Archive | September 2011

Play and Work

Many of my posts so far have been non-academic (i.e. not about the PhD research which this blog intends to document). What can I say? It’s not that I’m unsure about my “communicative purpose”. The blog is intended to offer a representative mixture of the different pieces that currently make up my life: all of which relate back to arriving at MMU to start my studies. Work hasn’t been too intensive so far. It might be interesting to observe over time how the categories and tags I use on the blog become narrower and more focused.  Hopefully it will be a fairly reliable mirror of what has been keeping me busy.

Yesterday was the first day of official faculty induction activities. There was only a small group of us: two M.A. Film Studies students and four of us starting PhDs (two in English Literature, one in Philosophy, and myself, in InfoComms). Dick Hartley, Director of the Institute, asked us all to introduce ourselves and our work. Every topic sounded great. Being in the same department as the Literature, Language, Media, and Philosophy students feels like exactly the right fit. The complementary range of subjects, students, and approaches that can be found in the Information & Communications Department and more widely in the HLSS faculty is for me, ideal. My project will of course take me to other areas (including Science) to keep my work inclusive and to allow us to study and map cultural and other differences. Anyway, it was encouraging that my topic seemed to interest people!

Yesterday was also a chance to go along to one of the weekly “Trauma” film group screenings. This time it was the cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” by Russ Meyer (which doesn’t in fact have much to do with Jacqueline Susann’s always popular “Valley of the Dolls“). Not my usual sort of film, but that’s part of what made it interesting to go along: the Trauma group’s idea was obviously to attract attention and create a bit of a buzz. I doubt that the film (a silly comedy at heart) is meant to be taken seriously, although its tongue in cheek “critique” or deconstruction of the clichés and stereotypes of swinging Hollywood has probably been written about well by those who know the genre better than me. After the screening, it was time to go to the Sandbar to discuss what we thought of the film – and drink too much beer for a Monday night. The programme for the next few months’ screenings is eclectic and broad; so going again could be fun.

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Maybe you’re wondering why I’ve not yet reviewed The Yang Sing restaurant, where I went last weekend with my Mum? Here goes. The room, the lighting, the staff, and the food, were wonderful. To be honest though, I’m not sure I made the best selections from their menu! It would be good to have an advisor on how real Cantonese cuisine differs from what we might be able to get in supermarkets. The Chinese greens were delicious but the oyster sauce they arrived in didn’t bear much relation to what I expected. That’s my own fault I guess: but it was far too heavy and jelly-like, detracting from the vegetables rather than adding to them. Anyway, the desert I ordered made me smile. I’m guessing they really only expect kids to bother with something sweet after the meal…(see the picture above).

Other highlights of the weekend included a trip to the Manchester Art Gallery to see “Ford Madox Brown: pre-Raphaelite Pioneer” where we got to take a close-up look at “The Last of England“, “Head of a Girl”, “Work”, “Take your Son, Sir”, and various other pieces, many on loan from the Tate. The audio guide by Julian Treuherz (formerly Keeper of Art Galleries at National Museums Liverpool), which included some original poetry by Angela Thirlwell, shed contextual and creative light on the exhibits.

After many rejections, Madox Brown finally won a commission in 1879 to create murals for Manchester Town Hall, narrating through his images the history of commerce and in particular textiles and weaving, in the city. Maybe it was appropriate then that we also wandered down in the rain towards Salford and visited The People’s History Museum. For me, it was a bigger and brighter version of Glasgow’s “People’s Palace” – a place to learn about the social and political struggles of the “ordinary” people of Manchester throughout the past few centuries. What stood out most was the temporary exhibition of protest banners designed and made by Ed Hall. I’ve included a few pictures here. Powerful, provocative, sometimes serious and at times, with a touch of humour. Banners like these must definitely be a dying art: a shame since clearly they are quite a bit more memorable than a hastily thrown together cardboard-wood-and-marker pen placard. Anyone who wants a banner like one of Hall’s at their march must be serious about their cause.

Books, Whisky…and Guinness

Over the past few days I have really started to feel like a student again.  My mind is clearing itself some long-awaited space and I’m brimming with new ideas and a renewed enthusiasm. Somehow I have the sense that even when I’m busy, everything is more relaxed. For now at least. It’s strange to feel myself adjusting to the rhythms of a Studentship: and it’s undeniably positive. Of course, I’m very much aware of the privilege it represents to be a funded student again at this particular moment in time. For me, there are indeed “sunny uplands” – regardless of what The Lib Dems might have to say about the state of the nation. Upcoming challenges should be adventures rather than cause for alarm.

On Wednesday, (after another productive meeting with Jill and Frances), I collected my new ID card and finally visited the All Saints Library. Various staff members were around in the lobby to hand us colour coded leaflets explaining their collections, the building’s layout, and the newly revamped OPAC. No problem there since I don’t remember the old OPAC – and I like to think I already know a thing or two about searching library catalogues. But it was nice to have it explained anyway! It felt great to be back in the “stacks” and predictably my bag was bulging with books by the time I left. To my Supervisors: I promise that they are all 100 per cent relevant to my PhD!  Two that will be at the front of the queue:

Not as many parks as Glasgow...but a nice patch of green at All Saints Park in the MMU Campus

Walking from the Geoffrey Manton Building to the Library means cutting through All Saints Park: a lovely green spot popular for al fresco sandwiches – and with a fruit and veg stall (as well as a burger van) parked outside. In summer, it would be nice to unwind and read on one of the park’s large seat-like chunks of stone. The next few weeks will definitely see me enter Bookworm mode as I start to prepare a mini literature review: though most likely inside.

Last night was my first proper outing to the pub: and a chance to meet some new faces from the department. We went to a scruffy wee place where drinks were cheap and where I didn’t need to feel in the least bit unglamorous about being patriotic and drinking Talisker. With ice and no mixer, naturally. Deirdre Hynes arrived to remind us all that it was “Arthur’s Day” (as in: Guinness, Arthur Guinness) and so the whisky was supplanted by a few half-pints of the Black Stuff. Delicious. Apparently Deirdre is something of a Digital and New Media expert and enthusiast, so I will definitely have to pick her brains soon about that!

Tonight I have a visitor arriving down from Glasgow: my Mum. Aww. No, she’s not bringing food parcels, sadly. But I have already booked us a table for 7pm at the Yang Sing. Apparently it’s one of the best Cantonese restaurants in the UK. Can’t wait to look at the menu. Watch out for the review. In the meantime: I have included (see above) a picture of the gorgeous Manchester Chinatown Gate.

The Meanings of New Media

In parallel to addressing complicated methodological questions, it’s going to be important to outline what exactly is meant (in the context of my research) by “New Media”. The term is one of those that means different things to different people, varying according to where they work, what pre-conceptions they hold, and of course, the way you phrase the question. It encompasses both the socio-cultural and the technical. Pasted below are some definitions of New Media gathered from a simple Google “definition: ” search.

Which of these (click to enlarge!) make most sense to you? What about if you were a Professor of Chemistry, or a Researcher in Archaeology? What would they mean – or imply – if you were Head of a Journalism School; but were also wearing a slightly different hat and taking part in some PR activities on behalf of your institution? Some Universities now have Social Media policies in place that tentatively suggest best practices although their focus often seems to be on using Social Media as a sort of PR and outreach “toolset” – without any great attention paid to the fine-grained ways in which different New/Social Media concepts and techniques may or may not apply to different members of the faculty at different stages.

Blogs, wikis, social bookmarking sites; articles or multimedia objects with comments pages embedded – these are naturally enough included in just about all definitions. So too are online community art projects. But what about, say, ebooks? They are New Media, yes, but are they Social Media? Do they allow for that key element around which I hope to structure my data analysis – participation? It might be argued that the ability to quickly publish documents in ebook formats makes them a participatory media. But this is taking part in a quite solitary way: your engagement is more with the carrier than with a group. If someone annotates or makes a comment on an ebook, you will probably never know about it. Where is the innovative dialogue and debate – distinct from more traditional kinds?

These questions really matter since I will need to identify precisely the examples I want to use within data gathering exercises. Selecting various instances or types that may or may not be somewhere on the participatory spectrum will certainly be valid as “controls” or to provide contrast and illuminate findings. Texture and tone are as important as polarities.

As Zizi Papacharissi has pointed out, older forms of print and broadcast media, which by their very nature aim to communicate with people and get them talking, have always been Social and interactive. They have always had the potential to effect social change (even if unintentionally). So, to contrast “Traditional Media” with digital variations by calling these “Social” may be misleading. She prefers “New Media” (as a way of not over-emphasising the social aspect) and I think that making the same distinction will be helpful.

Still, this imprecision and fluidity of meaning is why approaches derived from psychology (such as Repertory Grids or Semantic Differentials) will be appropriate to my work. These introduce something approaching objectivity to the measurement of the subjective – and can allow us to find out which concepts or connotations people associate with “New Media” – before we try to find the connections and differences between them. By letting interviewees/subjects speak for themselves to identify constructs or respond to paired adjectives, we try to avoid the introduction of bias on both sides. Knee-jerk responses such as “New Media is just a flash in the pan” or “Well, I think Facebook is really cool” are not what will get us to the heart of the matter.

To take one example, Sarah Kjellberg nicely summarises the ways in which blogs should be understood as evolving hybrid genres, full of rich and subtle socio-technical characteristics that vary depending on purpose, use, author, audience and time. Blogs (like other New Media) are “shaped by individuals at the same time as they shape social practices”. That’s the sort of approach that might well get us to the heart of things.

A Day of Many Cities

It was hard to figure out yesterday exactly which city I was in.  A rainy afternoon trip to the cinema was delayed by a traffic jam resulting from an Orange Order Parade making its way through the city centre. Did you have any idea that Manchester had an Orange Order? I didn’t – and unlike back home, I am not sure many of the locals did either! Or at least, not what it all might mean. One fellow passenger (yes, I was on the free bus again) explained to a foreign friend that this “was all part of a big Catholic tradition, mainly associated with Scotland, but also Northern Ireland. It commemorated the time when William of Orange and his men had “battled hard” against the dominant Protestants.” Well. Something like that. I couldn’t help but smile as my own distinct lack of knowledge on the subject began to seem like expertise. The bus driver radioed in to inform a depot manager (or possibly his wife) that he would be back late. I counted the number of policemen shepherding the marchers along their route. Just 3 of them. Wow! And not a single well-wisher to clap them on their way. Overall, I think I agree with the irate girl in front of me, whose frustration was conveyed down her mobile: “I mean, there are thousands of new students arriving in the city centre today and they arrange this ridiculous march! It’s the most stupidest thing they’ve ever done! See you in like, 5 hours!”

Eventually, I made it to the Cornerhouse cinema just in time for the late afternoon screening of John le Carré/Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“. Only, it was such a popular choice, the tickets were sold out. So I wandered around until the next showing, heading up towards Albert Square for a look at Manchester Town Hall and finding…a big red London bus parked outside the main door. It seemed to be part of a wedding – but anyone passing by was free to get on and pose for photographs when the Bride and Groom were inside the Hall saying (let’s hope) “I do”.

A London bus in Manchester. Parked on Albert Square.

So: to Manchester via Belfast – or possibly Glasgow – and London. Then back to London, with some slight diversions through Cold War Hungary and Russia.

This was my second trip to the amazingly comfy red seats of the Cornerhouse (last week was Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In) – and the second film of Alfredson’s I have seen, after his version of the brilliantly unconventional and atmospheric vampire story, “Let the Right One In“. The characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy do not draw you in the way the characters in that film did. They are not meant to. However, his conjuring up of a particular almost spell-binding atmosphere is as good here as it was in Stockholm. For the first half hour or so I must admit to feeling that I was watching a series of beautifully composed studies and stills for an exhibition called: “Britain’s 70s”. Which was fine by me. Then Kathy Burke arrived (with her always slightly Eliza Doolittleish “posh” accent) and reminded me there was a plot I was supposed to be following – rather than just admiring lampshades, suits, cigarette packets, and lovingly recreated typefaces and fonts, some of which were deliberately privileged by the camera. Anyway: the acting was superb and muted and the characters almost pitiably pathetic and lost in a strange sort of limbo world haunted by the memories of World War II and Winston Churchill. As Ricki Tarr says to some of the members of the Circus (Tom Hardy as Tarr and his relationship with Russian Irina add a much needed touch of something approaching fire to the film): “Christ, I do not want to end up like you lot”.

The nicest and most unexpected occurrence of the day was being sold my cinema ticket by an old friend from my time as an Undergraduate at Glasgow University! To L&N: I’m looking forward to that drink! 🙂 I also bumped into my new colleague Jo Bates. It really is a not-so-very-large-after-all world!

Tudor Pub & The Wheel - Old and New

At night, the little blue cubes of the Manchester Wheel look like they have been hand-drawn against the sky. It’s a great thing to navigate by, meaning that really, you can’t forget where you are for long.

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)

Searching around Deansgate in the rain for an interesting place to get lunch and an espresso resulted in a short trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. The building, situated away from the main road so that it has plenty of room to breathe, is beautiful inside and out, making bold use of display screen technology in the “Revolutionary Manchester” gallery that introduces you to the museum’s themes.

Instead of using old-fashioned wooden and cardboard plinths to explain what the exhibits are all about, the museum incorporates (in places) iPads into its displays. Amusing little games can be played at the same time as you discover the history of science and technology via touch-screen interfaces. Even mid-morning and in not so great weather, people of all ages and nationalities wandered around, looking (as if almost to their own surprise) very much impressed. There were examples of early computers (including one recreated by Manchester University’s School of Computer Science) and a Ferranti Mark I logic door. There were also displays on the CERN reactor and nuclear energy.

Proof that people were taking things seriously came from the middle-aged foreign lady explaining eagerly to her friend who Ada Lovelace was: the theme here being women’s contributions to computing science. Apparently half of Ferranti’s programmers were, in 1951, women – chosen for their accuracy and reliability. I wonder by how much that percentage has changed today?

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For the more “old school” museum (and of course aviation) fans out there – and for me, a little reminder of Glasgow’s Transport Museum in the days before it became the Riverside Museum – the Air and Space Hall is really worth a look too. Chock full of planes and one or two motorbikes (air and space?) it’s basically a big shed with a viewing walkway snaking around it from above. Exhibits include a Roe Triplane from 1903 and the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka Mark II plane for the Kamikaze pilots of WWII. You may know that one by its far more romantic sounding translated name: “Cherry Blossom“. Lovely!

Anyway, there are 5 buildings and 12 whole halls with various themes to explore and today I only had time for a few. Not sure yet if I want to “take a walk through a Victorian sewer” as part of the Underground Manchester theme. But the next visit will definitely take in the Communications (“Connecting Manchester”) Gallery as well as the Power Hall for sure. Watch out for some pictures of retro telephones and cameras! Other pictures in (my) gallery above are of “The Avenue”, a fancy shopping centre (sorry, “luxury shopping quarter“).

Just don’t climb on the letters!

Scientology is (just about) alive in Manchester

When travelling down to Oxford Road this morning on the free Shuttlebus service (it’s one of 3 covering the whole city centre) I was pretty surprised to see, on Deansgate, a “Church of Scientology” shop-front. Bold as anything, with a proud blue and yellow sign, it sits beside Hobs (By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen) Reprographics, right on the corner.

I took this photo discreetly...then ran!

The shop offers workshops, seminars, books, and who knows what else if you actually step inside rather than just staring in shock? The entrance looks welcoming and almost like a travel agent, enticing you to take a cute little wooden seat. According to the shop’s website, Scientology converts have in the past defeated that confusingly titled discipline “Science” to perform miracles no less impressive than the revival of babies and motorcycle crash victims from comas. Seriously: that’s what they claim. Follow the link. You don’t really need to be the wonderful Christopher Hitchens or (is he an Atheist?) Richard Dawkins to realise there is something a little bit “Trades Description Act” about that.

A Google search reveals that a few years ago an anti-Scientology protest took place outside the shop. Organised by the masked Anonymous network, it was only one of several held world-wide on the same day. Despite the best efforts of “V” and his followers the shop remains open for business…

Adding to its majestic property portfolio, the “Church” has spent over £3.5 million on a former distillery at Old Trafford. Sadly, they were refused planning permission to turn it into a “place of worship” and the building has been theirs, but disused, since 2007. See it described and rendered here in their video library as the “Future Manchester Church of Scientology” – accompanied by a voiceover that makes squirm-inducingly awkward references to the working class “machine” and the Georgian interiors. The Church of Scientology’s motto is, reassuringly: “Something CAN be done about it”.

Right now, I am starting to wonder if the photos I took through my bedroom window – in an attempt to capture the trains that move peacefully over the red purple and grey brick railway arches – are proof that aliens really are here? I am also uploading (for purposes of comparison) a Photoshopped version of the image where the lights are notably absent. Not convinced? Think clearly!

Information and Communications: a first meeting on my research

Well, it’s time to start thinking properly again about the Research Proposal that brought me here. What better way than to kick some ideas around with my lovely new Supervisors? I met them this morning for a very productive exchange and a few cups of coffee. The building was strangely quiet since (swot that I am) I’m starting a little bit early. Well, quiet save for a procession of tidy-looking primary school children in blazers, who apparently were being shown around the campus!

The project that will (hopefully) 3 years from now secure me a shiny Doctorate is provisionally entitled ” New Media and Academic Researchers – Politics, Philosophies and Participation“. The idea here is that I will address the ways in which academics across disciplines perceive and make use of New/Social media within (and beyond) the research and possibly teaching lifecycles. This will be looked at in relation to theories of participation. Obviously ascertaining attitudes and perceptions is a delicate and tricky undertaking, so we are still thinking about what precise methodology will be most suitable. Repertory Grids are one strong contender, as is Sentiment Analysis. This is where my Supervisors, Frances and Jill, will be able to guide me through the territory. Whatever we decide it will be fascinating learning from them!

Jill, one of my new supervisors, introduces me to the building.

Key questions of the research are:

  • How do the attitudes of academics in various disciplines, with regard to new media, compare?
  • Can we use participatory theories (and a historical awareness of the role of scholar) to understand and analyse academic uses of/attitudes to new media?
  • Is there a typology of users, attitudes and type of use, which can be identified?
  • What are the implications for official and institutional policy, scholarly communication and the positioning of new media technologies?

There is going to be a lot of categorisation, classification, and data gathering involved in answering these questions. The end result should allow us to:

  • Analyse and interpret the changing position and responsibilities of scholarship and scholarly discourse as a result of ‘disruptive’ new media technologies.
  • Examine the extent of hierarchies, professional constraints or societal expectations of scholars on their relationship to new media.
  • Construct a typology of users based on attitudes and as a predictor of behaviours analysed and interpreted under participatory theory (assuming that participatory theory proves to be a valid and useful lens for modelling).

As you can see it’s pretty ambitious! We will need to have more discussions (next Wednesday is Meet 2) on that. Whatever the nuances, it’s pretty much agreed that scholars and academics are vital to the public sphere – as they have been since the days of the Enlightenment. With the boundaries between the “public sphere” and the “private sphere” shifting, merging, and forming all sorts of intricate relationships in the online age, it’s more important than ever that we understand what exactly is at stake for academia within that picture.

Hope you will agree this is an interesting topic! Comments and thoughts appreciated.