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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Twitter @alibrown18

New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Lighting a New Fuse

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

I am delighted to announce that, from 1st November, I am doing a sideways shuffle in my career to take up a new post as Postdoctoral Research Associate on the project Creative Fuse North East, with some of my conventional Eng Lit work going into suspended animation for the next year.

Creative Fuse North East is a massive project across the region's five universities, looking at the state of the creative, tech and digital sector and thinking, among other things, about ways to enhance business by engaging imaginatively with arts and humanities, heritage and culture.

Creative Fuse North East Innovation Phase Launch from Creative Fuse North East on Vimeo.

In establishing and running READ: Research English At Durham (which continues), I've come to realise that the arts and humanities in particular have traditionally underestimated the wider value of what we do. Many people - not entirely unjustifiably - lament the impact agenda at universities, but it's become clear to me that when you simply share your research, however niche it might seem, there are people out there who want to listen and who will be inspired by it. Dissemination turns into conversation, and sparks fly. In a similar vein, Creative Fuse North East is in part about getting people from seemingly different sectors to talk to one another, and seeing what happens. The ongoing CAKE events run by the project are a case in point.

I'm looking forward to working with great people in universities, business, arts and culture, and enabling some Creative Fusion.

By David Wilson Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons
But there's a North East aspect to this too, which I feel quite personally and which was one of the reasons I was drawn to this project. I've lived in the North East for more or less 17 years. When I first came, I saw a region trying desperately to pull itself up by the bootstraps in the wake of industrial decline. And the one thing the North East continued to excel in was in downplaying itself.

Unrooted from the beauty and tourism potential of its natural landscape (not as good as Yorkshire!). Uncertain as to how to move from twentieth to twenty-first century industries (damn you, Manchester!). Unsure about the value of its galleries, museums and cultural venues (not up there with London!).

But our slumbering giant is now waking. Sunderland is in the bidding for City of Culture. The Great Exhibition of the North is coming next year. Newcastle has more heritage activity than any city outside of London. And all this despite, rather than because of, public funding and media attention which remains focused on the South East.

Compared to these developments, our digital and creative economy is not at the top yet. The creative economy accounts for 4.9% of all employment in the North East, against 8.3% for the UK as a whole. But it's growing, and with five brilliant universities and all the other cultural resources around, its future is bright. I'm proud that I'm going to be working with some amazing people, and playing a small part in making that happen.

(And if you're working in any of the areas mentioned above, reach out to me @alibrown18 or the Creative Fuse team @CreativeFuseNE on twitter, or find us online.)

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Posted by Alistair at 11:39 am Post your comments (0)

Four Fallacies About Digital Learning

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

By Paul Clark. Reproduced under CC BY licence via Jisc.
The Open University is currently undergoing a massive strategic shift to place its emphasis on digital first. But while this made the headlines, the OU is not the only institution to be debating and instituting these sorts of changes. Without wishing to pin this post to particular individuals, there's something in the weather of HE. As I throw my straws into the wind, and occasionally shout into the discussion forums, meetings, and social media sphere where digital pedagogy is being debated, I seem to keep coming across the same buzzy ideas and, to my mind, misconceptions. Here are four arguments I hear used by the more extreme digital-first evangelists, that represent careless fallacies that should be examined and challenged.

1. That the print v digital debate is dead

This is one of the most puzzling comments I've heard. It's the claim of someone who believes they have nailed jelly to the wall, and turns to you in triumph while the jelly slowly slides down behind them.

Let's leave to one side the not unimportant fact that research is still emerging on the value of print in ensuring retention of information, the claim ignores the ever-moving nature of the digital.

Digital is not in itself a format but simply the means of transmission. It's the interfaces that really matter, and for as long as these are subject to technological advancements, the print v digital discussion must actively continue.

People arguing for digital over print typically have in mind the idea of e-texts presented on tablets. But right now that interface is evolving and indeed may not be fit enough to survive. Tablet sales have begun to slide as large-screen phones increase in popularity. Google and Amazon are working flat out to make verbal and aural, rather than visual, interfaces the way we obtain our information. Microsoft's Hololens is bringing augmented reality into educational settings. With each new interface and rate of uptake of different technologies, we need to revisit the advantages and disadvantages of that new mode compared to print.

And even print itself represents a moving target. Digital culture has deeply affected print culture. Open a copy of any major newspaper or magazine now, for example, and you will find sidebars, box-outs, profile pictures of journalists etc. that borrow from the design practices of the web. The textbooks of the new literature courses I teach at the OU are far more visually appealing and structurally sophisticated than the 20-year-old textbooks for their predecessor modules.

The print v digital debate will never be dead. It returns, Lazarus-like, for every generation.

2. That students (want to) study in digital spaces

Until we enter the brave new world of William Gibson's Neuromancer or of cybernetic transcendentalists like Hans Moravec and Peter Thiel, we do not inhabit digital spaces. We inhabit physical spaces through which we may access the digital. Our screens are merely one information portal among many in the physical environment.

A colleague presented a version of this fallacy, based on their observation that in an academic library most students have their laptops open and are reading journal articles on screen. For them, this was telling evidence of the shift in study habits and proof that students want to study digitally. But wait a minute. The really interesting observation here is not that students are accessing research online - which is hardly revolutionary. It's where they are still choosing to do it - in a library!

With ubiquitous WiFi, there is no practical reason why students should be working in the library rather than the coffee shop or at home. But they are choosing to do so. There is remarkably little research looking directly at how digital has affected footfall in academic libraries, but judging from the building works I see on university campuses, while the role of the library is certainly changing its tangible and architectural presence at the heart of student life has not. The physical space of the library - which plays host to the digital portals of a thousand laptop screens - remains central to embodied student communities.

Further, compelling evidence against this fallacy (or fantasy) of the disembodied student can be seen in distance learning students, who don't have ready access to university libraries. Their social media posts quickly give the lie to the idea that students study in digital spaces. Look at the Instagram feed under #OUStudents for example. Most images include a combination of a digital device, mug of coffee, and mascot, along with a pinboard, sticky notes, highlighter pens and paper.

A post shared by Kate Lymer (@books_hooks_and_tea_cups) on

Even allowing for the fact that social media profiles are self-fashioning - so students may include the iconography that they associate with an idealised representation of study, not necessarily things they use actively to study - these images remind that students have complex and multimodal approaches, and that the physical environment in which they study is a vital asset.

If we were clever about learning we would exploit this multichannel approach (for example, the OU used to give students paper wallplanners), one made possible by the fact that 'digital natives' continue to inhabit the physical world and aren't, a la William Gibson, completely jacked-in to cyberspace.

3. That all students under 25 are digital natives

The 'digital native' is as mythical a creature as the yeti. Debates descend to X-Files levels of conspiracy when the spooky (and intangible) stereotype is used in forums and in discussions as a way to justify big shifts to digital learning. Indeed, the simplest evidence of the term's meaninglessness comes when it is used to identify a generation of student-consumers to which universities must answer. For as soon as a vast cohort falls under the umbrella of a definition, that definition ceases to have value as a research tool or pedagogic identifier.

We need instead to treat the 'digital native' with the same awareness of its intersectional positioning as we would other potentially sweeping categories, like 'male' and 'female' or 'white' and 'black'. The 18-year-old female 'digital native' living in London and studying on her commute on the tube may belong to a different digital community to the 25-year-old male software engineer who is looking for a career change out of the world of computers in which he is otherwise immersed. The 'digital native' who primarily accesses the internet through an Android 4.0 mobile phone has different needs and approaches to the 'digital native' early adopter who can afford an Oculus Rift.

4. That students need digital skills for the economy of the future

The year is 1800. George Stephenson sits patiently in class at his night school. His teacher marches around the stage, robes swishing with ever-increasing vigour: "the steam economy, boys. That's the thing of the future!"

It would have been absurd to imagine, in 1800, all of the forthcoming effects of steam, and while we can probably do a better job with the digital, we cannot possibly equip students now with the practical skills they will need to apply in years down the line. That the economy will be driven by digital is hardly controversial. But given the slew of recent books all desperately trying to predict and unpick the implications of the digital economy - from the rise of automation to the effects of free digital services - what is this 'future' we need to skill them for?

As the Oxford report on the future of employment suggested, it's creativity and underlying soft skills - those that use digital as the means to the end rather than the end in itself - that will be the most adaptable and resistant to artificial intelligence. So, when you burrow into it, we need to give students the underlying skills that are similar to those we've always offered, especially in disciplines like my own of English.

Incidentally, note the conflict between fallacies 3 and 4. If you are arguing that universities must digitalise in order to meet the demands of the 'digital natives', you can't then claim that your university will provide students with the digital literacy skills that they seemingly already possess. What you can focus on is critical digital skills - a different beast from the STEM-orientated vision inherent in government.

5. That these fallacies actually exist

In the digital humanities and pedagogic journals and conferences I'm engaged with the actual discourse is more nuanced and critically reflective than the pastiche I've presented here. But the trouble - and the motivation for writing this off-the-cuff post - is that the debate that matters is not happening in these places.

The debate that matters occurs in the frenzy of a packed Senate, or as a hurried remark in the packed agenda of an education committee. It's here that throwaway phrases like 'of course all our students are digital natives' lodge and take hold as infective ear worms in senior management.

"Digital economy," booms the VC as he gets into his limo, thinking that this will be music to JoJo's ears. "E-books," chirrups the registrar, dreaming that the east wing of the library would make a sparklingly nice hall of residence.*

We as critical digital humanists and pedagogues need continually to be on the defense against the casual conversation that slips these phrases and presumptions in.

* Any resemblance to real persons is entirely** coincidental.
* * Almost.

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Reflections on English: Shared Futures 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In the Civic Centre in Newcastle, where English Shared Futures was based, there's an enormous model of the city. It's a utopian panorama of planning: logical lines of highways, smooth boxes of buildings, aspirational glass structures rising at the centre. At the level of the streets there is no traffic, no litter, no congested crowds. It's an adaptable analogy for this enormous, 600-delegate, 100-panel strong conference surveying the field of English literature, language and creative writing.

On the ground of our universities, life feels tough. We are mired in a traffic jam of overwork, while the radio plays a shock jock conspiracy theory about REF and TEF, the employability of arts and humanities graduates, and the returns on their tuition fees. Underlying it all is a permanent anxiety about the value of being paid to read books (if you're lucky enough to be a permanent academic), and the literal value of your next pay cheque (if you're one of the precariat).

English Shared Futures was a chance to rise above this day-to-day existence, and to take a panoramic overview of the discipline as a whole. From this perspective, the virtues of what we do are clearer; while there were certainly panels diagnosing the challenges facing early career scholars or the difficulties of convincing government of the virtues of English, the overwhelming feeling of the conference was one of celebration and confidence.

English Shared Futures made me reflect that although we may grumble when we're required to justify the value of our research and to show how the established discipline of English engages with the brave new digital and economic world around us, we've actually adapted very well to this new landscape - at least if the panels I went to (which were only a fraction of what was on offer, and admittedly skewed towards digital humanities stuff) were anything to go by. Among other things I discovered:

Our discipline goes under the label of English and has its origins in a nineteenth-century vision of the virtues of literature as a civilising force. But just as a city evolves beyond the planner's capacity to contain or model it, so in 2017 'English' has developed along all sorts of unexpected routes, absorbing other fields and disciplinary territories along the way. We do some remarkable and diverse things, and we continue to contribute to the society that houses and pays for us. 

Huge thanks to all the organisers, helpers, speakers and coffee-break conversationalists for helping me - and judging by twitter many others as well - to recover this more utopian perspective.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:50 pm Post your comments (0)

Higher Education is a Market (Except When it Isn't)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

This morning the Institute for Fiscal Studies launched a report looking at the impact of higher university tuition fees. The headline was that students will graduate with more than £50 000 debt, but the Director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, also tweeted out the following 'highlight':

Note that when Johnson say 'increased subsidies' he doesn't necessarily mean subsidies from government in a direct sense, since costs for many degrees are covered solely by tuition fees, which may be paid by the government in the first instance but then in an ideal world are repaid with interest.

There's something perverse going on here. This is a market think-tank concerned about the fact that one group of disciplines in higher education - which remember we're continually told is a marketplace with student-consumers shopping for degrees - has found a way to deliver one product (arts and humanities) at low cost and high profit margins, to consumers who want to buy them. And government has contrived a system whereby the profits from these cheap-to-deliver subjects can be creamed off by institutions to subsidize the more expensive and allegedly beneficial STEM ones. Cheers, arts undergrads.

Some churlish folk might complain that this canny system depends on duping the student-consumer. Since arts graduates are likely to earn less than their counterparts in vocational subjects, they get a double whammy: they spend money that pays for their science counterparts, while they receive a less high return as they enter typically less well paid jobs (to be fair to the IFS they have a valid complaint that the taxpayer will therefore end up 'subsidising' them when they write off their loans later down the line).

But hey, from an institutional point of view this too is a positive thing, since (to use a ball park example without the figures to hand; feel free to supply) if arts and humanities students cost half as much to educate but are not half as badly paid once employed, there's an argument that the return on investment - again from the university perspective - from educating that particular student is reasonable. A cheap-to-educate student at least gets some employability bonus, even if not as much as the very-expensive-to-educate student.

And of course we as a society also need doctors and engineers. If universities can educate arts and humanities undergraduates, to support the expensive medical, engineering etc. degrees, all the better.

Of course, none of these arguments really seem quite to satisfy, do they? They are attempts to justify the structurally unjustifiable. Which is precisely my point. When a free market think tank complains that the system is broken because it's working too much like a market for the institutional supermarkets it is almost as if - call me crazy - Higher Education should not be treated as a market at all in the first place.

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