I’ve commented previously on how sites like Twitter provide researchers with explicit interactions and user relationships that lend themselves to network-based data mining methods and visual analytics. These help us understand frequencies and patterns of use up to a point, but fall short in indicating the complex, inconsistent and selective viewing behaviours and strategies that underpin how we actually engage with Twitter.
These are partly determined by how we access Twitter, and how we may adopt ‘filtering’ systems (within Twitter and third-party). But what I’m particularly interested in here is how we ‘scan’ or ‘skim read’ our Twitter timelines. When new users express concern about the apparent content overload, experienced users tend to reassure them by explaining they don’t have to ‘read everything’ and that they will ‘get used to’ scanning tweets. It’s fairly clear why we do this, but how?
Observational methods (remotely or through screen recordings) can provide limited data, but for a more accurate insight, eye-tracking technology can record how we actually ‘read’ sites like Twitter, as demonstrated here. Supplementary methods such as the think/talk-aloud protocols associated with usability testing, and follow-up memory tests might offer opportunities for triangulation.
I’m not experienced in these tools, or familiar with how they are being used in research, and I would question how much the ‘laboratory’ conditions in which these types of investigations are typically undertaken reflect everyday use. But it is interesting to speculate on the contribution they can make to our understanding of user engagement with Twitter. Given such an approach, the type of questions one could explore might include:
How much consistency / variation in skim reading do we exhibit over different periods of engagement?
Do we navigate tweets in a generally (reverse) chronological order or more randomly?
How ‘far back’ do we check tweets since we last looked?
What are our dominant focal points – specific users or specific content?
How much do we focus on specific components – in particular URLs, hashtags?
How important is the colour coding of these components?
Do we focus more on specific types of tweets (e.g. those with links)?
Do we notice specific words or terms (that are not hashtagged)?
What about capital letters, symbols, exclamation marks, expletives etc?
Do we primarily identify our followees by their user names or avatars?
Are some (types of) avatars more instantly recognisable?
How much does the unfamiliarity of original authors of formal retweets (not RTs) attract our attention?
Do we take much notice of who retweets them?
Are we more likely to ignore multiple tweets from excessive users?
Informal file sharing practices amongst academics are not widely discussed. George Veletsianos blogged about how researchers use crowdsourcing on Twitter to access academic papers – an activity I also discussed a couple of years ago. The #ICanHazPDF hashtag has been created specifically to facilitate such exchanges. What I’m particularly interested in here is the role of file storage sites in the exchange of academic content, and specifically, academic e-books and their various digital formats (PDF, ePub .azw etc.)
Following the introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills, the authorities began flexing their muscles early this year, most notably in the shutting down of the file storage service Megaupload for facilitating copyright infringement through open file sharing. Some of the most popular file storage services immediately responded by disabling their file sharing functionality, and thereby restricting downloading to the personal files of registered users. Some sites however continue to operate open sharing services, providing potential access to digital content (including academic books), most effectively sourced through third-party search engines. As with all content on these sites, specific books are routinely removed – presumably at the request of publishers or the authors themselves (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – and reposted in typical ‘cat-and-mouse’ fashion.
For affiliated academics, there are legitimate avenues for obtaining books and other texts that are not readily available institutionally. In the UK, the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service enables university students and staff to request any book from the British Library, though it may take several weeks or even months to receive the most sought-after books and loan periods can be very short. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a PhD student stood for hours at a photocopier meticulously copying every page of a weighty volume of text.
I recently went to a university training session on academic copyright, in which it was specifically stated that we are expected to copy only a ‘reasonable amount’ of any text, without indicating what a reasonable amount might be, or on what ethical or legal grounds such an evaluation may be determined.
In addition, dedicated ‘e-library’ systems can provide institutional access to digital books and texts. Though typically restricted to online viewing only, some enable the printing of one or a limited number of pages at a time. Therefore, an entire book can feasibly be saved to PDF or other formats in this way, but it is a repetitive and time-consuming process.
It is perhaps assumed that the technological limitations ‘embedded’ in these various methods of copying (Latour would have something clever to say at this point) are sufficient to deter wholesale copying. This might apply to the busy and waged academic, who will probably just buy the book instead (or at least try and convince their department to). But what about the research student, who is (relatively speaking) time-rich and financially poor? Academic textbooks are notoriously expensive, especially niche or out-of-print titles.
Under these circumstances, we might not feel we are flouting the ‘rules’ (however ambiguous they are) by engaging in the practices described here, particularly in a climate increasingly dismissive of academic publishing hegemonies and supportive of open publishing / access agendas. But is it fair that a book that may have been written by a professor in your own department, a colleague or supervisor, or yourself for that matter, can be obtained in this way?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating different publishing genres or formats with one-dimensional perspectives of what constitutes academic ‘quality.’ Further still, we often make assumptions about their durability.
Academics have the right (and the inclination) to question their ideas, change perspectives, and even – especially in the formative years of their training – challenge fundamental epistemologies. Yet I’ve found early-stage PhD researchers in particular have a tendency to assume they will never come to question anything they have or will formally publish. Conversely, they suggest there is every chance of them regretting virtually anything they might blog.
Of course, the not inconsiderable process of writing and articulation required in getting formally published (not forgetting the accompanying peer review) cannot be overlooked. This indicates that such texts have been well considered and argued. However, the perceived reliability of the format does not guarantee the durability of the relevance or inclination of key arguments contained within them over any given time. Whilst it is equally possible that some blog posts – however informal and unstructured they may be – will continue to resonate and influence.
In his highly readable book What is Education?, Philip W. Jackson, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, attempts a total rethink of education ‘from the ground up.’ Taking a John Dewey lecture from 1938 as his lead, he proceeds to drill down into what is the ‘essence’ of education. Jackson builds his arguments around a series of largely corresponding dialectical relationships, primarily drawn from Kant and Hegel, from Dewey himself, and from the theologian Paul Tillich.
In the concluding chapter, Jackson draws on a previous text of his (1986) to introduce two corresponding pedagogical traditions, the ‘mimetic’ and the ‘(trans)formative.’ There is, he suggests, an instinctive resemblance between these and the ‘informing’ and ‘forming’ goals of teaching; that is between the transmission of factual and procedural knowledge, and the shaping of character. But Jackson’s most recent thinking on this has caused him to re-evaluate his position:
“I now see it as involving not only those teachers we encounter face-to-face but also those whose influence has been far more distant and symbolically transmitted.” (88)
He highlights the ‘enduring impact’ of key philosophers and thinkers on his own learning, gained primarily through the reading of original texts. And whilst acknowledging the significant contribution of some of his teachers, he argues others only played a peripheral role:
“Many of those teachers I have long forgotten. Their influence was transitory, even though it may have left me more knowledgeable and better able to do this or that. They’re like the textbooks that, once read, were set aside and never consulted again. They may have served a very useful purpose at the time, but the mark they left turned out not to be personally indelible.” (89)
In effect, Jackson is blurring the distinction between primary and secondary, and physical and symbolic sources of knowledge, whether they are realised through the student’s direct relationship with a supportive teacher, or through the inspirational words of a dead philosopher. This challenges the notion of ‘informing’ texts (or, if you like, learning content) as neutral artefacts that are utilised by teachers who exclusively provide the transformative process of shaping student understanding. Indeed, when considering the potential cultural baggage that comes with the mimetic tradition, Jackson’s initial attempt at a definition of education as “a socially facilitated process of cultural transmission” (10) is useful.
This raises some interesting questions regarding the social web. How might that social facilitation be disrupted by a student’s increased appropriation of distributed and multimodal forms of content, by her access to a wider range of sources of expertise, and by her engagement in more participative forms of content production? And what if any, do increasingly self-directed and participatory forms of enquiry contribute to the apparent blurring between the mimetic and transformative traditions Jackson describes?
What struck me most about the author’s re-evaluation was how it introduces an interesting kind of ‘conceptual distance’ between the source of knowledge and the student, underpinned by a ‘mutual recognition’ that Jackson – referencing Hegel – suggests is essential in influencing and shaping the student’s empathic relationship with the knowledge provider. This may be evident (or evidently absent) in the traditional student-teacher relationship. Yet the gulf between the student and expert is typically too vast to engender any sort of reciprocal relationship. As Jackson observes:
“Most of us can never be recognized by the most renowned of our intellectual and spiritual progenitors. We can only admire them from afar by reading their works or reveling in the enjoyment of their artistic creations.” (90)
One can assume this is diminished as students progress into postgraduate study and enter academia themselves. So how might the increased complexity, informality and connectivity we associate with the social web influence this act of conceptual distancing? I’ve discussed previously the potential role of social media in signposting the complex social and cultural interrelations underlying contemporary academic discourse. Further, how might the student develop and refine her conceptual distancing as she progresses into postgraduate and doctoral study, and engages in the reciprocal processes of identity transformation and recognition in her chosen field?
Jackson, P. W. (1986). The practice of teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.
Jackson, P. W. (2011). What is education? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
OK, firstly, I’m one of those people who can only listen to instrumental music when I’m working on something that I really need to concentrate on, which unfortunately tends to constitute most things when doing a PhD – especially writing up. Any singing in there, and it’s too distracting. This has ruled out huge handfuls of my music collection and hastened quite a radical shift in my listening habits, which have at times become both irrational and obsessive.
Thankfully, non-English lyrics are not as distracting (the advantage of being uselessly monolingual). Cue endless playing of Ali Farka Toure, Joyce Moreno, Orchestra Baobab, Cesario Evora etc., and the delight of discovering new international artists, including Taraf de Haidouks, Andy Palacio, and the Betel Nuts Brothers. It’s also given me an excuse to add to my jazz and classical recordings.
That’s not to say there aren’t still opportunities to play some of the other stuff. Some work can be routine and brainless. And there’s always the iPod when out and about.
Secondly, I doubt any music here will quite have the evocative power of that which I associate with previous periods of studying, especially my first degree, in the sense that they became part of the social experience and collective conscience of your peer group. It’s still impossible to listen to albums such as Maxinquaye, Odelay or Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot without recalling something more than likely related to undergraduate drinking games.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think how some music has become indispensible these last few years. Take for example…
Bill Evans – The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961)
Regarded by some as the greatest live jazz recording of all time, this is in fact a compilation of two albums originally released in 1961 with additional tracks from a series of afternoon and evening sessions. It’s like having your own jazz trio in the corner of your room. Equally brilliant at low-volume, it can be played late into the night without waking the neighbours.
For alternatives, there’s the Zen-like Koln Concert (1975), Keith Jarrett’s ECM game-changer, or the introverted, contemporary work of Dustin O’Halloran.
You get the idea. I’ve selected from a range of musical genres to match up with academic activities and the doctoral experience. And because musical taste is so highly personal and subjective, I’ve provided a few alternatives along the way…
Various Artists – The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985)
Straight out of the townships, this is one of the first and best compilations of the 80’s resurgence in South African music. Stands as testimony to our ability to make the most joyous sounds out of hardship and oppression. Music doesn’t get more life affirming than this.
The mid-PhD slump.
Orchestra Baobab – Pirates Choice; Sly & the Family Stone – Greatest Hits; De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising.
Billie Holiday – Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)
Quite possibly the most important recordings of the 20th century. Some might prefer Holiday’s subsequent lush, orchestral reworkings for Decca, or even the croaky, autumnal sound of her Verve recordings, but this is the real deal, where – accompanied only by a small jazz combo – she practically laid down the rules of jazz singing.
Marathon sessions of coding. All nighters.
Long sessions require box sets! Also try Ella Fitzgerald – The Complete American Songbooks; Miles Davis – The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965.
Joanne Newsom – Ys (2006)
Quirky, monumental, and a bit bonkers. Ys blends Newsom’s homespun lyricism with a sprawling, filmic orchestration by Van Dyke Parks. Each song is a mini-masterpiece.
Bjork – Debut; Jolie Holland – Catalpa; Natalie Merchant – Leave Your Sleep.
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
Bus rides. Train rides. Plane rides. Tango till they’re sore.
The conference circuit.
John Lee Hooker – The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954; Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell – Blue; Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man; Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska.
Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children (1998)
When it all gets too much, lie down in a dark room with this. Headphones on, world off. Orange.
Here are the slides from the second of my social media summer workshops from earlier today at the Jubilee Graduate Centre. Once again, a really nice group of PhD students – lots of enthusiasm and discussion.
Earlier today, I ran the first of my social media summer workshops at the Jubilee Graduate Centre. There was a good turn out from a nice mix of PhD students from across the disciplines, and some interesting discussion. Hopefully, I’ll see most of them again next week for the second workshop. Here are the slides.
It’s workshop time again at the Jubilee Graduate Centre. Following previous programmes over the last few years, at Jubilee and across the University, I’m running two more lunchtime sessions. The workshops are open to all PhD students at the University of Nottingham, and are designed primarily for those with little or no experience in using social media in their academic practices. However, more experienced users are very welcome to come along to share their experiences and contribute to the discussions. As always, I hope each workshop will be informative and interactive. I’ll be demonstrating key social media and facilitating discussion around emerging practices.
Social media summer workshops – Towards a more participatory and collaborative scholarship
Workshop 1: Social Networking and Collaboration
Thursday 26 July, 12.00-2.00pm.
Using Twitter, social networks sites, wikis and online community sites for networking, information sourcing and collaborative working.
Workshop 2: Sharing and Managing Work Online
Thursday 2 August, 12.00-2.00pm.
Informal dissemination and sharing of work through blogging and content sharing sites, as well as managing content through social bookmarking and bibliographies, curation tools and RSS.