Needed distractions

One of the great pleasures of being an academic is that reading is a part of my job. But at times this can become a great frustration too. Not only is it impossible to read all that one might want to (or feel the pressure to), but reading can become tinged by a compulsion to productivity. Time spent with a novel may be enjoyable, but can be more difficult to justify when one’s physical or virtual desktop is strewn with articles to be read or reviewed. Yet at the same time, reading widely and outside of one’s immediate area of work can be rejuvenating, and can even prompt stimulating adventures or even improvisations.

This weekend was therefore one filled with some much needed reading diversions and distractions.

Thinking about new media and curation:

The striving toward autonomy is, some argue, ever more prevalent, perhaps even a prerequisite, for works of new media, which exist in a technological context shared by other media and entertainment that have educational and other commercial objectives. In this, it would seem that no matter the form of the artwork, the medium never matters as much as the context. However, the more interconnected the work to its context, the greater the change in the way the work of art might be curated or approached by a curator.

– Graham and Cook (2010) Rethinking curation: art after new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pg. 83.

Thinking about the possibilities of short plays that take place inside cars:

There is great pleasure to be had in a world of limits.

– Neil LaBute (2005) Autobahn: a short-play cycle. NY: Faber and Faber, p.xv.

Thinking about a colleague hosting an event next week to bring together community around the challenge of food justice:

Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate and which is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else.

– Megan Blake, posting on her Geofoodie blog

Thinking about a colleague posting about her new Leverhulme-funded project:

Focusing on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

– Imogen Tyler, posting on her Social Abjection blog

Go Go Gadget… Things and Uses

Some days I get distracted. Diversions into the internet start off with a clear purpose and then meander off-course to become unproductive and unnecessary. But one of the great rewards of my work is that many other days, diversions become useful in unexpected ways. Random ideas resurface from days, weeks, or years ago, and make a crucial contribution to what you are writing or trying to understand.

Last week, while thinking about the ambiguity of electric vehicles as part of my DEMAND research, I dredged from the depths of my memory the old animated children’s program ‘Inspector Gadget‘. While the inspector was himself rather inept at solving crimes, thanks to his niece Penny, her dog Brain, and an array of amazing gadgets, he regularly stumbled upon the culprit or foiled the plot in the end. While the cyborgian telephone in his hand and his extendable legs were quite impressive, he also had a car that could transform from a family van to a police cruiser, even while in motion. All you needed were the magic words… ‘Go, go, Gadget-mobile!’

This recollection set me off on a train of thought about how useful it would be to have gadgets that could become exactly what we needed (but no more) because it might make energy use more tightly linked with the functionality we need from technologies. That is, technical practicalities aside, it might be more useful to not have to drive a van around if we only needed a micro-car to get to work, and yet have its boot/trunk expand when we stop off at the store on the way home from work, or have extra seats appear if the kids need to be picked up from music lessons. It’s a fun proposition to think with. It’s also fun when childhood recollections can be meaningful integrated into your adult life.

While it is overstated to call it ‘prediction’, for those who want to reminisce, here is a fun diversion that considers how some technologies in Inspector Gadget are similar to contemporary gadgets.

Models of improvisation

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

photo by Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons, CC A-SA 4.0 License

Last spring, I was intrigued to read several blog posts discussing the idea of encouraging academic improvisation. Steve Fuller highlighted in his ‘Modest proposal for all future keynotes‘ that there is no point going to listen to academics who say the same things that they have said in publications. We should therefore be expecting more of them – to engage in unguarded experimentation that creates instead of repeating. Additional aspects of improvisation have been addressed in other blog posts – how it draws upon widespread reading, is linked to the non-linear creativity of writing, and might require us to practice as jazz musicians would in order to hone our skills. I find the general argument compelling, in part because improvised public speaking is not constrained by the logic of PowerPoint and has the potential to respond more intuitively to the context and participants. Fuller’s improvised plenary at the BSA Conference in April 2014 also inspired me to engage differently as a listener. Moreover, there is something about embracing the imperfections and spontaneity of ‘live’ encounters that keeps me returning to theater and music productions year after year.

But what exactly is improvisation? While general definitions point to creation with what is at hand, and without preparation, the bloggers’ comparisons with jazz musicians seemed to suggest a more specific type of improvisation based on accumulated skill and training. Years ago, I dabbled in jazz improvisation, and was also involved with improv comedy as a performer and a musician improvising live scores to long-form improvised stories. I have also watched numerous sessions of contact improvisation, a movement system of ‘spontaneous physical dialogues‘. Exposure to each of these practices highlights that they involve much more than speaking or acting ‘off the cuff’. They depend upon systems of rules and conventions that guide interactions between participants (and audiences). Improvisation is always occurring within particular contexts and structures. The question is therefore which academic structures we are seeking to escape and which we are reproducing through experiments with improvisation.

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

photo by David Olivari via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 2.0 License

Starting from some of the principles of specific improv practices suggests what else could be gained by making improvisation a normal part of academic practice. In improv comedy, the interactions between performers are guided by basic rules that include a) don’t deny what other people say, b) there are no mistakes and c) the principle of ‘yes, and…’ wherein you always accept what others tell you as true and then build upon it. Trust is also crucial within this form and within contact improv, which adds a focus on physically supporting and giving weight to your dancing partner. When trying to imagine how these principles might apply to academic settings, it becomes clear that the keynote speech is a poor point of reference because it does not involve the same degree of interpersonal interaction as comedy or dance. Yes, academics may draw upon other authors (thanks to many hours of reading their work), but this gathering together is not the same as live discussion (e.g. round tables). Moreover, academics are regularly taught to break the ‘yes, and’ rule. Always accepting what other scholars say is a sign of weakness in a culture where critique is lauded and ‘new’, ‘innovative’ research is encouraged.

But there are many times when academics are a part of live interactions. The public exhibition I produced with colleagues last April was one such context, in which we found ourselves madly improvising when it became apparent that people were not interested in just silently reading the many posters we had prepared. PhD supervisions and group research meetings are others – and here trust, support, and embracing a sense that there are no mistakes can be crucial for the quality of ensuing results.

As much as I find the idea of improvising public lectures interesting then, I think any attempt to embed improvisation within academic practice would benefit from considering the term, its many models, and their implications in more detail. Though improvisation might be understood as something that frees the mind “from reproducing past social structures“, my experience with improv has been more often about recognizing structures and learning to play within them – realizing how jazz pianists play around with the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes within any chord progression and how new audience suggestions can make the same structure of interactions play out differently (as improv games like those on Whose Line Is It Anyway illustrate). Creating new structures proceeds alongside this recognition of existing ones. The question then is not only to improvise or not improvise keynote speeches or classroom lectures, but why do we continue to prioritize keynotes and lectures in the first place? How might prioritizing trust and support in academic encounters shift our attention – for instance to kindness and slowness instead of competition and speed? What would happen to research and teaching interactions if we created more contexts reproducing ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but’?

Where we learn what we know

How do you find out about what is going on in the world? What is news for you? Where is it found? How does it speak to you and upon what is it based?

My interactions with ‘news’ have changed multiples times during my life, alongside changes in technology and my own repeated migrations. Reading papers based in multiple countries changed my understandings of what is ‘newsworthy’ by highlighting that news in one place isn’t always news in another, and ‘local’ figures can sometimes become ‘global’ ones (as the controversies around Toronto mayor Rob Ford have illustrated). But what about the newspapers or news sites themselves – how do their models help to shape what is news?

For the last year, I have been a regular reader of The Conversation UK, an online news source with Australian and UK editions. Unlike some news aggregate sites that primarily re-post stories from other sources, The Conversation commissions all of its articles under creative commons licenses that allow them to be re-published elsewhere. Since The Conversation only publishes articles written by researchers who are experts in their fields, readers can also have confidence that the news on the site is informed and measured. While some posts address current events, others discuss topics such as typography, Facebook privacy concerns, robot swarms and electric cars.  Having been an author as well as a reader, I thought I would present my top 5 reasons for reading, and top 5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation. If you’d like to hear more about my experience of working with The Conversation, feel free to get in touch.

5 reasons for reading The Conversation

  • It is a not-for-profit organization, and all authors are required to disclose any funding they receive, so there is less concern that the news is being influenced by corporate interests.
  • It is committed to making quality research findings available to a wider audience, in order to help people better understand complexities of current issues.
  • It provides a different take on current events than major newspapers, as well as presenting a wider range of ‘newsworthy’ topics.
  • The creative commons licenses and re-publishing model emphasize the point that news shouldn’t be something that companies own – knowledge is a public good.
  • It recognizes the importance of ethical journalism, and doesn’t have any advertisements in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

5 suggestions for new contributors to The Conversation

  • Be realistic about the differences between academic writing and the blog-type style of The Conversation pieces, and then enjoy exploring them.
  • If you’re interested in ‘pitching’ a new story idea to one of the editors, be clear about its message and be persistent in following up.
  • Raise your online profile through blogging elsewhere. The Conversation works with a traditional news model of commissioning stories related to current events, and prospective authors are at times found through online searches of university domains (e.g. .ac.uk). Blogging for institutional or personal websites will make it more likely that your name will come up if one of the editors is looking for someone with your particular expertise to comment on a recent event.
  • Recognize that the timelines that journalist/editors work to are much shorter than those in academic publishing and approach the time-pressed collaboration with an open mind.
  • Share your piece widely online after publishing. Since The Conversation encourages and actively seeks re-publishing, getting your article picked up by a major news organization or aggregator can help your work to reach an even larger audience.

If you’re interested in the articles I have contributed to The Conversation, they address the absurdity of how often we talk about ‘keeping the lights on’ when our energy challenges are much more complex and how policy areas can overlap – with for instance changes in educational policy having potential consequences for energy and sustainability.