The Fish-Scale of Academicness
This was the first of the Tactile Academia books I made and funnily enough I didn’t set out to do a book at all.
So here’s the story of that one:
In June 2010 I went to the Flying Start symposium held at Liverpool Hope University. This was disseminating the work that had been/still was going on in the Flying Start project, which was concerned with academic writing transition. Here I saw Claire Penketh talking about her work, and one of the things that particularly struck a chord with me was her work on reading at degree level. In her presentation she menitoned a quote from John Bean which stated that “learning to read at degree level is like learning to fish in deep waters” (2001). In her slides she made this point to her students by showing pictures of fish and likening them to certain types of reading – goldfish (a bit like emails, small and colourful), sharks (with teeth, so a bit scary, like a peer-reviewed article might be) and angler fish (just weird, like something that was written for a different audience altogether).
Now I absolutely loved this idea and built up a presentation for my students all around the idea of evaluating secondary sources by likening them to sea creatures and ordering them on a scale of academic depth. It described a number of ‘standard’ secondary sources, such as blogs, newspapers, introductory texts, academic journals and doctoral work. This seemed to go down well and alert students to the necessity of evaluating sources, something they have a problem with in my experience.
As I thought this was a very good way of explaining the concept of provenance to students I wanted to turn this into an Open Educational Resource, however, my slides were populated with copyrighted fish from animation, so I needed to find a way to illustrate this. And then a course on the Illustrated Book came along near me and I signed up for that with the express plan to work on the illustrations for this. And so I made a book out of it. I played about with the layout and used tear-aways to show a sense of depths. This book, with original linocuts, was done in an edition of 7 in 2012.
At the same time I thought this might be a very good way for me to explain this concept at this workshop I was organising and how nice it would be to give the delegates something special. So I also made an edition for them, which is photocopied and has drawn illustrations, but it also has the ‘torn’ pages meant to visualise the depth of the academic ocean.
This booklet was produced in an edition of 31 and given out at the Thinking through Writing and Making workshop.
The Fish-Scale doesn’t stop with explaining the concept to the students. I have also started using it as an activity. I give students excerpts of sample text from a variety of academic depths, and ask them in groups to decide what sort of sea creatures these texts would be and draw them. What is important here is that the students also are able to articulate the reasons why they decided on a particular sea creature. We then all order them in terms of their academic depths through a group discussion. I encourage students to go through this thinking process when they are using their sources, and to visualise their bibliography in terms of the depth achieved – and ask them to think about trying to ‘go deeper’ when they progress through the years.
The very small-scale evaluation I have done on this so far, has indicated that introducing the lecture coupled with the activity has resulted in students using a better range and better quality of secondary sources in their essays.
I’m currently planning a research project to test whether this would work with students from other universities and disciplines. Maybe as part of this I will actually get around to making that Open Educational Resource. If you are interested in collaborating on this, please get in touch!