The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 16, No 2 (2012)

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Frame of Reference


Blurring the Boundaries: the changing i-Discourse of children's literature

David Beagley


It all began 6 years ago, in 2007, because I teach at a regional campus of my university. Many of our students come from small and struggling rural communities and want to return home each weekend - an aspect encouraged by the university to support these towns. The students can play in their home town sporting teams, work at the supermarket, share time with their families (many are that family's first university student), then return to campus, all the while maintaining some of the social capital essential to such communities.

To give my students a little more active learning support I began recording my lectures and posting them on the university's online learning pages, so they could be downloaded and listened to for the several hours that the students took to drive home. The technology was hardly complex - I used a simple little silver iPod Nano (2nd generation) with a microphone attachment, then uploaded the result to iTunes. The result, in moments, was an mp3 file, immediately accessible on any appropriate ear-budded music player.

This was hardly ground breaking or a major step in pedagogical practice and I continued it, as a matter of course and largely unremarked, over the next few years in all my formal lecturing. Lecture - record - load; I could have the file available online 5 minutes after the lecture finished. The little Nano did really well (and still works happily) though the microphone only had a range of about a metre.

Then, last year, someone in one of those technical support departments that teachers usually just take for granted heard about this and asked me if I might be interested in trialling the lectures on an avenue that was being proposed through the public (and usually commercial) iTunes site - iTunes U. Apple was offering universities around the world freely both space and an access point for their teaching material, as long as they did not mind it being readily available to anyone. It would be interesting to see how this develops, I thought, and agreed.

The result? In the year since the lectures first went up on iTunes U, there have been over 850,000 downloads across my four subjects: Genres in Children's Literature, History of Children's Literature, Postcolonial Literature for Children, and Fiction for Young Adults. There are over 30,000 subscribers who get updates every time a new lecture is added, and I get emails from all around the world: USA, Britain, Canada, Australia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Turkey, Zimbabwe and so on.

So, what am I doing that is new, exciting or different? Nothing whatsoever! I am doing what I, and any number of other teachers around the world, do. I prepare and present my classes to my students. I try to make them as engaging and challenging as I can, to help the students learn, but I am just teaching my students. It is simply that someone has helped me make that public. What is new is that, all of a sudden, the audience for my classes is the entire world.

Undoubtedly, Apple's motives are not entirely altruistic. They are obviously seeking to embed their iProduct range even further into public consciousness - the best and cleanest access to the huge store of university materials at iTunes U is through the iTunes app rather than the public web page - but the advantages to universities and to the general public is similarly huge.

It is a truism that the internet is omnipresent. In just a decade it has become the default in virtually all areas of social engagement: casual conversations on Twitter and Facebook, relationship searching on dating sites, online shopping, advice and opinion through blogs, information from Google, even critical analytical discourse at journal sites like this. Mobile phones (all right! Cell phones for you Americans) enable, even demand, that people are available to anyone else every minute of the day. We download, upload, follow conversations, read texts, add our opinions and multi-task incessantly. But is this merely a mechanical change, offering us an easier path to do what was already being done in other ways? Or is it altering the very nature of our discourse?

Back in the 1960s, when computer programmers were still bending paperclips to punch holes in cards, and phone apps and blogging would be ideas that Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke could have dreamed up, Marshall McLuhan observed that the initial form and content of a new medium simply matched the old medium it was replacing. It takes time for the possibilities of the new format to be realised and for it to find its unique potential. Thus, we still 'turn' the pages in our Kindles and iPads, and this academic journal still presents text-intensive articles that follow a linear sequence from introduction to conclusion, with notes and references following. As McLuhan went on to note, it takes time for a new medium to find out what it can do better than the old. For instance, movie-makers took a few decades to stop filming stage plays on a fixed set. When they realised cameras could move around, and learned about close-ups and pans, fades and hand-held, the medium came into its own.

In arenas of public and academic discourse (such as this journal) the potentials of online features such as hypertext, embedded film and audio clips, animations and pop-ups are gradually being explored, but generally the default form of our e-texts is still the reproduction of the traditional paper version of days past.

Thus, in this case, we are still waiting for the revolution from this New Media.

Perhaps though, rather than the form suddenly arriving intact and displaying all its new and exciting features, the audience needs to change first and be willing to see both the need for change and the benefits of the new. It could be argued that the relatively recent forms of the graphic novel and the verse novel are responses to the shorter attention span and more visual literacy of the TV and movie generations of the last half century. If so, it has taken them some decades to become established, bearing out McLuhan's observation. Responses to the possibilities of e-texts, particularly multi-modal forms, are coming a bit more rapidly: in 2008 the Children's Book Council of Australia's Picture Book of the Year Award was won controversially by Matt Ottley's Requiem for a Beast, a multi-media mix of dense text, picture book and graphic novel, accompanied by a CD of vocal and chamber music composed by the author. In the same year Shoo Fly Publishing's Angel Boy offered four stories on a CD, mixing traditional word and picture pages (turned on screen by mouse clicks) with voice narration and music, and fade-in/fade-out text and visual details building an extra commentary through the storyline.

For several years now, web sites such as eliterature.org have been offering authors and artists an arena to explore how the e-text might develop and the dominant feature would seem to be the mixing of several forms: text, graphic/visual and sound. At the other end of the academic spectrum, Youtube provides a much more popular and accessible option for storytelling that can mix words, pictures and sound.

Indeed Youtube is probably the best example of this union of what could prove to be the three major key issues of online authorship: democratisation (anyone can do it), multi-modality (the blurring of boundaries), and the transience and dynamism of the works created.

These elements are what has enabled online authorship to take the steps past McLuhan's simple replication of the old into the new, unknown and possibly perilous path of "Well, let's jump in the deep and just find out!" The suddenly ubiquitous social media engendered by Web 2.0, typified by Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and so on, has not just given new tools for expression and opened up vast new audiences. Its democratisation of the act of creating a text, and presenting it to a wide audience, challenges to the core our long-held definitions of the author, the reader, the critic, the text and, particularly, our traditions of learned discourse. Indeed, the basis of this challenge comes from the aspect of New Media that is already firmly in place, slipping into acceptance so quickly we take it for granted: the processes of public blogging and commentary.

It would seem obvious in our democratic world that anyone should be able to offer a point of view in a discussion – open and learned debate has been integral to academia since Plato and Socrates led their chat groups in ancient Greece. But having and expressing an opinion is very different to making it public and actually having it heard. The current e-text default of traditional paper text form is not just a physical constraint for those texts: it also fails to recognise that the traditional roles of author, reader and editor are firmly in flux because of the possibilities in online discourse.

As an example of how this could play out, consider Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. This publishing phenomenon has catalysed the fan-site as an active element in children's and young adult reading. Meyer lists nearly 500 such groups on her own website and encourages their use. The thousands of participants integrate all the major "social media" forms in their sharing of thoughts, news and squealing: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on. But one particular element raises an intriguing challenge – fan fiction.

Many Twilight fans, initially excited by the exotic human/vampire romance, were disappointed when Meyer kept Bella and Edward steadfastly chaste as the sequels rolled. So they started writing their own versions and publishing them on the fan-sites. Nothing uncommon in that, except that now these amateur creations have immediate audiences of thousands all around the world who can comment, or rewrite endings, or introduce new characters, or start totally new episodes. Indeed, Fifty Shades of Grey, the phenomenally successful erotic novel by British author E. L. James, was developed from this fan fiction based on the Twilight series.

Very few of the rewritten or re-imagined works that were posted could be called "good" literature; it is mostly derivative, cliched and drips adolescent dreams. But what it does is blur the boundaries. Who is the author? Who is the reader? Who (most definitely!) is the editor? Can they, need they, be told apart?

Our concept of literary analysis for the past 50 years has been founded in Louise Rosenblatt's idea that meaning is created as a transaction between author, text and reader. Each brings something from their place to the interaction, and each transaction creates valid meaning in its own way. This process, though, presumes that these roles are discrete and operate as different entities. If the author and the reader are the same, and the text is in constant flux because it has several authors (you blog your version, then I blog my changes, then Britte in Munich adds her bit, then Li in Beijing hers), how can we "judge" a work of literature? Similarly, how can it be considered a discrete "work" if it has multiple authors, multiple readers, and multiple versions?

So, if the new medium not only brings new physical ways to present its content, as McLuhan foresaw, but also challenges the very foundation of how it works, and even conflates the participants in its operation, then the revolution is tapping on our shoulders!

Ilana Snyder (2008) explained a key aspect of this metamorphosis when she asked whether a computer game could be considered a narrative. The traditional textual story is linear, providing a sequential arrangement of the narrative as a series of consequential events. It is a basic way of organising human experience which the reader/audience follows. But computers are based on a database which, while it also organises human experience, instead offers a store of categorised possibilities from which the reader/audience/player can choose, to create an individual story. Every player, therefore, can create and be both author and reader of the transient story. Each time they go into the 'text' of the game, the story can be different. James Paul Gee takes this further with his video game learning theory, identifying a sequence of learning principles that flow from the structure of such games as interactive and constructive tools that require the gamer to be as much creator as audience.

Similarly Gee's consideration of 'discourse communities' based around a shared arena of interaction and access (particularly the literacies associated with particular technological media like online gaming and blogging) emphasises that it is the use of the medium for discourse that makes it 'new' rather than the particular physical artefact. The shared discourse, coupled with the skill development of the participants as they learn through their interaction with each other, drives the evolution of this medium - e-communication, for want a better term - towards its potential. It is not what IT brings, but what we DO with it, and we are blurring the boundaries between author and reader, between published work and fluid collaboration, between expert and amateur.

Henry Jenkins labels this media convergence, seeing it as a social and cultural aspect rather than the result of a mechanical/technical process or artefact. The text and the reader, fans and favorites, even the game and the gamer, are not separate and distinct entities. They all participate in a dynamic and collaborative discourse, and the outcome can vary and change, each new version having its own validity, and a place in the continuing story.

The consequences of this role-blurring flows directly into formal academic discourse in the long-established insistence on recognised, peer-reviewed sources in everything from student essays, through research literature, to personal status and recognition. Can a blog or discussion list be considered valid 'literature' on an academic topic? The contributor to the blog or discussion list might be a major voice in the field, who says exactly the same thing in an approved peer-reviewed article. If that writer is a recognised authority, then what of the person who replies to them in the same blog? What if the conversation is between that authority and the student writing the essay – can the student cite themselves?

While reference styles allow for all these options, only the formally peer-reviewed publications carry the prestige of academic authority, just as a story must be published by a reputable publishing house to be quoted, win awards, and give its author a reputation. The new medium is taking us headlong down a path that is essentially democratic, multi-modal and dynamic, but our measuring sticks are standing still, waiting for the single artefact to be matched to the traditional scale.

The back and forth of conversation is rapidly becoming the dominant form of online communication and discourse. It is replacing the traditional model of the single authoritative statement that is still modeled by the e-text - the dynamic discussions of Facebook and Twitter rather than the static artefact of the single journal article. Indeed, it has even changed the public perception of one of its own: the blog. The word began as a contraction of web-log, a record by a single author of a series of events or observations in that person's world - a public diary. Now, after only a few years, it is generally taken to be an interactive arena for multiple voices, through comments and replies to those initial diary entries.

The revolution of this new medium is not, therefore, in its physical form, as McLuhan considered with books and movies and concerts and recordings; it is going to be in its users – what they do and who they think they are.

This, however, is not a new, sudden and unexpected development. I have suggested elsewhere that it is because computers do not think like people. Snyder has shown how the nature of a database affects the structure of a story. Heim (1993) sees hypertext as the key change. Boolean logic and hypertext are how computers 'think'. Using Finnegan's Wake as an example, Heim argued that it, and computers, operate through the idea of transactions outside a logical chain. Finnegan's Wake requires its reader to explore and untangle the references and allusions inside the text by bringing other knowledge from outside (allusions, memories, experiences and so on). It has no traditional sequence - beginning/middle/end - that tracks a storyline to a resolution, so each reading will be a different experience depending on the transactions between text and reader. " ... the hermeneutic structure of the novel [Finnegan's Wake] matches hypertext. The two were meant for each other." (p.32)

Hypertext, through its Boolean logic, deals in transactions and connections, not the specific location, set date or declared importance of an artefact such as a single file or an academic argument. The object itself does not have an inherent importance, but exists as part of a train of conversation.

This is the great democratisation of the internet, as its very nature blurs the boundaries of author and reader, authority and audience, expert and hopeful.

Thus, in exploring how deliberately limiting structures such as academic rigour, or our traditional literary forms, can operate in a dynamic transactional system like Web 2.0 and avoid the apparent conceptual contradiction, I would suggest that three theoretical frames of reference to offer a model of how these connections and conversations might work. These frames are by Bakhtin, Habermas and McLuhan respectively.

The role of these frames in scholasticism is, once again, certainly not new and their creators are well-established voices, but their role in Web 2.0 online conversations should be carefully considered. The first, Mikhail Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination, describes the nature of a work as conversation. Like Goodman, he argues that any literary work is a dialogue between author and reader, between itself and other works and authors, and between its time/place and other times/places. If we take that 'literary work' means any constructed communication using literary form, then whether it is handwritten, printed or online is immaterial. Bakhtin argues that a work does not just answer, extend, and correct other works, in a linear and consequent sequence, but it also informs and is informed by them, back and forth. Thus all literature, and language, is dynamic, relational, and continually re-describing its/our world. This is what makes it a conversation, not a artefact fixed in time, place, context or meaning.

Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge similarly explores literary and linguistic statements. Such statements depend on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse, so the meaning of a statement is reliant on the succession of statements that precede and follow it. The application of this relational model of language to both hypertextual, internet technology and to online conversations like blogs and wikis is immediate and obvious. Thus, the immediacy of response that is available through avenues like Facebook and Twitter ensures the fluidity and dynamism of statements.

The second frame is Jürgen Habermas' definition of the Public Sphere and defines a location, an arena, for the online academic conversations. It has been some 50 years since Habermas theorised the emergence of public discourse in the 18th century in his definition of the Public Sphere, describing a discursive space in which individuals and groups could congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest - it might be a coffee shop, a club, a journal, or a lecture series, but it is public. These discussions do not just echo social ideas from 'great thinkers and authorities' and possible changes that could follow, but actively create that change by dissemination through the people who will enact those ideas in their everyday lives. It is the fact that most of them are ordinary, everyday people, and not recognised authorities, that makes it so revolutionary.

Habermas, therefore, set three institutional criteria as preconditions for the operation of the Public Sphere:

  • Disregard of status - this not just equalising those engaged in the discussion, but a lack of any marks of status that might privilege one voice over others
  • Domain of common concern - those actually doing the discussion determine its meaning - not just at the start, but through its development and wherever it goes
  • Inclusivity - the conversation is always a part of a greater social world and not reliant on particular individuals. Participants may come and go, but the conversation continues.

So, the Public Sphere not only creates a place for such discourse, but also constructs the cast of its participants and audience, as well as the nature of their relationships within the conversation. Again, the application of these three criteria in the operation of social media, blogs, wikis, commentary and so on, is obvious. In particular, the inclusivity and equality of commentary is really accentuated in the online discussions by the frequent use of pseudonyms and usernames rather than identifiers of established status.

Thirdly, Marshall McLuhan's axiom that 'the medium is the message' gives structure and mechanism to the online conversations. His argument, that a medium of communication affects its society not just by the content it carries, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself, is at the core of this problem of academic rigour in a Web 2.0 world. As the current practice of determining academic rigour in a work fixes that status as an artefact that is bestowed by authority and able to be worn as a badge, then there is a contradiction with the transactional, dynamic and evolving discourse enabled by Web 2.0.

Yet it is that very dynamism that is driving the evolution, not the traditional concept of authority vested in the artefact. The nature of the medium is changing the way that the content is perceived.

Thus, the nature of transactional conversations of Bakhtin's dialogues, operating in the location of Habermas' active Public Sphere through the mechanism of a McLuhan-esque medium, describe a Web 2.0 world. The essence of this world is the fluid processes of exchange and conversation, and not a static situation of an artefact of fixed and labelled identity. Consequently, as scholarship is undertaken in this fluid, dynamic medium, then (in a McLuhan directed reading) the decisions about the worth - the academic rigour and authority - of that scholarship must also reflect that dynamism and change.

The technology of the internet in its Web 2.0 form provides the capacity for these changes to occur. But it is the conversations that are happening on Facebook and the musings on blogs, it is the stories that are posted on fan-sites and the commentary that is added to wikis, that is demanding that it happen … NOW! Our texts are going to change - there is no doubt about that - but it will be driven by the democratic, multi-modal and dynamic people who are using them, because they can.

So, how are my recorded lectures changing? Things have moved a little up-market; I now have an official iPad with a recording app that has a slightly wider range than the little silver Nano, so I can wave my arms and strut around the lectern a bit more (not that you can see that on an audio recording). We are looking at expanding the lecture slides into more interactive web pages to run alongside the audio - that way film and audio clips, links to web pages, journal articles, books and other extensions can be immediately available and not just noted in passing. Perhaps one day it will become a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, with thousands of people studying from their screens all over the world, but I am not volunteering to do the marking.

I simply do not know. That is the point that McLuhan made nearly 50 years ago. The medium will find its own way because people use it - dynamic, multi-modal and democratic.

 

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhael, The Dialogic Imagination: four essays, (1975). Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (trans.), Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Print.

Beagley, David. "Open Access and Web 2.0 in the Academy: changing and exchanging scholarship in children's literature". The International Journal of the Book. 8.1 (2011): 111-119. <http://ijb.cgpublisher.com/>.

Gee, James Paul. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, revised and updated. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, (1961). Burger, Thomas (trans.), [Great Brit.]: Polity Press, 1989. Print.

Heim, Michael. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. The Medium is the Massage. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. Literature as an exploration. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1938. Print.

Snyder, Ilana. "New Media and Cultural Form: narrative versus database". in Teaching Secondary English with ICT. eds Anthony Adams and Sue Brindley. Berkshire UK: Open University Press, 2004. Print.

 

David Beagley


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"Blurring the Boundaries: the changing i-Discourse of children's literature" © David Beagley, 2012.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680