PhD by Publication and Collaboration

A PhD is always (as far as I know) an individual piece of work. The point is to make and defend an individual contribution to knowledge in your given field.  This emphasis on an individual contribution can make doing a PhD a long, lonely, isolating route to the award, as evidenced by the stories of depression, mental illness, dropping out and associated long-term feelings of failure often reported in articles such as in the Times Higher Education.

Those who cope with this either relish working alone and don’t need to discuss what they are doing even with a supervisor, or, more likely, they have been proactive in nurturing a supportive network around them of family, friends and colleagues. My PhD was neither long, nor lonely; even so I benefitted from the support of many friends, colleagues and my family.

 Gilbert and George 1976 – MENTAL NO. 2, 314 x 264 cm (Source of Image)

Officially, there seems to be no such thing as a collaborative PhD (as in the style of the artists Gilbert and George, who work together to create their art), although PhDs may result from collaboratively funded projects between universities and outside organisations and who’s to say whether an individual PhD thesis has involved collaborative writing, but that seems unlikely. However, I do know of a Masters dissertation where, unbeknown to the marker, to meet the deadline one chapter was written entirely by the student’s father. This was not even collaborative.

My own PhD (by publication) required the submission of a selection of published papers together with a supporting statement which expounded the overall contribution to knowledge in my field. Whilst my PhD thesis (supporting statement) was written by me alone, and could only be written by me because it incorporates work with eleven different research teams (i.e. none of my collaborators have had the same overall experience), all my published papers have been written collaboratively. I consider this to be a strength of my research for the reasons I have stated in the thesis (see pages 48-50 – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017).

At an early meeting with my supervisor, Paul Ashwin, we discussed whether all the papers to be submitted should indicate the percentage contribution of each author. Some PhDs by Publication do this, but I strongly resisted it. It seems to me that an attempt to measure a contribution in a collaborative project works against the spirit of collaboration. As I explained in my viva (I was challenged on this), a contribution might range from coming up with the one key idea or identifying the key research paper that changes the direction of the research, to hours of data analysis. How would you put a measurement figure against these different types of contribution each of which is essential to the successful outcome of the research? In addition, in most of my collaborative research the work has been conducted jointly, i.e. all the authors have been involved in the different aspects and phases of the research, framing the research questions, collecting and analysing the data, writing the paper and so on. Although the lead authors in my papers have been recognised as the person who has taken most responsibility for the research and the paper, in my research there has never been an author who didn’t merit having their name on the paper. We have been mutually accountable and the research has been enriched by the diversity of individual and alternative perspectives which have helped to guard against subjectivity and bias.

In my thesis, I argue that collaboration was central and essential to my research. Beyond the world of the individual PhD student, it also seems to be central and essential to many if not most research projects. Examination of my literature review reveals that the majority of peer-reviewed papers are co-authored (see p.56 -78, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). Only a third of the papers in my reference list were single authored. As I write in the thesis, there have been recent calls for more multi-disciplinary research, international and diverse teams (see p.52, Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017). This type of research requires considerable collaboration skills. These are not easy skills to acquire. I wrote about this in the early days of my research – Reflections on Collaborative research. The thoughts I had then still stand, but despite potential difficulties, I think I will always favour collaborative research over individual research.

My ongoing experience of collaborative research and reflection on my PhD by Publication has made me wonder again why any PhD student must endure years of working alone when the benefits of collaboration are not only obvious, but ultimately necessary for a career in academic research.

Reference
Mackness, J. (2017). Learners’ experiences in cMOOCs (2008-2016). PhD thesis. Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

PhD by Publication – Making a Contribution

Earlier this year I was awarded a PhD by Publication from the University of Lancaster, UK.   The process is not quite finished yet. I still must submit a hard copy and electronic copy to the library and wear the floppy hat at a ceremony in December. But for all intents and purposes it is a done deed.

Of course, I know of the criticisms of a PhD by Publication and I suspect that several of my colleagues and friends wonder about whether this is a ‘proper’ PhD. In this video, Tara Brabazon states very clearly that a PhD by Publication is valuable, but is not equivalent to a traditional PhD and that she wouldn’t allow a PhD by Publication to examine one of her PhD students who has been down the traditional 3, 4 or more years research route.

This begs the question of whether any one PhD is equivalent to any other PhD. Is a taught PhD equivalent to a traditional research PhD? Is a science PhD equivalent to an Arts PhD? Is a PhD from one university equivalent to a PhD from another university? Is one examination experience (viva) equivalent to another? And following Tara Brabazon’s argument, should a PhD by Publication be examined by a person with a traditional PhD? Surely the measure of the value of a PhD is not the number of years it takes or a question of who examines it, but the contribution to knowledge that it makes. I have read some PhD theses that scarcely mention the contribution made by three or more years’ work. I can understand this. Claiming to have made an original contribution to knowledge felt like the height of arrogance to me knowing, as I do, the work of many, many authors in my field.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, to apply for this route to a PhD I was required to write a supporting statement which

  • summarised each publication submitted,
  • outlined their interrelationship,
  • critically reviewed the current state of knowledge and research in my field,
  • indicated how my work has contributed to the field, and
  • commented on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

At my first meeting with Professor Paul Ashwin, who would be my supervisor (it was very good of him to check my application before officially being my supervisor) he said that I needed to develop a rigorous, reflexive argument for an original contribution which will endure beyond the individual papers. I wonder how often PhDs result in an enduring, original contribution. My first attempt at writing an application fell flat on its face. Paul said he couldn’t see my contribution in the pages and pages that I had written covering the above listed bullet points. I was therefore asked to write a summary contribution statement before continuing with my application.

This proved surprisingly difficult. What exactly is a contribution?

Do the published papers (21 of them) count as a contribution? – No

Does that fact that the published papers have been cited (one of them 440 times) count as a contribution? – No

Does the fact that my papers have been blind reviewed (in total) by more than 40 reviewers, and peer reviewed by many more, count as a contribution? – No

Do the early empirical papers on the MOOC learning experience, which were amongst the first ever published on MOOCs count as a contribution? – No. Paul’s response to this suggestion was ‘So what?’

Does the fact that some of the papers address (but don’t fill) identified gaps in the literature count as a contribution? – Only in part.

So what will ‘endure beyond the individual papers and is original’? After about six weeks of puzzling over this, feeling like a complete imposter, starting and restarting numerous drafts, I finally submitted a summary contribution statement to Paul Ashwin and received the feedback that ‘PhD shines through your contribution statement’. Phew! I was ready to apply and include this contribution statement – Jenny Mackness Contribution Statement 02-06-16

However this summary statement is not in the final thesis. Ultimately, to avoid repetition, I summarised my contribution further under these headings:

  • A contribution to the literature on learners’ experiences in MOOCs
  • A contribution to understanding complexity in cMOOCs
  • A contribution to changing research processes

I am now confident that my publications have made an original contribution to knowledge, but how enduring this contribution will be I wouldn’t like to say. That is the real test.

Diversity is hard

complexity

Source of image

dana boyd has written a post in which she discusses why America is self-segregating and she comes up with a few suggestions such as the role of social media in segregating people into filter bubbles and echo chambers. But a key point she makes is that diversity, which is ‘often touted as highly desirable’ is hard – ‘uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating’. So instead of using the many online tools we now have at our disposal to become diversely connected, we use them instead to find like-minded people who, as Kirschner wrote in 2015, ‘discuss, confirm, validate and strengthen the group’s position’ (p.622). In doing this we reduce diversity.

(This tendency to try to reduce diversity is not only evident in online networks. It can also be seen in ‘The Big Sort’ and geographical clustering that I mentioned in my last post, i.e. people physically move geographical location to live near those more like themselves.)

More than ten years ago in 2005 in his ‘Introduction to Connective Knowledge’ (revised in 2007) Stephen Downes wrote of diversity as a key principle of ‘knowing’ networks. Downes sees the fostering of diversity as the means to

 ‘counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge’.  

(Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one’s own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter’ (Wikipedia ). Cascade phenomena can sweep through densely connected networks very rapidly).

Downes writes

the excesses made possible by an unrestrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the density of the local network for individual entities’.

According to Downes, the only way to avoid information cascades is to ensure multiple viewpoints and alternative perspectives from observers with different sets of prior experiences, world views and interpretations.

Related to this, a couple of years later Downes wrote of the different affordances of groups and networks – Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Begins – saying that a group is about what members have in common, whereas ‘a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same.’ If we accept this it follows that a group tends towards homogeneity, but a network to heterogeneity (see also my post on the hazards of group work). Diversity is therefore essential to a healthy network.

But what is diversity?  Dictionaries, e.g. Cambridge dictionary, define diversity as being many different types of things or people, ideas or opinions, being included in something. I would add that in addition many different resources are needed to inform these ideas or opinions. In a paper that Carmen Tschofen and I published in 2012, Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience, we also suggested that there is a need to recognise the importance of psychological diversity of online learners, the complexity of their human needs and connections, i.e. that diversity is not just an external manifestation of difference, but also internal to individuals. Each individual is unique. We argued that connectivity needs to be viewed not only in terms of the network but also in terms of individual characteristics and biases, further complicating an understanding of diversity.

But why is diversity ‘desirable’? dana boyd points to more diverse teams outperforming homogeneous teams and claims that diversity increases cognitive development. In my own field of research into learning in open online environments, this point of view is endorsed by the call for more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross global, international working (see for example Haywood, 2016 and Eynon et al., 2016).

However, Cilliers (2010) suggests that there are deeper reasons. These are related to viewing the world in which we live as a complex adaptive system. Complex systems are heterogeneous, asymmetrical and full of non-linear, unpredictable interactions, which means we cannot fully know or control them. Complex environments exhibit the following characteristics (and more!):

  • Distributed knowledge
  • Disequilibrium
  • Adaptive
  • Self-organisation
  • Unpredictable
  • Emergence
  • Connectedness
  • Diversity
  • Openness
  • Co-evolution
  • Interaction
  • Retrospective coherence

Cilliers tells us that diversity is a key characteristic of complex systems and is essential to the richness of the system, because it is difference not sameness that generates meaning.

An abundance of difference is not a convenience, it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot understand them without the making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal of relationships, i.e. the reduction of difference in the system, will distort our understanding of such systems. (Cilliers, 2010, p.58)

But this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. To get the most out of diversity and difference, complex systems require boundaries and constraints, negative, enabling constraints, ‘which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen’ (Williams, Karousou & Mackness, 2011, p.46). There needs to be an effective balance between openness and constraint, structure and agency.

And difference does not mean opposition. Meaningful relationships develop through difference (Cilliers, 2010), but achieving the right amount of difference to support this development, depends on ethical judgement and choice.

To make a responsible judgement—whether it be in law, science or art—would therefore involve at least the following components:

  • Respecting otherness and difference as values in themselves.
  • Gathering as much information on the issue as possible, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the information.
  • Considering as many of the possible consequences of the judgement, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the consequences.
  • Making sure that it is possible to revise the judgement as soon as it becomes clear that it has flaws, whether it be under specific circumstances, or in general. (Cilliers, 1998, p.139)

These points seem as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1998. Respect for differences and an understanding of diversity is a key ethical rule for complex systems and no amount of retreating into homogeneous groups will help us cope with living in an increasingly complex world.

As Stephen Downes wrote in 2005 when proposing connectivism as a new learning theory appropriate for living and learning in a digitally connected world:

‘Connective knowledge is no magic pill, no simple route to reliability and perhaps even more liable to error because it is so much more clearly dependent on interpretation.’

but

‘Freedom begins with living free, in sharing freely, in celebrating each other, and in letting others, too, to live free. Freedom begins when we understand of our own biases and our own prejudices; by embracing autonomy and diversity, interaction and openness….’

I agree with dana boyd – diversity is hard, but if as Cilliers (2010, p.56) says, ‘Difference is a necessary condition for meaning’ in a complex world, in order to learn we will need to embrace diversity and maintain, sustain and increase our global networks and connections.

References

Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. London and New York, Routledge

Cilliers, P. (2010). Difference, Identity, and Complexity. Philosophy Today, 54(1), 55–65.

Downes, S. (2007). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge in Hug, Theo (Ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring New Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007. – http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

Eynon, R., Hjoth, I., Yasseri, T., & Gillani, N. (2016). Understanding Communication Patterns in MOOCs: Combining Data Mining and qualitative methods. In S. ElAtia, D. Ipperciel, and O. Zaïane (Eds.), Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications in Educational Research, Wiley.

Haywood, J. (2016). Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future. In E. de Corte, L. Engwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.), From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, p. 69-80. Oregon: Portland Press Limited.

Kirschner, P. A. (2015) ‘Facebook as learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street?’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 53, December, pp. 621–625. Elsevier Ltd. [Online] Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.011

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1143

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

A-Z of authors I have learned from this year

az-1

To follow my last post – A-Z of my year – I have been thinking about my reading this year.

Unlike the last one, this A-Z is not a complete list. For some letters of the alphabet there is more than one author. For others, there are none. Nearly all these references relate to my work, but a few are related to personal interests. Only one is a novel.

I have read a lot more than this over the year, many more journal papers and novels, not to mention many blogs. Several of the references listed here are not new to me, i.e. I have not read them for the first time this year. I have included references that stand out as having in some way influenced my thinking this year. The references have, in some cases, also been selected because for one reason or another the author has been significant in my learning this year. For many authors I could have selected more than one paper. Unfortunately, I have had to be selective, so the list doesn’t do justice to all who have influenced me, but it has been interesting to compile.

Here is my list.

A

Ashwin, Paul – Analysing Teaching-Learning Interactions in Higher Education: Accounting for Structure and Agency

B

Baggaley, Jon – MOOC Postscript

Barnett, Ron – A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty

Bates, Tony – Teaching in a Digital Age

Bayne, Sian & Ross, Jen – The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK View

Biesta, Gert – The Beautiful Risk of Education

C

Cilliers, Paul – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

D

Downes, Stephen – OLDaily  and Half an Hour 

Dwyer, Sonya & Buckle, Jennifer – The Space Between: On Being an Insider-Outsider in Qualitative Research 

E

Edwards, Richard – Knowledge Infrastructures and the Inscrutability of Openness in Education

Esposito, Antonella – Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC

F

Farrow, Robert – A Framework for the Ethics of Open Education

G

Gourlay, Lesley – Open Education as a ‘Heterotopia of Desire’ 

H

Haythornthwaite, Caroline – Rethinking Learning Spaces: Networks, Structures, and Possibilities for Learning in the Twenty-First Century

K

Knox, Jeremy – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course 

L

Littlejohn, Allison, et al. – Learning in MOOCs: Motivations and Self-Regulated Learning in MOOCs

M

Marshall, Stephen – Exploring the Ethical Implications of MOOCs

McGilchrist, Iain – The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Melcher, Matthias – Connectivist Think Tool

N

Noddings, Nel – Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

O

Osberg, Deborah & Biesta, Gert – The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation 

P

Polit, Denise & Beck, Cheryl – Generalization in Quantitative and Qualitative Research: Myths and Strategies

R

Raffaghelli, Juliana – Methodological Approaches in MOOC Research: Retracing the Myth of Proteus 

Rolfe, Vivien – A Systematic Review of the Socio-Ethical Aspects of Massive Online Open Courses 

Ross, Jen – Speculative Method in Digital Education Research 

S

Sousanis, Nick – Unflattening

Sharpe, Rhona – 53 Interesting Ways to Support Online Learning

Snowden, David & Boone, Mary – A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

T

Tschofen, Carmen – first novel completed

U

University of Edinburgh – 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online

V

Veletsianos, George & Shepherdson, Peter – A Systematic Analysis and Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015 

W

Weller, Martin – The Art of Guerrilla Research  

Wenger, Etienne – Learning, Technology and Community. A Journey of the Self

Williams, Roy – The Resonance Project

Critical Examination of MOOCs by Jeremy Knox

Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was published early this year.  I bought the book soon after it was published but have only this summer got round to reading it.
cover

It’s a pity that this is not an open access e-book, which might have received more immediate attention and discussion. I think it does deserve to be discussed since Knox questions whether MOOCs really have been revolutionary and disruptive saying in the introduction,

‘MOOCs have emerged simply as the latest in a long and established line of educational endeavours premised on the nurturing and refinement of a particular kind of human being: one that thinks in a reasoned way; has a natural capacity for independence; and which shares these exclusive traits with all others assumed to be of the same species’(p.2).

He argues that despite the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, ultimately they both promote humanist assumptions of universalism, essentialism, autonomy and transcendental subjectivity.

The problems with these assumptions are explored through Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the book, in which he develops the following arguments.

The assumption of a universal humanist subject:

  • has been at the heart of the design of MOOCs which emanate from the West, thus resulting in a new form of colonialism, where instead of acquiring geographical territory MOOCs acquire data. Knox calls this ‘data colonialism’ and uses visualisations of the globe and global barriers, with visualisations of global enrolment numbers in MOOCs to support this view.
  • homogenises MOOC participation and ‘[…] forbids internal difference as well as societal difference, and acts to continually close down the possibilities for alternative, immanent relations with the richness and diversity of the world.’ (p.212)

Knox argues that participation in MOOCs is measured through visible activity, retention and completion rates and ‘lurking’ or associated non-visible activity (i.e. difference) is seen as problematic. This view is supported by the number of research outputs that focus on completion and retention rates. ‘[…] ‘lurking’ is made visible only in the form of a negative response to the specific data capture and quantification strategy’ (p.101). Rather than embrace the diversity of MOOC participants a lot of research has focused on categorising participants. Knox sees the attempt to quantify participation as another colonisation practice.

He also sees the promotion of personal learning networks (PLNs) as a promotion of a focus on the individual humanist subject, which seems to be at odds with the open, sharing, networked learning that MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs, aspire to.

‘[…] the PLN seems to reinforce the idea of MOOC education as a self-determining and self-centred endeavour.‘ (p.115)

  • privileges bounded and located place and face-to-face teaching and learning, maintaining institutional elitism and inequality and promoting in/out boundaries and campus envy. Knox uses the very successful MOOC, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry as an example of a MOOC which uses the campus–based location to promote a sense of place.
  • fails to take account of ‘the complex relations between human action and algorithmic execution, resulting in an impoverished grasp of the way MOOC spaces are enacted’ (p.213) and the influence they can have on each other, how they ‘contaminate’ each other. To support this argument he uses examples from the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC) which with colleagues from Edinburgh University he helped to design and deliver in partnership with Coursera. He writes of how learning spaces in this MOOC were not stable but produced through movement and transition and ‘the entanglement of human users and non-human algorithms which create contaminated spatial orderings’ (p. 178).

Given my own involvement in MOOCs and MOOC research since 2008 I can see lots of parallels between Knox’s work and my own research. The notion of MOOCs promoting a new form of Western colonialism makes sense to me, as does an ethos of ‘tyranny of participation’ which I first started to think about in 2007 after a discussion with Vivien Hodgson about the paper she was to present with Debra Ferreday at the 2008 Networked Learning Conference.

My research has also highlighted concerns with the homogenising tendency of MOOCs (Tschofen & Mackness, 2012; Mackness & Bell, 2015)

And from recent research with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (Bell, Mackness & Funes, 2016) I know that social media algorithms can contaminate spatial orderings and that technology is not neutral.

Even the discussion that the ModPo MOOC’s promotion of a sense of place might result in a form of elitism seems a reasonable argument, but it was this argument that made me realise where I stand in relation to Jeremy Knox’s points of view.

I have been a participant in the ModPo MOOC twice and it stands out for me as one of the best and most stimulating MOOCs I have enrolled in. Having had this experience and looking back through Chapter 4 of the book – Housing the MOOC – I find I have 10 different notes in the margins stating that ‘I don’t agree’ or words to that effect. Whilst, when participating in the MOOC, I was aware that the Kelly Writer’s House (the physical space and place from which the ModPo MOOC was filmed) was inaccessible to me in terms of location, not for one minute did I experience this as exclusion. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. I thought that creating such a unique and ‘real’ but virtual sense of place greatly increased my involvement in and positive experience of the course. It was one of the elements of the MOOC that impressed me.

This means of course that in Jeremy Knox’s terms I must be invested in the humanist subject in relation to education. On thinking about this I realise that that is exactly what I am. I believe that first and foremost learning is a human endeavour, one that relates to issues of identity (Wenger, 1998) and a transformation of ‘being’ (Barnett, 2007; Freire, 1970). Currently I am learning ‘to be’ a researcher. This is turning out to be a very long on-going protracted process. I network, collaborate and engage with a wide range of people and technologies and am at least somewhat aware of the effects of algorithms; I know I am not an island. I am influenced by whatever is in my environment, just as whatever is in my environment is influenced by me.

But for me, learning is ultimately about me. I am unique, not in an arrogant sense, but because my experience of learning, the community, the environment, the technology is unique to me. It can be similar to someone else’s experience but not exactly the same. I think this is what Stephen Downes recognises in his work on personal learning networks and in his talk The MOOC of One.

There are paradoxes in the delivery of MOOCs which I think Jeremy Knox has been successful in uncovering. His book is a thought-provoking critique of humanist assumptions surrounding the design and delivery of MOOCs, which I think are well worth engaging with. His concerns related to homogenisation, the tyranny of participation and the influence of social media algorithms on social interaction and learning in MOOCs are very similar to my own.

If you are interested in MOOCs then I can recommend reading this book.

References

Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press.

Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Routledge

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Tschofen, C. & Mackness, J. (2011) Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Wenger E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Apropos of Nothing

This was the title of a talk given at The Materiality of Nothing symposium at Lancaster University by Gary Sangster, Director Arts Catalyst.  This is how his session was described in the programme for the day (I have added the hyperlinks).

Apropos of Nothing will consider the escalation of transdisciplinary research and collaboration amongst artists and scientists, its impact within those fields and on the broader economies and publics, as well as the barriers and deleterious effects of these new strategic engagements amongst different fields of knowledge.

Two Arts Catalyst projects focused on loss, disappearance, and invisibility, Graveyard of Lost Species, a project that both explores and documents loss in the Thames Estuary, and the Nuclear Culture research project exhibition, Perpetual Uncertainty, that considers the residual effects of nuclear radiation and the notion of deep time, provide insight into complex issues of material presence and absence. Apropos of Nothing is about the pursuit of meaning and its elusiveness, its imprecision, within the data-driven, information-based knowledge framework of our current socio-political economy.

graveyard of lost species

Source of image

Gary Sangster talked about both these projects, also saying that art is a speculative enterprise and a contingent thing. He said that in the future it could well be that Monet (as an example) won’t be valued but will be relegated to the basement as has happened to many artists in the past. There was some discussion about whether value is lost by being relegated to the basement, but his point raises all sorts of questions about the permanence of art, or any of the work we do, and whether or not we should expect it to have permanence.

This is an interesting question in the light of the artist Dennis Cooper’s recent experience. Google has deleted his blog, which effectively was his studio and gallery of many years work. Presumably this was a form of censorship, although my understanding is that Google has yet to give a reason.

I have seen a number of posts asking why the work wasn’t backed up. My question is how prepared are we to create work in any form that is only transitory, and moves from being ‘some’ thing to ‘no’ thing? Could this make us more creative? It seems that a number of artists engage in this kind of work, i.e. the here today gone tomorrow type of work, often created in the environment, but even this work is often fixed by a video or a photograph. It seems much more difficult to completely let it go and be prepared to accept the absence. On the other hand how can absence have an audience?

The Materiality of Nothing

This was an interdisciplinary symposium, held at Lancaster University, UK, about the immaterial/intangible, which aimed to bring together people with different perspectives to negotiate the imperceptible.

The seminar was introduced by Dr Sarah Casey – Lecturer in the Lancaster (University) Institute for the Contemporary Arts but also an artist who explores the limits of visibility and material existence.

sarah-casey-murmur-3-152438_large

Sarah Casey Murmur #3 – http://www.axisweb.org/p/sarahcasey/ 

Sarah asked us why we should consider the materiality of nothing, answering her own question by saying that ‘no’ thing implies the lack of ‘some’ thing and suggested that we tend to step around the intangible rather than try and deal with it directly, as exemplified by the Romans who didn’t have a zero in their numerals.

But as Sarah told us invisibility and immateriality are different. On reflection I would have liked a bit more discussion about this. On her website she asks  “at what point does visibility disappear and drawing become immaterial?”

In her introduction Sarah asked us to consider how we create something out of nothing and used erased drawings as an example of work that focuses on space and absence. With just a little research I can see that this topic has exercised a number of artists. For example Robert Rauschenberg explored the extent to which art could be created by removing marks rather than making them (see Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953) and a number of other artists have explored invisibility and aesthetic absence. Interestingly, during the day, as we listened to presentations I sat next to artist Gerry Davies who was almost continuously drawing in a small notebook. I was intrigued by how he used the rubber on the end of his pencil as much as the graphite, creating and removing marks in equal measure.

Sarah suggested that we need absence and space for imagination, interpretation and reflection. I found just this 10 minute introduction to the day fascinating and am grateful that Sarah and Lancaster University opened this seminar to the public.

There were many stimulating ideas to come out of the day, which I hope to find time to record in at least one future blog post. Although my understanding of much of what was talked about is very limited, I am intrigued by all the ways in which we can align ideas such as invisibility, absence, silence, immaterial, emptiness, speculative, contingency, indeterminacy, invisibility and nothing, to teaching and learning, particularly teaching and learning in the online environment where it is so easy to be invisible to each other. This has often been seen as a negative aspect of online learning, but maybe this is a short-sighted view.

For those who are interested in the programme for the day – here it is.

The Materiality of Nothing Programme 14th July