Tag Archive | Academia

Experts and experiments: focusing on the future

It’s been a long time now since I blogged on here. Life has been busy, not least due to a new full time role at the University of Manchester Library, working in market research and data analysis. For a little insight into just one of the many projects I am involved in there, here is a guest blog I wrote for the fascinating Books Right Here Right Now project.

A scholarly guinea pig...

A scholarly guinea pig takes a break from study to consider the future of reading. 

Hopefully I’ll find time to write more again here soon. If only I can finish the PhD at long last…

Humanities by any other name

On Monday night, I attended the latest in a series of thought-provoking events taking place within the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU. As part of their Annual Research Programme, Dr David M. Berry (currently based at the University of Swansea and author of several books on digital cultures, software and code) had been invited to give a talk on the fundamental nature of Digital Humanities scholarship. Given the current changes taking place within MMU and many other universities as a result of educational technologies arriving on campus, a naturally large audience was secured.

Berry took a rather critical approach in his lecture, raising a number of issues and problems around Digital Humanities as both an academic discipline, and as a brand. Given how enthusiastic he is about DH his criticism is highly informed and cannot be said to be of the reactionary sort. And really that was his whole point: as academics we must continue to raise difficult, challenging questions about the subject areas within which we are embedded. It was refreshing to have the all-too tangible tensions between scholarly and business imperatives recognised in relation to DH. In terms of my own research, such debates are vital to understanding how academics in different fields relate to, understand, and use digital and new media.

Enriching and challenging tradition

Key philosophical questions about the nature(s) of digital environments and techniques are often overlooked by proponents of  DH (although not, it must be said, by Cultural and Media theorists). Many nascent Digital Humanists are unsure what the term means – or what the core epistemic assumptions and problematics underlying their discipline are. Partly this is because Digital Humanities is an emerging and multi-disciplinary field, without clear historical traditions or organisational roots. Partly also it is because, for many Universities, “Digital Humanities” is something of a buzzword, with a surface level appeal considered enough in itself to attract new students and academics.

The danger is that Digital Humanists will become lost in computational formalisms, technologically-determinist methodologies, and the quantitative structural logic of engineers. They may lose sight of both the wider and more detailed perspectives brought about by traditional methods for illuminating truths about discourse and humanity. There is also the risk – in a target focused managerial culture – of being dazzled to the point of critical amnesia by the large public audiences that digital projects can garner when compared with audiences available for “gold standard” outputs like monographs.

Yet so long as we are careful not to sell or neglect our fundamental principles, Digital Humanities have much to offer. The Understanding Shakespeare project that Dr Berry showed to us during his afternoon workshop was one such example. Multiple German translations of Shakespeare have been scanned, OCRd and marked up, ready to be represented and queried digitally and visually. Analysing text and metadata computationally can reveal known and previously unknown correspondences and differences between editions, whether in terms of structure or content. As with many other semantic-web based tools (e.g. Gephi, Google Ngram and IBM’s Many Eyes), parameters can be set by researchers in a few easy steps and huge corpora can be explored – something almost impossible to do manually.

For me, the take home message was that the Digital Humanities – regardless of specific instantiations within individual institutions – must “extend their critique to include society, politics, the economic and the cultural.” Many researchers are already doing this and I certainly aim to do so in my own work. At the same time, Humanities scholars must not forget the “traditional” core concerns of their fields – i.e. the human subject, speculative knowledge, interpretation, and the value of focused, close readings – even as they rearticulate those concerns in exciting ways via computational methods.

Differentiating the difference

Showing why a linear narrative of technological progression is not enough if we want to fully understand New Media, Jussi Parikka’s latest book promotes and outlines the compelling “Media Archaeological” approach which he is helping to advance and define (in the tradition of theorists such as Laurent Mannoni, Siegfried Zalinkski, Lev Manovich, and of course Michel Foucault, all of whom are discussed in the text). Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and others in this emerging field embrace an understanding of media predicated upon a recognition of the heterogeneous and historical conditions of technological development, usage, implication, and cultural assimilation.

A range of theories and disciplines are naturally relevant: Parikka uses source material from philosophy, cinema studies, art history and computing science to show that the imaginaries of the subconscious – as well as the social and political conditions which “maintain our subject-object relations” (p46) – are deeply relevant to theoretical and artistic “regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture” (p3). Layered patterns of desire and perception are as informative of meaning and use as are technical specifications. Many new technologies seem to demand fresh conceptualisations of the relationships between sense and reality (page 20); further, the traditional A&H tools of interpretation, understanding and critique may need to make way for use, perversion and modulation (p163).

This awareness of multiplicity and mutating contexts resonates within my own research, which draws on literature from several fields of study to examine how academics across and within disciplines perceive and use New Media. Beginning to analyse the results of my pilot data gathering work, I find that there is no simple way to interpret the data. Using bipolar numeric scales (Semantic Differentials), I asked 8 academics from 4 different fields to indicate where they would position their understanding of “New Media” in relation to adjective pairs connoting concepts derived from multiple discourses; hence some terms are political, others abstract, others related to function and so on. Comparing the numbers with the terms and ideas expressed in interviews and discussions, I find that the “results” can be viewed from many different angles. A few examples are below:1

Some academics feel that New Media is as open as it is closed, or that it is far less inclusive than exclusive. But where do these stated positions stem from? From an individual’s empirical “rationalist” mindset? From their observations? Or from their personal desire that New Media be one thing instead of another? This can be illuminated by digging into the revelations made during an interview/conversation. While subtle distinctions in attitude can, I think, be related to the field in which someone works (their training, their background, their vocabularies and their instincts), difference of attitude/approach are nevertheless more nuanced than a discipline-based arrangement might imply.

My dataset is only a small one, but in it I see some evidence of the bridging/constructive effects of New Media within the academy – even as tensions and problems around implementation, policy, or definition are brought to light. Certainly I don’t think it is contentious to argue that using New Media within their work is giving academics a chance to engage with a greater diversity of concepts and theories than would traditionally be associated with their specific field. A computer scientist is most likely aware of philosophical and political concerns about the medium, while artists become more au fait with web technologies and programming languages. New skills, techniques and methods are learned and developed at the same time as political and critical perspectives.

Jussi Parikka talks about the praxis of media archaeology and provides examples of computer/art assemblages which “beg the question: do we have to become engineers to say and do anything interesting and accurate about current media culture?” Happily, he concludes that “the ways to engage effectively and critically…are not that narrowly defined” (p155): however, both the writing about AND the instantiation of Media archaeology require more than text-centrism. Certainly, developing a set of theories, tools, and techniques for the analysis and teaching of Media/New Media studies is a key challenge not just within this emerging field, but within Information Science more generally.

1For presentational clarity, the first term in each pair is represented by -3 and the second by 3. The actual exercises did not include negative numbers.

Structures of Participation

As we finished our morning interview, Wanderer showed me the exit with a smile. “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” she remarked. Despite the unusually early start, I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. My bag now had a folder and an mp3 recorder full of original information; I left the building in agreement. The session hadn’t dragged at all. Wonderful. Back at my desk, an email from Ian arrived. “Not as scary as I expected!” she confided. I had to laugh at the thought of our discussion having instilled any foreboding. Isn’t research meant to be enjoyable? Speaking with Ian, Wanderer and others about their fields of research, their organisational cultures, and their views on new media, I’m fairly sure that’s something we all agree on. Regardless of discipline!

I’m now halfway through my pilot data gathering activities and have met with 4 out of 8 participants via 2 “paired interview” sessions – 1 along the road at Manchester University and 1 here at MMU. Preparing materials for what seems an eternity, I am very happy to report that both sessions were extremely informative and genuinely thought-provoking. So far, my interviewees have seemed to find them worthwhile too.1

The position of technology relates to multiple structural factors.

Getting your “subjects” to take part enthusiastically rather than having them keep one eye on the clock (hey, that’s my job!) is vital to obtaining quality data. That’s why I’ve chosen and devised a combination of discussions, semi-structured interviews, writing activities, and Semantic Differential exercises. Conversations and dialogues are far better than simplistic closed question formats. And of course, timing, flow, and sequencing are everything. It’s too early to conclude but my instinct tells me my data gathering instruments are pretty successful.2 Transcribing the audio and comparing terminologies, anecdotes and insights is already proving fascinating. Hopefully the next 2 are just as illuminating!

1 Participant anonymity is optional.
2 Thanks to everyone who helped me test and refine these.

The Courage of Truth

It’s important to take part in aspects of University life that aren’t directly related to your subject area. This is something I’m becoming ever more convinced of as I read and write about academic subject and discourse communities, inter-disciplinary work, shifting contexts of idea formation and reception, and the dialogues (or conversations) between tradition, innovation, and diverse schools of thought. All this to say that I’ve been going along to the Philosophy Department’s Friday morning Michel Foucault reading group! Actually, I have been using some of Foucault’s ideas in my work – the historical a priori, the political structures of truth, technologies of self and so on…but mainly, attending this group is a chance for me to hear what’s going on outside the wonderful world of Info Comms. It’s excellent to be challenged by a way of thinking and studying that’s not second-nature – and to realise that actually, it has plenty to reveal that’s relevant to my discipline. Hearing a new vocabulary and learning about a whole new bag of concepts is really rewarding. In my view, inter-disciplinary mash-ups are possibly one of MMU’s real strengths. 🙂

Public truth-telling can be complicated

The text we’ve been reading from is The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II; a lovely volume comprising transcripts of his last ever set of lectures (1984) at the Collège de France. It’s fascinating to try and follow Foucault’s logic as he leaps from idea, to example, to observation, to sweeping and bold statement, usually referring to a variety of well known and obscure (for me anyway) sources and willing the reader/listener to keep pace. Apparently he used to get a little lonely and frustrated that after so much effort, the audience would often not engage with his ideas; not offer a challenge or analysis. What a shame. I can’t help but wonder what he would have had to say about blogs or websites and the ways in which they encourage participation. If Michel blogged, the servers would doubtless crash!

There is one place in the book which really amused me. It’s a wonderful example of the truly “disruptive” effects of new technology. I have reproduced the footnote that appears on Page 14 of the Palgrave Macmillan edition. This is Foucault’s 1 February 1984 lecture: First hour. Warming up to his argument about different modes of truth-telling, he informs his audience about the professional techniques of the Ancient rhetoricians. So popular were his lectures that the theatre would be packed to the rafters; people could hardly breathe, so keen were they to hear him speak. Students would record bootlegs on their little portable cassette machines, eager to be able to replay and share with friends after the fact. And so the following…

Michel Foucault is interrupted at this point by pop music from one of the cassette recorders. We hear a member of the audience rush to their machine. M.F.: “I think you are mistaken. It is at least Michael Jackson? Too bad”.

New Media and Academia: Altered Attributes

Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂

To state that there is no such thing as New Media is not the avoidance of an answer: rather, it is a rejoinder which meets the question of definition head-on. It is to suggest (with the hint of a challenge) that if we are to address the subject of “New Media” in significant depth we may first have to place aside our assumptions about what is actual and what is perceived; as well as the place of metaphor. These are the very assumptions around which much of “New Media” revolves, and with which it and its practitioners play. Contrarily, the very fluidity and liminality of these types of digital media, which may be referred to as “new”, “social”, “interactive”, “mobile” or “virtual”, suggests that there are particular thresholds or boundaries within which they exist, hence typical characteristics which might be identified. Nevertheless, it is important to make clear that seizing upon or fixing some particular conception or definition of New Media would in many ways run contrary to the purpose of my thesis. What it is necessary and rather simple to accept is the relative, historically situated, and (in terms of reception and acceptance) contingent character of anything labelled “new” – which partly explains why New Media defies easy classification. Another reason why an in-transition sketch is often the best that can be offered is that “New Media” can be seen differently depending on where, how, why, and by whom, it is being considered. It refers to something constantly being updated and refreshed; continually shifting; and which frequently but unpredictably accommodates ideas, features, and perspectives not previously included. Yet it also builds on tradition and what was prior. For the academic subject or “discourse communities“, whose attitudes towards New Media are the focus of this research, this is also the case – as well as, increasingly, for the disciplines and institutions to which they belong. There, as Nowotny et al observe, “near absolute demarcation criteria have failed”.

“The notion of ‘boundary work’ implies not only that boundaries are not fixed and permanent but that they need to be actively maintained. Moreover, their definition, mapping, and maintenance, often serve a social function. Social contingency and professional expediency influence the choice of ‘stories’ about Science [including Social Sciences]. Defining the sciences, mapping their territory in public space, making and reshaping them in the image tailored for the specific time and the occasion are all part of ‘boundary work’. And scientists, as ‘boundary workers’, are actively engaged in such activities as an integral part of their scientific endeavours” [page 57]. We must first understand the “socio-epistemological meaning of context” before we are able to address and understand the political and institutional characteristics of Science. Both types of context affect knowledge structures within academic disciplines. The current shifts occurring in the “conceptualisation and enactment of Science” are part of a move toward a “Mode II” society where contextualised knowledge moves “into the context of implication” [page 201] – i.e. wider society beyond the University proper, a “social space of transformation” or, what the authors, in a re-imagining of ancient Greece’s public sphere, call “the agora”. This space is typified by, among other things, “socially distributed expertise”, and “changing rules of engagement” whereby social relationships become vertical rather than horizontal and where institutional structures and traditional modes of interaction are “aided” and altered by “the pervasive role of information and communication technologies” [page 105]. Just as time and space have been reconceptualised into the “more capacious category of space-time, so science and society “co-evolve” as an aspect of coalescence [page 49]; the distinction between academics and those who would previously have been deemed “incompetent outsiders” is no longer as meaningful an analytical tool.

Some critics point out that this was always the case; not just for Science, but also for the Arts & Humanities, and that such a perspective or vision of scholarship might be seen to date as far back as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. A utopian novel published in 1697, New Atlantis greatly influenced Enlightenment concepts of Scientific rationalism, even depicting participation in the academy by certain select members of the public (although in Bacon’s narrative, this is tightly-controlled, hierarchical, and revolves around the acceptance of particular customs). Others propose that it was Universities and institutions which parted Science from its original multi-varied and accommodating form. In either case, we may assume that the modern University can be broadly characterised in these terms, in particular the dominance of ICTs. Altered power structures and novel “visibility” regimes are also created by and reflected in new forms of media and communications technology. Divisions between producer/consumer, author/reader, expert/layperson are challenged and blurred; politicised discourses often position it in terms of access to knowledge, power, and a re-structured public sphere. Traditions and novelty converge and collide. Clearly then, there are strong thematic links and properties which typify both “New Media” and Academia in the 21st century. These require much further exploration.

1 I have removed some inline references in support of various arguments to make this entry more blog friendly. For the most part, hyperlinks are provided instead.

Arts and Humanities Incorporated?

Organised by “artsmethods@manchester” – a newly formed group for academics and practitioners in the Arts and Humanities – tonight’s event for this emerging network took place in the modest but historic “Engine House” of Chorlton Mill which is now the home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Café Arts

(Why) do the Arts matter to society?

This was the provocative question posed by the “Arts Ambassadors” who set up artsmethods. Their intention is to bring together an informal cross-institution and (potentially) cross-sector community of academics and others interested in the future and value of A&H research and practise. Value means the kind made tangible both inside and – perhaps more importantly – outside the walls of Manchester’s Universities. Staff and researchers at the event came from Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Manchester, and Salford University. At least one part-time documentary maker was in attendance, as well as the manager of a local radio station optimistic that she would find more exciting programming ideas here than the ubiquitous “antiques and cookery shows”.

Arts & Humanities have always had “impact”.

After everyone introduced themselves, the discussion centred mostly on modes of public “engagement”, communication, and what might be called “community outreach”. One woman pointed out that this really shouldn’t be construed as a one-way process. At the same time as thinking about how academia and scholarship “impact upon” the public, we should listen to what the public have to say to us: establishing a dialogue or a conversation with them and allowing for a flow of ideas which isn’t in thrall to outmoded boundaries and hierarchies. In other words: equality of access and participation.

It’s strange – perplexing even – that we should have to worry about what exactly Arts, Histories, Languages, Linguistics, Humanities, and Cultural Studies bring to society that is valuable enough to justify their continued funding. Would even the most “rational” minded and stereotypical “hard” Scientist ask if the Arts have relevance? My best guess is a resounding no! In many ways these disciplinary lines are increasingly showing themselves to be somewhat artificial. An idea which Professor Sharon Ruston, who I met at the event, could tell us something about in relation to literature and medicine. The trouble is, of course, that many people in a position to influence government policy don’t want to acknowledge this right now. Arts are considered an easy target – they can be sidelined then revived in happier times. A cactus, in the desert, that will always flower, proudly. Maybe this tells us about a (rightly) perceived resistance and durability – and one of the true strengths of the Arts and Humanities within society and culture? A positive property becomes, sadly, the justification for deprivation.

Visual anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Amanda Ravetz pointed out that it can be hard to articulate exactly how A&H makes a contribution to the greater good when so much of these subjects’ understandings are based on legacy, intuition, and a tacit (but no less real) knowledge, rather than on simple demonstrable facts. Regardless of whatever new goals, targets, and systems of assessment are put in place, A&H has always and will always make an “impact” on and enrich society. But how do we measure that? Can we? Is the right response to these pressures to demonstrate the value of the academic an identification of and reliance on memorable “personalities” popular with mainstream broadcast and print media? Is there a risk that complex arguments and theories not suitable for a general audience will become “invisible” – or will be repackaged, simplified, and categorised under some basic label like “grand ideas”? A&H may need to reach a “wider audience” but it shouldn’t have to compromise its values or its methods. Isn’t knowledge any longer an end in itself?

Helen and Clare at the Arts Café

Across the board there is a tension between the uninspired presentation of “dry” facts in opposition to the glamour, subliminality, and inter-textuality of other (perhaps digital) forms of communication. There were some very interesting (though not uncontroversial) presentations about how to address that. As well as continuing to explore how learning, technology, entertainment, and play can combine, is there a way to take A&H research out onto the streets? To locate it in engaging ways within public spaces? Maintaining visibility is easier (in theory) for those whose subjects have a place on the floors, walls and screens of the cultural heritage sector. What about philosophers, or linguists? Is there some way they can position their work within the wider environment to say “Look! This is why we’re relevant! Come and take part” ? Somebody pointed out that a certain amount of opportunism might be involved in doing that – as well as clever and timely strategising – but it could also encourage A&H scholars to explore innovative and engaging approaches.

Art, creativity, metaphor, imagination and expression – these will survive regardless of conditions of government. The reason for Café Arts posing its questions right now may in part be a backdrop of worry, frustration and fear; still, people with a passion for ideas and the exploration of truth are generally galvanised by a challenge. Something I was reminded of on my way to the IABF “Water Closet” – before which sits a modest little display case housing a collection of Anthony Burgess’s old typewriters.