Tag Archives: University of Sheffield

After the Conference – The Joys of Participation and Conversation

One of the pleasures of my Fulbright Fellowship has been collaborating on the Everyday Language, Everyday Literacies conference at the University of Sheffield. Julia Davies, Kate Pahl, and all the amazing graduate students at Centre for the Study of Literacies were generous enough to let me be part of the planning of the conference, which took place last week. As in the past, I found it to be my favorite conference experience of the year.

There are several things I always love about this conference. First, Julia and Kate draw together such a diverse group of scholars to the conference. In fact, I often find myself wondering if is perhaps too diverse, too disconnected. Yet, as the conference progresses, there is always an amazing alchemy that takes place as the plenary and breakout sessions start to harmonize with unexpected and original resonances. This year people such as Mary Hamilton, Janet Maybin, Vic Carrington, John Potter, Diane Mavers, Lalitha Vasudevan, Tiffany Dejaynes, Jan Connelly and others spoke on everything from children and picture books to emotions in the classroom to the biography of the iPhone. Yet, as the conference progressed, fascinating and original connections emerged among the various sessions. I always leave after two days with a head full of new ideas and notebook full of new sources I want to read.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about the conference. It is small. It’s really more like an intense symposium than a conference. As a consequence, it’s the ongoing conversations, after sessions, during lunch, online, that make this such a generative and productive time. Rather than sitting in huge crowds and listening, the organization – and ethos – of the conference is participatory and democratic.

And that brings me to the third things I love about the conference. Julia and Kate are committed to creating supportive, participatory spaces in everything they do, from their research to their writing and that certainly includes the conference. The conversations are rigorous, but never mean-spirited. Oversized egos are never a problem, and everyone’s ideas are treated with respect.

It is always an energizing, positive, and provocative two days and I am grateful to have had a hand in helping with it. See you all next year.


Literacy in a Material World – Or Not.

The number of administrative emails I’m getting means the summer is clearly about to be over and the new academic year is on its way – the large wave I can sense just beyond the horizon. So, after a summer away from the blog – with some work and some play – I’m drawn back here to start trying to work through some of the things that I’ve been kicking around since May.

In work terms, the highlight of the summer was time spent at the University of Sheffield, both at the Center for the Study of Literacies conference, and in talking with people about plans for my Fulbright there in January. Once again, the conference was a great experience. Small, focused, yet full of surprises, I found myself filling page after page of notes from people like Jennifer Rowsell, Lalitha Vasudevan, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant, and Jackie Marsh.

This year the presentations and conversations kept coming back around to the connections/issues/possibilities of how we conceive of literacy as constantly moving between the material and the immaterial. Whether it is the pondering of what being “literate looks, sounds, or feels like” (from Lalitha Vasudevan) or the ways in which children on playgrounds embody in their play the texts they’ve been reading/playing online (Jackie Marsh), or the question of how we think of literacy when it inhabits both the material and immaterial at the same time. This final idea, or the fluid nature of literacy in terms of the material and immaterial has been sticking with me since the conference in July.

Jennifer Rowsell gave a splendid and thoughtful talk about the fluidity of literacy as it exists in the material and immaterial simultaneously. On the one hand, a text, in whether on paper or screen is a material object, and requires material resources to produce. Yet what is produced is simply representation, marks or images on a page or screen that are only meaningful – or bothered with – as immaterial representations of other ideas or things. Literacy is not a material thing. It’s a concept, a skill, an argument. Yet it is perceived by the creation of things. Her talk had been thinking about how the strength of print in particular is its ability to represent the immaterial – emotions, ideas, dreams – and yet can only do so through writing words that are material, but always incomplete representations. And one implication of this fluid sense of the materiality and immateriality of literacy is that it helps explain some of the confusion and conflict that exists in the culture at large when conversations turn to literacy. On the one hand, because there are material artifacts, it seems as if literacy is something we ought to be able to define, categorize, assess, know when we see it. Yet, because all we are seeing in the artifact are incomplete representations of the immaterial, because it is impossible to determine what being literate looks and feels like, any method devised to categorize literacy through work with the materiality of texts inevitably is either simplistic and unenlightening, or contextual and complicated to the point that it isn’t useful (like a map in a Borges story) or is rejected as impractical by institutions interested in efficiency and summary. I think anyone in literacy and education has felt the frustration of others outside the field who push for material and direct – and simplistic – assessments of texts we know to be complex and nuanced.

There are also implications in other areas of our work too. For example, as director of a Writing Center I’m not above trotting out the old chestnut about how the goal of Writing Centers is not just to create better writing, but to create better writers. It’s not that I think that’s a bad philosophy (though I think as many have pointed out there are complexities there that need continual unpacking). But it is the case that when we talk about better writing or better writers, we are also dealing with a situation where a constellation of  material and immaterial concerns come together in subtly complex and shifting ways. The simple concept of having a draft the student wants to improve moves quickly from the material text the student and consultant are reading to the immaterial goal – and perception – of “improvement.” And this is just the start and doesn’t even begin to get at issues of embodied responses, the immaterial presence of the instructor who wrote out the material assignment and so on.

There is much, much more to work on here and I’m only musing on the surface for now. In the meantime I want to point anyone toward the much, much smarter exploration of some of these issues that will be coming out soon from Jennifer Rowsell, Guy Merchant, Kate Pahl, and Cathy Burnett.

For me this conversation came along at a the perfect time as I begin to ponder a new project that will bring me back to the territory of literacy and identity (more on that to come in time.) And, as won’t be a surprise to some who know me, I also found that it connected me back to popular culture and literacy issues (and more on that to come sooner).

Once again, my thanks to the organizers of the conference (Kate Pahl and Julia Davies) and the all the participants who talked of such a range of ideas and perspectives with generosity and insight. More to come soon.

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…