Thursday, 23 October 2014

Project Update: Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning

By Emma Head and Ala Sirriyeh 

We are now in the third week of our teaching innovation project.  We have asked students to complete a questionnaire detailing their use of social media and noting their perceptions of using social media in education.  Next week we will be running focus groups with students to discuss these topics in more detail.

Ala has been making use to Twitter to alert students to news stories, journal articles, and other resources that are relevant to the 'Race', Racism, and Resistance module.  Seminar activities have also been documented in tweets.  Ala has used storify to collect together the module tweets.  The storify page is an excellent visual example of the range of ways Twitter has been used.

We will be blogging about our project again later in the semester.


Monday, 20 October 2014

A Sociology of the Seasons?

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

As a sociologist of culture or a cultural sociologist I am interested in the various ways in which we make and represent meaning to ourselves and to others. How we create and share and reflect on the present connected to the past and predicting, hoping and aspiring to some vision of the future. We do this within social contexts in which our material and physical environments also impact and influence our understanding of the social processes, forms and structures that affect our experiences of being in the world. 

An intrinsic part of this is how we interact with others: when and where, in what ways and why we do so. In many instances this relates to social environments and circumstances in which we act and interact in appropriate and acceptable ways conducive to the life worlds we inhabit and/or the stage of the life course we are in (family, work, leisure, etc.). As such, the places and spaces as well as the types and forms of social interaction available to us are not only to some extent prescribed but also assume and reflect aspects of power, status, access, availability, as well as other human traits – greed, ambition, lust, love, want, leisure, pleasure.

I have been thinking recently about the paradox of modern existence that means we experience life in predominantly human made environments (all those buildings, transportation networks and vehicles, all that concrete, glass, steel and tarmac) immersed within a battery communication technologies that allow us global connections and information but which at the same time increasingly insulate us from nature and from natural rhythms such as climate and the seasons.

As modern individuals living predominantly urban existences in (post?) modern, (post?) industrialised societies our relationship with nature and with weather and climate has changed the way in which we perceive and experience our sensual and embodied selves within and through our subjective experience of everyday life. We take advantage of the possibilities of warmer weather to make use of outside spaces and for a range of activities that are only made possible and more enjoyable by seasonal variations in climate.

I for one have made as much use of the spring and summer and with the exceptional and long, dry and warm September that has extended it, to engage in a range of outside activities and alfresco experiences (horse riding, mountain climbing, sea kayaking, coastal and forest walks, paddling and swimming in rivers and seas, boats trips, long lazy days out in the park, picnics, garden parties, late into the night parties around a blazing fire).
Autumn (the season of rain and wind, cold mornings and nights, mist and mushrooms, the beginning of Daylight Saving Time as the clocks go back) has come as a bit of a shock to the system. Whilst autumn reflects the end of some things it is also a season of new beginnings (not least the start of the new academic year). Whilst I can reflect ruefully on the need for warmer clothes (gone are the shorts and sandals, back are the socks and boots) there is also a recognition of the diurnal change/shift in chosen and available social activities oriented around and within inside as opposed to outside spaces and places.  This change in dress, behaviour, activity and place is also a reflection on how our individual and social behaviours are still affected but our climate and by the natural rhythms and cycles of seasons.     

This sense of connection to the seasons is something which our ancestors and others around the globe were and still are intimately connected with and many rituals, festivities and cultural activities revolve around or are associated with specific seasons and times of the year. For example, from my part of the world, the Celtic festival of Samhain (the Celtic New Year) celebrated around the 31st October, was associated with fires, rites and rituals, fetes and festivities marking the betwixt and between the living world and the world of ancestors and the dead (now our Halloween). Imbolc came at lambing time, around 31 January and was celebrated as the beginning of the end of winter (now our New Years Eve). Beltain was another fire festival celebrated around 1st May, and whilst Samhain was associated with the onset of winter and retiring indoors from harsh weather Beltain was the celebration of abundant fertility as spring burst forth, a time for feasts and fairs, fun and frolics. Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for as long as two weeks either side of the day itself, which fell around 31 July and celebrated the plenty of summer amid preparation for Harvest.

Most of these festivals were not only intimately connected to the season and cycles of nature they were also social and communal celebrations of solidarity and culture. We used to live more closely with and be aware of our connection to and relationship with the turning of the planet and the impacts of the change of seasons. This was all the more true when we were more closely aware of our dependence on the earth and its productive capacity. Now we are at the end of summer this is also a time of celebration and of bounty and the various Harvest Festivals, the Harvest Moon, the autumn equinox are all symbols and recognition of a change of season as well as a reaping of the benefits of summer growth and productivity. It has been a particularly good year for wild fruits, berries and nuts and if you had noticed the squirrels on campus have and are especially active at the moment.

We are perhaps less connected and aware as we become dependent and expectant on the constancy of choice of products provided by supermarkets and other retailers. Most are us as products of modernity live increasingly isolated and individuated lives where we are relatively oblivious, desensitised or view nature as an inconvenience, as when storms, rain, wind, impose and impact on our daily lives and routines. The impact of industrialisation, urbanisation and the enclosure movement forced many people from a rural connection to the land as demographic changes have now resulted in the majority of UK, European and US populations living in towns and cities: a process that is now being repeated in the global south. This has inevitably changed our relationship to and awareness of the natural world and seasonal change.

However, many still do have an awareness and understanding of how our behaviours, social interactions and cultural consciousness is reflected in and shaped by climactic and seasonal events and for us there is a need and desire to keep in touch with the turning of the earth through, literally, a turning of the earth. I speak as a long standing, enthusiastic and active, if not especially skilful, gardener who enjoys getting hands deep in soil and compost, digging over and enriching the soil, planting seeds and watching them grow, nurturing the process until blooms, fruit and vegetables are hopefully the happy outcome (as in these images). 

I am aware and appreciative that I am lucky to have a small garden to grow things in and that for many this may be seen as a luxury or a only a far off dream only available for a middle class home-owning waged class. However, there is a long history of working class engagement with gardening and growing things, whether for the table of for pleasure. This did not end with the demise of traditional rural occupations or because of the threat and demise of much social housing which included in their plans a front and back garden.
The recent publication of a number of books (Willes, 2014; Foley, 2014; Burchardt, 2011) traces and explores the long term commitment to and enjoyment of gardening as a working class leisure practice that provides some alleviation from modern urban existence. This need to connect with the land and with nature is reflected not only in the need for private gardens, urban public parks, country parks and rural recreations but also with spaces and places for cultivating and interacting with older and slower rhythms and tempos different from the 24/7 365 fast pace of our modern life. Despite the threat to allotment provision from land developers and cash strapped councils that results in more or less of a postcode lottery of provision gardening for pleasure and for necessity in cyclical periods of austerity remains popular. As Crouch and Ward (1997) have argued allotment gardening represents a form and expression of social interaction and engagement that creates and embeds social solidarity through a shared experience which can have potentially radical effects (McKay, 2011) beyond the garden fence (Reynolds, 2009). 

But how does this relate to a sociology of culture or a cultural sociologist? Culture, as Raymond Williams famously said (1976, Keywords) is one of the most complex words in the English language. In its earliest usage it meant the tending of crops or animals and is in part the usage I have emphasised above. Culture also means the growing or nurturing of minds and the development of intellectual endeavours. This is akin perhaps to the cultivation of a garden or allotment and perhaps if an intellectual seed is planted it will grow and flourish into a critical and enquiring mind. Culture is also a way of being or of life and gardening can certainly be understood as both a commitment to and orientation to the world as well as a (sub)cultural activity involving practices shared amongst a group exhibiting solidarity and self-help. The final definition of culture described by Williams is as products, things of intellectuals, artists, writers. As cultural producers there is certainly a plethora of products and artefacts associated with gardening and cultivation as well as gardening being a creative activity in itself which produces positive physical, mental and social benefits from the ground up, so to speak.  

My example of gardening whether at home, in windowsill pots, raised beds or on allotments is one which highlights and emphasises how social activities and interactions can be and still are associated with particular seasons and with climate and weather.

A sociology of the seasons or a seasonal sociology would be one which recognises the continuing interlinking of individuals, groups, industries and business, as well as particular behaviours and activities with longer, natural and slower rhythms and cycles and how one can influence the other in a reciprocal way. It would potentially provide an analysis that could consider how and why different a certain nostalgia around outside children and adults recreation and play is married to concerns about supposedly modern, unhealthy, sedentary inside pastimes as well as the decline of community. Such a seasonal sociology could perhaps explore this continuing fascination with inside and outside, home and away, nature/culture dichotomies etc. in our everyday lives.
Foley, C. (2014) Of Cabbages and Kings: The History of Allotments Frances Lincoln, London
Crouch, D.  and Ward, C. (1997) The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham
McKay, G. (2011) Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the GardenFrances Lincoln, London
Reynolds, R. (2009) On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Boundaries Bloomsbury Publishing, London
Willes, M. (2014) The Gardens of the British Working Class Yale University Press
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords Fontana, Glasgow

Stiegler’s University

On Wednesday the first Sociology / Social Policy research seminar of the new academic year is scheduled. Mark Featherstone will talk about his recent work, 'Stiegler's University':

Wednesday, 22nd October


In this paper I read Stiegler’s work on youth, and especially his discussion of attention from Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, and the decadent society, formulated across three volumes of Disbelief and Discredit, through the lens of the contemporary university in order to develop a theory of the potentially utopian and dystopian conditions of higher education. In the first section of the paper I set out Stiegler’s theory of youth, attention capture, and the decadent society before exploring the ways in which this thesis can enable a critical understanding of the university in neoliberal society. Reflecting upon work by Henry Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz and others on the university machine, I examine the university in terms of the campus, or camp, which refers to a delimited space where particular logics, rules, and regulations apply. Here, I link the campus to ideas of utopia and dystopia, which similarly refer to delimited spaces, in order to argue that the university might be understood in terms of a contained disciplinary space comparable to institutions explored in Foucault’s works such as The History of Madness and Discipline and Punish. Returning to Stiegler’s critique of Foucault’s concept of discipline, I suggest that this is not necessarily negative and dystopian disciplinary control, but rather might be understood in terms of the creation of a self able to concentrate and focus in the name of creation and construction. However, where university education is understood and practiced through neoliberal techno-logics defined by first information overload, rather than knowledge production, and second quantifiable results, rather than qualitative learning, I suggest that we enter the realm of the dystopian university, which forecloses space for creativity, and instead trains labourers, where the labourer is understood in terms of a hyper-rational machine that responds to input, but does not think for itself.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning – Research Project Launch!

Today sees the launch of a new research project titled ‘Using Twitter in Sociology Teaching and Learning'

The project is being led by Dr Emma Head and Dr Ala Sirriyeh, and is funded by Keele's Teaching Innovation Project Scheme. The objectives of this investigation are to firstly assess the use of Twitter as a tool to promote enhanced student learning and engagement on a sociology module and, secondly, to explore the role of social media in the education and wider lives of undergraduate students.  The research will evaluate the use of Twitter as a teaching and learning tool in a new second year undergraduate module 'Race', Racism and Resistance, which will run this semester. This is an elective module in sociology, led by Ala. The module introduces students to the sociology of ‘race’, ethnicity and racism. Ala will be using Twitter as a teaching and learning tool within the module. Emma will evaluate this use of Twitter on the module as well as exploring this within the wider context of student engagement with various forms of social media. 

Research aims 
In this project we will be exploring three main research aims: 

·         To explore whether Twitter contributions and exchanges can help enable students to feel a greater sense of connection to their studies and whether a more collaborative approach to learning will develop as students exchange ideas about their reading and seminar preparation.  
·         To evaluate whether, and to what extent, the use of Twitter on this module encourages students to think of different forms of communication, to reflect on how to act in an online environment, and to consider their self-presentation whilst using social media. 
·         To examine how contributions online relate to contributions in seminars and preparation for seminars to explore the possible connections between student engagement both online and in the face-to-face settings.

We are interested in talking to students about these issues and considering whether existing social media networks might offer any advantages over the Keele Learning Environment (KLE) for student learning. This is particularly significant in a subject like sociology where we aim to encourage students to relate the observations of scholars to the contemporary social world and wider social issues.

Undergraduates are often heavily embedded in social media networks and this project will allow us to explore the experiences students have of issues around privacy and self-presentation online. We will be able to ask students to reflect on their ‘digital footprint’ and to consider related issues at a time when they will soon be making the transition from student to potential employee in a graduate labour market. We will also be exploring the appropriateness of using social media sites as places for learning and how students experience learning differently in online and real world environments.

Using Twitter on the module

Students on this module will be encouraged to participate in a series of tasks that connect their learning and seminar preparation with the weekly key readings and lecture topic.  For example, students might tweet questions for a forthcoming seminar discussion or tweet their favourite quote from the week’s key reading.  Students will be encourage to use a shared hashtag in their tweets. In the seminars the tweets from that week’s online discussion will be displayed via a hashtag search, or by using storify. Ala will present and comment on the Twitter feed in class to summarise and facilitate a discussion on themes that have been raised. Ala will also tweet and retweet links (from @AlaSirriyeh) to resources that debate contemporary issues around ‘race’ and racism, this will include journal articles, news reports, and documentaries. Students will also be encouraged to share resources that they find in the same way. One of the assessments on this module asks students to present an analysis of a relevant contemporary debate. These tweets will collate a set of materials that will be useful for this task.  Ala's twitter feed is displayed within the KLE for any students who don't wish to access Twitter, or to set up their own account.

Evaluating the use of Twitter for teaching and learning

We will be using questionnaires and focus groups to evaluate the use of Twitter on this module. Students registered on the module will be invited to complete a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the course. The first questionnaire asks about expectations and experiences of Twitter and the how social media is currently used by the student. The second questionnaire asks students to evaluate the use of Twitter on the module and their overall learning experience. Additionally, students will be invited to take part in two focus group sessions, once in the first three weeks of the module, and again in the final weeks of teaching. Emma will facilitate these focus groups, to explore issues around online teaching and learning and social media in greater depth. We hope our students will enjoy the opportunity to be participate in a research project.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Big Sociology Project: Welcome Week 2014 at Keele

By Dr Ala Sirriyeh, Lecturer in Sociology  

It has been a great pleasure this week to welcome the wonderful new first year Sociology students to Keele. As part of the Welcome Week activities, on Thursday we ran a workshop titled ‘The Big Sociology Project’. This workshop was in the style of a 'treasure hunt' and was essentially aimed at getting students involved in the practice of ‘being sociological’. The project introduced them to thinking about what sociology is and also about how you ‘do’ sociology by conducting a mini sociological study of Keele and the surrounding area.
Students were asked to get into groups and complete two out of these three tasks:

1) A report on local area using library resources
2) A photographic research task
3) An ethnographic observation task

In the photographic task students were asked to take photographs on various sociological themes (e.g. nature/culture, art on campus, branding, discipline). Students completing the ethnographic observations were asked to observe one or more of a selection of sociological themes (e.g. power relationships, gender and communication). They were asked to draw a poster reflecting on their observations.

Posters from the observations and photographs were emailed to us and the class selected the winning entry which was a photograph (water and trees) on the theme of Nature/Culture taken by Thomas Fleck. Commenting on the photograph Thomas said, "The picture was interesting as we had just stepped away from the lively campus and it was amazing to such a great secluded view of the local nature only few steps away from the bustling uni culture"The light and colours in this photograph also had us wondering for while if this was in fact a painting of a Keele nature scene.

Here is a small selection of some of the many images taken on the day.