Graffiti and comment forums: An essentially social act gone wrong?

When I find myself disappointed by the tone of online comment forums my mind goes back to toilet graffiti.

I am no expert, but there was, I think, a spike in interest in researching toilet (or what Americans might call ‘restroom’) graffiti in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not difficult to see why. Graffiti research sounds quirky and it is instantly relatable to the general public.

I missed out on the golden age of toilet graffiti reporting, but the other day I went back to look at some of these past studies. The paper that interested me most was one by Bruner and Kelso (1980) on bathroom graffiti in a university in the USA. The university is not identified but the study seems to have taken place in Chicago with some of the students described as coming from ‘rural downstate Illinois’.

Bruner and Kelso (1980) discussed two well established ways of approaching the study of graffiti – or let us call it ‘on wall’ (rather than online) text.

The first was a kind of thematic content analysis. Here you choose a ‘corpus’ of text. Labels are then selected / constructed which to help to capture the meanings of these these texts. In graffiti studies these labels may include terms such as racial insults, sexual insults, racial/sexual insults, general insults, sexual humour, general humour, political, drugs, religion, morals and so on. Researchers can then apply these labels to texts, or parts of text, and draw conclusions based on the frequency with which labels are applied and associations between the content of discussion and, say, gender difference.

The second approach to research graffiti and one which Bruner and Kelso saw as mainstream, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the age, was a psychoanalytical one. This approach analysed texts in term of ‘unconscious impulses, infantile sexuality and primitive thoughts’.

Bruner and Kelso rejected both these two approaches and went with what they described as a ‘semiotic’ approach. As they put it:

restroom graffiti are communication, a silent conversation among anonymous partners. Although written in the privacy of a toilet stall, the writing of graffiti is an essentially social act that cannot be understood in terms of the expressive functions performed for an isolated individual. To write graffiti is to communicate; one never finds graffiti where they cannot be seen by others. A new person coming to a toilet stall who chooses to write a graffito must take account of what has previously been written, even in the minimal sense of choosing an appropriate location on the wall, and a message is left for those who will subsequently come to that stall. The graffiti writings build up on the walls until an anonymous janitor comes in the night to wipe it all away, and the cycle of the silent discourse begins again the following day.

They wanted to understand the purpose of graffiti and they did this by looking at power. Not surprisingly this led them first to focus on male and female communication. They felt that female graffiti was more interactive and interpersonal (they cite a supportive on-wall discussion prompted by a female student pondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend). In contrast much male graffiti tended to be ‘individualistic, graphic and derogatory’. In fact the examples they cite are quite vile. In particular they argued that some men were using use the opportunity to communicate in a public space to assert their dominance and seek to put others in their place – in this case, ‘others’ were ‘Jews, blacks, homosexuals and women’. This had to be understood in a context of the promotion of affirmative action programmes at the time and in many ways the men were not so much putting these others in their place but questioning whether they had a legitimate place at all.

The paper interested me on different levels. First, and this is a side point, it struck me that I see very little graffiti today. The paper talks about graffiti disappearing at the end of the day – it used to hang around for much longer but now seems to disappear in many private / public spaces, such as Universities, right away. The second, and main point for me, was the obvious link with research into online texts. When we research any online activity we tend to think we are doing something completely new. However anonymous public forums are not new and we can learn from the past. In this case Bruner and Kelso help me to understand power and voice online. Let me expand.

I have spent a great deal of my research time looking at online texts, counting categories and drawing conclusions. Much of this has been looking at the rather particular context of forums for members of taught programmes and, for the most part, the kinds of discussions I have looked at are often tentative, interpersonal and thoughtful. At their best forums can stimulate ideas but they can also help you see where the writer is coming from in terms of past experience and present expectations.

Forums can often disappoint of course. For example there are considerable constraints on engagement, but in my experience students are never derogatory and, for that matter, when I have looked into it, I have not seen a great gender divide in styles of communication in mixed groups [1]. I remain positive about the role of forums for education but very aware of the constraints.

I have been much less interested in open forums, though of course I do come across some from time to time. However, recently with a research student colleague, I became interested in comparing closed education-focused discussion with open comment forums. One story I followed concerned the BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg. (For overseas readers BBC is our public broadcaster and BBC political correspondents are expected to offer a balanced analysis of events, without being servile to the main parties or unduly bland.). Discussion of her work was triggered by an article claiming that she was ‘the most divisive woman on TV’ [2]

Kuenssberg was also discussed in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper with an international online reach. Most of the comment forum debates in the Guardian web site are reasonably well mannered but anything associated with Jeremy Corbyn (Kuenssberg is not seen as sympathetic to Corbyn, at least by Corbyn supporters) brings out more vitriolic comments far removed from the general tone of the paper’s reporting. Some of the comments made about Laura Kuenssberg for example included:

  • Well Laura Kuenssberg’s been saying “fuck Labour” for long enough. Just less swearily.
  • Laura Kuenssberg is a disgrace to journalism.
  • And yet the BBC still refuses to acknowledge her bias.

I wanted to compare the responses in the right wing press but got sidetracked into looking at a web site for ‘Conservative woman’ [3]. Opinion on BBC and on Laura Kuenssberg was extreme and derogatory as well:

  • Cancel your licence fee payment today.
  • You do not have to pay for the paedobeeb’s poisonous and pervasive propaganda.
  • Never give them any information at all.
  • I don’t watch BBC news or current affairs my wife can’t stand Laura K, and it doesn’t sound like a good old British name anyway.
  • In years to come, dictionaries will have the following entry: Smug – see Laura Kuenssberg

So why should this be happening? Why should public spaces, even ones occupied by special interest groups, put their case in such a derogatory manner. Why should people who are taking the trouble of making an argument have no interest in trying to win opponents around to their point of view by the force of their argument? Here my thoughts went back to Bruner and Kelso. As they suggest we can understand anonymous postings in terms of transgression at some psychoanalytic level and / or we can count the labels and say how many times this or that happened. For that matter we can understand texts as shaped by technology itself (for example the way that technology seems to trigger an instant response). But, as Bruno and Kelso explain, we can see texts as ways of exercising power – the power not so much to organise opinion in favour of something but the power to deny legitimacy to anyone you disagree with. It is about making sure others know their place and that is at root all I can say about the way some people write online or for that matter the way they write on walls.

[1] For a counter example see

Eve, J., & Brabazon, T. (2008). Learning to leisure? failure, flame, blame, shame, homophobia and other everyday practices in online education. The Journal of Literacy and Technology, 9(1), 36-61.

[2] The claim about divisiveness was made in the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, and discussed in several publications, see for example Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bbc-laura-kuenssberg-telegraph_uk_59524553e4b02734df2d42b0

[3] http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk

I thought for a minute that this was a mainstream Conservative party web site but in fact it is a fringe group.

[In my original post I did not provide a reference for Bruno and Kelso. It is:

Bruner, E. And Kelso, J. (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: a semiotic perspective, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 3, 239-252

 

 

Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/38301293

and a follow up story at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36192300

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36721892

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/12/coventry-city-decline-despair-league-one

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/feb/18/blackburn-manchester-united-venkys-fa-cup

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/oct/03/football-fans-protest-club-owners-blackburn-coventry-charlton

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/26/charlton-athletic-and-the-fight-for-the-clubs-future-video

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/24/its-like-a-circus-here-leyton-orient-fans-furious-with-owner-after-relegation-video

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at

http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJWBC.2017.082717

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Data and Education

Reading through contributions to debates on big data and education (see [1] – [9] below) reminds us that there are two perspectives on education: education as science and education as wisdom of practice.

Education as science is about generalisation (if x what is likely to happen?), measurable outcomes (chiefly grades, if appropriate retention too) and observable processes of teaching and learning. Education as science seeks ‘objectivity’ and appeals in particular to policy makers and organisations who want to know what is worth funding and what works.

Education as wisdom of practice is about recognising complexity. From experience teachers know that no two classes are ever the same and without wisdom gained over time they will lack the strategies and techniques to get the best out of their learners. Wise teachers recognise uncertainty both in what is being measured and how you measure it. They ask how and why people learn, or fail to learn, and build up mental pictures of their learners. They know that teaching and learning is emotional. The appeal to wisdom of practice plays very well with practitioners who understand that ‘it is always complicated’.

Big data (and learner analytics) appeal instinctively to our first group, those who see education as a science. This on the grounds that:

  • We can interrogate more data, more quickly, than ever before. For example in England the national pupil database (NPD) [1] provides a huge data file on pupil attainment, attendance and progression which can be broken down by sector, gender ethnicity, first language, free school meals and so on. It can help show what is happening and what is having an impact. To take one example it has helped us understand not just about ethnicity, but different dimensions to ethnicity, and it has recalibrated how we think about impact of multi culturalism in schools and identified an achievement gap among white working class boys.
  • We can be serendipitous. Indeed other than its size the NPD is not big data, it is a snapshot survey with predictable data fields. Of more interest to big data enthusiasts are explorations of hitherto unlinked sets of data. For example projects in several universities aim to explore what data on library usage (not just visits, but what is accessed online) have on the attainment of students [2] [3]. It is not, of course, surprising if library usage and attainment are in some way related but we have never been able to explore the association in as much detail as now.
  • We can get just in time data which can be fed back to learners, for example to ‘nudge’ students to visit the library [2] [4]. This kind of early feedback can be very important in distance learning where a host of online activity is automatically tracked. [4]
  • We can use big data in order to generate powerful models which assist decision-making at policy, institution and teacher levels. Such modelling has enabled the construction of so called dashboards for learners allowing them to compare their activity against both the performance of the group and ideal profiles [2]. Of course this monitoring has come under scrutiny for overgeneralisation. More nuanced commentators have noted that big data analysis throws up association rather than proof of causality [6] It is also essential for researchers to consider the ethics of it all [3]. Indeed ethical issues extend beyond respecting confidentiality, and awareness of the data protection legislation, to wider questions such as whether we really want to live in a society in which data on our activity is automatically generated. [7]

The Big Data movement is not immediately attractive for our second group, those who believe in the wisdom of practice. In particular:

  • Those using Big Data often ignore that teachers collect data all the time both formally and informally. For example teachers know which assignments seem to engage students and which do not, and they can adjust when they see pupils bored and unhappy. Above all, they have the back story about the students they teach which means that they can interpret actions sensitively and intelligently [8]. Practitioners bring an understanding of context and develop compelling metaphors for thinking and learning which inform and explain practice.
  • Big data may be big but it does measure everything. Rather it is only measuring what can be measured not what it is appropriate to measure. One, perhaps unintended, consequence is that outcome measures are dominating thinking about education but this is swamping debates about educational values, for example what should be taught and how we should assess it.
  • Those obsessing about Big Data simply miss the fact that teaching is a complex mix of different types of knowledge. Insights from data analysis often confirm what teachers have long thought and often articulated among themselves. They are left asking why no-one spoke to them in the first place.

Is there a way forward between teaching as science and teaching as art? Probably not, but:

  • First we can understand that different stakeholders might be asking different questions about data and it is quite understandable that they do so. For example one statistical association that many institutions have found is that those attending a library induction will often achieve better outcomes than those miss the induction. This is useful for managers wanting to make decisions about resourcing libraries and for course leaders in planning their courses and promoting such induction. What of course it does not tell us is how to teach a class nor should we conclude that if you attend library induction you will get a better degree. Big data might not provide a story about learning but that is fine as long as we recognise the limitations.
  • Second, we can use data as one more source of information about teaching and learning. Indeed as teachers we can misread the signs and cues and we can become highly focussed on what we do, on our performance, rather than what the learners do, both in and out of formal teaching sessions. In practice teacher performance may turn out to be less important than we think, it is the design for teaching that matters more and this is something for which Big Data can help us [9].
  • Third, we can take the Big Data movement with a pinch of salt but can accept the wider case that we should make more use of available data to inform teaching. Indeed most practitioners do understand that so-called objective data about learner activity can help, especially when explored as part of practitioner research projects. What we need is, perhaps, a Small Data revolution, in which local data is used to support practitioner inquiry before we talk about a Big Data movement.

Update

This post was in anticipation of a one day event on Big Data at the University of Warwick.  At the event Ben Williamson presented a more disturbing view of learning analytics or at least subjected the claims made by private educational providers such as Pearson to critical scrutiny. He also noted the scale of the funding and ambition of commercial organisations to provide comprehensive profiling of learners, going far beyond the rather tentative examples of higher education. For more go to https://codeactsineducation.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/education-big-data-imaginary/

References

[1] For more on the National Pupil Database in England go to: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-pupil-database-apply-for-a-data-extract

[2] A JISC report gives a useful snapshot of learning analytics in higher education: in Sclater, N. (2014) The Current State of Play in UK Higher and Further Education published at:http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/5657/1/Learning_analytics_report.pdf

[3] A parallel report looks at legal and ethical issues: Sclater, N. (2014) Code of Practice for Learner Analytics, at http://analytics.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2014/12/04/jisc-releases-report-on-ethical-and-legal-challenges-of-learning-analytics/

[4] Opportunities for formative use of data are presented in Ferguson, R. and Buckingham Shum, S. (2012). Social learning analytics: five approaches. In: 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge, 29 Apr – 02 May 2012, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, pp. 23–33.

[5] A feel for learning analytics in respect to online activity is given in, for example, Fidalgo-Blanco, A. et al (2015) Using Learning Analytics to improve teamwork assessment, Computers in Human Behavior, 47 (2015) 149–156 though this is not specific to DL.

[6] An argument for understanding complexity is put by Beer, C. et al (2012) Analytics and complexity: Learning and leading for the future, presented at ASCILITE2012 Future challenges, sustainable futures. http://www.ascilite.org/conferences/Wellington12/2012/images/custom/beer,colin_-_analytics_and.pdf

[7] At the time of writing there is some consternation among librarians in Japan that a newspaper breached confidentiality by publishing the names of books that novelist Haruki Murakami, 66, took out as a teenager from his school library, this all seems rather innocent: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/02/librarians-in-uproar-after-borrowing-record-of-haruki-murakami-is-leaked

[8] This is argued robustly by Buckingham Shum, S.  Learning analytics: white rabbits and silver bullets, University of Technology, Sydney in Williamson, B. (ed.) 2015. Coding/Learning: Software and digital data in education. Stirling: University of Stirling at: https://codeactsineducation.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/coding_learning_-_software_and_digital_data_in_education.pdf

[9] For an exploration of learning as in this data rich world try Goodyear, P. (2015) Teaching as Design in (ed P. Kandlbinder) A Review of Higher Education Vol. 2. www.herdsa.org.au/publications/journals/ herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-2

in praise of praise

As I come to later, I was taken back a little by a Sutton Trust report on ‘what makes great teaching’ . [The Sutton Trust is linked here [http://www.suttontrust.com] and the report itself is at http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf] .

The report says many sensible things about support for learning and the critical importance of feedback. However tucked away was a small section on ‘ineffective practices’ including criticism of ‘lavish’ praise:

‘Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning.’ In fact this criticism of lavish praise was highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s press release and although the report was focused on ‘great teaching’ press reviews predictably accentuated the negative (‘what we were doing wrong’) including the harmful effects of too much praise. For example TES saw lavish praise as one of the ‘seven deadly sins of teaching’ (the report did not of course say anything about sin but never mind) http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/10/30/thou-shalt-not-praise-the-seven-deadly-sins-of-teaching.aspx and praise was the focus an ITV news item: http://www.itv.com/news/2014-10-31/lavishing-praise-on-pupils-unlikely-to-boost-results/

This is one more example where there was an opportunity for a national conversation about teaching that was sidetracked into a put down of practice – not much evidence of praise, lavish or otherwise, when it comes to the media and teaching. But there is a larger question here, are children (or for that matter adult learners) being praised too much? As it happens a while age I wrote a short reflection on my first experiences of teaching in secondary school, of my first school I noted:

‘Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people. Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible. I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a little perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, are you pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it? Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling. I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically or lack belief in my potential for learning and the teaching assistant had, whether intentionally or not, pointed this out to me. I thank her to this day for doing so.’

Was I wrong? Well I don’t think so. Self-esteem is core to learning – and many of us are fragile learners, we believe criticism and need to hear praise several times over to believe it. Of course if you only hear the praise and are not given the advice on how you can improve then yes praise is an ‘ineffective practice’. Most teachers follow a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach and this mix of praise and formative feedback is surely effective practice. However praise needs to be seen in context. Praise may indeed be lavish for one but finely tuned for others like Shahira. What the teaching assistant in my story was telling me was that I was not going to get anywhere without looking at each particular child and trying to see the world through her eyes and adapt accordingly.