Lori Emerson: An Interface Perspective

July 30th, 2014

In an interesting interview with Furtherfield, Lori Emerson summarises her new book to explain how she is using the metaphor of the ‘interface’ to critique technological consumerism. Most interestingly, Emerson uses her Mcluhan-esque approach to technological mediation to discuss how we are increasingly ‘locked into’ using dominant social media brands.

“corporations are making it as difficult as possible to perceive these interfaces and to see how they’re mediating and even determining our experience.”

It seems to me that these corporations have established dominance not necessarily through their technological superiority but through the aggressive acquisition of successful social media start-ups and by then imposing restrictions on how they are connected. As Emerson indicates, these increasingly narrow options are then fed back to us through a culture of branding, in which “words like “seamless” and “natural” are code for “closed.””

Early notions of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) challenged existing monolithic platforms and institution-centric models of content delivery, yet subsequent forms of PLE reification coincided with the emergence of largely commercial and increasingly monopolised social media.

Perhaps some of the original notions of PLE live on in the guise of the technologically facilitated ‘life-hacks’ and ‘tool-kits’ that are routinely shared on the blogosphere, typically oriented towards increased personal productivity and workflow efficiency. Yet whilst some offer the potential for work-arounds, which may traverse the ‘locked in’ operability between multiple platforms described above, it seems many are often almost exclusively limited to Apple and Google products.

Perhaps a shift in thinking from a ‘personal’ paradigm to that of the ‘community’ is required here, but whilst Emerson acknowledges the alternatives offered by the rise of maker and hacker communities, she suggests these are also becoming increasingly corporatised.

Emerson advocates a shift away from an obsession with efficiency and productivity, towards more creative and ‘poetic’ adaptations of technology. However, it seems to me that such pursuits often remain limited to the technology enthusiast or professional, with any attempt at scalability for the rest of us inexorably negated by the political and economic constraints of the organisations and systems in which they operate.

A literary education (of sorts)

May 26th, 2014

I hated English Literature at school, and duly responded by failing my O-level. From what I can remember, the syllabus consisted of an obligatory Shakespeare (in my case, Twelfth Night), something by one of the Brontës, and what seemed like shitloads of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. This may have been partly determined by me being in a ‘grammar school’ stream (which continued to operate under the comprehensive system that had recently been ushered in by the Labour Party), as I also recall being envious of a ‘secondary school’ stream who were reading Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, with its brilliant and iconic film cover.

The announcement of a shift towards a more Anglicised and pre-20th century GCSE syllabus seems to be taking us back to the seventies and eighties, when incidentally – in choosing not to continue studying it for O-level – my History education also stopped somewhere around the Middle Ages. It also appears to be directly influenced by Michael Gove and an educational policy seemingly hellbent on a ‘back to basics’ rhetoric to primarily appease the Tory right and massage his future leadership ambitions, and the announcement was duly received by the now-routine responses of incredulity, anger and bemusement from the educational community.

But it reminded me that when I left school to work in the shipyard, and started reading books of my own choice, a new and voracious appetite for literature was initially fuelled by American mid-20th century classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. Whilst these and others have long become clichéd teenage cult novels, they helped form the basis for a self-directed literary education of sorts, which rapidly expanded to include the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner and many others.

It’s interesting to recall the cultural landscape in which this occurred: a period of self-discovery which corresponded with a growing exploration and awareness of not only books, but of music and film, primarily mediated by the NME, fanzines and several like-minded individuals in my peer group. These days, such resources are massively multiplied, distributed and (to an extent) democratised through the participatory culture of social media, through online reading groups, lists and recommendations, often manifest in explicit and sometimes vacuous expressions of shared cultural capital.

Perhaps it is partly the role of formal schooling to create a stale and repressive environment that might initiate informal, self-motivated and alternate learning cultures and trajectories, but I’m mindful that there are many young adults who stop reading books entirely when they leave school. So it’s hard to justify an increasingly restrictive and archaic syllabus at the expense of geographically inclusive and culturally diverse literature that might just help cultivate a lifelong yearning for reading.

That Frog Photo

March 18th, 2014

palme frog

Anthropomorphic photos of animals are prominent on blogs and tumblogs for obvious reasons. They are effective at graphically conveying human behavioural and emotional concepts… and are usually quite cute.

I’ve seen this photo a lot recently, including on a blog post by an animal conservationist. It seems “frog wearing umbrella” first appeared on the web last year, when it was submitted to National Geographic’s Your Shot site by Indonesian photographer Penkdix Palme. The editor’s note and comments make interesting reading.

Aside from any ethical issues regarding the authentic representation of animals in their natural habitat, speculation about how the photo was achieved extends beyond the usual suspicion of Photoshop fakery to suggest harm may have been inflicted on the subject, including the use of glue and the breaking of limbs.

The photographer denies any manipulation or cruelty, and despite the concerns raised in the Your Shot community, National Geographic have decided to keep this and similar photos by Palme on their site, indicating “we’d rather learn from it than hide it.”

The photo appears to be just one of many in the genre.

New researchers, interdisciplinarity and social media

February 23rd, 2014

As a result of recent policies in UK doctoral education, an increasing number of PhD students are choosing interdisciplinary routes, and earlier this week, Sarah Byrne presented a much-needed focus on the consequences for new researchers. Half of the participants in my PhD research were undertaking programmes in newly established Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs), where they were engaged in various combinations of interdisciplinary study, often involving links with industry. Whilst it wasn’t the key focus of my research, some of the issues they raised correspond with Byrne’s concerns about appropriate support structures within the wider academic community.

Arguably, such programmes provide PhD students with an opportunity to explore and help shape emergent academic fields and develop distinctive research portfolios. Yet as Byrne suggests, they present unique challenges, such as reviewing literature across multiple subject areas, and negotiating new supervisory combinations. Further, in relinquishing the opportunity to establish foundational expertise within a single core subject, students risk exclusion from teaching opportunities and face uncharted career trajectories. My DTC-based participants particularly noted the limited opportunities for dissemination, publication and networking that many of us in discipline-specific environments take for granted through well-established conferences, journals and networks.

Of course all academics are interdisciplinary to a degree, and all of my participants engaged with peripheral disciplines and activities as part of their studies. Indeed, one ‘traditional PhD’ participant was critical of his department’s ‘infatuation’ with establishing links with industry. However, doctoral practice and identity development is manifestly complicated when it is required to be oriented towards formal interdisciplinary programmes and the specific research profiles of departments. That said, the feedback from my DTC participants indicated that they at least were encouraged and supported to develop their own innovative research topics within the broad interdisciplinary parameters established by their departments, with the view that the profile of the DTCs would themselves become partly defined by the activities of their early cohorts. Taking such a perspective positions the interdisciplinary PhD student not as merely a recipient of current doctoral education policy, but at the centre of future academic practice, potentially shaping the interdisciplinary landscape.

Postgraduates and early career researchers are increasingly using social media to network across institutional and disciplinary boundaries, with the potential to develop new interdisciplinary contexts. I’ve seen how initial formal links across DTCs have been supplemented by PhD students creating informal networks through social media, establishing communication channels beyond their institutions with the potential to support shared practice around the challenges of interdisciplinary study. Similarly, they have utilised social networks to develop informal links with external agencies and businesses and establish interesting online spaces between academic and non-academic practice. However, in some cases, the difficulties in adopting to interdisciplinary study has also resulted in them using existing social media to revitalize various pre-doctoral networks and social support structures, reinforcing their association with core or foundational disciplines.

As I’ve suggested previously, interdisciplinary activities involving ‘adjacent’ disciplines in particular – as is generally the case with the DTCs – will tend to result in highly contested knowledge claims. Yet the ‘resistance’ to interdisciplinary research that Byrne describes might also be indicative of an academic community increasingly compelled to engage in external and industrial partnerships and relate research agendas to ‘real world’ problems, whilst attempting to maintain disciplinary knowledge and academic integrity. Given such a landscape, will new interdisciplinary researchers risk being marginalised, or might they be best positioned to develop the capacity and resilience to engage in the increasingly unbounded and unreliable academic environments of the future?

Thinking some more about curation…

December 20th, 2013

It seems to me that all forms of curation (including online) are fundamentally defined by three characteristics:

Content
What is included (and what is not).

Arrangement
How the content is arranged or presented. How it is ordered or grouped – by taxonomy, chronology or other forms of narrative. Is some content emphasised over others? Is there intentional comparison or juxtaposition between (sets of) content?

Annotation
Basically, anything in addition to the original content.

In considering these; how much is the subjectivity of the curator(s) and their identity and status (purposely) foregrounded? In addition, what options are there (if any) for viewer / reader agency?

On Blogging Frequency

November 30th, 2013

Just a quick post in response to a question at my recent workshop regarding increasing blogging productivity. We can challenge the view that we need to blog frequently and regularly, but I appreciate how this expectation is based on a cultural norm that concerns new academic bloggers particularly.

I see three interrelated contextual factors that underpin an attempt to blog more frequently:

  • The capacity to share ideas, thoughts, work in progress etc.
  • The scope or range of blog post topics and themes
  • The flexibility of the style or genre of blog posts

These constitute personal choices and circumstances that are fundamental to the aims and purposes of developing a blogging practice, and point to broader themes I’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere. With these in mind, here are a few common practices that academic bloggers regularly employ, which can help increase blogging frequency:

Serial posting
You can break up long texts into several posts. These may have to be published consecutively and within a relatively short timeframe to ensure currency or maintain interest, though ‘occasional’ posts in a series around a common theme are also optional. Either way, these should be appropriately linked, within the posts and/or with a unique tag.

Repurposing comments into posts
Commenting on other blogs is a useful way to interact with other bloggers. It supports the participatory nature of the social web and connectivity within the blogosphere. However, in some cases, it may be desirable to repurpose an intended comment into a new post on your own blog (such as I did here), especially if it represents a substantive enough argument to warrant an entire post, or if you wish to shift the context. Whilst it is expected you provide a link to the original post, a brief summary within your text can be useful. Trackbacks often ensure a link to your post is provided on the other blog, though a brief comment with the link may be required.

Reproducing / annotating other blog posts
You can choose to reproduce significant excerpts from another blog post (or indeed, any text), annotated with summary text and/or your own arguments or thoughts. In reproducing other blog post texts (which quite a lot of bloggers do), you should ensure that they are appropriately attributed with a link to the original source (which not all bloggers do). And whilst many academics blog under a site-wide Creative Commons license, it is worth checking before reproducing any content.

Updating old posts
With their reverse chronological structure emphasising latest posts, blogs often get overlooked as key resources for ongoing documentation and reflexivity. Updating significant old posts (particularly in response to new ideas or opportunities) can revitalise key content and underline the role of the blog as a platform for professional development.

‘Fillers’
Posting quick and informal short ‘texts’ (such as quotations, event notifications, and Slideshare embeds) can help ‘fill-in’ between more substantial and time-intensive posts. Whilst these will add variation to your blog, some may consider them trivial or inappropriate.

Guest blogging
If you don’t have time to blog, invite someone else. You can promote guest blogging by a call for posts or by approaching potential authors directly. And whilst we might associate guest blogging with high profile or group blogs (see below), inviting academic colleagues to contribute can add to the diversity of your blog and provide them with an opportunity to blog – perhaps for the first time – without the necessity to establish their own sites. Guest posts are sometimes themed and can be combined as serial posts. Whilst the content of posts can be informally negotiated during the publication process, it may be advisable to clarify any editorial constraints or changes you might impose with the guest blogger from the outset.

Group blogging
Group blogs are highly effective at sharing the responsibility for blog productivity across multiple authors and, as above, they can provide bloggers with an opportunity to contribute without the commitment to regular posting. Some academic bloggers republish posts from personal blogs on group blogs (often to reach larger non-specialist audiences), though this may require making changes to the texts.

Blog drafts and reserve posts
This final tip is more to do with maintaining regularity than increasing frequency. Many bloggers it seems, tend to have multiple drafts under development at any one time (which I discussed here), and having several blog posts ‘in reserve’ enables you to continue blogging during those busy periods when you can’t find the time.

What is it with the dark social…?

October 19th, 2013

I can understand using the term in relation to its original and specific context of web analytics. However, I see it increasingly adopted as an alternative buzz phrase for those familiar and ubiquitous communication channels that were around before social media (such as e-mail), which seems nothing more than a rebranding exercise. If anything, this reveals a continued failure to contextualise new technologies and practices with those that are pre-existing and predominant.

No more blurred conference slide photos

October 12th, 2013

Here’s a thought. A conferencing web service, where slides of (pre-submitted) presentations from registered conferences are systematically coded. The codes are included in the corner of each slide for delegates to reference in a simple URL when tweeting during the presentation.

Example:
Conference: X456, Presentation: B4, Slide: 3

Conference Slide:

conference-website1

URL:
http://www.website/X456/B4-3

Web Page:

conference-website2

Tweet:

conference-website3

Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: The Internal-External Binary

September 24th, 2013

This is my third post exploring key binaries that emerged whilst working on an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research. Following my two previous posts problematizing the student-staff binary and further student binaries, I focus here on the internal and external contexts that typically underpin this type of departmental online provision.

It is common for departments to provide doctoral students with opportunities such as student seminars and conferences to formally disseminate their research internally to peers and academic staff. These established procedures are an integral part of institutional postgraduate training programmes and can play a key role in the socialisation of students within their immediate disciplinary community. Many early-stage students in particular draw value in the opportunity to disseminate work in progress, participate in discussion and contribute ideas in a relatively ‘safe’, supportive and familiar environment, that helps build confidence and skills for subsequent engagement further afield.

We routinely associate similar activities in online environments – such as those facilitating social networking, forum-type discussions and blogging – with the social web. However, when these are incorporated into bounded, departmental and institutional platforms – which may or may not include staff moderation and participation – they can present opportunities for students to engage exclusively with in-house audiences. As such, these activities can replicate the type of benefits described above, and provide an anticipatory and exploratory stage to subsequent external-facing and externally hosted activities.

The internal-external binary also has some relevance to student profiles. It is increasingly common for institutions to provide students with an online platform to develop formal external-facing profiles. These can be particularly useful to later-stage students, and even more so to those who do not actively engage in developing their own web presence. However, given their typical focus on cultivated research interests and formal publication and affiliations, these may seem irrelevant, inappropriate or even intimidating to early-stage students. Internal platforms limited by departmental or institutional boundaries can present opportunities for more flexible, tentative and explorative approaches to developing profiles.

Further, even within a relatively small department or postgraduate community, we should not assume that campus-based students are aware of the research interests and work of all of their peers. An informed knowledge of other students’ research will tend to be limited to those close colleagues and critical friends that emerge through the regular and proximal physical engagement provided by shared offices and social cliques. Such conditions may exclude distance or part-time students entirely (see previous post). Therefore, internal-facing profiles that provide the opportunity to display more informal, expressive and convivial content can facilitate an increased visibility within the student community, with the potential for establishing peer support groups or collaborative partnerships around shared research interests, literatures or methodologies.

We should expect all doctoral students to be familiar with the key online publications and journal databases in their fields. However, there may be significant variation in their awareness and engagement with external web resources, either related to their specific research topics or more general academic and doctoral practice. Surprisingly few may be aware of the resources that other universities may provide (primarily for their own students, but openly accessible to others), the many independent academic websites and blogs, or the social networks that enable loosely-connected communities and networks such as #phdchat to regularly share resources and discuss ideas. Those students (and indeed, academic and administrative staff) who actively engage with these web environments often act as mediators between the external and internal domains, by sharing these externally-sourced links and resources with others within their departments. Whilst this tends to be done intermittently, through e-mail and other commonly used internal communication systems, dedicated online provision such as repositories, RSS and tagging systems can provide a more systematic and efficient way of peer resource sharing and management.

Additionally, it is possible to facilitate in-house recommendation and ratings systems. This raises the issue of how students prioritise internally and externally produced resources. Whilst assumptions based on the trustworthiness of their own departmental and institutional sources of knowledge, expertise and guidance are to be expected, how might students go about informally evaluating external resources? By the institution they are derived from? The credentials of individual academics or research groups? Recommendations from external sources? It’s an interesting area to explore.

Doctoral student identity is shaped by the process of familiarising and locating themselves within their (inter)disciplinary fields. Whilst this is partly undertaken through reviewing and synthesising key texts (Kamler & Thomson, 2007), student engagement with peers and experts both inside and outside faculty constitutes an additional dynamic, multimodal set of influential practices that are increasingly mediated by digitally networked environments. As students negotiate both internal and external communities (and their identifiable, invisible and imagined audiences), the boundaries that define them are becoming increasingly pervious and ambiguous.

Of course, the ‘internal’ exists on a number of institutional levels; i.e. within a department, a faculty and the institution itself, and can incorporate a number of discipline-specific and generic research and training programmes, such as those provided by a Graduate School. These and other initiatives (some of which may be student-led) provide opportunities for interaction and potential collaboration across and between formal cohorts and research groups. Likewise, the ‘external’ can be seen as a multidisciplinary and multicontextual landscape, incorporating sources of expertise, enterprise and funding both within and without academia. Collectively, these represent a number of different and potentially conflicting practice domains in which the student may need to engage to successfully complete their doctorate. Further, academic-based social and participatory media and online networks provide access to discourses that are increasingly complex, fragmented and democratised (to a degree) by academics – including PhD students themselves – acting individually and collectively inside and out of formal roles and professional duties.

In sum, a doctoral education is informally regulated by norms of opportunity and expectation that can be seen as broadly defining a graduated ‘internal to external’ trajectory. This, for some students at least, represents a reliable and trusted form of socialisation and enculturation in the academic domain. Yet in exploring and managing online resources, profiles and their own dissemination, PhD students often negotiate between the internal and external domains of their departmental and institutional affiliation concurrently, and with varying degrees of engagement and agency.

References

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2007). Rethinking doctoral work as text work and identity work. In B. Somekh & T. Schwandt (Eds.), Knowledge production: research in interesting times. London: Routledge. 166–179.

Developing Online Resources for Postgrads: Student Binaries

September 6th, 2013

This is the second post reflecting on my involvement in an initiative developing online facilities for postgraduate research students in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The project has highlighted key sociocultural aspects of digitally mediated doctoral practice that have resonated with my PhD research, and here, I continue to explore the ‘taxonomy’ of binaries that emerged, describing some of the interrelated contexts that often underpin these types of initiatives. In challenging some of the common assumptions associated with the student-staff binary in the first post, a number of additional interrelated and equally messy student binaries also emerge, primarily associated with mode, location and stages of study.

Doctoral student experiences of departmental support vary considerably through factors that are both sociocultural and related to individual agency. Practice profiles and study routines are heavily dependent on the many complex issues surrounding identity development, socialisation and a whole range of external factors. PhD students have shown to be highly strategic in how they negotiate different peer groups, and appropriate them for social and professional purposes (Baker & Pifer, 2011). Yet despite the access to external and increasingly networked (inter-) disciplinary communities, most doctoral peer networks and collaborations occur within cohorts defined by the structural and proximal attributes of formal programmes and institutions (Pilbeam & Denyer, 2009). University departments therefore strive to maintain the identity and social cohesion of formal cohorts whilst encouraging interaction and socialisation within the wider doctoral student community.

The role of online provision in this is often primarily oriented towards the needs of distance students, partly in an attempt to somehow replicate the perceived social and cultural benefits of the campus-based experience. In particular, there is an overwhelming sense that distance students routinely miss out on the informal, everyday discussion and interaction associated with the campus environment. Clearly, such an environment is seen as enriching the general experience of studying. But we should not underestimate how important a role the regularity, informality and collegiality of everyday interaction plays in providing students with access to key information about contacts, resources and ‘academic hacks’ that can significantly influence student progression. Online environments such as social networks, forums and blogs can augment such activities. However, historical attempts at replicating the informal ‘in real life’ interaction and communication on online platforms have been mixed at best. Arguably, once any form of informal interaction becomes structured or decontextualised, there is a risk of loosing both the authenticity and informal spontaneity that sustain such processes.

Of course, we always run the risk of homogenising distance students, often – in the case of international students in particular – at the expense of recognising cultural diversity and local needs (Deem & Brehony, 2000; Goode, 2007). In reality, distance students will experience varying degrees of isolation, partly depending on location, digital access and ability to travel. Conversely, ‘campus-based’ students often choose not to fully utilise campus facilities for any number of professional and personal reasons. Often, the distinctions we make between formal full-time and part-time modes of study are similarly over-emphasised. In the lifespan of a doctoral programme, many full-time students will operate at part-time levels of study for significant periods of time, by necessity and by choice – often not fully disclosing ‘extra-curricula’ activities to supervisors or administrators for fear of compromising programme or funding requirements.

The study trajectories of doctoral students – at least within the Humanities and Social Sciences – are often characterised by a fragmentation of early-stage cohorts, as individuals disperse to do data collecting or engage in intensive solitary periods of analysis and writing up. For distance students – who may have had the opportunity to establish a short-term cohort through an initial campus-based foundational period of study – this might be even more pronounced. Students typically arrange to meet up with each other periodically, either on campus or elsewhere (distance students may be usefully located within ‘regional’ clusters), and generally, departmental activities and communications continue to serve as conduits, keeping them informed of research projects, events and training opportunities. But how can departments best utilise online provision to facilitate more systematic methods of continued peer support that maintains the identity and social cohesion of cohorts and provides students with the means to continue interacting with familiar and trusted colleagues?

The chance to engage across doctoral groups and cohorts is also valued, helping students establish useful connections and initiating opportunities for informal mentorship. Any opportunities for early- to mid-stage students to tap into the personal insights and experiences of late-stage students or recent graduates may be particularly valuable, as they share advice on finishing theses, negotiating vivas and career progression. On campus, internal events such as student seminars and conferences typically provide opportunities for interaction across cohorts, whilst special interest research / reading groups can cultivate sustainable networks within the student body, within and potentially across departments. Everyday campus-based interaction can provide the opportunity for less formal and loosely structured forms of mentorship to occur between students at different stages of their doctorate, though this is very dependent on the physical environment, and the configuration of both study and recreational areas (departments often purposely implement inter-cohort environments). Online provision can augment many of these activities; facilitating network and community development through shared research interests, maintaining communication between events or group meetings, and supporting other inter-cohort interactions that are also inclusive of distance students.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at the internal-external binary.

References

Baker, V. L., & Pifer, M. J. (2011). The role of relationships in the transition from doctoral student to independent scholar. Studies in Continuing Education. 33(1), 5-17.

Deem, R. & Brehony, K. J. (2000). Doctoral students’ access to research cultures – are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Goode, J. (2007). Empowering or disempowering the international Ph.D. student? Constructions of the dependent and independent learner. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(5), 589-603.

Pilbeam, C. & Denyer, D. (2009). Lone scholar or community member? The role of student networks in doctoral education in a UK management school. Studies in Higher Education, 34(3), 301-318.