Profiles: art, culture and community

From classical history to the cutting-edge of digital technology, from performance methodologies to auditory processing, Plymouth’s research across the arts and humanities embraces innovation and impact. Through the work of experts within the Institute of Digital Art and Technology (i-DAT) and Innovation for the Creative and Cultural Industries, much of the work is done in conjunction with partners such as Arts Council England or premiered through events such as the Cultural Olympiad. While channelled through the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO), the University boasts a breadth of knowledge and expertise range across all aspects of HE pedagogy.

Profile: Professor Roberta Mock

I’m trying to make visible and give a voice to those marginalised by the mainstream. Sometimes that means my work sits at the deliberately provocative end of the spectrum - but it should always be accessible.

“It was an elegy to Detroit, and what I imagined it would be like to be an American, Jewish, suburban woman,”
says Roberta Mock of her professorial lecture in 2011 to commemorate her position as Plymouth’s first Professor of Performance Studies.

Drawing upon her experience of growing up in a Canadian border town in the shadow of the Motor City, Roberta delivered a performance in the persona of ‘Bobby’, an unfulfilled housewife and a version of who she thought she would become had she not left North America in 1985. In doing so, she succeeded in bringing together her long-standing research interests in cultural identity with her background in writing, producing and directing.

“A great deal of my research focuses on Jewish cultural studies and in particular how that intersects with performance studies and gender studies,” Roberta says.

“With performance there’s a strong sense that it’s always in motion, and your scholarship is never finished. Your research develops as your life develops - it’s enshrined in the discipline.”
Joining the University in 1992, Roberta has been exploring issues of race, sexuality, gender and Jewish culture ever since, with some of her most influential research centred upon Jewish women on the stage, in film and in television. This has included ground-breaking studies of women who perform stand-up comedy, particularly the way mature comediennes such as Joan Rivers draw attention to their sexuality through their routines.

That spotlighting of subjects that might be considered taboo, or at the very least sensitive, is inherent in Roberta’s feminist methodology too. Her willingness to question and debate issues of concern to women has led to recognition and invitation, such as speaking at the London College of Fashion on ageing and plastic surgery, and at the Barbican Theatre on the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage from John O’Groats to London.

Profile: Professor Eduardo Miranda

The big question we are addressing is the impact of music on human development, from the advancement of our understanding of the brain to its contribution to the development of Artificial Intelligence. We hope that this will lead to new technologies.

With a reputation for ground-breaking, innovative research, Eduardo Miranda is in good company in the pages of this publication. But when it comes to transforming that research into contemporary music and composition, he’s in a class of one.

As Professor of Computer Music, and the founder of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, Eduardo is leading the development of a new field of creative practice and enquiry that he has termed ‘music neurotechnology’.

“Philosophers and developers of Artificial Intelligence have often regarded the process of human thinking as the logical manipulation of symbols,” says Eduardo. “However this paradigm is shifting rapidly towards the notion that emotions play a vital role in intelligent behaviour. Music, probably the most sophisticated symbolic system evolved for human expression, is becoming increasingly important in probing intelligence, both natural and

artificial, because of its powerful ability to convey emotions.”

Joining the University in 2003 from the Sony Computer Science Laboratory, where he has specialised in Artificial Intelligence applied to music and linguistics, Eduardo has published more than 120 research papers and secured several high-profile grants, including one to design an intelligent computer that can analyse the brain’s activity and listen for emotional indicators - and ultimately write music to combat stress and depression.

His body of contemporary music has been broadcast worldwide by renowned performers and ensembles. And thanks to his founding of the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival with Simon Ible, he has created a stage to showcase the work of those academics inspired by his example.

Profile: Professor Debby Cotton

Our students are an inspiration, some of the stories of how they’ve succeeded against the odds to secure an honours degree are profoundly humbling. It’s important to understand these background factors so that we as academics can support them day to day.

From environmental science in the Amazon to the learning environment of Plymouth, the path of Debby Cotton’s research career has crossed geographic and academic frontiers.

The University’s Professor of Higher Education Pedagogy started out as a rainforest ecologist at UEA, but it was during her doctorate at Oxford, breaking new ground on the teaching of controversial environmental issues, that the migration to the science of learning began.

“Education is one of those areas that everyone thinks they know about,” says Debby. “But so much goes on in an unseen context that influences education - from the attitude of the teacher or lecturer to the quality and characteristics of the environment around the student.”

This element of the invisible, even the unconscious, has been termed the ‘hidden curriculum’ - and Debby has explored it through a range of perceptive studies.

With an emphasis on qualitative research and innovative methodologies drawing upon video and student participation, Debby’s work has ranged across territories as diverse as the pedagogic impact of fieldwork and unfamiliar environments, and the centrality of a lecturer’s personal beliefs, to the likelihood of them embedding sustainability within their teaching. Debby has also spent time analysing the distractive nature of modern technology.

“It’s really important in the online age that we understand the challenges facing our students,” she says. “Online resources can encourage ‘surface learning’, skimming information as you jump around on hyperlinks or flicking to and from Facebook, and that’s something we need to consider when we’re trying to encourage deep engagement with a subject.”

A key member of the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO), and lead for the Educational Development team at the University, Debby supports students and academics across the institution, often drawing upon that diverse scientific grounding.

Profile: Professor Sue Denham

Through the Cognition Institute, and CogNovo in particular, we are working to advance scientific research into cognitive innovation and to train the next generation of researchers to be highly creative, critical and innovative thinkers.

How does the brain process sound? How does it disentangle overlapping and competing sources? How is it able to link intermittent sounds from the same source through time?

For Sue Denham, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, finding new ways to analyse audio perception and answer questions such as these have defined her research career at the University since she joined in 1995 as a PhD student, a career that has led to the award of research grants in excess of €15 million and two spin-out companies.

“The aims of my research are to understand auditory cognition using perceptual experiments and computational models,” Sue says. “I then try to apply this understanding in the development of computationally efficient implementations for practical technological applications, and in the creation of novel devices.”

From auditory systems to the mind-map of cognition, so Sue’s experience and expertise has seen her appointed as the founding Director of the University’s new Cognition Institute. A 100+-strong multidisciplinary collective that spans psychology, neuroscience, robotics, biomedicine, and the arts and humanities, the institute is seeking to understand the role of the brain in human cognition, social engagement, decision-making, development and creativity.

At the heart of the institute is the new CogNovo doctoral training programme, a €4.1 million EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN), involving a consortium of 23 academic and industrial partners from around the world. The funding has created 26 PhD positions, each studying a different aspect of the role of novelty, innovation and creativity in cognition.