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2010 arts education


film education: new contexts, new criteria

tina kaufman: aspera conference at uts


JUST HOW DO YOU ASSESS THE RESEARCH QUALITY OF A CREATIVE WORK? THIS QUESTION CAME UP AGAIN AND AGAIN AT JULY’S AUSTRALIAN SCREEN PRODUCTION EDUCATION AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATION (ASPERA) CONFERENCE, HIGHLIGHTING WHAT IS A COMPLEX PROBLEM EXERCISING THE MINDS OF MOST WORKING IN THE SCREEN PRODUCTION EDUCATION SECTOR AS THE EXCELLENCE FOR RESEARCH IN AUSTRALIA (ERA) INITIATIVE MOVES INEXORABLY FORWARD. OR WILL IT? WOULD A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT DERAIL THE WHOLE PROCESS, BRINGING ABOUT YET ANOTHER CHANGE OF DIRECTION?

The ASPERA conference, held at UTS in Sydney this year, is the annual forum for academics within the Australian screen production field to discuss shared issues, exchange ideas and, currently, to address the challenges posed by the ERA. While the three days of the conference provided an interesting mixture of the problematic, the pragmatic and the abstract, with a bit of the practical and the mathematical thrown in, issues to do with both technological change and with ERA kept recurring.

complex contexts

Theo van Leeuwen, UTS Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, said in opening the conference that teaching media studies within a university environment may often not “fit in with the timetables and ways of assessment of the university,” especially while also coming to terms with the challenges of technological change, but that “universities are places where you have the chance to experiment and test out ideas and develop arguments that can be carried out into the public sphere.”

Deb Verhoeven from RMIT highlighted the recent AFTRS screen producer survey and some of its findings—she advised those interested to go to the very user-friendly website to find out more. Verhoeven drew attention particularly to the very low ratio of younger people identifying as content producers (with most producers being over 40), and the fact that only five percent thought that a creative arts education was important.

a new kind of academic

Verhoeven also asked how academics might learn from emerging media practice, and how new media practices might challenge and change the role of academics. Saying that she usually avoided films that featured teachers (especially those with Robin Williams), she reported on a film that she believes really shows how education works, especially in an unstructured and innovative way—How to Train Your Dragon. “It advocates networking and mentoring, that information must have a perceived relevance, and argues that old knowledge can become irrelevant in the course of acquiring new knowledge,” she explained.

Arguing for the emergence of a new type of academic, the mediator and motivator, Verhoeven said that “we perhaps underestimate the importance that media and communication departments are going to have in universities in the future.” She also argued that digital media affects a whole range of producers, and that it’s not just about digital literacy; “a key competency,” she said, “is the ability to move flexibly between different digital environments.”

When Gill Leahy of UTS, convenor of the conference, asked about aesthetic criteria for these new environments, she said that “audiences are much more likely to tolerate what we’d see as not good quality. Getting stuff out there just in time for audiences that are ready for it is much more important. We’ve got a lot to learn from the very practices we’re teaching our students.”

defining era, defining research

The problematic for the sector is how to deal with the major changes that are happening in universities to do with the assessment of creative work. The ERA initiative assesses research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees, and research is defined as the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. Andrew Curran, from the Australian Research Council, gave a briefing updating the process and giving details of how it works; he commented that “being a creative lot will be good for you in the ERA.”

Going through all the general principles, objectives and timelines of the ERA, Curran pointed out that peer review is a “really important component” of the assessment process, and that while everything must be submitted, the process is designed to be flexible. Interestingly, he confirmed that while the rather controversial list of ranked journals has been finalised, as well as the list of conferences, the ARC would continue to receive feedback regarding journals and conferences which would be recorded on the database, and that the list would be updated and revised prior to any future ERA round. He added that the ranked journals are only one of a number of unweighted indicators, and that articles in C-ranked journals could be put forward in peer review. He argued that the challenge for the assessment of creative work is in defining the research element, and that a portfolio needs to demonstrate coherent research content. “Work out how to present your discipline and highlight its importance and outcomes,” he said.

rating exhibition outlets

Another area of creative arts publication equivalence that will be able to be assessed within the ERA process was introduced by Mick Broderick of Murdoch University, who explained that film exhibition outlets, which include local and international film festivals, broadcasters, museums and galleries, as well as online sites, could be ranked to act as proxies. His initial list of film festivals, which caused a fair amount of immediate discussion and revision, will be edited, rated and ASPERA-endorsed, but must follow the ERA A* to C format and will be adjusted annually. “This initial list is imprecise and generalised,” explained Broderick, emphasising that the ratings must be done by academics and peak bodies, not bureaucrats. “I’m confident that the sector knows enough for the listings to be accurate,” he said. “Fortunately, most of the festivals we’re looking at have their own internal peer review process, while works submitted to festivals should have all gone through a peer review at their own institution as well.” He indicated that ASPERA should also supervise the ranking of broadcasters, academic festivals and other levels of specialist exhibition in the future.

Leo Berkeley of RMIT is concerned that the whole discussion is still premised on creative works being films, but, as he says, there are now websites and games and other digital work, which are much more difficult to assess. And Deb Verhoeven was concerned that the list of festivals for ranking didn’t include any online festivals.

assessing output & assessors

But the most compelling session was the work-in-progress report on the large-scale project headed by Dr Josko Petkovic from Murdoch; he’s now three quarters of the way through the research project, Assessing Graduate Output at 19 Australian Film Schools, and he provided page after Powerpoint page of the most intricate charts, using sophisticated maths, which recorded the elegant differences in ratio and some of what he called “interesting convolutions,” in his quest to quantify the information. As he said, “the crux of the problem is that many of us believe that the scholarship/research aspect of our work is hard to quantify,” and this research project is aimed at establishing “that the assessment of students’ creative work can be as consistent as assessment in other disciplines.” In this initial stage, it’s the assessors (30 screen production academics), not the projects, that are being assessed, and “the project is based on the proposition that assessment of screen production is as complex and multi-faceted as the screen production process itself.”

With its multiplicity of criteria and ranks of assessors, the interim report was quite confronting, and we probably need the final, written report to definitively come to the same conclusion as Josko Petkovic; that the assessment process will be valid, highly reliable and internally consistent.

holding up in the real world

Another strand in the conference centred on the sector’s relationship with the industry; George Karpathakis of Edith Cowan University talked about community engagement and professional placement, and in particular the experience of a number of his students as they entered what one called “the real world—up until now you’ve been in the classroom, and you get to work with people in the industry and find out how you hold up.” As Karpathakis explained, while the policy is for the student to find the placement, in practice it’s usually the academic who uses their contacts. Once in the placement, students are on their own; in the cases he highlighted, the initial work led to other jobs and more responsibility.

Trish FitzSimons talked about the Work Integrated Learning process happening at Griffith University, where all third year students have to do 65 hours placement. “The rationale is that we’re running vocational programs, but there are not enough jobs out there.” She believes that there is so much for them to learn from their work placement, “and it also makes their films better.” Griffith, she says, is lucky in that it has connections with industry and screen cultural organisations in their area; “we get calls from big productions on the Gold Coast for students to work in the art department or whatever, and we have a mentorship scheme that often leads to placements. Work is unpaid initially, but as students prove their worth they can move into paid work.”

Leo Berkeley explained that RMIT encouraged their international students to do their industry attachments back home, between semesters, where it helps to integrate them with local industries but, of course, he added, monitoring their progress is more difficult.

new risk environments

Pragmatic matters? Well, Occupational Health and Safety probably comes under this heading, although Nicholas Oughton from Griffith University argued that creative industries, including screen-based ones, operate in a different environment and context from traditional workplaces, which makes the traditional OH&S systems inappropriate. “Creative industries thrive on risk-taking,” he argued, “and are constrained by risk avoidance.” He believes that as the very nature of work changes in the 21st century, and as cultural and creative elements are becoming more important, a new perspective on OH&S is required; he recommended that a new OH&S model should be designed for the creative industries.

signs of work

This is only a taste of the conference, and in amongst the papers and discussions there were some glimpses of actual creative work. Sarah Gibson of UTS gave a peek into her fascinating and soon to be completed multiplatform project Re-enchantment, an interactive journey into the world of the fairytale, which will be hosted on the ABC’s website and supported by three-minute animated minidocs on ABCTV. David Carlin tempted us with some scenes from Motel, three interlocking short films set in the same motel room with the same actors, made by three filmmakers and two designers as a practice-based research project at RMIT. And Rachel Wilson from RMIT reported on the work she is doing towards the setting up of a digital archive of student films—sounds dry, but it was absolutely fascinating and should result in a great resource.


ASPERA Conference 2010, University of Technology, Sydney, June 7-9; http://www.aspera.org.au

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 27

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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