Because I teach writing to art and design students, I’m not really attached to a particular subject team, which means that before this academic year I was never asked to go on study trips with the students. Turns out I have been missing out, as I realised this year when I was asked to go on not just one, but two of them.
The first one was in October, when Lucy Brown from our Graphic Design department turned some of the research she had been doing for her MA (as reported on here) into an assignment folded into a two nights stay in the Lake District. Not only did we visit the James Cropper Paper Mill, we also did a walk the students had previously planned and would subsequently make creative documentations of. It was fascinating to accompany a quarter of the students on their walk and to see them take notes in all sorts of ways – not least photographs (which they knew they were not allowed to directly use in the artists books they had to prepare as an assignment later in the term).
The second one was with a group of animation students to California in February, where we visited a number of studios and the Walt Disney Family Museum (and yes, the weather for this was much nicer than the one we had in the Lakes in October). We also popped by the Character Animation course at CalArts and were invited to take part in a Live Drawing Class with them as well as stick around for a demonstration lecture/chat with the animator James Baxter in the evening.
Thinking back to both of these trips now, I am thinking about what we ‘bring back’ from a study trip – and how best to consolidate this. There is something to be said about having the first hand experience of how something works – explaining how paper is made is very different to walking around a paper mill in full swing with your safety glasses and ear protectors (yes, on an industrial scale that can be quite loud), just as much as having a vague idea of animation being produced in a studio system is nothing like walking around a range of different size studios and being able to talk to people who actually work there. James Baxter’s demonstration, while it was located within an educational institution, was the closest thing you will get to being in an animator’s head for 3 hours – because that is what happened – he was sitting at an animator’s desk, animated a scene and talked us through what he was thinking/doing at the time – and at the end of it he had a few seconds of film (for the sort of thing he was doing that evening, check out his blog here).
At their simplest, study trips are probably about collecting information, whether the point is to find out how certain things work or to be inspired for your own work doesn’t really matter, I guess for creatives it is always a combination of the two. But this is also the problem, because you have a few days that are really intense, and you come home having to tease out what actually happened in order to be able to make sense of all the layers of things that were going on (not unlike going to a conference for academics, I guess). It is crucial to make time to work through this, because otherwise these trips will remain as a folder of pictures snapped or maybe a few mementos picked up on the way.
That is why study trips NEED a follow-up activity for students. Both of these trips had them – the Graphic Design students all made artists books, which are now on the way to being exhibited back in the Lake District, the animation students had an exhibition at the university with some work created as a response to the trip.
And while I know that this is so important, it is sad to think about how often I don’t take the time myself to create a response that allows me to think in more detail about what I have found out after coming back from a fact-finding mission – whether it be a meeting at a different institution or a more formal conference. Who knows how much I could improve my practice if I was able to do this more than just sporadically… but then at least I blog occasionally.
P.S.: With the study trip to California I wasn’t able to go to the HEA Arts and Humanities conference this year, but it sounds like some pretty good session were there, particularly when it comes to object learning as you can check out in this write up by Dr Paul Kleiman.