Pomodoro ramblings

In my first classes this week, I introduced first-year students to the Pomodoro technique. I’ve had a mixed relationship with the technique, but sometimes find it useful in terms of getting my head fully into a project during its opening stages. In solidarity, I too typed non-stop for 15 minutes (a reduced pomodoro — usually they run for 25). The results were… well, they were a glimpse into the chaos of my brain. I’ve edited them slightly (ditched typos and some of the more bizarre tangents), added links and some editorial notes, and re-posted here. The unit is a foundational media subject, and is a blend of theory and practice.


 

Prompt: What would you like to get out of the class?

I would like to hone my pedagogy — in particular getting students engaged during workshop and lecture time. I am actively working to fill the lecture time not only with content, clips, and relevant examples, but also with activities that break the monotonous delivery.

I have already run out of ideas but I’m going to keep typing because this is what the Pomodoro technique is all about. Look if I’m honest I think the introduction of the Pomodoro technique into the classroom situation is an interesting thing for me and the students. It gets them thinking about writing as a practice and as a discipline, not this far-off thing that’s unobtainable and difficult. The Pomodoro technique is all about quantity rather than quality — which explains quite a bit about this piece I’m writing at the moment.

With this subject, it’s first and foremost about making stuff. I want to get the students out into the world, actively using the skills they’ve learned. I want them to get good jobs, where the hint of something they heard or learned in this class will return to them at some stage. The theoretical and conceptual elements of media studies are key, but their role has been somewhat diminished in this iteration of the course. I’ve changed quite a few of the lectures to be more about the practice of making media — but rather than fill twenty minutes talking about release forms, I’ve tried to bring in some of the theory of things like cinematography and sound design.

The subject is about encoding and inscribing — of course the medium is the message (thanks Marshall), but it’s also about the actual formation of the story and how we repackage and repurpose that story for an audience. I think the audience thing is really crucial. Whether these students end up doing public relations, advertising, media or journalism, they need to think about narrative, about medium, and about their audience. Audience dictates form, it dictates what semiotic devices you’ll employ, it dictates the shape of the narrative. Maybe this is what Marshall was getting into. His book was called Understanding Media after all. The audience is what’s really important, as they are the ones that have to decode what you’re trying to say. This is what the models are trying to do. The sender-object-receiver model is useless: it assumes a passive audience and does not comprehend the corruption that may occur while a message is being transmitted.

The many-to-many model is supposedly the one that best represents our current hyper-connected super-social world. The one thing I did not mention in the lecture was Jurgen Habermas’s conception of the public sphere. Habermas likens the public sphere to the 18th century English coffee house. This was a place where people would come and discuss the prominent issues of the day. There are also echoes of the Roman forum — a public space where ideas could be shared. There has been resistance to this model in recent times, and I wonder why that is. Perhaps it is because of the rise of anonymity — to speak in the coffee house and the forum meant that your opinion was linked irrevocably with your identity. Your identity was in part dictated by the fact that you have an opinion and you actively chose to go to that space and to share it.

I have gone wildly off-topic here. I suppose I should finish up by re-stating what I have said not only in the lectures but in tutorials and workshops ad nauseum: that the media is everywhere, and that these skills and concepts will stand students in good stead in terms of critically thinking about what the media is and what role it can play in our lives.

The media are not so much ‘things’ as places which most of us inhabit, which weave in and out of our lives. (Branston & Stafford, The Media Student’s Book, 5th ed., 2010)

The Branston and Stafford quote is handy in that it really does consider the media as a bunch of intersecting spaces — maybe we can think of them as spheres, and bring Habermas’s ideas back to the fore. Because he’s a nice person, and I think he’d like to stay relevant.

Bully for Jurgen.

End of class 1.


 

So anyway, Jurgen Habermas. He’s an interesting fellow. I think he might be German. Or maybe from some Scandinavian country. Or perhaps I’m stereotyping based on the appearance of his name (Ed.: I was right the first time; Prof. Habermas was born in Dusseldorf). Anyway. He wrote a book called The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. In it he detailed his ‘vision’ of how society works. It boiled down to this understanding of society functioning in a public and private way. The transition and communication between the two was on the individual; it was their choice to shift their identity and persona — their message — between the private and the public. The thing about society when Habermas was writing, though, is that this was a transition that was almost irreversible. Once you were there, in the public, it was very hard to retreat to the relative safety and obscurity of the private.

As noted earlier, the digital age has revolutionised this model, this vision of society. Partly because of anonymity, but also because the digital realm is a parallel universe to our own. Citizens can have multiple identities in various different online spaces. There remains a distinction between private and public spheres, but the question is now ‘which public sphere’? And which persona you’re identifying with within that particular space?

There is something here related to Michel Foucault’s theories of knowledge, and how power relations are encoded in communication and messages. The normalisation of mental institutions — and the resulting normalisation and exclusion of the ‘mad’ — is his favourite thing to observe, but the same could be said in terms of online space. The recent banning of Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter is not only an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is, but also of how online communities are seen as free and open and welcoming spaces to everyone. There is no doubt whatsoever that Yiannopoulos’ actions are deplorable, but as the XKCD free speech comic so blatantly puts it, free speech is not a universal concept, nor is it necessarily a welcome one. Power in online communities is not vested in the individual; it is always vested in the collective. Is this a good thing? In some cases, yes. In others, the findings might be a little more grey.

In our current hyper-digital age, there are so many grey areas. Free speech and the power involved in online communities are two among many. The proliferation of messages of hatred, incitations to violence, as well as raising awareness of charity organisations and activist movements, all fall under the banner of freedom of expression.

I’m waffling now, and have moved so far away from what I began with. However, I think it all boils down to capital and to power. So in that sense Althusser and Foucault had a good thing going (Ed.: There is a lovely new unabridged edition of Althusser’s Reading Capital out via Verso). There are lots of doom-sayers currently about who decry the international rise of the far right — with Brexit and the ascension of Trump being symptoms herewith — but realistically there are checks and balances in place to keep the populace safe. Again, this may or may not be a good thing, depending on your political leanings. But it remains about capital and power. What is the capital? Is it cultural? Political? Economic? And who has the power to control it, to add to it, to open up or restrict access to it? The opposition to Trump is based on his fucking up his own stores of economic capital. What would someone like that do to the economy of a nation with 300 million citizens, let alone a nation with influence over billions more? One can only hope that the – hilariously – largely Republican Congress will stifle and veto the more extreme of Trump’s ideas.

Althusser, Foucault, McLuhan, Habermas – afternoon tea with champions.

End of class 2.

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