We’re a pretty verbal bunch, social scientists. Maybe that’s a bit of a generalisation, but there’s no question that all the high-status products of our research tends to be written and, if you’re very impressive indeed, printed on paper. In a book. With as few pictures as possible.
So a format that not only demands that you talk to pictures but also limits the amount of rambling you can do is some way out of most people’s comfort zone. When our six teams signed up to create presentations about their response to the Chrystal Macmillan Building (where the School of Social and Political Science lives in George Square) they were a bit intimidated by the format. Would having twenty pictures and only twenty seconds to describe them to talk about a vast topic be inadequate and gimmicky or lend their thoughts the elegant focus of a haiku?
Whatever the verdict there, the 20×20 format lends itself to fun. The search for the perfect image to illustrate the in-ness and out-ness of our building and our sometimes redonkulous attempts to control the boundaries between them gave the first speaker, Angus Bancroft, the excuse to go and document the weird and wonderful things our colleagues do with their doors. The postgrad presenters from other countries and cultures had the opportunity to show us the way they experienced making a new home in CMB through their own eyes. ‘No-one gives Arabs cameras to photograph buildings these days, so thank you,’ Jordanian doctor-turned-researcher Thamer cheeked us. But he was making a serious point; buildings aren’t just bricks and glass. They shape our interactions and give you all sorts of clues to the cultural norms and values of the inhabitants. Entering CMB, documenting it, is also entering a working culture.
What is that working culture? Through hearing the stories of the postdoc, the postgrad, the outsider, or the staff member an audience member got a sense of both the common themes in their responses to the building but also the different impacts it had on them as workers and people more generally. Boundaries and a slightly neurotic control of space through silence, exclusivity, and some rather unsubtle physical manifestations of hierarchy (profs at the top, undergrads in the flooded basement) came through pretty strongly. The lack of a sense of homeliness and permission to create within the space was another rather sad conclusion.
The presentations were maybe at their strongest when telling a story from a particular point of view. As one audience member pointed out, the format lends itself to the concrete and particular, not the abstract and general, because of the need to illustrate your thoughts. But as a way of understanding a thought process it was fun, witty and human. Even the more traditional research problem-data-findings presentations were led by dynamic stories and plenty of Aha Moments courtesy of the brilliant photos.
Could it work in teaching? I’m eager to try. It’s an experiential way of communicating, it shows rather than tells. Coming to an ethnomethodology seminar near you, if I get the chance…