Latterly, I have been increasingly drawn to presenting facets of my doctoral research in the form of a video. Now, you might say that there’s not much particularly unusual about presenting an academic position using audio and video as anyone who has ever attended a research conference will attest – PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi and all the other slideshow software packages out there have been delivering this type of content to users for quite a number of years now. And yet while the spoken word alongside graphical and/or textual accompaniment is nothing new in the presentation context, it seems that its use as a dissemination medium is largely ignored by the academic community. And this ultimately raises two interesting questions that I would like to investigate in this post. Firstly, why might it be the case that the video format is not favoured by academics? And secondly, might academic research dissemination have much to gain from embracing what is increasingly becoming the most popular way of transferring a message from one agent to another in almost all other walks of life?
So why is it that academics prefer not to use the video as a way of publishing their material? Could it be aloofness, arrogance, the ‘ivory tower’ syndrome? Might researchers not be using the medium because everyone else in the regular world is? For instance, I’ve noticed that there has been a recent backlash against the Ted talk format. The Guardian, that great pinnacle of left-wing (nothing wrong with that but it’s worth pointing out in this context) intellectualism recently published an article by Benjamin Bratton, which attacks Ted as a purveyor of the over-simplified representations of clever people’s work. Could it be that Bratton’s real problem is not the dumbing down of the principles involved but their being presented alongside a stream of photographic and diagrammatic visual displays?
How about skillset inertia? Are academics so tied to an approach to information transfer that Newton would have been familiar with, that they are loath to rock the boat and move with the general cultural flow? This touches on the first idea, of intellectual superiority being at play, but perhaps it also speaks of a lack of skills on the part of many academics that have been trained in an environment that penalises novelty of approach? Recently, doctoral researchers who are supported by PRTLI funding in Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin have been required to attend the Innovation Academy. The Academy asks of their students that they complete a number of different tasks, which are all seemingly designed to address the current deficit in meaningful relationships between the academic and industrial sectors. The method of achieving this is varied but certainly the audio-visual ‘pitch’ is a recurring theme of the approach. Might this be a conscious attempt to address a skills gap among the academic community?
Maybe the answer to our first question lies in the strange manner in which academics are currently rated for their ability. All academic institutions have a set of criteria that allows them to ascertain the worth of their own employees and of new potential recruits. As far as I can see, these ratings systems largely demand that the traditional dissemination canon of print journals, books and conference papers be promoted above all others. My suspicion (and I am open to correction on this) is that forms of ‘new media’ output are not as highly regarded. So why would an academic bother presenting their current thoughts on the sex habits of the Great White shark using the video format when they will receive very little credit by the people who control the institutions?
The second question that I raised in my opening statement of whether the audio-visual format might in some tangible way benefit academic dissemination is perhaps more prone to the devious touch of speculation. The first sub-question you have to ask yourself in this context is what we would all like to get out of academic research in the first place. If research is destined for the community from which it came then perhaps there’s little risk in trading in the old media currencies. But on the other hand, if you envisage research to have a broader audience type, then the Ted-type video approach might be worth exploring.
Humans are a visual species. Most of us respond to graphical stimuli in a manner that is very different to our response to other media types. For example, in general (I say in general because there are always exceptions) most of us are able to retain graphical information such as photographs or schematic graphical data more easily and durably than when we are presented with a narrative based around the textual medium. Images make things easier to understand and recall so why not use them more?
Academics have a problem with the register that they choose to use in their texts. We construct arguments as a spider spins its web. We delight in the intricate wordplay and the clever nuance. We like to see ourselves as artists of language and not as mere functional scribes. The result of this process and this cultural norm is a textual canon that is often painfully difficult to absorb. Anyone who has ever struggled through the translations of the German philosophers will have no problem relating to this phenomenon. Why not cut out the jargon and the winks and nods to the unspoken subtext? We have a message to get across and there is no reason as far as I can see that it should not be relayed in plain and perhaps (perish the thought) even entertaining language.
The video format by its nature encourages the use of language that is easily understood. The accompanying image promotes this and the image itself reinforces the spoken word’s content. The result is a reciprocal relationship between the image and the spoken word, which gradually brings the register of the overall message towards a level with which it can be absorbed by more people. In an age when societal relevance is becoming increasingly more a part of the way in which academics are made to approach their research (the evolving structures of funding applications is the primary agent of change in this regard), academics are no longer in a position to ignore society at large (who for the most part are their ultimate paymasters). The video is a simple yet effective way of reaching this audience and in a non-trivial way of completing the knowledge cycle from patron to researcher and back to patron again.
I mentioned as an introduction that my thoughts on this subject have arisen out of own recent attempts to commit my work to the video format. My latest output in this context is a video in which I explain how one might benefit from the use of Linked Open Data techniques in archaeological practice. I’ll be presenting this work at the upcoming CAA2014, which will be held this year in Paris. Of course, I’ll need to prepare a PowerPoint for the conference and then a subsequent paper to be included in the printed proceedings but I would hope that the video component can become a significant part of the overall narrative package.
There is obviously still a place and there will continue to be a place for text-centric outputs of academic research. However, I would hope that in the future academia can allow itself to embrace a more multifaceted understanding of what it means to successfully transfer knowledge from one entity to the next.
An interesting argument, Frank, although I find myself sitting on the fence with this one. Being a lover of the ‘art’ of writing, I tend to get quite involved in the ‘pretensions’ of traditional academia, although I fully agree it needs to be more entertaining and willing to embrace other media. I’ve very recently come to realise that I need to cite videos from conferences in my Ph.D. thesis; one particular conference has material much more recent than anything I’m reading. So yes, the immediacy of video in this regard is certainly something we need to bring on board. Not entirely sure how information from the videos should be cited, though. Like books and articles, whereby one needs to specific about precisely where the author states something, videos of lectures or presentations, etc. can contain a lot of (unnecessary) material, and so I can’t imagine examiners wanting to wade through hours of video to find the particular words I’ve referenced. I need to find out the format for time-stamp citations, so as to avoid the chaos!!
(Ronald A. Geobey, 14/03/2014 11:43:18)
I see what you’re saying about the citation problem. I guess the fact that a generally accepted system for citing video references doesn’t appear to be out there is symptomatic of the fact that video is used so little in the academic space at the moment. But as with all pioneers, perhaps you’ll just have to plow your own furrow?
(Frank, 14/03/2014 11:53:22)