New digital literacies? Nah, it’s same, same but different.

One of the things I’m exploring on this blog is ways of writing in a way that is more open, more iterative, like my whole Writing the Article Series (start here, or browse through the category).

Because this has always been a blog, it’s written in a way that assumes the internet—most of you are here because you saw a link on Twitter, or on another blog, you got an email notification, or you Googled… and when you got here, there were further links and embeds and the occasional gif…

But I’m aware that I’m not doing this in a vacuum, nor am I doing it in a way that radically breaks with past forms of authorship.

You may know that I’m doing a Masters part-time at the moment, and a number of the articles I’ve read for it take these infuriating intellectual short cuts where they claim that things are all different now, because interwebs. So when I read this one, I felt the internet was in need of a history lesson.

So, if anyone else wants to know: this is why ‘digital culture’ is not what’s destroying your stable academic texts.

The rant starts here:


At the centre of many of the rather splendid heraldic crests proudly sported by our older universities lies the image of a printed text. The bound codex. This is not surprising, as in earlier centuries many universities were the printing houses of their town or city, and tended to regulate what was permitted to be printed. Cambridge University Press in the UK remains the oldest publishing house in the world. Harvard University’s crest features three open texts with the word VE-RI-TAS emblazoned across them. Truth becomes identified with and embodied within the bound text. We still swear ‘the whole truth’ on such a bound text in our courts of law. The printed page, and the wider print culture through which it is produced becomes the basis of reliability, of authorship, of academic authority and the higher education institutions in which it is inscribed (Bayne 2006a).

The last two decades, however, have witnessed, as part of the wider phenomena of globalisation and supercomplexity, an inexorable shift in higher education away from this print-based culture to a digital culture. By destabilising and seemingly ‘disordering’ the academic text, digital media enable new forms of academic discourse, literacy and knowing to emerge. (Kress, 2003; Landow, 2004; Privateer, 1999). In doing so they alter the traditional roles of teacher and learner and, by extension, the nature of the academic institution itself. It is no longer possible, Spender (1995) argues, for teachers to appear as experts in digital learning environments as there is just too much information for any one individual to master. Within the print-based university – the society of the closed, static text – knowledge was in short supply, a special commodity. This empowered the gatekeepers, the initiators into disciplines, to determine intellectual boundaries, to regulate entry to the next level of information.  (p.61)

Land, R. (2011) Speed and the Unsettling of Knowledge in the Digital University. In R. Land and S. Bayne (Eds) Digital Difference. pp 61-70 Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with Land’s characterisation of traditional education for about 3 pages, when on p. 63, it finally crystalises.

Land misrepresents the medieval text that the Harvard and Cambridge crests are referencing. The medieval text was, of course, radically different from the nineteenth-century mass-market text, but neither was as stable, as secure, as monolithic as he suggests.

In the exposition which follows, I’ve skipped over the 17th and 18th centuries when Harvard was founded and the authority of texts were coming under sustained scholarly attack (from Milton’s Paradise Lost  which wrestles with Biblical authority, to the Prolegomena ad Homerum, which founds source criticism). I’ve also skipped over the early 20th century, though that is the period when, for example, Walter Benjamin suggests that the gap between author and reader had never been so small, or their roles so interchangeable (in his classic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘, 1936).

You cannot make an argument about the new things you can do with digital pedagogy based on a straw-man version of history. 

Medieval texts were characterised by ambigious concepts of authorship, they were multi-authored (frequently anthologies rather than single author works), personalised (written for a specific donor, copied out by hand in scriptoria, or printed on short run, hand-carved, woodcuts), and therefore dangerously prone to alteration and scribal error. The text was a site of anxiety, at the same time that it was the site of authority (in the Bible, Doomsday Book, or statute book).

Moreover, because knowledge was held in scarce and fragile codices, it was the task of the library or university to protect them from theft or vandalism, by chaining the books to the shelves (as they did in Oxford) or by locking them in a chest and storing them in a church tower (as they did in Cambridge). This is because of the extreme danger they otherwise faced (such as when books were burned as part of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 in London, Cambridge and Ipswich, because they were associated with the Law, the nobility and the land-owning universities).

Moreover, scholastic and early modern pedagogy was characterised by a range of multi-modal and interactive techniques (including diagrams, wall-charts, debates, and copious marginalia and annotations). One such technique was the lectio (or lecture), when students had to listen and stay silent; followed by the meditatio (or meditation), when students sat in silence and reflected on what they had heard; this was followed by quaestiones (or questions), when students could ask questions of the lecturer. Especially tangled questions could be covered in daily disputationes (or debates)–either between senior experts in the field, or between students. (The viva voce doctoral examination is one remaining example of this practice.)

The 19th-century text was not totally bounded, fixed and authoritative either. Marginalia and annotations opened up a range of discursive practices (both social/public and private), in which the reader could disagree, correct, approve of, or amend the printed word (do read this fascinating article on early 19th-century reading practice through the lens of what Mr Bennet might have been doing in his library). Sometimes these annotations were extensive, widely shared among an intellectual coterie, and may even form the basis for a new work, for example Coleridge’s practice (and in this way, the annotations of Erasmus and the annotations of the Romantics have a lot in common).

Less authoritative texts, like novels, might be circulated first in a periodical, such as Dicken’s weekly magazine All The Year Roundwhich allowed the author to respond to reader’s comments and requests, highlighting popular characters or altering the fate of the hero. The novel would then be edited and rebound in three volumes, and distributed through circulating libraries, which meant that although the reader might hold a third of the book, the other two-thirds were held by other readers. Books were therefore not secure, stable, singular entities.

Even at this time, reading practices were not necessarily silent and individualised. It was common for the works to be read aloud to a group, even in middle class-families with high literacy. In fact, reading alone was often considered dangerous and unhealthy for women. And of course it was far more common in lower-income groups where not all the members of a household might be literate: I’m thinking here of ‘He do the police [as reported in the crime sheets of the Police Gazette] in diff’rent voices’ in Our Mutual Friend by Dickens. What’s more, books were objects (as Leah Price explains in her fascinating How to do things with books in Victorian Britain): to be hidden, used, repurposed and displayed. 

Yes, let’s talk about what texts used to do, and what they can do now. Yes, let’s talk about what has changed. But let us not posit changes against an imaginary past that ignores what we know about it. And let’s not reduce the human beings of the past to simple folk who have been trampled under the feet of our hectic democratic technocracy.

Rather, let us suggest ways in which attempts to control disseminated, populist and democratic texts continue; and where the balance of making public while securing ownership is maintained by universities, through chained (but therefore publically accessible) books to JSTOR log-ins, and copyright law. Let us note ways in which the technological advances of 13th-century questiones, 15th-century marginalia, a 16th-century chalk-board, the 19th-century periodical novel, and a 21st-century blog might be part of a continuum of the negotiated and co-created text.  


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

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