A small blogging milestone, or, what is this all for?

This blog hit a small milestone in January: the first time it received more than 1,000 visits in a month. Compared to much more frequent bloggers, institutional group blogs, or bloggers on the platform of a publication with its own audience, that doesn’t account for very much, but for an individual blog that still contains only thirty posts I’m still quite happy with it.

A lot of the hits this month came from a post on feminism and academic language that I wrote during the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill transphobia controversy. I’ve never had a post be shared so widely or for so long as this was, even though the posting time (early evening on a Sunday) broke all the rules I generally go by about the optimum time for posting blogs so that they get read (lunchtime or early afternoon on a weekday, with a follow-up on Twitter to catch evening and transatlantic readers).

This post had 400 readers in its first two days, was shared on some blogs and forums that I’d never heard of as well as by more Twitter followers than any other post of mine, and can still bring in a ‘long tail’ of 10-20 users on one day or another. It almost broke my record for hits in a day, and might have done if I’d posted it earlier. That record (353) still belongs to my post on the Olympic opening ceremony, which I wrote the very next morning and which benefited from lots of internet searches for elements of the ceremony from people trying to work out just what had been going on. The blog had 982 visits in July 2012, a record until last month. More interestingly, something started happening in July that has led to a long-term increase in reader and visitor numbers: before July 2012, I’d only had one month when the blog had had more than 500 hits (May 2012, when I’d written a series of posts on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest), whereas since July 2012 every single month has had 600 hits (all right, 591) or up.

Maybe my Olympics posts in July brought in an audience who hadn’t been reading about cultural politics, languages and the military, or teaching practice, but who stayed around. (I did have a big bounce in Twitter followers and retweets after the opening ceremony post.) Also, though, I think the responses I had to my blogging in July must have started altering my sense of what I could use a blog for. Many of my posts in the rest of 2012 were about aspects of British public memory, national identity and remembrance. I’ve never researched these in the sense of having written academic articles or research proposals about them, but I have a lot of experience writing about the same themes in another society, and blogging has made me feel as if I do have something interesting to say.

(I used the Olympic opening ceremony as the basis for a taster seminar on national identity and public events during an Excellence Hub event that we organised at Hull last year for local sixth-formers who are doing History A level. Afterwards, one of their teachers asked me whether this was something they could do a module on. And, well, I’m working on it…)

In the long term, this may even end up adding to my academic publication strategy, as well as the ways that I engage with people through other forms of communication. In the Research Excellence Framework (the national evaluation of university research in the UK), 20% of a department’s score is based on ‘impact‘, or ways in which research has changed or benefited the economy, society, culture, policy or quality of life, in sectors outside academia. To get credit for ‘impact’, there must be a demonstrable link between the effect achieved and an academic publication. It’s not enough to have talked generally about the Eurovision Song Contest, let’s say; I’d also have to demonstrate that a research article or book of mine on the Eurovision Song Contest had an identifiable, impact-y effect. (In this case, luckily, I have one, but I would still need evidence that somebody referred to it and it then inspired or altered their actions.) So if there are topics I have the potential to be influential on, I ought to make sure – at least for the purposes of this evaluation exercise – that I have a piece of academic research published about them too. I might not have identified some of these possibilities if not for blogging.

The Journal of Victorian Culture‘s online arm recently ran an excellent blog post by Naomi Lloyd-Jones on ‘how to be a #socialmediahistorian’. (I don’t research the Victorian era, but I consistently find JoVC‘s posts engaging, which is a sign they’re doing it well.) I can only agree with her conclusions about why historians and other researchers can find social media platforms so useful:

Being a #twitterstorian is a brilliant springboard for wider work as a #socialmediahistorian. And, in an era when ‘presence’ is about far more than just attendance at conferences, being a #socialmediahistorian is becoming increasingly vital in constructing a well-rounded persona, and visibility, for oneself.


Song of the week: or, ten reasons why popular music helps in teaching nationalism

One course I took over at UCL SSEES this year was the postgraduate nationalism unit, Nations, Identity and Power in Central and Eastern Europe, where students get to grips with theories of nationalism and apply it to case studies from the region.

At some point while revising the syllabus, I realised practically every topic could match up with a pop song from the region, and then starting every lecture with a clip from YouTube was inevitable.

This also illustrates why one of the things I write about is popular music and nationalism.

1. Theories of origins

The classic debate in nationalism studies is between primordialism (nations go back to time immemorial) and modernism (nations only emerged because of industrialisation, or the bureaucratic state, or mass literacy, or many other flavours of the same argument).

So here is a very knowing performance of primordialism.

2. What makes the nation? / Ethnicity

Nationalism research has traditionally liked to typologise: nations have a shared language, a shared history, a myth of common descent, shared symbols, shared values, a national homeland, and so on. (More recent research often talks about processes of identification, inclusion and exclusion rather than typologising; I find this more interesting, but it’s harder to represent.)

Here are surely all the signifiers that one could want.

(Warning: I am told this is a bit of an earworm.)

3. States, peoples and sovereignty in modernity

The territory and state power week. (If it had been a longer course, I’d have liked a week just on territory; political geography is interesting.) Illustrated with a song from the presidential re-election campaign of Vladimir Putin, where it was useful for him to suggest that he exerts more power over more territory than anyone else.

There’s also a documentary on the song by PBS.

4. Imagining and inventing the nation

The Invention of Tradition (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s collection) and Imagined Communities (Benedict Anderson) both came out in 1983 and have been taught together ever since as part of a cultural, social constructivist turn in nationalism studies.

By using this video, I wanted to show how the video was imagining a national Croatian homeland (which, importantly, also contains images of Herzegovina, beyond the borders of the actual Croatian state).

5. Social construction, symbolic boundaries and the everyday

The next turn in nationalism studies has been to explore how nationalism manifests in the everyday, through symbols of nationhood that get routinised into everyday life. Flags, currency, national festivals, television news and even the weather forecast (those things have maps) are all part of this, but one of the most productive ways to research this has been to look at sport.

This, by one of Slovenia’s biggest rock bands, was the Slovenian football association’s official song for the 2010 World Cup. Rock has its own part to play in Slovenian national identity, but that would be another post.

6. Nations in communism and post-communism

Communism and nationalism had an uneasy relationship. Two collective ideologies, each based on a different kind of collective; yet communist rule could also be argued to have strengthened nationalist movements or even created proto-national institutions where none had existed before.

One of the best-known pop songs in socialist Yugoslavia was this song in honour of Tito. Containing many symbols of the Yugoslav state, but is there any trace of a Yugoslav nation?

7. National minorities and the politics of belonging

Another week I’d like to have split into two on a longer course: liberal nationalism, cosmopolitanism and the idea of minority rights is a lot. I delivered this lecture as a podcast, so didn’t add a song, but during the seminars one student suggested this song, Djelem, djelem, which has often been used as the Roma anthem, and works better here than anything I’d been thinking of using before.

8. Gender, sexualities and the nation

This was a difficult week to structure: the theoretical material may be completely new to some students yet very familiar to others, plus there’s region-specific literature on gender and post-socialism to integrate.

Territory, soil, motherhood, unique national symbols, rebirth, common descent, national enemies, food cultures, teleology: this song is a revision guide of its own.

I visited an Armenian restaurant in Montreal last month and was disappointed that nothing on the menu contained apricots.

9. Representation, power and hegemony

This week was one of my two main innovations in the syllabus, and brought in several theorists I felt were essential to understanding nationalism in the contemporary world (Edward Said, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy). Said’s theory of Orientalism has been a jumping-off point for a lot of work on identity construction in south-east European cultural studies, from Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden onwards; Hall’s work on hegemonic representations of the national Other complements or informs the work on symbolic boundaries that we’d been using throughout the course; Gilroy is used far less in researching CEE, but I want to explore whether his version of postcolonial thought could add anything that Said doesn’t.

So, yes. Orientalism, and what Dina Iordanova calls ‘self-orientalising’. Here is some.

10. Citizenship, borders and surveillance

Watch Kali: Shengen

This was my other new topic (at least, it wasn’t on the version of the syllabus I worked from), and the one I most enjoyed putting together: identity, power, the nation, sovereignty, the body, territory and the state all come together in the literature on immigration policy, mobility and border control. It’s also a great way to illustrate post-structuralist theories of power, and ‘region-specifically’ there’s much to explore in the expansion of the EU’s Schengen area and the simultaneous exclusion of non-EU states. (Stef Jansen has an excellent article on this, and is also excellent at open access, happily.)

What I did not enjoy was trying to source this video. The original mix of the song has a slapstick comedy video of stock Bulgarian figures (businessman, country woman, etc.) trying to limbo dance under a Schengen barrier staffed by Laurel-and-Hardy EU guards. I downloaded it from eSnips in case the streaming wouldn’t work in class, only for the downloaded file to decide that it didn’t want to work in class either. YouTube has a remix with no original visuals. Google now kindly throws up a streamable version of the original mix with the video, which is what I was looking for all along.

And now some thanks!

Thanks to Richard Mole and Oliwia Berdak for earlier versions of this syllabus. I moved almost everything around, with large doses of ‘I wish I’d known this when I was a postgraduate’, and of course the syllabi for future students will be different too, but if there’s still a presence of Croatian folk/rock or Albanian rap – yes, that was my fault.

Thanks to all the students on NIP this year. The instant-feedback cards I use in lectures are anonymous, so I don’t know who told me after the first lecture that there had also been a Eurovision song called ‘I Love Belarus’, but there was indeed.

Thanks to Laura Seay/@texasinafrica on Twitter for indirectly giving me a prod to do this.

YouTube ate my research field

Cross-posted from Networked Researcher.

As a researcher who did fieldwork on popular music in 2006 and 2007, I’m coming to this YouTube series as an accidental dinosaur: someone whose published research contains almost no study of YouTube, even though her fieldwork took place at the very time its users were just beginning to codify the new kinds of identity performances YouTube made possible.

YouTube launched in February 2005. By 2006, it was already crammed with music video as well as (its first intended use) original short films. I first became conscious of YouTube in the summer of 2006, when friends began sharing links to music videos with each other through email. After deciding to research popular music as an example of how political rupture, conflict and nationalist ideology affect everyday life, I was starting my first period of fieldwork in Zagreb and could use the apartment’s fast broadband internet connection (an improvement on the connection I had access to at home in the UK) to explore the site as a musical resource.

Did YouTube change my research practices and my field? Not as much as it should have. At the time, I only used it as a searchable repository for exploring commonalities among the popular music of south-east Europe and planning an abortive side project about cover versions.

My next apartment had dial-up internet but satellite TV; I used music television as my main resource for gathering examples of music videos and failed to appreciate that YouTube might be changing not only my methods of data collection but also the field itself.

Unlike Martin Pogačar, the author of a recent post for Networked Researcher on user-generated digital memorials of Yugoslavia, I didn’t manage to theorise the changes that YouTube and digital video sharing might be making in musical memorialisation in Croatia. Maybe this was poor timing on my part. My fieldwork ended in September 2007 (almost concurrently with the end of a heatwave that had affected my health and slowed the last three weeks of research to a crawl). Martin writes that in late 2007, when he first began investigating digital memory, there were still hardly any examples of ‘grassroots’ or ‘vernacular’ memory production on the site compared to the wealth of user-generated montages YouTube contains today.

During my own fieldwork, in other words, users had only just begun to go beyond re-recording the original videos from television and re-broadcasting them across national borders; the memory montage was only just being consolidated as a genre with conventions of form (the types of image and sound that might be joined together) and reception (the supportive or antagonistic comments left by other users who identify themselves in terms of ethnicity, language, sporting affinity and/or politics). Without appreciating this emergent genre myself, I was unable to alter my research design to take account of it: I never asked about video sharing during interviews on music, nor did I even begin to conceive of ways to observe video sharing practices in the field.

Martin studies vernacular digital memorials that engage with memories of Yugoslavia, Tito, anti-fascism and Yugoslav popular music (the soundtrack to almost every montage). Equally, YouTube is a repository for montages that memorialise nationalist narratives using exactly the same techniques. The diasporic ethnic communities whose members show each other stories on YouTube are transformations of the diasporas in Dona Kolar-Panov’s research from the 1990s (£) who mediated their connection to ex-Yugoslav homelands by watching VHS cassettes of music and war news.

In the link below, a creator who identifies themselves as a Croat resident outside Croatia accompanies their own photographs from a touristic return visit with the famous patriotic pop song ‘Moja domovina’ (‘My homeland’), one of the most famous songs to have emerged from the beginning of Croatia’s war of independence in 1991.

While this involves Croatia, YouTube contains similar texts for every nation in the Western Balkans. Other montages (many other montages) incorporate music and/or images referencing nationalist collaborationists from the Second World War or symbols of contemporary far-right significance. I have not yet attempted to gauge what proportion of patriotic videos on YouTube are far-right or extreme nationalist – far less have I attempted, so far, to determine where to draw the boundary.

Could and should YouTube have changed my practices of disseminating research? The ease of sharing music texts with colleagues and students rests largely on continued access to YouTube and the clips themselves. Each lecture of the ten-week nationalism course I teach this semester begins with a ‘song of the week’ straight from YouTube; to achieve the same thing before YouTube would have required access to recording equipment, signals from broadcasters in eight or nine countries, and the luck to be tuned in at the right time.

Since my book on popular music in Croatia, Sounds of the Borderland, was published last year, I’ve often mused about how it would look as a hypertext publication filled with embedded clips. (I’m told at least one reader has read the book at their PC, searching YouTube for song titles as they went.) The future of pop research? But there’s a problem of legacy here. Since 2009 or so, most multinational record companies have settled copyright disputes and launched their own YouTube accounts: a link to their official copy of the video is likely to be permanent.

The managers of some performers in south-east Europe run official accounts for their acts and a few record companies from the region have followed the multinationals’ lead this year. The uploaders of most clips, however, aren’t the copyright owners. When a rights-holder complains, videos or whole accounts risk deactivation: most of the music video channels I subscribed to in 2006 have disappeared. YouTube links in a print text would very quickly be outdated, while checking and replacing broken links in book-length hypertext would be a mammoth editing task.

With Sounds of the Borderland, I compromised and appended a ‘playlist’ with a list of songs readers should search for. Would there be a more elegant solution if I returned to the topic in another book?

Instant student feedback and the power of social media

A post at The Teaching Tom Tom about using Twitter and blogging as professional development tools has reminded me to follow up on my own recent post about how social media has helped me to change my own teaching practice.

One of my priorities this year is to help students get more from my lectures. This means finding strategies to slow the pace and provide space for reflection within the lecture, and finding ways to gauge how students are understanding the material well before the coursework and marking stage.

This post is about the second issue: rapid feedback techniques I have begun using thanks to social media.

The department where I was teaching last year introduced informal mid-semester student feedback as well as the formal end-of-semester student evaluations. As a new teacher, I also had a more experienced colleague visit one of my classes for a teaching observation.

But how can I get student feedback in time for it to have an instant impact, before students have spent weeks feeling lost and not telling anybody? Even halfway through the unit feels like too late, when I know that I could have tried to correct the problems if only I’d known about them.

A blog post by Liz Gloyn, a classicist at Birmingham, caught my attention when she re-promoted it a month or two ago. Liz had been reading Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen D Broomfield and trying to implement some of his tools, including a reflective teaching log. Broomfield also introduces an instant feedback exercise called the Critical Incident Questionnaire, which Liz has been thinking of adopting:

students anonymously fill this out at the end of the last class of each week, noting what they felt most engaged with in class over the past week, what they felt most distanced from, what action they found most affirming, what action they found most puzzling, and what about class surprised them the most. At the start of the next week, the teacher reports back on the responses and the trends they illustrated, and opens discussion about any serious issues that have turned up as group issues.

I’ve done something similiar with this in the past with an activity called the One Minute Paper, where at the end of each class students write on a notecard the clearest and muddiest point covered in class that day. That’s given me some great insight into content issues my students face, but it’s less helpful for identifying other problems with my teaching in the way Brookfield suggests the CIQ could. I’m very tempted to experiment with something along these lines next time I teach, in place of the One Minute Paper, and see what difference it makes.

Both these ideas could solve my speed-of-feedback problem. For my first venture into instant feedback, I’ve decided to borrow the one-minute-paper technique and apply it to the lectures in the two main units  I’m teaching these semester. Both are theoretically focused, making the early weeks essential scaffolding for material later on: a student who is confused at this stage and gets disengaged will find it hard to recover.

At the end of both introductory lectures this week, I’ve handed out note cards and asked students to write bullet points saying what they found the clearest and least clear points in the lecture. At the moment I still have the energy to type them up (which is helpful for my teaching log and may even help when I revise my teaching dossier), open the document where I keep early notes for the next lecture and add thoughts about what I need to go over in a different way.

I can tell, for instance, that students feel my explanation of ontology was particularly successful (and that the most memorable illustration I used was a discussion of wizard and Muggle ontologies in Harry Potter) but that more examples of anti-foundationalist thought would have helped them grasp the difference between anti-foundationalism and foundationalism.

Just by doing this, I hope I also make myself seem responsive approachable, interested in student progress, and prepared to help when students feel confused.

(The Critical Incident Questionnaire strikes me as more useful for seminars: I may give it a try in a different unit next semester where a previous colleague has introduced many different student discussion activities into the module and I’d like some feedback on what works. One step at a time.)

I could have come across all these ideas without social media by studying teaching and learning practice or through mentoring. The power of social media, at least for an informationvore, is that I encounter these ideas in semi-downtime. Opening a Twitter or Google Reader session is a signal that I’m going to spend the next half an hour thinking in a creative and relaxed way, but I don’t know what I will be made to think about.

It could be how a pet cat has made the UK government look silly, what was wrong with the plotting of female characters in the finale of Doctor Who or carrying out political science fieldwork in conflict zones (all blog posts that have stuck in my mind that I’ve read in the last 24 hours). I’m more likely to retain and digest an idea if I feel that I’ve come across it voluntarily, in time I construct as not-work.

I’ve already passed this technique on to a colleague in my department, although I hope she’s prepared for how many packs of notecards she’ll get through. People I don’t know may take up the idea from my post or Liz’s if they find it through Twitter, Facebook, bookmarking or old-fashioned web search. At this early stage, I’d recommend it to anyone. Unless you are a tree.

Tweeting into the self-archive

Relaunching a blog has made me reconsider one of my firmest principles about my social media use, which was not to use my full name on Twitter.

I signed up for Twitter in May or June 2009, but took my surname off the account as soon as I started using it actively in November last year. It’s back there now in large part because later today I’m going to be taking part in a live chat on the Guardian Higher Education website about surviving your first academic post. That uses full names, because we’re real people; and since I belong to a higher education community on Twitter, I’d like to include my Twitter name in the profile, because my tweeting colleagues likely know that name better than the person with my legal name and job title.

Since I usually wall my digital presences off from each other, integrating two fields this way is new and still uncomfortable. I can drive traffic to my blog through Twitter and invite readers to join the social media conversation through my blog, but there are risks.

I don’t have a permanent contract, so even more than permanent or tenured staff I have to face the possibility that I may not spend all my working life as an academic. I have a visible digital profile as a teacher and researcher but not as, let’s say, an administrator, a copy-editor or an applied underwater basket-weaver. When I need to sell myself as someone whose career narrative has led inexorably to becoming an underwater basket-weaver, that profile becomes a liability.

The connections between the various locations of my online persona are visible to everyone, whether or not I had that audience in mind when I created the content. I’m perpetually accountable for thoughts in progress, replies taken out of context, jokes and, of course, mistakes.

In return for accepting these risks, I get to take part in a network that has grown up in an organic sense among academic people who share links, resources and ideas.

Although I logged back into Twitter in November on a slow work day to follow on-the-ground reports from the tuition fees protests in London, the researchers, lecturers, PhD students, professors, skills developers, research administrators and post-academic types I follow on there now have made me think more deeply about teaching practice, career planning and the philosophy of what academics do.

Not foregrounding my own name in my profile had the liberating effect that I didn’t feel I had to view or represent these issues through the lens of my own research interests all the time.

I can use Twitter for starting to figure out what the issues are in post-secondary education in other countries where I might want to work one day; swapping perspectives on communications, management and the effects of public spending cuts with people in other parts of the UK public sector; kicking back and watching television.

Like all communities of practice, Twitter evolves its own conventions and codes. Some of them can practically be expressed in a how-to guide, like the colloquial and conversational tone that experienced Anglophone tweeters seem to expect or the double life of hashtags.

Typing a hashtag (# plus a string of letters) into a tweet means users can search Twitter to discover every recent tweet with that hashtag. Hashtags can crowdsource news (think #tahrir during the uprising in Egypt or #tottenham on the first night of the UK riots); they can gather people who don’t know each other into scheduled weekly chat sessions (here’s the story of the #phdchat community), turning Twitter into a messageboard or forum. Twitter users have also turned the hashtag notation into a convention for denoting a sarcastic aside: if I type the same thing into Facebook or an email, where hashtags don’t work, I’ve transferred it from one community of practice to another, making a tiny contribution to linguistic change.

Other aspects of the Twitterverse are delights you discover as you get to know the platform, like Easter eggs in gaming. The virtual impressionists impersonating a BP public relations team, Death, or the Queen (who proclaims it ‘gin o’clock’ at the end of the British working day); the automatic bots that seize on and retweet any mention of socialism, grumpiness or the Scottish biscuit-maker Tunnocks.

Most academic types on Twitter use their full names and affiliations, and so I’ve joined the crowd. I’m still not sold on the idea, and I wouldn’t have joined if that had been compulsory, the requirement Google has tried to introduce on its own social network, Google Plus.

Last month, when Google Plus started to suspend the profiles of users using pseudonyms or even names an English-speaking monitor hadn’t recognised as real, early adopters set off the ‘nymwars’, where they identified dozens of reasons why a one-real-name policy might be problematic or even dangerous. danah boyd, a tech researcher at Harvard, has read the policy as an expression of social networking corporations’ power and privilege:

What’s most striking is the list of people who are affected by “real names” policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

‘In real life, you get to choose when to use your name, and how much of it to use’, points out Kee Hinckley; online, a search engine has hoovered it up for you already. Having every sphere of your life linked together for a casual acquaintance, or a wrongdoer, to inspect is new.

I have some personal friends who blog on Dreamwidth, where all the commenting sign-ins I could use already belong to services I use for different purposes. Unless they enable anonymous commenting, I can’t compliment or respond to their posts inside their blog space.

Facebook has almost got things right, for my own needs, with its granular privacy controls. On Facebook, once I’ve organised my contacts into lists, I can display content to certain groups and prevent other groups seeing it. I can even block individual people seeing individual posts: if I can’t figure out what to buy my mother for her birthday, I can post a status update to ask my friends’ opinion without spoiling it for Mum.

But all that content has the same name on it. That doesn’t bother me, once I’ve made sure no-one outside my contacts list can find me, but it’s a risk for others; I have more than one Facebook contact who has changed their name but could be in danger if the change was known to all their old Facebook connections and all those people’s friends. I do give thanks I didn’t have access to this sort of technology in adolescence. (Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, once suggested that today’s teenagers would need to change their names before entering the workplace to disassociate themselves from their digital trails.)

We’re depositing perpetual, open-access self-archives of ourselves. Is it worth the risks? Well, for as long as you’re still able to read this post, it must be.