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Alternative Presentations

If you are interested in infographics of any kind, you might really enjoy reading this feature on The Guardian webpage. Written by Tom Phillips it looks at what can probably be best termed as ‘alternative’ muscial notations. Make sure you also check out the ‘Graphic Scores In pictures’ section, where you can not only see some extraordinary scores, but also find some links to hear them performed and learn more (the wonder of hyperlinks).

One of the things I particularly wanted to explore at the second workshop in Stoke-on-Trent last year was genre, and why academic writing specifically seems to be such a problem for students. Yes, there are the students who ‘don’t like to write’, but in my experience a lot of students also come to university safe in the knowledge that they KNOW how to write, because they learned it at school. And it is difficult for them to understand that they now need to write at a different level – and for a different purpose.

I was talking about this with my colleague Jane Ball, who works at our study skills centre and was scheduled to do one of the presentations at the workshop, and she mentioned the Concscious Competence Model/Ladder/Matrix. In brief, if you are learning skills you go through four main stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence (You don’t know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Incompetence (You know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Competence (You know that you know)
  • Unconscious Competence (You don’t know that you know, because you have internalised the skill)

(Some people argue that there is a fifth stage which is akin to either mastery or coaching, but I don’t want to make this more complicated here.)

Now I think that this is a really good model, but one of the problems with it, is that there are some tongue twisters in there and it becomes really complicated to try to talk about the difference of concious incompetence (which is the stage I would like my students to be at) and unconscious competence (which is the stage most of them seem to think they are at, due to them not paying attention to what I am trying to teach them when it comes to essay writing), because frankly the terms all sound so much alike. So we needed some better terms, and possibly a little visual to tie this together. And we came up with the lifecycle of a butterfly – and that is what The Butterfly Challenge became about.

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So the trick is to be aware of what stage you are in for each skill you encounter. Are you at the egg stage (blissfully unaware of anything going on around you – and not really caring)? Are you a caterpillar (hungry for knowledge you realise you don’t yet have)? Are you at the crysalis stage (knowing all the rules and quietly practicing applying them all)? Or are you indeed already a butterfly (having internalised all the rules to the point where they are second nature to you)?

different types of butterfly representing different genre

different types of butterfly representing different genre

This becomes particularly tricky if a transferable skill is concerned, because you might not be aware that the rules have changed. (And I think this can often be the problem with my students.) Surely once you know how to write, that is it? Well, here it becomes important to understand the concept of genre – not all written pieces are the same. There isn’t just one type of butterfly, there is one for writing text messages and one for writing academic essays, and they are not necessarily exchangable. But because some students are not aware of that, they think that they are a butterfly (or in the crysalis) as far as writing is concerned, when really they are only at the egg stage for the writing they have to do.

When I presented this idea as part of the talk I did for the Staffordshire University School of Education conference, this seemed to particularly strike a chord… at a different level. Not of undergraduates coming into Higher Education, but rather of graduates continuing on at Masters and PhD level. There also, academic writing (and other research skills) takes a ‘step up’ (in the case of PhD work quite dramatically), and students are sometimes not aware of this. Indeed, somebody in the audience said that when she was working on her PhD it felt like she was a butterfly who got slowly torn apart… In order to avoid this sort of student experience, it might be well worth to introducing the students to this model at the beginning of their courses.

A possible activity to go with this would be to get the students to make butterflies out of copies of different types of texts, and then put them together on a museum type tray complete with labels that identify the specific rules the different texts have to adhere to. (I developed this as an activity a bit, I thought washing pegs might be good for the body of the butterflies, but then never actually used it as the idea of using a paper doll came along and seemed to make more sense – see The Dress-Up Doll of Formality, to be blogged about soon.)

(This booklet was made in a preview edition of 31 handed out to delegates at the Writing in Creative Practice: Integrating Writing into a Studio-based Curriculum workshop, each with a pop-up butterfly in the middle.)

This week I stumbled across poem houses. There they were, waiting in an article in a journal that had been on my shelf for the better part of the year. And I had no idea until I pulled out a number of these journals to give to a student and idly flicked through them. Luckily said poem houses caught my eye and consequently that one journal issue didn’t make it to my student’s bag, but my own instead.

As explained in ‘Sense making through poem houses: an arts-based approach to understanding leadership’ by Louise Grisoni and Brigid Collins (Visual Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2012, 35-47), poem houses have been developed by Brigid Collins as “three dimensional artefacts combining visual interpretation with poetic text and which hold a special significance for the maker.” (35) Using examples and testimonials from a workshop on leadership development, the article is a fascinating insight into using this format/genre as a focus for reflection. And of course I read this wondering how it could be applied in my learning and teaching. I will definitely try to make my own one of these days, but in the mean time, you can see some examples here.

I have also managed to find some more writing by both Collins and Grisoni, which might be more food for thought.

So I have started planning my quilt.

I did this by first investing in a stack of mulit-coloured post-its (other sticky notes are available), and trying to note down significant incidents in my learning and teaching career one per post-it. Some of them are things that I do with students, some of them are presentations I heard or workshops I attended, some of them are things I have published, some of them are people I have met and subsequently collaborated with. And some of them are things I want to do in future.

After the first rush of ideas had gone, I went over my CV and added things I had forgotten about. And then I started arranging the pieces on my living room wall. And then I rearranged them. As they started falling off the wall I switched to a large piece of paper on the floor, which ended up as two papers side by side.

I have since rearranged my ‘layout’ a number of times, added some pieces, taken away others (I wanted this not to be about every little thing I have done, but rather about the things I at the moment consider significant). And this has already been really helpful! I am now more aware of how a lot of the bits I do connect to each other. And I can see what direction I have most recently worked in much more than in others. I think I am much clearer now as to what I want to achieve, and how the things I plan to do link together.

Starting off on this has also made me consider the process of putting the quilt together:

  • As mentioned above, only things I consider significant now, otherwise this would be far bigger (and say far less I fear)
  • I got rid of the pieces linked to subject-specific knowledge. This goes back to my thinking about the Accreditation Quilt, while subject-specific knowledge is of course important to a teacher, the learning and teaching skills are somewhat separate. What I am thinking is to represent subject-specific knowledge on the back of the quilt. And I don’t think that is going to be a quilt for me, that will be a whole picture, because by its nature I consider this much less ‘bitty’.
  • After this first flurry of activity (which always seems to happen when I have stumbled across a new idea I think might work), I think this also needs some back-up. At the moment the pieces are very sketchy notes to myself, some of them as images, but most of them containing key words or titles. In order to fully appreciate what the pieces represent and how they are fitting together, I need to design them to actually become representations – and then reflect on why I decided to put them here and not there. That could then also be used as a starting point to present my learning and teaching career to somebody else (if I go on and present this as an Accreditation Quilt, for example).

It is this ‘backing up’ of ideas that will get me to where I want to be, and that will show the Thinking through Writing and Making process I am so keen to explore further. So while this collection of post-its will come to my appraisal later in the week, the thinking process will continue while I redesign the pieces and write about them, at least some of it shared on this blog in future.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the Higher Education Academy (HEA) accreditation, which is aligned to the UK Professional Standards Framework. This has become more and more important in the Higher Education climate in the UK, so much so that universities (my own included) are now setting targets as to how many of their staff need to be accredited by what time.

I think this is a really good idea and although I already am a Fellow of the HEA, I am curious whether I could ‘upgrade’ to Senior Fellow. So I have volunteered to support this within my award group, with the goal to get everybody who is interested together in putting together a portfolio for whichever level is most appropriate. (We don’t have to go directly to the HEA, as Staffordshire University offers a ‘Route by Portfolio’ as professional development accredited by the HEA.)

As part of this, I have been thinking about this idea of a portfolio, and alternative presentations, particularly during some conversations with Carolyn Bew, the discipline lead for art and design, where we were wondering how much of this needs to be writing-based (which, of course, can be a problem for art and design based professionals, some of which don’t have much confidence in their writing abilities). And we were thinking that it would be nice to develop a slightly ‘different’ type of portfolio as an example of a more visual approach to the whole thing.

I’m quite interested in alternative ways of presentations anyway (and I have talked about some of them on this blog), and when one of the participants of one of my workshops gave me a paper on patchwork writing, I began thinking about the direction of a quilt.

I think a portfolio has the wrong connotations – for me having had two so far in my professional life, one concerned with graphics, one full of theatre designs – a portfolio, to me, shows finished work. A patchwork, or a quilt, links the separate pieces through thread, and it can be presented as very much unfinished, representing the on-going journey of a teaching professional.

So I was thinking of this ‘Accreditation Quilt’, and actually started designing it – what bits to put in, how to colour code it, but it didn’t really take of. Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a nice idea, but it wasn’t quite there.

And then I realised that I was going about it the wrong way. What I was trying to do was trying to find a different way of representing the information in the prescribed portfolio. Why was I doing that? To stand out? To have a bit of fun? To make a point? None of them brilliant reasons for doing this.

A couple of days later I was filling in a form as preparation for my yearly appraisal – and I really struggled with the form. I am doing so many separate things, some of which are somehow connected, I found it really hard to condense them all into bullet points that would make not only sense to somebody else, but maybe most importantly to make sense to me, to allow me to see the patterns and figure out what I want to work on more in future. And I was thinking that I need to find a better way of organising this information… what have I achieved, what didn’t quite work, what do I want to achieve in future?

Suddenly I was thinking of the quilt again. but not quite the ‘Accreditation Quilt’ I had had in mind previously, but one with individual pieces that represented critical incidents from my learning and teaching career, something unfinished, with sketched out pieces for future work, representing ideas. Putting this together could help me work out the information needed for my appraisal. Which is the common theme of my previous alternative presentations – designing them always helped me work out something or internalise information or knowledge. They were never that much about externalisation and/or appearance. (Which is probably why most of them remain unfinished – for now.)

So I decided to design a quilt. And while I might be able to use it for the accreditation to Senior Fellow of the HEA, that’s not really why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I want to be able to visualise where I’ve been and where I want to go. I want to reflect on this not just with a bullet point on an appraisal form (because that’s what we have to do for the university), I want to see whether there are patterns and directions. I want to develop an overview that at the moment I don’t think I have, because I’m focusing on too many bits right now.

And funnily enough I also already have a good name for it, two terms that were typing mistakes I liked so much I put them on post-its on my desk for the right opportunity to use them: Indivisual Evaludation. It will be representing my individual journey  in a visual way, and it will allow me to evaluate that journey, taking as its starting point a chronology provided by dates. And I’m sticking with the quilt idea. While it may ‘only’ be a paper mock-up for now, one day I might actually make a real one. (That already gives me one of my ‘future’ pieces – an exhibition of the quilt and other tactile academia artefacts.)

Anyway, coming to this blog soon: news of the development of my very own Indivisual Evaludation Quilt. I probably won’t blog about every little piece of detail (I don’t want to bore you with my meandering career), but I will try to keep you abreast of some examples and how the shape, etc. evolves.

Why not join me in this endeavour, and we can form a virtual (or perhaps real) quilting circle!

This was the first of the Tactile Academia books I made and funnily enough I didn’t set out to do a book at all.

So here’s the story of that one:

In June 2010 I went to the Flying Start symposium held at Liverpool Hope University. This was disseminating the work that had been/still was going on in the Flying Start project, which was concerned with academic writing transition. Here I saw Claire Penketh talking about her work, and one of the things that particularly struck a chord with me was her work on reading at degree level. In her presentation she menitoned a quote from John Bean which stated that “learning to read at degree level is like learning to fish in deep waters” (2001). In her slides she made this point to her students by showing pictures of fish and likening them to certain types of reading – goldfish (a bit like emails, small and colourful), sharks (with teeth, so a bit scary, like a peer-reviewed article might be) and angler fish (just weird, like something that was written for a different audience altogether).

Now I absolutely loved this idea and built up a presentation for my students all around the idea of evaluating secondary sources by likening them to sea creatures and ordering them on a scale of academic depth. It described a number of ‘standard’ secondary sources, such as blogs, newspapers, introductory texts, academic journals and doctoral work. This seemed to go down well and alert students to the necessity of evaluating sources, something they have a problem with in my experience.

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The Fish-scale of Academicness – linocut edition 2012

As I thought this was a very good way of explaining the concept of provenance to students I wanted to turn this into an Open Educational Resource, however, my slides were populated with copyrighted fish from animation, so I needed to find a way to illustrate this. And then a course on the Illustrated Book came along near me and I signed up for that with the express plan to work on the illustrations for this. And so I made a book out of it. I played about with the layout and used tear-aways to show a sense of depths. This book, with original linocuts, was done in an edition of 7 in 2012.

At the same time I thought this might be a very good way for me to explain this concept at this workshop I was organising and how nice it would be to give the delegates something special. So I also made an edition for them, which is photocopied and has drawn illustrations, but it also has the ‘torn’ pages meant to visualise the depth of the academic ocean.

This booklet was produced in an edition of 31 and given out at the Thinking through Writing and Making workshop.

The Fish-Scale doesn’t stop with explaining the concept to the students. I have also started using it as an activity. I give students excerpts of sample text from a variety of academic depths, and ask them in groups to decide what sort of sea creatures these texts would be and draw them. What is important here is that the students also are able to articulate the reasons why they decided on a particular sea creature. We then all order them in terms of their academic depths through a group discussion. I encourage students to go through this thinking process when they are using their sources, and to visualise their bibliography in terms of the depth achieved – and ask them to think about trying to ‘go deeper’ when they progress through the years.

The very small-scale evaluation I have done on this so far, has indicated that introducing the lecture coupled with the activity has resulted in students using a better range and better quality of secondary sources in their essays.

I’m currently planning a research project to test whether this would work with students from other universities and disciplines. Maybe as part of this I will actually get around to making that Open Educational Resource. If you are interested in collaborating on this, please get in touch!

As the people who have come to my workshops know, I have gotten into the habit of making and giving out little booklets. I call them ‘tactile academia books’ (which sounds a bit grand), and I thought it was high time to post a few details about them.

I thought I would start with The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice. This wasn’t the first one I did, but it was based on an idea that I had a long time ago and on a concept I have been using to explain what I do for quite some time. And in a way it explains my take on academic and creative practice – and the relationship between them.

So here the little story behind this book…

When I started teaching at uni, I joined an Art & Design department as an academic looking after the first year study skills provision. Very much a Writing in the Disciplines approach, I was tasked with running modules that would teach studio-based art, design and media students how to research and write for an academic essay. And I found myself quite often in the position of having to explain to other colleagues how what I did fit into the individual programmes, and how it did work that my students ranged from 3D Design to Animation, from Fine Art to Film Production.

Art, Design and Media Islands

Art, Design and Media Islands in my teaching ca 2008/09

What I started using was the image of islands, each representing a separate discipline, but each connected in a way through an ocean, that could be seen as ‘Contextual Studies’ (the historical and theoretical stuff that is somehow outside of the making).

While it is, like any visual analogy, a fairly simplified model, I think this shows the relationship between the realm of the tangible outcome, the islands, on the one hand, and the more theoretical thinking, the ocean, on the other. (The Study Skills bit I always thought of as somewhere in the shallows around the islands, linking the practical and the theoretical approach to a specific discipline.) It also made me think about the ntaure of words as an outcome, which can be a bit like water: they can be shallow or deep, they can be watered down, but above all they are fluid.

This image stayed with me and when I encountered Artist’s Books and thought I might be interested in making some myself, I used this as the starting point of my first foray into screen printing, making an accordion fold book called Contours.

Contours

Contours 2011

The idea was that it would show a part of that initial map idea, but visualise the thinking in more detail. So the island bit used images – pictures of finished artefacts inland, then images of word in progress, maquettes, and finally sketches where it came to the ‘beach’ – while the ocean bit used words – hand-written notes in the shallows, then artists statements and more and more theoretical (and later on abstract) texts on craft.

While Contours is a plan view, I always wanted to make a sort of elevation, because that would visualise the idea of shallows and depth more. It took me a while to find the right technique, but last year I was on a printing course where we made scratch negatives, which can result in printing plates, which are very fine and detailed, almost like engravings, and here I was able to make this image, which I think shows the land- and seascape of creative practice.

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The Land- and Seascape of Academic Practice 2012
a tactile Academia book

This print has become the centrepiece of this particular booklet, The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice. Subtitled ‘Modelling Knowledge’ it aims to explain the relationship between creative practice and theoretical thinking – and does so by not just introducing the islands analogy, but also mapping Donald Schon’s notion of reflective practice and Michael Biggs’ differentiation of experiential feeling and experiential knowledge onto it. it aims to make the point that there is a synergy between the making and the theory – and that it is useful (if not crucial) to be able to engage with both for the best results in either.

The booklet itself was made in an edition of 73 and given out to participants of the second day of the Teaching in Practice event. All of the copies include an original print of the map artwork. (And I still have some copies, so if you would like a copy, get in touch!)

It is my pleasure to announce the next of the Writing in Creative Practice Workshops. This time we want to specifically explore layers of meaning and will be hosted by the University of Chester on 26th March 2013. The official HEA annoucement and booking form can be found here.

Just before Christmas, Elizabeth (our host) and I got together to think about some of the visualisations and structures that can be used to show layers – and we tried some of them out.

We took sentence diagramming as a starting point. I had recently looked through When will the book be done?, a catalogue of the books published by Granary Books up to 2001, and had particularly liked What the Ambulance Driver Said by Jane Wodening (1998) , which uses a diagrammed sentence.  After doing some research we decided to give it a go and to diagram the Sennett quote used in the workshop proposal:

Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. (Sennett, 2008:7)

While the inspirations had looked a bit like the roofs of houses, our version reminded me more of a mountain range, so I then used the subclauses to make up a sort of tunnel book.

the layered subclauses as mountain ranges

the layered subclauses as mountain ranges

Meanwhile, Elizabeth explored both tunnel books as well as layering with transparent paper.

Overall it was a great day (far too short, of course), which has given us some good ideas, I think, of what to explore during the workshop itself.

As I mentioned the intriguing sounding Documentary Drawing Masterclass in a previous post, I thought it was only fair to share some of what I was thinking about on the way home…

Well, firstly, it was a great day facilitated by Julia Midgley, who has documented everything from archaeology projects to hospital processes – and also sometimes draws at/for conferences. (That in itself is, of course, very interesting as it links really closely to the reflective bookmaking I have been known to go on about.)

Julia gave us some great tips as to how we could loosen up as part of a warm-up, and especially things to think about to make people less precious about the outcomes of a drawing, which allows us to focus on the energy of the situation rather than on the artefact ending up on the sheets of paper. So consider drawing with both hands at the same time, for a result full of energy (and in my case lots of cross-hatching), not allowing yourself to look back at the paper once you have started drawing, or doing an ‘etch-a-sketch’ by not allowing yourself to let your drawing implement leave the page until you are done.

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

We also talked about considering the paper you are using – and how much more effective a drawing can be if it is backed up by ephemera – a timetable as the background to you documenting a journey, with added tickets, for example.

Another thing that we explored was cutting out pictures of people and collaging those together – but turned over, so that we would concentrate on the shape that the human body creates. I have to admit that I didn’t really have time to do this during the workshop, but I was thinking about my previous post and thinking about how documenting workshops can sometimes be tricky if you don’t have the permissions of people to use their photographs. I also think that sometimes then the picture becomes about the people, rather than about the workshop. but what if you just used the silhouette of your participants…? I think this way we could end up with another really interesting ways of documenting a workshop. Something I will attempt to try out soon.

However, what I am probably most excited by is the way I used documentary drawing as a research method in the afternoon. Julia had given us a brief, parts of it was “By closely observing visitors to the Gallery what can the reportage artist discern about the activity of looking at art?” So I found myself sitting in the Tracing the Century exhibition and in the beginning I was randomly sketching people.

some typical poses observed

some typical poses observed

I found some typical poses, for example there is almost a standard way that men hold their arms behind their backs when looking at art. I and my fellow documentary drawers complained to each other that people never stand still long enough. I decided to ‘follow’ a group around, sketching them whenever they paused in front of art, to see how they interacted – and found that there was an opinion maker, who tried to move the group by moving herself and almost dragging the others with her, while another one seemed to be really interested in the art and tried to linger in front of certain pieces.

And then I started tracking visitors’ journeys along one specific wall. Comparing these drawings I realised that people tended to either stop at artworks or at the labels. So I am now wondering whether this form of observation is something I could use to get my students a bit more excited about primary data collection for their research. I think I spent less than an hour in the gallery, but can’t help thinking that this could be turned into more rigorous data gathering, I could develop rules, such as really try to sketch where the visitors stop and pause; the longer they pause, the more detailed/black/intensive the sketch of them should get; trace the ‘motion lines’ on the floor to capture where they come closer or step-away from the work (later put in corresponding motion lines following the whole bodies); prepare a standard background on which to sketch, so that the data can be more easily standardised (possibly superimposed). From this (and a suitable sample), it could be determined whether there really is a distinction between pictureviewers and labelreaders; it could be found out which group is bigger; and possibly whether one spends more time interacting with the art.

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I made a little book transferring my sketches onto transparent paper to illustrate my mini-findings, which I might show students to get them to consider documentary drawing within their research. As you can see I was very inspired by the workshop and will be doing more documentary drawing for sure!

Sue posted a comment to the Take a little button post that recommended a TED presentation, which is fabulous. It made me think about not only that the genre of communication needs to be thought through rather than just going with a standard (whether that be PowerPoint or the academic essay to name but a few), but also about ways of learning in a kinesthetic way.

A few years back I was at a workshop led by Dr Colin Beard on Experiential Learning, where he suggested some strategies of making students more aware of issues by making them move (something I have done in class that was inspired by this was giving students example sources and with discussion forming a ‘line-up’ representing how academic those sources were).

Just recently at the ISSOTL 2012 conference I attended a presentation by Joy Guarino of Buffalo State College, State University of New York, titled ‘Kinesthetic Learning in the College Classroom’, where she pointed out that kinesthetic and tactile learners are often punished in a classroom, where students are traditionally expected to sit still.

She suggested the International Learning Styles Network as a source of more information and also the ‘Students Don’t Learn from Lectures’ Piece for Time by Salman Khan. And no, we didn’t sit for all of the presentation, but actively explored ways of experiencing different concepts.