Writing and the Object – my impressions

The Writing in Creative Practice: Writing and the Object workshop was held at Middlesex University on 13 June 2013. It was a very full day – full with delegates, speakers and, above all, ideas. (You can find the official schedule here). Here are my initial impressions… (so far only my photos, more to follow soon)

Peter Thomas, who had organised the whole day on the Middlesex side, started us of with putting the day into a larger context, talking about the tension between the object representing tacit understanding and the writing, which records explicit knowledge. This is something that is very close to my understanding of the relationship between the word and object as well (as can be seen in The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice), and I particularly liked Peter’s notion of the tension, which visually could also be read as interference in a way, which is somewhat ironic, because what the object particularly can give to writing is the focus and relevance that is so often lacking in student writing.

I then took over from Peter, introducing Sarah Williamson’s reflective book making activity (yes, by presenting everybody with a long paper strip, ready to be filled with collage/drawing or whatever else people felt like), giving a tiny little bit of background and particularly flagging up David Gauntlett’s notion of the ‘longer stretch of thoughtfulness’ (2010) that making brings. I then gave a brief overview of how I use objects in my teaching, particularly how interviewing an object can become a non-threatening precursor to an academic investigation (framed as an article) – because the genre of interview is less scary to students than the academic essay, because they are familiar with the former. I then put the two starting points – of using objects and making objects – together in the discussion of the 2D Challenge – making a sample copy of a magazine/newspaper based on the question ‘What would me work be like if it was a newspaper/magazine?’

Following this, Grace Lees-Maffei gave an overview of the different perspectives from which the relationship between words and objects are approached in Writing Design: Words and Objects, a book she has edited recently. What particularly stuck with me was the notion of triangulation – we need to approach objects from different angles, because really they “defy all attempts to define them in language”.  I was thinking how looking at objects can become a great illustration of the concept of triangulation within academic research through using different perspectives/shots of the same object (maybe a future tactile academia booklet?). I also liked her talking about omission, how it can be revealing to look for what is not written about.

Luke White talked about the sense in which objects can be seen (or can become?) ‘haunted’ after Derrida’s Hauntology, framed through his own encounter with Hirst’s shark. This really opened thoughts of the real and unreal – can we really attempt to talk about an object’s ‘truth’, or is what we are talking about ALWAYS an interpretation? Does objectivity exist at all, or is it always – or sometimes? – more akin to reflexivity? Does Design Writing take possession of the objects that are its subject?

Pauline Sumner took over and talked about her work in dyslexia support. She started with a brief overview of how dyslexia connects with related learning difficulties and some facts, for example that why it has been shown that 3D visual information processing skills are better in dyslexic men, this has not been found to be the case for women… I found particularly interesting the system she described of colour coding and chunking text – breaking up text that needs to be produced for a whole essay into manageable chunks and colour code them in a reverse traffic light system (the introduction in green, the main body in sections of various colours and the conclusion in red).

And this was all before lunch! Over lunch I had a really interesting discussion with some delegates about the use of the reflective bookmaking as note taking, which seemed to be a big hit. (In fact this came up a fair few times in the feedback: “Absolutely LOVED the new method of taking notes and found I was able to focus on my own responses to the presentations in an entirely new way.” “Lots of memory triggers now to reconnect me to my thoughts today and take back into my practice.” “Didn’t think collage and listening would be so compatible.”)

After lunch, Peter and Ossie Parker told us about their interventions on an animation course, where they use a generative writing cycle of free-writing, reviewing for pathways, freewriting on the pathways, reviewing for a short presentation to facilitate an inner dialogue in students, basically scaffolding the developing and editing of ideas in preparation for a 15 second stop-motion animation.

Then Tony Side told us about how a writing portfolio (also as a designed object reflecting the content) has replaced the traditional dissertation on an Interior Design/Architecture course – and how this is supported/scaffolded through writing workshops including object/image analysis and site-writing to name but a few.

The last session by Peter, Emma Dick, Richard Lumb and Marion Syratt Barnes started by letting us experience how they link objects from their collections (the Museum of Domestic Architecture and the Library Special Collections) to student research, exploration and writing. They refer to a method of material artefact analysis described by Valerie Steele in ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than A Clothes Bag’ (1998), which goes through the steps of Description, Deduction and Speculation. Again one of the threads running through this approach (as in the approach to the Animation Project mentioned above) was making it clear to the students that there is a space in the process of generating writing that is (and should be) private – when you are still figuring out what you want to say.

We ended the day with Stewart Martin responding to the themes and issues that had been raised. I particularly liked his thought that both creative practice and academic writing are (or should be?) about the creation of something new… a novel contribution. Questions that came out of the following discussion were: “Should writing be considered as an independent field?”, “should we throw out the notion of ‘academic writing’ and just focus on writing?” and the idea of the “artefact of text”.

While there may have not been any answers, I found it a very stimulating day that has given me a lot to think about.


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