Phd update: 13 months on since restarting

And just like that, it’s December. I’m writing this with my last hour of my third writing retreat of the academic year 2014/2015. I wanted to use this time to give a quick update & reflection on my PhD progress, as I started 2014 with the good intention of doing monthly updates, which subsequently ended up being kept offline instead. Regardless, I’ve managed to keep to the writing schedule that I set myself when I was appealing to restart, despite working full time in a fairly intense role as a project co-ordinator. So far, I’m on track to complete my entire first draft of my thesis by the schedule that my supervisors and I had set out as part of the re-start agreement.
I’ve now bypassed my one year anniversary of attending retreats – and the difference between where I was this time last year and where I am now is night and day. I’ve been to 6 in a 13 month period, the very first one being the first time I opened my PhD document since suspending back in October 2012, and subsequently feeling sick, upset, angsty and angry about what happened, yet the retreats forces me to keep looking at it and in turn writing myself out of the emotion that I attached to the document. If I’m being honest to myself, I had been quite a tough, mental excavation process, working out when to admit fault but also letting go of the rest.
Nevertheless, something clicked at the retreat last month, when I realised I was beginning to move on from feeling like a failed PhD student who had dropped out and was on the ropes, but instead a person that was capable to finishing it. I don’t know what was the reason for the shift in mindset, but I think the combination of the supportive peer-led environment, and the consistency of the space and place in which we work and socialise, it is easier to keep a tab on how you are feeling about your work and how much progress/confidence you are gaining as a writer. Finally, I was able to talk about my work without having to explain the messy context behind it, why I felt I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD and why I had had a break. It’s just something that I am doing now. And it is moving forward at a pace that I’m happy with (and, importantly meeting targets). I remember in the early discussions of returning, when my new supervisor offered to support me, I said that all I wanted was to get to this stage, the stage where I wasn’t having to contextualise my work with a massive diatribe of mis-justice and general distain for the academic system.
Thankfully, I can now say that this has passed. I can describe what my PhD is about without any of that.
I’m about to submit two redrafted parts of my thesis “Part 1: Purpose/Context/Literature Review” and “Part 2:Research Design/Methodology” based on all the documents, readings, writings and notes that I had available between 2009-2012 -the timespan of my full-time PhD prior to suspending. I will take joy in using a pun here, but essentially these redrafts represent a certain chapter in my life and now I can move onto the next sections, Part 3: Data Collection/ Discussion/Analysis – all of which is fresh new words and getting to grips with analysing ethnography data. They’ll probably need another million redrafts before they are ready to submit, I don’t doubt this for a second, but it feels so rewarding to have turned around what was essentially 3 years of jumbled lostness and arranged them into sections and chapters, without much additional reading or data collection at this stage.
I also have a ‘PhD shopping list’ for the work that I need to do between now and the end of January, things I need to do in the library, things that I need to do with my data, things I need to spend writing and things I need to discuss with my supervisor. I know that I will be able to pick up these tasks and systematically work my way through them, when in contrast I felt l was stabbing around in the dark, spending many a day in the library, feeling like I wasn’t writing when I was reading, wasn’t reading when writing, and not even sure I was I was there and if I was doing the right thing in the first place.
So yeah, December is always a pretty reflective time of the year anyway, and to be able to look back through what I’ve managed to achieve has meant that I’m now starting to see myself at a stage where I will begin thinking about my external supervisor, the viva and all the other things that start to come up on the horizon when coming to the end of a PhD. I don’t want to say that I never say myself at this stage, but, there has been times in the last few years where I felt like it would have been easier to just throw it in the bin and start again.
The best way of describing it now would to say that I now own my own PhD, its not this abstract scary document that I don’t want to show people because I’m not entirely sure what it is, but at the same, I’m about ready to let it go. I’ve been a PhD student for so long (Jan 2009, Leicester Uni moving in October 2009 to UWS) and so many things have changed in my life during this period of registration. I’ve lived in 15 different houses, I’ve lost count of how many jobs I’ve had to supplement my stipend, I’ve lived in opposite sides of the country and the people have came in and out my life, some staying & getting closer, some never seeing again. It’s just bizarre to think that actually, I might come to the end of being attached to this thing that has been consistent in my life when other things have been changing so rapidly and I’ve (only recently) have had any real stability.
Anyway, the purpose of this post really is so I can stick a flag in the sand – I hope by this time next year, I am writing about the end or being very near to it. Certainly, this will be the last time I will be writing about what came before, I’ve got to the end of all the materials that I had collected previously, those difficult conversations and reflecting on moments and memories that the writing brought up can now be concluded, there is no more I can work through at this stage. It’s only new words and new ideas from here on in. And this must be what doing a PhD should really feel like. Finally.

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Looking for opportunities in 2015

I can’t believe how fast this year has gone and how much has happened during this time. My current contract as  is coming to an end after Christmas and I’m currently putting the feelers out for new opportunities (either short term, freelance and/or part time) to get involved in during the final write-up year of my PhD.

I’ve prepared a short(er) version of my C.V. (embedded above) so you can get an idea of the work that I have done in the past – but as with all jobs that involve digital, social media, community development – and in some cases, academic research support, a C.V. isn’t always the best way to communicate this effectively – I always find it is better to have a chat and see what we can do. I’m currently the project coordinator for Digital Commonwealth (which is now into research, evaluation and dissemination stages) and also have a background in teaching, community development, research and training in all things social media.

Thanks for taking time to read and/or share, everything helps towards getting me in a position towards completing the PhD (it means a lot, it will mean even more once I can say it is completed!) whilst getting to work on exciting and interesting projects!

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Slides: Libraries, Mobile Devices and Digital Participation (or a wee social media #peptalk) #digiscot

I was invited by East Dunbartonshire Leisure and Culture Trust to deliver a short social media #peptalk ahead of their Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) funded digital skills training course to support front line librarians in being able to support the users’ use of mobile devices and other hardware skill support. This came at a timely period as we are in the process of preparing a couple of papers from Digital Commonwealth on the themes of event-led digital participation and supporting information literacy and developing digital skills- and the SLIC training is featured in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation report from April 2014.

The Scottish Library and Information Council is piloting a national training programme, that aims to enhance the digital skills of frontline library staff. The scheme covers a range of hardware to ensure that staff are equipped to support users of mobile devices. The programme, funded by the Scottish Government’s Public Library Improvement Fund, has been successfully implemented in Inverclyde and North Ayrshire libraries and will now be rolled out nationally. (Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2014: 50)

The community activist in me loves doing talks like this – especially as it is about ensuring the value of libraries in terms of wellbeing and development remain at the heart of the community, supporting people with their digital tools rather than being replaced by them – for instance, if you stick your postcode into  the SCVO’s fancy new Digital Scotland “Let’s Get it On” site, you will no doubt get a library as your nearest centre. As a sub note (ok, a bug bear!) I think it also worth noting and continuing emphasising the importance in finding space and contexts for people to use the internet and access digital environments in a way that isn’t just to fill out the unsavable, non-refundable universal credit applications that take longer than the allocated time allowed on most public access computers – it grinds my gears.. so anywhere we can make digital participation mean more than filling out forms, the better.

Anyway…

My slides from the talk are below –

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New Article: Revealing the platform politics within community journalism

Originally posted on Centre for Community Journalism website, Cardiff University – 7th October, 2014.

Revealing the platform politics within community journalism: what do we mean by empowerment in the context of digital storytelling and hyperlocal websites?

There is no denying, people have been talking about the ways that the internet and mobile and social media devices allow us to produce and publish content in ways that were not possible even 10 years ago. The citizen can become a journalist, the community can become a newspaper, the journalist can go off the beaten track, research becomes data becomes storytelling then is distributed through existing mainstream channels. The media landscape is shifting, changing, merging and augmenting – causing a disruption in how we both make sense of the media we consume, but also gifting the possibility to create our own – and have our stories heard.

In my work, I look at the act of journalism and how it can be taught to anybody so that they can de-construct and re-construct their own narratives into how media is formed and how stories can be told digitally. Where communities becoming empowered to tell and mediate their own stories, rather than being mediated through alternative modes of existing mediums in a digital format – i.e. blogging sites that look like newspapers or magazines, community radio stations operating out of dedicated facilities or producing television style documentaries for distribution on YouTube.

How we see it, digital storytelling is a method that can be applied to varying degrees of personal social and political contexts, not just a citizen producing their own act or form of journalism. It can be a way in which the stories of individuals can be revealed and amplified whilst gaining access to emerging practice and skill development under the premise of growing digital literacy demands. It offers an alternative to ‘learning digitally’which is beyond form filling, bill paying or online shopping and it is a chance to critically reflect on the importance of storytelling within community settings whilst creatively selecting the right tool to do so.

Hyperlocal models of community journalism tend to require those participating to follow and adhere to a model of delivery that replicates existing forms of media infrastructure in a digital form. An example of this may be using the blogging/content management system WordPress to develop a website in a newspaper-like theme, that is then populated by stories relevant to a specific location, and often delivered by 1-2 keen and driven self-identified community leaders and/or a team of volunteers.

The hyperlocal blog is a service based approach, an attempt to use emerging digital tools and affordable methods of publication as a way of rebooting local news into communities that may have lost access to previous forms of information. The merit is in the economic factors for production and delivery – on the offset, digital is ‘cheaper’than paper in order to develop a publication – but does not take into consideration the human resourcing required in order to source, develop, write, report and promote that content in the first place. Therefore, it could be argued that some forms of hyperlocal operation reflects the principles of the current UK government’s big society model for community development – where keen volunteers will replace paid staff as a method of achieving the same service without a concrete funding model in place, relying on the principle that the community will love the hyperlocal blog so much that they were contribute to it for free – thus developing a thriving journalism site, produced ‘for the community, by the community.’

It is a nice idea in principle, and does work successfully in many contexts, however to apply this model uncritically would leave me feeling uneasy. For instance, the socio-economic background of those participating need to be considered if we are seriously consider this as a default model of rolling out recommendations of emerging forms of community journalism. Often those who set up or contribute to a hyperlocal blog may already have a background in journalism, academia, digital media or communications more generally and can contribute effectively to the publication within their ‘space time’and around existing commitments. They possess platform and network literacies and knowledge of media production to make critical decisions of how and why they participate. It is nice to be able to write something about your community, publish it and not be too restricted by other expectations such as an appeasing an employer or working for a client – but a hyperlocal’s accountability to ethical or the notion that this is an empowering form community journalism requires similar principles and governing documents that would exist in a newsroom or existing media platform. The editorial of the hyperlocal is governed by those who produce it – and if those who produce it have an existing grasp of media production and governance, we need to be aware of what that is and how it may affect the ways in which other voices from that community are heard (or not heard.)

Unlike commercial journalism, the hyperlocal blog can set its own parameters as to what is acceptable coverage on its blog, its accountability is governed by those who participate with in it, so it is worth being careful when making vast claims of community empowerment when it is not entirely transparent who is behind the hyperlocal itself. Volunteers may receive training in return for their participation in the blog – which may lead to further opportunity – but realistically, there is no obligation to publish content that the volunteers produce, nor is there obligation for people to volunteer in the first place. What is the trade of for participation – is it social or monetary capital? is it a form of health or wellbeing? is it an opportunity to learn new skills or gain employment or access to education? In this case, many hyperlocal blogs tend to be ran by one or two people who attempt to find a way to monetise their efforts so what may have started as a ‘hobby’project can draw its own income, mainly through advertising and associated projects.

When we think about sustainability and allowing these sites to become self-financing and self-governing, this should also include reflections on keeping the community engaged both as readers of the content, but also through participation from a community development perspective. Producing media is political, it is not just a commodity to be bought, sold and provided as an uncritical service. There is fantastic opportunity to use forms of media making as a development and learning tool, that can often align with instances of political education, digital citizenship and wider community participation – but there needs to be clarity on the role of the site. If producing local news to a house style and editorial is the aim, and the site begins making money through forms of advertising – don’t be surprised if your volunteers drop off. They need to feel like they can own the site, and community learning and development is as (if not MORE) important than simply producing blog posts that look like local journalism used to look on paper. Do not take this level of community participation for granted.

One way to ensure that the community blog can include a array of voices and opinions is to ensure there are multiple avenues to access, share and contribute content – not just replication of journalism style on a blogging platform, but perhaps multimedia forms such as audio recordings, videos, photographs – and showing people how they can access this on their own devices, be it a smart phone or a smart TV, and how they can pass this on to members of their family or social network in a way that it suits them.

Similarly, it doesn’t always have to look like journalism, journalism as we know it today is a constructed form but the essence of research skills, investigative enquiry, ethical use of sources and telling stories are transferable skills than allow for those participating to be creative in their expression of their story – it might not look like a digital version of a newspaper, but believe me, being able to produce rather consume content on your existing devices can be empowering for somebody who thought the only way to have their story heard was to write to a local newspaper and engage in debate through a publishing gatekeeper. Social media and digital storytelling allows the discussion to not only come into existence but the conversation to carry on.

In some ways, it could be argued that those who run and manage hyper-locals could be in danger of being the same form of gatekeepers when it comes to providing an editorial – we must be careful that we don’t ring-fence this form of community journalism, deciding what is considered acceptable content for the hyperlocal and throwing away the rest. What if that ‘rest’ is the emerging evidence of that person contributing their first steps into participating digitally, it might not bring in the site hits, YouTube views and Facebook likes – but it brings that person’s story into existence. They experience mediation, they learn how to communicate digitally and can begin to make critical decisions wherever to participate or not. And most importantly, it is told by them, not on behalf of them. There is a staggering difference.

So my suggestion?

Teach the world to see how media is constructed. Deconstruct it, reconstruct it, ask questions of the process and who is underneath and above and beyond those narratives. Don’t get hung up in replication the forms of familiar journalism rhetoric and technique or even expect those volunteering to adhere to your specific house style, if your desire is to support the development of a hyperlocal site that reflects the voices of the community, co-produce the mediation of events together. Take from journalism the need to be critical of what you are being exposed to, how to develop and ask the right questions, and to capture that investigation in the best way possible – make sure the sound is clear, the image is the right way up and your style suits the platform you are presenting within.

I’m interested in helping people start fires and develop the expectation that they should benefit in someway for doing so – be it confidence in using tools they have already to do something better, become more critical of what they are being told by the media and importantly feel that no story is too small, too irrelevant to be told.

Focus on equipping and supporting people to find the tools and approach so they can speak on behalf of themselves, rather than only let media outlets, even with all good intentions in the world, do it for them. It is then possible to make a critical decision about their decision to participate, much like the practicing journalist who volunteers their time to a hyperlocal blog that allows them to write without pressure but ultimately makes an informed decision about how their labour is being used.

Similarly, it is about notions of content ownership, a gatekeeper can make a decision whether to publish a piece of work on the site that they govern, however, the creator can still self-publish regardless if the gatekeeper choses to use the the post. The main requirement here would be confidence, confidence to know that their position and story matters – and operating and articulating ‘in public’ can often feel a daunting task, regardless of how supposively easy it is to do now using social media.

There is transparency in the purpose of why people may sign up to participate in a community blog, what is the trade of, what are the perimeters and are they able to co-produce the governing outline of the website they are participating within – if one person, with the additional knowledge of how news sites work is deciding the editorial approach of the outlet, how is this being communicated to the volunteers and the public more broadly – how can we ensure that we move beyond simply replicating ‘cheaper’ big society ways of delivering the craft of journalism to increasingly localised communities and instead work towards using community journalism as a form of community development, media & digital literacies and a broader political education

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Digital Commonwealth featured as case study in Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack.

After being included at the first Creative Citizen’s conference on the 18th-19th September at the Royal College of Art in London, we were approached by Dr Dan Lockton to contribute to the Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack that brought together case studies of inspiring digital ideas from community based projects. The pack is now available as hard copy and can be downloaded from here as a .pdf (or click the image below)

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Publication details: McGillivray, D., Jones, J., McCandlish, A. & McPherson,G., Digital Commonwealth (2014), in Lockton, D., Greene, C., Casey, A., Raby, E., & Vickress, A. (Eds.) Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack: Inspiring digital ideas from community projects, London: Royal College of Art. ISBN 978-1-907342-97-4. http://www.rca.ac.uk/documents/419/CC_Variety_Pack_sm.pdf

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Handbook for Digital Storytelling – Digital Commonwealth

As part of the Digital Commmonwealth team we have been working on producing a resource which helps people develop digital storytelling skills.

The handbook is intended for use by the participants of the project, as well as anyone who has an interest in using digital media literacy skills for storytelling. It contains themes and examples of work created during the project, and suggested exercises to help develop digital storytelling skills which can be used for any context, not just the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The handbook is structured around exploring a theme (in this case the Commonwealth) and then ideas for using blogging, audio, social media and video for digital storytelling.

Each section contains:
● An overview of the aims and learning for each skill
● An introduction to the skill
● Suggestions for how to use this skill for digital storytelling
● Examples of the skill in action (from Digital Commonwealth projects)

You can find out more about the Handbook on the Digital Commonwealth website – where you can download it as a .pdf or as an apple ibook.

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