Communication, publicity and accessibility

It’s really interesting to live and research in York. There are two universities here, several specialist colleges, a host of senior schools, primary schools and playgroups. Alongside that are specialist groups, philosophical societies, local history groups, community initiatives and other non-traditional  collectives of people wanting to make a difference. It is a place where things happen, undoubtedly.

But, interestingly enough, it’s often hard to find out about these things.Yesterday afternoon, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron held a question and answer session about Brexit. A fairly relevant discussion to have, and to participate in (especially the day before the government announces the official date for Article 50) and yet, the first thing I saw about it was a piece of paper pinned up on a door. I found out the other day about a local spoken word event that had been going on for eleven years. Eleven years! I see things by accident on social media, whilst friends come back and ask why there are Vikings wandering around on the street…

I admit that I come from a very particular context. I believe firmly that research involving children’s literature should be accessible. We have an ethical duty to relate it back to the child at the heart of our practice. Without children, no children’s literature. It’s as simple as that. Yet, the wider remit of this is something that affects all researchers. One of the things we practice as researchers is to deliver research with impact. Engagement. Direct practical applications of research in the ‘real’ world. Why does it matter to the man on the street that I do what I do? Why should they care?

I sometimes wonder what would happen if these events were out where the ‘real’ person is located – and if they didn’t require somebody to read an email or glance at a poster beforehand.

I think, essentially, this might be a plea for somebody to plan an impact activity in Morrison’s cafe…

Defying Impostor Syndrome in Academia

It’s something that I never really understood until I came to academia, but impostor syndrome is the worst. It hit me, I think, in those first few weeks where I didn’t quite understand what I was doing and somebody had already gone to Harvard to deliver a lecture, whilst somebody else had cured world hunger in the first fifteen minutes of their working day. Your achievements, of being in the right place at the right time, or simply managing to read a book and make some constructive notes from it, never quite seem to compare. Surely somebody’s going to find you out, surely somebody is going to discover that they made a mistake in letting you in? That’s impostor syndrome, that little edge of doubt that cuts into your thoughts and seals the hole behind it. It doesn’t want to leave and if you try to make it leave, it’s going to do one hell of an exit.

Fun, right? You’re doing something you love, intensely, but you’re doubting it, every step. It can be exhausting. It is exhausting. It’s also impossible to explain because you don’t quite know what it is. I know that I didn’t. I thought it was normal. I thought that coming home from tutorials and collapsing in tears was – normal. I thought it was, somehow, part of the process.

It’s not. It’s not remotely.

I’m blogging about this on International Women’s Day for a reason because, for me, the defiance of impostor syndrome required scaffolds. Supports. Women. Men. Friends. People who believed in me and who supported me through those moments when everything just seemed incomprehensible. Research is life-affirming. It doesn’t require one life for another; you are equally as important as that which you research. Sometimes it’s hard to see that. Sometimes it’s hard to even ask for support. Impostor syndrome, stress, that closing, narrowing of the light around you, can make the world feel very distant. And acknowledging that can be the hardest thing in the world.

But people will bring you through it, and you are people, so I suppose this blog is to tell you something. That if you are experiencing a darkness of your own in academia, that if you are feeling isolated, reach out. You are not alone, and there are people out there who will help you get through this. And here’s the thing; that’s exactly what makes impostor syndrome wither away and die.

You defy it with people. You write and you work for the people who love you and believe in you. You write for them, and you keep going because your voice is important, and the world needs it, and impostor syndrome is nothing, really.

Doubt won’t keep you silent.

Keep speaking.

#internationalwomensday

Developing, programming, coding – oh my!

It’s been an interesting couple of days as I’ve finally managed to get my teeth into programming. I started this adventure from a very flat playing field; we didn’t do this sort of thing at school, nor could we. It wasn’t that we didn’t have computers (I’m not 100 years old) but rather that coding and the like did not figure as part of the educational pedagogy at that time.

So, programming. Coding. I’m learning C# very (very) slowly, and trying to wrap my head around the shape of it. It’s like learning Spanish in a way, a language that I have a basic idea of, but don’t know the nuances of. I know what I think it should be, but can’t quite figure out the why or the how. 

Yet.

I think that’s one of the greatest things that the research journey has taught me: one should recognise and celebrate the small achievements. And for me, making this small video below where I’ve programmed a wormy thing to travel around the backdrop of a library, is a very big small achievement.

The secret studded streets of York

There’s a secret embedded on the streets of York. Have you figured it out?

All around the centre of the town, opposite cafes and shops and down streets and on bridges, are a series of small coloured studs set into the ground. Some of them are a little worse for wear, filled in with dirt and life, but they’re most definitely there. Greens. Ambers. Odd little flashes of colour against the street. Vibrant flashes of light when the sun catches them.

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These are the remnants of the York Breadcrumbs trail, an initiative from 2005 which saw the creation of three custom walking tours located in and around the centre of town. The stories locate themselves in the fabric of the city and see adventures located within the recognisable settings and locations, both above ground and below and, as this reference shows, originally intended to be viewed at the dark with the aid of torches.

Cover image for York Breadcrumbs : Read the Tale and Follow the Trail, Tales of Adventure That Trace a Path Around York

I first came across the York Breadcrumbs story whilst in the library, looking for something else. It’s often the way with research: you find the intriguing things when you’re not looking for them. I was instantly intrigued by the catalogue record and hunted the book out. I’ve known York for a long while, and I’d never heard of anything like this. I wasn’t even sure of what the book meant when it referred to a trail and whether what that was would still be visible. Eleven years is a long time. The project had done its work but not, somehow, lasted. Maybe it was too economically friable, or the numbers simply weren’t working or something. What was clear was that these stories had marked the canvas of the city and now, simply, were gone.

 

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The more I investigated however, the more I came to realise that this project still marks the city. Above, for example, is a mosaic in Exhibition Square. You can just make out on the left hand side of the picture a link to the Breadcrumbs website (now sadly defunct), and the goose and the fox link to the content of the stories. The mosaic is located right in the middle of the square, next to the fountain, and it’s something that I’d walked past a thousand times and never looked at.

But it’s a memory of story, of what was located here and what, in a way, still is.

Story has a permanence, even in its most ephemeral state, and when linked to place, that permanence becomes fixed. It may fade in and out, be seen or unseen, be known or lost or forgotten, but it is always there and it always will be there. Fixed. Embedded.

I find York Breadcrumbs fascinating on many levels and much of that centres on the afterlife of the work. I see, often, initiatives that promise great things but rarely seem to recognise the afterwards. There is always an afterwards. Talk about changing the world, about challenging the system, and then enable the afterwards to happen. I wonder what will become of York Breadcrumbs in a few more years; will it sink deeper into the ground and be consumed by the city or will it suddenly flare back into life?

I rather hope for the latter.

Augmented reality; space, and children’s literature

I have been thinking of pyramids.

Pyramids, it seems, sum up best the relationship between the reader and the augmented reality text. Consider yourself now, reading this. There is yourself (the reader) and there are the words (the text) but then there is the other and that is the point between. Much of this is simplified, forgive me, but I suspect the model of the pyramid works well here. A three pointed relationship; a continuum of connection which sees a point locked between these distinct things whilst the creative space in between renders meaning. 

Image result for geometric pyramidSo: the pyramid. A model that renders the reading of the text; let’s call the flat base of this pyramid the text itself, let’s  colour that area yellow, and let that function as a drive towards the apex of meaning. A gathering of disparate influences being refined and shifted into a pointed, precise reading. 

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Where the problem and interest and excitement comes with augmented reality is that it pushes into a subspace unable to be inhabited by a text. A book is a flat experience; practically, excuse me for the sweeping simplifications here; the word is printed flat upon the page. It is embodied in a physical frame of remove; the book is the book is the book.

Augmented realities blur that edge. Let’s introduce that to the pyramid; colour it red, call it an introduced something. Maybe it’s a pop up element, or a simple call towards using your phone on this page. This isn’t something new (think of QR codes on text, asking you to log in elsewhere, or even an address asking you to write in), but it’s something different. Something tangible and instant, something that’s wrapped up in a discourse all of its own. Capture.PNG

And rendering it like this makes it immediately fascinating to me because it both obliterates and creates something new. The text is lost, but also transmuted into something else; the AR element cannot exist without a connection towards this base layer but it equally denies its influence and asks for a different mode of reading. A hint of tension is introduced; the two layers demand interest of their own, and indeed a different reading, and such a tension brings with it a pull of focus. It brings with it a potential destruction.

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What I suspect, and what we need to do (and what I am indeed attempting to work out) is a way to unpack this tension … a way to have mutual cooperation.  A way to have one’s literary pyramid and eat it. …

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Augmented reality and children’s literature

I recently reviewed a book over on my other blog which had an augmented reality element. It’s a book that ties into a lot of my research interests at the moment and, should I be able to secure funding, the next stage of where I want to go.

Augmented reality and virtual reality offer a whole world of potential for children’s literature. It’s an ethically fraught area, dealing as it does with the oft-found tension between technology and the book; a tension that asks the reader to select one or the other without, ever, seeming to acknowledge that the book itself was, is and will continue to be one of the most successful technological inventions we’ve ever made.

I want to position these technologies as fictively driven, as opposed to driven by design. We’ve all seen design driven innovations; that thing that looks cool if we add it onto this thing and it is cool but it is equally impracitable and ultimately rather redundant. I specialise in children’s literature and as an adult within that space, I’m in a space of tension to begin with. My readership is not the same readership as a child, and never can be.  So, in a way, I need to both acknowledge that and disregard it, and centre my interest in augmented reality and virtual reality in the frame of the book itself.

I want to take that frame and extend it.

There’s an app I read about recently, which allows you to view the White House through augmented reality and a dollar bill. This video shows it in action and it’s something rather wonderful:

And now you’ve seen that, I want you to imagine something with the front cover of a book, maybe, where you hold your phone at it and launch the app, and an experience occurs. Maybe it’s a pop up hello from a character, or a prequel scene activated, or a map where the book is set. And this isn’t an experience located away from the book and embedded in the phone, but rather an experiential dialogue between the two. This is the book activated in a way that was always there, but never visible, and it’s the phone as another reader within the process. It’s a dialogue, that’s the key word, and it’s a dialogue which requires the participation of book and reader and technology.

Imagine, maybe, a book that’s set in Buckingham Palace, and the opportunity to explore that, and locate the text within that visualisation. Imagine, maybe, a character who comes to life and talks to the reader, but then returns to the book. Imagine this technology rooted in that book space and driven by the needs of that space.

Imagine an understanding of literacy underpinned by the acknowledgement that reader, book and other can participate within that understanding.

Imagine where you’d like to go.

I want a book you can eat…

I’m planning the next stage of my research. It’s such an odd thought process to be having and yet, even now as I wade through a chapter and slice and dice it to smithereens, I know there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I love this world and so, when you love something, you turn to ways to make it continue and I want to continue asking questions. I want to continue interrogating narratives and readerly experiences and the construction of a text.

I’m starting to suspect that there’s a next step in children’s literature and it will come with an active embrace of technology. Not solely in the form of e-books, per se, but rather an embrace of the divergent and transgressive potential of technology. Technology allows difference and enables the content to dictate the form. Think about it; we have been wed to the book for a long time. The shape of a book, the manuscript bound in a cover, the linear text, the beginning, the end. We recognise books, we know them.

So what happens when we don’t? There’s a phase, clearly, where we don’t know what books are or how to handle them. Much of this happens at an incredibly young age, and it’s only through developing literacies that we learn how to handle the book. To know it. To know that you don’t eat it, you don’t wear it as a hat, that it’s not something that floats (happily) in the sea…

I think it’s this phase that excites me, because even now I can see a different form of literacy evolving in the children that I know and that I work with. The literacy of video games. The literacy of interactivity. The literacy that comes with an internet of things; of action, reaction, of dialogue.And of course books have this; everything is intertextual, there’s only seven stories in the world … but they don’t. The book form is closed and open at the same time; a code that is able to read once you have the skills to read it, but if you don’t, then you’re excluded. I can read a book in English and I can read it in Latin even though I can’t read Latin in the slightest. I know the form. (Lazy, isn’t it, but that’s the code. We can cheat and understand the symbols and the structure of the code, but not the content. We can read when we don’t read and read when we can). Knowing the form and

I rather want to interrupt the form.

I want to build books that exist at intersections; that talk both to the book as object, but also the book as experience. As livable, lickable experience.

I want to build a book that you can eat. 

Manifest/ext

A treatise for the treatment of the word in a contemporary space.

  1. Text + Manifestation = Manifesto. No printed word is inescapeable of intent.
  2. To read is to engage, but the construction of meaning from that engagement, is indeterminate, multitudinous and unpredictable.
  3. Space is text and text is space, and life is reading.
  4. Books are read both of themselves but of the spaces they occupy in life. Thus, when read, a book is the sum of itself and the sum of everything around it.
  5. To read is to be free; reading shall be begun, abandoned, loathed, loved as the reader demands it.
  6. To read is to perform a version of a text; to enact it, conceptually, is to perform that version. Thus every reader is both destructive and creative in equal manner.
  7. The book shall not exist in a state of opposition to other methods of reading, but rather in a space of systematic dialogue with those other methods. The method shall be understood as a frame; the text as text.
  8. The text exists as an object with its own spatial concerns and implications; ink on the page shall be understood not solely for its own semiotic import, but also as an object within a wider cultural and critical discourse.
  9. To read is to formulate a response to a text; to formulate a response to a text is to read. The response shall be valued, understood, welcomed.
  10. The reader shall have the freedom to read, and that freedom shall be actively sought for and maintained.

On networking

I have a busy few days coming up in that odd sort of way that research does (or at least, mine does). I can work comfortably for weeks and then, suddenly, everything hits and I am skimming from lecture to appointment to meeting like a pebble flying over the surface of a pond.

A lot of these events, both within academia and the wider world, offer the opportunity for drinks and networking activities afterwards.I twitch, slightly, when I see the word networking. It makes me uneasy in that sort of ornery British way where I refuse to do anything when it’s scheduled on a timetable (“7-8pm : have fun!”) and instead skulk in a corner and watch the clock go backwards. Conscious Networking makes me uncomfortable.

Yet, even as I say that, I know that I rather love it. I love hearing about what people do (people are amazing, do you know that? you, you reading this, you’re brilliant). I suspect much of my problem with networking stems with this scheduling of it, this urge to Make Contacts, to Network With Nibbles and to do Things With Mercenary Capital Letters.

( I have not yet figured out how to handle business cards. I will stare at you with mild concern if you invite me to connect on LinkedIn and we’ve never met.)

(Sidebar: teach me the point of LinkedIn, though, and we can be best friends forever)

Connections come when you least expect them. They come when you step outside of your safety zone, when you visit somebody else’s office and say hi, or fire off an email and say can we have a chat sometime, or when somebody offers you a lift home after a winter’s talk. The #academickindness thread on Twitter is replete with such heartwarming detail and it’s these stories, I think, that defy this instinct to Network. It’s still networking, it’s still connecting with people, it’s still touching worlds other than your own, but it is done in the space of being people. Of people who are all terrified, in their own way, of the drinks reception and of being by themselves in a corner. It’s so easy to see the surface, but underneath? Ducks paddling, we’re all ducks.

And sometimes, to say hello and talk about the weather may be the smallest of things, but it is also the greatest.

Just don’t call it networking.

The Books That Made Britain : from the perfect to the egret

I caught up on  The Books That Made Britain yesterday, a series of BBC documentaries exploring the local impact of books set across the United Kingdom. There’s eleven episodes set in areas as diverse as the Cornish coast through to London, Birmingham and the North East, and they all last 30 minutes each.

An odd, interesting series this due to the differing nature of each programme within the series; some were good, some were brilliant, and some were spectacularly awful. I rail at presenters who ask their interviewer whether a book is a typical women’s book (and I will give the freedom of the land to the interviewee who responds by challenging the framing of such an outmoded sentiment). I was borderline hysterical when the Chris Packham episode, which explored the Cornish coast and seemed to embrace active conjecture in doing so, introduced us to “little egrets [which] would have been a bird that [Kenneth] Grahame would have been very, very unlikely to see.”

Gemma Cairney’s episode on Bristol was an articulate, thoughtful piece that I’d well recommend watching. It involved some nuanced thinking, both from Cairney and the contributors who included the estimable Melvin Burgess and Philippa Gregory. John Wedgewood Clarke’s look at the Yorkshire coast promised a little more than it delivered for me. I’d have welcomed this episode to have stepped away from the obvious Dracula narrative, but I did rather love the segue into the local archives for evidence of Stoker’s trip to Whitby. Evidence! So often lacking in these explorations into conjecture and circumstance! More of it please!

 

(Though some of the historical footage was a delight! I will never tire of looking at images of historic seaside towns)