Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Remaking Society

Just heard that the Connected Communities 'pilot demonstrator' bid to AHRC submitted jointly with Tom Wakeford and Kerrie Schaefer has been successful. We'll set up a separate project blog in due course, but here's the summary of the project. Some fantastic partners for this project, including Mission Models Money, Cadispa Trust, NHSGGC, Theatre Modo, Bradford Community Broadcasting, Swingbridge Media, Love Milton and the inestimable Jon Hawkes. All very exciting. 

Remaking Society
Realising the potential of cultural activities in contexts of deprivation

Remaking Society will exemplify the central themes of the Connected Communities Programme via three inter-dependent routes:

i) Working with local partners in demonstrating and assessing participatory cultural
activities in four contrasting contexts of deprivation – Bradford, Glasgow,
Fraserburgh and Newcastle.
ii) Using these four pilots to generate new forms of evidence about the lived
experience of poverty and exclusion.
iii) Creating opportunities for marginalised and less visible sections of society to
communicate with wider audiences, including policy-makers.

Research context and rationale
Cultural dimensions of regeneration – making, creating, performing and celebrating – are
often neglected. Yet these aspects can be vital to the sense of shared wellbeing, belonging
and aspiration for community members. Hawkes calls the integration of a cultural
perspective into the planning of change the “fourth pillar” of sustainability, alongside
economic, social and environmental dimensions. He suggests that cultural projects provide “avenues for the expression of community values…[that can]…directly affect the directions society takes” (Hawkes 2001).

Recent Government-commissioned research has added to a growing body of evidence
suggesting that participatory arts and media processes can act as portals to wider processes of social development, by offering for example access to further learning, training or social networks (Scottish Government 2006). Activities which promote imaginative engagement through creative practice can offer additional opportunities to conceive and enact alternatives. Members of a community experience processes allowing them to imagine different possible futures. Collaborative participatory arts have been shown to make a significant contribution to both the confidence of individuals, their trust of others participating in the process and in overall quality of life and wellbeing (Jeffery 2005).

Remaking Society is to collaborate with four experienced partner organisations that work
intensively, through participatory arts and media practices, with communities in four
neighbourhoods – Bradford, West Yorkshire (community radio), Milton, Glasgow (visual
art), Benwell, Newcastle (film) and Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire (theatre). With much of the
population in each area are currently experiencing high levels of economic and social
deprivation, we will explore the socio-cultural dimensions of ‘living with/in poverty’.
The practice of community and cultural development (CCD) in North American cities, such
as that led in Chicago by John Kretzman and John McKnight from Northwestern University,
exemplifies the model demonstrated in Remaking Society. Traditionally the communities
that were identified as deprived had been provided with services and programmes designed and delivered by outside experts.

The effect of this now discredited cultural deficit model was to position people as passive
recipients dependent on service providers (including university researchers) to address
their deficiencies and their needs. Yet the model still persists in most deprived areas of the
UK. By contrast, our assets-based approach recognises such communities as resourceful and gifted (Goldbard 2006). We draw upon and harness the capacities and creativities of local people to address issues and solve problems.

Outside assistance and resources from government agencies, institutions and other
organisations are still going to be required to address issues of deprivation. But, in our
model, the agenda of such interventions is to be set more by the community of people most directly affected. Using performance and digital media, the Remaking Society research collaboration will thus demonstrate ways in which communities conventionally regarded as excluded can negotiate either their own inclusion in - or their continued exclusion from - society.

In this project, the concept of community is not restricted to communitarian accounts of 'a
group of people in a given place', or as a site of consensus and constructed oneness based on social categories such as race, class, gender or location. Ours is a dynamic model in which community formation is seen as a continual re-negotiation of co-existence and
interdependence, not confined by place, as illustrated by the thirty years of pioneering work
by Southall Black Sisters (Gupta 2003). Questions about how communities conduct these
negotiations become particularly important now, at a time of economic crisis, when
resources are scarce and stress levels among vulnerable individuals are high.

The study will make critical connections between our understanding of community
performance and participatory process across academic fields - including conflict resolution, cultural geography, public health, social psychology and sociology. It will allow a reexamination of inter-disciplinary concepts of community through arts and media practices. Belonging to a community is critical to a sense of wellbeing for individuals and families, particularly significant for those who live on the breadline. The second element of Remaking Society is the generation of narrative evidence on the cultural dimensions of poverty and social exclusion. It will add a unique inter-disciplinary arts and humanities perspective to the ESRC’s national study, Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE). Running until 2013, it is the UK’s largest ever research project on the impact of poverty.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Academic research and 'creative industries'

Here are the slides from a lecture I gave last week to students on the MA Music: Innovation and Entrepreneurship programme at UWS about the how the relationship between what universities do and the creative industries has developed. Rather long, and very fast and dirty but it's an attempt to introduce the range of debates, theories and discourses that inform our contemporary understanding of what are now called, vaguely but frequently, the 'creative industries" and the forces that shape how universities/researchers and the creative industries interact. Or should we just see the further/higher education sector as a kind of bedrock of a lot of contemporary cultural industry?  Of course other people including Justin O'Connor have done this rather better than me on previous occasions but for what it's worth, I thought it might be useful to share. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reinventing higher education for a networked age

Here is part one of some notes to accompany a talk I gave this afternoon at the UWS learning and teaching conference. All that follows, the presentation and the notes, is  'work in progress' thinking, feeding into a wider project on 'network pedagogies' that I hope will see the light of day as a book within the next 18 months. It may also make a more practical appearance as an interactive project in cyberspace.
The debate about the value, purpose and function of higher education is old. It's as old as the idea of a university itself, which has always been contested and politicised. As individual academics and students working in and around these institutions, we are caught in the cross-currents of long historical and philosophical debates. A wonderfully informative In Our Time programme about the formation of the medieval university describes the ways in which approximately ‘self governing’ communities of scholars set about negotiating a role for what was to become ‘higher education’ between church, state, guilds, city authorities and other rich and powerful patrons. Towards the end of the programme Miri Rubin draws attention to the  relevance of the 'early modern' synthesis that some Italian universities managed to achieve in curriculum development that balanced ‘classical’ and more contemporary, applied knowledge, informed by a particular set of civic traditions: "The Italians, in the late 14th century, because of this connection between the universities, scholarship, and the utility of the city state, ...[developed]... a more applied and sensible way of getting the teaching to match the needs of the polity." 

In this mangled, compressed and partial history of the university (which jumped over the humanist revolutions that led to the Renaissance, glossed over the Enlightenment, and which ignored the world outside western Europe) I particularly tried to emphasise these negotiations between universities and the communities that they live amongst - how they play out and how teaching and research is informed by different discourses of knowledge, of power, policy and economy. It’s also worth thinking about the etymology of the word  ‘universitas’ –  Latin for 'a whole',  a self-governing corporate body that, according to the participants of the In Our Time programme, was originally applied to the craft guilds. The term 'universitas' was then adopted by itinerant and fractious communities of scholars to define the project of creating the early centres of learning that have evolved into today's famous and iconic institutions. 

Somewhat perversely, I deliberately didn't make explicit reference in the talk to three key things that are happening in UK higher education right now:

i) The changing relationship between government and higher education, and the differences between the nations of the UK in how this is playing out

ii) The crisis of governance in higher education, the problems of ‘managerialism’ and how the current generation of argumentative academics respond to the advent of the corporate, competitive, globally ambitious university. Are they to be “communities of scholars” or  “knowledge entrepreneurs’? (or both/neither?)

iii) The wave of resistance/protest that opposes the assault on public funding for the arts and humanities, in which we are seeing a wholesale privatization of undergraduate programmes in the non-STEM subjects in England, stripping out direct public investment and support for arts and humanities from the fabric of the publicly funded university.  

Paradoxically, perhaps, as Francis Mckee recently remarked in a conversation about the arts, the less interest the government takes in the universities, the less the universities are likely to be interested in what the government thinks, particularly as funding is withdrawn. The less money on offer, the less relevant government (and other funders, such as research councils) become. Institutions will be forced to look elsewhere, which is clearly the intent of the English government – a policy that is likely to have bad consequences for democratizing access to higher education and social mobility. 

Current policy in England seems to represent the worst of both worlds. We have heavy-handed, restrictive, ideologically driven regulation and a ramping up of the rhetoric of markets/choice/performative league tables.  We have strict caps on home student numbers, a squeeze on the availability of public cash to support the work of the sector, and restrictions on how many international students can be recruited to make up losses. Tuition costs are entirely pushed onto the individual student, as a kind of mortgage on their future life prospects, although the state guarantees the debts (which, perversely pushes up the public deficit which the government claims to want to reduce: it would be cheaper just to give the universities the money). The idea of higher education in the arts/humanities as a public good, which has benefits for the wider polity/community/society, as well as the individual, is virtually abandoned.

In a sense this approach just takes market values to their logical conclusion - education is utterly commoditised, offered as a product for sale. The humanities are sent to the province of those who can afford to participate, which has profound consequences for democracy, identity and community. And the false hierarchy of the science/art divide (and to an extent the vocational/academic divide) is enshrined in public policy. This radically differential treatment of science and the arts represents an attack on the independence of universities and their ability to design and deliver a curriculum that is responsive, relevant and accessible. It's an approach which suggests a profound indifference in public policy to the nature of knowledge and innovation, the foundations of critical thinking, and the value and worth of the arts and humanities for all disciplines.  The aspiration to become a popular, comprehensive, democratic university  is replaced by a dogmatic insistence on strict hierarchies of status, 'mission groups' and 'research excellence', expressed through the separation of the critical from the vocational, the reflective from the practical, research from teaching, etc.

And what scarce public funds that remain are concentrated mainly on centres that are already well resourced, with no thought for the consequences for the sector as a whole, or the wider implications of rationing access to higher learning. Even in narrow 'economic competitiveness' terms this policy will be a disaster.

In Scotland the picture is somewhat different. We have little idea what the future funding framework for Scottish higher education will look like, but we do have a commitment from government to the maintenance of public funding for arts, humanities and science/technology, the acceptance of some principles of public value and access to HE regardless of 'ability to pay'. Nonetheless we have plenty of local tussles, demand for student places outstripping supply, and two high profile disputes at Glasgow and Strathclyde over proposals to remodel/reduce/remove aspects of arts and humanities education from institutions which have very particular and distinguished relationships to the traditions of arts and humanities scholarship: programmes which apparently appear arcane and alien to technocrats and businesspeople.

The other issue that I left out of my talk was any serious discussion about the dissolution of ‘knowledge hierarchies’ in education – of which there are at least two dimensions:

Firstly, there has been an explosion in the everyday and ubiquitous availability of learning resources, through search engines, web and pervasive media portals of all kinds – part of what Manuel Castells calls the informational society.  So the question for higher education becomes not so much how to teach students to gather information, or even to test ‘what’ they know, but more to develop their ability to select, judge, curate, control, transform – to do things, to act, to make -  with information and knowledge. In the convergent multimedia revolution driven by web technologies we can combine image, audio, text on screens and in spaces to generate new ways of communicating in hybrid digital/face-to-face forms.

This is why ‘creativity’ is such a persistent totem for the transformation of the educational environment in these early years of the 21st century, and the turn towards practice-based research is so significant.

Secondly, there has been a ‘performative turn’ in the way in which knowledge is conceptualized and applied and validated. To (lazily) quote (and adapt) an earlier blog:  What is  ‘performativity’? The phrase originates with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 report The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge. He argued that, with the breakdown of traditional forms of authority, the collapse of 19th century ‘grand narratives’, and the ending of a consensus that a cadre of elite, expert professionals could determine what counts as valid knowledge, (in part driven by the challenge to ‘normative’ knowledge mounted by the new social movements and by radical politics), instead the extent to which  knowledge valued depends upon it performs a function. In other words, the Strathclyde test of “useful learning” is brought to bear on all sorts of discourses and practices that sit within the academy. But there remains the question – useful to who? Under what circumstances? In what ways? There is a tendency for the test for utility to be framed by normalizing assumptions that reflect the desires of powerful interest groups and patrons, which push the idea of critical reflection – the desire to examine and change the status quo ante – out of the picture altogether.

On the other hand, it is perfectly clear that universities have to make strategic choices about what their priorities should be, in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, recruitment, research etc. And the speed with which ideas/initiatives circulate and complex concepts get packaged up as simplistic slogans like 'engagement', 'employability' and 'excellence' makes time for reflection and debate scarce and precious.

So, a number of variants of utilitarianism and functionalism drive many of the prevailing ideologies/discourses in higher education, and the friction seems to be most acute in places where strong ‘liberal arts’ traditions of philosophical/critical enquiry comes into conflict with a more applied, technologic and deterministic approach to educational outcomes.  This is also paradoxical, because as Stanley Fish points out in a recent New York Times article, the interdisciplinary space that much serious, cutting edge research now occupies represents a radical synthesis of the arts/sciences in which the humanities play a crucial role. There are hundreds of important (trans)disciplines such as cultural geography, bioethics, acoustic ecology, urban planning and so on. And it is these transdisciplinary conversations that are more likely to generate sustainable solutions to some of the intractable problems that face the world.

I am always amazed at the institutional persistence of static, reified, bounded understandings of knowledge construction, which as Nigel Thrift points out in Afterwords,  completely fail to account for the ‘becoming’ and ‘emergent’ state of the world…”the world is a making, it is processual, it is in action, it is ‘all that is present and moving. There is no last word, only infinite becoming and constant reactivation.” Examined from a Foucauldian perspective, institutions exist in order to erect boundaries, to discipline, police and control knowledge and behaviour. But they remain negotiated spaces, particularly in the liquid, slippery, porous spaces of the ‘cloud’.

And there is a powerful countercultural tradition of autonomous protest, dissent, projects, demonstrations and occupations to challenge the hierarchical, static, bureaucratic conception of the world that the university-as-factory metaphor represents. Two well documented examples that I particularly like (but plenty of others could be chosen and represented) are the Hornsey College of Art occupations of 1968 and the Copenhagen Free University (2001 - 2007). Add to this the playful and constructive approach of the 'hacker ethic', the open source movement and (dis)organised, networked sociality and there is a potent mix to push institutions towards a paradigm shift.
The slippery cloud world of porous institutions also generates and constructs new forms of social identity and professional subjectivity. Our main communities of practice don't principally reside within the institutions that we work in - they are broader and wider. The internationalization of the university and the ways in which we can collaborate across time and space (assuming we have time and space…which is often not a given...) offer massive opportunities. But they can also create precarious and unsettling, risky situations in terms of economic survival and integrity. In working across networks of practices – constructing particular kinds of subjectivities in different situations -  students are learning about how to manage their public profile and learning intercultural/dialogical skills, which is particularly important in an informational economy. The growth of blogging academic communities offers the chance of putting work out there for scrutiny and feedback (that is, if anyone’s watching/listening/reading/paying attention….) without necessarily engaging in the formality of a 'peer review' process and high-stakes publication. The blogosphere can also give lazy thinking and provisional/unverified knowledge (and shameless self-promotion, and easy plagiarism) more amplification than perhaps it deserves, but that's another story...

I could go on (and on…), but that’s (more than) enough for now: in another post I’ll write a bit more about emerging tools, platforms, projects, and communities that respond to some of these issues. And I ought to tackle those questions of power, money, markets and hierarchies a bit more thoroughly too. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron (1949 - 2011): The Message

No doubt thousands of column inches will be devoted to describing the 'legacy' of Gil Scott-Heron as a prophet, a pioneer, a genius etc. All true enough, but such words hardly do justice to the significance - and eloquence -  of his work in expressing, embodying, chronicling the struggle of African-Americans and of all those trying to stand up for human rights, social justice and liberty.

Here he is in Central Park, NYC in 2010, where despite the ravages of 61 years of personal and political struggle, his wit and his ability to mock the hypocrisy of the powerful and the contradictions of the "land of the free" in tightly constructed phrases is as strong as ever...In a perceptive profile in the Observer, written to mark the release of his first album in 16 years, Sean O'Hagan writes about the way in which "most astute musical social commentator of the 70s and 80s had metamorphosed into a character from one of his own sad songs of suffering and struggle." But yet he still had much to communicate. 

That voice, those words, and those eyes say more than I ever could in text.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Translation (part one...)

A number of conversations have been converging over the last month or two, partly because I've been working with Diarmuid McAuliffe at UWS' MEd Artist Teacher programme.  My colleague Katarzyna Kosmala and I contributed a short interactive exercise to a symposium on Pedagogy and Play at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art a couple of weekends ago, and I'm writing this back in Chicago where I'll be joining a 'Town Hall' meeting on 'teaching artists' at Columbia College this evening. We'll be conducting a live experiment in synchronised communication with colleagues in Scotland (UWS) and Minneapolis/St Paul (the Perpich Center for Arts Education). 

We had a 'warm-up' conversation for tonight's meeting last Friday, which was fruitful: a few key ideas surfaced, one of which was the role of artist-educators in crossing boundaries, translating between institutional and artistic cultures,  and enabling a more critical kind of pedagogy through arts processes, and the second which was about the roles and responsibilities of leadership in these kind of experimental arts projects.  I've written extensively about these kinds of things before, in The Creative College and also in the Teacher-Artist Partnership resource pack, and there's a blog post from a couple of years ago that summarizes some of the issues here. Giroux's Border Crossings still remains a key text: other more recent works have a tendency to marginalize the cultural politics of this sort of work, although Shakuntala Banaji and Andrew Burn's useful report on Rhetorics of Creativity for the Tory-vandalized Creative Partnerships programme in England foregrounds the cultural politics more than most. 

All of this has been making me reflect on my formative educational experiences in developing this kind of partnership-based critical pedagogy at Newham Sixth Form College - there's a nice video here that reflects some of the energy and dynamism of the place. NewVIc has managed to go further and faster than many other schools and colleges in integrating arts education partnership - but in the context of being a comprehensive intake post-16 institution with specialised arts education programmes. 

Since leaving there, I've been working on these kinds of issues and questions in a whole range of settings. Most recently, my attention has been very focussed on the University of the West of Scotland, where we are rapidly developing a School of Creative and Cultural Industries that embeds partnerships and collaborations at all levels, and coming up against the same problems of translation, explanation, and boundary crossing that educational innovators struggle with in institutions, large and small. Part of the issue has been to begin to build a coherent educational narrative that a diversity of practitioner-academics, with a deep commitment to university-industry partnerships, can sign up to. Another problem has been to secure the resources to enable the partnerships to work. A third has been the complexity of 'managing change' in a  bureaucratic and somewhat opaque institution. Fourthly, there is a need to engage people in more reflective practice, which is very difficult in a pressurized environment where it is a struggle to find the time and space to look after students properly. 

All of this is very much a work-in-progress, and not helped by the geopolitical situation: scarcity and anxiety are everywhere. Working in an institution which, broadly, still sees higher education as a publicly-funded service, we are having to cope with cuts to funding and maintain 'quality' of provision in the face of massive resource pressures. This leads to a kind of retrenchment: people may dig themselves in and fight their corner for resources but there's also a need to maintain a 'big picture' vision of hope and optimism in the face of difficulty. Plus 'entrepreneurialism' is needed to continuously seek out and attract cash to support this kind of work. 

More later, but all this is making me reflect further on the incredible ethical responsibility that leadership under these circumstances demands. Most of our current crop of political 'leaders' have no concept of this: just look at the spectacle of David Cameron hawking British-made weapons round the Middle East even as protestors circle the citadels of the plutocrats. Everywhere you turn,  this is a complex and confusing situation - but anchoring actions in some basic principles of care, of compassion and of critical engagement might be a good start. I'll write some more about this, together with some reflections on urban change, the role of universities,  and the corporate land-grab that seems to be happening as the public sector gets kicked around, in the next post.