Context Collapse

Context collapse: “an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording.”
- Michael Wesch, ‘YouTube and You’, 2009.

Back in the late naughties (or the late 2000s for North American readers) I developed an academic crush on Prof. Michael Wesch at Kansas State. His work on YouTube, which was a beautiful example of teaching as research, opened my eyes to the possibilities of academic use of social media. But he, and his undergraduate student colleagues, hit upon some important ideas for what social media in general were doing to us as we created and used them. Among the more compelling for the way it helps, along with some other theories, to elucidate the way we relate to each other as social animals, was the notion of ‘context collapse’. The idea that when we use broadcast social media (blogging, vlogging, tweets, etc.) to present ourselves we suddenly question who we are and what the hell we are doing here. The infinite audience possible online as opposed to the limited groups a person normally interacts with face to face, often stop us dead, at least for a moment; then we tweet something like “Just testing this out”, or “Hello world!”. It’s not that there is no context, it’s that there is potentially every context.

When suddenly faced with the prospect of speaking to an audience who are not present and who you know nothing about, it suddenly becomes apparent to most that we have nothing to say. With no feedback from others, you simply have to start writing/talking and make it up as you go until the feedback loops begin to close (as people interact with you and your own reflections on writing).

The context with which I can presently make work is one of transition. After a year living and working in Davis, California, my family and I are moving back to Sydney so I can take up a position at Western Sydney University. There I will join the Graduate Research School as a Senior Lecturer in the Master of Research programme. I also like the potential double meaning of context collapse for me here and now. I’m about to move half way around the world - again - to start a new job. I’m about to go into a totally new context, and one in which my student audience will not be discipline- or subject-specific. Students from all faculties and subject areas go through the MRes. The usual disciplinary context of my teaching has thus collapsed. To some extent I find myself at a loss when thinking of how to begin.

I’ve spent the last 13 months here in Davis working in the Saron Lab on the Shamatha Project. My role has been to pursue investigation of the project’s substantial collection of interview and diary data, and I’ve also been working with Jen Pokorny on pursuing the use of network analysis and graph analytic theory in combination with qualitative coding of interviews. I’ve not taught since June 2014, when I was a part-time lecturer at the University of Sydney in my home department of Studies in Religion. Since then I’ve been working on this research project, which is not my own, and have had infrequent opportunity to teach others about it. Or about anything at all. For that matter, I’ve not had much chance to communicate academically in any form for the last two years. I find this situation highly problematic for an academic researcher (no teaching, little publication in any form). So, I guess now I know what I want to say.

Once upon a time I blogged my PhD dissertation fieldwork. That was an interesting exercise… but it kind of slipped off my priorities list. In hindsight I can see why. 1. I was writing up my dissertation and probably simply ‘used up’ my writing mojo. 2. The purpose of the blog was to log my research travel experiences and insights in a platform that shared them - with whom I don’t think I knew, but I can see now it was mainly to practice public writing for myself. 3. The awful pressure of having no pressure at all to come up with content once home was off putting. I found myself with little to write about (not travelling for research) and couldn’t face writing about my life (or whatever), so gave up.

Why make another attempt at a blog/website now?

Some might say it is to troll David G. Robertson and Christopher Cotter with tales of sunny weather in California and Sydney. Possibly not an unfair assessment. Right now it’s 39C and crystal clear here in Davis, guys!

There are also pragmatic professional reasons. Like so many other early career academics, I’ve skipped around a few universities over the last 5 years or so, teaching, researching, and so on, and do not have a stable ‘staff page’. I want a place that can be mine, to list my accomplishments, thoughts, ramblings, and ideas.

But I also see blogging as a learning tool which I have neglected too long since my last attempt. Blogging as a form of social media forces the blogger to practice certain skills; notably communication. The skill of being able to explain requires practice in the arts of deep critical thinking, reflexive awareness, and articulation. This is a core skill set for the academy, but it strikes me that without teaching or frequent publication academics can be in danger of getting out of practice with these skills. A certain, but crucial, element of this skill set and the practice thereof lies in the reflections of our actions of communication from others; our readers. We need to be able to ‘see’ others digest our work. What has been lacking for me recently, as an observer, a thinker, a writer, a teacher, is a source of reflexivity and feedback.¬†Peer review publication is too slow, and the self too mediated by supposedly well-meaning peers and editors to be of use. What results is frequently a heavily directed performance for a very specific audience (sometimes numbering in the dozens!).

A distinct advantage of blogging, therefore, as I see it for me now, is the kind of context collapse that opened this post. The terrible self-awareness of an unknown and infinite audience causes one to be, as Goffman put it, “out of face” and unable to size up the context of the scene. In that moment, anyone, everyone, and no one are the audience simultaneously. With no “line” to speak (Goffman again) one is forced to make something up and act ‘in relation’ to a generalised other.

Such context collapse can be a very useful thing for academics to utilise from time to time, particularly in times of transition. Somehow I find myself sitting in an office in Davis, California, writing a blog post about my academic life soon to be removed to Sydney, once again. The move from postdoctoral scholar in a neuroscience lab at UC Davis to senior lecturer in the Graduate Research School at WSU seems like a useful period of transition for a person with a doctorate in religious studies to use the context collapse of blogging to figure some stuff out.

So, from wherever and whenever you are; welcome!

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