an introduction to labs

Introduction

The core of the consilience lab has been the provision of themed research labs. These labs, which can also be described as studios are deliberately interdisciplinary. Each lab addresses a particular problem or theme, is taught by an active researcher who is an expert in that topic, and provides a reasonably detailed introduction around that theme.

Lab topics are expected to be ‘rich’ enough to not be discipline specific and to be relevant for students doing honours by thesis or project + exegesis.

Detail

Interdisciplinary labs are used because we have a very diverse range of programs that provide honours students. These diverse programs have a mix of disciplinary practices, pedagogies, assessment models, and mixes of theory and practice. With a cap of thirty students in honours it is therefore not possible, with this diversity, to provide discipline specific labs. Also, given the complex world we want our graduates to be active within, multidiscplinary labs offer a more viable professional (for the workplace and academia) model of future practice.

In any given year there is no way of knowing which disciplines will provide students into honours, so a model was needed that could accommodate this diversity. In addition, there is much evidence to show that a studio or lab based model of teaching, that is premised on an explorative action learning methodology, is very effective in modelling the sorts of research driven learning that honours introduces and requires. The diversity of skills and experiences, including different disciplinary approaches, that the labs contain have been successful in broadening students understanding of their own field, research problem, and what research is.

The interdisciplinarity of the labs also recognises that the research problems that students work on do not ‘reside’ within disciplines or academic practices. For example in 2014 affect emerged as a common theme across several disciplines with students working by project in game character design, screen writing, and photography, and by thesis in film theory and feminist communication studies.

In the past lab themes have included slow, nonfiction, media objects, collective futures, and advocacy. The labs have not been aligned to any of the School’s research groups or centres (in spite of having one entitled nonfiction, though the majority of the 2014 nonfiction students who have applied for PhDs are in screenculture…).

teaching

Until 2015 labs were run with the same cohort of up to a dozen students across semester one and two. In semester one the emphasis was on learning about the lab theme in some depth, while in semester two the labs became a way to manage, monitor and support students to complete their research projects.

In 2015 themed labs will only be in semester one. In semester two all students will participate in a single lab which will provide a variety of collaborative and individual activities to keep students on track and completing their honours research to the highest standard possible.

cohort

Students come with a wide range of abilities and experiences. Some have spent their undergraduate degree writing essays as a matter of course in cinema and communication studies subjects, while others have not had to write anything longer than a thousand words during their undergraduate degree, and have read very little theory. This ‘thinness’ in theory is now being addressed in honours through the Media and Communication Futures subject that all honours students must complete.

For the labs there it is not expected that students are familiar with the theme of the lab, nor that the lab theme is directly related to their research topic. The lab themes are relevant to contemporary media and communication research, reflect work being undertaken by research active staff, and are fluid or flexible enough to let students from any discipline find a hook into it. They are of interest in themselves and make sense to students regardless of whether they are doing honours by project or thesis. What they learn in their labs does influence their research, usually in significant ways, directly and indirectly.

In any lab you can expect students from any of our disciplines (music industry, games, media, public relations, journalism, photography, multimedia systems, professional communication, communication design, animation, advertising, as well as students with communication degrees from other universities). This mix has historically worked very well, and anecdotally is one of the experiences in honours that students have made a point of commenting upon positively.

administrative

The labs all sit within a single subject in the honours program map, therefore assessment tasks must be identical across all labs. The undergraduate policies relating to assessment moderation, and end of semester Course Advisory Committee (CAC), and Program Advisory Board (PAB) meetings also applies.

University policy requires that there is an assessable task within the first three weeks of semester one. This task is currently being developed. There are two other substantial assessment tasks, entitled (imaginatively) Precursor One and Precursor Two.

Lab teachers assess the work of the students in their own labs. At least one, and often two moderation meetings are held by the teaching team after each assessment task.

assessment

As much as possible assessment in honours reinforces reflection and iteration. These are the practices that we can generalise to be relevant to all students learning how to do research. Reflection is the considered and deliberate thinking about what has been done. Iteration is learning that we craft things (which is unusual for most honours students who arrive with a well developed undergraduate habit of doing all work once, just in time), which means they are made at a lower resolution (i.e. what in writing we call drafting) and then developed.

We also expect ideas, artefacts and practices to be written about, or to, and that learning how to write about ideas, and how artefacts explore ideas, is a basic tenet of research.

The two major assessments revolve around the idea of a ‘precursor’. They are where the student takes a smaller slice of their honours research project and makes or writes something experimental that crosses between their research project and the lab theme. The intent is to a) play with the idea of what research is, b) the sorts of outcomes, activities, and artefacts that research might create or allow for, c) to test their question and/or methodology, d) in small snapshot sort of manner.

The precursor is done twice. The first is assessed and then on the basis of the feedback further developed for the second precursor assessment. ‘Further developed’ here might be the first precursor is developed into something more substantial, or on the basis of what was learned through the first precursor the ‘slice’ is narrowed and developed even more.

2014 assessments, by subject, is available at http://www.consiliencelab.org.au/assessment-outline-by-subject-2014/