Rebels Up the Front

4 mins reading

‘No one listens to experts anymore…’

These words were spoken by Tracey Slatter, Managing Director at Barwon Water, at a recent Geelong Communications and Marketing Professionals Network event sponsored by the City of Greater Geelong. The sentiment matches something that I – and no doubt countless others – have been grappling with for some time. I found myself reflecting on this subject in my own presentation at the GComms forum, and I want to use the experience to make a case that sometimes ‘the rebels’ actually sit up the front of the bus.

If you’ve engaged with anything I’ve written before on social media, you’ll know that I don’t see the rise of ‘influencer’ culture and the gradual decline – or at least thorough transformation – of the ‘public intellectual’ as inherently bad things. Academics are on the front line facing this cultural shift of tidal wave proportions, and the clambering around for an effective way to respond has only just begun, but it’s not just university lecturers for whom this dilemma is a concern.

Perhaps predictably, a common focus of all the forum’s speakers was the rapid pace of technological and other change being faced by Communications practitioners, wedded as it is to the growing problem of how to attract, maintain, and sustain the attention and interest of one’s audiences. Within this context – and in line with my teaching philosophy outlined in earlier blogs such as this one – I emphasised the importance of continuous learning by doing as a lifelong learner. The selection of slides below will give a bit of a sense of my ‘structured tangents’…

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I was invited to speak at this networking event based on a recommendation from a previous student and due to the fact I had a podcast. This interestingly – and refreshingly – seemed to give me as much (if not more) legitimacy as writing books or having a ‘Dr’ before my name. This shift in perceived credibility is a great thing, and I worked to break down the notion of the ‘expert’ in my presentation even further by incorporating the perspectives, voices, and physical presence of some young people who attended.

The event’s convenors were generous enough to allow several students to participate in the GComms forum. Early in my presentation, I asked one of these students to come up the front and briefly share a lifelong learning-themed insight from her participation in the VidCon Australia convention. I then invited another student to stand on stage with her and nod if I said anything of value (while I encouraged yet another in the audience to take photographs and ‘make fun of’ them on Twitter). As expected, the wider audience of practitioners was entertained by the students’ spontaneous performances, and many were no doubt glad it was not them I had ‘dragged’ up on stage without warning to take a group selfie in front of a room of strangers.

The key point that older generations have a lot to learn from the social media behaviours and storytelling abilities of young people was crystallised in my final antic. At the very beginning of the presentation, I had pretended to try to film an impromptu TikTok video in front of/with the audience. This took them completely unawares as I’d hoped and I feigned disappointment and disgust, abandoning the effort half way through. Then, as my 30 minute presentation drew to a close, I tried again. This time it was better…

… But it wasn’t brilliant. Viewing this video in retrospect, the primary ‘lesson’ seems to have come through even more poignantly than I’d planned for. Even after ‘warming up’ the audience to the idea of media-making generally and the foreign concept of a TikTok specifically, the three students and a few others easily stood out from the crowd. I had noted the irony that those three young undergraduate students were sitting right up the front of the room, with many empty seats around them, before my presentation had began.

I hope that, metaphorically speaking, the Communications practitioners in that room soon find themselves again in close(r) proximity to young people, as there is lots to be taken from their digital knowledge, competencies, and activities. While it might be true that no one listens to ‘the experts’ anymore – and I don’t like to use the term ‘expert’ anyway – today’s youth have a great deal of expertise they would be more than happy to share with us – if we’re willing to listen and learn…

Sorry, the bus metaphor doesn’t really work. I shouldn’t have called this post ‘Rebels up the front’.

It should be ‘Teachers up the front’.

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