PhD Journal Entry 7: FaceTime Saves the Day

After work today, I had my final video call for the year with my primary supervisor, Kate. (Chris is on leave.) Naturally, we had great fun dealing with various technical difficulties before starting our discussion, as we fought Google Hangouts, Slack and Cisco WebEx, which all failed to create and maintain a proper connection. FaceTime thankfully saved the day.

In the lead-up to this chat, I had been trying to consider the real value of narrative to my project—investigating the media ecology of niche tech podcasting and the stories of fans—so that I can formulate more explicit thesis questions to frame my project. I intend to use narrative enquiry (a qualitative research method) in this project down the track, as I did for my Honours research.

Two passages in Lance Strate’s (2014) article ‘Notes on Narrative as Medium and a Media Ecology Approach to the Study of Storytelling’ were particularly helpful in framing this discussion with my supervisor. Even if you’re not super-plugged into the topics that interest me, what he has to say about storytelling is relevant to every human being on the planet:

‘Storytelling is produced by social interaction, a product of transactions, of relationships between human beings. Narrative represents a relationship between source and receiver… It becomes easy to lose sight of this fact because we tend to focus on texts rather than contexts, to pay attention to the content and ignore the medium, which brings us back to “the medium is the message” as a call to pay attention. For this reason, Postman described the media ecology approach as context analysis (2006)’ (p. 9); and

‘The future of storytelling lies in the continued shift away from narrative as text, and towards the fuller development of narrative as environment. In conjunction with the electronic media and especially the new media, narrative will increasingly involve interaction and collaboration in its creation, and its reception, social narrative as a form, and social storytelling as an activity… These and other mutations are aspects of the continuing evolution of narrative, as it interacts with other media, at each turn releasing bursts of creativity, what McLuhan referred to as hybrid energy (1964)’ (p. 23).

The idea of ‘context over text’ is very relevant to the idea of podcasting, as podcast networks and their shows, hyperlinked show notes and supplementary social channels all contribute to a greater environment and context than a single audio stream of storytelling. Furthermore, to my mind, interaction and collaboration between both producers and listeners are integral to creating the overall narrative. There is no show if either party is missing.

As usual, Kate was exceptionally helpful in her feedback about my reading so far, my understanding of narrative and my preliminary ideas for thesis questions.

Most profoundly, she reminded me to remain personal and reflective in my work, as I tend to get a bit carried away in my reading and research. It is still early days for me and she reminded me that in addition to establishing clear research questions and citing scholarly evidence, I need to remain grounded and aware of why I am doing this in the first place. Before embarking on any extended writing that is teeming with sources, I need to write for myself and elaborate on what I know and love about podcasting… before it’s too late. Too often, apparently, people delve into research, only to become inundated with texts and forget what they loved about the topic years down the track. Right now, I have the opportunity to discuss what interests me before I’m ‘tainted’.

I am grateful to have two great supervisors in Kate and Chris: both bring very different interests to the table, but they both encourage me to question my assumptions and expectations—both about the overall research process and my own capability.

As we approach the summer holidays, it’s reassuring to know that I’m on the right track. Kate has reminded me that I need to enjoy this process and reflect on why chose to undertake it. As long as the reasons are clear in my mind, the next few years should be much easier.

PhD Journal Entry 6: Escape

In the last month, I was fortunate enough to confirm new flexible hours with my workplace, whereby I compress the same amount of working time in a fortnight from 10 working days down to nine—this has resulted in having each second Friday out of the office. Today, I decided to spend a good chunk of it at the University of Wollongong campus, with my temporary office shown above.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do this and although I’ve only had two such Fridays so far, they’ve both made a big difference in how much I can read and accomplish during the early stage of my literature review on media ecology.

Recently I’ve been reading quite a bit of Lewis Mumford, including his texts Art and Technics (1952), The Myth of the Machine (1966) and Technics and Civilization (1967). As a method of practising and revising my knowledge of media ecology, I’ve also been trying to integrate ideas from the field (where appropriate) into my Lounge Ruminator podcast. During my visit to the campus today, I finished the fourth and final text of his that I borrowed from the university library: The Story of Utopias (1962).

As I sat reading the text, which discusses the history and formation of utopias and how humans perceive and reconstruct their environments, a particular section leapt out at me. Mumford (1962, pp. 19–20) explains the concept of a ‘utopia of escape’:

In its most elemental state, this utopia of escape calls for a complete breach with the butcher, the baker, the grocer, and the real, limited, imperfect people that flutter around us… For the most part, of course, this is an idle dream, and if we do not grow out of it, we must at any rate thrust other conditions into it… when the “real” world becomes a little too hard and too sullen to face, we must take refuge, if we are to recover our balance, into another world which responds more perfectly to our deeper interests and desires—the world of literature.

Upon reading this, I instantly related to it and felt that this notion of escape encapsulated my own motivation for returning to university. Although I enjoy my work, I did feel like something was missing—a certain kind of stimulus or feeling or learning environment… really, just engaging with and diving deeply into literature.

Sitting at that table with my coffee and iPad, absorbed in a text and hearing the birds in the trees and chitter-chatter of students in various languages, it felt like I was in a kind of utopia. It felt like an intellectual escape from the routine of everyday life.

Occasionally, people ask me why I’ve decided to do a PhD or give me a look like it’s a whole lot of extra work for no apparent reward. At this stage, I’m still considering and refining the questions that I want to ask, or as my supervisor Kate says, the ‘so what?’ of it all.

I think that a big part of this is yearning for a feeling of escape and a mission beyond the routine. Like the media environments that I’ve been reading a lot about recently, the university is a different kind of environment, with its own messages, conventions and expected behaviours, whether referring to the physical environment or the cognitive environment.

Most importantly, it’s an environment in which I can be another form of myself. We all have different selves in different contexts.

The word ‘utopia’ suggests idealism and perfection but in a practical sense, the word could mean something different; it could simply mean having a sense of clarity and direction or indeed, a happy place.

So, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ve decided that doing a PhD is about finding my intellectual happy place.

PhD Journal Entry 5: Virtual Coffee with a Media Ecologist

In what seems to be a bit of a habit for me, I’ve changed the title format for entries in this PhD study journal; I did the same thing for my ‘ruminations’ on Lounge Ruminator. After a while, I start to find the titles either boring or non-specific.

After joining the Media Ecology Association (MEA) to support my research, I discovered that you can have a ‘virtual coffee’ with a media ecologist over FaceTime or Skype. This is a new service that the MEA offers, helping students, early-career scholars and even experienced researchers to engage with media ecologists and enhance their understanding of the field.

After a bit of to and fro with emails, I managed to organise a FaceTime call with MEA co-founder Lance Strate, who is an accomplished researcher, author of numerous articles and books and also a former student of Neil Postman. It was a fantastic opportunity to put a face to the name and hear directly from an influential media ecologist. He was extraordinarily helpful in prompting me to think about the history of audio and the devices that we have used to listen to it over time.

As I’m relatively new to the field of media ecology, I have much to consider in how I approach my research about podcasting as not just content, but also as a medium/platform/art form that influences, shapes and determines a very particular style and tone of content. As Postman said in 1998, ‘Technology giveth and technology taketh away’—in other words, there is always a trade-off with every medium or technology. What do podcasts offer that radio, blogging or video-streaming do not? What is it missing that these other media provide?

Making connections with researchers in a field—beyond just reading their content—gives greater context and confidence. Humans are social animals and we thrive on the ability to communicate, after all. In this case, being able to talk and have an auditory experience with a person, rather than just a visual experience with a text, was very beneficial.