Monday, June 26, 2017


Right now I'm smiling my way through a delightfully irreverent and waspish account of fear and loathing in Silicon Valley's startup culture. Antonio Garcia Martinez's Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley has the kind of bite that can make long haul international plane flights seem like a rewarding experience.

Among many unexpected bonuses flying in from left field is this gem of a perspective on writing in which, of course, I have a more than passing interest, thanks to my own line of professional misadventures over the years.

As he begins to recount the process by which he and his two colleagues set out to create their startup pitch to prospective investors, our author take a paragraph out to address his question "What is writing?" With the politically incorrect candor that typifies his book as a whole, Garcia Martinez responds:

"It is me, the author, taking the state inside my mind and, via the gift of language, grafting it onto yours. But man invented language in order to better deceive, not inform. That state I'm transmitting is often a false one, but you judge it not by the depth of its emotion in my mind, but by the beauty and pungency of the thought in yours. Thus the best deceivers are called articulate, as they make listeners and readers fall in love with the thoughts projected into their heads. It's the essential step in getting men to write you large checks, women to takeoff their clothes, and the crowd to read and repeat what you've thought. All with mere words: memes of meaning strung together according to grammar and good taste. Astonishing when you think about it."

Small wonder literacy educators find the challenges so demanding.

Small wonder the theory can often seem so precious.

Small wonder the research can often seem to fall so short.

Write on.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Vale Brian Street

Along with many others in the literacy research and scholarship world, we are today mourning the untimely death of Brian Street. Brian was a pioneer in the English speaking world of a sociocultural approach to understanding literacy. In many ways he said it all in the opening sentence of his 1984 book, when he wrote that 'Literacy' is best understood as a shorthand for the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing.

Happily, he want on to say a lot more and to do a lot more over the next 30 plus years to help establish a robust area of academic interest and activity. It is easy enough to locate and appreciate his written contributions. But many of us were also fortunate to have Brian impact on our lives in more embodied and hands-on ways. He was generous to a fault with his time and energy whenever there was an opportunity for him to provide encouragement and support.

During 1986 I was working on my first literacy book and was searching for works that would support the kind of 'non psychological' line on literacy that I had been fumbling toward since wrestling with Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed. Harvey Graff's wonderful book "The Literacy Myth" gelled with what my gut told me -- that literacy as mere encoding and decoding was hopelessly over-rated and, in many cases, could actually be as much of an impediment as a support in 'making one's way in life'. But how to get beyond encoding and decoding, in ways that augmented Freire's literacy as praxis approach, was proving elusive. That was when I found Brian's book "Literacy in Theory and Practice" in the Auckland University library. (Remember the library?)

It gelled. It absolutely gelled.

This was before there were computers on New Zealand academics' desks. Writing meant banging out text on at best an electric typewriter. No email either .... (well, outside of the Computer Studies department, of course, and -- of course -- they were keeping it to themselves). But bang out words I did; banging away con mucho gusto with some reliable guides to help me along.

When 40 the conceptual chapter on literacy had been banged out I wondered if I'd got my head around what these guides were saying. Forty plus pages were jammed into an A4 envelope and snail mailed to one Dr Brian Street at the University of Sussex. I'd never met him, and he'd surely never met me. I should probably have written a letter first to ask if it would be OK to burden his post box. But book contracts pressed very hard in those days, when it would take maybe 10 days for an airmail envelope to get from the Antipodes to Mother England.

I could make this a long story, as you well know, but to cut it short, guess what happened. A few weeks later an even bulkier envelope arrived in my pigeon hole from the University of Sussex. Brian had returned the original typescript, with comments hand written throughout the text, PLUS a few sheets of his own written thoughts. He basically said "Yep, you've got what I am trying to say and you've used it in a way I believe is sound, and I want to encourage you to keep writing".

Needless to say, I was over the moon. We all have to start somewhere, and where we usually start from is a place that is more or less naive. What we most need is encouragement and some gentle nudges in a productive direction. Brian was simultaneously encouraging and gentle in his nudging.

The book I wrote was the beginning of everything that followed for me in my academic life, and I know that many other people in our shared area of endeavour can say exactly the same thing: without Brian's support and encouragement we would have lived much leaner and more arid academic lives.

Vale, Brian Street. Rest in peace and, while your example and your work live on, we are already missing you and your boundless collegiality and goodwill with deep aches in our hearts.

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