Learning Happens in Those Tangents

Last week I finished off my unofficial sabbatical by going to the HEA Arts and Humanities Heroes and Monsters Conference. Here’s what I have been up to over those two and a half days…

I hadn’t signed up for a pre-conference workshop, but admired some of the pamphlet stitched books that came out of one of them (sorry, I don’t know which one). A colleague that I worked with in Massachusetts gets her students to make simple books, one blank  lot to be used as sketchbooks during the term, the other specifically to note-take for one module, which uses paper that she copies for them beforehand and which when finished includes prompts and guidance for their note-taking, as well as a fold-out timeline. (I must ask her to write a little guest post on that soon.)

Anyway, so my conference experience started with Monday evenings keynote by Marian McCarthy, the co-director of Ionad Bairre, the teaching and learning centre at the University College Cork. Marian started with an immersive performance piece as an investigator working with the police trying to get to the bottom of worldwide zombie sightings, and made a very good point about using performance to change the dynamic in a lecture theatre, which was a very good introduction to the conference.

Through my action photography, Jesse looks a bit like a zombie himself...

Through my action photography, Jesse looks a bit like a zombie himself…

Tuesday morning’s keynote on ‘Zombie Pedagogies‘ was given by Jesse Stommel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is one of the brains behind Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching and technology. He made the slides to his keynote available here. Three things I will take away from his talk – way more information about follicle mites than I ever wanted (you sort of had to be there), Jesse talking about a future project where he wants his students to turn Moby Dick into a humument-like artwork, and his remark that “Learning happens in those tangents”. He was referring to the times between conference sessions, the chats over coffee and lunch, but I think this is meaningful in a larger way (something that I will probably post about separately soon).

After the keynote was my own session. As mentioned in a previous post, this was a training montage based around the Fishscale of Academicness (more information on this can be found here). As you can see from some of these pictures, participants were very engaged in designing their own sea creatures for some rather random sample sources, and I got some good feedback afterwards.

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In the afternoon I wanted to join a session called ‘Talk, Chalk and Walk‘ by Carolyn Bew, subject lead for art and design at the Higher Education Academy. Unfortunately the weather didn’t really play ball, so we couldn’t really embellish the Lowry’s outside with large-scale chalk drawings. Instead we explored the building through a tour by the lovely volunteer Carol, and then popped over the Manchester Ship Canal to the Imperial War Museum North, where I gave a little impromtu talk about the building’s design.

The evening ended with some ‘Ted-ish talks’, some drinks, posters and the conference dinner, where I found myself back at the War Museum, this time at a table set up in the main exhibition space and surrounded by large projections of quotes relating to heroes and monsters. That was quite special, even if the food was not.

My first session on Wednesday was ‘The shape-shifting teddy bear: creating a historic persona and teaching by doing‘ led by Gaby Neher from the University of Nottingham. I had been particularly looking forward to this, as I reblogged her original blog post about this not so long ago. While I made a little superhero outfit for the frog that had insisted on coming for the day and turned a teddy into a vampire teddy (complete with batwings and pipecleaner teeth), the group chatted about this hands-on approach in the context of history teaching, and one of the group also recommended Ian Dawson’s Thinking History site.

Material Samples for Susan's session

Material Samples for Susan’s session

The lecture spectre‘ by Susan Ryland, Imperial College London, was the next session I attended. Susan has been testing collage as a note-taking activity in lectures beyond the art and design realm. Very interesting was a comment by a student she shared with us, which started from a very dismissive position on the collaging activity and transformed into the realisation that it had been very useful. Unfortunately it was presented as a much too short paper, so we didn’t really have time to explore collage ourselves, although Susan had brought some material samples for us to experiment with as an introduction. I hope that Susan will be able to share some of that work with us on here soon.

In the same session Blane Savage talked about his work in ‘Interpreting art practitioner’s unconscious communications through symbolic modelling and metaphoric transformation‘, and he had brought Alison Bell with him, who had been his case study. Both based at the University of the West of Scotland, Blane had used his background in hypnotherapy to allow Alison to describe her work differrently, which allowed her to make some significant breakthroughs in her practice as a fine artist. I found this use of metaphors absolutely fascinating, and again, I hope to be able to publish something more detailed on this blog soon.

The last session of the day for me before we concluded the conference with a plenary was describing two very performative projects. In his presentation ‘Project2of3 – Alternate Reality Games and assessment on Campus‘, Alan Hook from the University of Ulster shared some experiences of Alternate Reality Games with us, and particularly his plans for a future project that hopes to use an ARG format to familiarise students more to the assessment criteria and learning outcomes. In ‘How I survived the zombie acopalypse or summer 2013‘, Teresa Gray from Plymouth College of Art shared some creative writing with us, which she had used to engage more students in cross-departmental activities.

By the time the closing panel arrived I couldn’t help realising that a few monsters had been slain or tamed, and that strategies from the arts and humanities could well be considerd heroes in quite a few contexts. And even if these activities and narratives sometimes feel like tangents at the outset, the learning really does happen in the tangents, in those little ways that we can individually make sense of something through linking it to a personal experience.


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