Community in the Void: Reflections on the MERJ/HEA Media Education Retreat

21 05 2013

How do we grow a vibrant community of education researchers? In an earlier post I talked about how skill shares can be complimented by  problem-shares to strengthen our research communities. This dual approach to professional development animated discussion at last week’s MERJ/HEA Retreat.  MERJ, The Media Education Research Journal, became the first journal focused on media education research with its premier publication in Spring 2010. The journal aims to foster a space for exchange between scholars, practitioners and teachers from different countries, approaching media education as a social practice.

MERJ’s day long, workshop retreat was supported by the Higher Education Academy and hosted by Birmingham City University on 17 May 2013. The event kicked off with a brief set of reflections. Members of the MERJ editorial board narrated the (often crooked) roads they took to becoming published media education researchers. In the spirit of problem-sharing, John Potter’s opening contribution paid tribute to  Samuel Beckett’s famous quote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And with capitalised letters shouting from his power point slide, Richard Berger reminded participants to be prepared for revisions — followed by more revisions.

In similar spirit, Mark Readman exposed his personal publishing journey with MERJ, sharing the initial critical feedback he got from peer reviewers — including that it was ‘reference-lite’ —  for his piece that became “Inspecting Creativity: Making the Abstract Visible” in MERJ 2:1.  Assuring early career authors that most reviewers want to  nurture rather than rip-apart submissions, MERJ publisher John Atkinson said editors were not “like a restaurant reviewer who wants crap food so he can slag it off.” Alex Kendall also spoke of accountability in the peer review process, drawing attention to the Online Education Research Journal whose reviews reverse anonymity, with peer reviewers attaching their names to their feedback.

Once researchers are ready to face the publishing process, the next challenge is where to submit. Education journals span many disciplines, methods and audiences.Dan Ashton discussed how we can take different aspects of our doctoral and later research projects and gear them toward different journals. Placing his own work across education, workplace studies and technology outlets, he identifies spaces for critical intervention that can open up new publishing venues and networks for future funding partners.

Other funding strategies that panellists discussed included aiming at small scale grant calls and, as Alex Kendall advised, making sure to ask “How can I use this call to do the project I want?” before piling on the paperwork. In the same vein, she stressed the importance of writing for audience rather than outlet, “Care about your output and the REF will come naturally.” Another senior researcher echoed this sentiment, “Stop worrying and start writing in the direction you want. Let the REF be the elephant in the room.” 

Beyond the mental blocks to output that come with REF surveillance culture, research requires time and resources–two things many academics find themselves short of, particularly as today’s workloads grow and HE funding shrinks. Add on top of this a second job, family or other external commitments and carving out space to make publication possible becomes a huge challenge. To move these challenges from personal pitfalls where we blame ourselves, to shared structural constraints, MERJ retreat leaders had us start off with a go around on barriers–or as we dubbed it a ‘whinge session’. Taking it in turns to identify what barriers stood in the way to us doing the work we want, my group identified interdisciplinary tensions as a major obstacle. In particular we talked about the disjunction between ‘media studies’ and ‘education research’. One group member described the gap between media studies and education research as ‘a wasteland.’ This resounded with MERJ editors’ provocation in their foundational issue, referring to media education research in the UK as “a void.”

Despite its origins in literacy movements, until recently media studies, as a field, has offered little in the way of reflexive pedagogical research or shared cultures of best practice teaching. While work on multimedia and digital learning is flourishing, it’s Anthropology, Geography and STEM fields that lead the way. As experts in media practice and theory, our discipline should be setting–not following–the example in 21st century learning innovation. MERJ, along with the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice and the annual Media Education Summit are working to fill this void, bringing together like-minded media educators to advance and promote the amazing work going on in our research, classrooms and curricular development. 

Events like the MERJ retreat are crucial for building a community of reflexive media education practitioners and researchers. Working from the ‘interdisciplinary wasteland’ between the borders of media studies and education research, means we need extra nourishment to grow our nascent field. Identifying the barriers and building ways over and through them together is what makes us develop. Moreover, coming together and aggregating our plethora of impactful outputs reveals the potentials of this budding media education community in the UK. With tuition fee rises and changing expectations for HE student experience, now is the time for grant agencies and institutions to invest resources and energy into media education research.


Open Access: HEFCE, REF2020 and the Threat to Academic Freedom

5 12 2012

Excellent post on Open Access and for-profit publishing debates.

The Disorder Of Things

This is the text of a document prepared by Meera and me on Article Processing Charges as currently understood and the serious risks we think they pose to academic freedom and funding, broadly understood (previous discussed by severalcontributors toour openaccess series). It is also available as a pdf, and we encourage academics to think carefully about the issues foregrounded, and to act accordingly.

Applegarth Press


  • The Government is pushing academic publishing to a ‘pay-to-say’ model in order to achieve open access to publicly funded research
  • This ‘gold’ route to open access, which levies Article Processing Charges (as proposed in the Finch Report and taken up by RCUK and HEFCE) poses a major problem for academics in the UK:
    • It threatens academic freedom through pressures on institutions to distribute scarce APC resources and to judge work by standards other than peer review
    • It threatens research funding by…

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Passion, Pitchforks and Pinecones: Navigating Academia in Precarious Times

29 11 2012

This week I had the opportunity to speak on the panel at McGill University ‘Future of Feminist Theory: Publishing, Networks and Conferences, Or, how to be the feminist you want to be.’ Sponsored by the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies and the journal Feminist Theory, the event drew together 50 scholars from all stages of their careers to reflect on what it means to be and do feminism in the academe today. Presenting alongside Ann Braithwaite (UPEI)  Stacy Gillis (Newcastle University), and with a keynote from Myra Hird (Victoria) I spoke about my own crooked early career path and the importance of playfulness, passion and nurturing our networks as we navigate the academic world. This is the transcript and slides from my talk.


Graduate school and academic promotional tracks are often described as jumping through a series of flaming hoops. And yes, the academe is most certainly a space of anxiety. But it is also important that it is a playful space, an experimental space. When I was writing my phd thesis I realised that because the dissertation is a training process in established modes of research, I rarely had the room within that work to make an inventive mess. So the question became: Where else can I be messy, creative, playful? In other words, how can we carve out spaces, find collaborators and make connections that allow our other less disciplined selves and voices to speak?

For me graduate school was of course a space of anxieties, but it was also a space for experimentation and the cultivation of diverse skills. As a McGill alumni I can confidentially say these spaces for making things exist all around us. Of course, as Stacy will discuss at further length, different projects receive different degrees of institutional merit and credit, and creative work, the labour of event organising and thoughtful, engaged teaching often receive little or no institutional reward. That said, every time you organise an event or collaborate on a project—even if it is not rewarded directly within the university– you are also learning institutionally approved skills of ‘networking’ and ‘making partnerships.

There will also be people who notice, though they may be ‘friends in low places’. But it is often these friends in low places that are the most crucial part of your network, they are who support you, who bring you with them as their careers progress, who offer guidance, professional development and emotional support. While many graduate students think they should be networking up, it is equally, if not more important, to be networking across, and mentoring those coming up behind you.

I think this creativity also matters particularly right now as the future will be more than books. It will be more than peer review journals enclosed in the corporate dungeons of JSTOR, accumulating digital dust. This is already evidenced in changes to REF output, the inclusion of exhibitions, public programmes, media appearances as scholarly work (though not all tenure committees and departments will see it this way – and as Stacy will discuss this is all quit vague in the new REF process in the UK).

After I finished my degree I did my first postdoc at LSE. Following that I had planned to do an ESRC but it was 2008 and ESRC postdocs got cut, reducing the number of awards following the financial collapse. I needed to stay in London for personal life reasons and I took a job teaching 4/4 load for at small liberal arts college. This cut research time, but also created space for experimentations with pedagogy and collaboration. With more experience and proliferation of web-based tools, I was able to begin to establish more consistency to these projects and to use them as bridges between different community and academic spaces. This was an entrepreneurial move done out of a feeling that I had to make my work visible form an invisible university, so I began to create my own archives and showcases. I found ways to generate collaborative material that still ‘counts’, as well as to find communities who ‘count’ these projects. There are, of course, many critical questions to raise about the junctures and tensions that are presently forming around digital media, entrepreneurialism and austerity. For now, I just want to flag that these do-it-yourself approaches should neither be lauded nor condemned, but rather positioned in relation to the economic crisis and the (biopolitical?) rhetoric of struggle and success surrounding us.

After three years I felt ready for a change and I went back on the job market last Spring. All those old anxieties from graduate school got opened up again, along with new ones as this time I wasn’t straight out of my dissertation and I had to think about the story of what I’d ‘accomplished’ so far to sell myself. One of the coping strategies I developed for the job search process was a tumblr site that re-interpreted my rejection experiences through the lens of dating. While this was primarily therapeutic, for myself and others, it also speaks towards how heavily mediated the job search process has become -emails and forms and forums, academic job wiki, managing our online profiles in case we are googled or facebooked, asking each other if we need, linkdin, researchgate, tweeter accounts, etc etc?? In other words, it is not only our academic processes, but our processing of academia that has become entangled in the digital

To develop a way of making sense of my work, I was largely inspired by Uri Gordon’s advice on two forked publishing strategies where you spin the same piece of work into a trade publication and a peer review article. After a couple awkward and rambling interviews I came up with an adaptation to this that fit my work: ‘three pronged publishing approach’. This offers a model for explaining, in institutional terms, how you can develop the same research stream to generate three sets of outputs. I realised that it was possible to mobilise institutional language to make sense of my work. But, of course, this ascribes linearity where there is often not a straightforward process and it flattens and separates what are actually often dynamic exchange between these projects.

A metaphor I like much more for thinking about my developing approach to academic life is that of the Thyrsus. A thyrsus is a staff used by the Maeneads in Dioynsus cult. It is an object for self defence against male aggressors and when it strikes the ground can make springs of wine (both useful powers for a feminist academic). There is a pinecone on the end of the staff. The pinecone’s scales are overlapping, when they open up they drop their seeds. This makes me think of Susan Saxe’s poem about how women’s liberation networks worked. In her response to being asked by an FBI agent ‘who was in her network?’ Saxe responds by comparing the way information and ideas move and grow to rhizomatic processes found in our eco-system. I find myself drawn to this less because of the Deleuzian romanticism of the horizontal roots of resistance (although I like those too). I am drawn to this more because of Saxe’s knowingness of what one cannot trace.

The Edufactory collective has recently described the state of the university as being in a ‘double crisis.’ First, there is a crisis of outdated disciplinary silos, antiquated epistemologies and what they call “bare shells of heirarchisation and measure.” At the same time, universities are increasingly adopting postfordist values and labour practices. This is increasing the precarious conditions, underwaged positions, and false promises of institutional loyalty that mark the University today.  These current realities make the traditional ‘academic steps to success’ feel like old mythologies. Something that is being especially felt by the current generation of phds.

But, that is depressing. So to end on a perhaps more positive, reflective note: if I had to mark one thing that I’ve learnt so far from my crooked career, it is that career paths—like love lives—do not need to be linear or imagined as ladders. There are more meanings for success and failure than metaphors of climbing steps and breaking through glass ceilings can provide. Looking back at my ‘career’ so far, I realise that the guide has been so much more important than the path. For me, the guide has been my passion and commitment to these projects of connection that spill and spread seeds of resistance. And the more I learn to let go of other people’s linear stories of success, the more I learn to trust those untraceable networks that nurture me, the more courage I carry when it’s time to take on the flaming hoops of academia.

Binders full of Baudrillard: Are internet memes today’s Disneyland?

29 10 2012

 In 1981, Baudrillard wrote that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real.” Last week in my History of Consumer Society and Mass Media class we read Baudrillard’s now famous text Simulacra and Simulations. We focused in on key arguments through a game of ‘’Dense Postmodern Theory Pictionary” that asked students to try and sketch out central arguments in the text. Among the excerpts we looked at was Baudrillard’s discussion of Disneyland and ‘third order simulation,’ as well as this passage on what would happen if you tried to perform a fake hold-up:

“Go and organize a fake hold up. Be sure to check that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no life is in danger (otherwise you risk committing an offence). Demand ransom, and arrange it so that the operation creates the greatest commotion possible. In brief, stay close to the “truth”, so as to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation. But you won’t succeed: the web of art)ficial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements (a police officer will really shoot on sight; a bank customer will faint and die of a heart attack; they will really turn the phoney ransom over to you).”

We also talked about Baudrillard’s idea that Watergate “did not exist.” For Baudrillard, political scandal is a performance, a distraction, a simulation.

Today the notion of US presidential debates as infotainment seems like old news. This generation of university students are so accustomed to shiny screens and politicians’ rehearsed sound bytes, that if a debate unfolded without bold blue and red backgrounds, and wasn’t embedded in hours of repetitive, dramatized ‘news’ commentary, things would seem very strange.

As debate number 2 aired live on American television, the performance seemed fairly similar to the years gone before, albeit with more tweeting and the highly touted ‘first female host in 20 years’. But then something new happened. Veronica De Souza, a social media manager recently made redundant, put her increased cognitive surplus into internet creativity, as many do, starting the tumblr  This did not happen when the debate ended, but rather instants after Romney uttered those words, that will stick to him now through the rest of the campaign like toilet paper super glued to his shoe.

amazon binder ad

Hours after the tumblr went live, amazon ads followed suit. Within 24hrs of the debate hundreds of reviews of Avery Binders had been logged, along with thousands of comments, likes, and review ratings, as well as mass re-circulation through other social media, even making it onto prime time news.

This was simulacra, simulations gold. It was the kind of timing media and politics lecturers dream of.

Here was an opportunity to watch the internet world of election humour unfold in meme upon meme of mashups, an orgy of intertextuality. Within hours the tumblr was a densely packed archive of references invoking memories of childhood stationary, 80s film history, cult television, previous presidents and chart topping pop songs. It was an time capsule of the past, a flash of the present, a dreamworld of fan-fiction instagrams.

So I wanted to know: What would Baudrillard say? And I knew exactly who to ask.

In the sprit of social media, it was time to crowd source the classroom. We began by breaking the issue apart. First, what would Baudrillard say of the US presidential elections generally? Of voting? Of US Democracy? From there we could get closer to the question of how he might make these memes.

Well I guided the class through Baudrillard on elections, I left it to them to tell me what to make of the debate and its emergent memes. I hadn’t thought it through yet, waiting for the moment to make sense things together that the classroom can offer up.

According to Rutgers University Course 512:391:04, this is what Baudrillard might say:

The debate is a fake hold up. These two men dressed in suits, powdered in make-up, speak in well-rehearsed slogans made up of political sounding words. Yet while the debate may be fake, its outcome has real effects. We are the hostages in this election hold up.

And these binders, they are our new Disneyland. A bit of play, some fantasy that keeps us smiling and giggling. An amusement so hyper-real it makes the debate seem real. But we are meme-ing away in the desert .

plaque from entrance to Disneyland

Carving Compassion, Camouflaging Antagonism & Building Cooperative Alternatives – an Interview with Anna Feigenbaum

27 08 2012

Class War University



Dr. Anna Feigenbaum gives her thoughts on radical teaching and organizing within and beyond the university.  Against education that tries to transmit radical politics to students, she recommends an approach that starts with students’ experiences and works with them through the difficulties and challenges they face—and witness—in their everyday lives.  Revolutionary pedagogy can be embedded in art and creativity, engaging students through playful, reflexive and collaborative projects.  Rather than getting caught up in puritanical self-flagellation over what cannot be achieved, struggles can be seen from a more ecological perspective, one that works both inside and outside institutions simultaneously: chiseling the university’s walls while building cooperative alternatives.

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Problemshares and other #digitaltrans formations

22 06 2012

I just got back from attending the fourth and final workshop on collaborative learning from the Community-powered Digital Transformation project run by David Gauntlett and colleagues at the University of Westminister, with partners from Tate, British Library and a number of other cultural institutions in and around London. 

There seemed to be particular interest and attention to questions around integrating online and offline participation, project sustainability, and generating incentives for content co-creation. There was also a focus on how we think of ourselves in terms of digital skills and expertise. What’s the line between ‘expert’ and ‘enthusiast’ — do we even need to draw one? Do terms like ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ really capture what it means to embody and practice digital engagements? 


skillshare by harrydrawspictures

While we certainly raised more questions than came up with answers, what I took away from the workshop was the need for collaboration and greater sharing between academia, museums, archives and other cultural institutions. While we often harp on about skillshares, we also need problemshares–spaces where we share what didn’t work, places where we can show off our best failures.

In tune with this, I was really impressed with the honesty and openness about vulnerabilities, failures and challenges that presenters and participants shared at the workshop. To learn from each other we have to show our projects ‘warts and all.’ This was thanks, in part, to project partner Anastasia Kavada who brought her experience and expertise in facilitation and collective learning to the workshops, guiding small group break out sessions and highlighting that the form in which we share and collaborate, shapes the atmosphere and the quality of the content we co-create.  

Collaborative Learning: Challenges and Best Practices

4 05 2012

Yesterday’s Collaborative Learning workshop, sponsored by the HEA, brought together HE teachers from Winchester, Bournemouth, Birmingham, University College Falmouth and University of Huddersfield. Below are some of the shared challenges and best practices that emerged across our presentations and discussions.

challenges in collaborative teaching and learning

collaborative learning best practices

Exploring Collaborative Learning In Media Studies Programmes

11 04 2012

I am presenting at this one day seminar alongside academic staff from different higher education institutions across the UK. We are convening to discuss the benefits and problems in collaborative learning, how social media – and other technologies and practices – can be used and to share good practice in facilitating collaborative teaching and learning in undergraduate media studies programmes.

The event will be a hosted by the School of Media and Film at the University of Winchester. A full programme is available.