What my students can learn about placement reports from ‘Steve Jobs’

That’s Steve Jobs not Steve Jobs, and actually it’s about what they can learn for all evaluation and reflection, not just what they can learn about their placement reports.

I’m currently working with students on drafts of a piece of personal evaluation and reflection based on industry placements they have had within the creative and cultural industries. The thing that all students try to do is tell me the A-Z story of what they did last summer, but that’s not what I want them to do. I want them to tell me a story worth telling, by finding some moments of drama and using that to craft a narrative from which we can both, reader and writer, learn.

So here’s where we link to Steve Jobs. The people behind that movie, and especially the writer Aaron Sorkin, have spent weeks going around telling everybody that they’ve made a portrait, not a biopic:

A biopic would be a cradle-to-grave story. It would be something much closer to a Wikipedia page dramatized. Do you remember the movie from a few years ago, The Queen, with Helen Mirren? That wasn’t the biopic about Queen Elizabeth. She was at the center of the movie, but it’s about six days in Queen Elizabeth’s life.

Sorkin, interviewed by Steven Levy

We can learn more from a portrait which finds the nub of the matter and distills into impressionistic moments. A placement report — any piece of critical evaluation — that just shows a project does little to tell me about it. The cradle-to-grave, the A-Z, is factual and dry, disinterested and uninteresting. Any lived experience contains drama, any work placement or project contains key moments where we learn. So students, paint me a painting, create an impression of the moments when everything turned and you learned about yourself, about work, about the world. You can’t all be like Steve Jobs, but you can all be like Steve Jobs.

The Contributoria Tapes: Tell your own story

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

My third pass through the Contributoria process was during the July pitch / August writing window, where the theme was “Independence”. Independent and alternative media has been one of my personal interests since my undergraduate days, and a lot of the work that I did back then informed the eventual direction of my PhD project on hyperlocal media, so I jumped at the chance to pitch something that went in this direction.

The premise of the pitch was that I’d try to find someone and help them to make something, the final angle of the piece was that you can’t just go out into the world with a bag of good intentions. I got an editorial rebuke for not finding someone to make media with (it’s in the now deleted draft comments), but I think the angle that I have here is much more important than yet another puff piece that celebrates what “citizens” can do with the phone in their pocket. Crucially for me I achieved something that I set out to do which is to take the things we teach and think about in the university and package them as a piece of journalism. This isn’t research but it is an academically led piece of non-academic writing — and it’s something I can use with my students as background reading when we talk about media independence and technology.

A final side note, I copied the text back from the Contributoria page as my personal copy was missing a conclusion (I remember filing this right up to the deadline) and I spotted a glaring typo in the last par. There are probably more typos in there. Articles did get edited and subbed but often typos were missed. It was probably a weakness in the month by month process that the Contributoria  staff only ever had a few days to get everything polished — usually the copy deadline was 3-4 days before the launch day on the 1st of the following month. Another problem with this process comes when we think about the much vaunted “openness” of Contributoria as a collaborative process. As much as members could view writers’ drafts and leave comments whenever a writer pushed them to the review stage, the sub-editing process was rather clandestine, and there was no chance to review or discuss any changes that were being made.

Tell your own story: an adventure in media independence

What we mean by media independence is always hard to define and something that can be argued. In its purest sense, independent media would be a story told by its own actors, in their own words, on their own terms, for their own ends. Responding to this month’s Contributoria call around independence I decided to give my words to someone else.

The pitch was simple: instead of finding something out and telling you the story as framed by my experiences and prejudices, I’d find someone and give them this page to tell their own story. I’d give them my platform and also my experience; I’d help them to craft a story.

What is independent journalism?

There are many ways to commit an act of independent journalism, and every act will have its independence called into question because journalism is inevitably a process of compromises: the deadline, the column space or format, the money – these are just three factors external to a story that drive it and give it shape.

Our commercial media – the TV, radio, newspapers and their associated online platforms – are the most tightly regulated and managed forms of storytelling in our day-to-day lives but there have always existed alternative media, where producers work with fewer restrictions, with greater independence.

Media researchers have been interested for some time in these alternative media practices, charting them back to the radical press (which, as media scholars like Susan Forde argue, predate what we now think of mainstream journalism) and through a series of movements and moments throughout the 20th century to the present day.

Alternative and independent media take many forms, both in terms of the thing created (films, newspapers, photographs) and the manner of the practice itself. When teaching about this I explain to students that independent media workers operate in three main modes: auteurship, enablement and collaboration. Auteurs find a story to tell. Enablers find a story that needs to be told and empower those affected to tell it. Collaborators combine authorship and their production craft with a level of enablement for the actors in the story.

To share your skills and knowledge with others is a wonderful thing and to do it with tools of communication is an act in the redistribution of power. To go beyond that and to give up control of your platform is an even more potent political act. That’s why so few people do it, that’s why I needed to do it.

What’s the story?

As soon as I was backed the first and most obvious thing I needed to think about was: where do I find a story? Or rather, where do I find someone with a story to tell?

If we look at the history of something like community video in the 1970s and 1980s for an answer we see one immediate difficulty. In his 1980 book Street Video, Graham Wade describes a series of video workshops. The workshops had a presence; they had some space and facilities. Although they did have to actively go out and engage with people, people could also come to them; there was something there for help with telling stories (and those stories were told through video). Wade co-wrote another book, Community Media, with Heinz Nigg, which looked a little broader than just video but again told a similar story; community and participatory media in the 70s and 80s revolved around collectives that existed to facilitate storytelling for those who needed it and that existed as beacons to which people with stories to tell might come.

I didn’t have a place where people could find me and I didn’t have funding (except for the promise of a cheque from Contributoria at some point in September). I didn’t even have a specific technology through which I was framing my work. I’d need to go out and find somebody who had these things, to try to work with them.

Get yourself a stall

I thought some more about the idea of a signposted place, the place you can come to and someone will be there to help you make something. There’s something I’ve volunteered at before called the Birmingham Social Media Surgery. The surgery has a time and a place and operates on a drop-in basis. The idea is for those who can do interesting things with the internet to help other people to do them too. It seemed to be just the sort of thing that would get me out among people who could use my help. There was just one problem; the surgery runs on an ad hoc basis, and there was nothing happening during the month I had to write this piece. Is that problematic, in the big picture? That help is there but only occasionally? I think it may well be.

So what other spaces are there that I could work with?

I struggled to think of anything local to me where I could just sit and stuff would happen. There used to be a place in Tamworth that I worked at called the Palace Media Centre but that’s gone (the website for the live music venue that took on the building seems to be down too). We used to offer support on a number of things there, including offering formal training courses in media production to people from the community. It was council-run and it closed long before the current run of austerity cuts.

Pete Ashton used to do something interesting where he’d sit in a café and you could just come and talk to him. It’s an interesting model. Pete would make his availability known via Twitter and people would pop down to pick his brains. I thought about doing this, about advertising an open surgery that was just me, ready and willing to help you tell a story. How would I advertise such a thing? To advertise online would skew the audience towards internet people, which meant, I figured, I’d get a lot of people who just want “help with the internet”. That’s certainly what Pete’s intervention was about. That’s not quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people to tell a story. I gave some serious thought to putting a sign in the newsagent’s window to see if anyone would want any help. I figured that taking the offer offline might put the focus on the story.

I did it, just to see what would happen.

Get yourself a technology

I was shying away from making this a project about the web. That was, perhaps a mistake. It’s almost inevitable that in contemporary media practice “the internet” will become a part of an intervention – the affordances of web-based tools (cheap to produce on, with potential to scale distribution at near enough zero cost) make them an obvious choice. There was a chance to set up shop and say “here I am, I have the internet”.

For the video workshops the medium, video itself, was an important part of their work – as important perhaps as the stories told with it. New forms of media (and yes, kids, video used to be new) are often invested with utopian potential (to tell more things better, to be democratising). So the pitch for the video workshops was “here we are, we have video”. Successive periods of alternative and independent media can be marked out by technologies that allowed for reductions in the cost of production and distribution of messages; so lithography produces a wave of work, as does the photocopier, the rise of video and of course the rise of the web. I didn’t have that: a technological novelty to sell, perhaps that’s I needed? Perhaps I needed to lead with the internet?

What is the web’s equivalent of a video workshop? A collective of people who try to help people use the internet for communication? Those social media surgeries I mentioned offered something quite close. Social Media Surgery+ is a network of events loosely organised on similar lines to one another, to which people might come to learn. I’ve been to social media surgeries before and the sort of assistance given varies and is needs-driven; I’ve helped someone register accounts on Twitter or set up a WordPress site, and I’ve even helped people to design a collaborative back-office for their group using Google Drive and Dropbox. This does have that community media workshop vibe, but the models aren’t exactly the same. A video workshop was a constituted group in a known place whereas social media surgeries are more ad hoc both in the times and places where they run and in their formal constitution. The overarching organisation is linked to a company and has been given recognition for its work but at the local level the delivery of activities is not guaranteed and is temporary.

Get yourself a cause

While workshops and groups were constituted media first, the other place where alternative media comes from is from social movements or as a responses to social problems. Again, historically, alternative and community media are full of examples of projects emerging as a direct response to a problem. Often hyperlocal websites are constituted in this way, with the classic origin story being “the local media just wasn’t speaking about this community so we set up our own alternative“.

I’d had no replies to my advert. I needed to find a cause.

I rescued the local paper, the freesheet, from the recycling. What are the issues of the day, the pressures in my community? Adverts for houses and secondhand cars, press releases about charity events. I’d drawn a blank again. Where are the stories? Where are the problems? Who is telling them and how?

Where did all the independent media go?

I tracked down Heinz Nigg, one of the writers of the book Community Media. In it, Heinz and co-author Graham Wade describe the workings of community media groups back in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Now based in Zurich where he continues to have an interest in studying this field, Heinz and I sat down for a long chat via Skype about his work and about community media.

Had I got it right, the way I’d characterised those workshops as beacons where stories could be told? “Yes, your perception of that community and radical media landscape of the 70s and 80s is correct”, Heinz told me. So what exists now that fills that sort of space? We talked about the Community Media Association, which is a membership body that speaks on behalf of community media organisations to government about policy. While the CMA charter has a requirement for members to be engaged in training, I pointed out to Heinz that within 25 miles of where I live in north Birmingham the members of the CMA were exclusively community radio stations with particular remits; training within these organisations would be quite instrumental towards maintaining outputs, to filling dead air.

I mentioned the notion that social media surgeries might be the heir apparent to community media workshops. Heinz raised some important questions: “What is the ideological and political context of these surgeries? Who should be profiting from it and for what aims? Is it a Tory approach of self-help or a more radical approach of counter-information? I think it is important to reflect this societal context of different do-it-yourself media approaches. Otherwise it becomes very vague and a bit nebulous.”

We applied this as a thought experiment, not just to social media surgeries but other contemporary alternative media. So social media surgeries allow people to learn more things, but are apolitical in a way that community media workshops perhaps were not. Similarly the incorporation of a hyperlocal media project is a political act but sustained hyperlocal production tends simply to ape the texts that would have been produced by a commercial media operator. There are radical moments that activate individuals and enable them as producers but there is not necessarily a sustained political action through the work itself.

There are people now having access to all kinds of equipment but do they make use of it?

Heinz told me about some of the social movements he’d worked with around Europe and how they are documented through a combination of banal personal media production and professional documentary making. The former is cheap and plentiful, but only tells a story through fragments, the latter is expensive but is crafted.

“I was in Brussels this June for a big demonstration of illegal immigrants. There everybody was having their iPhones up and filming and documenting. But is it coherent? Is there a concept involved in it? Or is it a one off activity? Are those films being edited? Is there a story being told? Are they being shown again live? Or is it just made?” Heinz said.

All media are shaped by their determinants, the limitations and structures placed upon them. I only have a month from commissioning to delivery to turn around a Contributoria article, a newspaper writer only has so many columns to tell you a full story and we can all only produce within the limitations of our knowledge and our tools.

It is easy to capture moments, but harder to tell a story. Yet, I think, we’re increasingly telling ourselves that we are all storytellers. There’s a danger here that we hide behind our tools and forget to tell stories. There’s a danger that we are so enamoured by the potential of our personal media devices that we don’t ask for help. We don’t expect there to be places where we can go for help. We just upload, and we hope.

The Contributoria Tapes: Can you really live on ‘social capital’?

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

This was my first piece for Contributoria — a response to that month’s suggested editorial theme “The Future of Money”. It was a gentle troll, as quite a few of my pieces were, of the very basis of the website. I flagged this up in my proposal (which used to be in the public domain but has already been hidden from the “archive” version of Contributoria). I can’t remember what I said in the proposal but it was something along the lines of “I may not prove that you can live on social capital, but if you back this I’ll have used it to pay for my summer holiday”. And I did. And I had a lovely time.

This piece got a lot of “feature” attention from Contributoria — the editors chose certain pieces to highlight that exemplified… something. Feature pieces were promoted through tweets, page positions not he website, inclusion in email updates and in a printed newspaper edition of each issue. To be honest it was never clear what they editors wanted form us or how they chose what they pushed and what they didn’t. One of the key challenges I had in dealing with the Contributoria staff was trying to deal with their very opaque editorial processes. There was a real irony to this: their public voice very much championed ideas of openness and collaboration and yet their processes were very closed. I’ll get into this more in later posts, but it’s worth establishing the point here.

Lloyd Davis, my main interviewee, was an absolute star. His story is really fascinating and, for me at least, quite challenging. Go read more about it — but not until you read what I say about it.

Let them eat social capital: what the hell is social capital anyway? And can you live on it?

You’ve probably heard of social capital. What you think social capital is will vary according to who explained it to you, but let’s start with the idea that it’s something a bit like money: it’s a currency we can trade or barter in, it’s the value of our networked selves, it’s a measure of worth.

Growing up in the 1980s on a diet of space operas, sci-fi comics and computer games, I was never in any doubt that in the future we’d move away from pounds, dollars and francs to unite behind one currency: Credits (or Creds, for short). You can only imagine my disappointment when the Eurozone missed a trick and chose to call their single currency the Euro. Sci-fi has moved on and while the Credits cliché is still doing good business, the future of money has moved on too. In Cory Doctrow’s Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, characters trade in Whuffie, a future currency pegged to one’s social capital:

“I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success.”

Obviously we’re not quite there yet; you can’t go to the bar and “piss away” most of your Whuffie as Doctrow’s characters can but social capital is increasingly talked about and valued in contemporary society. In the same year that Down and out in the Magic Kingdom was published, academic researcher Qihai Huang noted that academic interest in the term ‘social capital’ had exploded through the 1990s and into the start of the 2000s. This academic interest isn’t just abstract, ivory tower work, rather it informs and reflects contemporaneous public policy work from local level initiatives to the decision making and operations of the World Bank. The rockstar academic of this field is Robert Putnam who, building on the work of James Coleman, provided a model to measure social capital; in the bestselling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Putnam linked the membership of clubs and societies to the amount of social capital in a community – and he found America’s cupboards to be pretty bare. His book’s title comes from the observation that, in the 90s communities he studied, people went to bowling allies in small family and friendship groups, not in community leagues as they might have done earlier in the 20th century. Putnam was concerned with the decline of public engagement in all aspects of civic life and measuring social capital gave him a bellwether to track it. If you follow Putnam’s logic then the development of social capital, by encouraging networks to develop, can lead to improvements in civic life and better outcomes for communities and for the individuals within them. Indeed, this is the thinking that the World Bank is using: by actively developing social capital they can build communities that are more resilient and better able to function (in the way that the World Bank needs them to).

At this point it is useful to ask ourselves again: what on Earth is social capital, anyway? The origination of the term ‘social capital’ is most commonly attributed to the French scholar and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu who defined it as the:

‘aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’

Or put another way, social capital is the value of your access to a set of collectively owned resources that you have in common with a group; it is the value of the network (which is what Putnam and his heirs are trying to measure) but it’s also an individual measure of one’s ability to access and make calls on the resources. Doctrow’s Whuffie is a measure of the latter: it’s the esteem that allows an individual to draw upon the shared resources. In a sense Whuffie is already here because every time you ask a group of people for help you are drawing on social capital and you’re spending against your standing with that group. We all do this every day, every time we ask for help and that help is given with no expectation of payment. But would it be possible to live on social capital alone? Lloyd Davis, a social artist and community builder, has tried.

Lloyd started a networking group for people interested in the social web called Tuttle Club. In 2010 a group of Tuttle Club members took an extended trip to the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. The group took a longer than needed route, documenting things as they went and planned the whole adventure by asking their network for ideas and to help them raise funds. For his trip to the festival in 2011, Lloyd had a much more ambitious plan: to get across the USA, coast to coast, relying solely on the power of his network.

“The inspiration for it was that I was fed up with having theoretical conversations about what you might be able to do with this stuff that you accrue from participating in online social networks” he told me. “Some people like to term that as what’s the ‘return on investment in contributing to social media’. And so I was flippantly saying the return on social investment is social capital.”

Lloyd flew to San Francisco on the 1st March 2011. What followed was an odyssey that was part Phileas Fogg, part Dice Man: Lloyd had no itinerary, no accommodation, very little cash but he did have a plane ticket home from New York on the 31st March and he did have his network.

“I had no idea how I was going to get from there to New York and I certainly didn’t have enough money to just buy a plane ticket. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see what would happen if I just showed up in a town and said ‘OK I’m trying to get from here to South By Southwest. Which way can I go and who can I go stay with along the way?’”

Lloyd’s trip relied on his network planning and guiding his route for him, sending him to see and do interesting things and finding places for him to stay. In this way he was able to test the social capital of his network: could they really get him across the States, just on the power of their connections? In the end they could; Lloyd made it New York and he made it South By Southwest too but strangely it was at South By Southwest, that Mecca of the Digerati, amongst his own people, the people who should really have understood his project, that things nearly came undone for Lloyd: he got stuck at South By.

“I’d get leads of people who were supposedly driving from Austin to New Orleans and would be happy to take me and then when I actually got onto them they’d say ‘No. I don’t know who you are. This is a bit weird. Leave us alone please!’”

In the end of course, he found a place to rest and regroup in Texas and he did get to New Orleans where, with excellent narrative rhythm, Lloyd went from a dramatic bottoming out to have his most memorable moments of the trip right there in Lafayette.

But the kindness of strangers can only get you so far; cash was needed for Lloyd’s trip too but social capital can manifest as money. For Lloyd it was simply a case of asking, though learning to ask for things, and to take them, was, he says, a big part of the journey. He was able to raise money through a crowdfunding drive to cover a wide range of things: flights, a rail pass, sundries but also the capital needed to sustain his domestic situation back in the UK.

Reactions to his funding call were mixed at the time. Some people were only to happy to contribute, others accused Lloyd of simply begging money to fund his holiday and his whims. Lloyd puts a lot of the negative reaction down to jealousy, and I can see how that might be the case: it’s a neat idea, it’s a great adventure, and there’s definitely a book in it. There’s something else though, something which I remember thinking at the time: asking people to fund your entire life – your rent, your bills, all of your commitments – for a month while you put that life on hold and go to America blogging is hugely provocative. We can react to that with excitement and awe, but we’re as likely to push back at it because there is something fundamentally challenging about boxing off life, putting a price on it, and then asking for that price to just go away for a while. I put that to Lloyd: how could he ask for those things? How could that possibly be acceptable? “I call myself a social artist and part of that is about asking for things that are unacceptable” he told me. There’s something in that, I think: we won’t ever find the acceptable limits of behaviour unless someone pushes at the edges.

Lloyd’s trip was a brief adventure in living precariously but afterwards he continued to live a nomadic life in the UK, taking on projects and moving across the country to anywhere he was needed, so long as they could find him a bed. Social capital was at the heart of this, but it’s hard to sustain yourself on that alone. Lloyd talked about his adventures with living through his network as being about “a money economy plus something else”. “I do live in the money world” he told me “I haven’t completely opted out. I haven’t had the balls to do that basically”. So you can’t live on social capital alone, it would seem but if you are happy to live precariously it can get you a long way: it can get you across a continent.

So, we may be a while off living in a world where we can spend freely on our reputations, but in the meantime we can live in “the money economy plus” and if you know how to work the network, you could maybe get a little richer. I spoke to Nick Booth whose company specialises in showing organisations how to use social media for social good about some of the more day to day ways in which focussing on social capital might help you to become better off: “a big part of my work is persuading public services or charities that if they concentrate on getting relationships right regardless of what they’re for, when they need to make something happen it’ll happen better.”

Nick’s idea then, his concept of social capital, is that it needs to be built over a period of time so that it can be called upon and used for action; it’s an ongoing process that builds a network and what Nick terms “a stock pot of social capital”. “I talk quite a lot about groups like Birmingham Bloggers and the Grassroots Channel as accidental mechanisms by which people in Birmingham acquired social capital” he told me “and they went on to do things with it. But they didn’t set out to acquire it to do those things.”

So a network can build social capital overtime and then can be pushed towards an action that wasn’t known at the outset. Nick offered some case studies: “Jon Bounds doing the Big City Plan Talk website or Stef and other people doing the BCC DIY website or me and others growing the Social Media Surgery network they were only really achievable because of the times people had spent getting pissed together or dicking around together. So they were built almost entirely on social capital. All of those three things happened without any money. They were built on individual will and social capital.”

When Lloyd Davis started talking to people about the social web, was he playing a long con just to get the network to pay for him to cross America? I don’t think so, but nonetheless that’s an outcome he got from working hard to run events for people. Lloyd built a network and he developed a right to call on it to do things. Although what he asked for, a month of travel paid for by friends and strangers, sounds like a lot, he’s probably still in credit; Nick Booth suggested to me that Lloyd’s Tuttle club has helped dozens of people to meet the right partners at the right time and to push forward with new businesses and so, he suggested to me, the value, in money terms, that others have taken from the network is much higher than anything Lloyd has ever taken out. That’s a good point. I feel a little bad now for asking Lloyd if he thought he was a “social capitalist”, extracting surplus value from his network, taking a social profit as dividend. That question surprised Lloyd a little, but he conceded that it could look like that.

So that’s social capital then: a possible future for what we now call money, but also real now and able to enrich your soul if not your bank balance. Though of course, if we are cynical about it in the “economy plus” of money and Whuffie, we can lever our network towards a profit. Here’s a final example: you’re reading this work because it was backed by Contributoria’s members. This is a growing community but within it are groups of people who know each other already and have a track record of communal action. It took me three direct messages to people in my network to get enough points to flow in to back my article. I couldn’t live on my social capital as Lloyd did, but it can help me to achieve an outcome and in this case it’ll pay for my summer holiday. I’ll be sure to send you all a postcard to share.

Lloyd recorded our interview in full and it is available on his blog

You’ll find a summary of some academic literature on social capital and a list of references on my work blog

“Support tickets” in production classrooms

I’m just doing my annual module review forms for 2014-15 and so I’m being asked, by the form, to note any examples of “good practice” in the way I’m delivering the material. Now obviously I’d hope all of my teaching practice was good, but I take the question to actually mean “what do you do that’s interesting that other people might consider doing too?” Here’s one of the things we’ve been doing that others might like to try: support tickets in production class rooms.

The context in which we use this is a skills based level 4 / year 1 module that teaches introductory HTML, CSS and a little bit of PHP (within the production of WordPress sites). It’s a large class, mixed ability, with students on very different trajectories: some will stop here, knowing a little about web production, others will go on to develop this is their main area of practice. The design of the module is 5 weeks of 3 hour workshops where we introduce core skills and then 3 weeks of 8 hour production days — open studio time where students respond to a web design challenge.

Production days are intensive. Some students are still developing core competencies and need support in overcoming barriers to their learning and attainment whilst others are racing ahead pushing beyond the core material and hungry to learn more. This means that we might have one student who is stuck writing HTML to produce a hyperlink on their page, another struggling to understand the box model and another asking for support with a WordPress functions file.

The support ticket system operates using post-it notes. Whenever a student has a query, they need to write a ticket on the post-it and then add it to the support queue. Here’s what I’ve said about this in my annual review

Students are encouraged to articulate technical queries in writing, and then submit this as a “support ticket” to a “queue” on the classroom wall.

Many times students can resolve their ticket before they submit it, simply by thinking through the problem rather than raising their hand as soon as they reach a block.

Students can also see how long it will be until their query is resolved as it is in a clear queue. This allows them to set aside the problem for a while and move onto something more productive (rather than just putting a hand up and waiting).

The support ticket system also facilitates peer support: students can see their classmates’  problems and have been known to offer solutions to one another.

Finally the support ticket system allows staff to quickly spot patterns and common queries which might be best resolved in one response to the whole class. Ad hoc presentations and workshop tasks can be designed that respond to a  clear gap in the knowledge of the class.

This system was devised and refined with my colleague Nick Moreton, with whom I share the teaching on our first year new media production skills module. We’ve run this system for three years with four class groups per year and it has proven a very effective way of supporting students in skills based teaching. And it uses post-its which, lets face it, are the best single learning and teaching technology ever devised 😉

Collaborative Learning in Media Education

What seems like a very long time ago now indeed Paul Bradshaw, Jennifer Jones, and I ran a project we called Stories and Streams — an attempt to address a number of problems we were finding in the way that our students “consumed” their learning. In the project we sought to engage students in the design and delivery of the curriculum each week, forcing them to break out of their tendency to ask for answers to be delivered to them in pre-written chunks of knowledge.

We had a few bit of money from here and there to develop a new approach to our teaching, and to talk to other folk about it. Part of the talking about it led to Paul and I (Jen was away, iirc) presenting our work at a HEA seminar in Winchester back in May 2012.

The event, Exploring Collaborative Learning, has now become a book Collaborative Learning in Media Education. It’s quite expensive in print but you can pick it up for under a tenner on Kindle.

One of the presentations from the event, by Einar Thorsen on the use of wikis in collaborative reading and note taking, really stood out on the day and is something I’ve incorporated into my own teaching since. Einar’s chapter is probably the highlight for me, then, but I hope that if you get a copy you also enjoy Stories and Streams and let me know if there’s anything in there that you can use in your own teaching.

Harvard referencing a tweet (a guide for students)

Undergraduates often ask “how do I cite a tweet in my work”? There is a very simple answer to this: treat it like a web page, and follow your citation system’s guidance for citing web pages. Students can also take this approach when citing material on other social networks too. A quick google search should reassure students that this advice is solid, and is common enough practice in the academic community. So this post perhaps seems redundant. Well it is and it isn’t.

Why write yet another post about this? Well obviously I now have the benefit of a copy and paste FAQ answer to send to students, so that’s good for me. More importantly there’s something lacking in most of the online guidance on citing tweets (and other material too). I’m going to step back from the question “how do you cite a tweet?” for a moment and ask the students “why are you citing tweets?”.

Why are you citing a tweet?

We can do a disservice to a student by giving them the textbook answer, the very simple formula that they can find on Google. If you’re a student reading this please stop and think about your intention in citing the tweet. What is it you’re actually doing?

There are, I think, three occasions when you might be looking to use material from Twitter in your work (or from Facebook, Instagram… let’s just agree that Twitter is a stand in now for current and future social media). Each of these three contexts leads us to a different answer on how to “cite” the tweet. So let’s look at that.

1. You are studying a data corpus made up of tweets.

OK, stop right there. If your primary work involves analysing tweets you probably aren’t actually going to  cite them as such – not in the Harvard referencing sense. I mean, you might but you probably won’t. The problem of how to cite these tweets now becomes a matter of project design. There will be ethical considerations here: does your methodology require you to anonymise the data? Well then you ain’t gonna Harvard reference that, are you? Take a look at this open access journal article by Ruth Deller to see how she reports anonymised tweets within her work.

2. You are referencing a comment made on Twitter about something important.

Someone who you think of as an interesting scholar or commentator has said something on the Internet! It could be tempting to take that tweet and build it into a literature review. Is that actually the right thing to do? It could be, but look again at what they’ve said.

Have they quoted the salient point from an article and tweeted a link? Consider this tweet from academic Will Brooker:

Well this is depressing – women have to be 2.5 times more ‘productive’ than men to get funding http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/apr/15/sexism-disadvantage-women-academics

Although he gives you a headline stat, you wouldn’t quote and cite this tweet. The more appropriate step to take is to go to the article and read it yourself, then quote from it and cite that.

Have they made a comment that they expand upon elsewhere (and in more than 140 characters?). You should follow that up.

Are you 100% sure about the context in which their comment was made? Twitter is conversational, and conversation can take lots of interesting turns. Sarcasm, satire, jokes and retorts are all common and may need to be taken into account. Never forget that while some tweets are curated and published, others are merely snippets of chat that you’re eavesdropping on.

3. You actually are quoting something written on Twitter.

The tweet stands. It is a perfect and self-contained moment. It doesn’t relate to another article where the thought is developed fully. It is truly indicative of the thing that you need to evidence. And it’s not part of your primary research. OK, that’s cool. Go cite it.

How to cite the tweet

As I said at the top of the page: treat it as a webpage, and follow your citation system. In Harvard you’re going to use author and date when you cite and then put the full reference into your bibliography. It won’t need to be separated out into another separate bibliography, it will just be there with all the books and articles, sorted alphabetically by author name – and by author name I mean their name, not their Twitter handle.

So, for example if I were to write:

Website statistics such as those offered by Harte (2011) suggest that it is the relatively banal information that is most useful to hyperlocal audiences.

I would then put something like this in my bibliography:

Harte, D. (2011) My Bournville blog nearing its busiest day ever (3000 visits; usual 250). Combined power of ‘when is Tesco open’ and ‘when are the carols’ [Online]. Twitter. 24th December. Available: https://twitter.com/#!/daveharte/status/150631576189931520 [Accessed 3/1/12].

Note here: Dave never published a blog post about this, this was the only moment when he shared that data, and it does make a nice point. So it is in the third category of tweets in my list above. Also note that were I to quote an organisational Twitter account, I’d use an organisational author – so @bbcnews would be BBC News.

Remember: consistency

There are lots of web pages out there telling you how to cite social media content, and that’s great. However, there are differences in the way authors and institutions apply the rules of Harvard referencing. The reference I’ve put above was generated for me by EndNote, and every webpage in my EndNote database will inherit the same format. If you’re writing these by hand there’s the danger that you’ll take the template for the reference from a website that doesn’t match the rest of your formatting. Just remember: you’re citing this as a webpage, so be consistent with the way in which you are recording all the other webpages in your bibliography.

Unfamiliar Tools

So, last week I presented my 2nd year new media class with unfamiliar tools in the hope that they would think more deeply about their practice. We aimed to produce a publication that fills the gap left by the lack of an SU campus magazine.

Here’s some quick notes about what they (and I) made of the typewriter and what they did to overcome the limits of their tools:

  1. You need to think before you type. We’re all wired into the idea of having a delete key and of editing after we type. The typewriter doesn’t work like that.
  2. Press harder. Damn you need to push these keys hard. That makes typing quite tiring and makes things take longer generally to do.
  3. We have one typewriter, that’s a production bottleneck  when there are 8 of us trying to work. We need to do something else.
  4. Collage offers a solution: other people’s type is clear and easy to read, we can use that. Immediately after we started two students left the room and raided the SU for leaflets. These happened to offer us lots of clear headline text that suited our own subject matter (the university, the culture of the campus). This also added some subversion to our final piece: we are using the SU’s own publications in our reconstruction of a campus magazine.
  5. A logo: in another act of subversion, the students decided on a name that references the name of the old SU magazine Spaghetti Junction. The students called their publication Alphabetti Spaghetti. A logo was constructed using alphabetti spaghetti which was mounted onto acetate and photocopied to create a photographic image that can be mounted onto all editions.

MED5008: a manifesto.

The Manifesto

For five weeks my second year students are banned from using the Internet in their new media class. Above is our production manifesto for the first half of the term. What follows is an explanation.

Histories of alternative media* often link the arrival of new technologies with surges of alternative media production. The thinking goes like this: newer technologies reduce economic barriers to entry and afford the opportunity for more democratic access to the tools of media production. So as it gets easier (cheaper) to produce and distribute media texts, media production can be used by more groups. Through this widening of participation new forms can emerge, new stories can be told and we can even, just maybe, start to break down some of that good old fashioned mainstream media hegemony.

The module MED5008 asks second year students to consider the relationship between new media and alternative media production. In the context of the degree programme the students have acquired a number of (web design) skills in year one, and in year two we provide a number of different contexts in which they can apply those skills and learn more about them.

In the past students on this module have focused on platforms and failed to think about messages or communities. We have explained the history of alternative media to them, told them that perhaps their job is to enable people to tell stories rather than to tell stories for people, and that we will not judge their work by mainstream “professional standards” of craft skills. We can do all of those things and yet be presented with conventionally beautiful and technically solid artefacts that do not engage with anything beyond the idea of being a web designer.

Last year as part of Stories & Streams we sought to break this through a different structure. We (Jennifer Jones & I) looked at this as an issue of consumption of education towards the attainment of professional competencies (we have a chapter with Paul Bradshaw on this forthcoming, email me if you want a copy). Stories & Streams was very successful in achieving its aims with journalism students but we still felt there was something missing in the way we delivered this to those on the web & alternative media module.

This year I still hope my students will work with the online journalism class who are being taught through the Stories & Streams methodology but I have separated them from that activity for now – we may drop in later to make some interventions or to work with some of the data they are producing.

What are we doing instead?

To stop students from seeing alternative media as banal and obvious, and producing work with the same qualities, I’ve asked them to produce media to engage a community using unfamiliar tools. Those tools are: a typewriter, a photocopier, scissors and glue.

Through ongoing reflection of this practice – essentially along action research lines – I hope to open their thinking up to allow them to produce much more thoughtful work once they are given back their access to digital tools in Week 7.

Can we build a community and have a discussion through media practice using just paper and glue? What can we make within narrow limits? How had can we push the kit to achieve our goals? How can we hack the tools and hack the system to get where we want to go? And what can we take from that experience and pour back into the familiar world of our known area of practice?

* The definition thing: it’s complicated but basically alternative media might include things like community media, activist media, radical media… it covers a lot.