Posts Tagged ‘new research trajectories’

Tribes and Territories: Academia in the Wild

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

This is the final post related to my participation in the New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking, in which I am exploring the use of geographical metaphors in educational theory and practice.

“It seems natural enough to think of knowledge and its properties and relationships in terms of landscapes, and to saturate epistemological discussion with spatial metaphors: fields and frontiers; pioneering, exploration, false trails, charts and landmarks.”

Becher & Trowler (2001, 58)

Becher and Trowler use the metaphor of academic tribes and territories to explore the relationship between the normative mode of disciplinary and professional contexts, and the operational mode of academic participation and interaction. Basically, territories provide the cognitive perspective whilst tribes provide the social perspective.

Whilst disciplines are partly socially (re)constructed through tribal activities, they are primarily territorial possessions, defined by their production of knowledge. Disciplinary boundaries can be tightly knit and heavily defended, or more distributed and open. But generally, disciplines do not map neatly with the tribal tendencies of academic communities, which operate in a state of constant flux due to the convergent and divergent patterns of mutuality and fragmentation inherent in academic migration, interdisciplinarity* and multiple membership.

Disciplines exhibit both cognitive (epistemological) characteristics – commonly classified in hard/soft and pure/applied terms – and social characteristics, defined by their forms of aggregation within the academic population, which Becher and Trowler describe as being predominantly urban or rural.

Those displaying ‘urban’ characteristics are tightly-knit and communal, engaged in intensive, highly clustered and competitive themes of enquiry. Those displaying ‘rural’ characteristics are individualised and solitary, engaged in numerous themes of enquiry that are highly distributed with far less, if any, overlap between them.

* Though we may be instinctively drawn towards interdisciplinarity, Garber (2003) suggests:

“If the new interdisciplines and study groups that now occupy and preoccupy us so excitingly were to become the centre of the academy, they would in turn become conventional, and the centre of intellectual interest and provocation would move elsewhere.”


Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

Garber, M. (2003). Groucho Marx and “Coercive Voluntarism” in Academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 10).

Activity Theory: Mapping the Terrain

Monday, May 9th, 2011

This is the second post related to my participation in tomorrow’s New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.

Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. Yrjö Engeström (2010) describes the landscape in which we practice “as a terrain of activity to be dwelled in and explored,” possessing both opportunities for being controlled, and possibilities for individual agency.

All ‘dwellers’ and ‘explorers’ we interact with the environment and each other to create multiple and intersecting trails. Similar to Cussins’ (1992) concept of cognitive trails, where movements of information create traces or trails, our movement through this terrain is described by patterns and directions of motion representing activity which is simultaneously cognitive (in the mind), physical (in the world), and discursive (in the social space).

Whilst linear types of movement can be seen as describing traditional practices associated with craft and mass production, emergent forms of ‘mycorrhiza’ activities exhibit movement akin to ‘pulsation’ and ‘swarming’ describing practices of social and peer production (including Web 2.0).

The terrain has pre-existing trails, as well as landmarks and boundaries made by others through historically-located social, cultural and power-related activities. When new dwellers enter the terrain, they “both adapt to the dominant trails and struggle to break away from them” (Engeström, 2010). In this conceptual context, the nature of agency is described through the increased capability to move in the terrain effectively and independently of institutional and organisational frameworks.

Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari (1988) describe space as either striated or smooth, conceptualised through a series of contextual models. Bayne (2004) suggests striated space is formal, structured, closed, and sedentary. Movement in stated space is limited to pre-existing trails between fixed and identifiable points aligned with hierarchical and institutional knowledge structures. Smooth space is informal, amorphous, and infinite. Here, movement is free, open and nomadic and aligned with rhizomatic knowledge structures.


Bayne, S. (2004). Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. 1(2). 302-316.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Engeström, Y. (2010). The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, & K. D. Gutiérrez (Eds.), Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 303-328.

Communities of Practice: A Topography

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

This is the first post related to my participation in the forthcoming New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.

Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. For the purposes of the event, it’s not particularly important how effective these metaphors are per se, but rather, how usefully they may be understood by a non-specialist audience whilst exploring the landscape itself, and how they may create opportunities for participants to reflect and engage in discussion about their own practices.

Etienne Wenger situates practice in specific contexts within particular social and physical environments. I’ve shown this video on here before, but it’s worth another look.

We can easily visualise a Community of Practice (CoP) as a hill, but taking the topographical analogy a bit further, mine has increasingly steep sides giving way to a relatively flat top.

The trajectory described by participation in a CoP addresses not only skill and knowledge acquisition but also socialisation, as we become enculturated in the values, behaviours, and language related to the CoP. According to Wenger, the process of socialisation is at first legitimately peripheral but increases in engagement and complexity. So, it’s easy to get initially involved with a CoP – it’s a shallow climb to start with, fairly easy going, and the top doesn’t seem that far away – but gradually we realise it’s not so easy, as the terrain gets steeper and the climb gets tougher.

Eventually we get to the top, as we become fully participative in the core membership and knowledge production of the CoP. It’s a fairly level plateau, We find it easier to navigate now, and we do so with a new confidence and sure footedness. There’s space to explore, to establish our location and find new routes. However, we are instinctively curious and interdisciplinary. We will, by choice or circumstance, interact with people visiting from other hills, and occasionally, we will gaze over at those hills – some near, some further away – and wonder what it might be like to be on the top of those too.*

We may think leaving a CoP is difficult, but it needn’t be. It’s the same terrain on the way down as it was up. All we need to do is jump right off.** We might get a few bruises, but it’s quicker than the climb up.

But mostly we don’t because it’s easier staying where we are. So instead, we just peer over the edge before turning back…

*Of course this analogy doesn’t accommodate the issue of multi-membership. As Wenger explains, we can belong to many CoPs simultaneously, or at least one or two dominant ones, and others peripherally. But that probably requires some better sketches!

**In certain situations, we might not want to leave, but get pushed off!

Reflecting on New Research Trajectories

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Rebecca Gamble | Host, Guest, Stranger | 15 December 2010

We have just submitted the Evaluation Report of New Research Trajectories – the Beyond Text student initiative I helped coordinate – to the AHRC. Unfortunately, I had to miss our evaluation meeting at Nottingham Contemporary, which a number of key participants also attended. My co-coordinators, Heather, Rachel and Becie, therefore deserve most of the credit for putting this report together, which provides an excellent summary and critical assessment of the initiative. However, it is also an appropriate moment for me to personally reflect on my own experiences as a coordinator and participant.

The nature of engagement in a collaborative project like this is determined to a certain extent by how much one exposes oneself to new experiences; be it new ways of thinking, engagement in activities, or opportunities to learn new skills. It is perhaps inevitable that time constraints dictate that the need to ‘get the job done’ frequently outweighs opportunities for expanding one’s practices and perspectives. Hence, we end up performing certain tasks with which we are most familiar or competent.

I was quite heavily involved in setting up the main website (in WordPress) and the various other online spaces and social media platforms we explored throughout the project. That said, it was immensely satisfying to see the other coordinators actively engage in these activities, and to hear examples of how it was subsequently influential in their own skills development. In addition, I did encounter some new challenges in developing online sites; some of which were situated around specific problem-solving (such as embedding the participants’ Tumblr blog into our main website), or generic concerns around encouraging creative forms of participation and documentation (which was not always successfully realised).

With limited previous experience in organising events, I found the scope and ambition of New Research Trajectories – with its multiple events and locations – slightly daunting. I learnt a great deal from my co-coordinators, who are far more experienced in this area than me. On many occasions, they would think of the most seemingly trivial things that collectively contributed greatly to the success and smooth running of the events. They demonstrated similar expertise in managing promotional activities and the limited budget.

I’m not sure we can categorise most of the skills exchanges that occurred in New Research Trajectories as ‘formal training.’ Had we had more time, we may have been able to formalize a more structured and purposeful ‘training’ agenda, which may have resulted in extending ourselves out of our own ‘comfort zones’ a little more. That said, possibly some of the most valuable experiences were gained through osmosis; i.e. being around people performing specific tasks rather than necessarily being active in performing those tasks oneself, or at least participating in a peripheral way.

Generally, we collaborated well to negotiate the various challenges of the initiative, despite the individual demands of our own doctoral programmes, and I would have no hesitation in working with any of my co-coordinators again. But New Research Trajectories would have been nothing without the postgraduate students who came on board with the creative input and momentum necessary to shape the initiative through their ongoing support and active participation.

Whilst New Research Trajectories has effectively ended as a funded initiative, we are looking into ways we can continue to encourage and support the self-sustainability of the informal network of postgraduate students we have established. In particular, whilst the website and social media platforms we created sufficiently served to help promote the initiative and facilitate a limited amount of online discussion, we are conscious that – compared to the city environment – there was a relative lack of participatory engagement with the online as a creative or productive space. This may be a focus in any further discussions.

In summary, New Research Trajectories provided me with an excellent opportunity to participate in a project that engaged with peers from a number of disciplines and institutions, and a range of methodologies and ways of working, and in doing so, highlighted the potential rewards and difficulties associated with interdisciplinary and explorative forms of research practice and collaboration; areas I would be happy to explore further in my post-doc activities.

Photo: Rachel Walls

Navigation in City and Online Space

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

The main event of New Research Trajectories is happening this coming Wednesday, 15 December in Nottingham City Centre, with a range of activities by postgraduate students from universities across the East Midlands. Download the poster and see the website for more information.

New Research Trajectories

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I’ve recently been involved in helping kick-start a student-led initiative funded by the AHRC as part of their Beyond Text programme. Beyond Text supports collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects engaged in challenging traditional notions of literacy through the active and creative exploration of oral/aural, material and visual forms of scholarly discourse.

I see our contribution – New Research Trajectories – as a conceptual framework for supporting creative forms of research dissemination. We are interested in exploring the potential of city and online spaces as environments for networking, collaboration and sharing ideas, enabling PhD researchers to engage in inter-disciplinary discourse through alternative modes and media, and non-academic situations and environments. In doing so, we hope the project will provide opportunities for participants to gain experience and training in new and challenging forms of academic practice. New Research Trajectories is timed to coincide with the opening in Nottingham of the British Art Show 7 and its associated fringe event Sideshow, and will culminate in an all-day event on December 15th, in which participants will engage in various ‘activities’ at venues around the city and online.

It was great to get our proposal accepted, and in June we attended a workshop run by AHRC at the Loch-Keepers Cottage, Queen Mary University, which gave us an opportunity to meet up with other award winners and hear about some of the student-led initiatives from the previous year. We’ve now got the website up and running which will hopefully become populated with lots of ideas, images, video and links to participants as they come on board. Rather than bounding the online components of the initiative, we see this as a hub or focal point for an extended network of online activity, which promotes the use of social media and engages participants’ own websites and online spaces.

With a project like this, that’s so dependent on emerging participation, it’s difficult to forecast how successful it will be (and how do we evaluate success?) But if the enthusiasm of my colleagues and those who’ve shown an interest in participating are anything to go by, there should be some exciting developments in the months to come. Our first meeting is on Wednesday 22nd September at Nottingham Contemporary. This will give us an opportunity to introduce the initiative and welcome potential participants to discuss ideas and explore spaces in the city centre.