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Today I attended a BSA Sociology of the Arts Study Group‘s event entitled ‘Using the Arts in Teaching and Research’. I should say that I am not a sociologist nor do I think of myself as belonging to the social sciences, so this reflection is based on my interest in using arts in teaching and research rather than on the content of the research that was presented. As so often within the arts context, for me today was all about process.

I was treated to a really interesting day. The organisers had split up the presentations into four different sessions dealing with Using Art to Engage with Marginalised Groups, Using Art as a Reflexive Tool, Using Art in Engagement and Dissemination and Using Art in Training and Education respectively. Here are some observations I made (in no particular order, I think of these as possible starting points for more detailed posts in the future, but want to get them down while the event remains fresh in my mind):

When it comes to art and research there seems to be a spectrum at work. I haven’t quite worked out all the details yet, but this ranges from no art,  to using art to illustrate research (that could be findings or part of the process, and it could be already existing art or art specifically generated for the particular project), participatory art might be produced as an integral part of the research, this might then be interpreted by the researcher, or it might be interpreted by the participants themselves and then this will be interpreted by the researcher. And then there is art that has been produced by either researcher and participant or by both in collaboration that becomes a part of the outcome/dissemination.

Issues that these stages have to deal with include:

  • There is almost always a hierarchy between the researcher and the participants/subjects of the research, which at some stage is likely to kick in. For example at one stage the researcher might move from facilitator to the person who interprets results and writes them up – a position of power. It seemed to me that research is more true to the person creating the art if they themselves explain it/reflect on the meaning – and to use that in the analysis of the results rather than the researcher interpreting the work.
  • Depending on the set up of the research (or of the situation that is researched), participants/subjects might feel they need to present an established story (for example of a victim that gets redeemed, triumph over adversity), or might want to give a certain impression due to a (possibly hidden) agenda. Again a perceived hierarchy might complicate things.
  • It is really hard to plan and tie down a research protocol, because very often you don’t know in advance what data you will get. At the beginning participants might be concerned they are ‘doing it wrong’ and might want to get very specific instructions (and the ‘but I can’t draw’ response for drawing as part of research is a common occurrence in this context). However, certainly one of the great things about using arts-based research is that once participants feel empowered by it they often develop their own way of responding, which might be completely unexpected by the researcher. But this means that the forms in which the data comes might be surprising.
  • There were nods to thinking about working with artists – and being mindful of what that might mean for the artists, i.e. typically artists are freelance and payment through the university systems are notoriously slow, and the project, i.e. budget for the artists needs to be planned in from the very beginning, whether that is artist as illustrator, facilitator or co-researcher.

Of course we also discussed arts-based research in the context of today’s academic framework, so what exactly is practice-based research and is it becoming more accepted for submission as part of the (UK’s) Research Excellence Framework? Is it maybe easier to use this as part of an impact study? How can it be captured, and is it ok to collect and present research that is inherently subjective?

Needless to say, I came home with a lot of food for thought.

 

A bit more than a week ago I found myself at a conference as an observer, rather than as a presenter, a luxury which hadn’t happened for a long time. I will write a bit more about the actual themes of the conference in a later post (I haven’t had time to properly digest all of it), but wanted to share something that I have been playing with a bit, and that I decided to test over the two-and-a-bit days of this particular conference: ‘sketchnoting’

The subject of two of Mike Rohde’s books, The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook, this is a term he coined for visual note taking, really a combination of note taking and sketches, or maybe better for the use of sketches to augment note taking.

I am a big fan of taking ‘notes’ through collage (something I was introduced to by my friend and colleague Sarah Williamson currently at the University of Huddersfield, and we have tested this out and published on it here), but that is not always possible or appropriate. So trying out drawing as part of the note-taking process seemed a good next step (or maybe a good compromise).

I had read through (not worked through) both of Rohde’s sketchnoting books within the last month, so I felt quite happy to just give it a go – making use of the paper pad and biro that were in my conference pack. And I have to say that I really loved it! It allowed me to take notes I am excited to review (plus two people at the conference mentioned to me how much they loved my notes when looking over my shoulder). I have already made another pass at them by adding some more colour – a good way of reflecting on the conference, and I do want to put together a retrospective drawing/document that summarises the themes that have come up for me at the conference.

Of course there are some things this does not immediately afford: taking notes at a live conference you don’t necessarily know where the talks are going and you might commit to imagery that at the end makes less sense – or you might not know how much space to allocate. but I found it was a great way to keep my mind (and hands) engaged, even in talks I wasn’t that interested in.

When comparing it to the collaging process, I don’t think it has quite the same potential to encourage reflection and discovery. The exciting thing about using collage is that the found materials you collage with provide an extra layer that your subconscious can latch onto and that allows you to develop your own thoughts on the material – or just with the material as a starting point. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think one of my reservations of encouraging students (particularly the ones who have just started their university career) to use collage is that it can take them very far away from the subject, using the sketchnoting technique on the other hand, might be just what they need to keep them engaged in the lectures, to encourage them to take their own notes – and then review them in preparation of the next session.

…yes, I realise that it is slightly ironic to publish this without images… I will once I have the time to take some of my sketchnotes :-)…

Marion, one of the lovely participants in our first Thoughtbites workshop sends this account:
I took part in the ‘thoughtbites‘ workshop looking at ‘folds and layers’ as a method for visual-tactile note taking.

I myself have always found it very difficult to keep any notebook in a state that I appreciated it after its use or that I wanted to return to it and remind myself of what I had written.

Working with my hands and materials whilst listening I found myself beginning to relax and filter information based on what seemed important at the time. Although I felt I had hardly listened consciously, certain information became very dominant and stuck with me afterwards.

Engaging with the materials I noticed that I had used them in various ways that began to make sense to me and that I could see certain methods that I could use in the future and which also could be shared with others as a form of template.

Examples were the use of dials and circles (e.g. priorising information, looking at the ‘central’ question), icons that could serve to highlight specific information and covering/uncovering information through material layers as a way of discerning information.

Collage Workshop VMC 2015 from Marion

In my own research I have come across the functions of the right and left hemisphere of the brain which opens up an interesting perspective on memory retention through visual-tactile means and the workshop has inspired me to include these methods in the future.

In mid September, Susan and I met up at the 4th International Visual Methods Conference in Brighton to fly the flag for thinking-through-making-and-doing. While we had originally proposed a panel, we ended up running two workshops titled “Thoughtbites: Transdisciplinary cuts, folds and collage in thought and practice”. As part of that we had been commissioned by the conference organisers to author and print a little booklet that most attendees got in their conference bag (not all of them as the conference ended up over subscribed so we hadn’t printed enough).

Titled Thoughtbites – Cuts and Folds in Thought and Practice, this booklet used the work of notable philosophers as starting points for reflection and very basic activities – so people were able (and meant) to customise their own copies, and in the two workshops we used the same starting points to make, reflect on the conference so far and just provide some space for thoughts.

The first workshop used the pop-up facilitated by cuts and folds  to transform the usually flat surface to a three dimensional structure, complete with little windows to glimpse through. We were inspired here by Rene Descartes’ notion of the material world and its non material counterpart, the subjective and objective, abstract and material, mind and body. We also explored layers, inspired by Edmund Husserl, thinking about layers of meaning and how they reveal and conceal, sparking new trains of thought.

 

The second workshop explored the idea of tracing – and Gilles Deleuze’s suggestion that we should focus on the differences of tracings, the intentional and unintentional losses and gains, in order to reveal meaning. We also looked at Jacques Derrida and the fold as well as the moebius strip – is it possible to determine one side from the other? Does it matter?

Looking back what was most interesting was the way discussion unfolded. While some people came to both sessions, mainly people attended just one. But what was really different was the set up. The first session was done in the ‘Waste House’, a workshop space constructed pretty much entirely from recycled materials. Here we had one huge table, which resulted in everybody sharing materials with each other and a very informal conversation that included everybody throughout the 90 minutes. The second session was in a more traditional seminar room, where we had set up a number of smaller group tables. And while people were talking at their tables, the atmosphere was markedly different (though not necessarily in a bad way).

Overall it was a nice few days, with maybe some people encouraged to make some more time and space to reflecting through enjoying the process of making.

(sorry for the delay in posting this, freshers flu and start-of-term workload made it hard to blog immediately)

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.

 

At this week’s HEA Arts and Humanities conference, I was able to present an update of the fishscale research. The title of the 90 minute session was ‘Hunting Seamonsters – how to bust the ghosts of academic practice’, a nod to both the conference theme (Heroes and Monsters) and the strand (Ghosts) the abstract had been submitted to.

It was conceived as a ‘training montage from an 80s movie’ (a format suggested by the conference organisers), and this post is about this format rather than the content of the session. (The content was about the Fishscale of Academicness, if you want to know more about that, check the dedicated page on this blog.)

I love the idea of thinking about a presentation or a workshop in terms of a movie. I’ve been doing something similar with my students when talking about framing and structuring their writing, but I hadn’t quite realised this is also what I do when I plan my presenting. When doing my Post-graduate Certificate in Higher and Professional Education, we were told to vary the activities in a session every so often to keep the attention of students. And we were encouraged to plan our sessions in certain blocks, breaking down the different delivery methods and student activities. This was recorded (and planned) on a form, so basically a list. But there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a storyboard.

When putting together the abstract for this conference, the format of the training montage was incredibly helpful. I co-wrote this with a colleague from our School of Education and we wanted to bring in different perspectives of the Fishscale – the initial inspirations, the problem, the context, what other people are doing about this, the fishscale concept itself, the different activities for the students to consolidate the learning, the feedback from students, the feedback from other staff, an analysis of how the fishscale is working, and an idea of the research we are in the process of doing in order to evaluate whether it is actually working. This is a lot of stuff, even if you have 90 minutes to do it. Having the training montage in our heads, it became much clearer that we need to think not about all the content we have (or could have), but about editing it together. This was not going to be a documentary on one specific process, it was about selecting one important image/issue that could represent an area (and I have done a number of presentations that look at just one aspect of the fishscale). We are not shown every push-up that Rocky makes to get in shape, after all.

So in a way, we started planning with the cuts. We wanted a clear change every time we altered the perspective, and we ended up with six sections, alternately delivered, each time also swopping the delivery method – ranging from powerpoint presentation, to prezi, from group activities to discussion with the whole group.

Thinking about this planning as a training montage meant that my thoughts shifted from all the stuff I could have put in to just the most important things: what would give a flavour of this data? what do people need to know about in order to understand the fishscale? – How many push-ups do we need to get a sense that push-ups are being made regularly? How much can you reduce information to convey push-up-ness?

This is not a big shift from planning a session as a list, but I have found that story-boarding mentally can really help to condense and refine your content to make the most impact it can. So I will in future be conceptualising my session planning more as two parallel storyboards – one narrative of what I do as a presenter, and one with what I task my audience to do.

 

P.S.: while the Hunting Seamonster session went well, it had to be replanned last minute because Katy was ill and couldn’t do ‘her’ scenes. But while not all of the ‘cuts’ were as pronounced as they could have been, with me delivering most of them myself (I had another colleague standing in for some bits, but there wasn’t sufficient time for a full brief of everything), the integrity of the montage stayed intact, and this was a very different session than if I had planned it for myself without thinking about the visual of the training montage.

This year’s HEA Arts and Humanities conference was held in Brighton this week.
D:DCIM100DICAMDSCI0060.JPGI had been thinking about architecture as a structure for my reflective book of it somehow – the idea of ‘housing’ the different stories told in the sessions somehow… and as I looked out to the pier over breakfast I really liked that structure – the somewhat fantastic structures you find on a pier of this sort, not unlike best practice in Higher Education, underpinned by a supporting structure. And then the conference started and I didn’t really have much time to think about anything much beyond what session to go to next (and at this event those were very difficult decisions). As I don’t have the time to get into the making of my reflective book just now, here a little write-up of the impressions of my very own conference experience…

We got started with a keynote by Dr Vicky Gunn, Director of Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Glasgow, who talked about ‘Stories as re-membering: The tall tales we tell about teaching‘. It was a rich hour with lots to think about. What stuck with me most was the image of the emic mountain, and how you tend to think/reflect back on what you thought was going on, rather than on what was actually going on. What also got me thinking was the question whether we are using our teaching to produce gated communities  rather than public squares, through the exclusivity of the ‘conversations’ we are having and are encouraging our students to have.

I then dove into a wildcard session led by Alex Moseley of the University of Leicester on ‘Who needs time and money? How to design cheap and effective traditional games‘ Here I found myself part of the Tibetan team in the World Speed Games Design Championship, using ten steps defining the Context, developing the Grand Design and then Refining the Design of a game that would allow students to build their vocabulary in a foreign language. It became a set of challenges on their (virtual) way to the Cannes Film Festival and involved zombies and meerkats at one point (don’t ask). We didn’t win (partly due to my absolute inabiblity to get us extra points by remembering the favourite games of the other members of my team), but we did learn how to create a learning game in ten steps – and as we only had 90 minutes it became clear that a game like this can be created in prototype fairly quickly. (For more information on creating low-cost games for learning see Whitton, N. and Moseley, A. (2012) Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide. Routledge).

I spent my afternoon in the three hour session led by Nick Monk of the University of Warrick on ‘Learning from Narrative‘. This combined two activities, which we did in two groups of four. We started by going on a ‘long short walk’. The idea behind this is to slow down and notice things. So, we were required to take a walk that would usually take about 5 minutes and complete it in 20, while really noticing things. It is funny how you immediately pick up on things that your brain usually would filter out, for example the noise of the busy King’s Road, the pole with the odd looking construction, which might have been a camera – but also how there are things you on your own still don’t notice. I for example, didn’t see the Punch and Judy theatre/booth until Sharon pointed it out. They were gone when we went back. This activity reminded me of two things that have made an appearance on this blog before: the documentary drawing, as this is also about noticing things in a different way (and indeed, I tried to do my noticing here through drawing rather than writing), as well as the reflective walk. However, a link I hadn’t made that Nick pointed out once we were back in the room to discuss the experience was that he uses this to illustrate to his students the difference between reading and ‘close reading’ – because when you read for academic research purposes you are not just trying to get from A to B (so that you can say that you have read a particular text), you are trying to notice the nuances, pick up on the meaning, in short pay closer attention. I will definitely be trying that with my students next term! We then went into the second activity of the afternoon, ‘theory building’. Here we got a collection of materials – quotations and images that were all somewhat Brighton related – and were asked to use them to create out own narrative, possibly inspired by our experience of Brighton on our long short walk. After figuring out what everything was and possibly meant, it was really helpful to talk through different options, but in the end this came together in my group once we started to take away things. Our story became stronger once we removed items and only kept the ones that supported the story, rather than keep everything in. Again a very useful activity to do with students, showing the usefulness (and necessity) of developing a focus and editing the story you want to tell. Fascinating was that the other group had a very different approach and put together a small performance!

After this already very full day I felt conference fatigue setting in and decided to skip the next session, being ready for the poster reception afterwards. Here I particularly enjoyed Anna Lise Gordon’s ‘The mirror in the suitcase‘ on the importance of resilience for early career teachers. She uses creative writing methods to explore reflective practice, and I was particularly taken by the Haikus some of her research subjects had written.

We ended the day with the conference dinner, where I had some very interesting conversations about employability – and how that is such a difficult concept to define. Surely people realise that the employability skills you need depend on the job you want? There was also much talk about Skandinavian drama…

The second day started with Professor Hamish Fyfe, the director of the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling. Another thought provoking keynote. What I particularly took away from it was that Stories are not true, but by being untrue they make you understand the truth (after Salman Rushdie). And I started to think about whether written stories are taken more seriously than told stories, and whether that is because stories are inherently personal and therefore seen as subjective (and qualitative), which in an academic community that is very much based on a scientific model might still be seen as inferior to the objectivity of numbers?

Afterwards there was Pat Francis’ and my workshop called Take a Little Button, where the 13 people brave enought to show up got to play around with buttons and consider different ways of using humble/ordinary objects such as buttons in their teaching to explore and explain academic practice. Pat particularly highlighted her work with fashion students on teasing out a context with a button as starting point and I talked about my way of likening buttons to quotations and handed out the newest in my series of tactile academia books, The Button Connection (will blog about this in more detail soon, I hope).

The feedback we got was very positive. People particularly liked how this way of ‘analogue’ working can support and complement the digital methods so much more common these days. There was also a particular sense that these strategies could help particularly when working with objects from an archive. And of course there was much admiration for the packs of random writing materials Pat had put together in preparation, a particular favourite in this workshop was the coffee filter – a great surface for writing on as unexpected things happen…

Here some of the feedback we collected (we want to make some sort of artefact out of it one of these days, so far these are the ‘raw materials’ we have to work with:

In the afternoon it was back to parallel sessions. I sat in on Olaojo Aiyegbayo’s talk ‘Metaphors we teach by: National Teaching Fellows’ metaphorical images of teaching in UK Universities‘, which identified how seasoned practitioners describe their teaching. One of the things that I am taking away from this was an image of a fish jumping out of the water, as Olaojo stated a fish isn’t aware of the water until her is out of it, just like metaphors are part of everyday life so that we need to work at them to become aware of the. It struck me that this might be a good way of visualising the ‘hidden’ academic practice I go on about – students can’t see a lot of it unless we take the jump and make it visible to them!

This session was followed by Amanda Couch talink about ‘A reflection on digestion: embodiment and the professional‘, which was interesting not just for the metaphor of digestion itself, but also for the links between the academic and personal, the bodily and the intellectual.

After a little break I found myself in the last parallel session of the day. Here I learned about ‘Academic staff perceptions of IT in the Humanities‘ by Pritpal Sembi of the University of Wolverhampton, reflecting on a work in progress that shows that it is not just the students who need to be considered individually when it comes to IT, but also the staff, who have their own hopes and fears when it comes to the introduction of new tools and systems. This was followed by an interdisciplinary (and interinstitutional) session on ‘Pioneers on the frontiers of learning?‘ by Rosemary Scott, Sarah Cousins and Dounia Bissar, that again talked about the personal approaches lecturers have to emerging and established digital technologies. This session finished with Zoe Johnson and Andrew Walsh from the University of Huddersfield talking about ‘Finding paths through the information forest‘. Important points made here was the difference between the information searches that you need to make when planning a holiday and the ones for academic research, and that there seem to be two main approaches subscribed to by lecturers: the ‘traditional’ approach of reading lists and letting students find familiar, ‘classic’ sources, and the more ‘practice as research’ approach of a more serendipidous exploration of sources that might come in useful and might challenge (established?) thinking.

By now I was absolutely exhausted and I almost didn’t make it to the closing keynote, but I am so glad I did (being fortified by two cups of tea). Nik Powell, director of the National Film and Television School, managed to pull off a very entertaining presentation, which reminded me that at the end of the day it is the story that is at the centre and that should determine the medium – something that needs to be kept in mind whether you are trying to make films or teach anybody anything!