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I heard yesterday that my RD1 research proposal has been accepted, which is good news because it means that I don’t have to spend any more time trying to squeeze my thoughts into two A4 pages! I can just get on with it.    

Came across Obsessionistas the other day. Fascinating and interesting listing of and links to collectors and their reasons for collecting. Includes the world’s only collector of toothpaste cartons. What fun! Also interesting that many (a majority?) of the collectors are connected to art and design in some way, and to higher education.  Is that an artefact of the site, are these types of people more likely to share their obsessions, or are there significant numbers of creative people associated with collecting?

So, I’ve attempted to squeeze some MOOC activity in between everything else I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. It’s now getting near crunch time, when I’m supposed to create a digital artefact to demonstrate that I’ve followed the course to its conclusion.


Lots of text, though it has been interesting and useful text, and I’ve not resented reading it. However in a digital age where deep reading is apparently a dying activity, it seems rather a conservative approach to the learning process. I guess I was expecting something a little more futuristic – an alternative to what I’m doing most days at this stage of my PhD research, which is…reading books and monographs! And it’s been traditional text. Almost as if the hyperlink had never been invented over 20 years ago.

Cheap and cheerful videos: a lot of people got very excited by and involved in the videos, I guess because this seemed different to “old-fashioned” learning. However I felt that they were skewed towards the creative thinking of marketing minds (I’ve been a marketeer) and short movie makers, probably because this output is free and readily available. It would have been good to experience some really tough and meaty learning materials rather than these rather show-offy shorts. But because they were visual, short and sweet, learners spent a lot of time deconstructing, commenting on and discussing them. Each video was, to my mind, a blind alley.

History: Very few students seemed to connect the way learning is developing now with the way it has developed in the past, yet there is surely a continuum. Although a proportion of the students was/is over 60, few looked to a past beyond the 1990s, fewer beyond the 1960s and even fewer to prehistory. Throughout human development, the species has learned how to learn, from the hazardous hundreds of thousands of years when we were ungainly, flat-footed creatures, mere prey to predators, who nevertheless learned to survive, to manufacture tools, and eventually metals. We learned agriculture. We learned warfare.  We learned the industrial revolution. And so on. Each step of learning how to learn involved change, some small, others massive. We are just at the latest point on that continuum.

Nostalgia: utopianism is a form of nostalgia for a time that has never existed, that exists beyond fixed time. Lots of people got involved in discussing whether technology (whatever that means – a stone axe is technology, where would we be without that technology?) was utopian or dystopian. Hmm. Robots and AI and stuff. Hmm. In theory it is possible for a robot to be programmed to behave better, ethically and morally, than any human (assuming it never goes wrong), to never hurt another robot or a human, to spend its working life helping old ladies cross roads. Again, e-learning-wise, a blind alley.

Logistics. Lots of forums, lots of comments, not much debate (proportionally). People said what they thought/experienced and that was it. Perhaps the lurkers read some discussions and were enlightened and changed by them, learned from them. How will this be measured, by themselves as well as those facilitating the learning processes (so that they can be improved)?

My research environment includes “academic” people who struggle with email, let alone e-learning. So far I’ve picked up some useful/valuable potential tools and knowledge from dabbling in this MOOC. I’ll reserve my final judgements for after it’s finished…

It’s not often my research makes me laugh, and even less often does it involve poetry, but today I experienced both! From the South Bourke and Mornington Journal, Richmond, Victoria (Australia), of Wednesday 5th December 1883, comes this tragic and perhaps cautionary tale, penned by an anonymous poet:

We were sitting by the fire,
  And the tender twilight gloom
Made a picturesque interior
  Of the “friezed” and “dadoed” room:
For my fair Elsie was cultured
  In the most aesthetic style—
She grew wild upon her patters,
  And quite raved upon a “tile.”

She could carve a dainty bracket,
  She could paint a silken screen;
She could broider birds and beetles
  Such as eye had never seen.
She had decorated beer-jugs
  In the highest style of art,
And her bric-a-brac collection
  Was the treasure of her heart.

But I loved her—ah, I loved her,
  As she sat beside me there,
With a comb of antique silver
  Looping back her golden hair!
How I loved that sweet face, hidden
  By the hideous painted fan,
On which sprawled such fearful monsters
  As hail only from Japan!

The flame leaped up and flickered— 
  Was its glow upon her cheek?
Or did tender, changing blushes
  Tell my coward heart to speak?
One white, dainty hand was fluttering,
  Like a snow-bird on her knee.
Ah. sweet trembler, was it waiting
  To be caught and pressed by me?

I must speak now—now or never!
  Perish all my doubts and fears.
I must speak! Hope’s sudden sunburst
  Seemed to flush the coming years
I must speak—the spell was broken!
  Fierce, impassioned, fearless, rash,
I fell on my knees before her— 
  Fell with—horrors! what a crash!

Such a crash, it echoed round me
  Like the final crack of doom!
For her eyes’ volcanic fires
  Seemed to light the shadowed room.
I had toppled o’er a table,
 Full of strange Pompeian-ware,
And I caught my hat and vanished—
  How, I didn’t know or care.

Twas my last, my farewell visit
  To that charmer of my heart;
I discreetly left my goddess
  To the worship of her art.
She was married to old Golding,
  On a pleasant day last week.
He is flabby, fat, and sixty—
  So a valuable antique.

Yesterday I started studying my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). As if I didn’t already have too much to do!

But I’m a glutton for punishment, and E-learning and Digital Culture is a field in which I’m both interested and involved. The course, to which about 40,000 students have signed up, has been created by the University of Edinburgh, and runs for two weeks. At the moment I’m embroiled in the first week’s course:  “Looking to the Past.”

Now, I came to this course with some expectations. In the 1990s I worked for a company that developed a highly-sophisticated computer-assisted learning system. I was there when it took its first tentative, primitive and exciting steps into the WWW. The biggest challenge back then was avoiding the trap of merely transferring text and images from paper to screen. Or creating an imitation teacher-is-boss classroom. Engaging and encouraging and rewarding the learner.

So I guess I was expecting a course that would make use of both the established and developing strengths of online learning. And what did I find? Text. Lots of text. Text I could print out on paper if I wanted to. Text that sometimes looks like on-screen text from the 90s! Oh, there are some interesting moving images thanks to YouTube, but I seem to remember that we used to have them back in the bad old days of film projectors. And there’s a discussion forum. Lots of discussion.  Discussion that one has to wade through for nuggets of interest. Perhaps too much discussion! 

So is this it? No lectures? Nothing that energises or inspires or engages me because it’s presented with enthusiasm, or controversy, or personality?  That gives me insight into the thinking of the course creators? Yes, it is useful being navigated towards texts, and being prompted with questions. The discussions are searchable (if you know what to search for. And as you know, I like serendipity). There is activity on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. But…

Am I being a cynical old bastard?

I wonder. I read the comments of others who are super-excited by this! Who are thoroughly enjoying being part of it. Perhaps then this isn’t really about revolutionary new ways of learning (as I naively thought), but about community. Maybe we want to feel part of a group, a group in this case that stretches far beyond our desktop, a group of people engaged in the same activities and perhaps scratching their heads over the same problems? Perhaps we each have an individual need to wave at a world of hopefully sympathetic people and shout “I’m here!” “I’m having trouble!” “I’m showing off!” “I’m lonely!” “I don’t get it!” “I get it!” “I’m lost!” “I’ve found the answer!”

So perhaps I was wrong, and online courses aren’t just about flashy new ways of content delivery and assessment. I think those will be important. But it seems that technology here is acting as a facilitator of the group, not just what the group is doing. Which is why social media has been so successful? 

Ironically the course begins by looking at utopian and dystopian aspects of technologies. Technologies that can dumb us down and create group-think are at the same time capable of creating thinking groups and enlightening us. Perhaps.

I’m going to plough on through the readings and dip toes into the sea of discussions, just because I need to be able to say that I’ve experienced this and lasted the course… 

Although it feels as though I’ve been doing this for ever, I’m still at the early, sponge-like, absorbent stage of my research. Yes, I’ve begun to write, as we’ve all been advised to do, but I have yet to begin real hands-on-head-down fieldwork, so my main activity is reading, reading and more reading. And applying dozens of page markers. And making notes, lots of notes. And engaging in the never-ending trudging between libraries (my only exercise these days), waving plastic cards at beeping machines and trying to remember PIN numbers.

This feels either Sisyphean or Herculean depending on my mood.

One major problem is that each paper or book I delve into comes complete with either a hefty list of references or a bibliography. I’m just finished Thad Logan’s The Victorian Parlour (note, there is a difference between “finished” as in mined for stuff that’s relevant/useful/interesting/inspiring and “read” as in…well…read). The book ends with a 17-page bibliography that lists about 350 books and papers. Of course, not every one of those books is going to be useful to me.

I whittled the list down to about 50 references that appear to be relevant to my research topic (not counting the dozen or so books and papers she lists that I’ve already come across).

Two things: firstly, some of those other 300 references I’m abandoning might contain some vital information that isn’t obvious from their titles, even just a reference to something else. By a process of guesswork and expediency I’m ruling out serendipity. Secondly, each of the 50 seemingly-useful references that I’ve noted will also contain, say, links to 50 more! That’s about 2,500 potential sources from just one original book. Aaaargh!

Also, I have to think about how I’m going to write about Logan’s book in my literature review, a draft of which is going to be due this time next year. At the moment my thoughts are at the intellectual level of “Thad’s a strange name for a woman!” I guess I could discuss the issues that Logan has with the views of one of heroines, Susan Stewart (On Longing, one of those books everyone cites). Is that disagreement really an essential part of my approach to nineteenth century natural culture? Dunno. I’ve got a year to think about it, when not panicking about those 2,500 references, each of which will include another 50 or so citations… I need a beer!

I’ve just finished writing a 150 word (ouch) proposal for a conference presentation and another for a virtual curation project (more about that if it progresses). I’m about to read a draft proposal for an event in which I might be collaborating later this year, And just before the end of last term I managed to squeeze my research proposal in to two sides of A4… Life is suddenly full of proposals! They are interesting things, a bit like fishing lures, colourful, buoyant, designed to have a tasty chunk of bait (appropriate to the kind of big fish one is trying to land) and a nice sharp hook with which to snag the prey, but dangled into murky waters in which one might be confidently swimming or nervously floundering! 

You can see my RD1 proposal here. I wonder what I’ll be thinking about it in a year’s time!

I tend to explain my project in such enthusiastic detail that people’s eyes glaze over (at least I notice when they begin to snore)! So I need to take note of this:Image


I borrowed this from Innovation for Growth!

In my never-ending search for illumination of things nineteenth century-ish , today I visited Leeds’ Abbey House museum. It was a pleasant, interesting experience, and the museum displays, which are of the reconstructed “Victorian street” variety, are good.

But my overwhelming impression was one of gloom. The exhibits are surrounded by a gloom that is so dense as to be sepulchral! At the same time one is not allowed to use flash, essentially ruling out hand-held photography. This is explained as necessary because of “conservation” requirements.

The Victorian period was as dull or bright as any other. Of course, at night, and without modern electrical lighting, streets and interiors were less well lit than we are accustomed to, but during the day, unless light was deliberately restricted, rooms would have been as bright as today. Sadly, the schoolchildren with whom I shared the museum (and perhaps most visitors) will come away from this museum believing that VIctorian times were universally dark, miserable and dingy.

And would flash photography damage the objects on show? The general consensus is no. It would require millions of strong UV flashes at close range to damage sensitive museum exhibits such as watercolour paintings. Small camera and phone flashguns are not going to do any damage, The Abbey House museum is visited by mere scores of people on a winter’s day, only a few of whom will use flash. The flash photography issue is apparently a self-perpetuating curatorial myth!

Of course, flashguns popping everywhere can annoy and disturb other visitors. Every photographer should take care not to lessen the enjoyment of others. However if the ambient lighting was increased, then it wouldn’t be necessary to use flash anyway. Perhaps over many decades this light might damage the pigments in objects, but these are not one-off national-treasure artworks. They are mass-produced “everyday” objects often created to brighten people’s lives, not hide in some ill-lit, shadowy corner. Surely we deserve to see these objects as they were meant to be enjoyed?

I spent a few hours today studying in the University of Leeds Brotherton Library. It’s a very different experience to MMU. No lifts loudly and endlessly announcing the floor numbers. The quiet study area was…wait for it…quiet! The books very well-worn. The atmosphere, slightly over-warm, but studious! Eccentric lighting between the stacks.

It’s a cylindrical 1930 building, so the book racks are spread out like the spokes of a wheel, which is both fun and confusing, especially when one is looking for the way out! I was instantly comfortable, though I was being stared at continuously by a young lady half a dozen desks away. Whether this was because of my boyish charm or she was actually looking at the young man working at the desk behind me I didn’t discover.

Getting my SCONUL card was effortless, and I walked out with four useful tomes. I also discovered a real gem, a reference to the Handbook of the Daily News Sweated Industries’ Exhibition of 1906, which I was then able to download as a pdf from the Smithsonian library.

This unlikely-sounding volume contains a number of photographs of working class interiors which will be hugely useful in the coming months. They appear to confirm something I’ve been mulling over recently – the difference between working-class life as reported by observers (who often had political, religious or aesthetic axes to grind) and the reality of everyday life for many.

The interiors, though of small rooms, nevertheless show a reasonable amount of furniture and, importantly for my thesis, varying numbers of ornaments ranged on mantelpieces and shelves. One illustration that particularly demonstrates this, of two women making cardboard boxes against a background that includes two shelved crowded with bric-a-brac, is above text that describes a box maker living in “two wretched rooms.” Yes, life was hard, homes were often also overcrowded workplaces, but it seems that many working-class people collected non-utilitarian objects to decorate their lives. Grist to my mill!