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After thinking about this workshop, how to present it and preparing for the workshop in more detail, on the 19th June 2018 it was finally here: The Make Your Own Sociological Research Board Game workshop run by myself and Katy Vigurs at the Undisciplining conference organised by The Sociological Review. (A special thank you to Jenny Thatcher, who ran the #Undisciplining conference and went shopping for all the materials!)

Part of the Undisciplining conference is an experiment in live blogging – a dedicated group of people who write mostly short pieces that are either live, written as things are happening, or maybe not quite in the moment, but soon-ish after, which can both describe and reflect on the conference experience, a meta-conference as Mark Carrigan put it in one of these posts. We had Pat Thomson, one of those live bloggers, in the workshop, and you can read her account here. But we thought we should also write our own account and share some pictures – and also to respond in a bit more detail to two of the reflections Pat offers at the end of her post.

But let’s begin with a brief overview of what we actually did…

handout 17 colours adding bits and pieces

Make your own Sociological Research Board Game handout, coloured in

The main idea behind the workshop was that you can use the well-known concept of a board game as an analogy to illustrate and explain pretty much any process; so why not use it to explain a research methodology? Or, why not use it to explain the running of the workshop itself? Hence the above handout, which uses the aesthetics and linearity of a board game to break down the things we wanted to cover and do in the workshop.

As you can see by the colours, we had four basic areas: the general stuff (in green, with the ‘homework’, the prep we had participants asked to do before they came, in a darker green); as well as the three main areas of our Alke’s approach to board game design: to diagram your process (in pink), to think about possible game mechanics to build in (in light blue/aqua), and to consider the visual impact (in orange). And really those were the things we did. Most of the spaces on the path were really to remind Alke to cover certain things, but she had also added things like the stopwatch visual to remind her of how much time we had allocated for each step. We only had 90 minutes and really wanted people to have a prototype by the end, so there was some careful (and forceful?) timekeeping involved…

…and in the end we had some amazing prototypes in the room! We didn’t have time to share all of them, but here are just some of the ideas our wonderful workshop participants came up with (this is written up a few days after the actual workshop, so apologies if we are getting some of the details wrong):

workshop 13 clever frogs

The Clever Frogs prototype

There were two different approaches the participants took, and one of them was to design a game to teach research skills.

In Clever Frogs students have a frog token/avatar and move from lily-pad to lily-pad to acquire skills (in forms of cards): Critical Thinking (get a pink circle card), Learning a Skill (get a blue square card),  Acquire Knowledge (get a green triangle card). If you have a set of three (a set needing one of each type of card, because you need to combine all these skills/tools in your research), you have an ‘output’ when you get to the finish. There were also some chance-type benefit cards included, that potentially help to put together more outputs. And the purpose of the game is to get as many outputs as possible.

workshop 17 coding

Coding Research prototype

The Coding Research approach was a great example of how to put the wide concept of a board game into a more specific context of a discipline. Here the purpose was to teach research skills to coding students, by using the conventions of coding. So rather than having a traditional game path, the ‘board’ contained coding language of the “If…. then…” type with exchangeable elements. So for example in the context of interviews, this could become “If the number of interviews you have conducted is equal to or more than your target number, move on to transcription; if the number of interviews you have conducted is less than your target number, return to arranging interview stage.”

workshop 15 focus group snakes and ladders

Focus Group Snakes and Ladders

The Focus Group Snakes and Ladders mapped the process of arranging, conducting and analysing focus groups onto a traditional Snakes and Ladders grid. This is a great example of how using simple and established game mechanics (in this case Snakes and Ladders, which most students will be familiar with), can free up students’ minds to concentrate on what you actually want to teach them, in this case about focus groups.

workshop 14 sex workers

Maze of Streets prototype

Snakes and Ladders was also one of the inspirations behind another example, this one falling into the other category of games being produced: not to teach research skills, but to illustrate and visualise the process of a particular sociological study.  Rather than being laid out on the strict squared grid of the traditional snakes and ladders, however, this one was laid out on a board representing a map. This Maze of Streets represented the terrain of the studied sex workers, and showed the difference between safe, well-lit and wide streets in the middle of the board, as opposed to a hinterland of alleys and dead ends. Each step a player takes on the well-lit street brings with them a chance decision (via roll of the dice) on whether you will get a ‘ladder’ (something positive happening that keeps you safe) or a ‘snake’ (something negative happening that makes you move towards the dangerous parts of town). While starting out with the idea of trying to represent the study and its key findings, the creator of this game wondered about using it as a participatory research method for generating individual narratives about the dynamic experience of sex work.

workshop 16 heart of the PhD

The Heart of the PhD prototype

The Heart of the PhD aims to include the emotional dimension to doctoral research within the board game. It included two sets of ‘chance’ cards, one to ‘Take Action Now’ to tell the player what to do under certain circumstances (e.g. seek advice from the supervisor), and the other one to ‘Have a cheeky Drink’ in order to celebrate doctoral achievements. Extra marks for not just creating a board game, but also including a potential drinking game!

Less than 24 hours later the prototype had moved on already!

So there is no doubt that people found this useful (and fun), and we invited them to let us know about their games’ further progress, so hopefully there’ll be some up-dates one here soon.

 

At the end of her live post, Pat wondered whether it might be more interesting to make a board game than to play it and whether these two were equally instructive. That is a really good point. We didn’t get to to experiment with test playing the games during the workshop, and for this session really can only comment on the making. Most participants saw their research from a different perspective, and started reflecting (or maybe just noticing) on layers of research processes that often get left out of a written up methodology, but that are part of the ‘messy’ process of actually doing the research. As such there is no doubt that the making is incredibly useful.

Whether these games are actually meant to be played properly is an interesting question. We believe that this depends on your objective for making them. If your purpose is to illustrate a specific process, in the form of a poster, for example, they are less about play. However, if you are using them as a teaching tool, initially playing the game might give students a sense of what conducting this type of research could be like (albeit on a very condensed and safe scale). It shows potential wrong choices and is a form of role playing (a bit like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book), which might help students’ research imagination.

Pat also thought “about the pleasures of making and how very rarely in academic conferences there are opportunities for people to use their imaginations and just ‘make stuff'”. We would say, absolutely there should be more making. In the workshops that Alke organises (many of them documented on this blog), she usually starts with getting delegates to make their own name-tags, a great ‘icebreaker’ activity, and that can be a great first dipping your toes into the water for creative making at a conference.

As for this activity, at this conference, while we were doing it @kierancutting tweeted “I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUN “, and here are some tweets from participants after the 90 minutes we had together:

“This sparked so many ideas I hadn’t anticipated! What a valuable method of social research design and visualisation! Thanks for this lovely learning experience. Also doodling was incredibly cathartic 😊” @DrMirnaGuha

“Thank you both for an excellent session! 💫” @NelliStav

“Great workshop making our own sociological board game – fun and very helpful to articulate the research process.” @HRpotential

“Am considering using it as a method to elicit the sharing of personal experiences of youth homelessness – will keep you in the loop!” @kierancutting

“Fantastic workshop making sociological board games with & – taking so many ideas back for teaching research methods ” @sal_brown

 

Consequently, we think this little experiment was very successful and certainly a proof of concept for a longer version. We imagine something that has the time and space to start with playing some board games to get (re-)acquainted with some game mechanics, and then not only making, but also having the time to test play our prototypes. The games produced have shown that using the everyday concept of a board game format has the potential to

  • show an overview of the process to explain it to others
  • make people (students? funders? participants?) aware of common pitfalls (as part of the obstacles and random events)
  • become a visual way to track progress
  • function as an alternative way of disseminating your methodology
  • become a starting point for discussion and development of the game itself can become part of the methods

So really no excuse not to try it yourself!

 

Personal note from Alke: Another thing this workshop has shown me is how wonderful it is to have glamorous assistant/PR person/promoter/agent/documenter. It was great to just be able to concentrate on preparing and running the workshop, and have somebody else support all the other stuff. And take all the pictures for this blog posts, apart from the handout (that was by me) and the filled in Heart game (that was from Jessica herself). A gold star to Dr Vigurs – you can be my glamorous assistant anytime!

 

 

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As mentioned in my last post, I am currently preparing for a workshop with my friend and colleague Katy Vigurs. Before this is happening (tomorrow to be exact), I wanted to share some of the prep work that has gone into this once the abstract had been accepted. As it will be a workshop where participants will be encouraged to think about (their ?) research in a visual way (in form of a board game, to be exact), this blog post will be in a more visual form than the posts I usually put together for you…

An afternoon of try-outs, brainstorming and tea

The handout – from sketch to coloured in version

Scaling it up – an outline ready for the workshop

… as you can see we are well prepared. More details on how the workshop went in the next few days!

No, I’m not talking about whether we should slide down the banisters of life*, but rather this post (and the next) is a collection of thoughts on choosing the right tools when preparing for presentations…

In June I’ll be attending two conferences, and I am currently in the process of preparing my contributions for them. One of them is a workshop and the other a more traditional presentation, so out of the gate, we are dealing with different types of presentations (or genres?) here. The workshop is a collaboration (and I will post about the prep in more detail as well as about the actual workshop once it happened soon), and when I met up with my collaborator, Katy Vigurs, to have a chat about what we are going to do and how to organise this, she mentioned “our slides” in passing.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t planning to do slides, at least not in the conventional sense. I try to avoid that for workshops. For a start I don’t like projecting something and then having people focus on something that is on the table in front of them. What should you concentrate on? The thing that is projected ona wall or the thing you are working on? What if you miss some vital instruction, so better focus on the projected thing, but that then breaks your concentration of working on the thing! If we had a lot of time, we could work with a stopping and starting model of working through stuff, but we only have 90 minutes and a lot to cover, so that wouldn’t work.

The other thing I don’t like about slides in this context (but that works wonderfully well in different contexts), is that slides have a list approach to information. I don’t mean that text on slides tends to be presented in a list format far too often (although it does), but rather the way they are organised. Each slide is one bit of information and once you move on, you move onto the next bit of information. In a way that sounds ideal for a workshop, but what if not everybody works at the same speed and with the same confidence? Yes, theoretically you can go back to previous slides, but you can’t really show two slides (or even more) at the same time. If you are giving people instructions as part of a workshop, chances are that not everybody is going to work at the same speed – and that is perfectly fine. But to make this as little anxiety inducing to participants as possible, we ideally have to find a way to keep instructions visible, even when we moved on to the next step. We can do this with a handout, but the problem with a handout is that if you give it to people during the workshop, you allow them to not just go back over content already covered, they can also skip ahead. I try to discourage people skipping ahead, because it can end up rushing the people who are going slower – and I have also found that sometimes people don’t do one step properly, skip to the next step (which might seem more fun) and then run into trouble later, because (guess what?) they didn’t do that one step properly. Or maybe I am just too much of a control freak… (definitely possible!).

So what we needed in the context of this workshop was a method that would let us deliver new bits of information in a controlled manner, while also allowing us to keep them visible once we are moving on to the next step. The solution: the humble flip chart. This means we can pre-prepare content, but can also develop it as we go. And while we can hide old content behind new content, we can also keep it visible by displaying it around the room. As it happens I have a roll of the ‘magic’ plastic flip chart stuff that will stick to pretty much any surface, so that will become our information delivery system. And I am also working on a handout to distribute at the end of the session.

Katy was fine with not doing slides, by the way. If we have a computer and projector in the room, we might use it to display this blog 😉

I am, however, still considering slides for my other conference presentation. More on that, prezi, props and slides in teaching in my next post.

 

*For the record, I think we should all try to slide down the banisters of life as often as possible, both literally and figuratively!

One of the reasons that this blog has been fairly quiet over the last few months, is that Fiona English and myself are in the process of co-guest editing two special issues of the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. We are really excited about the mix of content, which represents a number of genres as well as discuss using genres in teaching and learning. (Of course I will let you know when the issues are actually out, one of them is going to print soon, the other is about to enter the typesetting stage.)

a preview of the cover image for the forthcoming journal issues

So when we heard that EAP in the North were running a workshop on Exploring Genre(s) specifically in the context of the creative arts, we thought this was an excellent occassion to visit the University of Edinburgh and chat a little bit about our expertise in this and check out what other people are doing.

It was such a lovely event, and I was reminded of our own ReGenre conference last year (indeed, one of the attendees of that event was here giving us an opportunity to catch up), because it was run in a way to allow for lots of sharing and discussion along the way.

Alex Collins from the University of Edinburgh showed us how he engages art history students with core skills via workshops that are backed up with his online Art History Toolkit (check it out here, but be aware that he might ‘wipe’ content in preparation for the new term to then populate it again as the term progresses – though he is currently looking at other ways of running this, and I really do hope it’ll become a permanent resource for all of us to dip into – there is lots of good stuff here, not just for art history students!).

Clare Carr was talking about some of the different genres music students at Durham University are being asked to write in – and wondered whether assignment setters need to be more precise about how they brief and also describe the genres they are actually after. The term ‘essay’ means many things to many people!

This linked in perfectly for an exploration of what an ‘essay’ is or could be – and the Dress-up Doll of Formality exercise I introduced delegates to. After some fast and furious discussion and outfit drawing on the tables, the sharing with solutions of the group was rich (and we are hoping to get the produced images up on the EAP in the North website). This short taste of regenring was a great lead into a quick overview of Fiona’s work – and of course us talking a bit about the forthcoming special issues.

After a short refreshment break, Clare Maxwell was talking about writing genres specifically within Design in her work at the University of Leeds, genres that are very often located in the overlap of academic, vocational and creative work – but sometimes difficult to locate in publications of designers (that old theory/practice divide is still coming up it seems). One of the issues of discussion following on from Clare’s talk was the role of ‘I’ in writing – and the necessity of authors to be aware of what it does.

We then broke off into small groups, where some people had brought ideas to share and discuss. In the group I joined, Anna Rolinska laid out her plans for a Pre-Sessional English for Creative Disicplines course at Glasgow School of Art, which was fascinating, with all of the group then sharing ideas, which hopefully gave Anna some more inspiration. I hope she will write a little post on this later in the year.

Most of us ended up in the pub for a drink and more chat afterwards. On top of everything else, it was a gorgeous day – Thank You to Alison Thomas and her team for organising such a fabulous event!

The setting for the workshop was this lovely campus, need I say more?

My soon-to-be final year students have the option of starting their final year research projects this month, and I’m running a little ‘research boot camp’ to remind them of some of the procedures and share some extra tips and tricks in preparation for this. As the quality of secondary sources has been a weak point in the research my students typically produce, I don’t just remind them of the Fishscale of Academicness analogy and exercises we do in their first year, but I also wanted to give them a straightforward, but playful, reminder of some of the things to look out for when looking at (and for) sources.

How about a round of Bibliography Bingo? I produced a bingo card (download and try it for yourself here: TacAc Bibliography Bingo) with some things they might encounter in their sources, and some, such as index or reference list, that give hints that this might be an academic source. The idea is to use a card for each source encountered, and mark each of the spaces that apply. As I arranged the more academic clues in the middle 9 squares, scoring those squares gives a higher indication of an academic source having been found.

When I presented this to my students, one asked whether we were going to actually play a round of Bibliography Bingo. I have to admit that I had thought of this as a fun diagnostic tool, rather than turn it into an activity in class. This time round we didn’t have time, but next time a round of bingo is definitely on the cards!

Sarah Williamson, long-time friend of Tactile Academia, recently talked about a gallery intervention project here, which is well worth checking out.

I love the simple way of using post-its to ‘hack’ into the established institutional representation system that is the art gallery – a wonderful (and simple) way of getting an audience to link their seeing to their thinking!

I am at the beginning of a new research project, and have been thinking about note taking. Not the note taking that you do once you are in the process of collecting data, whether primary or secondary, but rather the notes that you make before.

There is a very early phase of your research, sort of initial research, when you are finding your focus and honing your ideas into one clear question – a very exciting stage because at the moment there are lots of things this research could turn into.

For me this was always the stage where notes can be found all over the place. Filling up old envelopes is a favourite of mine, maybe because there seem to be some coming through my letterbox a few times a week and once they are emptied of their initial message they almost cry out for a new one. Of course the problem with old envelopes is that they also like to get lost. Be it in piles of documents or as impromptu bookmarks, they seem good at hiding – until they turn up again months or maybe years later and a by then forgotten thought says hello again. Not great when you potentially want to use this idea next week!

Then there are post-its, great to catch an idea in a few words or a sketch, but easily found at the bottom of a bag during the next spring cleaning.

The other way of taking these types of notes for me is in notebooks, of which I usually have a few on the go. With little rhyme of reason behind which one I choose to have with me, could be because one lives in a particular bag or maybe it is just the first one I grab. Here these notes are interspersed with notes relating to other projects, past and future, from world-changing idea to grocery shopping list. This way of taking notes is good to grab onto the ideas in the first place, using a little bit of time when inspiration strikes (for me that is often when I’m on a train), but ultimately this is not a very effective way of managing these ideas.

Clearly what I needed was a practical (but also inspirational) way of ‘decanting’ this information. A purposeful place where I can hold onto them, but also maybe order them – not in the order they come to me, but by issue or aspect or perspective (depending on what is appropriate to the project itself). This is quite obvious and I have tried to do this before – start a dedicated notebook for a project – but so far these have never been successful. What got in the way, I think, was the fear of not getting it right – what if the order was wrong? And really what would be the best way to order this? How much space should I leave for each theme I have come across?

For my new project I have decided on a for me new way of working. My new dedicated notebook was purchased and the first thing I did was put random colour washes on each spread. And when I say random, I mean random. Using acrylic inks (because I had them but hadn’t used them for a while) and lots of water I was experimenting with different lines and shapes, and really whatever felt right in the moment (see some of the result on the images on this page).

Once this had all dried (and this took a while as I could only do one spread at a time), I flicked through this book with my ideas of the themes I am collecting information and ideas about, and whenever one seemed to ‘fit’ with a spread, this became the one I used for that idea. These ‘visual clues’ probably only make sense to me, but to me they are meaningful – and fun. I have found the right spread for all the themes I have for now and started collating and collecting my notes in this way, making little pictures with the words – no point in writing in rigid lines, when there are shapes in the background to be followed! This means that I am not filling up the spreads in the order that they appear in the notebook – and I’m not sure if that is at all significant. And so far I still have lots of space, but I figure once a spread is all filled-up, I will find another one for the follow-up information. Because the backgrounds were all done pretty randomly, in the spirit of experimentation some of them are a bit rubbish – which is great, because I am not afraid to keep working on the pages. In a way I think the information will make the pages better – which really is what you want from a notebook, isn’t it? And also this is all pre-information, this is pre-structure – I am after all still figuring out what exact questions there could be and which ones of these I will choose to work on. But all the information is now in one place – a notebook that I am not afraid to add things to, but look forward to filling up.

This notebook doesn’t come on adventures with me, it is not for catching ideas on the go. It is for ordering these caught ideas into, to hold onto them in one place, organised but not structured for research yet – and the process of adding new ideas from other notebooks, post-its and envelopes into it has already sparked more ideas.

I will definitely continue to experiment with this – and yes, I will probably share some of the filled-up pages once they are ready to put out there!