Rob Watson

Nov 222015
Distraction or Attention Adjustment?

I have a nagging sense of anxiety that someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and ask me why, when my students are paying £9k fees, that I should be asking them to play cards at the beginning of their workshop sessions for TECH1002 Social Media & Technology?

So this week when we were playing a quick hand at the start of the workshop session, I spent some time chatting and asking what learners thought about starting the workshop sessions with game of Rummy, or Chase the Ace?

I got some useful feedback, and while a small number of students would rather just get stuck in to the tasks specified for the workshop session, most told me that they are happy to have the option to keep playing for the following reasons.

Most told me that they feel that by playing cards they have spoken with a wider range of people than they would have if they had just come in to the computer lab to work. The normal practice is to sit at a computer, stare at the screen and follow the instructions that are dictated and explained by the tutor.

By allocating the students into random groups they told me that they have been able to chat with people that they would never have spoken with before, and that they have a wider sense of who is on their course because they have been able to introduce themselves informally as they learn and play different games.

There’s also a belief that the twenty minutes or so that we play cards, gives learners time to wake-up and adjust to the attention requirements of the workshop.

Some learners come straight from an intense lecture or workshop session for another module, so this short break allows them to readjust their mind and ease into the style of thinking that we are exploring as part of this module. After all, it is social media!

I suggested that cards are a great way to do this because playing a card game doesn’t require our full attention, only part of it, while we chat and discuss issues that are relevant, or even just catch up.

I try to give a subject of conversation each week, such as who their favorite artists might be, or how they share their music. It seems like these conversations are becoming more focused and the learners make adjustments to their awareness of the ideas that are being presented to them in the lectures.

The other useful thing about playing cards is that while some learners have played cards a lot in the past, with their friends and family on a regular basis, many have not. So it’s been a process of collaborative learning, as new games are explored and the rules to different games are shared.

It looks like I’ll have to buy some new card sets because the ones that we have been using are getting worn out.

Overall I’m glad I introduced this technique this year, because for me it feels less of a battle of wills to achieve a sense of focus and engagement with the subjects the module is covering.

It also seems that attendance is holding up as well, as the loosening of the task-orientation that I’ve employed previously, has given learners a greater sense of social identity that is more agreeable to them than just expecting them to get on with their work.

Obviously they are getting on with their work, and the greater sense of trust between the learners and myself is helping to make this a process one that is self-motivated rather than directed with a heavy hand by me.

So, while I’m still anxious, I’m more confident I can explain why this has been a positive learning experience for both the learners and myself.

Nov 072015
Grabbing a Coffee Before Heading to Liverpool

I’ve escaped from Leicester for a couple of days to take a break over the weekend and recharge my batteries. Rather like Superman when he stands in the suns glare, I will head towards the River Mersey and stand at the Pier Head and take in the spray of salt water, the cold wind whipping off the Irish Sea, and contemplate the slate grey sky that forms the backdrop to the Liverpool seafront.

I’ve been enjoying running my modules this year, and have settled into the themes with more confidence, as I’ve been able to develop them and add content that is more to my liking and my tastes. It’s a challenge to run three modules simultaneously, and to refresh the content as I go along. ‘It’s doing the working and the thinking that tires a fellow out!’ Now where did I hear that?

One of the things I’ve introduced to my first year social media module is getting the students to play cards for the first twenty minutes. It’s been useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly it means that the learners are able to sit and chat and get to know one another more easily, as the groups vary each week, and they often teach each other different games. Some students have played cards with their families and friends for years, while others are new to them. What I hope they are gaining from having a couple of short hands of either Pontoon, Rummy, Blackjack or Bullshit, is a sense of sociability and a sense of collaboration while engaging in something that is playful and distracting.

I always introduce a topic of suggested conversation related to the lectures I’ve delivered, and as we’ve been finding our way into thinking about media and the process of mediation through bands like The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Roxy Music and The Art of Noise, then we’ve been discussing how art has often been closely associated with pop culture. So we’ve mentioned Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Italian Futurists – anything that connects the world of popular music with the world of ideas, alternative ways of viewing the world. I’m hoping that by looking back on some music movements of the past, these students might be inspired to create something for themselves. I wonder if any of them will form a band, or write a manifesto?

Likewise, I’m developing an introductory module to Community Media, which is something that has emerged from the ongoing PhD work. It’s a bit like building the railway line as the train is moving down the tracks. There’s a lot of trying things out and looking for live wires that can be used as a contrasting example between mainstream media, and community media’s more DIY and alternative approach. The students have hit on the idea quite quickly that community media is about giving a platform and a space for people who would otherwise not have a voice to speak and be heard.

We are experimenting with a story about people cycling on the pavement, and looking at how mainstream media in Leicester have covered it, and how alternative and independent media might look at this as a story. We’ll write blogs about it, perhaps put a news article together based on what we find out, and record a podcast based on the ideas and responses that can be collected and found when we talk with our friends and neighbours.

I’ve also been developing the final year social media module, that has taken the excessive use of sugar in our diets as a campaign issue, and is looking at ways that social media might be used to change peoples attitudes to the processed foods that we over-consume as a society. Our efforts where given a good kick this week when Keith Vaz MP told Coca Cola that their Christmas lorry wasn’t welcome in Leicester. This is a story that has stirred up a lot of controversy and has generated loads of comments on social media, and is a great example of how embedded attitudes to a consumer product and brand can be difficult to shift and change.

We are only at the end of week five, and there is some considerable way to go with these modules, with lots of marking and assignments to come in. So I’m going to use the week six reading week as an opportunity to get some reading done myself, start some marking, and maybe get ahead in preparing some classes, while also seeing if I can work through some of my PhD chapters that need writing. So no rest then, but at least I’m not on the hamster wheel for a couple of days.

Nov 062015
Music For Misfits BBC Four

Occasionally a television programme comes along that frames a discussion I’ve had going on in my head and allows me to give my students a wider view of the ideas I’m trying to convey. So when I say Music For Misfits – The Story of Indie on BBC Four, I nearly fell off my chair.

It’s difficult to convey a sense of connection and correspondence about a social and cultural movement when it is happening, so being able to look back at different periods of popular culture and make sense of them both retrospectively and from a broader viewpoint is incredibly useful.

Music For Misfits covers the story of independent music and the DIY approach to promoting media by people who are outside of the mainstream music industry. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Big in Japan and Orange Juice are all given a good airing. What’s fascinating is the way that these forms of media are all pre-digital, pre-Photoshop and pre-ProTools.

Bill Drummond Explaining Zoo Records

Bill Drummond Explaining Zoo Records

This was a form of media that was discovered rather than planned. There where no conferences about how to succeed in the music and media industries in the late seventies and early eighties. You couldn’t go and sign up for a course in digital photography, or live performance management combined with digital composition. This was a period when the rules and the conventions where created by a small group of chancers who tried something that felt good to them, but which wasn’t expected to make them into multi-millionaires.

I’m hoping that the students on TECH1002 Social Media & Technology gain a sense that the media tools and distribution systems that we have now put them in a privileged position whereby they can express themselves and make media so easily and consistently. Looking back at the pioneers, allowing for some distance and breadth of view may hopefully inspire some to push their own ideas, their own concepts more, rather than simply thinking that they are on an escalator into the creative industries – because it doesn’t work like that.

Nov 052015

As a way of developing a greater sense of sociability, I’ve been starting my workshop sessions for TECH1002 Social Media & Technology by getting my students to play cards. It’s been an interesting experience each week as the term has progressed, as students sit in small groups and share their knowledge of different types of games, such as Rummy, Pontoon, Bullshit and other games.

There’s an interesting dynamic as different groups take on different kinds of approaches. There is the serious group who look like they are sitting in a late-night poker session psyching each other out, then there is the fun group who want to play Irish Snap, with it’s loud interventions and calls. What’s certain though, is that each of the groups get talking and discussing the games, learning from each other and helping each other out to improve the games.

Based on the lecture that takes place in the middle of the week, I’ve been asking my students to discuss an idea while they play cards. This week, after talking about how ZTT Records based their notion of pop culture on the Futurist Manifesto, I wanted to know what they would include in their own manifesto of intent that they would use to guide how they produce media for themselves.

When we get back after the enhancement week, I’m going to ask if we should continue to play cards at the beginning of each session, and in what ways we can develop the use of cards as a quick way to relax and think about the topics we are covering in the module.

Oct 192015
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I’ve been updating my profile on the DMU Commons Wiki. I usually detest doing these things, writing in the third-person about myself, but somehow putting my professional information into a wiki is a lot easier and looks a lot smarter than I thought it would look. Although I’ve only just started to add information and links, it made me realise just how much work I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, and what an interesting and innovative academic base it stems from. As I write more and give more examples of the work I’ve done, I’ll keep posting them on the wiki.

Sep 142015

This weekend I was at the Community Media Association conference in Luton. The annual get-together of people who run and support community media across the United Kingdom.

The conference is organised by the Community Media Association to bring together volunteers and activists who run community radio stations, community art projects, community newspapers, and so on. I always enjoy being with people who volunteer in community media, they have a passion and commitment to transforming people’s lives through participation by making media for themselves.

We all have stories of how transformational this process can be, and what a difference it makes to the people who volunteer for community media. Changing lives and a sense of expectation about what can be achieved is a powerful selling-point for community media.

Chris Burns - Radio Academy

Chris Burns – Radio Academy

We were addressed by Chris Burns from the Radio Academy. What was interesting was the extent to which she was concerned to address common standards of training between the radio sector, ‘the industry’ as she kept calling it, and the community media sector.

I’m sceptical about linking to closely with the major broadcasters and following their agenda for skills and training. People who support community media have plenty of experience working with non-traditional learners who would struggle in an industrial environment. This suggested to me that there is a gulf of understanding about what community media is about, what it tries to do, and how it tries to do it.

I’m sure that there is a lot of well-meaning and good intentions from people who want to see a vibrant community media sector, I’m just not convinced that community media can thrive if it is only viewed as a poor-relation to the ‘grown-ups’ in the national media businesses.

Community media has to fashion an independent identify that is different from professional media. An identity that is focussed on social and personal transformation, and which is clearly marked as different from the game that is played by the BBC or the Radio Academy.

Sep 102015
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Who does Jamie Oliver think that he is? Is he some messiah figure who has come to save us from the perils of eating too much sugar? Or is he a self-aggrandising minor TV celebrity who is very good as convincing the people around him that things are his idea in the first place?

I’ve watched two films today about the dangers of sugar in our diets. The first was That Sugar Film with Damon Gameau. The second was Jamie’s Sugar Rush on Channel Four. Both have a very worthwhile message about the use and consequences, not only of excess sugar in our diets, but also the daily use of sugar as a staple of modern industrialised cooking.

But where That Sugar Film attempts to explain the issues in an entertaining, visual and personally engaging way, Jamie Oliver just comes across as being a quick leap onto the passing bandwagon.

Yes, Oliver’s name and record has a bit of pulling power in terms of getting the issue talked about, but when he comes across as the first person to have discovered the crisis of obesity and diabetes, then his film loses credibility.

Where That Sugar Film demonstrates the effects of sugar consumption on an otherwise healthy person, Damon Gameau himself, Jamie’s Sugar Rush just comes across as an indignant lurch that offers only a knee-jerk response from Jamie and his multimillionaire friends who run the chain-restaurants in the UK.

Both films have heart-wrenching moments that everyone should see, and I certainly don’t doubt the sincerity of Oliver’s response. I’m just a bit cynical, perhaps, that the real answer lies elsewhere, and that challenging the food giants to stop killing people with their food-like products, and their aggressive marketing techniques, is a bit like standing in front of an army of tanks and waving your shopping bag at them, screaming ‘no sugar in my bag!’

Sep 092015

I don’t know if it is just me, but is the quality and availability of decent greengrocers and market stalls selling fruit and vegetables in decline? I’ve largely stopped buying my fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, because the produce is too uniform, too expensive and over-packaged.

So I try to shop at independent stores and Leicester Market as much as I can. I enjoy shopping at a market rather than in the clinical space of a supermarket. It’s a bit more haphazard, but I tend to get a wider range of food at a much cheaper price.

Leicester Market has a proud history selling fresh food, and the re-vamped indoor market has given the meat, fish and dairy side of the market a massive boost. No doubt the planned redevelopment of the outdoor market will do the same.

At least I hope it will? Because is it only me but is the standard of intendent greengrocers dropping like a stone? Not only is the range and selection of produce becoming more uniform, but the quality is dropping massively as well.

Yeah, I know, Leicester Market is renowned for being as cheap-as-chips, with its bowls of banana for a pound, and its wide range of international foods. But I can’t help but feel that the availability, the number of stalls and the quality of a lot of the fresh food is heading in the wrong direction.

Quite why Leicester Market has stalls dedicated to selling accessories to stoners I don’t know, but is this sending out the wrong set of signals and reinforcing the idea that markets are a no-go area?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in putting my money where my mouth is, so I will continue to shop at Leicester Market. But I was wondering what the general state of fresh food shops is in the UK, and how much of this is a barometer for the ailing health of the nation?

We seem to be good at opening bars, bookies, coffee shops and charity shops, but butchers or greengrocers are an endangered occurrence these days, and I’m getting worried that its gone too far.