Posts by Roy Hanney

Media Practice Educator and Course leader at Solent University, I have been teaching for close to 20 years having previously worked as a freelance media production technician in Film & TV.

Rethinking project-based learning in a changing higher education landscape: design thinking as a paradigm for media making

I am going to outline some ideas I have been playing with over the last year or so. It is still early stages for my exploration of these ideas and hopefully, at some point in time I will get to do some real research into this area. As outlined in previous blogs, for me, research often starts with the writing of an abstract, presenting at conference and then onto a final paper. So, some of what follows kind of follows the general structure of an abstract (see my previous post on the topic) but is further elaborated in order to capture more of the context for the ideas I am presenting.

One of the things I have noticed over the years is how certain forms of good practice get locked into disciplinary silos. I can give a few good examples such as: the use of live projects was common in fashion as a subject discipline as long ago as the early 80’s yet it wasn’t really adopted into media practice education until the early 00’s; blogging has long been a tool that photography as a subject discipline has utilised, yet it is only now crossing over to other creative practice disciplines. Eventually these ideas do break out of their silos and other subject disciplines often benefit from that conceptual diaspora. In my own work as a researcher I have tried to undertake a similar process by drawing on ideas about projects from organisation studies and other areas in order to better inform what I do as a media practice teach.

Design Thinking, as a pedagogical paradigm appears to be undergoing a similar process of de-siloisation. Design Thinking is an approach to the development of skills in creativity and innovation that is well established in the fields of design and architecture. It has similarities with other pedagogic approaches such as problem-based learning (PbBL) in that some of the core features of Design Thinking include the posing of ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems, solution-focused strategies, abductive reasoning, and practical prototyping of solutions. In the primary and secondary educational sectors (especially in the USA) Design Thinking has been used to promote creativity, team working and autonomous learning. There is clearly a synergy here with the objectives of media practice education. The approach also offers some possible solutions to common challenges when developing student projects at the ‘ideation stage’, one of which is functional fixedness, a psychological terms which refers to the tendency to reference the familiar rather than innovate and create (see my paper on the subject for more on this).

In the design field, the use of Design Thinking is an essential part of the process of developing and delivering projects. This is synonymous with the use of projects in media practice education. The deployment of projects as a means of structuring learning in media practice education is also long-established and aims to achieve similar goals, even though it is often overly focused on assessable outputs rather than the learning experience. Such that projects become mere administrative containers for structuring activity and their use lacks a firm pedagogic foundation. As an approach which places creativity, innovation and critical thinking at its heart, Design Thinking offers a potential way into thinking through the experience of project working for media practice students that enhances learning and places process at the heart of its pedagogic discourse.

Design Thinking, from what I already know (and this may be limited), is a means for developing divergent thinking skills and encouraging innovation and creativity. Standing in contrast with that of convergent thinking with its tendency towards evaluation of existing solutions to arrive at an option for the result of a project or inquiry. Divergent thinking celebrates complexity, curiosity, elaboration, flexibility, fluency, imagination, originality and risk taking. The term “divergent thinking” refers to that strategy of solving problems characterized by the proposal of a multiplicity of possible solutions in an attempt to determine the one that works. Divergence is typically signified by the capacity to produce many, or a greater number of complicated or complex ideas from simple triggers. Divergent personality characteristics include – curiosity, nonconformity, persistence and readiness to take risks. Whereas, the term “convergent thinking” refers to that strategy of solving problems characterised by the bringing together different ideas from different participants or fields to determine a single best solution. Convergence is typically signified by the capacity to identify through logic the best readily available solution to a problem. Convergent personality characteristics include – sees things in terms of black & white, seeks out the familiar, conforms to normative values, adheres to certainty.

Convergent and divergent thinking are both thinking strategies are used to determine solutions to problems. It is understood that problems are solved through a blend of convergent and divergent thinking. Divergent thinking brings out the best outcomes when it is used for open-ended problems that enable creativity. The focus of divergent thinking is on ideas (creative solutions). Whereas, convergent thinking is ideally suited to determining an answer by way of evaluation of available stored information. The focus of convergent thinking is process (correct solutions). As I have said above, Design Thinking appears to focus on the development of divergent thinking as a skill set and not only that, it values process as much as the end result or output of a project. Two of the key issues I have previously identified within media practice and project-based learning: the need to scaffold the ideation phase of projects, and need to find away to refocus away from end point connoisseur assessment towards a form that values process and sees practice as a form of critical thinking.

So, that is the theoretical framework as it stands. I am working well outside of my comfort zone in subject disciplines for which I have no training and in which I am not fully conversant. I do feel like I may be reinventing the wheel and wonder if I am making some fundamental mistakes in trying to draw on this kind of interdisciplinary material. I often see this myself at conferences, academics new to a topic to which I am familiar, evangelising and claiming new insights. Fair enough, it may be new to them and it is good to see them making new discoveries for themselves. However, I am reminded of an incident at a conference which was attended by a ex-tutor of mine from my undergraduate days. A media sociologist, and highly notable expert on audiences he had come along to this conference on mission to explore the world of anthropology and anthropologists. I sat beside him during a presentation on media audience by another academic, also of some standing, who quoted extensively from the work of my ex-tutor. At the conclusion of the presentation my ex-tutor exclaimed to me “I wonder which Ladybird book he has been reading”.

I do wonder if I have been reading too many Ladybird books!

Arriving at purposeful action: changing attitudes to course blogging as a pedagogic tool

I have been engaged on a fairly long-term project inspired by the use of course blogs I have seen in other disciplines. It is ongoing and I can’t say I have solved all of the problems that we have encountered along the way. The recent shift to online course delivery as a consequence of a worldwide pandemic has started me thinking again about how to better embed the use of course blogs into a media practice course. The biggest challenge is of course buy-in, from staff and students, but alongside that are lots of issues to do with contact time, models of summative assessment, misconceptions about the nature of media practice and above all student’s resistance to reading and writing. What follows is a sort of summary of a paper that has already been published which was originally written as a proposal for a book chapter. I don’t like to waste good writing (well it may not be that good) so I have posted it here. I use the blog as a writing sketch book so you can think of this as a sketch for a paper that was at that point still being written.

The paper, now published can be found here if it is of interest:

Hanney, R. & Skirkeviciutey, G. (2019), ‘Reflection, identity, community: Affordances of blogging for social interaction and reflective dialogue’, Education and Information Technologies, 1-17.


The adoption of blogging as a pedagogic tool in Higher Education is widely explored in the learning and teaching literature (cf. Sim and Hew 2010) and is commonly thought to provide a range of benefits such as promoting the attainment of skills in researching, academic writing, critical reflection and professional identity formation. Notwithstanding some of the difficulties faced by educators wishing to employ blogging in an educational context (cf. Robertson 2011). There is a clear sense of an opportunity for learners to engage with acts of personal and critical reflection, identity building and community membership through the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as course blogs. This blog post explores some of these ideas through research undertaken into the implementation of course blogging on an undergraduate media production programme at an English university.


The use of course blogs is valued as an example of ‘purposeful action’ (cf. Arendt 1998) that offers the potential for a transformative pedagogy. One that manifests as the students’ performance of a professional self in a public sphere. The research evaluates the effectiveness of the implementation through the framework of educational affordances (cf. Gaver 1991, Gibson 1979) in order to identify the social dimensions of the pedagogic environment and consider how action within this milieu might foster or inhibit engagement with course blogging. The research employs a qualitative approach drawing on the concept of ‘dwelling’ as a focus group methodology. The resulting data includes post-it notes, posters, ethnographic notes and transcriptions of recordings. Including data from students as well as a group of tutors tasked with implementing the use of course blogs. The production of two data sets, one from staff and one from the students allows for a comparison that aims to identify disconnectedness between the staff conception of blogging and that of the students. Thereby offering the possibility for determining the particular set of educational affordances required to achieve the aims of the project. Interim findings suggest that in the early stages of the implementation one of the biggest challenges to the use of course blogs are one of change management in relation to leadership of academic teams. While among students the core theme is around ownership and motivation.


The research evidenced a disjunction between the aims of the implementation and its effectiveness. In particular it illustrated the need for a much clearer change management approach to support the implementation of any pedagogic innovation. The central issue of concern was not one of technological or functional affordances of blogging technologies. Although in one or two instances digital literacy of staff was identified as an obstacle to the implementation. Instead the discussion centred around a need for the development of a community of practice that included staff and students. With the aim of making apparent the social affordances that would enable a wholehearted engagement with the practice of blogging as a dialogic activity, undertaken by a community of practioners. An important factor in any socialisation process is the need for modelling of practice and the research identified that this was one of the key barriers to the implementation of course blogging. Lacking a process of socialisation, the aim of encouraging students to take ‘purposeful action’ (cf. Arendt 1998) flounders at the first hurdle. Taking on board this finding the course team initiated a number of changes to the ongoing course blog implementation. Changes that are designed to enhance and develop a community of practice approach.


Through the dissemination of the experience of researching and evaluating the implementation of a pedagogic innovation. It is hoped to share not only the vision for the use of blogging as an educational tool. But also, to communicate a reflection on change management and educational leadership at a course team level. The discussion evidences a need for a consideration of the social above and beyond that of the techno-functionality of educational technology. It also lays the groundwork for an exploration of a communities of practice model for change management. One that places collaborative approaches to teacher-student engagement at its heart.


Arendt, H. (1998). The human condition (2nd ed.). Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. CHI ’91: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 79-84.

Gaver, W. W. (1996). The social is material for design. Ecological Psychology, 8(2), 111–129.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston; London: Houghton Mifflin.

Robertson, J. (2011). The educational affordances of blogs for self-directed learning. Computers and Education.

Sim, J. W. S., & Hew, K. F. (2010). The use of weblogs in higher education settings: A review of empirical research.

Taking a step into the abyss: reading The Fool’s quest as learner’s journey

I recently read an article by a co-author of one of my first papers. Actually, she was more than a co-author; an inspiration and a mentor would be a more accurate description. The paper, just out at the time of writing is a sort of retrospective on the scholarship of Problem-based Learning (PBL) that brings the topic up to date with some new challenges for the 21st C. What caught my eye was the section in which Professor Savin-Baden (2020) portrays the facilitator of a PBL classroom as a clown, court jester or fool. Suggesting that in some senses The Fool is also a wiseman (Savin-Baden 2020, 7) who through humour (satire) provides a critical commentary upon the world.

This triggered my interest as I have recently been involved with a transmedia storytelling project that drew heavily on the symbology of the Tarot as a central element of the story. Of course, most people will be familiar with the Tarot and one of the key characters in the cards of the Major Arcana, that of The Fool. Usually read as a tale of an innocent embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the archetype seems more akin to the role of learner than teacher; though, for sure, the roles are interchangeable. Taking this as a starting point I took a dive into the writings of Inna Semetsky an edusemiotitian and Deleuzian scholar who has been on my reading list for some time. Semetsky has written widely about the Tarot and its value as an educational analogy and it seemed as though the time was right to tackle what is honestly speaking, extremely theoretically dense material.

What follows is an attempt to make sense of this material and to wrap my head around the jargon. It may make sense; it probably makes some grave terminological errors but if you are not willing to fail then you will never learn anything. Which is kind of the point made below.

Making Sense of Edusemiotics (a first attempt)

For Semetsky, The Fool is on a journey to ‘become something other, something more than it is now’ starting at the point of ‘what might be’ and becoming-other through an encounter(s) with ‘what is’ to arrive at ‘what would be’ (1999, 59). She explains that from nothing, or zero, a sort of pre-conscious, pre-firstness, The Fool wanders through series of encounters, entering into a world of choices within which dwell the ‘seeds of all future possibilities’ (Semetsky 1999, 60). A process of creative becoming unfolds as each encounter initiates a ‘transformation into other signs’ (Semetsky 1999, 60), each transformation a rebirth and a reconfiguring of possibilities. Or, to put it another way, each transformation produces a new subjectivity leading towards individuation, in which the subject comes into fruition (a continual and ongoing process).


This is not portrayed as a linear, cyclic process, as often imagined by those who hold up the Tarot as an example of a mythic journey. It is shown to be multi-dimensional with each encounter a point in space from which any other point can be reached. When the cards are laid out on a table, a multiplicity of relations is set before the fool who can pass through each point in any combination of possible relations. The fool proceeds rhizomatically, following the logic of abductive reasoning (or muddling through cf. Hanney 2016), each encounter with an archetype from the Major and Minor Arcana, a potential life lesson. Semetsky wants us to see each card in the Arcana as representative of the “propositional attitudes […] which […] encompass such common semantic categories as beliefs, fears, desires, and hopes” (Semetsky 2004, 6), each encounter a problem to be solved and a lesson to be learned. She describes this as model for experiential learning and, following Deleuze (1988), suggests that: experience is constituted through relations of subjectivity that emerge when we are impelled to ‘think’ by encounters that are meaningful in the affective domain of the psyche. New concepts, ideas and frameworks are formulated in order to make sense of encounters with things in the world, our experiences. If theory is a model of the world, then the process of becoming-other requires a continual reconstituting of that model as consequence of each encounter.

It is worth taking a moment to think through how the becoming model of learning is presented in this material as different from a being model of learning. Perhaps the easiest way to represent the position Semetsky takes is to think of being as employing the logic of the verb ‘to be’ (is); this gives primacy to ‘objects, things, states, events’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54), and proposes a world of static, discrete and concrete entities. Whereas, according to Semetsky, abductive logic proceeds by use of the operator ‘and’ with its emphasis on dynamic ‘processes, [active] verbs, activity, the construction of entities, and the role of language, meaning, and interpretation’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54). Each encounter adds to The Fool’s individuation through this process of becoming-other. Each new subjectivity adds to the previous subjectivity and within each transformation exists the earlier transformations (think Dr Who here) as the relations of subjectivity extend rhizomatically: “process is the basis for the production of subjectivity” (Semetsky 2004, 3).

For Semetsky, individuation as a process of subject formation comes about through the lessons learnt along a journey into the symbolic world (2004, 7). In this reading the subject is an assemblage of signs, that are in relationship with one another because of the encounter with other signs. Semetsky wants us to think of the subject as a constantly transforming assemblage (subject), which is always becoming-other (than itself). A kind of cartography in which the subject maps, or overlays a model of the world, onto a plane of immanence, folding into themselves each new subjectivity. As each new identity is brought into consciousness the subject internalises that which exists outside. Deleuze summarises; “I do not encounter myself on the outside, I find the other in me” (Deleuze 1988, 98).

Phew… that is hard work!

In the classic Rider Waite image of The Fool, the character is at the edge of a precipice, the abyss. That is where I feel I am now, at the edge of an abyss, staring down the rabbit hole. What I will find is going to be messy, uncertain, it is going to involve risk and failure. But it feels as though it is worth the ride.


  1. For a detailed account of the steps the fool takes on their journey and the archetypal characteristics of each of the sign systems embodied by the cards of the Major Acarna see Semetsky (2004, 8-10).
  2. The featured image is adapted from Semetsky who adapted it from Barrow (2000).
  3. Inline image of the 22 x Major Arcana tarot cards illustrated by


Barrow, John D. (2000). The Book of Nothing. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleuze, G. (1988), Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press.

Savin-baden, M. (2020). What Are Problem-Based Pedagogies?, Journal of Problem Based Learning [Epub ahead of print], pp 1–8.

Hanney, R. (2016), ‘Taking a stance: resistance, faking and Muddling Through’, Journal of Media Practice 17: 1, pp.4-20.

Linehan, Carol, and Donncha Kavanagh. 2006. “From project ontologies to communities of virtue.” In Making projects critical, edited by Damian E. Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, 51-67. Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Semetsky, I. (1999). The Adventures of a Postmodern Fool, or the Semiotics of Learning, 477–495.

Semetsky, I., & Ph, D. (2004). The Phenomenology of Tarot , or : The Further Adventures of a Postmodern Fool Deleuze and Guattari ’ s transcendental empiricism and a-signifying semiotics. Self, 1–14.

Models of management or models of practice – do we need to think again about project-based learning in higher education

I am interested to find out more about how other people use projects on their courses. I also want to find out if people are doing ‘projects’, or if you are doing ‘project-based learning’?

It’s a subject that has fascinated me for some time, actually quite a long time, and has recently led a PhD so I have gone into it a lot. Mostly though, my research was confined to libraries and observations of my own students. Sort of real-world learning, but sadly I never managed to get the opportunity to ask other people what they are doing and so I would like to take that opportunity now.

(Video Clip: Livestream on real world learning featuring among others my own point of view.)

My interest first came about after I transited from the world of professional filmmaking into higher education and I found everyone doing projects. It seemed like an odd word to use in a film school where surely the students would all be doing production work. In fact, the two words appeared to be interchangeable in that context. I also noticed that students were generally pretty poor at doing projects which more often than not ended in disaster (It was a long time ago and I am exaggerating a little here).

Importantly though, what I observed was; that nobody was teaching students how to do projects. Yes, they were being taught the craft skills, they were being supported through the technical and creative processes that go into making a film. But there were no lessons in how to do a project. That started me on a road of discovery that is almost 20 years in its making and is still ongoing.

The big question being: what is a project?

What follows is an outline of the theoretical model I have proposed in my recently submitted PhD which is further elaborated on in a forthcoming book chapter on real world learning. Using case studies drawn from examples of project-based learning on a media practice course at UK HEI aims to illustrate how such a reconceptualization of projects might aid educators in making projects real in an HE context.

The Conceptual Framework

A reconceptualization of projects away from projects as a model of management towards projects as a model of practice offers an opportunity to see project-based learning as a social practice. Given the desirability of the use of live projects as a means of drawing real world learning into the curriculum, this approach offers a new perspective that begins to address a number of problems with project working within a higher education context. For example, a community of practice requires novices learn more than just technical competences and entry level practical skills. They are socialised into a community of practice through the experience of socially situated signifying practices. Thereby exposing them not only to what can be seen to be done but also to what that which is hidden. Such as tacit understanding, transmission of meaning, contextualisation of tools and techniques, all of which renders the experience meaningful. A shift from executability to learnability of projects, foregrounds the ontological characteristics of a becoming mode of project working. One that offers opportunities for exploring the ways in which educators can transition communities of learners into communities of practice and thereby lead to a process of socialisation into real world working.

The challenge for media practice educators

Students involved in projects within HE are not part of a community of practice, closeted as they are, away from the workplace in the cloistered world of a community of learners practicing, so who do they learn from? How do we as educators build into the learning process the kind of experience that enables students, as novice practitioners, to develop the kind of tacit sensibilities found among expert practitioners?

The solution is? (that’s a question by the way)

Rethinking project-based learning as a pedagogy for practice-based learning rather than as an administrative framework for organising busy work. Opens up the possibility for rethinking how project work within an HE context might be reformulated in such a way as to place the social practice of projects before the management of projects. That emphasises learnability over executability and becoming over being.

In conclusion

The short answer to the question ‘what is a project’ is that there are people who see projects as a model of management, an administrative structure that contains activity and directs this towards some kind of an output, most likely a product, artefact or service. Then there are those who see projects as a model for practice, who see a project as a socially constructed space in which actors engage in a primarily social encounter with problems.

Actually, I think the two models are not mutually incompatible and can coexist. The advent of flexible, adaptive, risk driven project management methodologies such as AGILE offer up a space where the both social and learning are a key pillar of its approach. That said, I am still unsure if I really understand the nature of projects and I have real doubts about what project-based learning really is. So, I throw out this provocation to anyone who may be interested:

  • Do you do projects?
  • Or Do you do project-based learning?
  • Are projects models of management or models of practice?
  • Are you using AGILE in some way as a pedagogic tool?

I would love to know.

Further Reading

Bredillet, C. (2010). Blowing Hot and Cold on Project Management. Project Management Journal, 41(3), 4-20.

Gauthier, J.-B., & Ika, L. A. (2012). Foundations of Project Management Research: An Explicit and Six-Facet Ontological Framework. Project Management Journal, 43(5), 5-23.

Hodgson, D. E., & Cicmil, S. (2006). Are Projects real? The PMBOK and the legitimisation of project management knowledge. In D. E. Hodgson & S. Cicmil (Eds.), Making project critical (pp. 29-50). Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, B. (2013). What is a project? Towards a new ontology for projects and project management. Paper presented at the Critical Management Studies Conference, University of Bristol.

What’s the worst that can happen: narratives around creativity and risk

Creativity & Risk Symposium: practices of learning to leap into the unknown at University of South Wales 6/9/19.

I recently enjoyed a day in Cardiff at the Creativity and Risk symposium convened by Inga Burrows and funded by the MeCSSA Practice Network. There were lots of great presentations around the subject of creativity and risk from both industry and academia. The contrasting of the two positions was an interesting strategy offering two perspectives that are not always in alignment. I thought at first that the conflict between these two positions might reveal something about creativity and it did, a little. But not as much as I had expected. 

Actually the most startling epiphany for me came early on in the day when film producer John Giwa-Amu (Red and Black Films) gave his presentation Never Tell Me the Odds. It was a starling revelation which I will try and relate to you since I feel it is of some significance. For me the difference between his presentation and those of the two preceding speakers, Pauline Burt (Ffilm Cymru) and Martin Ingram (Wales&co) both from industry. Was a linguistic one, though a difference that also implies for me a philosophical position. 

Now, I would say that both spoke eloquently and their presentations were really instructive, they just came at the topic from differing positions. Industry it seems, is conservative. Yes it values talent but it frames its development of this talent in phrases such as: mitigating risk, de-risking, risk management. Pauline Burt described her approach to talent development at Ffilm Cymru as all about positioning for success. For her the risk of working with creative talent is mitigated through the development of a distinctive (but not too distinctive she stressed) voice – or as she put it by “being the same but different”. Which on reflectionary doesn’t seem that risky at all. In fact, while I am sure Ffilm Cymru do take risks their narrative seems to be around the managing of a problem.

Of course it would be. They operate in a market place that is risk adverse and they need to deliver successful (i.e. money making products) to their investors. That is the bottom line. Creatives are edgy, chaotic, wild and unpredictable. They need to be harnessed, tamed and de-risked. 

The second session saw Martin Ingram who also works in the commercial sector in conversation with Tom Ware. Right upfront he acknowledged that creativity and risk are both sides of the same coin and that you cant have one without the other. He also talked about how risk adversity results in bureaucratic policies and procedures which can shut down possibilities for creative expression. A theme that other presenters also touched upon, most notably Rea Dennis (Deakin University) who explored for us the ways in which risk management discourses impact on innovation and creativity in higher education contexts. 

To give Martin his dues he also talked about how his only regret of his time as a commissioner at the BBC is that he didn’t take more risks. Nevertheless, the language he used to talk about risk in the context of the creative sector was also couched in the same old phrasing: risk management, mitigation, and control. It was interesting listening to him speak on risk because at times it sounded a little like he was conflicted. Or perhaps he didn’t have the framework for expressing what was on the tip of his tongue. This is unsurprising since the dominating discourse around risk in industry and in academia is one of controlling chaos. Just think of the title of the government approved PRINCE2 which stands for ‘projects in a controlled environment’. You don’t need to be an expert in semantics to read between the lines there.

It seemed to me we were exploring a discourse that takes a philosophical position that risk is a negative, it is fundamentally perilous. A discourse for which the avoidance of jeopardy is the main concern. Where, in order to address the problematic nature of creativity, processes of management are required that can safely shepherd those who identify as creatives into the commercial sphere. In a more extreme sense, it feels as though this is a discourse of sanitisation as though creativity needs to be cleansed and made palatable to investors. Perhaps it does need that, certainly there is a position from which this all makes sense. 

Towards the end of his conversation with Tom Ware, Martin said that risk management is all about asking the question “what if”. But what if that question is always framed in terms of jeopardy? Isn’t that going to shape and constrain our creative expression within models of management that filter and cleanse. Is that the kind of approach to risk we want to be teaching to our students?

The epiphany came when John Giwa-Amu gave his presentation. I was particularly stricken by the difference in the use of linguistic phrasing when discussing risk. Now John is clearly a person with a lot of positivity so that may have coloured some of his speech but for me there was more going on. Among other things, he has a background as a professional gambler and as he told his story this different position started to emerge. For example, he told us how he started gambling in slot machine arcades where he learnt to game the slot machines. Everything he and his friends did was orientated towards getting a payout. Their “risk analysis” (his words) was all about getting a result by maximising opportunity, not by mitigating jeopardy. This for me was an important insight and opened up a way of thinking about risk within an entirely new philosophical framework.

As the presentation went on John made some further comparisons, this time between playing professional poker and film producing. There is no real mystery to playing poker he told us, its a slow process of incrementally small decisions. What are the odds, how can you weight the odds in your favour, what’s the position on the table, not being too ahead or behind the curve. Poker players, we were told, are making situational judgements, evaluating a complex of interacting moments, factors and variables to make a call. He also talked a little about the role of feelings. For him this is an excitement about a creative idea, an impulse. Knowing this is the right way to go. While feeling is clearly important, the discussion turned around how this tacit knowledge is built up over time, it is gained experientially.

He concluded with the suggestion that we forget about risk altogether though I think what he meant was, lets forget about the obsession with jeopardy and refocus our attention on the opportunity. Perhaps this is something entrepreneurs do that enables them to navigate risk in a way that (ideally) and balances jeopardy and opportunity. That is perhaps food for thought and certainly worthy of further research.

The idea of failure as a positive experience which gives entry into a pedagogic space was also threaded through the days discussions. Though there was some dissent over how it should be framed and whether or not it needed to be given a more positive spin. For Paul Senter (Professional Poker Player), fear of failure can make you cautious as a poker player and can result in you playing poorly. John Giwa-Amu echoed this sentiment saying the same is true of what he does as a film producer. So perhaps we should take a note of Sarah Carter’s (University of South Wales) thoughtful discussion on courage and creativity and ask “what’s the worse that could happen” or in other words “feel the fear and do it anyway”. 


A big thank you to everyone involved with organising the event and to all of the presenters. My apologies for not including everyone in the post it would have just become too long. It was an inspirational day and I look forward to more of this from MeCSSA Practice Section in the future.

Rethinking project-based learning in a changing higher education landscape: design thinking as a paradigm for media making – Part I

I am going to take the opportunity to elaborate on an abstract I have just had accepted for a workshop at the annual Active Learning Network symposium on 11th June at Sussex University. The aim of the workshop is to engage in a rapid prototyping experiment and to evaluate the use of Design Thinking as a paradigm for exploring the ideation phase of the project-based learning lifecycle. My intention here is to explore the concepts I am to deploy and to start to think about how and what kind of data I might capture as part of the workshop process.

Design Thinking is an approach to the development of skills in creativity and innovation that is well established in the fields of design and architecture. It has similarities with other pedagogic approaches such as problem-based learning (PbBL) in that some of the core features of Design Thinking include the posing of ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems, solution-focused strategies, abductive reasoning, and practical prototyping of solutions. In the primary and secondary educational sectors (especially in the USA) Design Thinking has been used to promote creativity, team working and autonomous learning.

The deployment of projects as a means of structuring learning in media practice education is a long-established practice and aims to achieve similar goals, even though it is often overly focused on assessable outputs rather than the learning experience. Such that projects become mere administrative containers for structuring activity and their use lacks a firm pedagogic foundation. As an approach which places creativity, innovation and critical thinking at its heart, Design Thinking offers a potential way into thinking through the experience of project working for media practice students that enhances learning and places process at the heart of its pedagogic discourse.

Design Thinking is a methodology for exploring the ways in which cognitive, strategic and practical processes are deployed in support of concept development by individuals and teams. The notion of Design Thinking is well established in fields where experts conceive of themselves as designers (e.g. architecture, product design, graphic design, etc…) and has also been widely employed within business contexts as a means of innovating in products and services. There are a number of core features to the Design Thinking approach which can largely be codified as (cf. Cross 2011, Cross 1990):

  • resolve ill-defined or ‘wicked’ problems
  • adopt solution-focused strategies
  • use abductive/productive reasoning
  • employ non-verbal, graphic/spatial modelling media

Problem framing, solution-focused strategies and abductive reasoning

A key element is the analysis or problem framing element of the ideation process. In my experience, this is an aspect of unpacking a brief that needs a great deal of attention. Initial responses are often limited to the familiar whereas deeper analysis, evaluation and synthesis results in the potential for more innovative, creative solutions. Problem framing involves re-interpretation, restructuring and re-thinking the context for the problem in order to arrive at a conclusion. This is an inquiry oriented approach similar to that employed in Problem-based Learning (cf. Hanney 2013) and might address some of the issues raised in previous work on problem solving among student teams. This research concluded that students can find themselves constrained by a cognitive bias referred to by psychologists as ‘functional fixedness’ (cf. Hanney 2018). This bias is observed when people are challenged with a problem to solve. 

What is commonly observed is the generation of solutions based on the traditional uses of objects, reference to the familiar, selection of predictable outcomes which operate within preconceived constraints. The hope is that through the teaching of an overtly analytical approach to problem framing, as an element of a Design Thinking approach. It might be possible to overcome this cognitive bias resulting in enhanced possibilities for creative problem solving and innovation.

Design Thinking adopts a particular strategy for getting at problem solutions stands in contrast to what might be thought of as an analytical or scientific method. The main difference being that solution-focused strategies are not so much concerned with the underlying principles but with rapid generation of acceptable solutions. The contrast presented in the research (cf. Lawson 1979) is between that of a problem-focused and solution focused strategies. A problem-focused strategy is characterised by an approach that focuses on analysis at a level of granularity that would enable the discovery of underlying principles, concepts and structure of the problem. Whereas, a solution-focused strategy is concerned with the rapid generation of a succession of problem solutions which are then benchmarked against a set of criteria for success. It might be expected that a solution-focused strategy would tend to include more structural errors which might impact in unpredictable ways. However, the agility of the solution-focused approach results in fewer planning errors. While its iterative methodology means it can quickly deal with any structural errors as they arise.

In this way Design Thinking employs abductive reasoning (cf. March 1984, Kolko 2010) to infer the most likely, most suitable or most acceptable form of problem solution. It doesn’t aim towards scientific or empirical verifiability. Instead it adopts a criterion referenced form evaluation that equates to the simple of principle of ‘is it good enough’. Which in itself is a form of agile quality evaluation. It takes the position that if it works it is good enough and there is no need to be able to identify the structural principles that underpin the solution. In the creative field, there is a sense that if it works it works and there is no need to go further (we should perhaps leave that to the theorists and academicians). After all we are unlikely to be building a bridge so structural integrity or safety is not an issue. The evaluation of quality in creative work is essentially subjective even though there may be clear and evident benchmarks against which to evaluate success. For example, a prize-winning film might offer a standard against which to work. A must-see drama on a streaming service could offer insight into what works for audiences.

In this way, the use of abductive reasoning allows the creative process to move quickly towards a ‘most likely’ or ‘best possible’ solution. In a technical sense abduction sets up a hypothesis to account for some concepts and/or structural elements. Whereas the problem-focused approach seeks facts to prove the hypotheses and is therefore an inductive form of reasoning. In more simple terms, abductive reasoning is all about guessing (Peirce 1901) and poses a hypothesis for the purpose of testing. The point made strongly by Peirce (1910) being that our guesses more often than not, more successful than luck at deriving truth.

The process is essentially iterative in that as solutions are proposed these may shed further light on the problem. New ideas may lead to deeper understanding which may then generate more and better solutions. So, the Design Thinking process sits well in an Agile Project Management context and is well suited to experimental, creative and complex projects. As opposed to a Waterfall Project Management methodology that will necessarily require analysis of problem structure in order to predict and plan for a single solution that the project can work towards. A solution that may not, by the end of the project, meet the requirements for the solution of the project. After all, until you start to generate solutions how will you know what you need to do?


As part of this process the use of representations, rapid prototyping and the modelling of solutions is of great importance. The approach requires the presentation of ‘tentative concepts’ (cf. Cross 1982, Cross 1999, Suwa et al 2000) at an early stage so that they can be tested and their features or properties explored. This might be a well developed subject in product design for example. But how might you prototype something like a fiction film or documentary?

In one sense a script is already a form of prototype (originated by the early film studios as a means of managing the ambitions of directors). So is a pitching document that takes the common form of: a log line synopsis and outline. The problem here is that these are generally text based and are already formal documents. While they are also commonly edited as part of the development process there isn’t a sense that they offer a possibility for rapid prototyping at an extremely early stage of the process. Other forms of prototyping might include, animatics, storyboards, verbal pitches, sizzle reels and so on. But these also suffer from the same problem in that they are not quick to produce and often involve a complex production process themselves. So for the purposes set out below, I believe I will keep it simple and suggest the best and most simple way of prototyping a film is a poster.

So what happens next?

The aim is to run a workshop at the Active Learning Network symposium which will model the Design Thinking approach through the undertaking of a rapid-participatory-action-research activity. The aim of the activity is to not only model the Design Thinking approach for the purposes of knowledge transfer, but to evaluate the possible challenges faced in translocating this approach to a different field of practice. In this case that of media practice education as expressed through the framework of project-based learning (PjBL).

The workshop will set a ‘wicked problem’ for the workshop participants in the form of a typical creative brief delivered to media practice students, in this case one recently used to trigger a L5 unit at Solent University. The workshop will step through the five phases of the Design Thinking process in order to illustrate the core principles of the approach while adapting it, through practice, to a new field of creative activity. Further creative constraints for the activity will confine the problem-solving approach to tools and techniques commonly found within the field of media practice. At the conclusion of the practical activity there will be a rapid appraisal of the experience which will be captured for later analysis.

It is hoped that the outcomes of the workshop will not only provide an introduction to the Design Thinking approach but will also shine a light on any challenges that may be faced for educators wishing to transpose the approach to their own subject disciplines. The data from the workshop will be collated, analysed and evaluated leading to a rapid review (blog post) and later, the writing of a full journal article is intended.


Free: A Crash Course in Design Thinking from Stanford’s Design School

Part II will follow shortly after July 11th 2019…


Cross, N. (1982), Designerly Ways of Knowing, Design Studies 3.4, pp. 221–27.

Cross, N. (1990), The Nature and Nurture of Design Ability, Design Studies, 11, pp. 127–140.Cross, N. (1999), Natural Intelligence in Design, Design Studies, 20, 25-39.

Cross, N. (2011), Design thinking: understanding how designers think and work. Berg. 

Hanney, R. (2013), Towards a situated media practice: Reflections on the implementation of project-led problem-based learning, Journal of Media Practice, 14: 1, pp.43-59.

Hanney, R. (2018), Problem topology: using cartography to explore problem solving in student-led group projects, International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 41:4, pp. 411-432.

Kolko, J. (2010), Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: Drivers of Design Synthesis, Design Issues, 26, pp. 15–28.

Lawson, B. (1979), Cognitive Strategies in Architectural Design, Ergonomics, 22, pp. 59–68.

March, L.J. (1984), The Logic of Design in the Architecture of Form, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Peirce, C. S. (1901), On the Logic of drawing History from Ancient Documents especially from Testimonies, Collected Papers v. 7, paragraph 219.

Suwa, M., Gero, J. and Purcell, T. (2000), Unexpected discoveries and S-invention of design requirements: Important vehicles for a design process, Design Studies, 21, pp. 539-567.

From elf shelf to abstract in several convoluted stages

The aim of this post is to document the process of drafting an abstract for a conference paper. I felt it would be useful personally, as well as to others to explore this topic especially as I have just been through this process and thought that capturing the thought process while it was still fresh might be useful. Before we start though I do apologise for the length of the post, nobody should have to read a 3000-word blog post but, in my defence, there is a lot to cover.

So, let’s start at the beginning: an abstract is a concisely worded summary of an article, paper or presentation. You might think of it as a sort of précis or synopsis what follows and it is found at the beginning of a manuscript. It is an easy point of entry into the subject being discussed and should cover the scope purpose and results that will be found in the following text. The abstract might set out a thesis, outline the main questions and offer some context of the paper. It often includes key words or terminology form the main paper but should not be an excerpt but rather, it should stand alone as an original piece of writing.

An abstract allows the reader to quickly evaluate whether or not to read a paper. It can be really time saving when looking through lots of material. You may have seen abstracts when search library databases and in this instance, it gives you the opportunity to decide if this is an article you want to include in your literature review (indexing). It also serves as a means for selecting for example, whether or not to include a paper in a conference (election). So, my purpose in writing an abstract is to convince the organisers of the conference I would like to attend that: the paper addresses the conference themes, is an original piece of work, is scholarly and academic and would be of interest to those attending the conference. I also find that the process of writing and abstract, presenting a paper at conference and then developing a paper for publication is a very productive and effective writing process. So, there is a personal engagement with the idea of drafting abstracts which also, for me signals the start of a longer-term research process.

The abstract I am writing about was intended for the 10th Annual Small Cinemas Conference which, at the time of writing, is planned for September 2019. The tile of the conference is Small Cinemas, Small Spaces and the ‘call for papers’ (CfP) asked for respondents to consider a range of thematic issues (see below for these).

Topics for discussion may include, but are not limited to:
– the geographies of film: how space and time are articulated in small cinemas
– representations of space in peripheral or marginal cinemas
– spaces and scales of film production, e.g. costume and set design in small cinemas
– film locations in small nation cinemas
– exhibition venues and viewing practices in small nations
– audiences’ experiences of minor cinemas
– small spaces for film exhibition
– the emergence of film societies as alternatives to the ‘large’ mainstream
– smartphones, tablets or other devices as cinematic spaces
– cinema and scale in Youtube and other digital platforms
– making films for small spaces

When I saw the CfP, which came to me via an email list I subscribe to, I was struck be the correspondence between the proposed themes and an idea I for a paper that I had been keeping on the ‘elf shelf’ for some time.

NOTE: An ‘elf shelf’ is actually a term for a wooden shelf in an enclosed front porch and is a term I have been using for some time for a place where you can just store ideas until they are ready for use. Not all ideas are fully formed when you have them or are timely, ready for use or have a destination. So, it’s good to have somewhere to store them even if only metaphorically. Sadly, I am unable to provide an etymological reference for this term suffice to say that I first heard it used by a performance poet Rachel Pantechnicon, when introducing the poem ‘Elf Shelf’ at Write Angle poetry night in 2008 (see video).

The idea at the start was very general and related to a 48 Hour Film Challenge which, at that time, I had been running for around fourteen years. In the last few years I had started to collect data in the form of surveys and interviews with the aim of, at some point, writing a paper that evidenced the impact of informal filmmaking challenges on the development and formation of a communities of filmmakers. The notion of a 48-hour film challenge connected in some way or another with all of these themes, at least to me it did. So, I wrote to the organisers outlining my idea and asking for feedback. This is what I got:

It sounds like a fascinating topic, which is indeed connected to the themes of the conference. I can see how what you’re researching can be described as a small cinema – I just wonder if it is somehow connected to issues of space too? If you can make that link, then I wouldn’t worry too much about the ‘nation issue – as you say, it takes place in the UK, but it is mostly a local, alternative, practice. Hope this helps”.

And there lay the challenge – how to connect what I hoped to do with the notion of space!

I started to think about how I could address the notion of space in the drafting of an abstract and this is the process I want to try and now ‘trace’. In order to proceed I needed to develop a theoretical framework, a lens through which the issues could be addressed. I already had a sense of the problem, the questions and the purpose but how to find a way into this topic that addressed this issue of space.

The first stage for me is always a literature review, a discovery or ideation phase (following the principles of design thinking). Discovery needs to be fuelled by inquiry and in this case, I spent some time playing around with key words. Getting the right keywords is always a challenge especially when you are exploring a topic of which you know very little. What are the terms used by experts in the field, what forms of expression do they use, how are issues phrased? Cracking this code is a challenge but in my experience once you get the search string right the doorway opens into another world of knowledge and information. It’s a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, it can be overwhelming when you first crack the code and there is always the possibility of generating to much material, of distraction and horror of horrors procrastination (yes, the excitement of engaging in a lit review can also lead to procrastination as you explore tangential lines of flight and fall deeper into the rabbit hole). Unfortunately, I didn’t record the process of playing with search strings which is a shame, but what do is outline a few of the epiphanies that arose from the process.

The initial sticking point was that while the literature on small cinemas is quite extensive the categorisations in this field tend towards the geographical, political and economic. There is a concern here for the cinema of small nations and discourses of power that work through these categories. In one sense this was quite useful as it enabled me to conceptualise DVMISSION as a mirror in microcosm of the mainstream elite forms of cinema to which small cinema is contrasted. For example, cinema in this sense includes everything that occurs from initial idea through production, to sales, distribution and into exhibition. DVMISSION does all of these things by: setting a challenge for filmmakers to make a 2-minute film in 48-hours (from script to production); and then screen the film the following weekend at an awards ceremony (sales); after which the films are uploaded to the internet for a final online version of the competition (distribution and exhibition). This insight gave me an opportunity to position my study in relation to the body of work that would inform most of the conference papers at the Small Cinemas, Small Spaces symposium.

Epiphany number one: DVMISSION is a mirror of elite, commercial mainstream cinema in microcosm

However, this insight really didn’t address the issue of space in the way that I needed it to. Remember the purpose of the study was to argue for a recognition of the value I perceive these kinds of informal filmmaking challenges bring to local communities of filmmakers. Two papers I found unlocked this for me, the first on project networks and film careers, the second taking a sociological position on space that argued: space is inhabited by objects, place is inhabited by human beings. By which I mean, space is an abstract world inhabited by things that have physical relationships with each other. Whereas place is inhabited by symbolic objects that are situated in a semiotic system of signs. It is a node where the cultural, historical and sociological comes together in an encounter that is experienced or lived by human beings. Place is not located in relation to fixed concrete objective spaces it is something that is lived, dynamic, shifting and moveable. It is wherever people put it. This resonates with the idea of project networks which are rhizomatic and linked by nodes of intersecting experiences that occur not in space but in place. This insight allowed me to think of DVMISSION as a place not a space and enabled me to link the aims of the study with the theoretical framework for the conference.

Epiphany number two: DVMISSION is a node in a project network.

Epiphany number three: DVMISSION is a place not a space.

Obviously this all a little simplified for the purpose of writing this blog post (read the paper for all the excruciatingly brilliant details) but it serves the purpose; I had all the parts and could start to look at assembling the abstract. Now I have written abstracts before, and they have mostly been accepted but wanted to explore the topic a little further and wanted to know how to write the perfect abstract. A brief trawl of the topic online suggested that there is common agreement about what makes a good abstract. There are slightly different approaches recommended for particular subject disciplines. Nonetheless, it would be possible to broadly describe the structure of an abstract as thus:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?
Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?
Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.
Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Personally, I find that breaking writing down into chunks using headings is a really good way to ensure a solid foundation for the structure and focus of the writing. So, I proceeded to develop my content under the headings as below:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?

Breaks with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema production and exhibition in microcosm, that acts as a locus for communities of practice that that intersect primarily through project networks.

Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?

The study aims to question the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of dispersed and rarefied communities of practice. It takes as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running on the south coast of the UK for 14 years.

Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.

The research draws on rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data undertaken via video recordings, online surveys and semi-structured interviews. The data emerges from work undertaken on a 48-hour film challenge that has run for fourteen years in Portsmouth on the south coast of the UK.

Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.

The paper aims to evidence the contribution that supposedly ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activities such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, creative leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks.

Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Through the research it is hoped to be able to argue for increased support among local business, organisation and local governments for the support of initiatives such as a 48-hour film challenges by evidencing the impact on the development of communities of practice.

Once I had been through the text a few times, editing, refining, reworking I removed the headings and started to work on the flow of the sentence and paragraph structure arriving at:

The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, a locus for communities of practice that intersect primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England. The paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper aims to evidence the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

As I am part of a writers group I was quickly able to get some feedback along the lines of “be more positive, for example say: ‘the paper evidences’ rather than ‘the paper aims to evidence the contribution’”. There were some typos and other edits made to sentence structure but the abstract was at this stage pretty much finished. I also played with the title to try and capture the ideas within the paper but also as a means of hooking the readers interested and thus the final abstract and title was:

From space to place: the 48-hour film challenge as a locus for project networks


The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, as a locus for communities of practice that intersects primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England, the paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper evidences the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

(word count 231)

This was then promptly sent off to the conference organisers and hopefully, fingers crossed they will accept it. As I say above, I find the process of abstract, to conference paper, to draft journal article really works for me. It’s not for everyone but it is a structure that I find productive. Now of course I need to revisit the research data and start to do some analysis and prepare for the presentation. Then I will revisit the literature and begin to draft the paper. Probably in about 6 – 8 months’, if it all goes to plan I would imagine submitting to a journal in the early part of 2020. This is a typical time line for a study like this that has to fit in around other commitments. So around 18 months from first idea to final paper submitted to a journal and then another 6-12 months to get it published. So, the full cycle can be around 2-3 years for just one paper.

I hope this has been useful.

Featured image borrowed from: Mitcommlab

Dancing to Balkan Music: ethnomusicology, cultural appropriation or cultural exchange?

This post is going to be very much about shifting focus from reflection on research to documenting research as I have recently received notification from the Arts Council England that our funding bid for the Tale of the Southsea Onryo has been successful. So where as before, I was attempting to capture through reflection some aspects of the process of developing the idea. I am now forced by the exigencies of the project to start work on the pre-production part of the development cycle. This is still very much a work in progress, there is still a lot to do, lots of holes, gaps, grey areas that need to be researched and filled in.

One of the really engaging things about the research I have been undertaking is that it feels like I have reconnected with a passion that I had lost touch with. In a way, it is possible to see the whole project as a sort of opportunity to do this and perhaps there was some underlying drive leading me back to this place in the devising of the idea for the project. Quite a few years ago, I started to learn the violin, in part inspired by music I had experienced in my role as a stage manager at WOMAD festivals in the 1990’s. This led to my membership of a workshop band called the Doppelgänger Gypsy Orchestra, led initially by Joe Townsend, we played some great parties and I met some amazing people. Many of those involved were serious Balkanists and amateur ethnomusicologists. Others, like me, were just seeking to enjoy and experience the music. I lost touch with the orchestra and it disbanded around 1997 though a touring band by name of Mukka did survive for some years.

I flirted with the idea of doing a PhD in Ethnomusicology for some time though it never materialised. I was inspired by Professor John Baily, a filmmaker and the head of department at Goldsmiths College. He made films about musicians in Pakistan, living and studying with Afghan refugees and exploring their culture. A very romantic ideal and while academically ethnomusicology appeals to someone who is interested in the social and cultural aspects of traditional music. The commercialised globalisation of these cultures and traditions does at times raise questions about the position of researcher in relation to the subject of research. Here I am the privileged white male peering into what seems like a nice cultural niche in order to further my own academic and musical interests. Is this kind of study cultural exchange or cultural appropriation?

These are questions I am revisiting as I again dip my toe into the muddy waters of ethnomusicological investigation. In the last few weeks I have attended a couple of interesting musical experiences. The first event was in a hall below a church off Borough High Street in London. Led by violinist, singer and amateur ethnomusicologist Gundula Gruen, the night was a showcase for a community based workshop band and a dance group. Everyone knew each other and we felt a little like outsiders but it was a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The music was quite traditional, to my mind it sounded very Romanian in influence and looking further into the workshop leaders background, there is a strong sense that she a collector of Roma musical influences. The second event I attended was a very different experience. Raka is a gigging band of 8 people fronted by a polish singer playing mostly Bulgarian influenced music. Fast paced, an exciting show that had everyone dancing till 2am. Chatting with one of the dancers at the first event, I explained that I was interested in working with people involved with the Balkan music scene and she responded “Ahhh… you’re doing research”. Of course, I thought I was having a night out, while in fact I was doing research. Yes, it’s odd to think that going out to gigs, dancing, drinking, having fun constitutes research for creative practice, but it does. That is the strange world creators exist within, straddling the hallowed halls of academia and the steamy bars of north London.

So, two quite different experiences, two different takes on Balkan music, both making strong claims about authenticity and lineage. In both instances, this claim to authenticity is established clearly in their marketing and promotional material. There is a sense that these claims set them up as ‘not like other Balkan bands’ who just copy or sample this traditional music. They play the real thing we are told and I am sure they do. I have some personal experience of the field and I can spot the difference between the ‘Balkan influenced’, which is very much about sampling and cultural appropriation, and the more ethnomusicological approach which comes from a passion for the music.

For me there are pragmatic issues at play here. There are decisions to be made about who might be the best people to work with, who we can effectively collaborate with. From a creative point of view there is an evaluation to be made as to the ease with which that potential collaborator will buy into the vision for the project i.e. can we work together. There are also decisions to be made about the creative direction of the event. For example, is authenticity key to creating the experience we want to design, is the party atmosphere more important. These questions are fundamental to the creative development and planning that needs to be undertaken in order to get the show on the road. But there are also questions arising as to it means to appropriate a culture which is not my own and reimagine it in the service of a creative arts experience?

There is a suggestion (Lynskey 2006) that while these forms of traditional music are dying out in the villages of south-eastern Europe, the enthusiasm for the music in western Europe and even America is what will keep it alive, that authenticity is not that important except to the purists. Its appropriation creates a demand which in turn encourages local musicians from the Balkans to continue their traditions. However, when Carol Silverman (2011) says that there is an kind of xenophobia built into the paradoxical fact that “Roma, as Europe’s largest minority and its quintessential ‘other’ […] are revered for their music yet reviled as people.” She is drawing attention to the notion that this music comes from somewhere, that it is of a people, it’s not just something that someone thought up in a recording studio.

The idea that Balkan Gypsy music is a common “trope of multiculturalism” (Silverman 2011) is troubling precisely because there appears to be little engagement with the economic and cultural reality of the actual contexts from which this musical tradition emerges. Now not all Balkan traditional music comes from Roma traditions, but the example does serve to show how cultural appropriation buys into stereotyping, promotes romanticised ideas and ignores the economic reality of the tradition from where the music originates.

Others claim (Lynskey 2006) that the concept is often misunderstood or misapplied by the general public, and that charges of “cultural appropriation” are at times misapplied to situations such as eating food from a variety of cultures, or learning about different cultures. Commentators who criticize the concept believe that the act of cultural appropriation does not meaningfully constitute a social harm, or that the term lacks conceptual coherence. It is argued that the term sets arbitrary limits on intellectual freedom and artists’ self-expression, reinforces group divisions, or itself promotes a feeling of enmity or grievance, rather than liberation.

However, when a dominant culture appropriates elements from a minority culture such as dress, music, rituals, terminology and so on. Especially where there is apparent a power imbalance. This appropriation constitutes a kind of fetishisation that is at once romanticising of, and also alienating for members of that minority culture. The imitator is able to play a role of exotic other without having to take on the burden of being other. They are able to, for example, avoid the daily racism, discriminations and other oppressive behaviours that are often inflicted upon minorities by the dominant culture. There are also issues around the appropriation and assimilation of minority cultures that see elements from complex signifying systems sampled and repurposed outside of their original cultural context. Thereby stripping them of their original signifying purpose in a way that can often be seen as disrespectful and even in some cases viewed as a desecration or exoticisation of minority cultural practices.

So where does that leave us? To gypsy music or not to gypsy music? For me there is a joy of discovery and sharing of ethnic music from around the world. It’s a passion that is coalesced around my own personal journey of discovery, that reflects my own particular fascination with the social and cultural aspects of Balkan music.

Is it cultural appropriation?

Probably, but can it be done respectfully and with some claim to authenticity?

I hope so!



LYNSKEY, D., 2006. There is no such thing as Gypsy music. The Guardian, 24 November.

SILVERMAN, C. 2011. Gypsy Music, Hybridity and Appropriation: Balkan Dilemmas of Postmodernity. Ethnologia Balkanica, 15, 15–32.

The Writers Toolbox & Free Writing II

Another short writing exercise at this week’s writing group drawn from the Writers Tool Box provided here by way of example and because I don’t often get to do creative writing, and when I do I feel like preserving it. Not sure if that is just ego or good/bad writing practice. This blog though, is a place to capture ideas, it’s a sketch book of sorts. So, I have parked the writing here for now.

Rules: take three cards, turn the first over and free write for 3 minutes in response to the cues on the card, be specific in description of objects, things and places. After three minutes turn over the next card and continue the story responding to the cue on the card. Repeat for the third card.

My cards were: Jenny Craig Centre, November in Cincinnati, sound of Henry crying.


The Jenny Craig Centre sat atop a tall jutting rock that peered out into the ocean mist, the bough of a mysterious cutter breaking through the still morning waters. Sunlight edged over the nearby hills, verdant and strewn with woolly mittens, frosty, glistening in the golden rays, chilled under the blue sky, a spring morning singing lark like as it bursts forth blindingly, burning off the sea haze and leaving a salty waft in the air.

It was nothing like November in Cincinnati. Nothing at all, though, it is worth noting that my memory of that time is a hazy as the mist now departing the still seas around the Jenny Craig Centre. The black Mercedes taxi wound its way up the raggedy hedged country lane, bouncing over the potholes, listing around the sharp corners, pausing half in ditches to let others pass downhill towards the chocolate box village that nestled around a smattering of fishing boats, nets hanging from their beams.

In the back of the taxi I could hear the sound of Henry quietly crying. There is not much to say about that. She could see her future ahead clearer than I could see my past. Perhaps her crystal vision would shock me from my slumbers, but I doubted it. The cool sun now risen blessing the green and pleasant land as we rolled into the long driveway, under the gated arch of the Jenney Craig Centre. If anything, Cincinati seemed like a dream, slipping away just as the foggy delirium of sleep creeps away like a ghost at a séance.

Comments from the group: we wonder what the Jenny Craig Centre is.

The Writers Toolbox & Free Writing I

I am part of a writers group, an academic one but we still like to think of ourselves as creatives. We meet irregularly but often and I personally find it a highly productive experience. We usually kick off the writing sessions with a creative exercise followed by a little goal setting and brief discussion with partners. This aims to loosen up our creative ideas and to help us focus on what we are trying to do. then the rest of the day we just write. It is a joy let me tell you.

Anyway, this last writers group we were introduced to the Writers Toolbox, a really useful tool for sparking ideas and for structuring a free writing exercise. I had seen these tool boxes around and often wondered about trying them out in the classroom. Now I have had a goo I will certainly use it. In fact I have just ordered one and will try t out in a week or so when I get a chance.

We used the writers prompts and followed a three stage exercise: the first two sentences had to begin a paragraph and the final one had to end a paragraph (though I go this confused so ended up using it at the start and at the finish. I love free writing, it is amazing what you are capable of when you turn off the filters. This is a conversation I have with students all the time during ideation sessions. Turn off the filters, give yourself permission to be creative and make some time for free writing.

Anyway this is what I came up with and the lines I was given are in blue:

Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something while the nurse tucked in the corder of the bed sheets. A bright morning sun streamed into the room, illuminating the pale walls and blinding us, forcing every bit of life out of the shadows. I hovered over the solitary chair, wondering if I should sit or stand. Distracted by the wink as the last breath eased out of my fathers chest.

Margaret had a habit of spitting, it began to get on my nerves. It shouldn’t have worried me after so long, but it did and every time I heard her hawk it raised my hackles a trifle more.I should have been able to look beyond it. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I still loved her though, we were inseparable, despite the spitting and hawking, despite the endless trail of phlegm that traced our every pathway through our life together.

The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator always left me wondering if the man had been born with an ounce of common sense. It always ended the same way, with a mop and a pail with a pile of defrosted food ready for the bin. Why he couldn’t leave it alone I could never understand. But that was him all over. He was a breath of fresh air, the sun in my life, but please, leave the defrosting to me. The way Herb defrosted the refrigerator, it always made me as mad as hell.

This was written in around 20 minutes, after we read the stories out aloud though I declined as it felt too personal, too emotional. I still feel like that and I doubt if I would have been ale to access that depth of feeling with out the free writing. As I say, you need to turn the filters off and let your deeper mind do the work it wants to do while the chattering of the monkey mind is quite.