Melbourne – my perfect city?

I listened to a podcast the other day asking why there is a cultural divide in Australia between art and sport. This came a couple of days after I had had a bit of a Melbourne love moment. I was in town, and had a coffee in Federation Square, the heart of Melbourne’s cultural quarter. I was killing time before heading to AAMI Park to watch some rugby league. I headed down from Fed Square to the river and took a photo of the boathouses with the backdrop of the Melbourne Arts Centre. As I was walking along the river bank, I heard some bells, so went to investigate. There’s a set of bells there, marking the centenary of Federation, and I found out that there’s a website where you can go to compose your own music for them. Here’s the competition winner

From the bells, I walked towards the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which if you are a cricket fan is one of the the great venues. As I walked over the bridge towards it, I realised that I could see all the outer courts of the Rod Laver Arena. So basically, you can come and watch the Australian Open for free (though I bet it gets crowded). As I was standing there, I heard singing so went to investigate that too. Turned out it was coming from the bridge itself, a project developed using voices from Commonwealth countries for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.  As I was googling links for this post, I found that the same people that did the bridge have been commissioned to do a soundscape for outside AAMI Park as well.

So this city has an incredible sporting precinct which it has filled with incredible public art.  I love that this city is so cultural – art, theatre, music, interesting films and *so many* festivals – there’s basically something going on all the time. And a sporting fan would never get tired – rugby union, rugby league, so much Aussie rules, basketball, a Grand Prix, a Grand Slam, the Melbourne Cup, The Boxing Day test…

I think I might have found my perfect city.

The sociology of sport

There are many things to love about Melbourne: its cultural activities, its coffee, its food, its parks. But one that I am going to really enjoy while I am here is its obsession, and that is the word, with sport. It proudly stakes its claim as the only city in the world to have both a Tennis Grand Slam and a Grand Prix. This weekend I went to a rugby union match on Friday, an Australian Rules football match on Sunday and I could have gone to Rugby League on the Saturday, if another Melbourne stalwart – incredibly changeable weather – hadn’t been threatening. The UCI track world championships were held here in 2012 and may be again next year, and there are two football teams. When you wander down Olympic Boulevard, you have the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Cricket Ground and AAMI Rectangular (Yes! Rectangular!) Stadium, all fantastic venues, within a few hundred metres of each other.

Given my own interest in sport – watching, not doing – it was good to combine it with my research interests today.  I was giving the first presentation of my graduate career, as part of my  elective course for this semester, which is called Mobility, Culture and Communication. The course is predominantly a sociological assessment of the what, how and why of mobility in the contemporary world and how that affects and is affected by issues of culture and communication. For the presentation, we have to choose a site and analyse it in terms of the themes of the course.

I took as my site the London 2012 Athletes’ Village which I had the privilege to work in during the 2012 Games. I was looking at how the athletes and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) bring a sense of identity to the village, and how the organising committee works to create a sense of community in that same space. Here’s the presentation on Slideshare.

What I found really interesting while researching the issues I wanted to cover was that almost nothing has been written about the sociology, or even the social science aspects, of Olympic Villages. Lots about environmental management, engineering etc, but next to nothing about the people that inhabit the space. There is more about the sociology of sport in general (searching Google Scholar for “gentrification of football” throws up quite a long list) but even then, given the cultural and social importance of sport in so many societies, especially the one I currently live in, you’d think it would be more of a thing. Have I discovered my niche?

A returning Masters student’s view on digital environments

On Thursday I took part via online conferencing in the European Commission’s Digital Competence Day 2014. I was asked to talk about the digital experience going back to University. Due to the somewhat intermittent nature of Aussie broadband (or maybe the instabilities of the conferencing system) I got frozen out at the end, and I’m not sure how much anyone really heard of it. So I thought I’d write up the main points I was trying to make.

I was last at university in 1993. We didn’t have email then. There was an internal messaging system called the Vax that we used to send ridiculous messages within our group of friends – I think I still have the print-outs in a box somewhere. There were a few computers with the library catalogue, but loads of card catalogues still around. I typed up my essays on a word processing machine (a sort of glorified typewriter that saved the text).

Now the university experience is completely digital. Your interaction with the university administration is completely through the online portal. You enrol, register, get your timetable, pay your fees there. All information about your classes is sent via the Learning Management System. Most lecturers ask you to submit essays through TurnItIn, a system for checking for plagiarism. The library catalogue is online, you can request books online from other libraries, renew online and pay your fees. Pretty much any article you want from an academic journal is available online. You can get serious research done without going near the university. You can send things for printing from home, and access them once on campus by swiping your student card.

You have no option about this. This is the way things are. Digital by default indeed. But there is a lot of help. The library has a student-run IT help-desk. There are Twitter and Facebook accounts to help you and they reply very quickly. The library has an online chat function, which I have used and is incredibly practical. There is even a phone number to call if you need advice or assistance!

The other interesting element is the focus on BYOD – bring your own device. Obviously for a university, the provision of equipment is not a resource option (though there are of course workstations in the libraries that you can book. Online of course!). Space is at a premium and teaching spaces take priority. So the university sees BYOD as an opportunity.

Wireless is available to staff and students in all buildings of the university. There are higher levels of security than logging on to wireless in most public spaces. Each student has an allowance of 1GB of data per week from external (non-University) websites. It is clear what the rules are (no copyright infringement etc) and there are sanctions for breaching these rules, such as a loss of access to the network. The system is designed assuming that most people will play by the rules, and builds in how to deal with those that don’t, rather than designing it so that no-one can break the rules, but making it unwieldy and hard to use.

Of course, a university is different from a workplace. For one thing, work is much less collaborative here. (Something I found when applying and being asked to provide examples of my writing: if I hadn’t had the blog I wouldn’t have had anything to show that was me.) Also, this is a place of ideas, free-thinking, innovation. They can’t lock us into certain processes or tools as that would shut down the very freedom and creativity they are trying to develop in us.

But I do think there are lessons to learn.

Firstly, people work in different ways so providing one way of doing things is counter-productive, in the literal sense that it will reduce people’s productivity. Creating an environment that recognises and allows those differences will, I believe, be positive for the organisation.

Secondly, the leadership challenge is in helping people to adapt to the change. It isn’t good leadership to allow them to avoid or bypass it. That is self-defeating for them personally and for the organisation as a whole.

When I look at the change in the Commission’s digital mindset over the time I have been involved in this, I think we have a lot to be proud of. But we also have a long way to go and I hope we can learn from outside experiences such as this.

Why should you care about traditional foods?

I attended a lecure yesterday by Ken Albala entitled Marketing European Food and the Image of Authenticity. His essential thesis was that consumers are willing dupes in a marketing ploy to present food as “authentic” or “traditional”. We like to believe the food and products we are buying are true to their roots and artisanla and we are happy to take at face value labels, terms and packaging designed to give us this impression. He used humorous examples from Alto Adige air-dried Speck (“air-dried” insofar as the factory windows are open) to Fleur de Sel de Guerande (produced according to traditional methods, but not actually tasting any different to mass-produced Sel de Camargue).

Professor Albala is an entertaining speaker and one who clearly has a wealth of experience and a huge war-chest of stories, and both made for a very interesting hour, in which he made a number of valid points. I particularly agreed with him when he questioned the very concept of “authenticity”.  Authentic at what point? After all, Europe didn’t have potatoes or tomatoes until the sixteenth century, so you could say Colcannon or ratatouille are inauthentic. He compared those that wish to ossify a particular version as authentic to Academie Francaise-style grammarians – food culture, like language, lives and develops and must be allowed to do so.

Where I felt his talk was limited was that it presented a  metropolitan and essentially utilitarian notion of why tradition or authenticity matters, or at least within its European framework. I believe that for many, the idea of protected designation of origin labelling is not (purely) about marketing or even taste, but about guaranteeing traditional ways of life and processes and ensuring continued social diversity in rural Europe. You could argue that the Common Agricultural Policy has always been an essentially social project and that the PDO/PGI/TSG schemes are just a twenty-first century way of dealing with the social dimension of rural economies, rather than the distinctly twentieth century option of market support. So even if there’s no difference between Sel de Guerande and Sel de Camargue on your tongue, you buy it because you feel a difference in your soul.

Please take my survey on mobility and identity

My elective this semester is a sociological course on ‘Mobility, Culture and Communication’. I have a paper to write as the main part of the assessment and I am hoping you can help me, by taking this short survey (also embedded below). I am looking at the issue of mobility within the EU and how it impacts on the nation state. Within that, I’d like to examine how intra-EU mobility affects people’s sense of national identity. If you are a national of one EU member state living in a different Member State, please do take the survey and pass it on to others you think it applies to. Feel free to contact me either here, via Twitter or privately via the contact page, if you have anything else to add to the issue.

The survey

 

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Mixed blessings – the joy of multidisciplinary learning

I’ve just started my first week at Melbourne University, but have been coming to campus across the two weeks I have been here, initially for various admin things and last week for Freshers (“O-week”) activities. Of course everything is new and exciting, and returning to full-time learning after a gap of almost 21 years feels like a privilege. But one slightly unexpected aspect is standing out for me at this stage and that is the energy of being in a multidisciplinary university. I did my first degree at the London School of Economics, an incredibly vibrant and stimulating seat of learning. But it was specialised and most of the people you met were doing something not that far away from your own interests. Here, you are in the coffee queue with neuroscientists, in the bookshop queue with architects, in the bank queue with creative artists. When I am thinking about essays or projects, I feel an unlimited landscape rolling out around me, with many possibilities for bringing in methods, models and thinking from very different subjects. I find that incredibly exciting.