Category Archives: Reading

Spaces, language, and making meaning online

I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing a talk from Suresh Canagarajah, who always helps me refresh and re-imagine my ideas about language and movement in a cross-cultural world. Yesterday he was discussing more of his ideas about how language use is negotiated in ways the challenge concepts of monolingual standards and center-periphery conceptions of English usage. I am convinced when he argues that, around the world, people make adjustments in conversation that allow them to make meaning without concern for abstract ideas of correctness.

Where Suresh talked primarily about face-to-face conversations or hard-copy written texts, I found myself thinking about the ways I have seen similar negotiations online. When I look at popular culture fan sites I often find the people posting come from a range of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Though they may be writing in English (or, more to the point, in Englishes) there is a not a single set of usages that govern the conversation. Instead, usage varies from all participants, those for whom English is a first-language as well as those for who it isn’t. But there are two things I find particularly interesting. First, the kinds of negotiations that Suresh has found in his research in face-to-face settings often take place in online discussions, and it’s fascinating to track the back-and-forth of negotiations over words or usage until a meaning is found that satisfies the participants involved. I’ve written about this before, but still find it interesting to watch how it happens and the patience and generosity – rather than judgment or exclusion – that participants usually show each other.

What I find perhaps more intriguing is the way in which conceptions of space from different scholars come together in these moments. Suresh talks about how the “translocal space” is a more useful conception of where these negotiations of language take place than the idea of “place.” He sees place as a static, bounded concept that does not offer the same vision of space as an environment where things happen – interactions, negotiations, meaning making.  What I find interesting is to overlap this theorizing of space with Gee’s ideas of online “affinity spaces” where people gather online, drawn by their interests in common popular culture texts more than their conceptions of home identities. (As I’ve said in the past, I think identity plays a significant role in the creation and reproduction of affinity spaces, yet I do agree with Gee’s idea that it is the pop culture text that becomes the primary point of contact in such spaces.) If we think about the way online and cross-cultural affinity spaces are also translocal spaces of language contact and negotiation, it raises interesting questions of how the popular culture texts help mediate and facilitate these negotiations of language and meaning. Not only do the popular culture texts draw individuals together online, and across cultures, but they offer both a common cultural and linguistic touchstone for the participants. The pop culture text provides common content, rhetorical structures, and language that participants use as a resource and catalyst for their communication.

Obviously there are issues of power, of identity, and of language that still need to be worked out here, but, again the question of spaces comes up again. More on this soon. Thanks for reading.



Space, Boundaries, and Movement

It’s been wonderful to have a couple of weeks of travel after the conference was over — great times in Ireland and Scotland with family and friends. But I don’t want to miss the chance to talk over the next few posts about some of the ideas that are still turning over in my head from the Sheffield conference on Study of New Literacies.

(First, a side note just to thank Julia Davies and Kate Pahl for a wonderful conference. Not too big, great presentations, and thoughtful and smart conversations, both formal and informal. It did energize my thinking and give me new directions to think about and people to read. I may not mention everyone I spoke to or heard present, but there was much to learn from.)

The set of ideas that I seemed to me to keep coming around in the conference – and that have kept me pondering since – has to do with space, movement, and boundaries. Although they came at the question from several different directions, I was  intrigued by the ongoing discussion of the how our literacy practices are shaped by and shaping the spaces in which they take place. And space here is something that we are inhabiting and creating both on and offline. In fact, one things I was particularly pleased about was the work everyone was doing at troubling the binary divide between online and offline. Instead there was much more recognition about how we not only move on and offline quickly – and all the more so with smart phones and tablets becoming more common – but how difficult it becomes to separate cause and effect, or place and space, between the digital and the embodied. A number of presentations and conversations raised questions of how digital technologies connect us, yet also how they can establish barriers and obstacles that can cause us either to give up, or try to find away around. At the same time, we respond to these digital spaces not just with our minds, but also with our bodies and emotions and bring those back, in turn, to the online places we inhabit.

Cathy Burnett, of Sheffield Hallam University, raised a serious of questions about space, mobility, and boundaries in her presentation on classrooms she is observing. I was fascinated by her descriptions and analysis of the kinds of boundaries teachers often try to create in the classroom – both online and off — in terms of students’ practices (and teachers’ as well). She noted moments when students disrupt such boundaries and how that both brings them into sudden focus, and also challenges us as teachers to define the nature and purpose of the boundary. Her discussion of the ways in which such boundaries shift, open, and close almost moment by moment had me thinking about the courses I had most recently been teaching, as well as what I have observed doing at their computers outside the classroom.  There is an image of students deeply focused on computer screens, oblivious to all around them, is rarely true. Instead, as Burnett’s presentation pointed out, students move away from the screen, use their bodies to shape their interactions with the technology, get up and wander the room, make side comments, even as they continue to post comments on a forum or engage in a class assignment. While there are connections here to ideas like Robert Brooke’s discussion of underlife in the classroom, I like the way she theorizes this not simply as a set of behavior’s, but also as practices located in specific texts and contexts. Her challenge to think of “siting as a productive practice” in which we engage with the mobility and shifting boundaries of our teaching and of literacy practices resonated with me. I can’t wait to read more of her work on this.

It also make me think of how, when students are outside of school they find that they are still navigating these spaces and boundaries, sometimes created in the home, sometimes by those who control online environments, and adapting their reading and writing to the spaces they can find and work within. It made me think of how, in my own research, I see young people working within and around the online popular culture spaces they encounter. As I’ve said other places, while Gee’s idea of online “affinity spaces” as places were people are drawn by interest first, regardless of identity are true to a point, it is also the case that offline identity shapes not only the affinity spaces we are drawn to, but how we react and respond to the interactions once we get there. What’s more, the negotiations of language and culture we have to engage in online affinity spaces seep back into our embodied lives and are not left behind with the computer.

It also connected with comments and presentations by David Barton, Keri Facer, Margaret Mackey, Karin Tusting, Eve Stirling, and others at the conference, and got me thinking more about where my thoughts about my research are taking me next. But that will have to wait for the next entry or two.

Centre for the Study of New Literacies International Conference

I leave in a few days for the Centre for the Study of New Literacies conference at the University of Sheffield. I’m eager to go and spend a couple of days in conversation with a number of people whose work I’ve admired for a quite a while (Julia Davies, Kate Pahl, David Barton, Eve Gregory, and others) and other people whose work I don’t know yet, but looks fascinating. My talk is titled “The World on Your Screen: Literacy and Popular Culture in a Networked World” and comes from the work Amy Zenger and I have been doing for our new book project.  I’m grateful to have been invited to talk at the conference and eager to get revitalized with the conversations there.

The abstracts for the conference are here.

I’ll try to blog from the conference itself, though I’ll admit that when I get caught up in the conference I stay connected into the people there more than I do online. But I’m sure I’ll have much to say when the conference is over (well, and we’re done taking a holiday after the conference to Dublin and Scotland.)

Now, what to read on the plane…

Impermanence. Or why I don’t do my reading on a Kindle yet

I do my scholarly reading, and much of my other reading, with codex books. This is not because I have some romantic attachment to the material heft and feel of books, as some converts to ebook readers and IPads are convinced must be the only reason people like me would stay with the codex. (Though it does make me pause to pick up the Bible that was passed down through my father’s family, published in Welsh in 1832, and ponder who has picked it up and read it before me. I feel a sense of connection that material items, be they books or dishes or furniture can provide for us that, at least at this point, the rapid planned obsolescence of digital hardware seems unlikely to match.)

But the 1832 Welsh Bible, and the other old books I own, are part of my reason for being cautious about ebook readers for my scholarly work. I can read the books published 100 years ago, or 200 years ago or longer. But I have lots of digital material that is unreadable.  Take, for example, the 5 1/4 floppy disks on which I wrote my MA thesis and my first short stories, which are now available for use as coasters. If I hadn’t printed those stories out, they would be lost. Of course I could also have moved them, time and again, to 3 1/2 disks, then to CDs, then to a hard drive or thumb drive, if I had remembered and not lost things along the way. But my point here, and I’m certainly not the first one to make it, is that digital technology changes very quickly and, if you’re not careful, you can end up losing material on which you have worked very hard.

So, back to the Kindle (or Nook or IPad).  I’m not at all against digital texts. I love being able to download journal articles and post them on to friends online. It is a HUGE convenience. But, when I have something I need to read, annotate, and keep, I print it out or buy the codex book.  As a nerdy academic, I write a lot in my books. Questions, notes, summaries, ideas, rants, you name it. And I return to those notes, in those books, a lot, in both teaching and research. My problem with ebook readers then, is twofold. First, the annotation systems I have seen have yet to impress me as being as quick and efficient as my pen in hand — particularly not for someone like me with big hands and thick fingers. There is a reason I am not a surgeon (several, actually) and I have a very hard time with tiny buttons. But, even more to the point, I am unconvinced that the ebook reading technology I might use today (including annotating texts on my laptop) will necessarily be around 15 to 20 years from now. Unless I constantly move all my books and articles from one medium or machine to the next upgrade,  I could lose them, with my notes in them. As someone who just the other day pulled a book off the shelf I hadn’t looked at in about 15 years, but found the notes and ideas and text I was looking for just when he needed them, I do not want to risk losing that material. What’s more, I don’t want to have to take the time to transfer the digital files when that time comes, or risk not having the software or hardware to read them.

I could be wrong, of course, and the ebook texts with annotations on them may last forever. Yahoo, I say. I hope it’s true. But I can’t risk it for now. So, for now, I read codex books, not primarily for sentimental reasons, but for desperately practical ones.

Oh yeah, one more thing. I’m really clumsy, or absent minded, or both. I drop things, particularly books, all the time. I’m hard enough on cell phones. My finances rejoice at the idea that at least books bounce.

My Thing About Blogs

I’ve wondered, over the past decade, why I have been hesitant to start a blog. It’s not a matter of thinking that there aren’t ideas on blogs worth reading. It’s not that I don’t value the interactive nature of blogs. It’s not that I don’t value a collaborative approach to knowledge generation or that I haven’t learned from some of the blogs I have read. You know, some of my best friends write blogs.

Yet I have hesitated writing one myself and I don’t even follow as many as I should. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the course I’m teaching this spring, I wouldn’t be writing this now. But that raises for me the question of why, if I am interested in writing, in popular culture, in digital media, haven’t I joined in with a blog? And I’ve come to several tentative conclusions that this project, this blog will put to the test.

The first question is one of time. Blogs began to emerge when I had two young children at home and was also director of the university composition program. I had priorities. Family came first. After that, depending on the time and the emergencies, I could turn to research, teaching, and administration. The reality, however, was that after family and other professional obligations such as my administrative responsibilities, there was only so much time for writing. And, if there was only a limited time for writing, I was going to spend that time writing in venues that I knew would be peer-reviewed, edited, and possibly even read, such as books and journals (and count toward tenure and promotion). I had to be very disciplined about what I read and wrote in order to get that work done. Exploration and musing time was going to be taken up by my family. There just wasn’t time for any other writing. Even now, as I write this, I find myself wondering what will happen to my words. Will anyone read them or is this just wasted typing? I’m well aware of the t-‘shirt that reads, “More people have read my shirt than your blog.” Even with my sons now in college, I find myself squirming at the possibility that I am engaging in wasted type, in wasting time.

The second question is how I work as a writer. Although some people think I write quickly, thanks to an early background in journalism, the reality is that I both do and don’t. On the one hand, I can bang out words very quickly and am willing to get a piece finished and off to an editor without dithering over it forever. Yet the key to that previous statement is “off to an editor.” If I don’t have a sense that there will be someone to look over my work and offer suggestions and critique, I can still write quickly, but I publish slowly. As a journalist and when I publish in books and in journals there are editors — and now reviewers — to help me, to prod me to new ideas, to save me from sloppy thinking and writing. Without the collaborative relationship I have with editors, I get nervous about my writing. I edit and re-edit and re-edit emails to try to be sure I am communicating what I want to say. I am trying desperately to avoid rewriting this paragraph again and again. I don’t like putting writing out there that is less than my best or that others have not been able to help me improve. I’d rather not say stupid things, poorly written, in public. And, if I have to rewrite and rewrite every blog post, that brings me back to the question of time.

People with blogs, when I tell them how I work as a writer, tell me that I will get that feedback from the comments to my blog (if anyone reads it). The blog can serve as a space in which I try out my ideas and get responses that help me develop those ideas. Which brings me to the third question. Although I rely on digital media, study it, love it too much sometimes, at my core I’m a face-to-face person. As anyone who knows me can attest, I like to talk through ideas.  I would choose to meet at the local coffee shop and talk over my latest project with a trusted friend, than try to sort it out through writing (and I always prefer to talk over dissertation chapters with graduate students than provide written comments).  I also scribble lots of notes and write ideas down and I keep private journals that are informal and rambling, but in terms of working through ideas with other people, I would always choose to talk in person.  Why? Upbringing perhaps, I was raised in a family of talkers (my former sister-in-law said we were an “oral culture”). Or maybe it is that I need the body language and non-verbal communication involved in the conversation, or perhaps the speed with which I can modify and respond to ideas.  Or maybe I just like the companionship of corporeal beings. For whatever reasons, I like to talk through ideas.  I love teaching in a face-to-face classroom so much and dread the idea of online teaching, not because I think the latter can never be effective, but because of the joys I get from the former. It also explains why my teaching always involves conferences with students.  And, as I noted above,  when I write for publication of any kind, from books to email, I compose carefully to try to be as precise as possible. (I just rewrote the previous pedestrian sentence about four times. I’m not saying it always makes my writing precise or elegant, just that I try.)

Finally there are the connected questions of permanence and impermanence. On the one hand, I know that any blog post may have a long life online, even if I choose to delete it next week. As someone who has already talked about being careful in what he writes, the idea that the uninspiring blathering of this post will exist out there, attached to my name, for decades, doesn’t comfort me. If I’m going to create texts that will exist for a long time, then I want to be careful of how I write, and that gets me back to problems of how I spend my time as a writer and scholar.  The flip side of this coin in impermanence, or the possibility that my writing in this venue may disappear just as easily as I’ve written it, and that the work will have been wasted. And this last point will be the focus of my next post.

So what’s the point? That blogging is not for everyone? Or at least not for me? Or that I need to loosen up and give it a try? I certainly have felt somewhat defensive when talking (face to face, by the way) to friends with blogs. Given my interest in digital media and writing, it has seemed like a weakness in my background. Now, however, as I prepare to teach a graduate seminar in New Media and Composition Pedagogy, it seemed as good a moment as any to try it out for a semester and see if my resistance to the endeavor changes through practice, or if this is a just a one-time experiment.

More later.