or rules into paradox.' (2015: 27). In taking this route we've stumbled rather blindly into some quite contradictory conceptions of event. Anthropological perspectives have traditionally focused on ritual events or public performances that play an important role in socio-cultural life. For example, if you take a qualification in Event Management, this, I assume, is what you end up dealing with - logistics, planning, organisation, health and safety, customer satisfaction and so on. In other words what you need to have in place to make a wedding, a concert, a carnival or a festival run smoothly. It would be based on an understanding of the predictability of events. In contrast, for someone like Derrida, event was about 'surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable' (2007:441). Events, in this view, are marked by unpredictability. An extreme form of this occurs in Badiou (2005) in which event is about rupture - Paris 1968; the Arab Spring; London 2011 - situations in which new identities and discourses suddenly become possible. But is there a smaller scale version of this, in which we can keep hold of unpredictability, possibility and intensity in a moment-by-moment unfolding of event - this is what we're working with.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017


It seems hard to believe when you're in the full beauty of the English summer that the environment is any sort of danger at all. It's in full bloom, bountiful, green, just as it should be - what on Earth could be wrong? Precarity, that rather ugly word, is at the height of fashion, and it gets used to describe the nature-culture complex in all its inherent instability. Socially, politically, economically as well as environmentally, everything can be seen teetering on the edge of collapse. As a case in point, the fragile structures of law, order and security seem threatened by terrorism. Random attacks, followed by rapid responses and shoot-to-kill policing that shortcuts the requirement for evidence, identification and prosecution seem set to engulf us. News breaks as events unfold and ideological conflict spills out over borders. The situation is fluid, mobile, precarious. Yet at the same time, there are points or places in which the very opposites obtain - stability, stasis and security seem to uphold an undisturbed order. Perhaps the same is true of the natural world. Order and chaos co-exist like the two sides of a coin. Dwelling on precarity may be important in assessing the lives of vulnerable populations, fragile ecosystems and political conflict, but it is also itself a product of highly mobile information flows. Media, in all its proliferating forms, provides a continuous stream of bad news which sometimes has the effect of rendering us helpless, flailing around in a tsunami of death, disaster and degradation. The challenge, then, is to find expression for ethico-political action (or non-action) that acknowledges what is precarious, but is not defeated by it.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Case of the iPad 

In a rather lengthy email earlier this week, our publisher announced that The Case of the iPad is now out. What exactly out means is, of course, a moot point. The work, also called a book, was completed about six months ago, although at that stage it was only really a document in Word. Somewhere along the line it adopted that rather quaint epithet 'manuscript', even though it was never handwritten and only ever illuminated by the thought that went into it. The publishers (Springer) have, inevitably, worked their magic on it and in doing so it has taken on the virtual form of a published volume. It's not quite clear yet, when the printed copies will roll off the press or whether that process is complete, or how much it matters but nevertheless the book is already out...in some sense, somewhere. Things are moving. On Amazon, for example, the picture of a Union Jack t-shirt, which for some inexplicable reason had been a placeholder, has now been replaced by an image of the book, which you can metaphorically 'look inside'. You can place an order for a print copy or the Kindle version. It looks like you can have the Kindle version right away, but the print version won't itself be released for another ten days. So you get the idea that published but not yet released may have something to do with distribution, which of course is pretty much instant in digital formats. But more interesting than all of this is the fact that the book - if that word still holds any fixed meaning - is unbundled. If you are a die-hard fan of Simpson and Walsh, or Karen Wohlwend (or any other of our wonderful contributors), Springer will sell you their chapter, as a stand alone, for just shy of thirty dollars. It makes some sort of sense. If that's all you want, that's what you can get, without having to shell out for the whole volume. It probably makes sense for Springer, too. I'm sure they've done their research. For an author and editor, and possibly for a reader too, there are some down sides. People are less likely to stumble on your chapter if they take the unbundled route. One of the reasons I like edited volumes, is that you can accidentally, as it were, find yourself reading somebody or something that you wouldn't otherwise encounter. Unbundling also changes things for editorship. In The Case of the iPad we purposely gathered together scholars with different takes on mobile literacies, and we spent some time in Skype meetings, offices and hotel bars discussing what their work did, and what it did alongside the work of others. The book is an ensemble of these and I think Cathy, Alison and Maureen would agree with me, that it's greater than the sum of its parts. But that's old-school, more like a prog-rock concept album or a sampler (remember them?), when what people seem to want now is their favourite DJ using a remix of the work and artfully fading across into someone else's with approximately the same BPM. Anything really, as long as the punters come in, and the dancefloor is full. Or is that the wrong idea? Do we just become our own DJ mashing up Bergson and Baudrillard, for example? And wasn't that what good readers did best in the first place? I don't know, but something has shifted. Buy the book!

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