Of Fountain Pens and Talk Prep Tangos

On 8th July I will be going to an event on The Body in Learning and Teaching in Nottingham (more information can be found here if you would like to join us – and if it’s too late look out for the paper attached to that site), and as preparation Lisa Clughen (who is organising it) asked participants to send her a sketch of how our body is important in our own academic practice. This is the task she sent:

The purpose of the event is to explore the centrality of the body to learning and teaching. To begin our explorations, can I ask you to email me an image that conveys a sense of how the body relates to different aspects of your learning or teaching? To stimulate your thinking, I will give you an example of a core aspect of my life as a lecturer: writing. Whenever I sit to write, I have to have at least one cup of tea ready before I sit down. It’s a ritualistic part of making my physical environment feel right for the task ahead. As I write, you’ll see me picking up the cup, enjoying its warmth, taking it to the window and drinking from it as my writing develops. Having my cup of tea is central to my efforts – my actions with the cup are fully embroiled with my writing as they provide a space for it to take shape. A cup of tea would definitely be one of my images, then – the place does not feel conducive to writing without it. What is yours?

Prompted by this I’ve been thinking a lot about the activities and things that at first glance appear to be on the periphery of (my) academic practice, but that really might be much more central to it. Maybe most important of these are the writing implements I use. Or maybe that should better be the ‘mark making’ implements, because I don’t ‘just’ write, even when in the process of putting together an academic paper. I have been on at least two (work) trips where my progress stalled due to the lack of a fountain pen. It’s not like I didn’t have ballpoint pens or pencils, markers or felt tip pens with me (and probably a selection of all of the above), but on neither of these trips I had taken my ‘good’ fountain pen. The one my parents got me when I finished my Masters that has accompanied me ever since. And it turns out that I couldn’t write anything useful until I bought a cheap fountain pen on both occasions. (I’m happy to report that I got smarter and now usually take a fountain pen on trips, even if it is just one of the two cheap ones I now also have.) There is just something about the flow of ink that makes my thoughts flow that doesn’t quite happen with the roll of the ballpoint pen.

Thinking about my academic practice and how the body plays a part in it has been quite useful, and revealing. Scribbling, ripping, cutting and pasting, spreading things out on the floor, reordering, drafting and typing are all activities that come to mind. But to me nothing seems to be more important than walking. I have realised that I have different types of walks that accompany the drafting of pretty much any important piece of writing I do, be that a crucial email, a new module handbook, a conference presentation or lecture, or even an academic paper. There is the ambling through the park to think through initial ideas; the walk of a first draft – in long strides pretty much around a block in my neighbourhood; pacing up and down my living room.

But maybe the most interesting is what I seem to regularly do when preparing a formal talk (could be for a conference, could be a more ordinary lecture): every so often I will interrupt writing my notes or slides to get up and talk to myself (sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud), pondering the right turn of phrase. This is not a time in which I walk specifically, or at least not great distances. It’s more like a fairly slow dance without music. When I’m at home it sometimes takes me from my desk to the hall or even the kitchen (I agree with Lisa there, the kettle is a very important writing ‘implement’, too), but mostly it is a few steps in one direction, then back, moving my weight from one foot to the other or from the tips to the heels. Sometimes my swivel chair becomes a temporary partner as I lean over the back to make an adjustment in the text already on screen or to pick up my trusty fountain pen to add to the notes or fill a post-it with an idea for future use. But mostly this is a dance solo, a ritual which allows me to imagine myself in front of an audience that doesn’t mind me searching for the perfect turn of phrase or starting a sentence over and over again until it is finally right and I get to the end of the argument.

Talk Prep Tango

One variation of the Talk Prep Tango


There will be a reprise of this Talk Prep Tango, usually the night before going public with the talk. This might take place at home or in a hotel room somewhere. Alas, the public performance will be much less like a dance, less searching and more like a person just talking.

[This post was drafted during a number of walks and then with a fountain pen before it was typed up. A Talk Prep Tango was not involved in its making.]

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