Trickle up

There’s a phenomenon in media studies called trickle up, the idea that cultural themes, ideas, creativity, start on a smaller scale and then get adopted by larger and more prominent media outlets and then become mainstream. The tendency possibly happens more nowadays due to more people getting into being creative and sharing their outputs globally. Advertising agencies look at what DIY animators are doing and think “that looks rather good” and copy it, or better yet employ the animators in their campaigns, or film companies see character designs from cartoonists and rip them off, or blogs become well-known and get turned into novels and then films. It’s an important concept I think, because so much of our cultural assumptions are that it happens the other way round, media create ideas, which then become copied by the masses. Trickle up is far more common than trickle down as far as I can see.

This blog post has been prompted by two different conversations I’ve had about two examples. The first came out of a tweet from my friend Sarah Sherman, who at a conference tweeted, “anyone remember the Swap Shop logo?” to which i replied that I was more of a TISWAS person myself. When I was at school there were definitely two camps of people, you were either a TISWAS person or a Swap Shop one. When TISWAS started it was a bit staid, one person, then two people at a desk, which then opened out into a studio of messy kids shouting at each other, phantom flan flingers, cages, grunge. If there was ever an animal segment, the animal would escape and the hosts would have to run round the studio trying to catch it, slipping on bits of flan. It was anarchic, surreal, raucous and a bad influence. Swap Shop on the other hand was quiet, reserved, based around the idea of exchanging material goods. The children were well-behaved and asked the guests serious questions. It was dull, reserved and set out to improve the audience. I could see why either could appeal to an audience, but for me TISWAS was full of the kind of people I wanted to hang out with, Swap Shop was full of the sort of people I resorted to hanging out with.

Where the trickle up example comes in though was that TISWAS started several years before Swap Shop, but on ATV, back in the days when ITV had a lot of regional programming. It was the first of the model of an entire Saturday morning show, but with segments of cartoons etc. The BBC copied the idea, gave it the swapping twist, and made it national. Fair enough. Most TV entails stealing a format, changing it around slightly, then representing it as your own.

Where the trickle up phenomenon becomes less acceptable though, is often the way that the larger media outlets create a revisionist history which pretends the previous versions didn’t exist. In a recent TV celebration, the BBC did a programme called “It all started with Swap Shop” as if the precursor didn’t exist, and as if they could get away with the retcon because not everyone had seen the original. That kind of revisionist history of how things were created underplays the role of the smaller outlets and the less well-know creators in order to take all the credit for itself. It’s this side of it that annoys me; not least because all too often people who aren’t familiar with the origins fall for it and fail to recognise where the true origins lie.

The same has been happening on the BBC with the 50th Dr Who celebrations. Bringing back Dr Who was a difficult process for Russel T Davies I’m sure. There were a lot of people at the BBC who needed to be convinced of its relevance to a modern audience I’m sure, but all the documentaries I’ve seen about it (for example, the Culture Show one last week) make out that they were working from a blank slate, that there was no idea whether it would work if it was brought up to date. And yet there was six years of Dr Who, remodelled for a modern audience, keeping the essential elements but changing the tone and the direction, in the Big Finish audio material, which had been going since 1999. The nu Who exactly matches that direction and timbre, and uses many of the writers (and some of the scripts) so it’s no coincidence. And yet the influential role they’ve had in the 21st century regeneration have been written out of the history. In fact even before the 9th Doctor appeared, there was a TV discussion between a journalist and Sylveste McCoy (oh that dates me, spelling his name without the “r”) where the arrogant twat of a journalist was saying how it couldn’t work, because it was so old-fashioned in its essence, to which SM replied, “well it’s been working fine for years on audio”. Hopefully that segment is still around somewhere because it would be great to see him held up to public ridicule now.

So — I’m actually relieved I didn’t pursue a career in media. I could imagine how galling it could be to have your contribution overlooked and written out of history, and for someone else to take the credit for your innovation. In this job, both the education aspect and the academic aspect, people seem (on the whole) scrupulously fair about attributing ideas. The trickle up thing happens just as much, the larger organisations trawl the practice of teachers in the classroom for idea, or ask for them to be contributed to reports, but always the origin is acknowledged. In fact there was an excellent JISC programme called LEX which focused on drawing ideas from students themselves, and integrating those into practice. Wherever possible those were credited too. If only the media industry had the same ethos.

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Writing blogs

The post I just wrote is actually the first time I’ve posted something as a project requirement (as opposed to writing one for no reason). All of the project members are expected to write one, and most are new to the process so I produced a list of tips for them:

Keep it conversational and informal.
The blog should read like a stream of consciousness, and is written as if it was whatever comes into your head. In fact that’s the best way to write it, but review it for structure and style. It should still be readable and make sense.
The idea is to have your personal perspective, but include something factual about the project. What you’ve done, but also what you feel about what you’ve done. Ideally it should be prompting more discussion and so people need to 1) have something solid about professional practice to comment on but 2) be given “permission”, so to speak, to provide their own personal perspective. If it’s just a flat report of what you’ve done, this won’t engage, but if it contains nothing concrete then it’s of no value.
Write about disagreements, problems, and so on, but remember that actually this is a project blog, so overall it will be best to maintain a positive report, and not be critical about colleagues, or institutions.
Don’t worry about length. A paragraph is about the shortest you can do, a page (eg 400 words) is about the longest. It’s more important to do it regularly than do a lot each time.
Add the tag bim-hub, and as many others as you will find useful.
I’ve tried to strike the right balance with the post I’ve just done as an example.

Anyone else got any tips for my colleagues on the project?

Starting the BIM-Hub project

I’ve recently started working on a new project – this one is at Loughborough University. It’s been a while getting involved; unlike my other projects this one is actually salaried – I’m an employee! – so the contract inevitably takes longer to set up than with other clients. Also September and October were very very busy with other previous commitments, mainly with the Open University and CSIR Meraka, which meant I could really only get into it once I was back from leave I booked way back before we even got the funding allocated. Still … the 4th November finally came round and at last I could get down to working on it properly, rather than odd bits here and there squeezed between other things.

What’s great, for a start, is that I’d already worked at one of the collaborating partners already and with the other the project is with Coventry University and Ryerson University. It’s also a follow-up to a project that the PI and I had already completed, and written up, and reflected on. That was the Creating a Better Built Environment project. So often you start on something and need to spend a while getting a handle on everything. This time I already know most of the issues and how to evaluate. The danger is though that there’s a tendency to think “business as usual” – every new project, even a second iteration of a running project, throws up new things.

The first thing to get underway was the evaluation of the learning so far – although it’s an 18 month project, that really only contains one academic year, so there’s only one shot at everything. By the time I came on board the students were almost at the end of their first semester, so I wanted to get into getting feedback on their experiences straight away.

It’s always a dilemma what to go for with getting student experiences. Obviously you survey them, that generates lots of numerical data, which always gives you something to analyse, and is the only stuff some people look at, so getting all those numbers makes everyone on the project feel secure. Immediately though we hit an impasse – 5 point or 4 point Lykert scales for responses? I’m firmly on the 5 point side of the argument, but others on the team were on the 4 pt side. I’m not at all convinced by the argument on the other side (in fact, if I’m asked to fill in a 4 pt scale I either draw a fifth point in the middle and tick that, or refuse to fill it in). However, luckily on the team we’ve got a few lateral thinkers one of whom suggested we do both, then analyse the differences. So, not only a compromise, but also another spin off research question which we can publish on. Win-win.

The dilemma with getting the qualitative feedback is interviews or focus groups. On the last project we interviewed the teams separately. and got quite different responses from each team. The ability to do comparative analyses between the different groups proved really useful. However, lots and lots of interviews is not only time consuming to conduct (and we’re trying to limit the impact on the students) but also is a real pain to transcribe (and that’s my job). However, the project plan calls for focus groups (if in doubt always check back with the project plan – really obvious thing to do but frequently forgotten). But I’m hoping to do one or two interviews too. So far I’ve done two, one at Coventry f2f and one at Ryerson via GoToMeeting. Both went well, the Coventry lot needed a bit of prompting at first but soon got very talkative, the Ryerson lot needed no prompting, but audio problems meant I couldn’t always hear what they said – in fact my voice coming over their speakers was all I could hear at times. However I got a great range of data – the best you could hope for really in that some of what they said confirmed what we got last time, some of it was new stuff, and between the groups there was some stuff they shared and some that was different. Of the new stuff what the CU students said was that the chance to do virtual teamworking felt more like the real thing because they were working with external people. That’s not something I’d thought of before. We think of the issues and skills of virtual teamworking as the issues with being at a distance, or cultural (or timezone) differences, or institutional differences, but the outward facing aspects of the project was also something they found a challenge (not in the sense of it being difficult, but in the sense of it being something they had to address and found to be a valuable experience). What was also reassuring was that my answer to my last question (“how do you feel about being part of a research project”) was a very positive one for both groups. We so often hear that in the age of the “student as customer” (grrr) that students want to be cosseted and spoonfed – and won’t take on any risks because they want value for money. Both the British and Canadian students were even bewildered that this should be an issue. In Coventry I got puzzled looks and the answer “well we volunteered for it” and in Ryerson it was a jubilant “we’re pioneers”. Reassuring that educational research is not meeting any flak from the student end. Perhaps we can start being a bit less hesitant about doing it.