Developing mobile material essays via some centralized environment
Developing mobile material essays via some centralized environment

In my last post, I discussed a bit the new direction my doctoral research is taking towards a focus on the production of mobile material essays (basically, digital essays constructed entirely in mobile technology) as they reveal community practice. In this case, the community practice is that of the Humanities in higher education, their shared repertoire of processes, their norms, their roles and legitimate peripheral points of participation (Lave, Wenger, 1991). My doctoral research assumes (blindly assumes) that these kinds of essays, essays composed via mobile technology (indeed, even in motion) are a thing, will become more of a thing, and will reposition academic ‘writing’ as a multitude of modes, a multitude of acceptable compositions and presentations, and as conflict between linear and non-linear exposition.

It should be noted that this assumption could be entirely wrong. Mobile material essays (however named) might never become an acceptable method of academic discourse, nor acceptable assessable work. And that would be a shame. However, I will push on thinking they will become a valuable contribution to the Humanities as representations of knowledge (research and scholarship) as well as signals of engaged community participation. Further, I think they invigorate the community as a whole by acquiring attributes that contribute to its impact and survival. Are the Humanities being regulated or neglected? Not if they broaden their scope of inquiry and acceptable areas for observation and analysis. Not if they aggressively seek to bring the exactitude of reflection and disciplined discourse to a host of other areas outside their traditional purview. Not unless they intentionally bind themselves to silos of activity, which once walled begin to instinctively wither.

What are the salient bits of mobile material essays?

But what are they? Are they any sort of blog post or video or audio piece recorded and disseminated through mobile devices? Sure. Are they mashups of text, audio, video, and location-based services (mapping or otherwise)? Sure. Are they voice dictations? Sure. They could be anything, really. Anything that engages the scholarly community in the content or question under observation.

So, what are some attributes of mobile material essays?

  1. They are reflective or analytical pieces of research or scholarship (not unlike their paper or digital counterparts)
  2. They are created, remixed, and/or disseminated via mobile technology. One can’t avoid the inclusion of technology in this discussion nor should one try to. Clearly question what it enables and what it affects, but it is a factor.
  3. They respect, but do not bow to textual authority. Mobile material essays are works created via toolkits, using whichever mode and whatever composition that serves the analysis. They don’t exclude text, nor do they bow to it.
  4. They respect mobility (as a perceived attribute of society, or a desired attribute) and
  5. They are often products of motion itself. I will need to clarify this point and how it contrasts to mobility (I think it does, but still trying to articulate that). Products of motion are spatially aware, even if that awareness is limited to an understanding of merely passing through space. Regardless, I think motion is a large part of this equation of what mobile technology makes possible.
  6. They are representations of a transformed habitus. I am referring to Kress and Pachler here (2007) on how the technology can transform any habitus into a learning habitus by placing previously disparate attributes in conjunction with one another for learning potential. In short, things that couldn’t be connected before are connected, making for a potential learning environment. All ICT enacts this to some degree, but I think mobile takes it a step further.

What does it privilege? What does it negate?

Does mobile technology privilege a particular kind of construction, mode, or exploration? Absolutely. The technology itself, in its current manifestation, encourages multimedia. Research and scholarship can still be consumed via mobile technology in textual form. In fact, most of it is. Producing scholarship or reflection or engagement in the community discourse can be text as well, but a host of other modes are encouraged. Audio, image, and video being the most readily available (and easiest to capture and remix). Textual transmission is made cumbersome due to technological (and human) restrictions. The shortest point from thought to representation to transmission is not text and that is brought to the fore more readily in mobile technology. For me, this is due to the fact that I cannot type that fast with my thumbs (or at all). My long-form textual compositions are via this blog, formal academic papers, and my thesis. And those are all constructed via the habitus of my bed, reclined, with my laptop on my chest. In that habitus, other modes are not as privileged as they keyboard is so prevalent on my laptop. It is the preferred method of input and transmission; it is intentionally designed as such. Not so with mobile technology.

So, mobile technology privileges engagements with the senses (this is my theory, but I don’t have any evidence of this yet) as it is a sensory reflection of academic content in space (not outer space). It is engagement with academic discourse, through academic methods via non-academic modes of reflection, all while simultaneously engaged with a seemingly incongruous context. It is the meaningful conflict of seemingly disparate activities (reflecting on Sartre while taking the Tube, engaging with Proust eating lunch in London, battling James Joyce for the endless structure of a single day while struggling for motivation on a lazy Sunday). Because we are out ‘in the world’ and because we are cognitively engaging with the texts and discourses of the Humanities and because we are human, we are naturally looking for applications and mashups of these disparate elements. We are smashing Joyce, Proust, Sartre all over our mundane daily activities. We are remixing our lives. And that type of essay, that type of knowledge representation lends itself to non-textual outputs.

By stressing text less, we are also de-privileging the mechanism we used to structure engagement with chaotic bits of information online, that of they hyperlink. We use hyperlinks in mobile technology voraciously as we consume information, but creating is a different matter. Hyperlinking, by being so disruptive to the flow of creativity via mobile technology, is an impediment. It is not the easiest thing in the world to add a hyperlink to even a blog post via mobile technology, let alone any other sort of mashup. Which is a shame, as hyperlinking is a representation of knowledge in and of itself. It is the knowledge of assembly and presentation; it is a playful disruption of linearity, a disruption made even more stark by mobile technology which blatantly privileges non-linearity through the simultaneous presentation of all attributes. So what of the hyperlink in this context? Can it be made easier? More in keeping with the flow of creation? Or will a suitable replacement appear to allow for connections to be made across content?

Either way, I stick to my original assumption that mobile material texts are things, discrete things, with great relevance to the Humanities community.

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By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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