Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections on "the last time"

It's 10 days since we spoke in Comillas and, as luck would have it, the whole thing was absolutely memorable. It was simply a fabulous experience on all dimensions: academic life at its best, and we came away feeling privileged to have been there.

Partly, but only partly, this was because we were happy with the way our presentations went. While it was doubtless idiosyncratic, our respective Spanishes seemed to work fine on the day. The audience was largely an audience of people who worked in foreign language learning, so they knew all about inter-languages and intercultural subjectivities and the like. They knew how to make better sense of what sense we were making, and we felt confident that regardless of how we actually said it, what we wanted to say was being communicated. The audience were gracious and welcoming and enthusiastic for their subject area. There was no hint whatsoever of academic competitiveness or one-upmanship. No one was there to score points or make impressions. They were there to celebrate an area of inquiry and to share enthusiasm. There was an exemplary spirit of collaborative endeavour everywhere we looked. Everyone was giving truth to the adage "we are here to learn", and from what we could tell there was plenty of learning done over the two days. And we had great friends with us in our talk, because some of our closest colleagues are deep in research areas concerned with learning other languages. Rebecca and Eva and Steve were there at the heart of what we had to say and, as always, JPG was integral to the frame. We riffed off the intriguing work being done by John Hagel and colleagues on the interplay between the familiar "push" paradigm of resource mobilisation for pursuing goals and an emergent "pull" paradigm, as well as drawing on work by John Seely Brown and colleagues on social learning. These ideas, in conjunction with the concept of social languages, gave us plenty of room for ranging over cases of (mainly) young people acquiring forms of proficiency across languages other than their own in diverse online settings.

More than this, however, we reveled in the company of wonderful people, many of whom knew each other well and brought their friendships as well as collegiality to the scene. The social life during comida and after the end of each day was vibrant and warm. Conversations ranged widely, and there was plenty of humour and sharing of perspectives. The Comillas Foundation were incredibly generous hosts. Every aspect of hospitality and organisation was expansive and considerate. Everything was in place on time; there was nothing that had not been anticipated. From the time we were met to the time we were dropped off we never had to ask for a thing -- every conceivable "need" had been anticipated.

And the small coastal pocket of Cantabria that is the town of Comillas lent its own distinctive magic and bounty to the occasion. We were told that during the summer tourist season the population explodes from the 2500 souls who live there permanently to over 45,000 -- and it is easy to understand why. The food is superb, from the freshest of seafood to the endless array of tapas dishes, and bread that would do the finest French bakeries proud. And the red wine was as kind as the people themselves. Comillas was pretty much a tiny fishing village until a local lad ran off to Cuba at the age of 14 in the early 1830s to seek his fortune. He duly made one -- marrying well helped in this regard as well -- and brought some of it back to Comillas. Lending the King of Spain a small fortune seems to have been associated with being made a marquis, and the first Marquis of Comillas built the impressive Pontificia University complex, part of which has been restored and houses the Comillas Foundation, and the remainder of which remains unused and in search of a new purpose. The first Marquis of Comillas' son in law was an early patron of Gaudi, whose magnificent Capricho is in the heart of Comillas, right alongside the massive residence built by the Marquis, which is now maintained by the Municipal Council of Comillas. We spent the Saturday morning after the conference, before heading to Santander for the remainder of the weekend, visiting these two amazing buildings and getting as good a sense as we could of the history of the town.

Finally, the time in Comillas reflected the generous spirit of our colleague Daniel Cassany, who had put the academic side of the event together. Daniel has a wonderful sense of proportion with respect to life generally and academic life in particular. We drank deeply at his well and look forward to ongoing collaborative work with him, as well as with others we had the good fortune to meet over those days.

As tired as we were by the time we got back to Santander, we were feeling sufficiently optimistic and robust (just) to take a chance on public transport to go visit the historic town of Santillana del Mar on the Sunday. Truth be told, the original agenda had been to visit the site of the Altamira Caves and take tour through the replica cave that is open to tourists. But by the time we had explored the town and had a meal to die for and then walked to the cave site they were closing for the day. As much as we had anticipated learning about the caves we weren't the slightest bit put out at arriving late because the town was nothing short of splendid. We just lost ourselves in the 15th and 16th centuries, between the buildings and the surrounding farmland. Over the 6 days we had scratched enough of the surface to know that this is a part of the world we want to return to, at length and at leisure, in the future. During the bus ride back to Santander Michele began anticipating her next sabbatical. Given that she had just finished a long sabbatical in September, one might think she was jumping out of the blocks just a little early. But I don't think so. Planning to spend some serious time with such people and places can never begin too early.

Our thanks and best wishes go to all who were involved in the seminar and in hosting and accommodating the participants. They provided as experience of academic life that is as good as it gets.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meeting in Comillas

We have arrived in Comillas to participate in a two day working conference hosted by the Fundacion Comillas. The opening plenary, by Franciso (Paco) Yus of the University of Alicante has just begun. It's 3am in Mexico City right now, which seems like a good time to be trying to attune our ears to Spanish spanish. Paco is working his way through a comparative analysis of written discourse across analogue and electronic media.

This time tomorrow we'll be presenting -- that's a lot of attuning to do in a hurry ...

The Fundacion, located in a huge ex seminary on the top of a hill overlooking the small picturesque town of Comillas and overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, is a premier Spanish language learning institution. It also hosts events like the current one, that run alongside the day to day bread and butter work of the Fundacion, designed to inform its practice. The focus here is on online communication across different languages. Francisco has introduced the concept of "infoxificacion", defined as "intoxificacion por exceso de informacion", and is opening up his dicussion into a focus on genre.

Meanwhile, capturing the nano-generational change rate upon us, Michele is tweeting (on her Kindle Fire) as I blog (on a netbook). So it goes. Most of the audience are making notes in the conference notes books provided in the conference pack. Meanwhile, I'm blown away by the media environment in this small auditorium. The internet connection is lightning fast, and the sound is stunning -- seemingly augmented by the aged limewashed stone walls.

Working his way through the experiences of reading online and keeping going, following interests, Paco is marking out what he sees as key distinguishing characteristics of electronic genres.

1.Los generos electronicos se transfieren de, se apartan, y se generan en la Red.

2. Los generos electronicos se torcan, se enlazan, se dispersan.

3. Los generos electronicos diluyen la autoria y enfatizan al usuario.

4. Los generos electronicos comparten la atencion del usuario. (I thought Paco's slide for this represented Michele's practices pretty well .....)

5. Los generos electronicos compiten por la atencion del usuario.

6. Los generos electronicos buscan a sus lectores.

7. Los generos electronicos se personalizan automaticamente.

Paco has interspersed during his talk illuminating sidebar discussion of viewpoints by people like Nicholas Carr (on information overload) and Eli Pariser (on the narrowing of worldview through personalised search).

A great start to what looks like being a very interesting two days.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last tango in Comillas

On Tuesday we fly to Spain to give a keynote and participate in a round table at a working conference funded by the Comillas Foundation. This will almost certainly be the last talk I give, and certainly the last keynote.

It seems like a long time – not least, because it is a (very) long time – since the day when I received my first invitation to do a keynote. For a young academic it felt very special indeed, like a milestone on an academic journey. It ranked up there with the first invitation to contribute a chapter to someone’s edited book.

Needless to say, the excitement and charm and rosy glow wore off somewhat – in reasonably short order. As anyone who has done several keynotes knows, after a few it feels more like very hard work than a source of excitement: something you do because you are grateful to get the invitation, but kinda could have done without it – sort of thing.

Anyway, for several years now I have anticipated pulling the plug. The thing I most wanted was to go out with a talk I would remember as being special for me. That was supposed to be the one Michele and I did in Aguascalientes, Mexico, more than a year ago. It was a fun talk with an excellent audience. That was supposed to be it.

However, in the audience was a Spanish academic, Daniel Cassany, and we got to talking. Next thing, and completely unknown to us, Daniel showed up as a very generous back cover endorser of the third (and final) edition of our New Literacies book.

And he had got funding from the Comillas Foundation. So, there was to be one last effort: a last tango in Comillas. And, of course, I wanted it to be something I would remember.

In the past, “something I would remember” tended to mean “a talk I thought went really well (by my standards) and was well-received”. But something happened that changed all that, and regardless of how this talk goes I will never ever forget it – on account of the conditions under which we did the writing. I was up in Newfoundland, without home internet access (as mentioned in previous posts), and dependent on the library. And worse than this, the only machine I had with a proper word processing program suffered a broken power supply cord. A 7 year old laptop is not the kind of thing you can drum up a replacement power supply for in a hurry in Western Newfoundland.

That left me with the Chromebook and its humble Scratchpad software, along with limited library hours. And snow. I could field the material coming in from Michele during library hours when I could get onto a library machine, open her attachments in Word, cut and paste them into google docs, and then copy and paste into Scratchpad to take back to the cottage. Getting copy back to her was much the same process in reverse.

But library hours weren’t enough. And my abiding memory of this last talk will be of sitting in the front passenger seat of a Hyundai accent, the engine running to power the heater and, at times, the Chromebook when I’d forgotten to charge the battery, with the snow coming down, and no winter tyres on the car, with a slippery uphill driveway to negotiate upon returning home. Not so bad during daylight hours, but rather more of a challenge at night. There was a certain degree of stress involved, but also a strong feeling at the time that in terms of its production this one will live on in my memory as unique.

My last tango in Comillas, via Bottle Cove and Lark Harbour. Enough already.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

On being secure: extremes within a short time

After getting back to Mexico City from Newfoundland I had to go to a consulate to get some information for an application I was making -- just a few hours after having had my latest full airport scans and spending the usual time in lines.

I got to the consulate and handed in my ID while the gate was unlocked, and then had to complete the same kinds of procedures as at an airport. I gave them my bag and they said I'd need to put my mobile phone and anything else electronic through the machine. I said I didn't have a mobile phone or anything electronic. They looked at me incredulously and repeated the request. I repeated my response. They still looked very very dubious -- and fair enough, because almost everyone in Mexico City carries a mobile (not least, as a personal security support), and I suspect that even more than almost everyone who goes to the consulates has a phone. I felt very closely observed as I went through the scanner arch, but sure enough I wasn't concealing a phone. I could have informed them how I feel about mobile phones, but had I done that I am sure the antagonistic vibes I'd have sent off would have made anyone nearly feel sure I was a security risk. I loathe mobile phones with a passion I reserve for very little else.

Anyway, I got the information I needed and headed back to the metro for the trip home. As anyone who has traveled on the Mexico City metro knows, it rivals the subterranean malls in towns like Montreal and Toronto (and many other places) as an underground shopping space. Vendors come through the carriages hawking everything from chewing gum to herbal cures, via CDs and DVDs of music, music videos and movies, along with snacks, ice creams, frozen drinks ... You name it.

So, here I was, after a day loaded with scanning, on the metro during one of the several daily "peak hours", and there's a vendor squeezing his way through all the people, advertising and demonstrating his product.

Box cutters at 5 pesos each....

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