The Australian Newspaper Outrage Cycle

Media editor of The Australian, Sharri Markson, has produced an article titled ‘Activism a threat to journalism‘. In it she draws on sources to argue that ‘activist journalism academics’ on ‘social media’ are a threat to journalism. She paraphrases her boss and Australian newspaper editor, Chris Mitchell:

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.

Worse than the figure of the ‘activist journalist’ is the ‘modern journalism academic’. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the ‘modern journalism academic’ as someone with opinions on political issues:

Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’’ he said.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.

Through its Media section the Australian newspaper is running a small-scale ‘moral panic’ about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like the print-based Australian newspaper. Most of the people who work at the Australian newspaper have been to university and would’ve more than likely come across the concept of a moral panic. Even if they haven’t, as savvy media operators that should be familiar with the concept.

The concept of the ‘moral panic’ once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how fears and anxieties experienced by social group often about social change is projected onto and becomes fixated around what is called a ‘folk devil’.

A ‘folk devil’ is a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety. I have a book chapter on the folk devil figure of the ‘hoon’. There are actual ‘hoons’ who are a road safety issue, but the hoon moral panics that swept across Australia 10 years ago were completely out of proportion to the actual risk presented by hoons. The figure of the hoon represented fears and anxieties about how young people use public space particularly in areas with high retiree and tourist populations.

Clearly, the ‘activist journalist’ and ‘modern journalism academic’ are the folk devil figures. What fears and anxieties do ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ represent? ‘Social media’ is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of the Australian newspaper, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey reported last week, the Australian newspaper is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in the Australian newspaper workplace.

Sharri 2
An example of ‘print enthusiast’ Sharri Markson’s advocacy work on social media.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a ‘print media’ enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and Mitchell could be described as what are the ‘moral entrepreneurs‘ of the ‘moral panic’ in this particular example. A ‘moral entrepreneur’ is a person or group of people who advocate and bring attention to a particular issue for the purposes of trying to effect change. In traditional moral panic theory this is largely local politicians who try to effect legislative change to compensate for the social changes that triggered the moral panic in the first place.

The Australian newspaper’s ongoing response to the perceived existential threat of ‘social media’ (as an inaccurate collective term to describe far more complex and longer term shifts in the media industry) is a useful example for thinking about the cyclical character of these outbursts. They are small-scale moral panics because they never really spread beyond a limited number of moral entrepreneurs. The latest round is merely another example of the media-based culture wars that began with the so-called ‘media wars‘ in the late 1990s. Again, journalism academics were central in the conflict over what counted as ‘journalism’ and/or ‘news’. More recently, the Australian newspaper attacked journalism programs and their graduates.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’

The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is a bit clunky and doesn’t really capture the cyclical character of these ideological battles over perceived existential threats. Creator of the ‘moral panic’ concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book. About the possibility of a “permanent moral panic” Cohen writes:

A panic, be defintion, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic. Each one may draw on the same stratum of political morality and cultural unease and — much like Foucault’s micro-systems of power — have a similar logic and internal rhythm. Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician. (xxx)

A useful model for understanding the cyclical character of the relation between anxiety (or what we call ‘affect’), greater media attention (or what we call, after Foucault, ‘visibility’) and an exaggerated sense of social norms and expectations is Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ model.

HypeCycle

It is not a ‘theoretical’ or even a ‘scientific’ tool; rather, it serves as a kind of rule of thumb about the reception of technological change for the purposes of creating business intelligence. New technologies tend to be hyped so take this into account when making business decisions about risks of investment. (Each year I use the ‘Hype Cycle’ to introduce my third year unit on technological change ; the way it represents technology is useful for understanding social relations and technology beyond technology being an ‘object’.) There is something similar going on with the Australian newspaper’s constant preoccupation with other journalists and in particular the role of journalism academics in society. Rather than the giddy ‘hype’ of the tech press and enthusiasts about technological change, the Australian newspaper’s cycle is organised around ‘outrage’. The Australian newspaper’s ‘Outrage Cycle’ is a useful way to frame how Western societies constantly mobilise to engage with perceived existential threats. The actual curve of the ‘Hype CYcle’ itself is less important than the cyclical character of trigger and response, which is also apparent in ‘moral panic’ theory:

OutrageCycle 2014

I’ve changed the ‘zones’ of the Hype Cycle. ‘Maturity’ did not seem like the most appropriate measure of the X-axis, so I changed it to ‘time’ which Gartner also sometimes uses. I’ve made a table for ease of reference:

Hype Cycle

Outrage Cycle

Technology Trigger

Existential Threat

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Peak of Confected Outrage

Trough of Disillusionment

Trough of Realism

Slope of Enlightenment

Slope of Conservatism

Plateau of Productivity

Plateau of Social Norms

 

Existential threat: In the case of the Australian newspaper, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of ‘print’ and the institutional social relations that ‘print’ once enjoyed. A second example of this involves ‘online piracy’, which serves as a perceived existential threat to the current composition of media distribution companies.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged besides employees of News Corp about so-called ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ in general. There are specific cases, just like with ‘moral panics’, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative ‘folk devils’ for an entire social identity. Similarly, ‘pirates’ serve as an example of ‘bad internet users’ who are part of the disruptions of the legacy media industry. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on ‘outrage’ and other affective states like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of the Australian newspaper, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry.  It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen. (Perhaps after the Australian newspaper folds?) In terms of ‘online piracy’ facing reality includes companies like Foxtel currently working to create online client versions of their pay TV business. It is basically at this point that proponents have to ‘face reality’.

Slope of Conservatism: In Gartner’s original version, technologies become adopted and companies learn how to use them appropriately. In the ‘Outrage Cycle’ the Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change. In some ways, Markson’s advocacy of ‘print’ is a bad example of this. A better example is the way sports fans learn how to adapt to the commodification of broadcast sporting events.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing ‘liberalisation’ of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content. Recent examples of this include the popularity of the ‘home theatre’ as the most recent evolution of domestic cinema culture that become part of mass popular cultures with the VCR.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a Business Model

In our editorial introduction to the recent ‘Trolling’ special issue of Fibreculture Journal, my colleagues Jason Wilson, Christian McCrea and I wrote:

Major media corporations and tech giants have become bogged down in nymwars, post-hoc jerry-rigging and outright comment bans as they attempt to erase conflict around perenially divisive topics. All the while, as media companies are all too happy to trade on clickbait and outrage, there’s a suspicion that they have appropriated and mobilised the figure of the troll in order to constrain a new outpouring of political speech. Trolling has perhaps displaced pornography as the obscenity which underwrites the demand that the Internet be brought under control.

Jason in particular has emphasised the normative character of particular kinds of outrage. On the topic of a recent research report report from the respected Pew Centre about the normative effect of social media, Jason wrote for the Guardian ‘newspaper’:

In the midst of social media’s perpetual flurries of outrage, we teach one another that the range of acceptable opinion is small, that we are individually responsible for comporting ourselves within these limits, and that the negative consequences are unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. Accepting cues – from media, government and other authorities – about the dangers of incivility and extremism, we monitor each other’s conduct, ensuring that it doesn’t cross any arbitrary lines.

We can read the perpetual Outrage Cycle of the Australian newspaper as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, the Australian newspaper would be out of business, so to say that the Australian will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant ‘fail’. Unless someone thinks that the Australian newspaper will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for ‘print’), the social function of the Australian newspaper is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforce what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian newspaper and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.

Talking about world views

In the latest Partially Examined Life podcast on Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific progress Mark refers to the previous Deleuze and Guattari What is Philosophy? podcast and makes a connection between Kuhn’s notion of ‘paradigm’ with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘plane of immanence’. Below are some rough notes on this connection to push it a bit further into some of Deleuze and Guattari’s other works and so as to connect Mark’s reference to ‘planes of immanence’ in the context of Kuhnian paradigms with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘collective assemblages of enunciation’.

I have roughly transcribed the section from the podcast below (between the time code references):

[1:02:10]

[Discussing how the term ‘paradigm’ has entered into non-technical discourse to refer to what could be called a ‘world view’. ‘Technical’ in this context means following Kuhn’s definition.]

Wes: Most people use it as synonymous with ‘world view’, which… there’s an argument for that, but really it’s more like ‘exemplar’; it’s an ‘example’.

Mark: I would just like some more systematic language — some philosophy — to tell me how to talk more intelligently about ‘world views’ in this nebulous way that we actually want to talk about it. There perhaps a modern [inaudible] evolution of this idea in the Deleuze [and Guattari] book that we read, When he’s talking about ‘planes of immanence’ there’s a certain commonality — granted he’s talking about ‘planes of immanence’ as what defines a ‘philosophy’ and what defines a ‘philosophy’ is defined by the concepts and once you have the ‘concepts’ established maybe you could see that as providing a paradigm for science, which remember [Mark shifts to his wise-cracking smart-ass voice] he sees as just providing ‘functions’ its just mapping one value onto another as if you’ve got the mapping rule already stored in your paradigm there and your plane of immanence…  and so science on that model is just what Kuhn is describing normal science as — is just filling in the details, is finding out what each question maps to in your set-up. [But] the plane of immanence that we had so much trouble with… maybe its just my desire to make some sense out of the Deleuze retrospectively, [Wes: Well..] but maybe paradigm is a good start for that…

Wes: That sounds like more a conceptual scheme which I think is different to a paradigm. [Mark: Hmmm] A conceptual scheme includes — yeah — a set of concepts for talking about the world and certain assumptions, but a paradigm I think as an example gets at some of the more less conceptual stuff, some of the tacit knowledge, some of the ways… maybe it’s more like — what’s Wittgenstein’s phrase?

Mark: Mode of life?

Wes: Yeah, and part of it’s about what’s relevant to people, so its not just about what concepts they’re deploying, but what’s about what’s interesting and relevant.

[1:04:07]

I have taught Kuhn’s work to first year undergraduates in a large introductory ‘research methods’ unit that is taught to every incoming student to our faculty of arts and design. The purpose of the unit is to introduce students to ‘research methods’ in the humanities. I draw on Kuhn’s work so as to illustrate how the practice and meaning of the word ‘research’ in a contemporary Australian university context is largely determined by scientific discourse. I indicate the connection between our university’s policies on research to the federal government’s policies to the guidelines provided by OECD’s Frascati Manual in the way that ‘research’ is defined.

The contemporary Frascati Manual is an interesting document as it attempts to bridge the gap between the ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research of the sciences (p. 30) with a non-scientific research of the humanities. At stake is the distinction between the practice of what could be described as ‘routine work’ and the practice of ‘research’. ‘Research’ in this context is any practice that is worthy of non-routine investment funding. Why is this important for the OECD? Because research in the humanities can have productivity outcomes. “For the social sciences and humanities,” the manual suggests, “an appreciable element of novelty or a resolution of scientific/technological uncertainty is again useful criterion for defining the boundary between R&D and related (routine) scientific activities” (p. 48).

When introducing this to to my first year students I use it to talk about what this ‘resolution of scientific/technological uncertainty’. I frame this discussion in terms of matching certain kinds of research practice with certain kinds of epistemological uncertainty. The students already do research to address a certain kind of uncertainty. What films are showing at the cinema this weekend? What gift should I give to someone dear to me? This work of everyday research relates to the kinds of tacit knowledge that I think Wes was referring to. I introduce the notion of ‘research’ in this manner so as to help students realise that the epistemological process of working to resolve uncertainty is not some special thing that academics do, but is something we are all familiar with as part of everyday life.

The next manoeuvre is to posit undergraduate research as part of a process of becoming familiar with another set of professional practices for identifying the ‘uncertainties’ that belong to a given scholarly or research-centred field. I teach Kuhn’s notion of paradigm in terms of being one way to describe (make ‘sense’ of) an epistemological process for the resolution of uncertainty. The ‘paradigm’ is the set of agreed upon practices and assumptions for reproducing the conditions by which such uncertainties are identified as such (‘certain uncertainties’ to riff off Rumsfeld). From my lecture notes, I note that ‘paradigms’ are compositions of relations that:

Create avenues of inquiry.
Formulate questions.
Select methods with which to examine questions.
Define areas of relevance.

I define ‘expert researcher’ for my students as someone who knows exactly what they do not know and who belongs to a ‘scholarly field’ that has specific methods for defining what is not known in terms of what is known. (One reason for this is to try to shunt students out of the debilitating circuitous logic of gaming education for grades and resurrect a sense of wonder about the world.)

The ‘reproduction’ part in defining paradigms is therefore important as Kuhn also identified the so-called political aspect of scientific paradigms: they are not simply sustained by the quality of the knowledge produced by research, but the professional conditions by which that knowledge and producers of that knowledge are judged worthy as belonging. This has been a roundabout way of getting to the substance of this post, which is Mark’s reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘plane of immanence’. Rather than a ‘plane of immanence’, I think perhaps a better connection is to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘collective assemblage of enunciation’. 

A ‘plane of immanence’ is the ‘quasi-causal’ grounds by which thought is possible. (That is an esoteric post-Kantian pun.)  ‘Quasi-cause’ comes from Deleuze’s work The Logic of Sense. It is an attempt to address the problem of how ‘sense’ (the logic of meaning) arises from what is basically the cosmological nonsense of the universe. I won’t pursue this too much, but the way humans make sense of the world normally implies some kind of realism. This ‘realism’ is in itself not natural, and can be described as a collective system of reference.

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari characterise ‘science’ as the creation of what they call ‘functives’; a ‘functive’ is the basic element of a function and it describes some aspect of the way the universe works. What makes thought possible is the complex individuation of a thought through the body of a sentient being. Cognitive science is doing its best to resolve this problem. Individuation in this context follows a causally normative path of individuation. This leads to that. The process of cognition.

What makes thought sensible is a philosophical problem. The seemingly counter-intuitive movement of thought in the context of the expression of thought, whereby the future affects the present. That is lead by this. In Difference & Repetition Deleuze draws on Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘dark precursor’ to describe this movement. On the surface, non-linear causality seems like a radical idea. In practice, we do this work everyday. Instead of creating momentous existential crises most of the time we delegate these causally circular movements of thought to metaphysical placeholders. We collectively describe these as ‘assumptions’.

Indeed, Deleuze separates the cosmos into bodies and the passions of bodies (causes) and expressions and the sense of expressions (effects) and associates two orders of causality. (Or ‘two floors’ in the existential architecture of reality in The Fold.) One which belongs to the world and is shared by every single thing (body) in the world. One which only can be inferred by implication in any expression of sense. Deleuze’s concept of the event is an conceptual attempt to group together the dynamic quasi-causal expression of ‘sense’, which is why the ‘event’ is central to The Logic of Sense. 

Language and culture imply a shared sense of quasi-causality for those thinking beings who belong to that culture and use that language. Cultural expression can therefore be understood as an elaborate method for the dissemination of assumptions. Interesting to think about in this context is ‘poetics’ as a research practice  — that is, poetics as a method for identifying or discovering new assumptions. For those who work in the creative industries perhaps it is worth thinking about what assumptions are you helping to disseminate.

The detour through ‘quasi-cause’ was necessary to explain the notion of a collective assemblage of enunciation and why it is difficult to explain how a new paradigm emerges from an old paradigm. The notes to PEL podcast on Kuhn describe this as an ‘evolutionary version of Kantianism’. But the problem with this is that the new paradigm does not emerge from the old paradigm; the point of the notion of the paradigm is that it describes practices that ward off the development of new paradigms. Hence the non-scientific problem with the concept of the paradigm: the difficulty of describing how a new paradigm emerges from the new paradigm before that ‘new’ paradigm exists in actuality.

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of ‘agencement’, which is translated by Massumi as ‘assemblage’. There are two sides to every assemblage: a machinic assemblage of bodies and a collective assemblage of enunciation. There are two orders of causality to every assemblage. The linear movement of causal relations belonging to bodies and the ‘quasi-causal’ relations of thought. Each fold of ‘thought’ in this context is the process of transversal distribution of sense in the world. Sense is distributed from the future; it is the superposition of one moment upon the next. One way to think about this is that every paradigm (as a concrescence of singular points) already exists quasi-causally.

A ‘world view’ therefore has two ontological levels: the world and the view. Language is important because each singular expression implies a monadological view that can be inferred. More important is that even though sentience can be defined by the existential capacity to make assumptions. As Nietzsche was at pains to point out, it is a seemingly unique human trait to delegate this capacity for making assumptions (or what he called ‘truths’) to our culture. Nietzsche was worried about the manifestation of ignorance as the acceptance of such assumptions as well as admiring the near-suicidal pursuit to overcome such assumption-producing cultural mechanisms. 

Which leads to the question, in what ways are humans not sentient? Is your world view making you non-sentient? If non-sentient life is defined as the delegation of the capacity for making assumptions to genetics, then what are the assumptions we have delegated to our biology or through our biology (by way of evolutionary ‘fitness’) to our environment? 

I have purchased but not yet read Isabelle Stengers Thinking with Whitehead. I suspect it shall address, at least peripherally, some of these issues.

Virilio and Vision of the Self-Projectile

[This is an extract from a lecture on “Pics or it didn’t happen”.]

For Virilio dromoscopy is the art of the dashboard, which “displays inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement” (105) and becomes “in some ways a video game of speed” (111). (Here is a translation of one of Virilio’s ‘dromoscopy’ essays. That essay is similar, but different to the text I am referencing below which is the dromoscopy chapter of Virilio’s translated book Negative Horizons.)

Virilio uses the literal and metaphorical concept of a dashboard to think about how 20th century technologies of movement have changed relations of visibility. Central to this is the emergence of a privileged actor — the voyeur-voyager. The voyeur-voyager ceases to be transported or the subject of displacement and instead becomes the locus of arrival. The pure projection of the voyeur-voyager inverts the passivity of the cinematic apparatus to become the pure immobilization of ‘polar inertia’. Virilio writes:

“In the speed of the movement the voyeur-voyager finds himself in a situation that is contrary to the of the film viewer in the cinema, it is he who is projected, playing the role of both actor and spectator of the drama of the projection in the moment of the trajectory, his own end” (106).

The voyeur-voyager is enabled by the technology of the dashboard; the dashboard both frames the screen and provides an immediate array of informational content. What is the sensory and semantic information allowed through the constraint of the screen (passenger window)? It is a “stage [scéne] where the signs of the places travelled through move past in the mise en scene of changes in the scenery from the change in the rate of speed” (107). Speed and its maintenance throttles the arrival of sign-places upon the screen. The speed of the voyeur-voyager dissolves the distance to the horizon or destination (108-109, 111) and modifies the regulation of appearances (114-117). Virilio discusses both of these in a negative sense; the relations of perception to the outside are diminished by speed. What matter or is counted are the opportunities for insertion — the ‘entranceways’:

“With the excess of speed, vision [la vue] becomes progressively the way [la voie], the entranceways [la voie d’acces], to the point that daily life seems to have become an ‘optical watch’ where vision [la vue] replaces life [la vie], as if, in waiting in front of the audiovisual device, hoping that the dromovisual device will attain in its turn the instantaneity of ubiquity…” (116)

I want to push this fertile concept of the voyeur-voyager in a slightly different direction, one that retains Virilio’s preoccupation with violence and thinking about the self-directed voyeur-voyager but in the context of the project of the self in a networked context. We use multiple dashboards not only to track what is happening in the world through various feeds, but we also use them so as to mount a campaign of the self. Following Virilio’s logic, this project of the self becomes a self-projectile. There are at least two consequences of this.

The first consequence of this is that the play of appearance and disappearance is premised on the speed of insertion in the complex media ecologies of multiple dashboard-enabled perception-feeds. The art of the dashboard shifts from making inanimate objects appear as if they are animated by a violent movement to an example of what Virilio calls chronologistics. Chronologistics is the orchestrated logistical effort of producing and participating in a “montage of dromoscopic sequences” (119, 118). The presentation of the online self is a logistical art of not only display, but also timing. For those who have worked as social media communicators where you post and participate in a corporate or institutional ‘voice’ (posting for a brand or service, for example), you will know the art of tracking engagement and posting at various times during the day to maximise engagement.

The second consequence of the project of the self thought as self-projectile is that for the voyeur-voyagers there is no singular destination as such, but multiple loci of activity. Virilio prefigures this in what he calls the accident of dromoscopy: the “catastrophe of collision [telescopage] arises from the fact that the arrival seems to counter more and more frequently the departure” (114). Or put another way “the departure for the meeting has come to an end, it is replaced by the arrival of images on the screen” (115). The passive relation to this is the “wait for the coming of what abides: the trees file past on the screen of the windshield, the images that rise up on the television” (115). But there is an active relation, one that Virilio does not discuss; playing the role of actor and spectator, but instead of the the end (or telos) is replaced by the target (or skopos). To follow Virilio’s preoccupation with military metaphors, the dashboard becomes a targeting apparatus of the scope.

 

Writing a Research Essay

Students in my third-year undergraduate unit Communication Technologies and Change have to prepare a ‘research essay’. As there are many students who are studying in the unit who have not written a research essay (some from the media arts program or the marketing program, for example) I have offered to meet with any student who would like to have a meeting to discus and plan their essay. This means I meet with a large number of students one-on-one. There are 240 students in the unit this semester and there were about 160 last year; I see about a third of these.

In meetings I walk the students through three steps:

  1. Isolating a suitable ‘research problem’ based on your interests and/or work already carried out. This will give a sense of direction and a way to approach how you are going to develop an argument.
  2. Developing this into a draft essay outline/structure with possible examples that you want to explore. This will give us a sense of your overall argument and thus the gaps in your argument.
  3. Lastly, we will then look at what sort of literature review you need to carry out. This will enable you to provide evidence for your claims in the argument and demonstrate your understanding of the course content; And at the same time giving you a direction in terms of carrying out research to ‘fill in’ the gaps.

The ‘research problem’ is constructed from two (sets of) questions. One question faces ‘outwards’ and is asked of the world. The other question faces ‘inwards’ and asks a question of the scholarly field(s). To get the students thinking along the right way I normally prompt them to discus some examples. My unit is very ‘theoretical’ so students are sometimes overwhelmed or feeling anxious, but I encourage them to recognise the practical dimensions of what we discuss in lectures and tutorials. Crucial here are examples or case studies as they enable students to, firstly, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the topic, and, secondly, enables students to show extent and relevance of research (both of these are part of the marking criteria).

Valorising Research, Teaching and the Research Hole

My (recently) ex-colleague Jason Wilson has published an insightful piece on self-funded research. We’ve had a number of chats about this over the last year. The examples I raised of ‘self-funded’ research were of cultural studies scholars in the 1980s who did not receive ‘funds’ for research and even included those (for example, like Meaghan Morris) who worked on the fringes of academia as journalists and in the media industry.

Jason makes a number of key points. Firstly, you need to be relatively privileged so as to be able to afford to this in terms of time and money. Secondly, he did not plan for this to be self-funded and the circumstances emerged because the funding application did not work out. This has some implications that Jason notes and that I want to expand on below. Third, he notes it is incredibly mobile, or it is as mobile as Jason is, and the project goes wherever he does, so there is no need for complicated ‘handover’ processes. Lastly, he notes that this experience has made him realise that ‘funding’ and ‘research’ are separate and that receiving ‘funding’ does not necessarily valorise ‘research’ (even though we are encouraged to think in this way). I want to add two points.

First, I want to speculate on the valorising relationship between ‘funding’ and ‘research’. I’ve just finished Graeme Turner’s What’s Become of Cultural Studies (2012) and the below passage resonated with a weird exchange I had with a colleague from another university late last year at a conference. She told me she had never taught at university and I was dumb struck. My first thought was how the hell do you test your ideas from your research to see if they work? Another colleague with a research-focused career suggested that it was the ARC and the various mechanisms which judged the first colleague’s research as worthy. ‘Worthy’ in this context means that it aligns with the government-prescribed ‘national interest’. Maybe the first colleague would not think of themselves in cultural studies, the second colleague certainly would. Here is what Turner says about this phenomena:

I routinely find, when I present talks on research applications and professional development in general, that most of those who attend these seminars take the view that they are entitled to entertain ambitions of a fulltime research career. […] [It] is hard not to feel that it is important for them to recognize that a research-only career remains an unrealistic ambition for 90 per cent of the academics working in cultural studies in Australia. In my own case, for example, the past 10 years of research-only employment have only come after decades of fulltime teaching.

It is the pragmatics of the situation that worry me most, then. And I wonder how these ambitions are being fed. Just what kinds of expectations are being sold to completing doctoral students and to junior staff members by their supervisors or by their university’s research office? Successful ARC applications result in significant funding benefits to the university, and so it is in the interests of Australian universities to encourage their staff to apply; the fact that so few will succeed ultimately does not bother the university much. It should bother us. It raises the possibility that we are going to be filling our teaching programmes with disappointed researchers who regard a conventional teaching appointment as the consolation prize. And it increases the possibility that those who are currently teaching cultural studies in our universities do not believe that the satisfaction teaching generates will play a fundamental role in sustaining them, personally or professionally. (emphasis added, pp 74-75)

I was very happy last year when I finally got to teach an upper-undergraduate unit that aligned with my research interests. My greatest challenge in doing research is not in producing new knowledge or thinking new ideas but in communicating them in a way that is sensible and which non-specialists can understand. I am not sure how teaching fits with others.

Relatedly, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with ‘modules’ within units in preparation of an exciting new unit ‘Newsroom’ in the Journalism program here at UC. ‘Newsroom’ is entirely based on research I’ve carried out over the last year on teaching methods for preparing students for the current industry context for media and journalism. It is based on my experience working in the magazine industry and working to adapt (or at least try to adapt) to a post-print industry, but extended beyond this. At its core is working with students to develop the capacity for producing their own expertise in industry contexts that we can’t even imagine. This production of professional expertise derived from the experience of testing out new practices and being confident in engaging with the world actually has more in common with the development of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s then it does with the conservative forms of ‘journalism’ education from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. I am hoping those familiar with the so-called ‘media wars’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s can appreciate the irony of all this. Turner as well as Grossberg in his recent book on cultural studies both locate the capacity of one’s student to produce knowledge as a central aim of cultural studies and this has little to do with particular methodologies except in the most abstract (and concrete! Oh, Deleuzian puns). This is a modification of the Kuhnian science-based model of scholarship where instead of the research problems being created on the edge of the scholarly field, and scholarship in part being a performative power struggle between proponents of competing ideas, the edge of the scholarly field (at least in cultural studies) is reoriented so it coincides with the edge of our students’ understanding. ‘Student’ in this context does not necessarily mean undergraduate students at university as it includes anyone we are trying to educate with new forms of knowledge.

Lastly, I want to extend Jason’s point regarding the relationship between research and funding. There is a parallel to the transformation to what we regard as ‘news’ in the journalism industry. By transforming the structural conditions through which ‘research’ is produced, academics are compelled to produce funding applications year in and year out, regardless of whether or not they have a funding-worthy research project. Note ‘funding-worthy research project’ is not determined necessarily by the individual academic or even the institution where he or she is employed but by the constraints of the funding guidelines. Ironically, one of the major expenses for humanities scholars factored into research funding applications, besides for research-only positions, is teaching buyout, so another academic can be paid to cover their teaching. The character of ‘news’ was transformed in the early 20th century so instead of journalists finding news they produced news. News had to be produced because of the ‘news hole’ created by advertising schedules; something had to be put in the hole produced on the page between pre-sold advertising space. Similarly but not exactly the same, research has to be put in the hole produced by the current funding regime. Knowledge is not produced for its own sake, but as a consequence of the imperative to seek research funding. Separating the mechanisms by which research is valorised from the mechanisms by which funding is valorised will mean that knowledge production can be valorised for other reasons.

Here is useful test I might experiment with this year. Does my research help me with my teaching? Both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ broadly understood.