digital literacy research in Norway
I was in Stavanger today as the external examiner for an MA thesis at the department of lesevitenskap, which I think translates as literacy. (They offer an MA in literacy in English and in Norwegian) The MA thesis was written by Arne Olav Nygard, and was really interesting, proposing a combination of Eco and Aarseth as a model for analysing cybertexts. It also suggested ways of building on Aarseth’s cybertext model that might help us understand the social texts that are increasingly important today. In Stavanger they don’t have oral defences as we do, instead the candidate has to deliver a trial lecture on a set topic, and so I had the pleasure of hearing about social, digital texts (like blogs, wikipedia, SMSes) from a literacy perspective. Most promising for the future of the field in Norway.
One of the pleasures of the Norwegian system of having external examiners at all levels (it’s optional for undergrads but most still have them) is the connections made between researchers and teachers at different institutions. Arne Olav’s supervisor, Arne Apelseth, wrote his dissertation on how Norwegians learned reading and writing from 1760-1840. Now did you know, that while people in most countries learnt to read and write at the same time, Norwegians became reading-literate almost a hundred years before they became writing-literate, as a nation? If I understood Arne’s fascinating digression from what we were really talking about correctly, the church and state wanted the people to be able to read, but they specifically didn’t want them to write. The Lutheran way to salvation is through reading the bible, whereas the Catholics have a multithreaded web of possible ways to salvation – and at this point the other internal reader objected, but Arne continued, wonderfully ignoring his critic, saying (if I remember correctly) that Lutherans were supposed to be receivers of godliness and not speak back (and I suspect I exaggerate but it sounds so good) while Catholics were permitted a two-way relationship with God.
In her book on blogs, Viviane Serfaty argues that blogging is a particularly American form, grown forth from the Puritan ideal of spiritual work as self-reflection through writing in a diary (the second-last page of my paper on self-portraits has more about this). The different forms and goals and cultural meanings of diaries that she points out are really illuminating for our current understandings of blogs, I find, and I suspect that this Norwegian history might also help us understand how social writing works.
Perhaps we really should be thinking more about the ideals of writing and reading in different cultures. If Norway is built on an age-old suspicion that the people being able to write is really rather a dangerous idea (which would explain why the word formidling is such an important concept here yet impossible to translate) then what does that mean for our current support and respect for – or lack of support and respect for – people writing back online?