This afternoon I received the exciting news that I shall be spending a week in July on an Arvon Foundation writing course at Lumb Bank. The course forms the central element of The Designer as Writer/The Writer as Designer, part of the Designing Our Futures initiative organised by MIRIAD and PARC NorthWest. Can’t wait!

Midsummer madness! Yes, roll out all the old tropes.

June is going to be a crazy month for me. I am presenting papers at two symposia, Good Things and Bad Things, Nottingham Trent and Nottingham Contemporary (10th-11th) and Performative Mischief, Loughborough (18th). I’m going to the Collaboration in Practice conference, Manchester (21st-22nd) and am hoping to present something with my fellow researcher Ela (proposal due tomorrow!). 

To start the month with a bang, though, I’ve signed up for an intensive Spanish language class (3rd-7th).

And somewhere in there I have to tear off my clothes and dance around a bonfire or a megalith or a virgin or something similar to celebrate the midsummer solstice. Although it is my experience that English midsummer is a time of goosebumps rather than nudity. Anyway, a month to look forward to!

About 10 years ago I bought a battered 1919 Kodak vest pocket camera. It was a sentimental purchase, acquired to replace a similar (lost) camera given to me a long time ago by an elderly lady with whom I’d become friendly during an archaeological excavation in Dover, Kent (another story). I discovered that inside the camera was an exposed 127 film.

Ghost photographs!

I kept the firm, tightly spooled, in a desk drawer until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally took it to the MMU photo technicians and persuaded one of them to develop it for me. “Come back in a week,” I was told. I dutifully waited seven days, and presented myself at the photography desk. Yes, he’d developed the film, yes, it had a few usable images (of maritime scenes) on it and…it had disappeared.

My precious ghost photographs had been taken from the drying cabinet  by another student!

Perhaps the technician will manage to retrieve my negatives. Perhaps not! I’m devastated!

 

Twice in a couple of days I’ve tripped up over my fallible note-taking. 

I use a piece of Mac software called, logically, “Notebook.” Amongst other features, Notebook helpfully indexes every word of every note I add, making looking up information much easier than leafing through a paper-based notebook, or through a pile of index cards. However the quality of that information depends on the original note, and it’s here that I’ve slipped up.

My first crisis occurred when I was asked to provide the reference and a page number for a quotation I’d included in a book chapter. “Easy,” I thought, “I’ll just look it up in my notes.” Except that I hadn’t recorded the publication, only the page number! “No problem,” I again thought, “I’ll just carry out an online search.” Hmmm. This resulted in my finding two almost-the-same paragraphs from two other papers the same author had written, the page numbers of which didn’t match my notes and which were just different enough to prevent my using them to replace my original quotation. I never did find the original, and in the end I had to adjust my text slightly  to avoid a misquotation.

And I’ve just come across another note, this time from an excellent, thought-provoking blog, where, although I recorded the author, I failed to note when the words I want to quote actually appeared. Again, an online search didn’t help.

There were two incidental benefits from this cock-up. I had discovered two additional papers by  and author very relevant to my research. And secondly, I got to read more of the blog, and downloaded what looks to be a very interesting thesis by the blogger. Ah serendipity!

But…

Note to self: “Can do better!”

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.

Thoughts:

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:

BRIC-A-BRAC
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!