Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

Cultivating a community of reflective teaching practice

What if we assumed that learning is as much a part of our human nature as eating or sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable, and that – given a chance – we are quite good at it?  And what if, in addition, we assumed that learning is, in essence, a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing?  What kind of understanding would such a perspective yield on how learning takes place and on what is required to support it? Etienne Wenger. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Most academics are extremely adept at talking about their research in a number of ways.  Several of the longstanding practices of the academy are designed to facilitate such exchange – most obviously, conferences and symposia.  We think nothing of travelling for two hours (or sometimes even two days!) each way, to give a twenty minute ‘paper’.  And this is, broadly speaking, as it should be.  The instantaneous and vigorous exchange of ideas and knowledge is one crucial way in which those things move forwards.  It is also one of the key ways in which academics recognise and honour the fact that they are part of a social ‘community of practice’, to use Wenger’s simple and powerful term.

What about our teaching practice?  Do we go to the same lengths, take the same care, in talking to our peers about that other activity that is supposed to command at least some (!) of our professional energy?  As well as travelling across countries, or continents, to discuss our research, do we travel across the corridor to discuss our teaching?  Not as much as or in the ways that we ideally ought to, I would suggest, and I invite every academic reader to ask whether the same is also true for her or him.

For the first time this year, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) are collecting data from HE institutions concerning the formal teaching qualifications of staff involved in that activity.  How these data will be used and how they will feed into league table positions, prospective student decision-making, and so on, remains to be seen.  However, along with the Higher Education Academy and its Professional Standards Framework and National Teaching Fellowships (with related awards), it is another move designed to incentivise the formal professionalisation of teaching in the sector.

To be sure, professionalisation can be a mixed blessing, and one frequently hears horror stories from one’s colleagues across the UK about the type of provision that institutions develop in order to tick the relevant boxes.  Some of the blame too must reside with the academics who, when they reluctantly return to the classroom, adopt the behaviours that they rightly condemn in their own students, and adopt a surface or achieving approach to the material (even when that material is trying to help them to recognise deep learning, what facilitates it, and why it is better and ultimately easier than surface learning!).

It would be a real shame if ‘getting one’s teaching qualification’ simply became the latest in an already too-long row of bureaucratic hoops, because if it did, then individuals and institutions alike would be losing out on the real and deeply transformative benefits that can arise from undertaking to learn about teaching.  My own experience of studying towards a PGCHE has prompted me to embark upon what I expect will be a lifelong process of engaging with educational literature and my fellow teachers, not with the aim of becoming a scholar of education, but with the aim of becoming a better and a reflective practitioner.  (The literature on ‘reflective practice’ is vast and multi-disciplinary, and I am only beginning to dip my toe in it.  Schön (1991) is an important early reference point.  More recent publications that I have on my shelf are Ghaye (2011) and Tarrant (2013).)

Bringing together the ideas of communities of practice and reflective practice, it seems to me that a reflective community of teaching practice would be a good thing to cultivate and sustain at the programme or subject area level in higher education.  There are of course benefits in meeting and exchanging ideas with teachers who work in other disciplines.  However, when a group of people share responsibility for the overall learning experience of a group of students, there are obvious benefits to them engaging in ongoing reflection on their collective teaching practice.  Indeed, it would seem strange if this did not occur.

One place in the literature on higher education where this type of activity is examined and models are offered is in the literature relating to peer observation and alternatives to it.  David Gosling’s (2000: 5) seminal work in this area identifies various different potential models.  To briefly summarise just two: An ‘evaluation model’ seeks, as its name suggests, to confirm proficiency or ‘identify under-performance’.  The benefits mainly accrue to the institution, and the scope of the observation is narrow (‘teaching performance, usually within a single session).  By contrast, a ‘peer review model’ encourages ‘engagement in discussion about teaching’.  It focuses not only on teaching performance but other aspects of the learning environment, and the observer and the observed stand to benefit from the process.

In the Film Studies subject area at the University of Hull, we are about to embark on an exciting process of peer development.  In the run-up to a process of curriculum redesign, which will be occurring across the university, we are going to engage in a series of activities designed to develop our ‘reflective community of practice’.  We will be drawing initially upon a ‘Journal Club’ model that I used on the second module of my PGCHE (‘Evaluating and Improving Practice’).  The members of the club read two or three pieces of academic literature on a given topic.  Then an online discussion wiki is open for a pre-agreed period (on the PGCHE we found that a fortnight worked quite well).  The ground rules for participation are that each member must make at least three decent contributions to the forum, at least one of which must me the creation of a new discussion thread, and at least one of which must be a response to a thread started by someone else.  This way, a combination of initiating and engaging in discussion is ensured for all members.  Such a set-up allows one time to reflect and formulate, and also allows participants to contribute at times suitable to themselves (summer is of course the key time in the academic calendar where sustained research and writing is possible).  The idea is that by the end of the summer, we will be primed to turn our informed, collective attention to the delicate matter of curriculum design.

The initial plan is to hold three discussions over the summer.

1 The broad and fundamental issue of teaching philosophies

This forum will not quite fit the template format in the respect that there will be no academic literature to read.  Instead, each member will be invited to complete an online Teaching Perspectives Inventory and report their results to the group, reflecting upon whether the survey is in line with what they thought they thought about teaching, or whether it held any surprises.  Each member will also be asked to respond to the question ‘What are the key things that a student ought to have learned upon leaving our programme?’

2 Designing teaching at the modular level

Readings relating to Biggs’s notion of ‘constructive alignment’ and the notion of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Brown, Collins and Duguid 1989) should prompt interesting discussions about the principles that ought to underpin module design.

3 Assessment and feedback

Finally (for the summer session), we will turn our attention to these crucial areas.  Readings will be decided at a later date, perhaps taking into account discussions that have occurred during earlier forums.

I will report back on how our experiment (which I am resisting giving an official title to!) progresses, and I hope that my colleagues will too.


Brown, John Seely, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid (1989), ‘Situation Cognition and the Culture of Learning’, Educational Researcher 18: 1, pp. 32-42.

Ghaye, Tony (2011), Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice: A Practical Guide for Positive Action, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.

Schön, Donald A (1991), Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Tarrant, Peter (2013), Reflective Practice and Professional Development, London: Sage.

Wenger, Etienne (1989), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.