All entries for October 2017

October 17, 2017

Urban Cultural Intermediaries: pedagogy, creativity and the City

Last year ended where this year began – planning some experimental pedagogy using the city as creative platform. Last summer's module was funded by IATL (Warwick's Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning), and has resulted in a new module format – which will heavily influence this autumn’s Creative Project (a dimension of the core module), and will continue to evolve next summer. Summer (May and June) is a great time to teach – it’s festival season, there are visitors and tourists around, and people are out and using public space.

Students in the city

My original project proposal stated that "this project will activate students' creative potential across disciplinary boundaries and through interdisciplinary interaction -- in the context of the City of Coventry and current opportunities offered by its embryonic creative economy". This sounds good, but before constructing a framework for "interaction" or anything in the city, there were legal and well as ethical issues to think-through: after all, there are limits in what students are “allowed” to do off-campus -- particularly on a Tier 4 visa. The relation between "students in the city" is an historically tense one -- if one that has historically become subsumed in the question of economy. People may not have a particularly positive regard for students en mass, but the student population has become so embedded in the local economy, not to have them means less prosperity all round. The traditional "town and gown" tension is pretty much gone (as a social phenomenon, grounded in class) and has largely been supplanted by a less socially-grounded moral disdain (students are noisier, less socially conscientious, less cognisant of the value of the money, and so on). At the same time, universities have become such a huge presence in the city (in most cities) that few would question their importance. Yet, there remains a policy gap – the City Council are clear on the role of university institutions in the city, but not so clear on the role of 50,000 students when they are not inside the university (or a bar, or a rented apartment).

The initial rationale for the new module project was the conundrum of "creativity” -- the increaingly normative demands in teaching that somehow creativity will be in evidence or that creativity is a wholly positive and constructive phenomenon. Yet in my experience -- and I am sure I am not alone --- creativity can make demands that students cannot fulfill. Some students find themselves with a facility for creativity, others do not; and what kind of creativity do we expect? Amateur creativity? Professional-level creative products? Some students find creative production helpful in their learning, but others find it mystifying. Recent scholarship on the creative industries, however, now recognises that creativity is more often than not a collective endeavour, and even where individual talent and skill is involved, this is usually an individual working within a set of conditions that include the contribution of others. We all too often identify creative skills with an individual’s powers of creation – not collaborative methods, or different ways of engaging with a social space or place. Creativity as a concept is still derived from the proverbial romantic artist and inspired work of art.

Exploring models of creativity that are collaborative (and in this case, hopefully transformative of a place) means that the students needed to think about the material conditions of creativity as a form of labour -- what can we actually do, and how, and to what effect? Creativity as an urban intervention has to be more of a process, collaborative and managed in stages, and where many of the students must assume roles not normally associated with creativity.

Our summer module we call the "practice" module, as it allows the students to experiment by putting their theoretical understanding into practice. In the context of the Arts, Enterprise and Development masters -- we explore project design, management and the collective and collaborative dimension of creativity. Working in the city demands social engagement, networking, locating and using resources and understanding the policy and political contexts in which everyone is working -- in this case, the resurgence of interest in culture generated by the official bid for the UK Cit of Culture 2021 award.

The IATL funding was a ‘strategic project’ award – which gave us a range of extra resources and contributors, events and activity spaces, all normally outside the scope and budget of a regular module. An attempt to re-think the summer practice module was thus subject to a range of opportunities on a city cultural intervention, and participation in the city's Positive Images Festival -- said to be the largest festival of multiculturalism in Europe.

At the start of the project, I was considering of the role of “intermediary”, and how, in the creative industries, the intermediaries are crucial parts of a chain of events, multiple conditions and a collaborative process -- yet may not themselves be involved in the creation or the shaping of a final product. They may, rather, use skills in communications, management, enterprise, marketing and client or public engagement, all essential to the function of a project or enterprise. In other words, the intermediary is part of a value chain, and more often than not, part of a line or collective that is defined by the frameworks of creative production, such as a branded project. The intermediary may also be a catalyst, entrepreneur, provocateur or instigator; sometimes they are just agent or representative; but they are always one essential role in a much longer creative process, and they usually engage with constituencies or social groups that inhabit that industrial or cultural space.

Creative teamwork is difficult enough, let alone undertaken in a city of unpredictability; a foreign city; a socially unsettled city; a city that doesn't actually know who or what it is -- at least, these were the students’ initial observations. Moreover, one of the aims of our module was "inclusivity" -- constructing an urban space through pedagogy, where others (non-enrolled, or non-students) could participate in learning processes (perhaps the undergraduate, city youth, creative workers, refugees).

In the first few weeks city artists and activists taught the students how to navigate the city, and how to peel back the laters of history and meaning of which so many remain unaware. While it became apparent very quickly that "student" as a social category is tied to consumption -- outside their learned institutions, student have only one role in the city and that is transient consumers. They buy courses, food and drinks, entertainments, short term accommodation contracts, and if they are fortunate, clothes and luxury goods (though the latter probably in Leamington Spa and not Coventry). Yet, it began to emerge just how many students there are in the city, and with the organised labour of culture just how much students could potentially play a role in the city's cultural economy -- not just the economy of retail and consumption. Moreover, important research questions about the city began to emerge: Why is the city so indifferent to the potential of students – particularly after graduation? Why are students so indifferent to Coventry, and are unlikely to choose it as the place to begin their career? Why do students have a postive regard for Leicester and Nottingham, stay, and expand those city’s cultural economies? And are these questions based merely on anecdotal evidence – does anyone really know? What kind of data or evidence do we need, and what would we do with it? In fact, what is Coventry's creative economy -- and does it have one?

Our project conctructed a framework where the need of students for recognition, empowerment and employment was brought together with the needs of the city in expanding its urban creative economy. This was discussed at our three public events: 'The Right to the City' (at Artspace, Eaton House, on 14th June); 'Students, the City, the Creative and Cultural Industries' (at Fargo Village, June 28th) and 'Coventry Culture Forum' at the Belgrade Theatre (Patrick Suite, July 21st).

Altogether the project featured the contribution of nine creative practitioners and three academics; it had three stakeholder meetings, nine student seminars, an exhibition, and a public performance in the oldest pub in the city, the Golden Cross. Four blog postings on the progress of the project were requested by the Warwick public engagement office. Their blog (relating to the University's contribution to the Coventry City of Culture Bid 2021), can be found here:

City Arcadia Gallery

October 02, 2017

CMPS: Our Values

CMPS: Our Values

Philip Blond, Director of ResPublica think tank and an English Political Philosopher has had a lot to say recently about ‘values’. The author of Red Tory (2010) is often in the media explaining the culture wars in the USA (Trump voters versus ‘the rigged system’) and the follow on culture wars in the UK (Brexit voters versus ‘the status quo’), and he has argued that cultural and social values of place, family and identity need to be returned to by politicians. In a recent Radio 4 interview he said:

If you do the values based research that I do now …. you see the beginnings of the culture wars taking place in the UK right now [. . .] producing people with radically different world views’ (BBC Radio 4 2/10/17)

Our own university has also made a clear statement about values, stressing cosmopolitanism and diverse community. We find ourselves then, as a research community, in a space between competing notions of values. Some of us have strong views on place, family, religion and identity in which values of heritage, identity and rootedness are fundamental. Others are exploring disruptions to those values and champion technology, commerce, mobility, plurality and transformation in their thinking and research.

Our Centre lives and breathes these tensions every day. We have courses and students and research projects that grapple with these different and sometimes conflicting epistemologies.

phd photo

We recently worked through some of this at our 2017/2018 Postgraduate Research Day in which staff and PhD students came together for the beginning of a new academic year, to share new research, issues, anxieties, challenges and opportunities. This year we had three PhD students deliver papers, Jufang Wang on Online Content Platforms in China, Deema Sonbol on Female Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia and Hanzhi Ruan on Chinese National Identity. Colleagues at the Centre could offer valuable feedback and there was a general air of fun, generosity and humour as well as intellectual rigour in the discussions and debates that followed the papers. We all learned from one another, we shared our value systems and we negotiated between competing ideas.

We had a broader discussion about how PhD students can contribute to the research environment of the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies through inviting speakers, organising conferences, reading groups and generally socialising and sharing ideas. This is not always possible if we feel disconnected from one another but we have now created a space at the heart of CMPS in Millburn House for our PhD students where they can feel at home, recognising that a sense of place is just as important as a sense of purpose or project. This led to some discussions about senses of place and identity and we undertook a self-evaluation of our networks, connections, people and projects that keep us busy and active as academic staff and as students. Such networks offer many directions for the future but they also create a sphere within which we operate, and it is the connectedness of those spheres that is key to development.

We also discussed research leadership, what it means to be a leader, how do we like to be led, and how PhD students can consider themselves research leaders: navigating, guiding, making decisions, organising, building consensus and taking control of their research, as well as encouraging those around them.

As part of an on-going renewal of the Centre’s strategy, I invited our PhD students to contribute to our strategy by discussing and agreeing upon the VALUES of the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies. Some had been Masters students with us and so could draw upon a longer period of experience, one had coached Masters students after she completed her own course. Both the academic team and the PhD students agreed on three value statements that we all felt best described the teaching and research in the Centre, as well as all the other activities undertaken:

1) FRIENDSHIP & TOLERANCE – the opportunity to simply ‘hang out’ as well as the feeling of integration and the people-oriented nature of the Centre were highlighted

2) DIALOGUE & SELF-EXPRESSION – the opportunity for Eastern and Western ideas to engage with one another, for Global South and Global North to be in discussion, and the possibility that however idiosyncratic there is space for self-expression

3) INTEGRITY & RESPONSIBILITY – the opportunity to give feedback honestly to one another and for it be acted upon diligently

These represent not only good principles for all scholarly work, and a solid basis for a productive research year ahead for students and supervisors, but they also represent a need to have a wider acknowledgement of the need to bring different value-systems together and agree upon some shared values.

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