I’ve been looking for historical NZ fiction that takes place on farms or includes sheep, but the setting and/or topic don’t appear to have been very popular. (Stories of small towns abound, however, often in a dark gothic tradition.) Taking a break from my searches, I remembered some brilliant Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.
The cartoons are part of a long tradition of anthropomorphising animals, with added allusions to labour relations as Ralph and Sam punch in every morning to do a full day’s work. As the foreman, Sam’s job is to protect the flock from worker-Ralph’s constant attempts at theft and harm. In the cartoons from the 60s I love how Ralph uses new technologies to beat Sam to the clock every morning but still never gets the sheep; I also love how they go home each night before going back to the same thing again the next day. It’s an endless cycle of nature and culture, rank and file–mundane but serious stuff, beautifully drawn with lots of gags.
But all this makes me wonder if humour (not irony) should drive our Counting Sheep scenarios. I posted earlier about how Country Calendar spoofs can be really good at this, but I’m also really wary of what happens if it’s done poorly. For example, in their discussions of critical design Dunne and Raby warn:
“Humour is important but often misused. Satire is the goal. But often only parody and pastiche are achieved. These reduce the effectiveness in a number of ways. They are lazy and borrow existing formats, and they signal too clearly that it is ironic and so relieve some burden from the viewer. The viewer should experience a dilemma, is it serious or not? Real or not? For critical design to be successful they need to make up their own mind. Also, it would be very easy to preach, a skilful use of satire and irony can engage the audience in a more constructive away by appealing to its imagination as well as engaging the intellect. Good political comedians achieve this well. Deadpan and black humour work best.”
But what if humour is only an element in a broader genre? Take soap operas, for example. Some people feel compelled to distance themselves from such “low-brow” forms of culture, but regularly engage in, and thoroughly enjoy, stories and gossip about the everyday lives of their friends, co-workers, neighbours, etc.. Academics have long argued that soap operas work as social binders and provide ways for viewers to formulate personal opinions and identities. But let me bring this back to sheep: I recently read a blog post that has stuck in my brain like you wouldn’t believe. UK-based ethical knitwear designers The North Circular occassionally post updates from the flock’s shepherd, Ernest, and this is the kind of story I’m talking about:
“July seventh, sheep are all clipped finally! All except for 6, that is, who will have to carry on sweltering until the ITV film crew can get here to film. It was pandemonium. These were all the frisky ewes who have just had lambs. I was up at 5am, gathered them all in a pen. Dave the shearer arrived and then it started raining, classic, the only rain to fall in 3 months. Clipping was abandoned and shearer went home saying he would be back when it cleared. Let the sheep back into the pasture. At midday Dave the shearer said he was coming back, as the sun had now made an appearance. Could i catch the sheep?!? if only. Izzy called to ask if she could come with the film crew – managed to politely says not a good time. Next thing, the shearers wife called Izzy, she wasn’t happy – no she was absolutely furious -the three of us, shearers wife, Dave the shearer and I had been running circles round t’ fields trying to catch them fer very long time and Dave the shearer was on the verge of walking off, shearers wife thought he was going to have a heart attack. Bit woolly if you ask me but, I put the film crew off, they want wildlife episode not soap opera drama! Shearers wife raged at Izzy, Do you have any idea how naughty your sheep are, how absolutely impossible they are to catch and handle?! you should come and see my flock, see how good they are, so you can compare your wild ones to them! We visited Dave the shearer this afternoon sheepishly bearing his cheque and a box of fruit and vegetables. All was forgiven after a few strong brews!” [emphasis mine]
First of all, this is is a good story. But here’s the most interesting and important bit for me: Ernest knows what story ethical wool marketers and media want to capture, and it isn’t what actually happens on the farm. The real story, and what I think is actually the better story, is full of humourous mishaps. Nature, as NZ’s brand suggests, may be 100% Pure but it’s not 100% cooperative. Sometimes it rains when farmers want to be shearing, and that reality makes for all sorts of inconvenience. But if we tell the story of that “failure” instead of waiting for a “perfect day” then we learn something about people as well. First, we learn that nature and animals are always already apprehended by, and through, people. We learn something about social interaction, like relations between farmers, business owners and mass media. We also learn about relationships between people and animals, and between men and women. We even get glimpses of shearing as seasonal and migrant labour, as well as competition and reciprocity between farms. These are the stories of wool production worth capturing and sharing. They can deeply affect or move people, and the foibles remind us that we are part of the story. I’m not convinced these stories do the same because I’d argue that people actually want “soap opera drama” more than “wildlife episode” or sterile quality assurances.
Federated Farmer’s President Don Nicholson had some interesting things to say about the wool industry and research needs in his speech at the National Conference in June:
“MO2 is an example that conventional products can be taken in completely new directions. Look at Jeremy Moon of Icebreaker. A finalist for last year’s Federated Farmers‘ AgriBusiness Person of the Year. Jeremy has made merino wool sexy. Look at the development of gold kiwifruit cultivars and now in recent weeks, red. Yet some commentators seemed perplexed about the loss of the wool levy. One leading commentator went as far to describe it as ‘brainless’ and driven by ‘raw emotion’. Blaming hard pressed sheep farmers whose returns have imploded, is like blaming investors in a finance company, for the failure of a finance company. For wool to be on a par with the 1980s returns, it ought to be a $2.8 billion export but now it’s down to just under $500 million. As oil-based synthetics compete with wool, the demand drivers that have forced down price isn’t just a New Zealand problem, but a global one. It demands a global response. The Wool Council is part of the Prince of Wales’ wool project – designed to do just that. The Wool Council’s ‘wool hotel’ challenge is an incredibly exciting extension to switch global architects back to wool. It’s regulatory too – unbundling the road blocks erected by oil-based synthetics against complacent wool. In New Zealand, wool insulation should be everywhere but we’ve got glass and synthetic batts as standard. Wool offers immense potential, but that hinges on consumers to tune back into wool as an exciting, natural and renewable product. Yet the problem with wool is wool. Much of the thinking and research effort has put wool into two separate boxes – textiles and floor-coverings. What wool needs is research anarchy. A Richard Revell or a Roger Beattie to take wool and turn it on its head. What we need is a Wool-X prize to inspire innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors. A prize to take wool and manipulate it in completely new and novel ways. I’m not talking evolution but revolution. We’re not talking Keratec but mass market products. It’s time for business unusual because you cannot tell me that everything that can be done with wool, has been.” [emphasis mine]
This week’s RunningHot! conference was the best overview of the interests and concerns of NZ’s research community I’ve received since moving to Wellington almost a year ago. I learned about some fascinating research initiatives, met some wonderful people and got a much better sense of how things work. I went back to work today with the knowledge that I’m not alone, and with renewed hope for an incredibly stimulating and satisfying research career here. And perhaps it’s precisely because I felt this sense of excitement that I was more than a little disappointed we didn’t spend more time discussing strategies for valuing and supporting collaborative research, or coming up with concrete actions for tackling some of the big problems. I mean, I love thinking and talking about things, but not to the exclusion of doing and making things. I really hope that the organisers will consider facilitating a series of workshops before the next conference, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like the opportunity to follow-up on some of the challenges and opportunities that were so well presented.
But to be fair, I’ll happily take on the challenge to do and make some things myself. I won’t ignore Helen Anderson‘s call to up the “stroppiness quotient,” in the sense of continuing to ask the hard questions and insisting that we can do more and better. I’ll apply to take some Women in Leadership courses. And I’d like to become involved with the Oxygen Group, or something similar. I’m really looking forward to the Mobilities Research Symposium later this month as a way to make new connections, and I can’t wait to organise the School of Design’s Culture+Context: Brown Bag Lunch & Lecture Series next year. But, most of all, I’m excited about getting into my new research project and starting to make new connections between researchers and farmers, industry and government, ideas and practice. I’m grateful to be working in a country that I think actively supports emergent researchers. I know not everyone agrees, and the system isn’t perfect, but there is no equivalent to the Marsden Fund Fast-Start programme in Canada and I simply wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I have here.
All this talk of collaborative research and leadership also got me thinking about the value of mentoring. Of course, geeky girl that I am, I began with a little research on the topic. First, in a recent article in the Journal of Sociology, Maureen Baker reported that most of the female academics she interviewed in NZ did not expect to be promoted to (full) professor before retirement. This alarmed me because I most certainly intend to join the professoriate, and because I’ve already been told how incredibly difficult it will be, I want to better understand what the obstacles are. According to the article, most cited a “lack of intelligence and/or ambition; insufficient time, energy or publications; or no desire for additional responsibilities. Several women also mentioned that ambitious academics are viewed as ‘tall poppies’ to be cut down” and one woman professor went so far as to say that “the more you climb, the more of a target you become and the less support you get” (Baker 2010: 321). I was especially disheartened to learn that some women lacked the confidence to apply for promotion even when they wanted and were qualified for it, because of a “lack of collegial recognition and esteem” (330). In a related journal article (pdf), she notes that “academic mentoring has been related to productivity, promotion and career satisfaction but fewer female academics report that they have been adequately mentored” (Baker 2009: 34).
Poking around online a bit more, I learned that many young female academics seek out, or are paired with, older women mentors. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Unfortunately, many end up finding the mentorship uncomfortably reminiscent of a mother-daughter relationship, or find themselves tied to mentors who could be considered perfect exemplars of what Ann Darwin calls the “volatile dimension”: neurotic, overbearing, egocentric, outrageous, vindictive, contradictory, self-centred, wild, eccentric, opinionated, stressed, cunning, hard and picky. Um, thanks but no thanks. First of all, everyone deserves a sane mentor. But I also need to believe that mentor-mentee relationships don’t have to be one-way relationships in which I’m forever destined to subserviently and unquestioningly absorb someone else’s wisdom, while simultaneously being denied the opportunity to offer something of value in return. It’s really important to me that I’m able to cultivate the kind of collaborative relationships with my postgraduate students and colleagues that can support greater two-way exchanges. I’m not arrogant or naive enough to believe that this will be possible or desirable with everyone, but I hope to learn to recognise the opportunities when they appear.
So I’ve signed up to take part in VUW’s Academic Mentoring Programme, which is quite formal and highly structured, but I’m also interested in building a more bottom-up, dynamic and informal board of advisors. I found a few articles from a special issue on new visions of mentoring in Theory into Practice that really got me thinking about collaboration and co-mentoring. Janice Jipson and Nicholas Paley rightly remark that “no one gets there alone” and go on to describe a collegial and personal relationship that creates a “shelter…in which [they] can encourage, support and critique each other in the trying out of ideas, feelings and action.” I’m fortunate enough to be able to immediately identify the person who fills this role in my life and because of this support I can confidently move on to identifying additional people. Business folks suggest a group of three: someone several levels above you in your own organisation; a high performing peer; and someone great who works elsewhere and in a different field. They also suggest finding people that both support and challenge you. I’ve already got a bunch of men and women in mind, so wish me luck!
The second half of the symposium addressed the need for effective communication of research. Dacia Herbulock and Peter Griffin from the Science Media Centre started with a famous Carl Sagan quote, still relevant fifteen years after he spoke the words:
“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
Dacia noted MoRST‘s research into public attitudes to science and explained that communicating our work is important because it supports public awareness and the “public good,” raises researcher profiles for funding, increases academic citations, seeds cross-disciplinary collaborations and improves our capacity to use clear, succinct language for media appearances, commericialisation efforts, grant applications, etc.. When communicating research activities, she advised a focus on what makes our research fascinating, especially in terms of its relevance or real-world application. We should also draw attention to research that calls for change, questions common assumptions or reinforces favoured narratives, as well as work that gives insights into the world and human experience, or can evoke wonder and awe. Whatever the research, she suggested the following strategies:
Identify your audience
Use concise, clear language
Write in active voice
Break down information, use analogy to explain complex ideas
Paint mental pictures
Draw connection to day-to-day life of average person
Aim for catchy, surprising, humourous or sobering quotes and anecdotes (because you will be edited)
We were then asked to sum up our research for non-experts. I chose to focus on two questions that drive my current research:
How can people get more involved in the development and implementation of new technologies?
How can imagining the future help us live better today?
But, honestly, the best examples I heard described areas or topics of research–which was more in sync with the next task of describing what we research in seven words or less. I had to take a couple of stabs at this to bring the word count down, but eventually came up with: “Telling the stories of NZ merino wool.”
Peter then went on to stress the value of visualising and engaging research (data) through infographics, iPhone apps, Firefox add-ons, blogs, etc., and I completely agree. Part of what I’ve done for the past eight years is try to find ways of communicating my research–both process and product–online, and visual communication is crucial to my current projects. He also advocated open access to research, including publishing in open access journals and using Creative Commons NZ, which is working with the RSNZ to create New Zealand jurisdiction-specific licenses.
In closing, Lesley Middleton, from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, spoke about NZ’s research future, and the relationship between research and policy–a particular interest of mine. (I was also surprised to learn that that 68.8% of science PhDs in NZ do not go on to do direct research, and of those who do, 14.5% work in non-university research, 16.7% become permanent research staff, and 2.6% become professors.) Lesley brought up Steven Johnson‘s observation that “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where ideas can connect” and focussed on how policy changes in NZ have included different arrangements to create more connections and a collaborative mindset, such as Igniting Potential: NZ’s Science and Innovation Pathway and the merging of MoRST and the Foundation for Research Science and Technology to form the new Ministry of Science and Innovation. She also highlighted the Ministry’s Futurewatch programme, which “aims to build government’s alertness to new scientific knowledge and technologies and the sort of implications–opportunities and risks–that they present to New Zealand.” (Apparently this came after 10 years of GM research without the knowledge that people wanted to talk about whether they wanted this science, and not just learn that scientists could make it happen!) Following those links, I also learned about the Futures Trust / Futures Thinking Aotearoa, which provides information for people “looking ahead to identify and prepare for the big changes likely to affect our society.” She also ended with this lovely quote:
“And in today already walks tomorrow.”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As many academic researchers will tell you, our career paths are rarely straight or straight-forward. Robin Peace spoke about her “convoluted” career, starting with Danny Dorling‘s interesting research on why inequality persists and how her interest in social exclusion led her through university teaching and administration, policy work and evaluation. She explained that researchers are generally expected to be curious, persevering, specialised, disciplined, focussed, creative and independent–although most of us are only some of these things, some of the time. (As an aside, I was thrilled to see her illustrate this point with Theo Ellsworth‘s Capacity!) She suggested that the traditionally elite professoriate are now better understood as part of the global “precariat” and New Zealand would do better to support international, multicultural, interdisciplinary, mobile and collaborative work that combines specialist know-how with soft (people) skills; minutia and big-picture research; modesty, pragmatism and practicality; familiarity with natural and urban environments; as well as a genuine sense of, and value for, practice and craftsmanship in our work.
Lisa Matisoo-Smith began talking about how her “convoluted” life–that is, her inability to give clear answers to the questions “who are you?” and “where are you from?”–led to a “convoluted” career in biological anthropology. (I’m pretty sure this is why most anthropologists become anthropologists!) She discussed her research into how ancient animal DNA can be used to track early human migrations, and how she built a career by “occupying” university space or doing the work, getting the money and doing more work until she found that she had a lab of her own. (I also know a few people who have been quite successful at this approach, so it really can work!) More specifically, she spoke at length about her research into academically unpopular topics such as ancient contact between Polynesia and South America, and how difficult it is to find what we aren’t looking for or don’t believe exists. She emphasised the importance of grounded research that actively engages local communities and how it can result in opening up entirely new areas of knowledge and practice. She also stressed the importance of lifelong learning, multidisciplinary work, thinking about old questions or problems in new ways, talking to new people, asking “stupid” questions and trying new things. And last, but not least, she reminded us of how incredibly important it is to be able to explain our research and its relevance to other people–all sorts of people.
Q: How do we make multidisiciplinary/interdisciplinary research work when it’s not supported?
A: Make it happen! Surround yourself with people who support this way of working. If not officially, do it on the side. Find space, make time. And when you’re in charge, make sure others can do it.
The first workshops have been announced, including ours (below) and others on digital cities, semantic ambient media experience and making sense of Twitter.
Ethnographic Fiction and Speculative Design: Supporting Community Participation in the Development and Implementation of New Technologies
Anne Galloway (Victoria University of Wellington), Ben Kraal (Queensland University of Technology) and Jo Tacchi (Queensland University of Technology)
“In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
While pervasive technology development and implementation proceed apace, the potential social and cultural implications—including the ways in which end-user communities can be active participants in these processes—remain thoroughly underexplored. The inherent invisibility of the technological infrastructure required to support these emerging networks makes it difficult to identify which objects around us might have computational capacities, or what those capacities might be. Without that sort of tangible knowledge, it is also difficult to imagine how such networks stand to reconfigure individual identities and social interactions, or how access, data privacy and ownership might be managed. Manifesting this knowledge in concrete, but not necessarily real, ways can be seen as a crucial first step in providing communities the means to productively engage such issues and concerns. This full-day workshop aims to explore how grounded ethnographic and action research methods can be transformed into fictional and speculative designs that provide people the kinds of experiences and tools that can lead to direct community action in the development and implementation of new technologies.