They are of very imperfect quality': Slates as material and discursive resources.

Year: 2012

Author: Cormack, Phillip

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Taking a series of memoranda as a starting point, this paper explores the slate as a material that both 'framed' and 'resourced' the teaching of reading and writing in 19th century classrooms. In January of 1887 the head teacher of Newtown Public School, then the largest in the colony of New South Wales, ordered from the Education Department, some 150 'framed slates' of various sizes to supplement the school's supply. What followed was an extended, and sometimes strained, series of memoranda between the head teacher and his departmental superiors in which the cost and quality of slates, as well as the care required in their storage and use, were debated. Used as a means of thinking about classroom literacy resources today, this 'history of the present' (Foucault 1986) considers materials such as slates and iPads as offering their own fragilities and openings as part of an assemblage of teleologies and practices connected with learning.  As an 'immutable mobile' the slate could be seen as a resource which operated in much the same way across the colony and, indeed, the world at that time. Nevertheless, local contingencies meant that the slate could also operate as a discursive resource for shaping student and teacher subjectivity, including that of the head teacher Mr Reid, a 'most obedient servant' of the Education Department. As a resource for reading, writing and drawing, the slate both enabled and constrained the literacies that could be engaged in, and made sense only within certain pedagogic relations and schooling structures.