Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

http://visualmedia-archaeology2013.blogspot.com/

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

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How does your institution keep you safe?

The Online Professional, 8 November 2013
The Online Professional, 8 November 2013

I’ve spent much of this year working with an incredible team at Southampton (including Lucy Shipley, Jim Osborne and Graeme Earl, with support from various IT specialists) as well as at York (with my colleague, Tom Smith) implementing the Gender & Digital Culture project. A lot of this effort will come to fruition on Friday when we host our first public event, The Online Professional. The event is running simultaneously at Southampton and York, as well as on the web through my YouTube and Google Plus accounts. Please join us if you can; the specifics of the locations and time are available here.

At this event I will talk in more detail about some of my own experiences (see my post on Savage Minds for some background); Jim, Lucy and I will report on the results of our preliminary survey of 400 professionals; and we will work with our audiences to discuss and begin to develop practical strategies for individuals and organisations to manage the challenges presented by the digital public workplace.

I’ve been asking friends and colleagues to share with me their institutional policies around online safety, so that we can start to build a resource base for reference and establish a baseline for good practice. I’d be very keen for you to have a peek around your employer’s media, communications, gender and diversity, and related policy documents (if you have access to them) and to email me, tweet or comment on this blog about what, if anything, you find pertaining to security in the context of web-based forms of engagement. So far our searches have turned up very little constructive guidance; and in some cases, that guidance is utterly shocking in terms of its total indifference to employee welfare. In at least one instance, the institution is clear that it has no responsibility for the actions of individuals outside that organisation who are victimising its own employees through social media. Although I do believe that others, for example the police, have necessary roles to play in patrolling and penalising abusive behaviour, surely any employer who applies these media in everyday business has at least an ethical obligation to attempt to protect its staff from related harm.

In preparing for Friday’s event, I’ve had a not insignificant number of people ask me whether it’s actually hopeless to bother attending to these issues. The perception seems to be that we’re helpless to respond to online abuse—it’s seemingly too detached, too ephemeral, too easy to perpetrate and too hard to pin down; hence a feeling of pointlessness around developing or trying to enforce any kind of safety-oriented policy. In one recent meeting that I had, a colleague repeatedly stated “I can’t see what can be done here.” Compounding this predicament is a phenomenon that I’ve recently begun to encounter wherein some of the very people who I might otherwise have assumed would be supportive and active in pooling efforts to respond to such problems (especially because they were also targets of abuse) are, instead, derogatory and dismissive—arguing that my concerns aren’t as important as theirs; that my experiences aren’t as bad as those of others.

Perhaps not, but rather than invest our time in ranking the validity of our various claims, I’m hopeful that we could focus on a few things that I do believe will have some positive impact on everyone involved:

  1. The establishment of a supportive and visible community of professionals who are aware of and committed to exposing the nature and scope of problematic online interactions.
  2. The concerted development of real best practice guidelines to manage web-based abuse and to safeguard professionals as they conduct their work online.
  3. Taking a leadership role in attempting to implement these policies, such that they become models for others to follow—spearheading change, rather than being the inevitable outcome of endless cases of employees’ persecution and degradation. In other words, instead of waiting for more high-profile, disturbing cases of online abuse to drive redesign of wellbeing policies, perhaps we could lead that redesign now.

This is what I hope might be discussed and instigated at our workshop on Friday. Please consider attending, listening in, emailing, tweeting or otherwise forwarding us examples of good and bad institutional practice. Your contributions will make a difference—to me amongst many other individuals.