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

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

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

handout 17 colours adding bits and pieces

Make your own Sociological Research Board Game handout, coloured in

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

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

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

workshop 13 clever frogs

The Clever Frogs prototype

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

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

workshop 17 coding

Coding Research prototype

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

workshop 15 focus group snakes and ladders

Focus Group Snakes and Ladders

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

workshop 14 sex workers

Maze of Streets prototype

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

workshop 16 heart of the PhD

The Heart of the PhD prototype

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

So really no excuse not to try it yourself!

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here the 2nd promised addendum to the write-up of #ReGenring17

Collecting delegate feedback after or during an event can always be a bit challenging. There are standard feedback forms around, of course, but they might not actually capture the information you are most interested in. I, for example, am usually more interested in delegates’ responses to the content of the event than in their thoughts on the organisation of the buffet (not that this is not important, but if something was fundamentally wrong with that, I probably already know). So I leave the formal feedback forms for collecting metrics for the venue or the funders.

Feedback Bunting in action

But I do want to know what people actually thought about and during the event and since my events are usually quite creative, I like to find ways of tying this in. Apart from the maybe ubiquitous post-its, I have in the past used postcards and luggage tags to get delegates to leave some impressions of the event with me – and their thoughts on how to improve it for next time round. And then somebody at one of the Writing-PAD East Midlands meetings mentioned ‘feedback bunting’. I was immediately attracted to the idea. Could we somehow give delegates little ‘flags’ in different colours for their comments and invite them to populate a string as the event progressed?

Using relatively small flags has the advantage that delegates can add comments in bite-sized pieces as they occur, so instead of having to do a summary of feedback of the day towards the end, it can grow organically.

Ready to try this out for the recent ReGenring conference, I first looked into pre-produced bunting but decided against that as it would have been difficult to add comments once this was hanging – and I didn’t want to end up with un-displayed but filled in bunting at the end of the event. Rather, I wanted to find a way to allow delegates to secure their flags on the string without needing clips or a stapler, so tried out a folded version with a slot cut into both sides from opposite ends, so they could be slotted together (see the second way on the drawing below). In theory this worked well, but in practice this turned out to be over-designed, most people ended up just folding their flags over the string which worked just as well if not better than a complicated slotting maneouvre. (Although if the event had been outdoors that might have been a different matter.)

a very basic drawn instruction on how to make feedback bunting work

Having explained the idea during my part of the Welcome, I left flags on the tables for people to start filling up (which started pretty much immediately). During the Sharing Session in the afternoon I could be found walking around pressing some more onto people while asking “Have you left some feedback yet?” Maybe I was slightly too pushy, but it was really lovely to see the bunting chain grow over the course of the day.

I will definitely be using this simple, but effective, way of collecting feedback again and would recommend it for events big and small.

I am also thinking that this might be a fun way to organise a to-do list. I always have a number of projects on the go, and having one per flag would remind me of those projects and give me some space to add notes (and if I run out of space on one flag, I can always add another one). Plus as urgencies and priorities change, the order of these flags could be easily switched around. Something to try out in the next few days, I think 🙂

Here the first follow-up post promised in my write up of the #ReGenring17 conference.

For the afternoon we had scheduled a ‘Sharing Session’ – essentially some time for people to just talk to each other. In order to give some broader starting points than just the keynotes, I had put out a Call for Practice as a first announcement of the conference, and quite a few people had responded to that.

The idea was that people would pick an example of their genring practice to show off, so that delegates could have a look at this. I had decided to give a structure to this by asking the sharers to fill in a very basic questionnaire about their projects to send to me the week previously, which I then fitted into a basic template. So everybody who shared their work had a poster that was following the same format.

here one example of those posters, this was the example I sent around to the sharers

One of the feedback comments stated

The posters are informative but all have the same format (template), Maybe delegates could present their work/research in chosen individual ways?

Let me explain that decision…  I decided on using a template on purpose, for a number of reasons:

  • This needed to work as a stand-alone piece of work, so even if the sharer didn’t bring any other artefacts or documents to show and wasn’t present (due to talking to somebody else at that time), this still needed to make sense. Current poster practice (see my recent blog post on this – told you it made sense to have it as an interlude before this post) shows that stand-alone posters often use what I call a ‘Spineless Report’ or ‘Box Set’ approach. I really didn’t want any of the former, because people get either bored by too much text or frustrated when not having the time to read it all. But a ‘Box Set’ like approach I thought was much better – ask the sharers about something specific.
  • When everybody uses the same template what you end up with are posters that are much easier to compare.
  • I wanted to steer the sharing session towards the process of genring and regenring, so the template was designed to prompt the sharers into that, rather than just show off the fabulous outcomes that they achieved.
  • And I was also already thinking of the special edition of the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice that we are putting together on the back of this. For that we had been talking about a section that shows off examples, like a catalogue in a way, so I actually designed a format with that in mind. I think I can pull the posters into spreads for the journal pretty easily to achieve this catalogue section, making little extra work for the sharers. So it is a multi-genre performing template.

In short, while choosing a template format for the sharing session loses the individuality of expression from the sharers, it gains the easier comparability. As sharers were encouraged to bring extra materials, the format of which they were free to choose themselves, I think they had the opportunity to still customise what they were showing sufficiently.

So why this template?

one previous workshop participants found that a mankini represents the genre of ‘Tweet’

I have designed and worked with a template/format that looks at genre before: the Dress-Up Doll of Formality. In a nutshell this is an activity I designed for my students to become more aware of the ‘rules’ of a genre, by likening writing for a specific audience to dressing for a specific occassion. So what I ask them to do is to design an outfit for a Gingerbreadperson that is like a genre they explore (tweet, academic essay, billboard poster, etc.) and then also add why they chose this outfit. It gets the students to pay attention to the rules in a visual and fun way (and I have also run this as a workshop for staff and management, which can be much fun). This works fine in the context it was designed for, but seemed too simple in the context of this conference. And, of course, it puts the focus on the established rules of one genre, but not on the process of genring or regenring.

a visual representation of Fiona’s theoretical genre framework

Of course there is a theoretical framework custom-made for this, Fiona English’s work, which looks at genre in the context of two orientations, the social and the material, breaking these down further into contextual and discursive as well as thematic and semiotic aspects respectively, to then break these down even further. This one seemed at the other end of the spectrum, a bit too complex. I didn’t want to scare the potential sharers away by sending them a template that basically meant they would first have to read a chapter or book in order to understand it.

So I needed to find a middle ground. Fairly simple to break down, but giving pertinent information. And it needed a simple visual as well, something that could be customised to show a flavour of the individual projects, but still somewhat uniform. And it needed to make sense as a visual metaphor for the process of genring and regenring.

I decided to ask people to focus on the gains and losses that the ‘new’ genre has opposed to the ‘old’ genres it is inspired by or based on. I thought that was probably the most crucial concept, information that people new to genring would need (or want to have) when considering their own projects for the future. And I stumbled across the Venn Diagram as a visual that shows the idea of two different ‘pools’ of genre that overlap – and this overlap is what we are interested in.

template example from Welcome Presentation discussing the outcomes of the Make-Your-Own-Nametag activity

So we first identify the genres the ‘new’ genre is based on. In our context this is often a traditional academic genre (which I put on the left) and a non-academic genre (which I put on the right) – although of course in a different context these might not be linked to academic genres at all, or could all be academic genres. The ‘new’, or featured, genre is in the middle – an ideal place to put an image giving a sense of an example of that genre. And then it is simply a matter of identifying the gains and losses of that genre in the overlap. Of course you ‘lose’ and ‘gain’ things from both sides of the Venn Diagram. For this exercise it is important to try and list all the gains and losses; identifying losses in particular is hard, because usually these are things you are happy to lose, otherwise you wouldn’t decide to try this new genre. But listing it all is really helpful in allowing you to make an informed decision.

I think this template might actually become a simple way to familiarise people with the concept of genring and would also work as an activity sheet to think through potential gains and losses when switching from one genre to the next, so I also made them as a handout with simple instructions that you can download here (including the space we had on the poster for a description of the new genre): Genring Handout blank

I promised two follow-up posts to the ReGenring17 conference, but as one of them is also related to thinking recently disseminated at the internal Learning and Teaching conference at Staffordshire University, I thought I would put in this little interlude sharing with you what I talked about then.

The use (and possible mis-use) of academic posters is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, so while I have blogged about this previously here, here is a little update on my thinking. This has been informed by looking at a lot of posters in the academic realm from all sorts of disciplines.

Ever since visualisation literacy researcher and designer Lulu Pinney introduced me to the distinction of designing for immersing the audience in a subject or for igniting their interest in the subject, I have looked out for those distinctions. And I think current poster practice can be located along this spectrum – from immersing to igniting. Here are some (stereotypical) examples I have seen over and over again:

The Spineless Report

The Spineless Report

The idea behind this poster is to put as much of the data you collected onto the poster. It shouts “look at all the stuff that I have done! Surely I deserve extra credit for having collected this much data!” This might not be the best way to communicate your findings, but very often students end up with a poster like this, particularly if this is the only assignment they have to do. The text is invariably way too small to read, there is too much of it. Pictures, if there are any included, tend to be too small. This type of poster is truly trying to immerse you in its subject, and if you drown  in all that information, then that is too bad.

The Box Set

The Box Set

This type of poster follows very clear rules and sections information into boxes. Very often this is based on a template given by the tutor. This is a much more sensible way to use posters in learning and teaching, but again it can often become an exercise in let’s see how much information I can cram into these boxes.

The Infographic

The Infographic

In practice this very often uses smart art from word processing programs, specifically the one that looks most impressive, but not necessarily the one that makes the most sense in the context of the research. However, the infographic format can be really helpful if used correctly – if the student can then avoid the temptation to fill the rest of their poster with text again. And the question remains where to put all the extra research, unless there is another outlet in the assignment mix.

The Visual Metaphor

The Visual Metaphor

This type of poster is dominated by a visual, and adds some text to explain the metaphor as well as extra details.

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Another type of poster that is dominated by a visual, this time not a visual metaphor, but rather a design or photograph of an actual thing of situation. Text explains the image and adds extra details.

The Poster Spectrum and Higher Education

All of these different examples – and there are probably a few more – have some traits in common. With the genre of the (printed) poster comes the idea of a limited amount of space, usually in a prescribed rectangular size, although the maker might get to choose orientation. With specifying an academic or research poster usually comes the aim of summarising a particular project for a specific audience (that might be experts in the field or lay people, for example). And when academics and researchers put together posters they know their objectives, whether it is to network, tell people about an on-going project or just needed to hand in something so they could attend a particular conference. Based on that knowledge, and of the knowledge of the specific home discipline, it is easy to choose where to locate one’s own poster on the immersing/igniting spectrum.

However, when using the poster format within Higher Education as assessments, this becomes more difficult. I have seen a lot of guidance on academic poster design that highlights the importance of using visuals and being careful not to use too much text. In a way it seems that the advice is to stay away from the immersing end of the spectrum. The assessment acts as another layer of requirement. If the poster is the only assessment required for a course, students have little choice but to go for the immersing end of the spectrum, because it becomes about demonstrating as much of the research they have done as possible. If, however, the poster is part of an assessment mix, then students can afford to not include everything on it, because there will be other opportunities to include those details and information, such as a handout or report, for example. So potentially this will make for less text-heavy posters.

As educators using the academic poster as a learning opportunity for our students, we need to be clear about our objectives in assigning them AND we need to make sure that our students are clear about the aims that the posters themselves have. We need to talk to them about the different types of posters they could produce and the pros and cons each type might bring with it. Because not every poster is alike.

Can you think of any other types not yet included? Please let me know in a comment!