International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 21-23 July 2014
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Sociomaterial texts, spaces and devices: questioning ‘digital dualism’ in library and study practices

Lesley Gourlay, Institute of Education, University of London l.gourlay@ioe.ac.uk
Donna M Lanclos, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Martin Oliver, Institute of Education, University of London


Mainstream work on student study practices tends to posit the digital and the material as separate domains, a conception sometimes characterized as 'digital dualism' (Jurgensen 2012). In these accounts, the 'digital' is often assumed to be a somewhat disembodied realm, decontextualised and free-floating (Land 2005). In contrast, spaces in the material campus are frequently positioned as prototypically 'traditional' and analogue. Libraries in particular are often characterised as symbolic of pre-digital literacy practices and forms of meaning making, and are assumed to be qualitatively different to more recognisably ‘digital’ spaces. In this paper we will argue that this assumed binary can lead to distortions and oversimplifications in how we view student engagement, particularly in terms of the ways in which students interact with and create texts. As a primary locus of textual engagement, the library (both physical and digital) is a key site of enquiry into how this engagement unfolds in the detail of day-to-day study practices. The dominant paradigm of how libraries are understood and evaluated appears to be consistent with this ‘either/or’ logic, leading to models that rely on quantifiable ‘key performance indicators’ in one area or the other (e.g. Gonçalves et al, 2007), as opposed to grounding the analysis in users’ actual experiences and practices, which may in fact transcend and breach this apparent boundary. These models, drawing on Saunders (2014), may be seen as post-hoc rather than emergent, premised on causality (improving scores causes ‘goodness’), confirmatory rather than evocative, assuming conceptual closure in order to act in a laboratory-like manner, rather than working with the ‘provisional stabilities’ that emerge from studies of practice.

However, new work drawing on qualitative and ethnographic methodologies has begun to ask critical questions about the apparent simplicity of these assumptions, as studies of textual practice in higher education reveal a more complex picture. The preponderance of digital texts has been found to lead to radically different forms of reading and attention (e.g. Hayles 2012), while meaning-making practices in and out of formal education have become increasingly multimodal, in what Williams (2009) characterises as ‘shimmering literacies’. Recent qualitative work on student practices has shown that instead of working in clearly-defined domains of the digital or the analogue, students create and curate dynamic, mobile and emergent networks which constantly combine and cross between digital and print-based practices, according to purposes and surrounding contexts (Gourlay & Oliver 2013). Dominant assumptions about the library have also been challenged by ethnographic work (e.g. Kim Wu & Lanclos 2011; Duke & Asher 2012, Foster & Gibbons 2007), and the results of investigations into student and staff motivations to engage with technology (e.g. White & Lanclos 2011). These qualitative research projects reveal the co-presence of digital tools and practices within library spaces, some provided by institutions, and some owned or engaged in by the students and faculty independently.

We will illustrate this by reporting on two recent studies, the first a year-long investigation of student and faculty textual practices involving multimodal journaling (Gourlay & Oliver 2013) which revealed highly complex, idiosyncratic and emergent networks which the students in the study created, adapted and maintained, consisting of a range of devices, texts, and physical spaces with practices in constant interplay between the digital and the print-based. We will deploy the concept of text trajectories (Blommaert 2005, Kell 2006) to analyse the way meanings shift and change in these transitions. We will also refer to our recent study of perceptions of and use of library spaces (both digital and physical) illustrated by data collected via cognitive mapping exercises, semi-structured interviews and observations across four university libraries (Lanclos 2014). Drawing on sociomaterial perspectives (e.g. Fenwick et al 2011) we will argue for more nuanced understanding of the complex, emergent relationships between the digital and print, the device and user, and the author and text.

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)

Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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