Statistics, data analytics and the literacy practices of teaching at universities

The articles on university teaching and data analytics in Saturday’s Financial Times provide substantial intellectual fodder for scholars in literacies studies and/or higher education. They occupied two coveted positions in the print edition: “Universities assess remote tracking to maximize study habits” took up a portion of Page 2 and “We know what you’re learning” occupied the coveted front page of “Life & Arts.”   FT’s educated audience is unlikely to conflate access with learning, which is what the banner for the second article implies. Still, it’s interesting to reflect on these articles from our particular theoretical lenses.

First, there’s the suggestion that performance metrics offer facts.  Perhaps.  But anyone who works with numbers knows that making them mean is an act of interpretation – ask anyone who works with inferential statistics!  It makes sense that there’s (perhaps) a relatively straightforward relationship between OU students’ online reading habits and forum participation and their risk of dropping out because the OU offers distance programmes. But would the algorithm that underpins OU’s prediction mechanism and that combines access data with information about students’ social and economic backgrounds work in blended learning environments? In contexts in which online tools – forums, wikis, blogs, web conferencing – are used quite differently by different tutors?  Lots of questions that scholars in digital literacies and/or those who take a practice perspective are equipped to explore, not least in relation to the ways in which numbers are used to represent knowledge about literacy. Mary Hamilton’s book “Literacy and the Politics of Representation” has interesting things to say on that topic!

The articles are also an intriguing window into changes in academic publishing. The Life & Arts feature gives considerable space to a University of Birmingham scholar. A photo from his studies occupies the page center immediately below the banner, and the link to his self-published book appears in bold.  Those of us familiar with Shirley Bryce Heath’s work might raise our eyebrows at the title, but the more thought-provoking point relates to changes in academic work being wrought by the need to promote and self-promote. Karin Tusting’s research team is going to have more than a little to say about writing and knowledge production in the contemporary academy.

A third point – and then I’ll stop! – relates to larger issues pertaining to the distribution of knowledge production.  Learning, teaching and creating are no longer the sole domain of the academy if they ever were, and the redistribution of these functions within and across social actors is amply evident in the second article.  A representative for Macmillan Science and Education receives considerable column space, something to which those with a more critical bent would surely draw attention. But I’m more interested in the fact that their spokesperson is from the technology side of things. It’s the programmers who write those algorithms that impact practice, and that is too often glossed over. These are important issues in the whose-knowledge-counts debates and lead to further reflection on what we all might want to learn and understand about the numbers representing our work.

Finally, it would be easy to take pot shots at the Macmillan rep’s use of numbers to represent his company’s success, and to raise important issues related to differences in nation’s university drop-out rates, but I’ll resist.  Except that I couldn’t…

Iconicity, branding and translation in orthography


Cover of the ‘Complete Russian Songbook’ published in 1917, showing the ‘old’letters <і>, <ҍ>, <ъ> which were reformed later that year

I have recently written a paper on ‘Iconicity, attribution and branding in orthography‘ which will appear in a special issue of Written Language and Literacy later in 2015. You can read the preprint here. Here’s an interesting historic example of iconicity and branding in Russian, which I didn’t use in the paper. It is also an example of the difficulties of literary translation, and how matters of spelling have social meaning which can be difficult to grasp from the outside.

Iconicity is a concept familiar in linguistics largely due to the work of Irving and Gal (e.g. 2000). When a feature of language becomes iconic, its relationship with its users is transformed so that ‘linguistic features that index social groups or activities appear to be iconic representations of them, as if a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence.’(Irvine and Gal 2000: 37). Androutsopoulos (2010) has an excellent example, from the literary writing of Feridun Zaimoglu whose characters are second generation Turkish migrants in Germany. Their nonstandard language, ‘Kanak Sprak’, with its spellings which deviate from standard German, represents iconically the distance between its users and mainstream German society.

Attribution is the process whereby a linguistic feature becomes associated with a particular group of users. Attribution is necessarily a discursive process, and the user (and non-user) groups are likewise discursively constructed.

Branding is the name I give to a process where a specific visual element of the script, for example a letter or a conventional element like a diacritic mark, becomes an emblem of a group of people who use it in their writing practices. There are many examples of such branding, for example in the Spanish counterculture where <k> replaces the standard <c> or <qu> representing the sound /k/ (see Sebba 2007, Screti 2015), or the ‘little hook’ or  haček  whichis seen as emblematic for Slavic languages’ in Austria (Busch 2013: 206).

Branding does not always involve iconicity, although it may do so, if the branding element becomes associated with the non-linguistic behaviour of its users – in other words if it becomes an emblem of something more than the language itself. The haček is emblematic of certain languages, but appears not to be an icon as it is not associated with anything specific outside of language. On the other hand, the use of <k> by Spanish anarchists could be seen as doing the kind of symbolic violence to the conventions of the Spanish language which its users would like to do to the society as a whole. In this case, the <k> ‘brand’ functions as an icon in the sense of Irving and Gal.

So to the example from Russian. The Russian orthography was modernised by Peter the Great in the early 18th century but retained a number of anomalous or redundant letters. One of these was the so-called ‘hard sign’, used to mark an unpalatalised (‘hard’) consonant at the end of a word (this is the last character in the last word in the illustration above, which is the cover of a songbook published in 1917). The ‘soft sign’ was used to mark palatalised (‘soft’) consonants at the end of words. But since all final consonants were either hard or soft, only one of these signs was actually needed. Either the hard or the soft sign was redundant, and in practice it was the hard sign that could be dropped most economically.

IMG_20150407_185815 The ‘hard sign’ (tvyordy znak)

By the late 19th Century it seems that the practice of not writing the hard sign at the end of words had become an emblem of a kind of social enlightenment. In his famous short story Lady with Lapdog, Anton Chekhov uses it as part of a very short description to give a portrait of the character of the wife of the male protagonist (Spoiler alert: she is not the eponymous ‘lady with lapdog’). In one translation,

She was a tall woman with dark eyebrows, erect, dignified, imposing, and, as she said of herself, a “thinker.” She was a great reader, omitted the “hard sign” at the end of words in her letters, and called her husband “Dimitry” instead of Dmitry (translated by Ivy Litvinov)

Here the ‘hard sign’ has become iconic. Rejection of the old, redundant letter can be seen to be linked to the rejection of an old, redundant way of  thinking and a society in need of change. Not writing this letter marks out the writer as socially progressive and an intellectual. So here is a case of iconicity in orthography with <ъ> (hard sign) as the brand.

While the mere  mention of the practice of not writing the hard sign seems to have been enough to trigger an understanding of the social attitudes of Chekhov’s character in his original readers, the same is not true for non-Russian readers. This particular sentence has given translators a fair bit of trouble. Apart from editors of scholarly editions, translators are unlikely to want to explain the subtleties of Russian spelling and its social meaning to readers. So how have they dealt with this? Here’s a selection of other translations:

She was a great reader, preferred the new ‘advanced’ spelling, called her husband by the more formal ‘Dimitry’ and not the familiar ‘Dmitry’ (Penguin books 1964, translation by David Magarshack)

She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri ( ; translator possibly Constance Garnett)

She read a great deal, used the new orthography, called her husband not Dmitri but Dimitri (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

A fifth verson, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and published by Penguin in  1941, omits all mention:

She read a great deal, called her husband not Dimitri but Demitri

Of course there is no ‘correct translation’ although that of Ivy Litvinov is most faithful to the Russian original. I do find it a bit sad that S.S. Koteliansky gave up on it altogether!

It turns out that Kate Sutherland has already written a blog about translating Lady with Lapdog, so thanks to her for some of the versions which I didn’t know about.

Historical note: the ‘hard sign’ at the end of words was officially dropped after the Russian Revolution of February 1917.


Androutsopoulos, Jannis (2010). Ideologizing ethnolectal German. In: S. Johnson and T. Milani (eds.), Language Ideologies and Media Discourse. New York: Continuum, 182-202.

Busch, Brigitta (2013). The Career of a Diacritical Sign: Language in Spatial Representations and Representational Spaces. In Pietikainen, Sari and Helen Kelly-Holmes (eds), Multilingualism and the Periphery, pp. 199-221. Oxford University Press.

Irvine, J. T. and Gal S. (2000). ‘Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation’, in Kroskrity, P. V. (ed.) (2000). Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities and Identities, 35-83. Oxford: James Currey.

Screti, Francesco  (2015) The ideological appropriation of the letter <k> in the Spanish linguistic landscape, Social Semiotics, 25:2, 200-208.

Sebba, Mark (2007). Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of orthography around the world. Cambridge University Press.

May the source be with you

When I worked as a lecturer in EAP, I taught my students how to structure essays in English, how to do referencing, etc. At that time, I also read a lot of excellent scholarship around related topics such as paraphrasing and plagiarism, yet I noticed that my students’ written work did not always reflect the types of issues discussed in this body of research. Or rather, it did, but not to the extent I expected.

I did see problems like patchwriting or failure to cite when required, but these issues were relatively minor compared to what I saw as bigger concerns in their writing. Specifically, they often seemed to give too much prominence to their sources’ views, marginalising their own. Sometimes it was not clear why they were citing, since the evidence they used did not seem to advance their argument. However, the literature had less to say on these issues, and seemed rather fixated on the avoidance of plagiarism. The problem with this is that avoidance of plagiarism does not necessarily lead to effective deployment of source material. Rather, it may mean that, as I did, markers have the feeling that something is not right about the way source material has been used, but that this was hard to address since referencing was done correctly on the whole and students had implemented what they were taught (which mainly focused on referencing conventions).

For my doctoyodaral research, I decided to investigate the way student writers used source material, but rather than looking only at the surface manifestation of source use in writing, I also investigated the ways in which they engaged with their source material as they read it in preparation for writing. After all, “using” source material begins when one reads and responds to it, not when one decides to reference it.

I observed and interviewed three postgraduate students over the 18-week period during which they wrote their Masters dissertation. They completed a series of “think alouds” while they worked on their dissertations, and I collected their completed assignments at the end. I also collected the feedback they received from their markers in order to see which aspects of source use attracted the markers’ comments.

The results of the study indicated that the students did indeed do most of their analysing and evaluating of source material as they read, and began formulating a position in relation to their sources early in the reading-to-write process. Differences emerged in the ways the students engaged with their sources. For example, some took a more instrumental approach to the dissertation-writing task, making efforts to perform the role of a “good student” by citing frequently in order to display their knowledge. Others engaged on an emotional as well as cognitive level with their material, often making evaluative comments and elaborating on what source authors said.

One of the most interesting findings was that the markers barely commented on the mechanics of citation, and instead praised students when they made meaningful comparisons between their own and their sources’ views. This suggests that the way students demonstrate engagement with the content of their source material might be seen as more important in determining the success of a piece of writing than the extent to which referencing conventions have been followed or information has been paraphrased. Of course, it may be that problems with what might be called “transgressive intertextuality” (Abasi & Akbari, 2008) distract the reader and make it more difficult to evaluate content. It is important, however, that researchers do not also become distracted by the low-hanging fruit of plagiarism at the expense of arguably more substantive issues relating to conceptual engagement with sources.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Abasi, A. & Akbari, N. (2008). Are we encouraging patchwriting? Reconsidering the role of the pedagogical context in ESL student writers’ transgressive intertextuality. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 27(3), 267-284.

Vermeer and women’s literacy practices

Back in August my travels in the Netherlands took me to the then newly reopened Mauritshuis and the  Rijksmuseum.  Both hold collections of paintings by Vermeer.  I followed this up by going to the Vermeer Centre in Delft, which aims to explore the artist’s work, but doesn’t actually hold originals (to my memory).

I realise everybody will perceive aspects of an artist’s oeuvre according to their own lenses.  Vermeer’s work strikes me as a tremendous portrayal of women’s literacy practices.  I thought that the commentaries tended to gloss over this, in particular tending to obscure women’s agency.

My images here are of poor quality, being my photographs of the reproductions in the Vermeer Centre.  I realise they won’t do well at conveying the artistic quality of the work, but perhaps I can say a little about the subjects and the ways they are described.  It’s true that the Rijksmuseum does give this good general introduction to such works by Vermeer, including: “His later paintings are meticulous compositions of interiors featuring one or two figures, usually women.  These are intimate genre paintings in which the subject is engaged in some everyday activity, usually in the light of a nearby window.” Their suggestion for categories in which you might seek further examples are: Daily Life paintings, Daily Life and Immoral Women.

Woman reading a letter

Woman reading a letter

My first image then is related to Woman reading a letter.  The Rijksmuseum commentary as others discusses light and colour; aspects I’m not trying to discuss as I’m just focussing on the treatment of the literacy practices.  Here as the Delft Centre commentary, the woman is described as “being absorbed” or as “concentrating”.  The Delft Centre commentary proposes that implicit in the painting is “the absence of a lover.”

In the second image a young woman is writing.  The Delft Centre’s commentary is “Letters are a private matter.  But the lady seems to have no objection to our looking on.  She is clothed richly and with great care, and glimmering light dances over the painting.  Letter writing and vanity go together in the seventeenth century.”  Well, I am sure we can all reach our own opinions about that commentary.  It seems to me contradictory.  How can letter writing be simultaneously private and yet an occasion for vainly displaying oneself?  But leaving that aside, it is to me sad that the act of letter writing is turned into nothing other than a commentary on the subject’s appearance, itself then made the focus of some critical attention.

A lady writing

A lady writing

The third image depicts a group, all busily active.  I wrote the following description before looking for further information:

The concert

The concert

One young woman is doing something with her hands, possibly to the painting in front of her, which is also the focus of attention by the man, although we cannot see at all quite what he is doing.  Another young woman appears to be reading a letter aloud.  She looks very absorbed, and yet communicating to the others at the same time; for example through her hand gesture which actually neither of them are observing. To me, it’s a very intriguing painting.  I like the other signs of activity too, such as the material on the table in the foreground and the various kinds of equipment.  I expect the commentary to give me further information about what’s going on.

On looking online for further elucidation I’m first quite surprised to find out that seemingly my interpretation is way off. The painting, which was stolen in 1990 and is unrecovered, is called “The Concert.”   The first young woman is apparently playing the harpsichord, the second the lute (I still can’t see it, but I have realised that the foreground contains at least two instruments) and the third is singing.  So I seem to have been way off in my interpretation, judging from the helpful Wikipedia entry. It doesn’t discuss the placing of the figures, nor all the stuff in the foreground, which surely would be in the way of any audience?  I suppose the positionings indicate a very informal concert, perhaps to a tiny audience of intimates.

I do recall now, revisiting it, that I was a little shocked by the Delft commentary:  “A harmonious scene. Colour and composition, it all works together, just like a song perfectly sung. And much more virtuously than in The Procuress, on the wall at the right.  Nevertheless you can see an echo: two ladies and one man having pleasure together.”

I am no kind of art historian and perhaps these descriptions, stressing seductive appearances, lovers and so forth have a great deal of merit behind them.  But it does seem sad to me that Vermeer’s women, so active in their occupations, are only described in such ways.

If anyone is interested, I’ve collected more such images and commentaries on Vermeer’s portrayals of women and so could develop this with another posting.

A living Christmas card in Finnish Sign Language!

We’re delighted that Elina Tapio of the Department of Languages/Sign Language Centre at the University of Jyväskylä is coming to visit the Literacy Research Centre on 13th January (1pm, if you’re anywhere near and can come along.)  The title of Elina’s talk is: “Institutional academic spaces enabling and/or disabling multilingual and multimodal meaning-making in a Finnish Sign Language study programme.”

Elina is kindly sharing with us, and you, a short Christmas documentary from the Sign Language Centre.
FinnishSL Elina writes, ” It is in Finnish Sign Language, made by us (Sign Language Centre students and staff). What people are signing there are mostly answers to a questions “What is the best thing about Christmas?”  The joined signing a tthe end is our “living Christmas card” with a winter scenery.

Thanks, Elina, and we look forward to seeing you in January!