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June 21, 2016

Reflecting on The Mediated Self Project

An image by MSP student Lec Tang from his Mediated Self portfolio

We’ve now completed the first run through of our new module The Mediated Self Project. This was an IATL-funded Strategic Project to develop a module for our Master’s programmes to critically engage students with the processes and consequences of personal and professional forms of self-mediation as enabled by media and digital technologies. You can see our previous entries about this here.

In developing the module we were interested to enhance skills needed to mediate the self, to give students the space to practice and play with these skills and to reflect on why they might be necessary in contemporary life and work, how they can be resisted, played with and adapted. Having set, assessed and fed-back on our students' work, and collected their evaluations, we’re in a position to consider what we’ve learned in the process.

Lesson 1: A Different Approach to Delivery

First, this was a module that tried to take a different approach to delivery and assessment. We avoided a simple seminar-topic-reading-assessment based model and instead constructed a framework, based around ‘themes’ and ‘skills’ and mixed up teaching to include two symposia, technical sessions on video, photography and writing for the web (delivered by Rob Batterbee from the Careers and Skills Academic Technology team) a documentary film and a discussion around a novel The Circle by Dave Eggers. It may have been that some students felt there was a lack of more formal ‘lecture’ delivery styles and a clear narrative through-line for the module but generally this made for a dynamic, riskier and potentially richer teaching and learning experience. We especially felt this at the very start of the module where we’d asked students to come to the first session having made, with very little instruction, a video introducing themselves. Walking into a teaching room with not much more, in terms of material to ‘deliver’, than the hope that students will do what you’ve asked over a vacation was a bit nerve-wracking. The time, effort and skill that had gone into the student videos reassured us that students had bought into what we were trying to do – even if they didn’t wholly understand why we wanted them to do it this way! Subsequent sessions similarly rewarded this trust in students.

Lesson 2: A Different Approach to Assessment

Second, the forms of assessment that we used – an online mediated portfolio based on a curated self-media product – and a critical reflection on the process of producing it – allowed us to push the boundaries between theory and practice in a way which is well worth refining. One of the original impetus’s for the module was an identified lack in the curriculum of a means to test and develop many of the skills that students already possess and are being pushed to take up in media and creative industries (as well as other areas of work and life) – which we might crudely define as reflecting forms of digital and social media literacy – and which aren’t easily translatable into ‘conventional’ modes of assessment, such as exams or written assignments. These conventional forms still have their value but are arguably constitutive of print forms of literacy and, for some students, feel useless or even irrelevant for their future lives.

Lesson 3: Nothing more Practical than a Good Theory

This module was practical and applied in its nature but it was also critically informed practice, and we wanted to change the way students think about media, online life and the ubiquity of digital technologies. The skills that we want our students to develop - of research, critical reflection or of weighing evidence in the construction of narrative arguments – might indeed be wedded to conventional assessment strategies more for the convenience of assessors than assessed, but we also want them to use this in the workplace and in daily life. There is certainly value in exploring new ways in which they can be captured. The quality of the work produced this year – which you can see examples of here – and the experience of working with students to produce it, should enable us to provide both excellent examples and clearer guidance to future students in approaching these tasks.

Lesson 4: We're all in this together (aren't we?)

Finally it has been interesting and gratifying to see the interest that the project has generated amongst colleagues in the Centre, in the University and beyond. We feel very fortunate to have had the luxury to develop a module in this way, thanks to IATL, our original team of student stakeholders and the various kinds of expertise, within and beyond the University, on which we’ve been able to draw. You can read our interim and final project reports here and we’ll be presenting on the first year of the module at a Window on Teaching session in the Autumn Term. Thanks most of all to the students for their hard work. They really did step up to be co-researchers in the development of the curriculum for the next cohort and then delivering insightful and unique windows on their mediated lives.


February 01, 2016

The Mediated Self Project Symposium

Our IATL supported Mediated Self Project module, that we’ve blogged about before here and here has begun in earnest this term, and SaturdayStudents & Speakers in our afternoon Round Table discussionsaw the first of our symposia. One rationale for the module is to provide a place to explore and reflect on the place of self-mediation in professional life, either in transforming how we work, especially in the cultural, creative and media industries, or producing new forms of work entirely. With this in mind we invited four people whose working lives we thought might exemplify these changes to reflect on their experiences with our students.

Our speakers were Callum Goodwilliam, a facilitator at Squared Onlineand Warwick graduate, Marie Haycocks of Certanovo, life-coach and image consultant, Jon Bounds a writer and Pete Ashton an artist. We asked students to prepare for the day by researching our speakers through their online presences, and asked speakers to respond to our themes in explaining their own career trajectories. We followed this with a roundtable discussion at which students were able to ask questions, both practical and general, in relation to their own work on producing a Mediated Self portfolio.

A number of interesting themes emerged from the day for me – but I thought I’d highlight three. Firstly the discussion confirmed, gladly given our premise, that working on or managing the self is an important component of contemporary working life. The very existence of a market for Marie’s services, and indeed the accompanying forms of accreditation and qualification which underpin her practice are a strong indication of this. Online and offline forms of self-management and representation, though, also reveal some interesting tensions, especially in relation to the development of the technologies of mediation. More than one of our speakers referred to their own changing perspectives on and experiences of self-mediation as their appreciation of the implications of the online context grew. Callum bravely shared early Facebook photos, and early attempts at blogging, both of which he suggested he might prefer to be no longer accessible. Jon by contrast, and in opposition to the story of an internet that never forgets, had some early published work – pioneering work in relation to the short history of blogging - that was no longer visible. Both stories were perhaps a timely reminder that these forms of self-mediation are often achieved on terms over which we have little control. It was a theme re-iterated by Pete’s rules of self-mediation, which included knowing what the platforms we use are getting from us as we use them. Awareness of this perhaps helps rebalance the power dynamics between our abilities to mediate ourselves through technology and the possibility of being mediated by that technology. We might assume that these skills are tacit, especially amongst young people, and as the infrastructure of the internet and social media become more embedded into everyday life we might think less about them, but they can and perhaps should be learned.

A second theme related to the notion of being ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ to oneself. While ‘being oneself’ is the assumed path to various forms of success in contemporary life, it seemed easier to say than do. Marie, whose progression to her current role was strongly informed by her family and personal history wrestled with having different selves in personal and professional contexts, at least inasmuch as these were represented in talking about her business. Her ‘brand values’ and her ‘personal values’ became blurred, in a context in which reflections on her own experiences fed directly into the service she provided. Jon, by contrast, described using a variety of online selves in his various professional roles –some personal, some political and some reflecting the playful subversive potentials of digital cultures. He was careful and disciplined in policing the boundaries between them, but this also led to some difficult decisions about the appropriate forum for some outputs of his creative work. The possibility of a diffuse and diverse identity emcompassing the complexity of human experience was one of the utopian ideals of the early internet cultures. The political ambiguities of the more contemporary drive towards a single, coherent self, exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg’s assertions about integrity and identity, perhaps puts even more importance on the decisions we make about how we represent ourselves online and through what platforms we choose to do that work.

Finally, Pete described the importance of being driven by our own interests and enthusiasms in making a distinctive mediated self, and also described his own trajectory towards a situation of ‘not caring’ what people thought of his work, beyond an aspiration that they thought it interesting and worthwhile in the chaotic world of the web and its reputation economy . His imperative for us to 'create our own metrics' for success, rather than be driven by ‘likes’ or ‘views’ or ‘shares’ might well become a motto for our module. All the speakers seem to espouse the need to 'be the/your message' in a way that moves us from McLuhan's the 'media is the message' to 'self mediation is the message'. We will be exploring these ideas with our students for the rest of the module and we hope to have challenged them into thinking about the mediated self as NOT simply self-branding or personal PR or self-marketing. It is far more than that and touches on a variety of value systems. Like the rest of day, it should, provide some food for thought and inspiration for our students as they explore their own forms of mediation.

Many thanks to the speakers and students for their contributions – and to the staff at the Teaching Grid for allowing us to use their space on a Saturday.


April 21, 2015

Selfie Citizenship: Visibility, control and the mediated self

wp_20150421_003.jpg

Our IATL-funded work on developing the Mediated Self Project module continues. Last Thursday this took me to Manchester to attend a workshop on the theme of Selfie Citizenship sponsored by Digital Innovation at MMU and the Visual Social Media Lab at Sheffield University. The event showcased the work being produced by a network of scholars, from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and interests, on the implications of the growth of the forms of visualisation and representation associated with ‘selfie’ cultures. Readily dismissed – like so many aspects of popular creative expression – as indicative of the frivolous fluff of contemporary life, selfie-culture emerged from the presentations and discussions here as a compelling and serious object for scholarly analysis. As well as paying attention to the explicit role of the selfie in expressions of dissent and resistance, the seminar also shed light on the selfie’s place in the broader power politics of digital and technological cultures.

For me there were two recurring themes from the day which can help us in framing our module on the mediated self. The first was the significance of the notion of visibility. Selfies can be interpreted, as Adi Kuntsman implied in discussing her research into the practices of serving Israeli soldiers, as declarations of witness to events, aimed at an audience beyond immediate locales and frontiers. Following Lauren Berlant, she suggested the social media circulation of selfies from actors at the heart of globally significant events can, for better or worse, reflect an affective announcement of a kind of immediate presence on this stage. This kind of visibility was evident in other presentations too. Crystal Abidin explored the ways in which a specific Singapore MP managed his visual image through regular selfies of his life away from his public role, drawing on the visual tropes and techniques of micro-celebrity learned from young Singapore women, rather than from the serious, patrician modes of visualisation that are more common in established Singaporean media political culture. In a context in which the stakes of public political critique remain high, this was a crafting of the political self as ‘just like us’, with all the potential ambiguities of that claim. Simon Faulkner explored the relations between selfie culture and the histories of visualisation evident in photo-journalism, using the examples of the blurring of the ‘professional’ and social media practices of a photographer working in Palestine. Here the ‘traditional’ role of the photograph as part of truth-telling witness is both ‘spreadable’ in ways which make connections with political struggles in other times and places, but also personalises these struggles in interesting ways.

The second, related theme was of control, and specifically about the hidden infrastructures through which our digital lives, including selfie-cultures - are managed and circulated. Farida Vis reflected on the hidden and proprietorial role of algorithms –specifically Facebook’s EdgeRank - in determining which images and items appear on, or disappear from, user newsfeeds. As such feeds – and their equivalents in other platforms - become more taken-for-granted and relied on as sources of information the control of the means of circulation becomes crucial. This makes what seem to be arcane technical changes to platforms potentially hugely significant in shaping our knowledge of the world. Sanjay Sharma’s research on ‘Black Twitter’ and the phenomenon of users and activists deliberately ‘gaming’ the system through deliberate and repeated sharing to inflate the prominence of trending hashtags reflecting African American issues in an ‘attention economy’ perhaps exemplifies this struggle for control. I’m pleased to say that Sanjay will be joining us and our student stakeholders for further discussion at our June workshop.

Jill Walker Rettberg’s presenation brought these themes of visibility and control together in drawing on and developing the insights from her book Seeing Ourselves through Technology, which is highly likely to find its way onto our reading list. It reminded us that the drive to represent and narrate the self has a long history. The particular technological conditions we find ourselves in allow both for the ready dispersion of the means to represent the self, but also the infrastructure to make those representations visible. They are shared with other people but also, through the rise of facial recognition software and the algorithmic sorting of data, visible to machines concerned with either commercial exploitation or surveillance of these selves. There is a dystopian aspect to this kind of narrative and some of Rettberg’s examples (of the life insurance company that offered discounts to fitbit users who met their targets, or the increasingly sophisticated modes of child monitoring that might normalise wearable surveillance technologies) certainly give pause for thought. As with the development of media technologies down the ages, though, paying attention to how people actually live with, negotiate and even subvert these technologies in their daily lives might temper overly pessimistic readings. As well as keeping an analytic and critical eye on the implications of these developments it seems as important to keep asking what it is about people’s lives which makes the forms of visibility and control afforded by these technologies valuable and attractive to them.

Thanks to the organisers and presenters for such an interesting and thought-provoking day.


 


February 04, 2015

Beginning 'The Mediated Self Project'

Balloons and stones in The Mediated Self Project

Yesterday Jo Garde-Hansen and I made the first steps on our IATL funded development of a new MA option module, The Mediated Self Project. The module – initially to be piloted to CCPS students in 2015-16 with the option of a wider audience in subsequent years – aims to combine critical and theoretical perspectives on the forms of knowledge produced and required by the digital economy with some practical reflection on the skills needed to manage the various selves which can inhabit that economy successfully. The module also aims to develop ways of teaching and assessment which take better account of these digital forms of literacy.

We began this process by taking over a session of The Global Audience module. In a sense it was a perfect place to start. That module had contained a session on the ‘creative audience’ which focussed on the narratives emerging from what used to be called Web 2.0 – about the interactive audience, participatory culture and the pro-sumer - and the relations between these stories and older stories about the apparently mass and inert media audience of the past. Both these sets of stories have taken on legendary, mythical aspects but there are some interesting affinities between them and emerging stories about the ways in which we are assumed to live in the digital age. One of the things we talk a lot about in the Centre is the relationship between theory and practice. This module is going to push the boundaries of this distinction, recognising that there is a level at which the theoretical and the practical question is the same. It is ‘how do we live’? What kinds of skills do we need to make sense of the symbolic and technological world around us? And what does it mean to be able to navigate its complexities successfully? The Mediated Self Project aims to provide some space to answer these questions.

The centre piece of our discussion was a presentation from Amber Thomas from the Academic Technology team in ITS. Amber sketched out a frame through which we might situate ourselves in the digital world, drawing on the distinction identified by David White between digital visitors and digital residents. Understanding what is at stake in moving between these states in our personal and professional lives seems likely to be important in shaping the module’s content and mode of delivery. We’re hoping to call more on the expertise of colleagues like Amber, from Warwick and beyond, within the field of academic technology, where these debates are well established and on-going.

After outlining our plans relating to the module content (including issues relating to The Quantified Self, the Reputational Economy, the Campaigning Self and the distinctions between Print and Digital forms of Literacy) we asked students to reflect on what they might want to learn from such a module in this area and indeed what they consider to be the pitfalls of teaching and learning in this field. Amongst the topics that emerged as of interest included privacy (relating to a general anxiety about managing past versions of the self online as students move into professional life.) and, happily for me, taste and how it is produced and performed algorithmically. Pitfalls included concerns about the balance between theoretical abstraction and practical instruction and one – admittedly from me – about how new forms of literacy can be assessed. So many of the established forms of assessment (the exam and certainly the written assignment) are based on a vision of print literacy based around a single authorial voice in a formal static text. Digital literacy involves multiple voices, sharing and collaboration and even the creative manipulation of images and sound. How can these forms be assessed in ways which preserve the standards of critique, rigour, evidence and argument required for serious academic study?

Our next step is to recruit student participants to help us think all these things through, and to invite experts from within and beyond the University to get together in the Spring and Summer to contribute to our discussions. We’ll keep the blog updated with our progress.


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