A skewed and somewhat (REF)erential reading of the 2018 Media Practice and Education/MeCCSA Practice Network symposium.
Just the other week I had the opportunity to attend with a colleague, the Media Practice and Education/MeCCSA Practice Network held at University of Lincoln, School of Film and Media. These symposiums are always great fun, a fantastic opportunity to catch up with others in the field and to refresh/update yourself on where the subject discipline is heading. For this year’s symposium, there was a focus on the Practice as Research debate, no doubt driven by the forthcoming REF.
Before attending the symposium we were encouraged to read a paper on the topic of creative film and media practice as research (Bell 2006). Intended as a provocation for those submitting papers to the symposium, the paper asks questions about the epistemic nature of creative practice research (Bell 2006, 89) and questions the ways in which media practice researchers might apply the generic definitions (Bell 2006, 89) promulgated by the AHRC among others. For example, the definition of research as a process of systematic enquiry whereby new knowledge in a field of study is generated (AHRC 2005) is put forward as a kind of classicist definition of research. Bell (2006) considers the correspondence between the kind research activities found within creative practice and those more commonly recognised within academia. The kind of research that more commonly focuses on the empirical testing of hypothesis and the answering of pre-specified research questions. In contrast, Bell argues that research for creative practice is often more likely to be orientated towards the making of an artefact of some sort. Not towards the production of knowledge or the exploration of novel context free (Bell 2006, 89) research methods.
The development of practice based post-doctoral study, he tells us, may at some point, have held the potential to inform a pedagogy of research for creative practice (he lists some characteristics as: detailed documentation, contextualisation of methods/outcomes within a critical discourse, systemisation of learnt experience). However, he problematises this framing by pointing out that successful creative practitioners are not always able to clearly articulate their processes and that adopting the kind of reflexive approach that is common in practice-based PhD’s does not, necessarily produce high quality and successful creative works (Bell 2006, 90). This approach also tends towards an overbearing accountability to the discourse of empirical positivism, evidentiality, and the iron cage (Bell 2006, 92) of rationality. Which is to say, the framing discourse constrains practice within a set of narrow predefined boundaries that can be captured for the benefit of evidentiality (i.e. there is a focus on the epistemological outcome). Whereas, research for creative practice is by its nature exploratory and often difficult to document (i.e. there is a focus on the ontological experience). Bell goes on to argue that creative practice research is essentially performative, generative and the making of work is directly aligned with its reception. For him creative practices are doings and the properties of the final artefact turn us, as the audience to what was done (Bell 2006, 97). In other words, the qualities and characteristics of research undertaken in the making of a creative artefact is evidenced within its consumption. This would seem like a powerful argument for accepting the outputs of creative practice as bone fide evidence of the research undertaken.
For me, one of the drivers for this personal investigation in to research for creative practice is very much the rise of the Research Informed Teaching agenda (Stern 2016, Malcom 2014) commonly referred to as RIT. Joseph-Richard (2018) recently presented a useful review of the topic, evaluating a range of frameworks through which we can understand how the experience of learning could better mirror the activities of researchers (Joseph-Richard 2018, 34). In the end, he concludes that these frameworks are not practitioner focused and suggests that the existing frameworks constrain an understanding of research as practice to within a narrow conceptual understanding of what constitutes RIT (Joseph-Richard 2018, 34). By way of an alternative he offers a more descriptive framework based on a novel ‘crowdsourcing’ research methodology (cf. Joseph-Richard 2018) which he employs to elicit contributions from those already utilising RIT in the classroom. His framework draws on the principles of ‘student centred, creative, critical, analytical inquiry’ (Joseph-Richard 2018, 34) and places these at the centre of the debate. It reveals research to be a complex, interwoven, multiplicity of ideas, methods and approaches that require a discipline focused approach to what we do in the classroom.
The article is certainly a stimulating and engaging piece of work but it has one significant flaw from the point of view of my own inquiry into the field. How could you apply such a distinctively academic framework to the field of creative and media practice? Perhaps the framework doesn’t work for practice? Perhaps we are already doing RIT in our practitioner led classes? If we were what might it look like? These and many more questions arise from a reading of the article. So it would seem that Joseph-Richard (2018) has laid the ground for further research that might advance the understanding of what RIT in media practice classrooms might look like. He even offers a respectable methodology for asking these questions that would perhaps replicate his own research but within the media practice community. Sadly though, at this point in time, without having undertaken this follow up study, I am still no closer to answering the questions I have about RIT.
With this in mind I approached the symposium with renewed excitement. Was I going to finally unpack this idea of research through practice and be able to articulate it for myself?
Unfortunately, I left the symposium none the wiser and with perhaps more questions than I arrived with. That is not to say the symposium wasn’t informative, engaging and enlightening. On the contrary, it was all of those things. The issues is that, as I go deeper I find myself more and more confounded by the tensions and contradictions within the various intellectual positions put forward concerning the nature of research for practice, practice as research, practice-based research (and its various other formulations). So, when I arrived at the MeCCSA Practice Network, I set out with my own research question at the start of the day and set out to pursue the answer: what might RIT look like in media practice education?
In order to answer the question, I employed my own interpretivist methodology of listening, discussing, chatting, offering provocations and drinking tea with colleagues while bedevilling them with my confounding questions. I must admit that I really enjoyed the keynote by Associate Professor Craig Batty who unpacked for me exactly what research impact means and this fed into my investigation offering a number of key insights. For example, the need for there to be some kind of audience and the need to capture metrics around their experience of any artefact produced. Also, the requirement for some kind of change or transformation along with the need to evidence the research in some way also resonated for me. The idea of curiosity also circulated around the conference along with discovery and inquiry as buzz words that for me started to get me thinking about inquiry-based learning as a paradigm that might be drawn upon. I am attracted to the notion that RIT might somehow employ a Deweyian proposition that teaching should focus on processes through which we can encourage the development of critical, intellectual skills. These themes were further developed by the very engaging closing key note by Professor Brian Winston who argued that the role of creative and media practice education is not to train students to reproduce what we already have but to innovate and change the field within which they will eventually work. That we should be aiming to educate them to be incredible social beings. Inspiring stuff and more good material for my post presentation research activities to draw upon.
What was the outcome at the end of the day?
Quite productive as it happens and I have added the conclusion to my inquiry below as I now feel I have a sense of what RIT in a media practice classroom might look like. It draws on principles of inquiry-based learning, infused with a sprinkle of problem-based learning and probably delivered through project-based learning. I think it needs a name so I am running with RIT-based learning at the moment but am happy to take suggestions for a better way of framing it. Here it is, the answer to the question: what might RIT look like in media practice education?
- Activity is driven by a question(s)/problem encounters.
- Activity is structured through adoption of a process/method/obstruction.
- Discovery should be situated (acknowledge what has come before).
- There is change/transformation/something new emerges.
- Activity is underpinned by risk taking and uncertainty.
- Research is evidenced in some way (perhaps through reflection).
- They’re should be impact/engagement/audience.
That is probably a description that most media practice educators will recognise and I have a feeling that we kind of already do all of the above. Perhaps though, we just need to find ways to articulate this better and to locate justifications within the literature.
Personally, I am not yet convinced that research is always evidenced clearly in the artefact and that the artefact itself should stand alone. My experience of the symposium suggests otherwise since the number of presentations I saw that were able to actually articulate the content of their abstracts was very low. In most cases I can’t say I came away with any understanding of the methodological aspects of the presentations which tended to focus on the output. Had the work been presented without the verbal contextualisation I am not sure if I would then subsequently be able to articulate any the the research questions/outcomes/methods (perhaps that is the problem – maybe I shouldn’t need to). In general, I find that the Ernie Wise approach to research through practice presentations (i.e. this is wot I dun) doesn’t do justice to the researchers and the quality of the work they are producing. It is a shame as I felt there was a rich seam of contextual information missing from most of what I saw.
I am sure this debate will continue and I am equally sure there isn’t really an obvious answer since the problem seems to lie with an institutional need to describe research for creative practice for the benefit of government ministers rather than for practitioners and their audiences.
If you are so minded you can watch a short video of the symposium here: MeCCSA Symposium held at the School of Film and Media 2018
Bell, D. (2006). Creative film and media practice as research: In pursuit of that obscure object of knowledge. Journal of Media Practice, 7(2), 85-100.
Joseph-Richard, P. (2018). Uncovering the many faces of research-informed teaching through crowdsourcing: a descriptive framework. Dialogue, 9, 33-48.
Malcom, M. (2014). A critical evaluation of recent progress in understanding the role of the research-teaching link in higher education. Higher Education, 67(3) 289-301.
Stern, N. (2016). Building on success and learning from experience: an independent review of the research excellence framework. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [viewed Mar 17, 2017]. Available here.