50 years of the UK Literacy Association

Back in July many of us went to the University of Sussex to the 50th International Conference of the UK Literacy Association.  In my opinion it’s a superb organisation I’m very proud to be a member of, combining robust good sense, sound research and a powerful commitment to foster children’s imagination.  The latter is particularly apparent in its support for children’s literature; I’ll never forget, for example, hearing Malorie Blackman talk at an earlier UKLA conference.  This passion for books is something shared by some of the best contributors to the National Council for the Teaching of English – a US conference I visited in 2012. There I encountered the indefatiguable Donalyn Miller, who tirelessly discusses children’s literature and the power of reading via Twitter (@donalynbooks) to her 47k followers. Many folk in both organisations are interested in books, whether accessed by print or new media.

My excuse for writing about the UKLA conference now, perhaps a little late, although of course we are still in the UKLA 50th anniversary year, is that I’ve come across this superb blog post by Eve Tandoi about the Sussex conference. It’s brought back some good memories, engaging carefully with the views of the plenary speakers in particular.  I think I would just add that I was at the time very aware of the controversial nature of Ken Goodman‘s claims about literacy.  He raised quite a Twitter storm when suggesting that it would be better to abolish the teaching of literacy as such, rather embed it in purposeful, authentic work with children.  He is very critical of SATs that are so narrow that they demand, especially in less privileged classrooms, teaching to the test and endanger the sense of excitement in learning that children start out with.

Finally, then, I’ll share the short abstracts of the symposia by my colleagues and myself at the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre.  If you’re interested in learning more about any of this work, do contact any of us directly or look at our webpages.

Many voices of literacy: polyphony in Literacy Studies research.

These linked symposia from the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre reflect on the value of researching literacy as a social practice to enable us to hear and engage with the multiple voices and perspectives of different participants in literacy research.  We have a tradition of research which reveals the multiple capacities and creativity of people’s everyday literacy practices.  Ethnographic and interpretive methodologies seek to make visible, and sometimes to empower, the voices of those who are often silenced by the pseudo-objectivity of governments, policy-makers, large-scale survey research and other dominant voices.

The first session, on researching literacies in educational settings, continues an established area of interest.  The second, on researching digital literacies, reflects on an area which challenges and forces us to develop our established ways of doing research. They are followed by a discussion led by our discussant Brian Street.

Session 1: Polyphony in educational settings

Papers in this session focus on educational settings, addressing how literacy research can engage with the voices of teachers and learners positioned within centralised policies, formal, decontextualised assessments of achievement, and measurement against national and international league tables.  We have a tradition of working with teachers and literacy practitioners, understanding their role as active agents who bring their voices, experiences and understandings of learners to negotiate policy frameworks.

Diane Potts: “Teachers as knowledge workers: Positioning professionals in discourses of accountability.” A multimodal discourse analysis of teachers’ digital accounts of classroom literacies practices and educational stakeholders’ responses to these texts illustrates the challenge for educators attempting to take up a position within policy debates.

Mary Hamilton: “Representations in policy: positioning key voices, occluding others.” Examples of the powerful imaginaries of literacy and literacy learners that circulate widely in the media, government and popular discourse.

Uta Papen: “Studying phonics policy and practice: how the voice of policy is heard by literacy teachers.” A detailed analysis of how synthetic phonics and the new Phonics Screening Check are presented in policy documents and how the policy is put into practice by teachers and children in primary school classrooms, based on critical discourse analysis with classroom ethnography.

Session 2: Polyphony in digital literacies

In researching online practices, moves towards harvesting ‘big data’and applying techniques such as corpus analysis and visualisation can indicate broad trends and developments.   However, without an ethnographic perspective we risk divorcing digital content from its originators, occluding the perspectives and voices of the people engaging in these practices. The presenters will each address an approach to researching individuals’ perspectives on and practices in online literacy.

David Barton: “Technobiographies –  bringing the self into research.” A methodology for researching the range, variety and changes in people’s contemporary language practices. This also acts as structured way for students to reflect on their own life histories with technologies, as an introduction to studying new media.

Julia Gillen: “Adopting a new kind of professional voice: a literacy studies approach to a Twitter case study.”  A case study of an individual’s developing use of Twitter, drawing on ethnographic methods, examined in their sociohistorical context and through interactions involving others.

Karin Tusting: “Language use on an internet forum: voices of collaborative learning on Mumsnet.”  Detailed analysis of vernacular literacies for learning in online settings, developing an example of collaborative learning about parenting practices from the Mumsnet talk forum.



Propaganda – British Library exhibition

At the weekend I visited the British Library’s exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. It was quite pricey at £9 per adult (some concessions available) and I certainly had some mixed reactions. So writing a blog post seems a very appealing way of thinking out some issues.

At the very beginning various definitions and quotations about the meaning of propaganda were displayed, such as Chomsky’s “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” The definitions varied, which seemed a perfectly appropriate way to set out a thought-provoking introduction, although I was a little troubled by an audio-visual presentation. This seemed to me to be given higher status than the rest.  Peter Johnston [sorry, this should have been David Welch – see comment below] declares to camera: “Propaganda itself is an ethically neutral idea ….”  Very likely cutting off the quotation here is unfair to him.  In a blog post of 20th August he continues by writing “… it is the content that varies.”  I felt uncomfortable at the time as it does not seem to me to be the same thing to say that propaganda can be used for a range of purposes, as to claim it is “ethically neutral.”  I’ll come back to this unease and how it developed, but in the meantime I realised many exhibits were designed to stimulate the viewer and/or listener to make up their own mind as to what might be the propaganda element or effect.

At points the interpretation seemed wilfully underplayed.  A display of material from newsreels was captioned “Films from Russia 1910-1927, courtesy of Pathé “ and that was it!  Was there ever so much tumult in one country as in that period?  Did the visitor deserve to be informed something about that, if they didn’t already know?  Were we perhaps supposed to know all about it and focus on the role of Pathé?  It was clear that this under-interpretation was entirely deliberate.  For example I used headphones to hear the soundtrack of some footage of the “Gulf War”, unmediated and unexplained.  Another newsreel about the independence of Tanganyika, again Pathé, if I remember rightly, looked now extraordinarily patronising, to put it mildly. Although I was not surprised about that, I might have found some informative comment useful.  I suppose omitting interpretation is one tactic to get the audience thinking…. But is it curating at its best?

The ubiquity of propaganda was one theme that came over quite effectively, with examples of monuments, public health campaigns and a great deal of Alastair Campbell.

I returned to my earlier unease about relativism later in the exhibition, when I came to a panel that included material about Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Nursultan Nazarbayev. I would have headed this panel, “Dictators”. Instead it was headed, “myth makers.” Part of the captioning to one of its exhibits read, “The Nazis played on the desires and fears of the German people to gain power, after which they made skilful use of propaganda to sustain popular support.”  Another caption included “…false histories may retrospectively attribute noble motivations to dubious actions and remove controversial figures from history.”  While recognising that I cannot present these extract fairly without mentioning the exhibits themselves, nor the whole context, perhaps you can understand nevertheless that I was really troubled.  “Dubious actions”??  At this point I was truly disturbed. It seemed to me just possible that a young person might visit the exhibition and have no idea of the scale of genocide presided over by some of these dictators in the twentieth century.   “Myth-makers” – a very dangerous and foolish phrase to use anywhere near some material which ought, in my opinion, have been contextualised through reference to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s massacres.  I am glad to say that to an extent my growing sense of concern, if not outrage, was assuaged by what came immediately next: a constant audio-visual showing Martin Winstone of the Holocaust Educational Trust.  This writer was interesting about the role of propaganda in Nazi Germany, its dire effects, and the pre-existing amount of anti-semitism that made its further propagation possible.  This was the beginning of a very good section on “enemies” including those “within”.

Overall, I would like to make it clear that I am convinced that the exhibition is extremely concerned with misuses of propaganda; I am not accusing them of being “ethically neutral”.  Indeed the exhibition should stimulate political and ethical thinking, including about some of the worst, as well as the best, events of recent centuries in particular.  I am not quite sure if the underplaying of interpretation, in order to be thought-provoking, is working as well as it might, in some sections of the exhibition.

I imagine everybody would find something in this very wide-ranging exhibition that they particularly liked.  I suspect what they might find most interesting might be what connects closely to their own interests; this is perhaps why there is a lot about the 2012 London Olympics.  I particularly liked 1958 Czech matchboxes and a 2013 Twitter installation called Chorus, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.  It was produced by Field [In the first version of this post I credited it to Brunel University’s by @chorus_team to explain the comments below.  Thanks to them and Ian Cooke for the helpful corrections]

If anyone else goes to the exhibition, I’d be really grateful if they would comment and let us know how their reactions compare with mine.

Julia Gillen