‘It takes a village’

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This post responds to a request from Aaron Davis  marking his impressive triple century of blog posts. The theme provides the title of this post and is one Aaron has returned to several times.

I’m currently working on an assignment for the Discourse and Linguistics module I recently completed. With that at the forefront of my mind, it’s hardly surprising that it colours this post. Without his permission, I wouldn’t dream of undertaking an analysis of Aaron’s blog, however there’s a feature on which he draws heavily, and which also speaks to the theme he provided – intertextuality (Kristeva, 1986).

Most of what we say or write we’ve heard or written before. Our social encounters and experiences, personal and professional, have shaped our thoughts. In turn this contributes to the knowledge from which we draw and the meanings we construct. When we make an observation or express an opinion, we do so using the words we have heard (or read) and the images we have previously seen. Sometimes we do this explicitly, making the source of those words clear by using quotation marks, or using other indicators. Often we are less aware of a specific source, but know that what we are saying belongs to a particular discourse, for example classroom practice or technology integration. This link between the text we’re producing and those which preceded it is called intertextuality. It also pays forward into those texts which succeed it and together this chain, or network of texts constitutes horizontal intertextuality. Vertical intertextuality links our text with the others written, not referenced or drawn from, but which work within the same discourse. Those texts may be in the same medium (blogs), the same mode (‘written’ text), or indeed be different media or modes.

Aaron assiduously references other posts he has written, helpfully drawing together themes across his work, indicating ways in which we might make meaning for ourselves. This is termed an intertextual collection, and because the overarching theme is centred on education (or perhaps more evocatively, learning), it could also be said to constitute disciplinary intertextuality. It is important to remember that when producing our own text, we not only reproduce the texts of others, but transform them. If I was teaching the origins of the Universe for Y9 students for example, I would need to turn the texts I have accessed over the years into one accessible to a 14 year old. Perhaps Aaron does similar work to this in ensuring his writings are accessible to a broad readership, but also to challenge our reading and understanding; pushing us to think afresh to produce our own texts. A presentation seen and heard at a conference would be transformed both by being summarised, and turned into a different mode of representation.

It would be remiss to comment on READWRITERESPOND without remarking on the obvious additional affordance that being on the Web provides and which extends intertextuality. Hypertext. Few educational bloggers I read are as intertextually prolific through hyperlinks as Aaron. Some hyperlinks are explicit and reference other texts dually, both through a quotation or title, and through the hyperlink markers of different coloured text and mouse-over supplementary information. Other links are implicit, using the markers alone, but hinting at where the hyperlink might lead through the words themselves. Hypertextuality extends the meaning potential of the post immeasurably. Although as readers we have some agency in how we read and make meaning from a text, we are nevertheless guided by the order the author has provided.With hypertext however, we have far more choice in how we construct our knowledge, by following links to other texts, and if we feel so inclined, beyond those too. Our learning chains or ‘traversals’ (Lemke, 2002) are as different and individual as we are.

By now, any discourse analysts having got this far will be screaming “What about the blog post header-image prompts?!” They are indeed significant in so many ways, but then I’d be into the realms of multimodality, hypermodality and the deep analysis I said at the outset it would be inappropriate to conduct. I will round off though by returning to the start, and back to Aaron’s prompt “It takes a village.” I’m still not sure I fully understand the implications, but my interpretation is that by working together cooperatively, we can achieve far more than individually. Intertextuality plays a central part in the social, cultural and historical processes which enable ‘villages’ to do what they do.

LEMKE, Jay L. (2002). Travels in hypermodality. [online]. Visual communication, 1 (3), 299-325.
KRISTEVA, Julia, and MOI, Toril (1986). The Kristeva reader. Blackwell.

Although there are no explicit citations to them within this post, given the topic, it’s perhaps important also to acknowledge the two authors that influenced it the most:

BAZERMAN, Charles (2004). Intertextuality: How texts rely on other texts. [online]. What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices, , 83-96.
FAIRCLOUGH, Norman (1992). Discourse and social change.

 

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Troubling times

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Last Friday was the concluding input session for the Discourse and Linguistics module I’m involved in. It was a good one, led by enthusiastic, passionate people who knew their stuff and how to put together an effective session. During the course of the day, we were introduced to Foucault, and how power and knowledge were related and formed part of discourse. We were also treated to a session led by author and broadcaster Desiree Reynolds, talking about her novel ‘Seduce,’ which, written in patois, introduces an altogether different consideration for discourse analysts.

To prepare for the session, we were given four readings, two of which were by Michel Foucault. It’s the first time I’ve read him and to say I found it hard going would be an understatement of the first order. The concepts he discusses are complex, but are rendered even less accessible by his writing. When is it ever acceptable to write a sentence which stretches over fifteen typographical lines? A week was not enough time for me to get to grips with work of this nature, so it was marginally relieving to hear one of the tutors also describe Foucault’s ideas as tough to grasp. Helpfully, during the session we were presented with smaller sections of which illustrated specific points, and were asked to unpick them. I still struggled and my discomfort was further exacerbated when one of the group, asked what Foucault was saying in one of the sections, gave a perfectly crisp, lucid summary. It would have taken me days to do that … if I could at all. This is one of those occasions when, as a PhD student, the imposter syndrome kicks in full weight. The only way I console myself is that maybe those who are able to grasp these ideas more quickly have had a longer exposure than I; maybe they studied psychology, philosophy or sociology as undergraduates. Perhaps I have to be pragmatic and recognise that in as short a module as this is, I’m unlikely to be able to fully understand someone as demanding as Foucault. Fortunately, the texts I’m thinking of analysing are likely to gain more from the attention of other discourse techniques, rather than a deep critique of power relationships and effects.

Although I enjoyed the session (even my struggles with Foucault!), I have to confess I found it unusually troubling. Two things struck me and for the life of me, I can’t think why the first should have bothered me, but it did. During the whole three years of my undergraduate study I don’t think I heard a single academic swear. Whether lecture, seminar, tutorial or lab session, no-one ever swore, even though many of them were robust, earthy individuals. In our Friday session, several swear words were used. Now why that bothered me I’ve struggled to understand. I swear, and rarely have issues with other people doing the same, although I never swore as a teacher. I guess I feel uncomfortable if someone swears in contexts where I don’t think it’s appropriate, like the professional, formal situations manifest in most educational encounters. Irrational?

The second issue actually started to bother me in other taught sessions earlier in the year, but became particularly manifest last Friday. Whether it’s because the areas of study are within the social sciences I’m not sure, but there’s a distinctly ‘political’ edge to many of the sessions I’ve attended. That wouldn’t be too bad if there was a sense of balance, but there isn’t. It’s been (for me) uncomfortably left wing. Once more, this shouldn’t be a problem; my views are liberal and lean (mostly) to the left, so why should views which largely echo my own, jar so much? As I said before, I think I (unfairly?) expect balance from the person at the front of the room, rather than subtle referencing of a particular ideology (actually often less subtly). The following example is difficult to recount whilst maintaining appropriate anonymity, so forgive the clumsy writing. A member of the group asked why they couldn’t adopt a particular stance and was told they didn’t qualify on the grounds of gender, race and privilege. That may indeed be true, but it was the way in which the very idea was dismissed out of hand – ‘I am this and this, so that makes me qualified to take this viewpoint, whereas you can’t because you’re not.’ I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the issue was made personal and, for me, would have been better presented neutrally. Perhaps that’s not possible; there are aspects of our self over which we have no choice, so as a consequence, I guess the argument would be that there are certain views we can’t express because we do not occupy the necessary ground. I think it’s that that I find troubling … and perhaps I should.

Interesting that the two issues that bothered me about Friday’s session could probably be illuminated through  discourse analysis.

Discourse … or datcourse?

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My brain’s still spinning from Friday’s full day session; the first of three which comprise the Research Masters Module on Discourse and Linguistic Theory and Analysis. I once more find myself on new ground, both methodologically and conceptually. Arising from linguistics, DA has developed into a series of interdisciplinary approaches, drawing from sociological and psychological domains. Although discourse analysis may involve the analysis of texts (and that term can be rather broadly applied!), it is not merely that and encompasses the ways in which those texts are socially constructed. Although I’ve flirted with DA previously, I feel we’re about to become somewhat better acquainted.

Discourse analysis involves a bewildering array of approaches arising from a variety of paradigms including realism, positivism, marxism and post-structuralism. Some of the approaches like content analysis, critical discourse analysis and conversational analysis I’ve at least heard of, but others like Foucauldian analysis, narrative analysis and interpretative repertoires are completely new to me. Some of these will be introduced over the next two sessions, but yesterday afternoon centred on semiotics. But with only a month or so to have completed and submitted an assessment, I need to get cracking. Ever the pragmatist then, I need to find some resources which will give me an overview of the area, sufficient to allow me to choose an approach which will be appropriate for my chosen text. But what text? We were asked to start thinking about that immediately, with a view to submitting a project outline for approval.

To make the most efficient us of the opportunity this module presents for informing my research, I need to choose a text wisely. There’s little point in this being merely a supplementary exercise; instead I need a text which when analysed will contribute to my thinking, either conceptually or methodologically. Whilst I could analyse the interview transcript I produced for the QR1 module, or the field notes I made for QR2, since I’ve already analysed them, albeit it in a different way, it would be repetitious to return to them. Instead, it would make more sense to choose a different form of text, but one that I was considering as part of my study anyway. That way I’ll know a little more about another strand of my research, plus I’ll have learned an alternative methodological approach.

Recently I came across a tweet linked to a post entitled ‘So you have a Twitter account. Now what?’ With my digital ethnographer’s head on, this struck me as an example of a genre of posts and documents we might put under the heading ‘How to’s.’ There are numerous examples out there, but I’m interested to know what part, if any, they play in teacher professional learning. I’m not sure yet, but perhaps these texts might benefit from an ‘interpretative repertoires’ approach. They also exists in different forms – blog posts, presentations, videos, more ‘traditional documents,’ infographics, so maybe a comparison might be appropriate? This might take me into the realm of multimodal analysis.

The ‘medium is the message’ some say, so my next option was to think about tweets themselves. Although that could be on any topic, sticking to the theme of professional learning seems to make more sense. The analysis could be at the micro-level of individual tweets, the way they’re structured and how they achieve their intended purpose … or indeed what is that purpose? I’ve been favouriting/liking tweets that do that for some while now, so have plenty to go at. (Content analysis?) Alternately I could take a wider or meso-level view and perhaps apply a conversational analysis to a hashtag chat on the topic of professional learning; there are plenty of archived chats out there.

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Another method I’ve been considering for analysing #chats is social network analysis, in which we explore the web of interconnections between the people participating. Perhaps a multimodal analysis could examine that analysis on a meta level of sorts. There are the original tweets as found in the twitterstream, the corpus of tweets captured by software such as NodeXL, in spreadsheet form; and the sociogram(s) produced. Might a multimodal analysis have something to say about the method?

The final thought I had was still on the topic of #chats, but this time a comparative analysis of the different windows different participants use. You can follow a #chat using the browser-based Twitter interface on a desktop computer. Perhaps you prefer to use a smartphone and app to follow the conversation. Many people prefer to use Twitter clients like Tweetdeck, Twitterfall or Hootsuite. Whilst they may support ‘live’ participation, the chats are often archived for those unable to be present live, or perhaps for future reference(?). This is often done with Storify to preserve the sense of flow, but some people also summarise chats in blog posts. Do they all bring different levels of understanding, different forms of participation or different forms of representation?

I’m not yet clear which way to go and before discussing this with my course tutors, might be best served by revisiting my research questions and see beyond this assessment as solely a methodological exercise, and one which should make a wider contribution to my overall research.

Discourse in blogs

I recently read ‘An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method’ (Gee, 2014), seeking a more thorough understanding of the principles and practice of discourse analysis (DA). Although this is not a technique I’d planned to use, several papers I’ve encountered have used it in the context of a wide variety of online sources and a book I read earlier offered some promise. Although Gee is quite accessible, I struggled to see how I could get myself into a position where I’m sufficiently comfortable and confident with DA to be able to use it effectively. It’s not especially complex, but it does rely on you having a solid foundation of linguistics. Given the time limitations within which I’m working, developing a thorough grounding in that field looks somewhat unlikely, and yet the close attention DA pays to text remained appealing. So when I subsequently came across ‘The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis’ (Myers, 2009), which seemed more closely aligned with my area of interest, I thought I’d take another look.

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Discourse sees language as a social practice, so it makes complete sense that someone would seek to uncover whether language used in social media follows the same principles found in more traditional contexts, or whether perhaps it is somehow different. My focus was drawn much more to the chapters on blogging rather than those on wikis, simply because the former have more relevance to my studies. Of those, Myers covered text, place, time, audience, opinions and evidence; these being of particular significance where social practice is conducted within this particular aspect of the Web. Despite the shift towards increasingly rich media, blogs remain largely textual in nature, so DA is clearly an appropriate technique to deploy. Now it’s highly likely I’ll be taking a close look at blogs, so anything I can learn here will be valuable, but if that can also be applied to the microblog that is Twitter, so much the better.

Myers suggests we can define blogs as a specific genre, determined by their look, feel and function, but more so by the uses to which they are put. Essentially blogging is diary writing, enhanced by links which provide intertextuality. This can take place through the outward links to other related sites/blogs which may extend, enhance, or substantiate what has been discussed in the post. They may also provoke action, challenging us move on from where this particular post takes us. In addition to this dynamic view, I also see the interlinked resources as offering an opportunity network; the point at which you enter the network may take you in a number of potential directions. The nature of blogging is such that links reach out, though often to content on the same theme. This naturally leads to topic clusters, which in education might be on a particular curriculum area, pedagogical approach, current news item or increasingly, specific ideology. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Twitter’s micro-blogposts. There are hyperlinks which perform the same actions as those in their big brothers’, although in Twitter, the internal links to posts take the form of retweets. The network which arises here is much more ephemeral and doesn’t persist in the same way as that formed in blogs, yet can still lead to a similar echo-chamber effect.

DA reveals different ways in which blog authors provide the connective threads to additional resources. This can be achieved using words, phrases, sentences, URLs, images and quotations, or through deictic expressions like ‘follow this link’ or ‘as xxx said here’ which seem to add a further degree of exhortation to explore further so you can establish the  veracity of what I am writing. Myers suggests we can even quantify linkiness (although he doesn’t use that expression … which I think is a shame) as the number of links per 1000 words, and can thereby establish how well connected a particular blog is. I see a parallel here with social network analysis (SNA) in which connectivity within the network can be estimated based on the number of links per node (Hoppe & Reinelt, 2010). Just as in SNA, the ways in which links from blogs to other blogs, sites and articles measured by linkiness only provides a partial view. I wonder therefore how appropriate it might be to consider additional factors like bridging, centrality and density?

Much of the aforementioned behaviour depends on a blogger’s view of audience. Although some claim to use their blog as a personal reflective space and write purely for themselves, for the majority, a readership is important. Myers contends that audience is solicited and that DA can help us uncover the baited hooks. Some are plain lumps of bread – ‘Here is a post I wrote on xxx.’ Others are big juicy worms where links are appended to headline-grabbing or controversial statements; often called click- or linkbait. DA reveals some to be more subtle however, like a fly cast gently on the waters, perhaps using pronouns like ‘you’ which speak directly to the readers in an attempt to make a connection, or using ‘we’ to hint at shared knowledge and values with the reader.

I’m beginning to see how we can use linguistic markers to help us interpret social practice; some of the techniques Myers described could be pertinent to my study. I now need to think more carefully about what textual markers I might use that are pertinent in shedding light on professional learning. Perhaps initially, anything related to learning; learning as an activity, or as an outcome. Questions? Links? Deictics? Or maybe markers which indicate establishment or nurturing of relationships, or trust? These may not contribute directly to learning, but perhaps provide precursors, without which learning is more difficult? What markers might you look for as evidence of professional learning?

 

Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. Routledge.

Hoppe, B., & Reinelt, C. (2010). Social network analysis and the evaluation of leadership networks. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(4), 600-619.

Myers, G. (2009). The discourse of blogs and wikis. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Discourse of Twitter and Social Media

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Most of the books I’ve been reading are assisting my understanding of the topics that are central to my study. Others are in areas which I hadn’t initially considered, but might inform my research. ‘Discourse of Twitter and Social Media’ (Zappavigna, 2012) perhaps surprisingly falls into the latter group. Yes it may be on Twitter, but I hadn’t really thought about discourse analysis as a possible method, mainly because although I was aware of it, I didn’t really appreciate what it entailed … which is why I chose the book.

Dealing with the issues of corpora for social media and then outlining the specific features of microblogging, Zapavigna then uses successive chapters to explore in detail how people share their experiences and enact relationships by adopting a social semiotic perspective. Covering memes, slang, humour and political discourse, she provides illustrative examples under each category, together with the analytical linguistic techniques used. A particularly resonant chapter for me was that on ambient affiliation, seen as an alternative mechanism through which people with a shared set of values and interests become associated, other than as a community. This bonding is achieved through common behaviours and simple yet powerful semiotic markers like the hashtag. Affiliations may be more transient than communities, virtual or otherwise, and be time-bound to specific incidents or issues. Whilst others form, stick and show durability over time. We begin to see here the importance of what Zappavigna calls ‘interpersonal search’ where people employ the affordances of the medium to actively (and passively?) seek out other people with whom to bond around (or clash over!) certain issues.

Another aspect of the book I found valuable was the way in which many of the technical elements of microblogging were scrutinized. In addition to the aforementioned hashtag, the functions served by the @ and RT were also discussed. This naturally prompts me to consider here what ANT role these components play; actors, mediators, intermediaries? Although the part played by emoticons was also discussed, I wondered whether these markers worked at a different level than #, @ and RT, instead serving more as semiotic replacements for the visual cues lacking in online settings. Do emoticons perform a significant functional role in professional learning exchanges? I suspect not, but it might be interesting to find out.

One small topic which caught my attention was ways in which we can classify Twitter users as information sources, friends or information seekers (Armentano et al, 2011), or indeed as informers or meformers (Naaman et al, 2010). This seems particularly relevant to my study where people often claim that one element of the professional learning they derive from Twitter is that it is a wonderful source of resources. Are they the information seekers who rely on the information sources? Are some of those information sources also meformers? Should we extend or amend the categories to resource sources and resource seekers?

An area which has been flitting in and out of my mind and one which I will need to discuss at much greater length is my approach to sampling. Zappavinga highlighted how episodic the nature of the Twitterstream is and how that influences the choices you need to make when devising a sampling strategy. The 100 million word HERMES corpus used throughout most of the book was collected over a relatively short period from the whole Twitter population and therefore is to some extent skewed by what was topical at the time (among other things, Valentine’s Day apparently!). Since I’m focusing on a particular issue, the whole population is of less interest to me than those who are teachers or involved in education (need to think more about what my target group will be). How I establish that target, devise a meaningful time-period and thereby compose my Twitter snapshot will require careful and informed consideration, as indeed of course will the subsequent analysis.

One finding in the book which I found reassuring was that the most common 3-gram (3-word triplet) in the HERMES corpus was “Thanks for the”, which suggests that people are indeed getting something from their fellow Twitter users. Perhaps that 3-gram might be worth investigating within the samples I choose to use, as an indication of resource and information sharing? It might be interesting therefore to follow that up with what appears in the R1 position i.e. is the next word in the sequence.

What I learned

  • Some of the techniques and processes involved in discourse analysis.
  • A better understanding and appreciation of the importance of some of the specialised lexis which Twitter users employ.
  • How the medium was set up mainly to allow broadcasting and that engaging in dialogue or co-ordinating action may be consequently be more difficult to achieve.

What I need to do next

  • To give further consideration to distinctions, similarities and crossovers between affiliations, communities and actor-networks.
  • To explore further texts which will help me think about sampling strategies.
  • To learn more about discourse analysis and whether there are elements (like n-grams) I might be able to fruitfully use.

 

Armentano, M.G., Godoy, D.L., Amandi, A.A., 2011. A topology-based approach for followees recommendation in Twitter, in: Workshop Chairs. p. 22. (PDF)

Naaman, M., Boase, J., Lai, C.-H., 2010. Is it really about me?: message content in social awareness streams, in: Proceedings of the 2010 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, pp. 189–192. (PDF)

Zappavigna, M., 2012. Discourse of Twitter and social media: How we use language to create affiliation on the web. A&C Black.