A bit more than a year ago I made the acquaintance of Jenny Delasalle, who also had a chapter published in the Only Connect book (I actually met her at the launch of that book). And last week she asked me in an email whether the Fishscale was still working in practice. As probably a lot of you, I’m at the point of the year when I think about what has worked well last term, and what maybe didn’t work quite so well (and yes, partly this is a very constructive way of procrastinating in between marking), so this was quite a well-timed enquiry.

Last term I changed my delivery of the Fishscale slightly. Some of the feedback that I get on this activity always included bafflement as to where the fish are coming from. Students seem to have trouble understanding that I’m not bothered about the fish, it is the concept of provenance that I care about, and that I think they should care about. But some students appear to feel slightly patronised by the format of this which is written in the form of a children’s book (and that is sort of on purpose). So I thought maybe it would “breed” even more ownership of the concept, if students were developing their own ranking systems in class. So for some of my modules last term, I assigned watching the Fishscale stand-alone presentation as homework, and then got students to discuss this concept and develop their own ranking systems in small groups, which they were then expected to apply to their literature for the rest of the term.

One of the things that I was hoping to get them to think about is one of the things my students, who are all studying creative studio-based disciplines, often struggle with and that the Fishscale (that is conceived for more generic use) doesn’t take into consideration: where do technical, how-to instructions and creative, visual, inspiration type sources fit in? So I wanted them to pay particular attention to this when they developed these systems for their own use, or adapted the Fishscale (which is an option they of course also had).

What happened was quite interesting. For a start there are of course students who don’t do homework, who found themselves in a session talking about fish and secondary sources and had no idea what was going on. But overall the groups came up with some really good ideas for their own systems, ranging from sandwiches to different magic tricks to levels in computer games. There were also some groups who really didn’t want to go visual and went for numerical ranking (values 1-10 or letters like in grading). But the really interesting thing was that pretty much every group complete and utterly ignored the stipulation that this was not about the content of a source, but rather its type, and they all insisted that relevance (of content, not of type of source) should be the most important thing for them to look at in order to judge whether this was a useful source or not. At this stage of their research – these are all first year students – this means that they are basically sabotaging themselves. They seem to have something in their head about what information is relevant, and they discount everything that doesn’t fit, meaning that in their literature search they never really find the things that are new to them or that would allow them to broaden their horizons.

I mentioned this to Jenny, and also that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information, and she replied that one of the things she looks at with the students in the information ethics course that she teaches are recommendation systems, the most know probably the recommendations you get from amazon. She said that they “are partly based on relevance but also try to incorporate elements of serendipity and broader themes. Some theorists warn against too high a relevance in fact, because it makes all that spying and user profiling that they do really obvious and undermines their trustworthiness!” She then suggested getting the students to look at how different services recommend movies, as broken down here. I have to say, I absolutely adore this idea, and I love this particular link. I didn’t realise that there were so many different movie recommendation sites out there – and that they all worked so differently!

So in future I definitely want to try to look at recommendation systems before thinking about our own system – and the Fishscale can still be the example we talk through in detail, before we critique it.

It also made me think about the ‘recommendation’ systems that we have in place in academia, the reading lists, the bibliographies of the sources we already have, the shelves in a university library that basically present us with related books, but add that serendipitious element. And while, as far as I know, there are no algorithms putting all these things together, it might be a good idea of thinking of these elements as recommendation systems we are now getting more and more familiar with in our (digital) lives.


Inspired by our email conversation Jenny also wrote a blog post on recommendation systems, which you can find here – we might even start a blog conversation!

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.

After a summer of redesigning some lecture slides and ideas into a (hopefully) better presentation, as well as some serious research design talks – with some initial questionnaires – and finding some people who might be interested in helping test this, I am happy to report that I have done the first two sessions today… and it wasn’t a total disaster! Actually, it went quite well, I think. I haven’t looked at the questionnaires yet, as I don’t want them to overshadow my own recollections of the sessions, but I am pretty sure I saw at least one student circle the Yes to the question whether this was helpful. Success!

So, after about a year of talking about this with colleagues, the proper testing is actually beginning, which is quite exciting!

(If you want to know more about the Fishscale, check out the new page I made on this blog, which explains the concept and the research project.)

And another link…

As you know I have been working with some colleagues on different ways of getting the Fishscale concept out into the open. And I am happy to announce that the chapter I have been working on with Geoff Walton is about to be published in the Only Connect (un)book. Find out more about the whole book from this brief introduction by Emma Coonan, one of the editors. (Look out for two fabulous illustrations by Josh Filhol, who is working with me on illustrating this concept!)

And yes, it also includes another chapter from me that was written as one of the Tactile Academia booklets – The Winning Hand of Independence – first featured at the Writing in Creative Practice workshop in Ayr.

Today’s Writing in Creative Practice workshop led by Nancy de Freitas was a masterclass in how to combine a lot of information with plenty of discussion and trying out, while still fostering a relaxing atmosphere. Honestly, the only person running around like mad and a bit frazzled was myself (but then I had to worry about the caterers – not that they didn’t do a fantastic job again!).

The idea was to this time focus on our own writing rather than our students’, and specifically on that mysterious beast: writing for publication.

People were so eager to get started that everybody was present fairly soon after we opened registration (i.e. when the coffee had arrived), so we for once had the time to go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk a little about why we were there.

Nancy then started us off with an introductory lecture that very clearly set out the process of writing for academic publication – the thinking processes that go into finding focus, the putting together of a (working) abstract, the writing itself, the editing process, the rewriting of the abstract this time for publication, the submission – and what happened afterwards, i.e. some stages of the review process. As editor of Studies in Material Thinking she was able to share some valuable insights from ‘the other side’ of the submission process (and I wish somebody had told me about all this when I was starting out in academia).

Our first little exercise used Rowena Murray’s Ten Prompts for planning a paper – and we all got some time to have a go, and then discuss the usefulness of having prompts like this. The following conversation showed that while not all questions were helpful in all contexts, the activity of sitting down and thinking with focus about the writing we were about to embark on was seen as helpful all round. Nancy also introduced us to Robert Brown’s Eight Questions and her own provocations, which include the requirement of putting forward not just writing, but also pictures. During our conversation we also found out that one of the group used a similar method for getting started in her writing – imagining she was going to the pub and having a conversation about her writing with somebody there (apparently this Pub Method is helped by actually going to the pub during a break in the writing…).

We talked about a number of ways to get started with writing and developing projects, my favourite probably the term of ‘Snack Writing’ – little writing tasks that are done regularly to put together a portfolio/file of little pieces of writing that can then help develop/be the starting point of something bigger. This could be reviews of own or other’s work or free-writing exercises, for example. I already do this with my students – setting them regular tasks to get them writing regularly – so now having a good term (Snack Writing) is great to get across to them that these tasks are meant to be non-threatening.

After a lovely buffet lunch, I did a session on thinking about different ways that writing can be published. I tied it into the Fishscale activity that I do with my students (and if you are a regular reader of this blog you will know what this is about, if you are not, search Fishscale as a Category) and shared my own experiences with a particularly frustrating article, where I made the (all too common) mistake of trying to adapt an article written for one journal and rejected for submission to another journal and ended up with what must have read as a confused mixture of data. (I now call this the Frankenfish phenomenon, after Frankenstein’s monster. Beware of the Frankenfish and always carefully tailor your writing to the journal you are submitting to!) I also made delegates design some fish representing the different ways of presenting work (hopefully I will be able to put some of them up on here soon).

Nancy took over again, and we talked some more about clarifying our practice – for example thinking about the concept, context, focus and methods of your research… and then swapping them around – what happens if you see your methods as your concept or your context as you focus? Again there was a great discussion with people starting to think about how to tailor the same research for different journals/audiences and possibly also how to mine a PhD for publications.

We ended by analysing two abstracts and discussing their strengths and weaknesses – and in extension talked about the review process a bit more. Nancy shared the form the review report at Studies in Material Thinking takes, which was again really useful.

Overall I found it to be an enjoyable and informative day – and can’t wait to do it all again, only with a bit more time, at the forthcoming Writing Retreat in Falmouth (there are still places left… sign up here!)

A special thank you to the Higher Education Academy and the Institue of Applied Creative Thinking (I-ACT) at Staffordshire University for funding this event!

The Fishscale research project is making some headway.

After the meeting in Huddersfield, I have been thinking about how to change what I have to a resource that other people could use – and it is quite a weird feeling to look at your own teaching materials and think about somebody else using them. But I think I am in the process of coming up with something that would be useful for others!


Brainy Sea Creature

Geoff and myself also had a look around our undergraduate Final Degree show on its opening night, and came away with a little stack of possible Illustration/Graphic Design students to approach for taking on the illustration. And I am happy to report that we managed to get our number one choice on board – Josh Filhol, who as you can see has already started to get some ideas to paper (and I really love this brainy octopus, never would have occured to me!) – more of his work can be viewed here.

We also decided to (for now at least) focus on getting the illustrations right and then maybe later think about possible animation into a film.

Katy has agreed to focus on the research questions for now, so we should be able to design this project over the summer – ready for testing in September!

(As it has become clear that this is a bigger project, I am introducing a ‘Fishscale’ category to this blog, it is clearly beyond the tag stage…)

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am working with some colleagues on bringing the Fishscale of Academicness to the masses. And I am happy to announce that a draft for the Only Connect un-book has been submitted this week!

Developing a teaching resource for testing has also made a step forward. Today my colleagues Geoff and Katy went to Huddersfield to meet up with Sarah, Judith and Liz to talk through what we could do. It turned out to be a very enjoyable afternoon with many ideas being shared (and not just one but two different varieties of cake!).

At the moment it looks like we will develop two different ‘kits’ – one for face-to-face delivery (including a presentation, staff notes, activity proforma and possibly another handout) and one for distance learning (including presentation/film, on-line activity and print-out resource). We will also put together a method for testing and data collection.

Next immediate step: visit the final degree show tomorrow and find students that might be interested to work on the design!

I’ll keep you posted!

There are exciting developments with what I call the Fishscale of Academicness. You might have come across this before at one of my talks – or through my little booklet (which is described here).

There are two exciting new things happening – my colleague Geoff Walton and myself are working on a chapter on this for an open-access book on information discovery journeys. We have been having a number of meetings about this in the last few weeks, and I am happy to report that it is progressing nicely. We are trying to combine what I already have as written for the little booklet with a commentary on information literacy and information discernment, that locates this in an academic context. Most recently we have been working on ways of how to combine the different texts/images, here some of our working drawings:

We are hopeful that we have worked it out!

The other exciting thing is that we have been given some funding by the university to produce at least two different ways of delivering this – a hard-copy and a digital one, which we want to use to test this further with students in the coming academic year, hopefully in different departments and possibly at different universities.

Let me know if you are interested in taking part in this further research!

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.


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!