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Research Practices 2.0: Reflections on #RP2NOTT

Back in the summer, I was approached by Andy Coverdale to be interviewed and to help out on a project around social media for PhD students. The first part of the task was to be interviewed about how I use social media as part of my research practice, to be used as part of a web resource hosted by the University of Nottingham Graduate School. This was launched this week, ahead of an event in accompany the site.

The event, “Research Practices 2.0” was organized for PhD students and facilitated by PhD students – where alongside Andy, I was approached to join the exciting team of Kat Gupta, Warren Pearce, Claire Mann, Mark Carrigan and Emily Buchnea (who put together the interviews on the website.)

The event was made up on a range of PhD students from across the East Midlands (although there were some from Sheffield, Manchester and London) and divided across backgrounds (from fashion to biosciences) – with the format being designed to provoke and challenge the preconceptions of social media practice.

Of course, I’ve done a few of these events and training workshops before. I’m now approaching my second year of working with my own research and innovation office to provide ‘training’ in web 2.0 technologies to other PhDs, as well as offering ad-hock guest lectures to specific disciplines – such as screen acting, media studies and business studies. For me, being part of an ‘organizing committee’ rather than going it alone, was a good space to reflect on my own practices whilst also learning a lot from others.

I was charged with providing support in two seminar spaces. The first, an introduction to social media in research practice, was designed (after 2 hours discussion the week previously) with practice and individuality at the heart, deliberately moving away from fetishation of tools and technological commodities. That is, we would rather see what PhD student *do* – where they inhabit online and how they can match these spaces and behaviors together to see new things.

By doing this, both Mark (who I was working with in my session) and I were surprised by what actually came up. We are both familiar with the negative/challenging response that sometimes occur when trying to talk about social media in a space where you have no idea about the backgrounds, experience and expectations of the participants. Because often we are forced to focus on the tools.. “oh can you show the class how to use that twitter thing?” “can you give me some reasons why I should blog?” “I can’t image ever wanting to record podcasts about things.” This was different.

Through discussing what a PhD student actually does – and are expected to do, or think that they are expected to do, we got onto the issue of power, the reclamation of power and the restrictive nature of peer-reviewed journals through the formation of cliques and already established networks that have built around the publication of academic research. In the dawn of the post-Browne post-REF post-PhD world, it doesn’t take a roomful of budding Drs to see that the job market is bleak (the world is bleak), that the games that we play are engrained and the culture of ‘every person for themselves’ submission & fear are paramount for gaining and maintaining that golden career (that might not even exist to begin with!) – social media is more than a fancy buzzword that can be used a wedge to stuff existing concepts into newer shiny publications, it was a lifeline – potentially a device that can be and is being used to empower (for pockets of time certainly), to challenge and to bridge gaps – and blur lines of the linear path that we are expected to march down without question.

It was the discussion that I needed and helped me link up the different factors in my life. The praxi, the technical and the theoretical.

Methodology approaches 2.0

This conversation is ongoing – and was arrived at when we realised that people didn’t want methods when they were asked in advance, but found themselves at that point after the open plenary took us in that direction.

The thing that I always find hard when I’ve been asked to prepare something around social media methodology is the prescriptive nature of ‘methodology’. That is, we are asked (and we are asked when we teach) to treat certain methods as a ‘toolkit’ that we can select from when required. Need an audience reaction? Surveys. Need to search for bias in media? Content analysis. Etc. So when it comes to the discussion around using social media as a form of data collection & methodological approach, the sheer essence of fluid collaboration  and fluid identity online conflicts with the prescriptive nature of preparing and delivering workshops about a right/wrong way to do something expertly. Just look at anything that organizes itself around being ‘open’ – data, knowledge, source, access. To prescribe it is to fold it back into the system to be tacked on at the end of a conference, training manual & tick box exercise.

But there are grey shades in between which exist on the energy, motivation and the skills of the people who are involved at any one time. It cannot be prescribed, but it can be inspired. Through talking to others about shared issues, about helping each other out by sharing experiences and, in some cases, just f*&king doing it (which is always an issue if you are writing a grant application & working with ‘low cost’ tools..) things get done and solutions (even just for a brief pocket of time) are found. The amount of things we read, pass on and digest – that end up being more useful for others than ourselves directly conflicts with the notion we should only be watching our own back, our own institution, our own sector if we are to protect our own skin.

Social Media and Identity

Originally, I had prepared a abstract that looked like this:

“Much of social media education focuses on the need to embrace new technologies and to become competent with an array of online tools for practice. For some, the technical issue is not a problem – instead – it is the personal aspect of sharing information about yourself. Much of web 2.0 technology relies on an element of authenticity, immediacy of connection and the networking of individuals. Often, it is thought that to get the best out of the internet, you need to engage with technology on a personal and often, intimate, level. What does mean in an academic context, when often the conflict between professional and social, public and private comes into play. This interactive session will explore the challenges and opportunities that having an online identity can have. We will identify reasons to participate and issues of performing in public.”

And from that, I prepared a set of slides (like a nervous, over prepared academic tick). The fear of not knowing your audience, the fear that somebody else in the audience would make you look and feel stupid for not knowing their area through the medium of questions. Which was daft really – because it was meant to be informal – and I was working with people who responded the same way to these things as I do. But I still felt the need to prepare a wee talk, where I dropped my knowledge into the heads of other people – without engagement or room for discussion/critique.

After the morning, I decided to change it all during lunch. Instead, I got 6 screen captures from my own social media use. I brought out the good old ‘line up’ tool from my PGCert training (I knew it would come in useful when unprepared)  – and got participants to push all the tables back. Space was a big things at the event – it is difficult to critique and discuss when you are sitting like you are in primary school. All facing the ‘teacher’, waiting for knowledge to be delivered.

So it was simple. I showed the slideshow below – and asked people to move to one side (good) or the other (bad- like a sliding scale) if they felt that the activity was appropriate academic behaviour online. I took them through sharing slides, blog posts about events, dumping ideas, sharing a work-in-progress thesis online and a tweet which degraded the REF. All this metadata removed, all with timestamps & other signifiers missing.

The discussion, for me, was amazing. Especially as nobody clocked onto the fact that the things they were seeing all belonged to me. Which made the big reveal all the funnier, after a heated discussion about the dangers of using twitter and mixing professional/private life. I just couldn’t have done that without using myself as the target, it was too cruel to do otherwise – like in a space we have a moral superiority to judge behaviors out of context.

And this spontaneous exercise really made me think about the materials that I use in the sessions that I’ve delivered in the past – and how I’ve found myself getting into the loop of only showing best practice, good examples, metrics and levels of ‘success’ – when I get reflective that I realize the internet and the people I meet through these relationships and friends of friends are much more important than restricting myself to pretend I’m something more than I’m not. So.. if I’m going to tackle the issue of identity again (which I am on Friday for the PhD students at UWS) I’m going to rip up my rule book and start again.

The Research Practices 2.0 website has a wealth of resources on tools and practice, discussion and reflection and definitely worth visiting if you are thinking about running social media sessions in the future.