What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Rethinking the study day model

How can we do academic conferences better?

Over the course of my PhD, I became deeply disappointed with conferences and study days. Those were always presented in the marketing as an opportunity to share and question ideas with peers. Yet the design was hardly conducive to that goal. It was either plenaries or parallel sessions, with a clear division of roles: speakers, listeners. Presenters had one single slot of about 40 minutes in the conference to share their research or ideas. They were invited to leave time for questions, but everybody went overtime, limiting interations to 10 minutes at best. Which typically consisted of a ‘question that is actually a remark suggesting an alternative reference’, clarification on a minor point of detail, and a theoretical challenge with hardly any time to reflect. How is that an opportunity to share ideas with peers?

I noted similar contradictions with the ‘milestone presentations’ I was invited to do, as part of Monash University’s PhD program. Here again, in theory, it was an opportunity to receive feedback – but in fact, seemed to serve mainly the purpose of confirming my academic capacity. I had to share documents in advance, give twenty minutes of presentation, then get feedback from faculty members, and give a short response. Document had to be formatted to standards: how misaligned with research as an emergent process. Practically, it meant a lot of time spent formally perfecting early stage prototypes. Nor was the presentation a proper dialogue, but professorial expert feedback. Again, not a great mode of interaction, especially for an extravert like me.

It’s unlikely that any of this can change: habits run deep. I soon gave up attempts to bring what I had learned in innovation and entrepreneurial circles to a university setting – the final drop was one memorably dysfunctional conversation with a mid-level administrator. Yet, in the margins of a conference, I remember discussing an alternative model, as a provocation, with a friendly peer.

I’m a bit of a design nerd, so, on that evening, I jotted down notes for this conference model. It has remained at the back of a drawer, in draft form, for years. I thought I might take it out, give it shape and share it. Much of it is inspired by the wonderful Liberating Structures model of Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. The timings are slightly tight, with long pauses. This means, it’s possible to extend the length of activities and ‘eat into’ pauses a little. Pauses are also intended for introverts to relax.

I’d love to try it out one day, but not on my own. So, if anyone would like to pick it up? Please, I’d love to talk.  

Day 1: Fast prototyping

Prior to the conference, participants have been invited to prepare a presentation on either their whole research, or part of their research. They have been warned that the purpose of the day is to exchange ideas, tackle challenges, and review their presentation – so to prepare something that could be changed.

9:00 – 9:30: Coffee & tea

Sequence 1: introduction (9:30 – 10:30)

Goal: set the mood and principles for the day. Break the ice. People feel a sense of connection with other participants. People reflect on ‘what brought them here’ and set goals for themselves.

Five finger ice-breaker (9:30-9:55)

Participants are invited to lift their five fingers in turn, and form pairs based on ‘who has a finger that looks a little like yours’. Each round, they reflect and discuss a different question. 3’ / round.

Questions:

  • What is the latest paper you read?  
  • What’s an author or thinker you keep returning to and why?
  • What’s an idea, or theory that you’re trying to destroy?
  • What would you like to achieve with your research? What’s the big vision?
  • As a researcher, what’s a thing you’re really good at?

General introduction (9h55-10h00)

  • Principles of the day – this is a conference optimized for deep exchange of ideas
  • Over the course of two days, you will present the same paper three times, in different formats, gathering feedback as you go.

Impromptu networking (10h00 – 10h30)

 Impromptu networkingis a way to quickly bring a group to focus on questions that matter to them.  

  • People are invited to form pairs, and answer the following question in turn: ‘What challenge are you hoping to overcome in this conference?’
  • Three rounds, followed by a general debrief. Participants are invited to share insights, maintaining confidentiality (e.g. share ideas or challenges, but not who articulated them).   

Coffee and Tea: 10h30-11h00

Sequence #2: Testing your pitch

Fast-pitching (11h00 – 11h45)

This section is inspired by the ‘Helping heuristics’ liberating structure.  

Participants form groups of 3, and rotate between three roles: speaker, listener, observer. 9 minutes / round

  • Round 1: Pitch your paper. The listener listens silently. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 2: Pitch your paper. The listener can ask clarifying questions. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 3: Pitch your paper. The listener can challenge or make suggestions  (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)

Debrief – what happened

  • Observers: How did the pitches evolve? What else did you notice?
  • Listeners: How did it feel to ‘listen differently’? Did you have time to ask any question?
  • Speakers: How did it feel to have listeners’ attention? Did you modify the pitch?
  • All: What else did you notice?

Review your pitch (11h45 – 12h15)

Participants are given 30 minutes to review presentations, based on the morning’s experience.

Lunch: 12h15 – 1h00

Note, over lunch, participants can choose to socialize, or work on their presentations. Colour-coded stickers may be provided to indicate if participants want to ‘chat’ or ‘be quiet’.

Sequence #3: first presentation (1h00 – 2h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, candidates present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, listeners share questions and comments for 10 minutes. Listeners can interact with each other. Candidates cannot respond.

Sequence #4: silent reflection (2h15 – 3h15)

Alone, candidates reflect on what they heard and review their presentation accordingly.

Sequence #5: second presentation (3h15 – 5h00)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Sequence #6: Closure (5h00-5h15)

Participants are invited to digest the day and review their presentation for the next day.

Note – it would be possible to hold this as a one-day conference, and close with a ‘what, so what, now what’ activity (detailed at the end of Day 2)  

Day 2

Coffee and tea (9h00 – 9h30)

Sequence #1: Fast pitching (9h30 – 10h15)

Participants are invited to form pairs, and do short presentation of their papers, in five successive rounds, with a different focus each round. Strictly 3’ for each person each round.

  • Round 1: focus on why the research matters
  • Round 2: focus on the methodology
  • Round 3: focus on the references
  • Round 4: focus on the data you used
  • Round 5: focus on what’s original about the research  

General debrief:

  • How was it? What did you learn? Did your thinking evolve?  

Sequence #2: Third breakout room presentation (10h15 – 12h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Between each round, participants are invited to take a short 5’ break.

Sequence #3: work lunch (12h15 – 1h30)

Participants finalise their presentation over a light lunch.

Sequence #4: plenary (1h30 – 4h30)

Participants are split in groups of 8 presenters. An external audience may be invited to attend. They present a final, reviewed version of their paper, with strictly 20’/presenter, and no time for question.

A short 10 ‘ pause is given after the first four presenters.

Depending on attendance, the length of this section may vary, and groups of different sizes can be organised.  

Closure: (4h30 – 5h15)

Participants are invited to reflect on the process, and what can be applied from it, following the What, so what, now what liberating structure.

Participants are invited to discuss the following questions in turn. For each question, participants start with 1 minute to think about the question alone, then discuss in groups of 3-5 (depending on total numbers), for 6 minutes.  

  • What happened? What did you notice? What stood out or was new?
  • So what? Why is a process like the one we went through important? What can be learned from it?
  • Now what? After going through this process, what will you do differently?

Participants are then invited to share key insights and actions with the group.

The conference ends with a ritual round circle, where participants are invited to share their experience in one word.

Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Beyond the anglosphere – on a poem I read

As Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I resolved either to polish and share pieces publicly, or dispose of them. Some, I simply shared as is, others I contextualised. This is what I wanted to do here: in this post, I talk about anglo-ness as default in Australia’s cultural and literary world. As our borders lock down, at the same time that the world is experiencing a genuinely global trauma, some of the questions raised here may be more pressing than ever. So – what should we do, and what can we do, to no longer take ‘English’ as a default? 

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘an Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature’. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in explicit ways. And it expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalisn, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events she names, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe because I’m nice and naïve – or maybe because they do have a genuine desire for more diversity.

And yet, in all these instances, I often felt a great solitude as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at those events.

I do strongly feel the gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love.

But it’s a tough game. It’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition. Trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept.

I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of these issues she raises. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

The Beijing Series

Today, I’m running a poetry translation workshop at Monash University, preparing for a special event at Montsalvat Open Day next week. We’re going to translate pomes by Katie Key’s @tinylittlepoems, written during her stay in Beijing, known as ‘the Beijing series’

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 6 sept.

We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 7 sept.

I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 8 sept.

Our fragile devices, these pieces of glass, the fingerprints left of ourselves. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 9 sept.

Childless, I am less than woman here – the shapes I make. Homeless, in the absence of my lines. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 10 sept.

Dragon-bourne and read, a two-forked tongue, a way with words. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 11 sept.

I am stuttered. The words come out on the page, not the world, & nobody hears them but me. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 12 sept.

The way the trees hold tight to the smoke haze, greying the avenues, softening the skies. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 13 sept.

A question of water, of art and of air – a question of who we might be. a #tinylittlepoem from China for the @mpoloproject

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!

Honey Pot – how a project came to life.

Four years ago, I wrote the script of a short gay film that would show two men dancing in a public toilet. My friend Nghi, whom I’d met by chance at a screenwriters meetup, was interested in the storyline, and offered to produce it. We gathered a small team, found a location, negotiated hard for a permit, and shot the whole thing three and a half years ago. The film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was later selected for the Verona and Mumbai Queer Film Festivals.

Two years ago, Nghi decided to put Honey Pot on youtube. We were not going to sell it, and had exhausted the festival circuit. A month later, our film had received over 10,000 views – and we were exhilarated! That was more viewers than fifty festivals. And then the number grew. 50,000. 100,000. Last I saw, we were over 2 million. More people have seen this film than live in South Australia, Stockholm or Dublin – and with 2000 to 3000 views a day, we’ll soon overtake Manchester, Budapest or Vienna.

This is the power of the net. What was just an idea four years ago, with very minimal budget – 3000 dollars, which we’ve since covered through youtube ads – we’ve reached out over 2 million people, generated hundreds of comments, and become part of debates and discussions about male desire, police abuse, and the perception of Asian gay men. We spent no money marketing or promoting the piece – it resonated enough with people that they sent a link or told their friends about it.

This little video, and the story of its online success, is one of my great pleasures. When I doubt about the success of my current projects – I think back on Honey Pot, and how, within four years, a few words on a page became images seen by over 2 million people over the world. It’s happened, it could happen again. It’s taken time, other things will. And if all fails, at least, I’ve made this little film, which people have enjoyed. It’s also taught me something else: many viewers were in countries I never thought of – Indonesia, Philippines, even Saudi Arabia. There’s an audience beyond the North Atlantic – and maybe we should think of them when we shoot, write, paint, or edit. At least, from now on, I do!

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet – here’s the video. If you like it – send a link to your friends!

Blogging in Chinese

Wow – I just opened a blog on Sina! Thank you Lavender for your help. As a start, I will be re-publishing Australian Aesthetics there – with a bit of help from google translate. WordPress is blocked at the moment, and I think my descriptions of Melbourne would appeal to potential visitors or migrants here. But who knows, I may develop a radically new Chinese online personality, and start blogging away. I don’t quite understand every feature just yet, but I can make it out, more or less – CMS and blog servers become intuitive pretty quickly.

Still – Wow! – that’s a whole new experience :-). Interested? Follow ZhuZhu’s blog.

Australian Aesthetics

I’ve been in Australia for three years now, and recently received my permanent residency. To celebrate my integration, and reflect on this new life environment, I will develop an observation blog called ‘Australian Aesthetics’. I want to try and capture the shape of Australian urban life, as I experience it, through text and images. There is a certain beauty, a certain aesthetic quality to Australian cities – isn’t Melbourne ‘the most livable city in the world’? – yet I don’t often see it represented: travel books will show either the glitzy towers, graffitied laneways, a misty river scene, or expenses of roaring ocean. These sights are truly Australian, but they are somewhat exceptional. What I want to capture is, on the contrary, the everyday, the banal, what people see when they get out their front door, walk to the station, or have a stroll around on the week-end.

I will write this blog in French and English. This will be an exercise in multilingual text production, and the occasion to experiment with inspiration – what does each language invite me to tell, how do I react to my anticipated audiences? But I still need to figure out the technicalities.

Meanwhile, drafts are coming online at australianaesthetics.wordpress.com