Reflections on “Amplified Events Workshop for PhD Students” and research cultures more generally. (Snappy title..)

After being postponed due to snow before Christmas (these things happen in Scotland) I finally got to deliver my workshop on Amplified Events to UWS’s PhD cohort. As expected, it wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be (I deliberately decided not to water it down with “WEB 2.0!!” and “SOCIAL MEDIA” buzzwords – perhaps I should have, but I hate tacking on 2.0 to things to make it sound like progress. The word ‘amplified‘ is misused enough.) Unlike last time (Academic 2.0 – #killmenow) which gathered 30+  – I had 10 registered and 5 turn up. If we were talking bums on seats, that would have been a big waste of resources – however- I had 5 really interesting and exciting people who were doing different and interesting things within the University – people I would have not have met had they not chose to sign up to the workshop. Certainly, I would have not been able to engage in the same way if it was like the last time – lots of people, abilities and expectations.

The last time it felt like I was participating in a tick box exercise (like – hey, you know how to work powerpoint [tick], you know how to make a academic poster [tick], you heard about social media being used in different contexts [tick]) and through discussions about learning and teaching strategies (in different contexts) I had an inclination that much of the stuff that I would like to really do wasn’t particular suited to this particular workshop environment.

Nevertheless, I had to go through this process (and the opportunity arose when there was some funds to facilitate PhDs training PhDs in their own skillset) before I could really make a judgement that this wasn’t going to work as the best way to facilitate a ‘digital’ research culture – at least amongst my peers. I use the term ‘digital’ loosely as it’s much more of a concept around pervasive technology, shifting attitudes – rather than simply an attempt to get people online and using twitter (the new common misconception) – it needs to stick, it needs to have a long term projection, it needs to fit as part of the University’s overall vision – otherwise it would be easier to just run “this is how to work twitter 101” or “how to blog” events in the same frame as powerpoint workshops. This is a much bigger beastie than a couple of sessions on ‘web 2.0’ – this is a transformative step for where our school (@UWSCreative) can be at the heart of such discussions around campuses. 

Therefore, part of the overarching philosophy which is consistently framing the direction in which I would like to take my work practice is around the notion of open access. If there are only going to be 5 people in the room – arrived at through their interpretation of the way in which the workshop is promoted – then what is the harm in sticking the content and the workshop online for others to take part in. The training was funded out of a particular pot dedicated to training PhDs – not anything else. This raises questions of ownership and responsibility in terms of costs etc – BUT – What’s stopping the session being opened up the wider community at large, would it not be better to encourage a wider research community than it would be to treat social media as a tacked on session for a tacked on community of PhDs who actually would do no harm in integrating with everyone who is doing research, not just other PhD students. I’d say that that would/should be the next steps…

The irony is that the solution is being stared at in the face – the fact that workshops in social media (demonstrating the potential to ‘democratise’ structures that have never been seen in this way before – I always use extreme examples of occupied space or challenging the conventions through hacking or activism to case in point)  can’t result in social media being picked up, ran with and stuck is probably one of the reasons why investing frequent and often one sided workshops in social media is destined to fail (if to succeed is to see those attending actually trying something out and reporting back on it.) I can plant a few ideas in the heads of the people who are already using it (like today – most had interesting stories about bad conference presentations or ways in which media technology had enhanced their life/work) but it’s not really about them – we should be doing more with that in general anyway. It’s the many others who are reliant on fusty, controlled systems, locked down windows machines and the “stability” of the 9-5 physical workplace (and potentially still using internet explorer 6!) – too busy to engage new ideas or think critically about this existing practice. Their world is the university owned and controlled machine and the outlook email box that they can switch off at 5pm on a Friday (I certainly can’t imagine suggesting they blog at 10pm on a Friday night ;-)). And there is so much we could do to make that world a much more useful and efficient and a place where those who work in that environment are trusted to make their own decisions about what they do on their computers and with their online presence.

Through ongoing work at UWS, I know there is a real shift in the culture of our school. There are some existing ‘hubs’ (an overused word but the best way to describe what it is) – we’ve now got a space in Paisley, having always existed in Ayr, making the School visible to the other departments on the main campus. This is useful for a number of reasons, but with talks of developing a creative space to work and run sessions, it could be that drop in sessions and open door policy for people to stick their head in to ask questions and enquiry about the stuff that we do as a research centre/media academy is a better approach. 

Citizen’s Eye, for example, are already running informal sessions in Leicester where anyone can pop into particular coffee shops on certain days and learn how to use twitter in 20 minutes, facebook in 40 minutes – that’s all it really takes. It doesn’t need anymore than that – and often those who are trainees tend to be the trainers at the next session. They debunk the myths and it allows people to move forward with cooler things. It’s about planting seeds and hoping they take hold and grow, not filling people’s heads and melting their brains with as much as you can in three hours because that’s the only time we can do that. I can see the hub being a space where, amongst lots of other things, we can let it be known that there are people there who can help people help themselves. The emphasis being that it is an open space where this dialogue and relationship can happen and be seen. There really is so much potential and I know that with UWS these are open doors that can only really get wider. 

So really, I just wanted to write down my reflections from running the sessions, I’ll probably finish the ‘official’ post that goes with the slides at another point – so much stuff to just think about when moving towards some of these things being actualised in the future.