Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Digital literacies (2): Why academic literacy is about texts

This arises from a long blog by Robin Goodfellow for the Literacy in the Digital University project, following up a presentation in which he started from the position that "literacy" is not just about reading and writing and the comparable digital activities ("new literacies"), or about communication skills (presenting, reviewing, discussing) but about social practices: that is to say, literacy is purposeful and relational, drawing on "a complex and distributed understanding of the network of personal and occupational relationships that give the text its purpose".

All fairly uncontroversial, one might think. But there was one question which was posed in discussion, and which stayed with him and which is the subject of his blog: "If Literacy is 'social practice' why talk about Texts? Why not just talk about social practice?"

His immediate response had been that "we are focusing on practices in the university, which are uniquely defined in terms of texts" - while explaining that he meant the word "text" in an extended sense, referring to any kind of communicative artefact, not just printed words and not just words at all (so including pictures and recorded music).

But in his blog he poses the question: "it is always going to be the case that what we currently call texts are what define practice in higher education? As HE gets more intermingled with other social fields (industry, commerce, the professions, popular culture - see Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' framework) and as practice-oriented communication becomes more mutimodal and time-shifted and otherwise dispersed won't the notion of text as a defining characteristic of university practice become less and less relevant?"

I think the answer is No - or at least, it shouldn't. I follow Diana Laurillard (Re-thinking University Teaching, 2nd edn, p. 21-2) in taking the defining feature of university practice to be its second-order character: "the point about academic knowledge is that, being articulated, it is known through exposition, argument, interpretation ... through reflection on experience and represents therefore a second-order experience of the world." Academic discourse is characteristically not only about knowledge, but about knowledge-about-knowledge: epistemology, or how-we-come-to-know. It is not only what we believe to be the case, but why we believe it to be the case, or why my view of what is the case is better than yours. It is about theories and models, interpretations and frameworks, inferences and arguments.

Here perhaps is the practical meaning of Helen Beetham's summary of the key difference between academic knowledge and internet knowledge (referenced by Robin Goodfellow): that academic knowledge practice is about truth value while internet knowledge practice is about use value. If you value knowledge only for how it can be used, you will not be interested in how the knowledge is derived; you only care about whether it is reliable: Yes, or No. But if you care about the process by which knowledge is made and justified, challenged and revised, then you will need to get into second-order discourse.

Does second-order discourse require the use of texts? No, but it certainly makes it a lot easier. By making the knowledge (the theory, the data, the model, the interpretation) an artefact, it becomes easier for us to stand back from it and view it as an object and conduct the second-order discourse. The text does not need to be a physical thing, or even a digital thing: it can be a spoken object, as for example the thesis or the various points of argument in the formal disputations at pre-modern universities. The technology to accomplish a second-order discourse can be rhetorical and procedural, as well as physical and material.

But do we need this second-order discourse? Do we actually need academics and universities to conduct it, to look at the foundations of knowledge, instead of just using it?

As the historian Susan Faye Canon observed a long time ago (Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period, 1978), the best justification for the existence of historians is that, unless you have people whose professional responsibility is the reconstruction of the past in all its complexity and subtlety, then the only accounts of the past which are available will be the simplified and interested accounts of politicians and those with a political axe to grind.

I think we need academics and academies for essentially the same reason: that unless we have people whose professional responsibility is in defining and challenging the basis of knowledge, then all we will have is the claim and counter-claim of parties who value knowledge only for its usefulness to them and its service of their interests.

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