By David Myton
Upon a time Lelia Green worked as a bus conductor on the No19, a red double-decker that trundled back and forth through the streets of an English town. With a ticket machine strapped across her front, she would usher the passengers on board, then running up and down the stairs she’d be yelling “Any more fares please!”, “Move along there”, and the occasional “No feet on seats!”
She observed the panoply of life as the day unfolded – the shift workers off to the local factory, the kids going to school, the old folk to the pub for a lunchtime drink, the women going shopping (this was the 1970s), the workers returning home, and in the evening the good-time seekers heading to the cinemas and night clubs.
It was a life-changing experience for Green. She was on a gap year and had a place at Cambridge University to study law. But now she had second thoughts – she wanted to learn about people, about humanity in all its richness, so opted instead to read archaeology and anthropology.
“I’d had a very middle-class upbringing but the buses was an education in itself,” she says. “You could see the way in which society came together, but also stratified into different areas of interest and different time zones that people called their own. I began to realise the way that society works differently.
After graduating from Cambridge with honours in psychology, she won a job as a producer and director with BBC London going on to work on shows such as News Night and the kids’ favourite, Blue Peter.
But then came an unexpected opportunity to migrate to Perth, Western Australia to teach at Edith Cowan, granted university status in 1991 after the amalgamations of the Dawkins Revolution.
“People were saying to me things like how could you leave the BBC, give up the best job in the world, it’s such a creative environment – but compared to working in academic life it was not the most exciting creative job in the world. It was much less deep.”
And thus began a journey that took Green into the multiplicities of humanities teaching and research at Edith Cowan University. Along the way she collected several Masters degrees and a PhD – at an institution today ranked the top public university in Australia for overall educational experience and teaching quality, and the top WA university for graduate satisfaction, teaching quality and skills development.
A passionate advocate for the humanities
Green’s research interests span communications, the creative industries, new media, media policy, cultural studies, and the construction of community – including the marginalised, disadvantaged, and those challenged by social, emotional, health or distance issues. She has been a Chief Investigator on 15 nationally competitive grants, including 13 from the ARC.
She is a passionate advocate for the humanities. “What has always fascinated me is exploring what it means to be human, about what it is to be connected to other people, what it means to be part of a society,” she says.
“It delivers insights into the human condition that I don’t think social sciences does; and you can learn a lot about humans from biology, chemistry, physics, biomechanics, what have you – but humanities gives you a totally different picture of how we create the worlds in which we live and how we thrive, or fail to thrive, depending on the different settings we establish for ourselves.”
Humanities degrees “without a shadow of a doubt” still have relevance.
“They teach you to understand people in a way that maths and science doesn’t. In the gig economy, where it’s about building relationships either with your audience or with the people that are paying you to create the content, that’s all about understanding what people want and why they want it – and to explore ways to enrich that experience, to surprise them or engage them differently.
“I think that deep understanding of what it is to be human is going to be absolutely central to that. There’s no question that the humanities have a very important focus.”
Digital disruption and the changing media
In the early years at ECU Green taught TV production, developed an interest in theory including in the impact of technology and social change, and in the increasing uptake of internet use. She went on to head up the university’s node of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation, witnessing the massive disruption to traditional media sparked by the relentless take-up of new communications technologies.
“It is an incredibly fertile and fast moving area,” she says. “When I think back to when I was made a professor of communications, Twitter hadn’t been dreamed up, there was no Spotify, no apps, no smart phones – it’s just astonishing the speed at which these things are innovating.
“People are using new technologies not only to communicate with each other, but also to communicate about themselves. And they use the new technologies to create in-groups and out-groups, and also to identify themselves as particular kinds of people – in the same way as if you had been a glam rocker or into heavy metal back in the 70s, and you’d have had a very different persona and ways of self promotion.”
The world of media and journalism also has changed enormously, re-shaped almost entirely by digital. These are difficult times for many in the industry but, she says, “they are also very exciting times because there is so much experimentation going on”.
“I would have hated the 24-hour news cycle, having to write a story and then to blog it, and then having to do a piece to camera for a news flash or a YouTube trailer – it seems like an incredible vacuum that sucks it all up in time and energy.”
But young people who have grown up in these “multiply mediated environments” are equipped to handle multi-media stream journalistic careers.
“As a society we are going through almost a reinvention of the 19th century amateur where commitment and passion is often seen to trump education and training. But what is clear is that if you have the passion and commitment – and you invest in the training – then you are better positioned to succeed.”
Higher education and the challenge of disruption
Generally, says Green, universities have been “one of the later adopters” of new ways of teaching and learning in the wake of technological and social change.
“I’m not sure that higher education has really embraced the gig economy,” she says. “We are still saying ‘you’ve got to do this course in these 13 weeks’ – but we have to look more at recognising prior learning and offering more episodic and project driven work, allowing students to set more of their own learning outcomes in advance.
“I think universities are transforming, and ECU are innovators when it comes to this. But I think education as a whole is still saying ‘this is what you have to learn and then you have to sit down and we’ll assess you on this day’, rather than allowing people to develop and display competencies in real world situations.”
A consequence of disruption is that universities’ internal structures are “continually being remodeled” in ways that bring people from different disciplines into contact with each other.
“I think that’s quite a fertile way of looking at university evolution.”
The boundaries and interstices of established knowledge
Green says the academic disciplines are still important – they serve as a foundation and lay the groundwork that informs transdisciplinarity.
Nevertheless, she says, much of what is new and emergent “is happening at the boundaries and the interstices of established knowledge”.
“You are not just talking about pushing the boundaries back, you are also talking about where those boundaries are, where you rank disciplines.
“I think Australia is suffering somewhat from the fact that we have two different streams of funding – the ARC for the non-medical research, and the National Health and Medical Research Council, yet researchers are not encouraged to experiment at the juncture of these areas. In fact, we have to go to some trouble to distance borderline projects from one area or the other.”
There is “a flow of experience” that lies outside these divisive parameters. She gives as an example the ARC-supported online communities for people with breast cancer that she has helped to establish on behalf of Breast Cancer Care WA, and for people with heart disease on behalf of the Heart Foundation WA.
“People who are using those communities can suddenly get a new lease of life, enjoyment and power. But investigating the health impacts of this intervention would be hard to fund because it’s not ‘medical’ enough for the NHRC and it’s too ‘medical’ for the ARC.”
Work with early and mid career researchers
Green is dedicated to helping and mentoring “the next generation of academics” and has worked with many early- and mid-career researchers to help them to build research “track records”.
“I’ve graduated 21 PhDs, and I’m on the brink of 22 – I think they are just wonderful.”
One of her PhD students was Dr Anne Aly, now the Labor MP for Cowan in WA, whom she describes as a “vibrant example of how wonderful it can be to work with a fresh mind that’s full of energy and passion”.
“I’ve been lucky enough to support three people who went on to get a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the ARC, and four of my students have received faculty research medals as part of their graduation – it’s just such a huge privilege for me.
“I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the support I have received from the ARC – and obviously I do my best to earn their trust.
“But there are some tricks of the trade I have picked up over the years, and it’s important that people don’t put all that work into an application without understanding a little bit of the insider perspective, so I try to offer support and mentoring in those areas.
“Obviously the university also does that, but if you have been through the experience yourself, and you’ve won and lost grants – you put in perhaps three or four for every one you win – I think it helps. But failing is part of the system and it’s what makes winning so worthwhile when it happens … And getting to spend your time researching real life problems with real life outcomes.”
Children and managing the online environment
Another of Green’s research interests is the development of ways in which children and their parents manage the online environment.
“I’m among those that say – this is wonderful; but some people wonder how we save children from the sheer addictive nature of the online world? What sort of guidelines can we recommend which don’t actually stop children from enjoying the pleasure of it, but which help parents to put a few boundaries in place?”
Green says with the advent of “touch and swipe” smartphones and tablets, children whose motor skills hadn’t been good enough to use mouse and keyboard “were suddenly enfranchised” to easily use the devices.
Sensible parental management strategies can include what many already do – “co-present play in the digital space” – that is, they are there with their children as they play.
Lending their own device to the child is also a good strategy – because they are going to want it back again and so the child knows their time is fixed.
Parents should also say something like ‘you’ve got another five minutes’ to give the child “time to go into the grieving process before handing it back”.
Parents should also monitor their own habits: for example, not charging the phone overnight by the bed. “Some actually have their phone with them 24 hours a day. So if children are allowed a device for only a short time they feel as if they are missing out.”
Green notes the rise in the number of children impacted by “nature deficit disorder” – that is, they spend too much time indoors.
“I would so encourage parents to include children in outdoor experiences and to do things that involve periods of digital abstinence, digital avoidance.
“If we look at places like Finland, which has some of the best educational outcomes in the world, essentially their early education years are almost always spent largely out of doors.”