Sheila still making waves

November 13, 1998

Yesterday's sexists are today's printists, fearful of electronic creativity. Language guru Dale Spender gossipls with Jennifer Wallace

We're on the verge of a huge educational revolution," observes Dale Spender gleefully. The digital age of computers and the internet are replacing the print age of books in ways which will affect the whole practice of learning, and yet nobody in government, universities or the media is responding adequately to this cultural shift.

Exams and the government's emphasis on testing are, she thinks, "my generation's response to losing control and trying to get it back again, by ensuring that kids can do the print skills that my generation did when they were at school. Literacy? It's print literacy. You could argue that it's a developmental disadvantage. An awful lot of money is being spent trying to put the clock back".

Dale Spender, 55, is, by her own admission, a rebel and - like fellow Australian and academic Germaine Greer - courts controversy. When I ask her why Australia has produced such influential feminists and whether it is because the men are so macho, boasting about sheilas and surfing big rollers and braving sharks, she corrects me. "Oh, it's because the women are so loud. We're not afraid to shout and so whatever we say really gets noticed."

She is one of the loudest of them all. For our lunch at a very quiet, very English restaurant in Covent Garden, she is dressed from head to toe in purple down to her shoelaces. "Everything seems so small," she confesses. "I feel I am going to knock something over."

Her enthusiasm is infectious. Today, although we are supposed to be talking about the re-issue of her seminal book Man Made Language, first published in 1980, we spend much of the lunch discussing the implications of the internet, her latest source of excitement. She has just come back from the first conference held by Nottingham-based trAce, the online writing community, where she gave a speech on "Digital Arts: Breaking the Boundaries through Online Authorship".

Writers are worried by the internet because it is interactive and they have therefore limited control on how they are read and what happens to their writing. Spender told them how they could use the web to their advantage:

"The printing press was around a long time before the novel emerged. Maybe new interactive literary genres will emerge from the internet. I think it is a huge challenge creatively."

The cultural consequences of the internet have not yet been acknowledged, Spender feels, and she is preaching them with messianic zeal. The worldwide web changes the whole nature of education. It means looking rather than reading, it means making connections (or playing) rather than studying a finished text, it means being able to access information at any time you want rather than attending lectures at particular places and at certain times. "Print literacy is about following an argument. It's about middle-class values - postpone the gratification until you get to the end. There's no ending online. There's no closure, no linear basis. It's about bringing it in, checking it out, constantly evaluating," says Spender.

To help teachers cope with the very different demands of digital literacy, Spender has developed an online professional development course for educators. The course will be interactive and will train teachers who can then go on to teach others. She has also persuaded the University of Queensland, where she is a professor, to replace its library with a "cybrary", complete with 500 computers and beanbags instead of desks.

What distresses Spender is that the digital revolution is passing universities by. While the rest of the world is "nattering on the net" (the title of her latest book), universities are being marginalised. But surely academics use email more than anyone else? "They are not making use of the media in the way you can use online," she says. "They put ten-year-old lecture notes on a website, which I argue is just making the students do the photocopying."

Indeed, she sees universities as part of an old order which is resisting change hard but which will eventually be left outside the information revolution. "In the past there was a stable body of knowledge which universities jealously guarded as custodians or gatekeepers and that's not how information works any more." In future, Australian students will access information, generated perhaps in America, online as a social activity. Universities will no longer be centres of information, she thinks, because people will not need books or physical teachers. "Students will vote with their virtual feet."

All the cyberspace wizardry might come as something of a surprise for someone expecting the classic feminism which made Spender's name and which motivated contemporaries such as Ann Oakley and Kate Millett. But in fact, her interest in the possibilities of the internet is not so far removed from her concerns in Man Made Language. As she says, "it's the changes in the nature of information that interests me. It's always been that. Even with feminism, it was: if you added women to the cultural traditions of information and knowledge, how much of what was already established became primitive and wouldn't work." Yesterday's sexists, she maintains, are today's printists.

Man Made Language was the product of Spender's years in feminist groups in London in the 1970s. She married and divorced in Australia and came over to London to reinvent herself and to study for a doctorate in socio-linguistics at London university. It was a hugely exciting time when women threw out their old clothes and their old ideas.

The book maintained that men and women talked differently. The way that men used language was considered the norm and prescriptive; the way that women used language was considered deviant and has consistently been denigrated over time, with terms such as "gossip" or "natter". Linguistics as a discipline had denied the experience and practice of women, and the solution, according to Spender, was to study their alternative way of speaking and to form consciousness-raising groups (known as CRs) and single-sex and mixed-sex conversation groups.

It was, according to Janet Todd, feminist literary critic who has co-edited an anthology of British women writers with Spender, very important: "What she says about the way language shapes one's consciousness and the sense that one can't easily get away from it is still current today." But some people, particularly from the world of linguistics, criticised her for not knowing enough about linguistics or using objective sample data. "There are pedantic people around and scholarly people around who resent the bubbliness and the fact that she sort of flits in from outside into one's area," says Professor Todd.

Eighteen years on, does Spender think that the arguments in Man Made Language are still current? "I think there are areas where men are still treated more seriously as speakers than women," she says. "Basically men think that a successful conversation is one where they have the floor and women think that a successful conversation is one where everyone has a turn." Indeed she thinks that one of the interesting purposes of the re-issue of Man Made Language is to explore which practices have changed since 1980 and which have remained the same. "In a sense if they are still happening, they are more shocking," she says. She points for example to Melvyn Bragg's weekly radio programme about ideas which have shaped the century, in which so far only male intellectuals have been interviewed.

But she does feel that things have moved on from the dogmatism of late 1970s feminism. Man Made Language is unabashed in its use of terms like "sexism" and "patriarchy" and "women's oppression" and very clearcut in its polarisation of men's and women's language. While Spender is unhappy about the political implications of the change of terminology from "feminism" to "gender studies" ("gender studies doesn't have the same notion of power as women's studies - like 'get it back' "), she welcomes the fact that we now recognise multiple realities and greater variety. Next time, she would acknowledge that she was only writing about white women's language and would expect a black woman to write about her very different experience. And she would not want to replace a masculine view of the world unthinkingly with a feminist one. "I hope that all of us have moved to a much more postmodernist context which is about the questioning of authority and how truth is made and where does that information come from," she says.

If there is a power struggle going on now, it is not so much between the sexes as between the ages, she argues. It is young people who know how to work the technology and surf the net, while it is her generation - the babyboomers - which is attempting to maintain the supremacy of print culture. "It's the first time in history that the younger generation have known more about the communication medium than the older generation and the older generation is being punitive in making the kids jump through the hoops they had to jump through".

By the end of lunch we have covered a bamboozling array of topics. We have discussed Bill Clinton (he is offensive but witchhunted), divorce (men are disappointing), Samuel Johnson's bluestockings (silenced by literary history), whether she burnt her bra (she did not), and Germaine Greer (the world's greatest living intellectual but unacknowledged). Spender has won over the restaurant as friends, although she seems almost disappointed that she has not knocked anything over, at least literally if not metaphorically.

So is she looking forward to the revolution she predicts, or does she ever want to abandon the iconoclasm and police the net?

"Our education and print systems are about control and I don't think you can have that any more. Maybe there'll be days when I think that's terrible and maybe there'll be days when I think it's a good thing but I certainly think there's going to be a lot more anarchy and a lot less order, and that's the medium as well as the culture."

Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Peterhouse.

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