Community researcher or citizen journalist

Community researcher or citizen journalist

Going to the Finnish town of Salo in the first 2 weeks of May 2018 concluded 4 experiments with the goal of developing new curriculum on highschool level that would form at local connection and knowledge that can feed a mutual learning process with the University students and researchers: An educational link between a more engaged university and urban communities.

The first experiment tested a process that went from “what is there” over “what could be there” in order to take action and realise the dreams of the students. See Salo Stories — an atmospheric odyssey here The second experiment dived into the use of smartphones as a tool for telling stories — short movies — looking at what separates and connects people. The third experiments was done this spring looking into how to work on exploring the city of Salo using a game format. Here the result was two formats that could be combined: the first was a challenge to the participants to push the participant to experience a place in a more intense way. The second element was a time machine that would pick special places in order first to go back in time to see how it looked earlier and then go forward in time. First to see how the place of today was “produced” and second to see how it could change into the future.

This 4th experiment looked at a new approach to “situated storytelling” both using a higher degree of context sensitivity — explorations — and working on how to express how places feel in words and images. Here the aim was also to test if the highschool students could be seen as “community researchers” as it is known in anthropology: Where non academics also do interviews.

The first part was to give a more clear idea of why space or places are important. We did this in a simple but — it seemed — quite efficient way by first do a sensory exercise with one minute silence sitting in the usual way (rows) and discussing how that felt — EG noticing “new” sounds like the air conditioning as a starting point for discussing more broadly how we filter our sensory input in everyday live to keep things simple but also how an enhanced sensitivity and openness can be achieved. After sitting in rows the students were asked to rearrange the chairs and tables to form a large circle. Then this was the subject of the discussion — how did that feel? Mostly students feel more exposed and vulnerable sitting like this, but one group actually thought that it felt better to be able to see each other and not least being more present because they couldn’t sit and look at their smartphones. Finally we rearranged one more time to form smaller groups that would be asked to discuss how that change felt. Clearly students feel more comfortable in the small groups and in that sense they also came to the overall conclusion that the way space is organised influences how we feel, work — and live our lives ultimately.

The groups then discussed what is a good story and this sparked good discussion on “peer to peer” especially in social media and how stories that are told by somebody like yourself has a special quality. We touched on the difference in telling stories through images (more than 1000 words) books and movies that were more finished and mostly produced by professionals — as opposed to the “peer to peer” stories. We discussed how face to face dialogues has a richness since the dialogue includes a more layers of communication, the sound of the voice, body language and the socially produced situation (the example was sitting at the bus stop and waiting for the bus). Another class discussed first how they enjoyed stories that could make them relax such as TV shows and movies which then lead to how music was the medium that could convey emotions very well (best sounds and music was when it had a “wavy” character)

The first exercise or homework was for the students to find a place that is special for them and try to express that using their smartphone — sound, image, video, text and a combination of these. Using the ideas of what is a good story we then went through some of the “works” of the students the following day. Mostly they had picked places close to home — their room, the sauna or the field with horses. There was the more elaborate video where one student had documented how she had lived in different parts of the house and how now her sisters would live in her old rooms. The student who talked about how important the sauna was (Finland) had filmed the video while sitting on a swing. Others had only images and this was used to discuss how one can combine the different media etc. This was not going so deep into using the smartphone as a tool to make small videos that we did in August 2017 since this proved to be too complicated for such a short time — approximately 5 lessons of each 75 minutes.

We then went on to introduce twitter as our tool for working the rest of the 2 weeks — and now the homework was to make new tweets that would explore special places and and express how they feel. When presenting the results from this exercise it fed into a discussion about what to look for — what is special about the city of Salo.

Discussing in groups there was EG the topic of how it is “Village” in the sense that everybody knows about you and you can’t relax or feel anonymous. Opposed to this was the city as a well known home with lots of — mostly positive — memories. Of negative aspects that made Salo special also it was mentioned that the place is best for either younger ages or adults but where youth has not so much to do. We made a vote that showed that the negative things such as bad company (and drugs), the village (already mentioned) almost didn’t get any votes while the memories and the nature (surrounding the city of Salo) had a lot of votes.

Trying to get a different perspective on the city of Salo we would the discuss what had changed in Salo and that showed a quite different picture: A simple conclusion was that after Nokia left the city there was less money which meant there was less shops, less people and more hopelessness and boredom. Suddenly the otherwise quite rosy picture of Salo when we would look at what made it special turned much darker when was seen in the perspective of time and change.

The discussion on Salo worked well to start focusing on the city of Salo for the following “situated storytelling” beginning to use the two questions: What is special here? And how has it changed. The next lesson was done “on site” where we met at the central market square and used a stage in one corner as a open air classroom. Since they would use twitter and it was possible instantly to see the stories it was possible to discuss the tweets at the end of the lesson (even though it could have been practical with a projector so everybody could see)

The last lesson in the two weeks was again in the “open air or public space classroom” but this time we asked the students to pose the same questions to people at the market square. We were quite unsure how the students would feel doing that, and we therefore asked them to make it easy for themselves — talking to a familiar face or just the person selling flowers/vegetables on the square. As such this was a positive surprise: Interviewing strangers turned out to be only a problem for a very few students. This part of the experiment is quite significant seen in the broader UEL perspective, where the social mapping of the Tampere UEL team is envisioned initially to be done by the highschool students.

Some first considerations reg both this and the other 3 experiments:

1. Why are spaces and the stories we can tell about — or with them — important:

The exercise that is described first in this text where students sense the space (in silence) and change the way they sit, works as good as a first “explainer” that in itself is using space and how it can change to discuss how this affects how the space feels. This exercise can then be “repeated” in urban space where we move around to distinctly different places and discuss how the difference feel and how it affects how we work together and ultimately how we live our lives

2. Sensing, talking and taking space.

The blindfolding and moving around the spaces following a sound works well to give attention how space is perceived and especially by giving more attention to the other senses such as sound, smell and touch. In the first experiment in May 2017 we did that and it worked well in spite of doing this in the classroom which is not very rich in a sensory sense. We could still work very well with the naming and talking about the experiences — not least to see how the same place can be experienced radically different by different people. What we didn’t do last year in Salo was the appropriation part where the students are given a large amount of masking tape and let loose in something that is both very funny but also let them take the space and make it their own — appropriation. See more on the importance of a special “basecamp”.

3. Mapping and storytelling tool

While we have been working with a rather old mash up with twitter this is no longer working very well since some of the functionality — the location — in twitter has been changed. A new tool with a similar basic function would be the ideal: the collective mapping of stories about — in and with — the places that in real time — but gradually — can show new patterns of where and what is important.

4. Introduction to civic society initiatives

The first experiment worked very well by visiting various local initiatives that could be examples of “active citizenship”. Where the students the first week saw the many empty shops as a very negative thing we began to look at the possibilities and openness for new initiatives that these places also have. The best examples to show the students are those where they can most easily identify with — the type of people, the character of the initiative etc — in order to work as an inspiration for them and their own work.

5. Organisation and Action!

What the 4 experiments did not have enough time to do was to actually work on some first simple steps in a process to realise the dreams of the students. The first experiment we just touched this stage by asking the students to not only come with a good idea but also work on how to realise it. I the ultra short time they EG called the owner of a grain silo to discuss the idea of making a climbing wall there (the owner was positive). The essential learning experience here is the feeling — and knowledge on organisation, communication etc — that the students can actually change things by themselves. This is what we in the UEL project call Urban Capacity building.

6. Basecamp and local hub.

While it is good to start in well known surroundings for the students it is quite clear that the ideal is to work onSite both to avoid wasting precious time getting to and from the area we work with, but most importantly because “being there” and a situated approach is the whole point. How to not tell stories about the space and the city but to work in, with and for the urban. The basecamp can be appropriated — see above — and as such already be one concrete experience for students in changing space. A basecamp can be used for both the gatherings and discussions internally with the class, but eventually also opening up this discussion to the public.

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