Interstitial and liminal spaces

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the BLTC planning and the themes identified, have coincided with an online discussion group that I’ve recently joined on the subject of inbetween spaces. It’s been mainly an email discussion group, but we’ve also met up online in a Google circle. The video of that first meeting is here:

 

You can see here evidence of the strength of the written word over spoken in my case. A combination of lack of sleep (insomnia could be an upcoming blog post) and the mania that comes with being exposed to a mass of interesting ideas from interesting people rendered me almost unintelligible at moments, but I think the others make plenty of sense, so the video is well worth watching.

Liminal spaces is one of the themes of Making Sense of Space; a book I worked on with my friend Iryna Kuksa. The book proposal was hers, and she invited me to contribute to it. I was stuck for what to contribute, then decided to rework a proposal I’d made for a Marie Curie Fellowship, which had fallen through. It was an excellent complementarity between Iryna’s work and mine; she’d got a monograph on design of spaces in virtual worlds, I’d got my stuff on the experience of spaces in virtual worlds, we put them together and co-wrote an introduction and conclusion. I’d also got a couple of chapters’ worth of work that was on work I’d collaborated on in both education and performance in virtual worlds, and it all fitted together really well – after Iryna had honed out many of my off-topic musings (I managed to persuade her to leave some in).

One thing that helped me pull my bit together was a model I’d come up with a few years earlier, which is an extended version of Activity Theory. Activity Theory has evolved over the years; starting with Vygotsky, then reformulated by Leont’ev and extended by Engestrom. To that illustrious list you can now add Childs :-p

I like activity theory as a description of what goes on when activities take place. It’s pretty simple to get hold of once you realise it’s not really a theory. It simplifies quite a complicated process by breaking it into its component parts, and enables you to singly consider the connections between those parts. It usually gets represented as a triangle, like this:

 

Obviously it’s just a representation – reality is what Adams once described as a WSOGMM (whole sort of general mish-mash) – but that’s too messy to really get a handle on.

The problem with activity theory is that it misses out two factors that a elemental in understanding activities and that is the participants’ sense of presence, with the space and with each other, and their identity, as learners, teachers, whatever. Now it’s fair to say that identity is probably already in there, it only makes sense in terms of community, or in the roles that we’re assigned, or I’d say it’s actually a tool we use in interaction. But anything that’s smeared across so many other categories just adds to the messiness of the analysis, so it’s simpler to just add it as another category.

What we then get is a triangle with identity and presence on either side – which actually looks like this when made a bit more regular:

activity theory

These eight categories then give a useful way of breaking down the specific characteristics of liminal spaces.

That’s a lot to go into here (plus, you know, buy the book) but I’ll talk about just one of these, in the next post; presence.

 

Written v. spoken interaction

In a recent discussion on TOOC (Teaching Online Open Course) that I’m a tutor on at Brookes a couple of participants commented on how they feel more exposed when writing than speaking online as it creates a permanent record – this prompted the following thoughts which I’m posting here:

There’s a move towards providing feedback to students in the form of audio – one reason is because some people find it quicker to produce the feedback that way. In the one audio feedback project I’ve worked on, the two academics chose to actually write their feedback out first then read out what they’d written, so it certainly wasn’t the case on that occasion. The real benefit of producing audio feedback is that it is less open to interpretation. There is a natural tendency, particular amongst students perhaps, who are in a position of constantly being assessed and so are probably more vulnerable to criticism, to read into the text the most negative tone possible. With audio feedback anyone commenting on the work can do so in a more conciliatory gentle tone and that’s appreciated.

Issues with audio though are that firstly it can be more difficult for non-native English speakers. At times in my life I’ve had passable skills at other languages (I pick them up quickly then forget them quickly) but that was always written – it’s easier to pick identify the words when written down than when they’re spoken. The other is speed – I hate manuals that exist solely as a series of videos. I want to be able to scan down some text quickly and pick out the useful bit, I don’t want to have to wade through a whole set of irrelevant stuff, which is often a little sales pitch and some theme music. Audio feedback doesn’t do that (imagine an online world where we all have our own theme music …. actually on second thoughts that seems pretty cool) but it’s still more laborious to sit through.

Although it’s easier to create an audio file, it’s still maybe preferable to write stuff. It’s the rehearsal stage that’s easier. In computer-mediated communication rehearsal is anything that happens before publishing, so all of the corrections and changes that happen before you hit “post” is rehearsal; everything you change after is revision. Although I try to maintain as conversational a tone as possible in my posts and blogs, there’s still a bit of reading through to make sense (believe it or not) before posting. Spelling and grammar also get a bit of a look over too, even in a chat room. It’s when you need to do something speedily in text that the problems really start. Chat can be a nightmare, so can twitter if you have lots of people simultaneously contributing to a conference or something. You’re trying to type fast in order to get your point across while it’s still relevant, and meanwhile the conversation has moved along as the faster typists dominate the conversation.

In teaching situations where I’ve used chat as a medium (this goes back to when I was at Warwick just over 10 years ago) this was identified as the biggest challenge for ESL speakers. It takes longer to compose a chat post if English isn’t your first language, but also if the conversation fragments, so that a line can be a response to a dialogue three lines up, but in between two other conversations are happening, (for example), then that can be very difficult to follow too, unless your language skills are up to it.

For that reason it’s common netquette to start a line with @name (if several conversations are going on at once) so you know which conversation it refers to, but what we used to do at Warwick was ask the students to take it in turns. A student could say “pass” if they had nothing to say, but it meant that no-one was unconsciously censored. It slows the interaction down considerably, but I think this is something that is simply part of the adjustment that has to be made when moving online.

I was going to say this in our first webinar. I’m aware that in a mixed-mode webinar, where some are coming in via text, and others via voice, that this creates a power-relationship, the voice people dominate. In some occasions this is actually preferable. If you’re teaching then you might want to be the only one with voice, and have the students respond with text, and just bring them in with voice if they have a long or complex contribution, but this is still by invitation. Otherwise you can have lots of people breaking in over each other and it becomes difficult to follow.

Encouraging people to adapt to this slower pace is difficult but worthwhile, I think. Patiently waiting for someone to finish typing their post so they can contribute equally to the conversation, rather than carrying on talking, is an essential technique in running a webinar. Some people say they miss the energetic to-and-fro of a face-to-face conversation, but … that’s a good thing. Energetic toing-and-froing is awful for some people (me included) because if you’re someone who needs a second or two to collect your thoughts before contributing, there’s never a long enough gap to begin your contribution.

I once surveyed a class about an online lesson, both by written questionnaire and by focus group. The differences in the results were very marked. The predominating written response was it was engaging and fun, the predominating spoken result was that it was slow and boring. My interpretation of the results was that the focus group was dominated by people who excelled at face-to-face interactions, and in the move to online working they were losing their dominant role. The remainder found online more egalitarian.

For this reason, I think online meetings and lessons are MORE effective than offline ones. At the very least we should mix them up, so that the strengths of both modes can come into play.

I think feeling exposed when writing online is something that we can get used to – you’ll see that my written stuff on my blog and on these posts is largely stream of consciousness. With more time I would be more coherent, but I still check for spelling and grammar to some extent. However, as long as we are more or less understandable I think this matters less in these environments than in more official scenarios. The only time it is crucial is when correcting someone else’s punctuation and grammar. Getting it wrong then is extremely embarrassing. The observation that when correcting someone you’ll make a mistake yourself is known as Muphry’s Law. And these written things are still more coherent than my spoken stuff. For some research last year I interviewed a range of people in the Ethiopian government, and when transcribed there were one or two whose transcripts read like a text book. I was aware they were eloquent, but that ability to talk without shifting tenses, or confusing the object, or changing flow halfway through is extremely difficult. Most of us do that all the time, but like you said, it’s not recorded.

That’s different here of course, Marion, Simon and I are recorded. I haven’t played back my videos because I think they’d be excruciating to watch. My intro video was scripted, but I tried to make it sound naturalistic, because I think that’s easier to listen to. I think I may have gone too far and actually ended up sounding incoherent. Hopefully they’re not too bad.

As an addendum, though really it should be line one: if you have any hearing-impaired participants, then of course you should use text only. There’s really interesting stuff written by Diane Carr on how the introduction of voice to platforms (mainly Second Life) has marginalised deaf people. Well worth reading up on that. I’ll add references to the comments.

Mental Space

The Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference site is live http://bltc16.ocsld.org/. I’m not going to be able to make it due to a prior commitment (an Iron Maiden + Ghost gig in Wroclaw – already booked when the conference dates were announced). It’s frustrating that two things I really want to go to are on at the same time – not least because I wrote most of the copy for the conference themes so I feel like I’ve shaped it a bit. That’s not to say they were my idea, we’d already agreed to include the three conceptualisations of space from the a recent project led by Kirsti Lonka (the keynote speaker) called 3 spaces http://www.3tilaa.fi/in-english/ i.e. mental, digital and physical, and the idea of liminal spaces had been bouncing round for a while in the discussions. All I did was pull them together and add some discussion points.

Since I won’t be there, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the themes, so at least I’m making a contribution somewhere.

The discussion points for the theme of mental space are:”How do we address the mental space of students? Do we push students out of their comfort zone, and how far? Are embodiment, presence and identity important for learning? Are HEIs spaces without emotional conflict?” These were really prompted by a discussion I’d had with George Roberts, triggered by his blog a while back, http://rworld2.brookesblogs.net/2016/01/07/what-to-do-about-rhodes-and-other-evils/

It’s also a train of thought that was started by Warwick Students Union banning Maryam Namazie http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/ Though they backtracked once the media outcry started, it still doesn’t change the fact that a group of students, or at least one student acting on their own, thought that was OK. It raises all sorts of alarm bells about freedom of speech, and about how it is being undermined in the name of creating a safe space for students. What was even more worrying is that at Goldsmiths when there was a protest against her visit, the university’s feminist and LGBTQ+ societies wrote in support of the protestors, two groups that I’d have expected to stand for free speech.

On the other hand, I’m not totally in favour of free speech irrespective of the consequences. Inciting hatred of people can be threatening for those on the receiving end of the hatred. Inviting people who will then rail against particular ethnicities, or homosexuality, or particular individuals is something we should protect students against. There’s a tendency everywhere for people to say the most ridiculous or objectionable things and then follow up any criticism with “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to have one as much as you do”. I spend too much time looking at the bottom half of the Internet. It doesn’t do much for your opinion of humanity.

Well, you probably are entitled to any opinion you wish to hold, but I’d add the caveat, and usually do when I get drawn into these discussions, that you’re only entitled to share it if you can back it up with a credible argument, and some evidence. You have an opinion that America is the best country in the world? Well the UN Human Development Index says that it’s the 8th, so which study are you referring to? You’re citing the Bible or Koran as your supporting evidence? Then you’ll need to prove the existence of God for that one to count as a credible argument. Over to you.

So if someone wants to speak at your university, they need to have some academic credibility in order to get a platform to express their ideas. Where’s their study? What’s their evidence? Without that, then what are they doing there anyway? And why would we want to encourage our students to buy into unsupported dialogues?

If your students still feel threatened by what a speaker has to say, then we really need to start addressing why they’re so lacking in resilience. You are entitled to feel personally safe, free from the potential from harm, emotional and physical. Verbal and physical threats and assaults, or anything that might lead to them, shouldn’t be countenanced. But having your ideas, opinions and sensibilities threatened, that should be part of the normal daily existence of all of us. We should be encouraging our students to welcome those challenges, not shielding them from them. If something challenges your way of thinking, come up with an argument as to why they’re wrong, though preferably after you’ve given them due consideration as to whether they could be right. If that’s too much work, then learn to ignore them. Above all don’t take a discussion of ideas personally. Because then you become no better than a politician.

Where to draw the line about what is fair game for criticism is a tricky one. I’d originally thought that a good place to draw it is between ideas and people. Criticise ideas all you like, but lay off people. Then I heard Ricky Gervais’s interview with Conan O’Brien, just before the Golden Globes this year. Gervais said that for him the division is between what people do, and who they are. Make fun of what they do, but accept who they are. His routine at the Golden Globes ceremony about Caitlin Jenner is a perfect example of this. He refers to her pre-transition as Bruce Jenner, perfectly and chronologically accurate. He admires her for courage in transitioning, also laudable. Then makes a dig at the vehicular manslaughter she was accused of. ie what she did, not who she is. He walked that line spot on. That’s the line as universities we should be walking. Everything open to criticism, except when we’re talking about who someone is. Ethnicity, sex, sexuality. They’re not choices, they’re out of bounds for criticism. Religion, politics, economics; they’re choices and are fair game, providing you’ve got the evidence to back it up.

 

 

 

 

Creating presence online

Last week my headset stopped working in a videoconference with my line manager. I asked him to wait a few minutes while I found a replacement and went to the Bag of Useful Things at the end of my sofa. My cat was sitting on the arm.

Cat (looking on): Meeeoooww.

Me (to cat): I know, I’m looking for a spare headset.

Cat: Meeeeoooww.

Me (tipping stuff onto floor): OK it’s a mess, I’ll clear it up later.

Cat: Meeeooow

Me: No. Nothing there. I’ll give up.

I went back to the laptop, and see that I’ve forgotten to mute the microphone. The one thing more embarrassing than talking TO your cat when people can hear is talking WITH your cat.

On a forum earlier today too I was talking about Teresa MacKinnon’s work with Wimba discussion boards. A colleague had been talking about a voice-recording plug-in for Moodle. I suggested that if it had the functionality of Teresa’s work, i.e. having an option to just click on the set of reply options to open up a recording dialogue, which you could then record a reply and click on it to upload, this is far better than going to a recording program and creating, storing and uploading a file. I used a shorthand phrase to describe this —  a Wimba way. A new post means I can drag out all the old puns that got tired in the previous post.

So both of these things came up in the webinar this morning while we were waiting for people to turn up. I relayed the conversation with my cat (quoting the cat’s parts). Then I recounted the “a Wimba way” pun (which works better in audio than text). Which meant that the participants entered the Connect room either hearing me meowing, or me and my colleague singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight before the session started.

Now anyone who knows me is aware one of my biggest faults is a poor filter mechanism. I don’t play out in my head things before saying them. So maybe that doesn’t always come across as professional. However, I am going to argue that actually in online teaching, it’s incredibly useful.

One of the topics of the presentations in the seminar covered the role of humour in teaching. The presenter said how useful it is. She also pointed out how much we as teachers rely on visual cues from students and how that’s missing in an online environment. I’d agree with that, but only to a point, in that it’s also possible to develop the habit of supplying and looking for other cues. Emoticons, brief comments, even just seeing the “(typing)” notification appear in the chat box are all cues that the audience is engaged. After one particularly bad experience with presenting via videoconference (no camera at the far end, and no typed responses to my questions – but I still kept going – then found out when I finished that no-one had been listening to me because a row had broken out at the far end about a previous session, and the row had got so bad that people had actually been thrown out) I will now not continue unless I get a response. “I’m waiting …. I can wait all day if necessary.” We need to train our students into supplying those cues during our teaching.

Another presenter discussed the role of cake in teaching. In order to engage her students she brings them cake. Cake also helps with encouraging them to attend focus groups. I have been employed by 10 universities now, and Brookes does have the best cake. Another lecturer discussed Lego which we also all agreed was an excellent motivation for learning but a real bastard to kneel on.

At the end of the session all of the presenters said it was a lot less nerve-wracking than they’d been expecting. One of them said it was a real laugh.

The problem with presence online is a difficult one to overcome. You can never be as present online as you can in a proximal situation. The technology can only do so much at bridging distance. However, this can be compensated for by a whole range of mechanisms, particularly humour, and being relaxed, and being as personable as possible (in words of Mel C, be yourself, unless you’re a tw.t, in which case be someone else), and off-topic at times, and talking about cake, can all add to that sense of being together. It takes a couple of goes to relax that much, to be able to function despite the visual cues (actually for me it’s probably a lot easier without them because the visual cues are quite often eye-rolling). I’d suggest we all attempt to inculcate that type of interaction as much as possible.

And I’ll carry on having conversations with my cat.

On gobbledygook

One of the tasks for participants in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching course that I’m helping to convene at Brookes is to create an annotated bibliography. The discussion that has spun out from this has been fascinating. One of the participants particularly drew attention to this quote from Cathy Davidson: “if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Academic gobbledygook is one of my main bugbears. There are so many different things that can make something impenetrable to readers, some of which are really difficult to avoid. One comes from the idea of threshold concepts, which are steps in learning that change your perspective on a field. These can be particularly difficult to teach, not least because, once you grasp them, it’s very difficult to then see things the way that you used to see them, and therefore communicate to people who then haven’t acquired that mindset. Concepts and the language to describe them become so intrinsic to the way you see the world that communicating with people who haven’t crossed over to that mindset becomes particularly difficult.

Another problem is that within a particular discipline, some terminology is regularly used, to an extent that you’re no longer aware that it’s a specialist terminology. I used to research into subcultures in virtual worlds, and ranted to friend that an editor of a paper asked me to explain the words “furry” and “steampunk”. I just felt it was asking me to talk down to my audience. Rather than commiserating, my friend responded with doubts about my own sanity, that I’d probably got too far into my own little world because those definitely aren’t words that everyone would recognise. Terminology is useful, when it encapsulates a range of ideas that would otherwise take a long time to unpack, but we always need to be prepared to unpack them for our audience. When doing a session on technology enhanced learning I always ask people to flag when I’ve used a term or abbreviation they don’t know.

What does annoy me in those situations though is, that you can get some people who act all outraged when you use a phrase that they don’t know. I was at one workshop on PDAs (that dates it) where someone in the audience got very belligerent with the person running it that she hadn’t said what PDA stood for. It was in the title of the session. Why attend if you don’t know what it is? Or spend 10 seconds googling it. Or work it out from context. Lack of understanding about terminology is a failing of two people, not just one. It’s not like spelling it out helps anyway. Anyone know what DVD stands for? Does knowing that help you watch a movie?

I think the one thing we can guard against more easily in the fight against gobbledygook is the tendency to pack ideas together so densely that sentence structure and following the conceptual trail of an argument, become difficult to follow. Sometimes this is sloppiness, but it is often because the writer is unsure about the validity, or even academicness, of the subject they’re talking about. The temptation is to dress it up with fancy words, or cram two previously unmatched ideas together and expect the audience to work out for themselves what those two concepts when blended actually mean. When I next come across an example of that I’ll add it to the comments below.

Being a reviewer for a few journals has helped me enormously here in being prepared to go through something a colleague or submitter has written and say “I don’t understand what this means”. I could probably have a go at working it out, or forming that synthesis in my head myself, but that’s not something a reader should have to do. That’s the author’s job.

Another thing that we do is placing so many caveats and double-negatives around something in order to actually avoid making as firm a statement. It’s not inconceivable to doubt that the absence of double-negatives can lead to the lessening of the propensity to reduce the failings in sensemaking of many statements.

Gobbledygook is just being a poor communicator. However there’s a form of academic writing that starts with a phrase like “it is not inconceivable that” and then uses this as an axiom in an argument. The master of this is Greenfield, who’s created a whole new career out of making statements like “children are on social media so much, it is not inconceivable that it will have an effect on them” and then working up to “given that there is such an effect what can we do to limit it.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how the reasoning works). The discussion then subtly glosses over the element that the original statement is totally unsupported and a bit weasely. At no point is there actually any lying going on, it’s just a subtle misdirection that sounds like a valid argument. At this point we’ve got past gobbledygook and are into the realm of bullshit, which I will post about next time.

 

For great examples of bullshit, one of my favourite books is Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I think if more people were primed to detect it, and have little less patience with it, we would all contribute to making academic writing a bit more accessible.