Search results for "practice "

That thing about academia

Author: joe

Tuesday, 02 February, 2010 - 20:38

So I've been trying to work out how to develop the theme I started a week or two ago about how academia seems always to avoid, escape and devalue "practice" even as it strives to be the only institution that might legitimise that "practice". It was a long-winded post about complicated academic language, written with complicated academic language.

I enjoyed the response I got to a subsequent post - a thought experiment inspired by real events - in which I tried to write some powerful ideas down in a more direct, earthy way. One such response was - "Joe, are you in love?". And I thought - that's how we should write!

Sod the technical jargon: when we write, we should try to be understood as lovers, as wells of passion for what we do - our action in the world should be the force that drives the green fuse through the veil of symbols with which we obscure the world when we write in academic language. If I write about my work, why would I not want my reader to wonder - "is he in love?"

Categories: language, writing, academia, practice, love,
Comments: 0

Academia vs Practice

Author: joe

Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 22:28

A thought experiment around practice-led research in academia.

A practice-led PhD is normally assessed on a body of evidence which consists of an artefact - the product of the 'practice' in question - accompanied by an extended piece of writing in which the questions, world-views, investigative approaches and methods, disciplinary concerns and interim self-diagnoses are made explicit. So for example we might see paired materials such as: a piece of sculpture, accompanied by an articulation of the traditions within and against which the process of making the object has worked; a film, along with an essay exploring the disciplinary innovations and concessions that were revealed in its making; a networked set of documents, and some accompanying long-form text drawing attention to the conventions of mediation and aesthetics which are either challenged and rejected or accepted and extended in the pursuit of innovation in the production of such works.

So I wonder aloud what would such a submission look like if my practice were poetry? I write some words (in the form of poetry) and I write another set of words (in the form of academic explication). On the surface, it might seem that an assessment of the value of either of these sets of words is dependent upon the other. So, it is not enough to write poetry: in order to be judged expert enough for doctoral status you must translate the importance of your poetic output into academic language - the purpose of which is of course to ensure that you can articulate in a suitably neutral language what your non-neutral, poetic language has achieved. But note that the reverse is not the case: one may be recognised as doctorally qualified, wholly on the basis of an academically articulated thesis. Thus the primacy of academic language is established.

This primacy is predicated upon a number of assumptions:

I hope that the logical sequence as I have described it here demonstrates well enough the shortcomings in such assumptions. Certainly, if, like me, you are persuaded by the Latourian and/or Deleuzian notion that translation is transformation and production, then you will quickly concede that neutral articulations which permit mediation between two discrete fields of practice without distortion, problematisation and transmogrification are impossible and illusory. If you are not persuaded, then at least consider the possibility that academic language, rather like the poetic language produced by practice, has no claim to being anything other than a genre of writing, any more than other accepted genres such as journalism, prose fiction or drama. Academic writing is a non-neutral genre of language, constituted by a set of arbitrary conventions, no less than drama is convened through dialogue and performance, prose fiction is enacted through narratorially organised text, and journalism is constructed through the signs of format, voice and a reference to some convenient form of accepted reality.

All of which is to say that the requirements of the practice-led researcher are currently that they must make explicit in academic language what is implicit in their practice; and yet those who are not educated or indoctrinated into the conventions of academia are no more able to comprehend what is supposed to have been made explicit in that academic account, any more than competent academics with no expertise or experience in poetry might be expected to uncover the implicit value in poetic discourse. Another way of stating this is to say that if it is necessary to translate the implicit innovation and disciplinary excellence in poetry into academic language in order for it to be made explicit to a wider community of interest, there is no less need for the excellence implicit in academic language to be made explicit in yet another (meta-generic?) language for the benefit of a wider community of lay people. Indeed the irony here is perhaps that a wide community of lay audiences might be equally competent to grasp and appreciate the practical outputs and artefacts of practice-led research (if not more adequately equipped by virtue of the disinterested yet loving enthusiasm of the amateur) as is the proponent of academic discourse. This becomes especially true when one considers that the academic's livelihood increasingly depends upon a specialisation which moves ever further away from easy access by a lay audience, and further into obscurity and jargon.

At the risk of repetition I'll restate this once again: the notion that innovation and discovery in practice must be re-articulated in academic language, as though that academic language is an adequate meta-language for the communication of such innovations and discoveries, is no more or less true than the notion that academic language must be re-articulated in a third language, accessible to lay (or other) audiences who are not academics. The constant striving to establish the academic norms of language and writing over other forms is simply the will to power of the academic institution as a necessity in the social order. Excellence and sensitivity in the domains of practices can be achieved without recourse to academia.

Academic experience is not a necessity for excellence in the practices I pursue. There. I said it. It is a watershed for me, personally. I rather wish I had discovered this (in hindsight, rather obvious) truism a good deal earlier.

Categories: academia, practice, research, language, genre, translation, learning,
Comments: 3

Communities of Practice: intersections between learning, fan-fiction and the institution

Author: joe

Friday, 27 March, 2009 - 10:38

Yesterday I was in two unrelated seminars which struck me as having interesting resonances with each other. The first was a Learning & Teaching seminar I led about Communities of Practice and the challenges of pursuing a 'participatory pedagogy' in the constraints of an institution. The second was led by Richard Berger and Bronwen Thomas in the Narratives Research Group, who both talked about fan fiction and slash fic.

In the first seminar which I was leading, one of the I was key ideas I was trying to articulate was the issue of domains of knowledge: academics work within specific disciplines and subject areas; common sense tells us that those disciplines and subject areas are generally stable and fixed; and students expect teachers to act as gatekeepers or transmitters of that body of knowledge. In Situated Learning (1991), Lave and Wenger suggest moving away from a conventional understanding of such bodies of knowledge as stable and external, objective entities which can be transmitted unmodified from tutor to pupil; instead they suggest thinking about disciplines and the engagement with them by a scholarly community as a set of socially reproduced practices. Disciplines are continually constituted by the practices which communities engage in: reading, interpreting, discussing, participating, negotiating and renegotiating. Far from having a constant and fixed set of axioms which teachers repeat to students until the students have learned them, rather, the social practices of academic life are continually transforming the individual and intersubjective meanings that participants construct.

In the second seminar, Richard presented a historical overview of fan fiction, noting the features of intertextuality, variation, and the evolving nature of the participants; Bronwen conducted a "bottom-up" analysis of some of the activities and conventions which characterised the online fan fiction communities. Popular source texts become the site for participatory adaptations; the tensions between the 'authentic' text - that produced by the original author - and the variations produced by the fan community, are resolved in myriad ways: in some cases through legal means (copyright holders try to close such communities down), but more often through mechanisms which start to look much more like master / journeyman / apprentice relationships. New fan fiction authors contribute their efforts, get feedback, rework and improve their work, and in the process of doing so, become recognised and increasingly 'senior' members of the community. Mechanisms are evolved for deciding what is permitted - i.e. what variations are allowed to to be included, and what contraventions of the source 'storyworlds' are proscribed. Original authors (such as Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy) often give their blessing to these communities and sometimes even allow the 'authorised versions' of their work to respond reflexively to new variations in the ever-evolving fan canon - or what Jenkins call the 'fanon'.

In both of these domains there are some crucial features: the notion of canonicity (whether in terms of a clearly defined academic discipline, or in terms of a source text or storyworld) and the participatory practices and conventions which characterise the continual reproduction of that canon.

So, participation, and the learning and adoption of the norms of the community, generate the necessary social capital for participants to become trusted members of the community of practice. It would be interesting to see what sorts of commonalities and differences emerge in comparisons between the two different domains: do fanfic journeymen and masters have to be good at writing fanfic themselves, or can they acquire their position of trust through expert knowledge of the canon, or through the continually respectful and constructive writing of feedback? May academics rely on their past achievements of qualification or recognition, or must they continually reinforce and reproduce their status through continuous participation?

What seems more problematic, though, is how the respective canons in each of the domains are viewed. Lave and Wenger note that a community of practice is characterised by the often antagonistic processes of participation and reification. One might understand the pressure to maintain the integrity of the 'authentic' canon in the face of variations produced by fans as a contest between reification and participation - indeed L&W note that there is inevitably a competitive tension between long-standing members (refered to as 'old-timers') and the newcomers; the latter are destined ultimately to replace the former. Hence the 'old-timers' seek to maintain the integrity of the body of work they have striven towards, while newcomers exert an evolutionary pressure on that work which inevitably undergoes transformation and contestation.

In academia, however, I sense that the reverse is often the case: newcomers in the form of students, raised in the behaviourist hot-house of secondary schooling, and forced to commit to large investment and future debts, are resistant to the idea that academic disciplines might be reflexive, unstable, and more importantly, open to modification and reconstruction by their inexpert selves. Indeed, why would they be asked to pay such a lot of money for 'tuition' fees when 'tuition' is not the necessarily the high-road to the valuable commodity of knowledge? They expect lecturers to transmit considerable quantities of information and distrust the idea that they might learn as much from each other as they might learn from an academic expert. Those same lecturers themselves recognise the pedagogy of situated learning and actively encourage students to question and challenge the handed-down-ness of academic authority, being fully aware of the constructedness of their own expertise and of the discipline as a whole. Meanwhile, the institution itself imposes upon those teachers and students yet more behaviourist assumptions and structures. These take the form of VLEs into which tutor-created resources are fed for students to consume, the minimisation of social and embodied tutor/learner contact in favour of income-generating activities, and locking up contemporary knowledge advancement in the closed-access academic publishing industry which in turn perpetuates itself by persuading scholars that they must lock their knowledge up in the pages of their journals in order to acquire 'esteem'.

Lave & Wenger's model of situated learning makes clear that learning transforms not only the learner but also the subject to be learned. It seems ironic then, that this profoundly liberating and politically significant insight is often lost on learners and ignored by learning institutions.

Categories: learning, pedagogy, Jean-Lave, Etienne-Wenger, situated learning, communities of practice, community, practice, fan fiction, participation, canon,
Comments: 3

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?

What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same

In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:

However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same

When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless

There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless

It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice

One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice

A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia

The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1

Theory and practice

Author: cath

Thursday, 15 December, 2005 - 21:06

I didn't do it justice, my answer to your question about why study art theory and practice in tandem. I thought about it quite a lot after our conversation and wanted to answer more fully.

Firstly, studying art theory supports art practice because of all that motor neuron stuff going on that you often mention.
Secondly, it supports art practice because I find myself tuning in and becoming more and more aware. There's a lot to be said for an artist developing an eye for things by observing art in all its forms.

And, an artist is always re-appropriating the past, even if they try not to. It could be an unconscious or a conscious thing.

If I study gothic architecture, romanesque art, impressionism etc etc. sometimes it can initially seem removed from my personal artistic journey, but a point always comes when all the exposure informs on my artistic practice.

The last thing I was thinking is that studying art history gives me an opportunity to reflect on art in a different way to practicing art.

Any subject that is studied indepth needs to be approached from many different angles. Theory, hand in hand with practice makes that possible.

Categories: art, theory, practice,
Comments: 1