Tribute to Brian Street from Lancaster

Brian was a dear friend and supportive colleague to members of the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster, going right back to an early seminar here in 1983 where we were building bridges between literacy theory, research and the practice of adult literacy in the UK.

He took part in many key events we organised in Lancaster, including the ‘Worlds of Literacy’ conference in 2000 and ‘Worlds of Literacy revisited’ in 2014. His convivial presence at these events and his steady support in what was, at the beginning, a fragile new movement, was very important to us. Along with so many other areas of literacy research and action, Brian’s work on academic literacies was an inspiration to us. Thanks partly to him, academic literacies became established as an important field in the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre. As editor of the Benjamins series ‘Studies in written language and literacy’ he encouraged and helped Roz to publish Writing and Identity in 1998, which was the springboard for much of our academic literacies research in the years since then. Roz Ivanic says “Thank you, Brian, for those meticulous editorial comments in your much-loved jiggly handwriting.”

He was always ready to discuss ideas with us and as one person recalls “his gentle and friendly manner with everyone, no matter the state of their knowledge and experience, always made me feel part of his discussions.”

Though he held strongly to the principles of critical, rigorous scholarship he wanted his ideas to enter the worlds of literacy policy and practice and he participated with great energy and good humour, in conferences, research and policy forums around the world, patiently articulating the theory of literacy as social practice and searching for ways to apply it.

Brian was a true internationalist and as President of the the British Association for Literacy in Development (BALID) he fostered thoughtful critique and interaction across an incredible diversity of adult literacies teaching and learning, research and other practices across the globe. He worked hard to connect this wider vision to literacy in the UK as well, through his work with the Research and Practice in Adult Literacies group (RaPAL), as a member of its editorial board and writing for its journal.

For many of our students, Brian’s work was key to the theoretical underpinnings of undergraduate study, professional development courses and research degrees. He fundamentally shaped the understanding of a generation of scholars and practitioners in school and adult literacies. His capacity to return the local to its rightful place in educational discourse shifted many people’s worldview and his words are a powerful legacy.

We miss him sorely and his influence will continue for many years to come.

 

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Revisiting Other floors, Other Voices: rereading Swales’ textography of a small university building, first published in 1998.

Many years ago I was in the habit of recommending John M. Swales’ 1998 volume to students whenever I had the opportunity. In print I even suggested it was a linguistics book “you could enjoy on the beach” (Gillen and Petersen, 2005).  But even strong passions fade and it has been a long time since I opened it.  When I decided to reread it, this was with some sense of purpose.  Since what are quaintly known as “new technologies” have become so pervasive, and the landscape of literacy research has changed so much, what would it be like to reread Swales?  More precisely, would his research, conducted when the internet was in its infancy, have much to contribute to the sociomaterial background I see language as entwined with?  How would Swales’ understanding of the relationships between textual artefacts and educational institutions resonate? More generally, how would the book stand up?  Would I want to recommend it to students again?

book-cover

Other Floors Other Voices book cover

Rereading the book was a surprise.  I recalled delight experienced from its detailed descriptions of diverse academic pursuits, whether of the intricacies of the botanist’s life, or the creation of language testing items.  I had a vague recollection of the computer helpdesk on the ground floor, in the infancy of IT in Higher Education.  I remembered that Swales combined some ingenious methodologies and contributed a lot to the notion of “discourse community” in particular, which had afterwards been much criticised. I recalled that I thought this was one of the books, like some work by Gordon Wells for example, where a linguist could offer some tools and insights that could be of interest to any sociocultural researcher probing any area of social activities.  I thought that it would be particularly interesting to reread the book as from the early/mid 90s, when it was still possible to remember a world before the internet, having reflecting on computers entering homes and other spaces in that period (Gillen, 2014).

As so often, my memory was right in some ways, approximate in others and just plain wrong or forgetful in others.  Or, to put it another way, a rereading has been as provocative and lively an experience for me as I like to think the original was.  While continuing to frame this as a personal response, it might be worthwhile to continue this long blog/short essay by focussing on three issues that might be of interest to others working in a broadly sociocultural perspective.  The first two concern controversial matters Swales addresses.  The third is my claim as to what disciplinary territory this book might now be appropriated for, no matter where it was earlier located.

Textography vs Ethnography?

Swales explicitly disowns his work as an ethnography, “not a label I am comfortable with” (Swales, 1998: 1[henceforward page numbers alone refer to this book]).  At the risk of wild, unproveable generalisation, I would assert that this is more of an ethnography than 90% of the work that calls itself that. It was conducted over three years and combines a great number of different methods in the service of arriving at collaboratively constructed understandings.  I had forgotten the multimodality of the enterprise, in particular the use made of photographs.  These are not mere illustrations, but rather elements of sociohistorical data that are discussed with participants.  At a textual level, there is indeed wonderful attention to such matters as script, orthography and the materiality of texts, asking and answering questions arising from data such as “Why is this kind of text N, more important than text type O, always presented in a smaller font?”  The arrangement of rooms is forensically studied; the status of a half-open door as semiotic carefully probed. Most impressively of all is an openness to change during the time of study. So many of us might see “change as a way of life” (p. 38) as a great inconvenience, to be airbrushed out of our descriptions rather than investigated for what might be uncovered about what people are thinking through and choosing to act on.

This is surely an ethnography par excellence, combining observations, interviews, the study of artefacts and so on, all to gain access to the opinions, attitudes and experiences of a huge swathe of people concerned in some way with the building, whether immediately or at a distance.  This is sensibly handled, in the only practical way for writing up an ethnography, in a combination of carefully selected individualised aspects of experience, against a well described backcloth of contextualised interactions.

Why does Swales abjure the term ethnography?  I am not entirely sure.  There is the relatively familiar denial that this is a full ethnography, but many others would surely argue that such an aim is impossible.  Swales is interested in our “textually-mediated social world” (Barton, 2001) and has chosen for examination a setting in which people do a great deal of writing and reading.  Literacy practices are at the centre of this ethnography and of course for me that is part of the appeal.  I will write a little more about that later.

Discourse community – still a useful concept?

 Swales’ rejection of the ethnography label was against the background of a then current dispute, and the questioning around the usefulness of the discourse community occupies a similar territory of contestation.  But whereas I thought I had remembered that the debate around the term took fire after Swales’ book, I had that wrong.  Swales identified already past as well as contemporary arguments as to whether the idea of discourse community stands up.

It seems to me that part of the still ongoing difficulty with the term appertains as to whether or not one focusses on the impossibility of defining any community, let alone a discourse community, in terms of what it borders.  If a border cannot be distinguished, if members cannot be clearly identified then some will, understandably, suggest that a term without clear definition is not worth its salt.  This is an extension of the idea of category in psychology: that it can only work if it delineates perceptible characteristics that are not shared. But my interpretation of Swales’ position would be to say let us accept extremely fuzzy borders and the empirical impossibility of resolving membership disputes.  This is consonant with the acceptance in agential realism drawn from quantum physics and the philosophy of science that even at the most microscopic level phenomena including acts of perception are primary rather than pre-existing entities (Barad, 2007; Suchman, 2007).

Swales presents textual evidence and related analyses, certainly, but these are always in the service of probing interactions between people on differing spatial and temporal scales.  For example he reproduces a letter from one botanical institute to another, requesting a loan of some samples (p.48).  His detailed analysis of the genre includes linguistic features to situate this letter within a well established practice of such letters, that include such conventions as who writes to whom, how the specimen requested is described, what uses can and cannot be made of it, and perhaps most surprising of all to the neophyte reader, the economics of the practice.  Considerable money is spent on preparing the specimen and packaging it off to the other institution although it might not be returned for decades if ever.  The benefit of examining the specimen might be evidenced in part through an exclamation mark, which in this field has a particular conventionalised meaning.

It is in the fine unpicking of such matters, through the examination of textual trajectories, interviews and external commentaries (journal articles and so on) that Swales is at his finest.  A convention is not a mere templated feature to be imitated, but rather has a rich historical background and affordances for today that are multiple and complex to those in the know.  Such people do not acquire such “craft-knowledge” (p. 51) overnight; it is rather a through a rich apprenticeship involving changes in practice, identity and expression.  Swales appropriately adopts here Lave and Wenger’s (1991) notion of legitimate peripheral practice and reminds us of some of its explanatory power.

So the usefulness of the idea of discourse community, in Swales’ account understood as often stretched across distance and time, in part enabled through online communications, is powerfully demonstrated.  My memory was at fault in recalling the book as largely or solely situated within a single physical location.  Rather, the internet was already embraced by many to new effect within their social context: Swales witnessed computerised search algorithms, an online catalogue of mycology specimens and even GIS.  For all, email was enabling faster communication across networks.

A classic work?

 The jacket of Swales book claims this to be a “robust new genre – textography.”  I would not want to disrespect that claim, but suggest it can be complementary to others.

First then I have argued that this is a very fine ethnography.  It could be taken as a lively methodological handbook, offering up lots of suggestions to other researchers about multiple methods that might be adapted to the study of any social group or milieu.  There are matters to criticise here: for example although the voices and activities of lower status individuals such as temporary graduate assistants in the computer centre are presented, these are given less status than people with more prestigious academic positions.  But the combination of different kinds of evidence and how these are synthesised in presentation to the reader is exceptional.  I cannot think of another book which does such a good and entertaining job in preserving the voices of its participants while also offering plenty of the author’s own analyses.  One key asset here is the diversity of tools, including those of linguistic analysis that he deploys; another is the ethnographer’s crucial and explicit reflexive attention to his own role.

Second I see this book as contributing to Literacy Studies, and indeed Linguistic Ethnography in an era of turning to sociomaterial theory. (See for example Hamilton, 2009; Bhatt and de Roock, 2013; also Tusting, 2013 on the alignment between Literacy Studies and Linguistic Ethnography).  The relationships between humans and technologies require more nuanced treatments than calling this tool use, as in what we might term classical sociocultural work, such as that by Vygotsky (1987), writing originally in the early 1930s.

I am guilty here of seeking to define a book as contributing to a very different discipline, from that the author intended, –  “comparative rhetoric” in Swales’ case.  Indeed I can plead prior form in thaving claimed Hutchins’ (1998) work on distributed cognition as also capable of being regarded as a foundational text in Literacy Studies (Gillen, 2014).  Both authors seek to comprehend how humans learn, on timescales from the moment to the duration of cultural shifts, sometimes over decades.  They place language at the heart of such processes, while denying the implicit claim of so much work in linguistics that all that matters is spoken language (e.g. Podesva and Sharma, 2014).  Language as encountered in use is always in part shaped by the characteristics and circumstances of its materiality, whether a sign above a door in a building, an email, or a spontaneous aside during an interview.  The tools of linguistics can help in analytical work, but it is the combination with the ethnographic commitment that so impresses me still in Swales’ unparalleled study.

Finally, a book “for the beach”??  Well, I love Swales’ sense of humour and hope you enjoy it too, if you have not had that pleasure already.

 

Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barton, D. 2001. ‘Directions for literacy research: analysing language and social practices in a textually-mediated world. ‘ Language and Education15, 92-104.

Bhatt, I and de Roock, R. 2013. ‘Capturing the sociomateriality of digital literacy events. ‘ Research in Learning Technology 2013, 21: 21281.

Gillen, J. 2014. Digital Literacies.  London: Routledge.

Gillen, J. and Petersen, A. 2005. ‘Discourse Analysis’ in B. Somekh and C. Lewin (eds.). Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA/London: Sage Publications.

Hamilton, M. 2009. ‘Putting words in their mouths: the alignment of identities with system goals through the use of Individual Learning Plans.’ British Educational Research Journal 35 2 221-242.

Hutchins, E. 1998. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. 2014. (eds.). Research Methods in Linguistics.  Cambridge University Press.

Suchman, L. 2008. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions

(2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J. 1998. Other Floors, Other Voices: A Textography of a Small University Building.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tusting, K. 2013. Literacy studies as linguistic ethnography.  Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies. King’s College London.  Online at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/ldc/publications/workingpapers/the-papers/WP105-Tusting-2013-Literacy-studies-as-linguistic-ethnography.pdf

Vygotsky, L.S. 1987. ‘Thinking and Speech’ in Rieber, R. and Carton, A. (eds.).  The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky.  vol. I Problems of General Psychology, including the volume ‘Thinking and speech’ trans. N. Minick. New York: Plenum Press. 37-285  

 

Lancaster ESRC Seminar on The Politics of Reception – Media, Policy, Public Knowledge and Opinion,

This seminar focused on the ways that findings from international assessments enter into media and public discourse in participating countries, how these are articulated within existing national preoccupations and the implications of these interventions for policy.  Literacy is a key component of these assessments and cross-language issues in producing and disseminating the tests figure strongly in them. The scope and frequency of the surveys are increasing and they are arguably one of the most powerful drivers of policy and understanding about literacy internationally.

The information below is a summary of the issues we covered in this event. More detail about the themes of the seminar, the speakers and the seminar series in general can be found on the Lab website here.  

data journalism

The seminar took place at Lancaster on April 20/21st 2016 and was the 5th in a series funded by the ESRC and organized by the Laboratory of International Assessment exploring ‘The potentials, politics and practices of international assessments’.  

We identified 3 themes to help organize the sequence of the seminar presentations

  • Mobilising individual countries to participate in international surveys
  • Managing the Public Release of findings from international assessments
  • Researching and intervening in how the findings are reported and interpreted in the media

A big theme emerged about whose responsibility it is to ensure findings are not misinterpreted or misrepresented to the public. What responsibility lies, for example, with the testing agencies, the media or the policy advocates.  Another important theme, referred to in comments in the final session and discussed by Brenda Tay-Lim from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, is that none of the stakeholder groups are homogeneous – there are important differences in perceptions and motivations among the testing agencies, within the media (e.g. journalists with specialist orientations to employment or education); and there are different publics and audiences.

It is important to look at assessment strategies and issues across different educational sectors including school, adult LLL and HE. Sarah Richardson’s analysis of the AHELO initiative, for example, shows that it is important to look at failed or contested programmes as well as those that become successful.

In his keynote, Oren Pitzmony-Levy showed that public discourse and public opinion are different concepts and that public opinion doesn’t necessarily directly reflect exposure to information. We need better ways of researching and tracking changes in public opinion over time.

Aspa Baroutsis presented evidence from the media coverage of PISA in Australia that politicians are sensitive to the way ILSAs are presented – but it is still an open question as to whether such coverage actually affects policy outcomes. How can we design good research to investigate this?

Megan Knight and Petra Javrh highlighted that journalists have different priorities and constraints from academics, advocates and policy-makers and this raises issues about the importance of training or otherwise preparing the media to deal with the release of findings from ILSAs. The issue of time and timing is particularly significant as mentioned in the comments below.

Cormac O’Keeffe opened a window onto a different kind of training – workshops to help researchers interrogate the data produced which are being actively developed by testing agencies including the IEA. To what extent are such training opportunities, the software and the interactive databases offered by the agencies more open, transparent and democratic and how far are they a way of influencing and controlling interpretation at another level than via press releases and presentations.

Future media research could focus on the different semiotic resources and possibilities for communicating findings through the print and digital media: visualizations, use of social media, film and so on.

Finally, Heinz-Dieter Meyer’s contribution drew attention to the possibilities of activist intervention in the policy process and left us with the question of what kinds of intervention and coalitions are most effective?

In a related activity, I am also tracking the release of the findings from the 2nd round of the OECD’s adult skills survey PIAAC, which will take place during the week following June 28th .

If you are interested in joining in this study, details of how to do so are here

http://international-assessments.org/join-the-study-on-the-media-representation-of-the-piaac-results/

 

 

 

Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens — The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation

Tuesday 24th May sees the Academics’ Writing project’s fourth and final workshop on the role of metrics in academic life. This time, we have invited two expert speakers to talk about what responsible metrics might look like in the context of both REF and TEF. The speakers are Professor Paul Ashwin of Lancaster University and Professor […]

Read the rest by clicking on the Academics Writing blog

via Cultures of counting: Metrics through a critical lens — The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation

What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Tuesday 26th April sees the third of four interactive workshops on the role of metrics in academic life, run by the Academics Writing  project, alongside  Masud Khokhar and Tanya Williamson of Lancaster University library, called What can and can’t metrics tell us?

Read the rest of the post here at the blog for the Academics’ Writing research project based at Lancaster University:

http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/acadswriting/2016/04/19/what-can-and-cant-metrics-tell-us/