Ari Sherri, digital culture

Ari Sherris on Digital Culture in 2018 and 2019

The Editors

Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward. 

Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we thus asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. And we of course also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective. 

In this interview, we ask Ari Sherris to reflect on the impact of digital culture on his field. Ari Sherris is associate professor of bilingual education in the College of Education and Human Performance at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, USA. He is also the co-editor of Making Signs, Translanguaging Ethnographies: Exploring Urban, Rural and Educational Spaces.


When did you notice that digitalization and digital culture was substantially reshaping your research field?

I woke to the realities when I woke to their underbellies. While I had been riding the high of positive creative peeps-driven forces from the simple language-communicative ways of email in its early days of mass-interest (late 1990’s), it was only relatively late that it became clear to me, personally, that there was an ugly toxic side that was out for its own and ethically criminal—call it neoliberal, call it uber-capitalist, but it was always there as I see it now.

From inboxes filling up with advertising campaigns for anything, including the PR for the burgeoning commodification of universities and research journals (vanity to prestigious—both have jumped into the game), to the growth and spread of advertising on social media and to the attempts by capitalists and politicians to exploit any and all communicative resources from language-centric ones to still-visual and motion-visual multimodal ones—even live ones (think Facebook live), the stink of the 1% is ever-growing.

So it is fair to say that for me, “the reshaping” has been a disappointment with what humanity does to itself and its discoveries.  


How pervasive is digital culture? 

It is eclipsing the ‘power is knowledge’ control of basic facts when, say, birtherism is believed; which has not been a good thing; and it is testimony to a growing pervasive influence on how we think and how we conceptualize truth. At least the broader assemblages of basic facts, sadly, have been eclipsed—that is pervasive and a result of the exploitation of digital culture; but perhaps those eclipses have always been around.

Perhaps eclipsing the ‘power is knowledge’ control of basic facts is just more mobile, more widely distributed, and generating greater followings through the media of digital cultures (no need, to my thinking, to remain a singular, non-count noun). 


Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain?  

I can. Let’s look just at this, for the sake of brevity: My first research domain was early autoethnographic snippets, short accounts of teaching practices for teachers in Israel-Palestine, those pubs were not even digital then (mid-to late 1990s) and confined to my own growth as an EFL teacher in a Kibbutz school—although later through face-to-face meetings with teachers in computer labs, we slowly moved digital with each other and later with our students— across the still highly sectorial Israel-Palestine Ministry of Education control of who we were/are and what we did/do.  

But before I go on with this account, I feel compelled to add: what a crazy claustrophobic-inducing and confining word “domain” has become for me, considering the superdiverse identities we—I—move so quickly in, out, beyond and across today; oh well. So be it; to the impact of digital culture(s) on my research domain in its incipient stages: In 1997, I supported the use of email among Israeli Negev Bedouin EFL teachers and Jewish teachers who participated in a year-long course that I co-designed and co-facilitated at the Dimona Teachers Center in the Negev.

One of the activities I had published about around this same time was the use of dialogue-journals and ways I modified dialogue-journaling to incorporate the noticing of non-salient aspects of lexical, morphological, and syntactical items or structures in learner English; what today, I might call the design of potential attractor spaces to foster language learning, adopting in my teacher education a complex dynamic systems approach from the work of Diane Larsen-Freeman.  

So it is fair to say that for me, “the reshaping” by digital culture has been a disappointment with what humanity does to itself and its discoveries.

I might add, at this time, many schools did have computer labs in Israel, including schools in the Arab/Bedouin sector and my teacher education course also took place in a computer lab in Dimona. I set up part of what we learned this way: Teachers practiced dialogue journaling with partners using computers in the same room in and across their Hotmail accounts. We would print these out and discuss how we would draw attention to the use of corrective recasts when responding to student work in our email interactions. To do this, one teacher roleplayed ‘teacher’ and the other roleplayed ‘student’.

After a few exchanges around a query, say, ‘How to conserve water?’ teachers would change roles and work with an additional query. Queries were also brainstormed in email chains where each teacher was requested to add at least 2 questions to the expanding list via email while sitting together; the last teacher collected all these and printed them for everyone for face-to-face interactions. We talked about using computer labs in this blended fashion with our students who also would move from email interations to face-to-face conversations with one another. This was our "experience" learning approach to integrating digital culture into our classrooms. 

The room at the Teacher Education Center was set up so that we all faced the 4 walls when working on our computers, so by turning our chairs inward we were sitting facing one another in a rectangle for spoken interactions.  We then discussed how all of email activities could be used with elementary, middle and high school students in Bedouin and Jewish Israeli government schools and I added these to lists on chart paper that was on an easel. 

What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

I was late to the coming, so this is not new for many of my colleagues in linguistic ethnography and sociolinguistics: I would have to answer this question by saying a de-centering of language and a blending of multimodality from a complex social semiotic positioning as a result of rich conversations which were initially face-to-face at a conference, later via email and skype with Elisabetta Adami, a social semiotic theorist and researcher.

However, like most changes I can date this one from 2016-2018. Nevertheless, my research in its 2018 form includes working and reworking the ideas in and around Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—which Facebook friend, Tommaso Milani, a sociolinguist, suggested we discuss in some Facebook Messenger exchanges, and I suggested we look at the dystopian ‘herterodystopias’ of Trump and his followers.

So, I organized a colloquium proposal around this and we are going for a Special Issue in a journal on this too. My own data is all from social media as I am looking at the mundane/everyday construction of a variety of topics, tropes, and coded lexical items that seem to be accompanied by patterns of gesture that reach out to the Trump choir and fit some Arendtian ideas about totalitarianism, at least in miniature so far, if there is a concept of miniature bombast, insult, racism, and antisemitism on the global scale that Trump draws. Is everything relative? 

What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

Expect? Nothing really too good, sadly. I remain guardedly hopeful that digital culture might move us a wee bit closer to habits of mind, ways of knowing and practices that just might begin to solve the mess capitalism has created (the climate crisis, oligarchy, grossly imbalanced distributions of wealth, the exploitation of earth, flora, and fauna, and the commodification of ‘the all’—things, ideas, actions, thoughts).  

However, another voice alarmingly stresses that we are too quickly running out of time for real solutions to the planetary mess capitalism has created. When all is said and done, I might ask if Walt Whitman’s optimistic “I am large, I contain multitudes…” (Song of Myself, 1855) will save or undo us.