For quite a long time I have been trying to find a way to develop some more help with essay writing for students. I think there are some fantastically good resources out there for post-graduate students, but the basics of a simple essay – not a thesis – seem to be somewhat neglected unless you count fact sheets from different Higher Education Institutions, which can feel both corporate and somewhat boring. And even then there is often little explanation of what I refer to as ‘hidden’ academic practice, the thinking processes and conventions that make an essay at degree level different to an essay at school.

What was needed, I felt, was a sort of ‘painting by numbers’ approach to essay writing – simple, step by step, visual, colourful – and fun! So this week I am happy to launch my ‘Writing Essays by Pictures‘ project.

Some initial sketches for the Writing by Pictures blog

Some initial sketches for the Writing by Pictures blog

There are two different, but somewhat linked, resources – a blog, Writing by Pictures, which you (and your students) can find here. This is really an extension of the idea of the visual soundbite – last term I asked students to regularly reflect on what they had learned during our sessions and put them into a visual soundbite, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised by what they came up with. Not at all the things that I had wanted them to take away from the sessions! So I decided to make a list of all the tips and tricks that I had hoped they would pick up on and put them on this blog.

The second project is linked, but is for the times when the dip-in-and-out approach of a blog is not enough. Instead I tried to put together a step-by-step guide to essay writing as a workbook, which also included some activities, so really this can be used to work through the research and writing process from the beginning of their essay to

Initial stages for the Writing Essays by Pictures blog

Initial stages for the Writing Essays by Pictures book

the finished product. Called Writing Essays by Pictures, I have produced a draft of this workbook and shown it to some colleagues who have been very positive about it. I am now in the process of raising money on Kickstarter to print some copies to get them to students to actually test.  If you want to find out more – and maybe ven support it, check out the page for the campaign here.

While neither of these resources are finished yet, please do share them with people who might be interested. Over the next few months I will add more images to the blog, clean up the images that are there and also add some more content. The workbook will be finished and hopefully go to press in May/June. As I don’t want the posts on the progress of this big project to dominate this blog, I have made a new page which you can check for progress if you are interested.

Flipsides: Teaching and Testing

Flipsides: Teaching and Testing

This picture came out of a presentation I was asked to give, but that was then cancelled. There I was with a half-finished talk in my brain and some sketches plotting out my opening statement with those big letters representing Teaching and Learning (and Testing). As I didn’t want the idea to be one of those abandoned scribbles in one of my notebooks, I decided to make a print out of it instead.

The idea started out with the concept that Learning Happens in the Tangents that I picked up at a recent conference (thanks again to Jesse Stommel), which is such an important truth – so often not appreciated by students, and maybe us lecturers as well. I like the idea that Teaching goes beyond what is contained in the ‘lesson’, it almost ripples out; while Learning takes place again not just in the lesson, and not just inspired by it, but rather gets often sparked by those ripples and connections the individual makes. I am constantly fascinated by what students pick up from a lesson – and what they don’t. That is the great thing about developing independent learners (and thinkers), rather than getting them to memorise a lot of stuff.

However, there is a flipside to that – certainly in the culture that I work in. This is, of course, Testing. Testing is very often incredibly narrow, and it doesn’t usually test the learning that took place, but only the learning that intersects with the teaching (and often only a very narrow concept of the teaching). I wish the system wouldn’t be that concerned with testing, as that might open up the students to explore more of the ripples and not care so much about the testing.

… and for whoever is interested: the print is two colour screenprint, one colour risograph and some hand-colouring.

You might have been wondering whatever happened to those academic mantras I was collecting in spring? Well, after my two months weaving at Penland, I went back to the Massachussetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in May to catch up with both students and faculty I had met in January. But mainly I was doing a residency at Press, MCLA’s letterpress studio. While I had hoped to set a lot of the mantras I had collected, I only managed two more (on top of the Process Doesn’t Get You Extra Credit one I had done in January), but one of the reasons for that was that I also printed some work that came out of my time weaving, where I had played around with a fingerprint motif as a symbol for identity.

This was a time of me thinking about my work, both in the context of university work and creative practice, if and how they link, and in a way it is only fitting that it was the process of making that allowed me to figure out that I am on the right track. I don’t want to bore you all with too much self-confessional dribble, so in this post I will give you a short overview of the finished exhibition, and then write a bit about how this has given me a new idea for my teaching.

The exhibition was called ‘What’s Your Mantra – An exploration of Creative and Academic Identities’, and it had three main parts to it. There were my three selected and set academic mantras – Process Doesn’t Get You Extra Credit, Start With The Box and Tangential Procrastination (which isn’t really a mantra as such, but a phenomenon I struggle with in my own work and a concept I refer to a lot when teaching) -, there were the academic mantra cards myself and colleagues at MCLA had done over the course of the term, representing what we were thinking about during this time, and then there were a series of paper fingerprints, some of them woven. (If you want to know more about the exhibition, check out the PRESS blog here and here.)

As I said, this work was very important for me. Making it gave me a tactile way of working through a lot of questions I had been asking myself, even if I wasn’t really aware of it. It made me think of the different ‘hats’ I wear – teacher, researcher, writer, designer, artist – and how they all weave together to one identity. In a lot of the workshops I have been to we are exploring thinking through making, and this was an extended experience of that.

But what I take away from this is not only all these deep experiences for my own personal development, I have also stumbled across something that might prove useful for my teaching, a development of the academic mantra.

The mantra cards are in a way word paintings. The ones I made were all inspired by the context of my day-to-day teaching, which is what made me think about them as academic mantra cards in the first place. Working on them allowed me to recognise the significance of that concept, the academic mantra, for the way I practice. Boiling down your expertise and guidance to the most crucial points can be a good way to connect with students that seem to want everything in little chunks. Not that I am in favour of only presenting little chunks to students, but I like the idea of a snappy headline, that you then elaborate on.

I have gone away from the term of the ‘academic mantra’ because of associations of meditation and really a mantra should be something that works on a different level than lessons at university. But when talking about my exhibition another term came out: visual soundbite. I think that’s what they are. And I think the experience of boiling down the crucial points to a snappy few words and then finding a visual representation for it is a good exercise. Not just for me, when thinking about how to present lessons, but also for students.

Note-taking, I believe, is much more effective if you make it personal to you. It should reflect your thoughts and questions as well as the content of what you are taking notes from. In the work with reflective books made with collage this is particularly so, the content becomes meaningful because you develop personal associations, which aid your recall. Students, particularly in their first-year undergraduate degree, find this hard to grasp. Maybe this is down to being trained to memorise facts at school, but in my opinion, university isn’t so much about the facts (which you can look up again anyway), it is about developing the ability to think independently and critically. For that you need to be able to take notes that are useful to you, and you need to be able to identify which bits of these are the most important.

So, this term I have set two of my classes the challenge to each make a visual soundbite each week reflecting on the most important thing they have learnt in that week. I explain that producing a polished visual is not that important, they could use a rough sketch, collage something or use a found image. I have seen a few of these already, and can only say that it is eye-opening what students identify as the important things they are learning. Hardly even the things I want them to take away from a lesson… So not only is this turning out to be a good exercise in focus for the students, it is also a way for me to collect feedback on what is going on in their learning process.

I’ll keep you posted!

Lately, I have been writing abstracts again. Maybe it’s the time of year – the term is starting, leaves colour, and call-for-papers for conferences end up in my inbox. What I have noticed is that this time round I seem to have picked up a different understanding of the relationship between studio-practice and academic practice. In order to tell you more about this, I probably need to first tell you how I got there:

One of the things on my itinerary last spring (as a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I was on a sort of sabbatical) was a spring concentration at the Penland School of Crafts. For people interested in crafts this is a very special thing to do – you spend two months on campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with 24 hour workshop access and literally no outside distractions, giving you the opportunity to immerse yourself into your creative practice and just make. I had been there before, two years ago, when I took a two week class in the letterpress studio, and that had been pretty cool. To be able to come back for two months was an amazing opportunity and experience – and while it wasn’t cheap (as a non-American I didn’t qualify for the work study programme), it was an investment in myself that I am happy I made.

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

The concentration I took was called ‘Personal Cartography’, which is what attracted me. I love maps and the idea of devoting two months of my life to just concentrate on making maps and thinking about ways of documenting my environment was too good to miss.  Like probably a lot of people who teach within the creative arts, I struggle with finding the right balance between the teaching (and all that comes with it) and the time to develop my own creative practice. This class seemed like the logical extension to the work on the patchwork quilt I had been doing, which is based on mapping my learning and teaching experiences.The concentration sounded like it was custom-made for me and it came at exactly the right time (me thinking about taking a short break from teaching), so I signed up.

What was secondary for me was that this was a weaving class. Robin Johnston, our teacher, uses weaving to translate different ways she charts her own life (find out more about her work here). Most of these probably wouldn’t be considered as traditional maps, but I love the concepts and thoughtfulness of the work. And I didn’t mind to dip my toes into weaving. I didn’t really have any experience in it, we must have done very simple weavings in primary school, but I knew nothing about weaving on a big loom. However, I like learning new stuff and I figured if the weaving wasn’t to my taste I could always just find other outlets for my mapping.

Suffice it to say, I had a great two months. Sometimes it was really challenging, but at the end of the day I came home with a body of work that I am really proud of, a sort of meditation on identity. What I didn’t expect was that this experience also made me think – and understand better – the differences between studio-based practice and academic practice, between practice and theory, between demonstrating and teaching.

Ever since I started teaching I was aware that there is a difference between working in the studio and working in the lecture theatre and seminar room. Getting these two better aligned is in a way what Tactile Academia is all about. But I’m not sure I fully understood it. Don’t get me wrong, I can talk about it in detail with all the nice little references to theoretical models that the academic community likes so much (and have done exactly that at a number of conferences and in some papers). But the actual experience of it, of intensively learning a practical skill from scratch, something I clearly must have had in the past, must have faded somehow. Let’s say that having the refresher was eye-opening!


My first threading of a loom in progress.

There are things that are incredibly hard to learn out of a book, but quite easy to pick up if somebody actually shows you. Case in point: For this course Robin had recommended Deborah Chandler’s book Learning to Weave, which as a complete swat serious student, I of course bought and started to read before flying over to the States. This is an excellent introductory book with lots of pictures in it – which I now know with hindsight. Initially most of the information in it was baffling to somebody who didn’t have access to a loom. Turns out that threading a loom is a mind-blowing concept for somebody with no real reference material. Getting an actual demonstration on how to thread a loom, on the other hand, makes this manageable. Putting it into practice yourself makes it easy (yes, you have to pay attention that threads aren’t crossed, and count heddles, but if you put the practice in, it gets easier – and faster – pretty quickly). So weaving, as a practical skill, I learned through demonstrations and practice. And a funny thing happens: once you have acquired the basics, the books make sense. After a few weeks of practice (practice as both a verb and a noun), I was able to understand the Chandler book that had confused me so terribly at the beginning. I also was able to learn how to do double-weave from a book with only a few questions for Robin.

Picking up the ‘personal cartography’ bit of the course was much harder. It’s a much more abstract concept. I think the difference was that while the weaving was demonstrated, the personal cartography was taught. For this we had readings on different practitioners, reference materials, sketchbook exercises, but overall this was much more loose, requiring analysis and independent study. Now you might remember me saying that this, and not the weaving, was my main reason for being there. It was scary how easy it was for me to get distracted by the call of the loom. This magical process that I could literally see I was getting better at with every inch I finished. Of course throwing a shuttle back and forth can become a meditative process pretty quickly, too, and that might have been part of the appeal. But overall, I think I realised that there is something basically almost immediately satisfying about skills that are taught by being demonstrated.

Is this one of the differences between studio practice and academic practice? Essay writing, a part of academic practice, can’t really be demonstrated in the way initial stages of studio practice can. I cannot immediately show the students what is going on in my head when I research and write. I can try to tell them – and I do. I can try to break this down into steps and give them these steps as tasks – which I do. I can show them different stages of drafts – which I do, but we rarely have time to explore these in detail. But this is more teaching by prompt rather than teaching by demonstration. Once they acquire the basics, it becomes a matter of practice. Then advice will make much more sense, just like the weaving book suddenly made sense to me. But getting there by prompt is harder than getting there by demonstration, I believe. And this might be doubly hard if they at the same time are learning skills by demonstration – the skills based in the studio, what they “came to university for” (a distinction I often hear from students trying to defend why they didn’t do the writing tasks I set them), the skills that are much more immediate and – dare I say it – fun.

I think that after my learning to weave experience I now understand the ‘call from the studio’ better. In a way it affirms my thinking that breaking down the first stages of academic practice into aspects that can be visualised or experienced somehow is a good way. Maybe this understanding can help with utilising demonstrating techniques in the seminar room.


from Sue Challis


These notes are from initial research explorations of the value of collage both as an aid to problem-solving and as an extension to thinking and learning. They are also part of my unpublished PhD thesis (Maximising impact: connecting creativity, participation and impact in the qualitative evaluation of creative community projects: Coventry University, School of Geography, Environment and Disaster Management 2014).

I became interested in the potential for collage to become part of formative or summative evaluations following my attendance at a Higher Education Academy workshop on collage (Thinking Through Writing and Making, HEA Workshop, Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent, 29 March 2012) when I experienced collage as a problem-solving technique, and through continuing contact with Alke Groppel-Wegener through the Tactile Academia blog, which explores the value of creativity as an aid to academic writing and thinking.

These brief exercises came from the need to formulate recommendations about evaluation strategies which would be feasible for small to medium-sized community projects in less formal or skilled contexts than my own research field trials. I was interested not only in the value of collage but also in the degree to which the method would engage participants outside of a group or creative project context. Participants were asked to complete a problem-solving collage at home and in an academic lecture. I have also included the collage activity which I took part in which prompted my interest in the technique as a research method. Although these are by no means formal research interventions and thus results are only indicative, they are recorded here to suggest the value of further research into the relationship of resistance or willingness to engage with creative techniques to other factors. These might include the type of activities, technologies and materials, the type of participants, and the contexts and skills of implementation. The examples below also suggest that willingness to engage with creative activity and its impact are related to prior experiences and self-narrratives.


Example 1 Collage as an aid to problem-solving

(six adult volunteers, examples from two feedbacks)
I asked six adult volunteers, chosen arbitrarily from my own neighbours and friends but excluding arts professionals, to ‘think of a seemingly intractable problem, work-related or personal, and make a collage while you are thinking about it’. I gave or posted them bags of very similar and random materials (images, text, textiles, stationery) to work on in their own time. For some participants, the task seemed very daunting and slightly odd. Two people returned the bag, both saying that they felt , ‘too un-artistic’ to attempt it by themselves. Four people made collages. I asked them to tell me or write a short account of the process, commenting on how they felt when doing it and what impact it had on their thinking or problem-solving. Figures 1 and 2 are examples of two collages; their makers’ comments follow; and Figure 3 is an example of my own work, made at a Higher Education Academy workshop on collage (Exploring Layers of Meaning, HEA Workshop, University of Chester, Chester, 26 March 2012).

Figure 1 Problem-solving collage (A4 size) Participant 1, adult female)

Figure 1 Problem-solving collage (A4 size)
(Participant 1, adult female)

Text 1

Comments on problem solving collage Figure 1 (above). Participant 1, adult, female.

Extract from email from participant 8.8.13, 22:23

“Subject: Re: Collage”

“The collage was about the assessment of the mental health of a teenager who is extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation. She has been groomed/ lured by a paedophile ring and given drugs. She takes many drugs. She frequently threatens suicide. She is very verbally abusive to those who try to care for her because of her abuse in her own family of origin. The collage also deals with the response of organisations surrounding the girl and the difficulties in their relationships with each other. The hanged figure represents both the girl and another worker caught up on the turmoil surrounding her. The orange jagged line represents the panic. The Arabic script triangles/ shards represent the impossibility of putting our concern/ her situation/ our situation into meaningful language. The heads represent workers minds making different sense of her experience and our response to her experience. The blank spaces in the heads represent divided minds and the unknown of our own minds hidden from ourselves and from each other.

“Doing the collage helped me stand back from the situation and look at it differently. I had felt overwhelmed by the situation and by my feelings. The collage helped me feel more analytic. It also helped me see parallels between the girl and the worker, both of whom stir up my pity and also my frustration.

“As you know, I hung onto the collage bag for a long time before I felt I had a problem or could see how the collage might help. I was so challenged by this incident at work, which seemed impossible to resolve, that I thought I might as well do it, with no expectation of it working! The pictures and text which had meant nothing before I started to think about the issue seemed to become very relevant when I began to use them for the collage.

PS you know I can bullshit at length!”

Figure 2 Problem-solving collage (A3 size) (Participant, adult male)

Figure 2 Problem-solving collage (A3 size)
(Participant, adult male)

Text 2 Comments on problem solving collage Figure 2, Participant 2, adult, male;

Extracts from researcher’s notes of informal interview 17.11.13

Researcher (R): How did you feel about the collage before you started it ?
Participant (P): I was reluctant to do this – I was ready to email you and say I wasn’t going to do it, then your reminder came…I don’t really have any problems to solve…I felt that it was a waste of time. I didn’t like the blank page of it, the open-endedness of it…I’m a non-arty person. I am not a person who does collage.
R: But you did do it in the end ?
P: Yes, the only way I could do it was, I put on some choral music which I like, I do listen to music sometimes but most of the time I am doing something purposeful…I had to have something else in my head to get going on it or it would seem like a waste of half an hour.

R: Can you describe your collage?
P: I chose the maps because I like maps and I made a river there, and the string follows the route because that’s how I measure my route on a map anyway…, the dots and maps had a meaning for me, I made the dots into arrows and each arrow gets bigger – that’s me deciding on a line, choosing a direction to go in in life and discarding the things that didn’t have meaning for me…

R: What interested you most about doing the collage?
P: Well… as I was, as I was trying to do it I found myself interested in the way I was selecting things, how I discard some things, like, I am someone who tries, and I try to persuade other people to do this too, to move on, to select a way forward and put the other possibilities, which we have decided not to do, onto one side, to discard them and move on. …So when I started this I realised that it was more about the process of how I solve problems than a particular problem, I discard the irrelevant stuff more than other people I think, then I don’t worry about it. It was like acting out something about myself. I had to decide, select what side of the paper I would keep and which bit discard or hide, it was all about selection…This became pleasurable when I had some idea of where I was going with it…
R: What are these two piles?
P: Well I , these are the things I didn’t want – the discard piles – I stuck them there, it’s only stuff I didn’t want, it might be important to someone else…As I was getting into it…I did start to enjoy doing it… I was thinking about myself, about getting somewhere, solving problems. I saw the solving problem part was about discarding what you don’t need and assembling a way forward, only in the abstract, honing down and selecting to get somewhere. I feel strong, it’s something that works for me… so I was mirroring what I do. When I got the idea of the map or journey I really did enjoy it.
R: Most people throw away the discards. You have stuck them on the collage. Was there a reason for that ?
P: Well, it’s…I suppose it’s because it’s not foolproof…the process of deciding to keep the discards… they are worth keeping, that’s my readiness to admit I’m wrong or go back and look at things again, other options. I think I’m visualising something, the process of keeping the discard, something about myself I hadn’t put into words really before…


Example 2 Collage as an aid to problem-solving (researcher’s own activity)
During the second year of my research I attended a Higher Education Academy workshop on collage (Writing in Creative Practice: Exploring Layers of Meaning, HEA Workshop, University of Chester, 26 March 2013) and made a collage myself which was a significant help in solving my own problem of making the transition from community arts practitioner to academic writer. This extract from a journal article written at the time (and subsequently incorporated into reflections in the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice) sums up the value of the collage to me, particularly the process of selection from random materials. As Butler-Kisber says: “Novel juxtapositions and/or connections, and gaps or spaces, can reveal both the intended and the unintended” (Butler-Kisber 2008: 269):

Figure 3 Problem-solving collage (researcher - artist, adult female)

Figure 3 Problem-solving collage
(researcher – artist, adult female)

“I made a 3D collage bag (Fig 3) about my problems with academic writing. A phrase from the provided text sprang at me: ‘… that idea kept back …’ (I think from a Conrad story), and leafing through the collage materials I chanced upon a map showing the house I was born in: as the Quakers say, these two finds ‘spoke to my condition’, helped me understand my reluctance to commit to a genre of writing that seemed to obliterate me and strengthened my resolve to understand how writing might become both academic and creative.

“Specifically, to see the relevance of the …[creative]…process to the wider debate about academic writing and creativity, and, more urgently, to the tensions I embodied trying to understand where my own creativity sat in (what are for me) the arduous and sometimes opaque protocols of academic discourse. Although I had long been familiar with John Wood’s ‘Critique of the Culture of Academic Rigour’ (2000), encountering the Writing PAD project through a ‘hands on’ HEA seminar was the trigger for this: it gave me permission to regard my own creative activity as a way of knowing”.
Challis, S (2013: 189-190)
Example 3 Collage as a means to extend thinking time

(65 undergraduate, third-year Geography students, 15 Youth and Community Work students, Coventry University 2012 and 2013)

At the start of two, two-hour lectures entitled ‘Visual and creative research methodologies’ I gave each Geography student an envelope containing a similar range of collage materials (text, images, fabric, paper, scissors, glue) and explained that the intention was to explore the idea that concentrating on making a collage whilst listening to complex new ideas would support understanding (Butler-Kisber 2008).This activity was drawn from my own experience at the HEA workshop described above. While they worked in silence on their individual collage books (folded paper) I gave a lecture about a range of visual and creative methods, using digital slides, occasionally asking them to ‘look up now’. At the end of the session we discussed their experience and at the start of the second session (a week later) had a brief group discussion reflecting on its impact. I made notes from this discussion but there was no further follow-up as it was the last session of term in each case. This was by no means a satisfactory research exercise, having no means to measure changes in concentration or learning. However, as an activity suggestive of further research, I have included it here for its relevance to issues of resistance to and acceptance of creative methods, rather than the light it sheds on collage as an aid to thinking. Further research might include a questionnaire reflecting on self-reported change and feedback from other lecturers.

For Youth and Community Work students I was restricted to one two-hour session which was less formal (for example, sitting in a circle rather than in a lecture theatre). I introduced the session as above, but invited students to select collage material from a wide range laid out on a table. Students made collage books while I gave a presentation about visual and creative methodologies. The making was followed by a group discussion and some people shared their books.


Figure 4 Collage made referring to content of lecture (A4 folded paper) (Geography student, male)

Figure 4 Collage made referring to content of lecture (A4 folded paper)
(Participant, geography student, male)

Text 3 Researcher’s observations from notes made after each Geography student session

(two sets of two, two-hours teaching sessions, with collage in first session of each set; November 2012, November 2013):

Some students made work clearly referring to the lecture content (Figure 4 ); these sometimes used text or phrases from the lecture or commented on it. For example, one male student made an image of his children learning “arts as well as sciences: I want them to have both to be whole people, not like me I just did sciences”, rather wistfully adding, “I haven’t got any children yet” (Researcher notes from group discussion). Others made collages clearly relating to feelings . A male student made a page, (Figure 5 ), with fierce concentration while listening to a video clip of a woman describing her experience of domestic violence. He commented: “I was feeling strong feelings while I was listening, it was quite upsetting really. I wasn’t really thinking about the drawing”. My interpretation of the drawing was that it reflected his turbulent feelings through colour and markmaking, and intensity through strength of physical gesture (pressure on page and over drawing). As such, it might offer a useful prompt to further discussion or thinking. In both classes a student stapled his finished book together and said that it was ‘private’. This could suggest that personal feelings had been expressed (although these may simply have been critical of the process or ‘rude’).

Figure 5 Made whilst listening to video clip about domestic violence (A5) (Geography student, male)

Figure 5 Made whilst listening to video clip about domestic violence (A5)
(Participant, geography student, male)

Mixed gender groups (marginally more female). In each group all but three students participated (five male, one female). There were varying degrees of willingness to take part. In the final discussions several students (about 5/35) said they found the process “useless”, “a distraction” or “pointless”; a similar number said it was “interesting”, “enjoyable” and they could “see the point”. In each session five people were willing to ‘share’, that is, show and talk about, their own collage, usually describing what it represented to them and how they felt making it. The people who shared made broadly positive comments about the activity (for example, that they ’enjoyed’ it). Six students (three in each group) said they felt that the activity had improved their concentration. In both groups several students said that they had been repeatedly told off in school for persistently doodling during lessons. They related doodling to a way of improving their concentration and ‘enjoyed’ the collage activity.
There was no way of telling if this activity did improve concentration, although the self-report of a small number of students might suggest so in some cases. However, as a ‘pilot’ for the method with a large group, including many adult males (missing from most of my previous research which was mainly with teenage boys and adult women) it was indicative: My informal observations suggested that more female students found it easier to attempt and to enjoy the activity, but I cannot be sure this was true without further research. More male students voiced their reluctance, but there could be many reasons for this. Resistance to participation was linked in discussion either to lack of commitment to qualitative methods (many of the students were using exclusively quantitative methods in their own research and had not used qualitative methods before), or to reluctance to do an arts-based activity because of lack of skill or experience. Where there was reluctance, I did not feel that it was the ‘open-endedness’ per se which was a barrier, rather a lack of belief in the usefulness of the method generally, or for themselves in particular.

Figure 6 Collage made expressing personal feelings (A5) (Youth Work student, female)

Figure 6 Collage made expressing personal feelings (A5)
(Participant, youth work student, female)

The Youth and Community Work students (also mixed gender, mainly female) were generally more receptive to the collage making, and many of them in discussion could relate it to activities they might carry out in their own professional practice and qualitative research. They saw it much more as a prompt for discussion than an aid to concentration than the Geography students, although several did relate it to doodling as means of concentrating, and most said they ’enjoyed’ the activity. All students in this group shared their collage in the discussion: one student who had stapled his closed, explained this as an expression of specific feelings relating to self-disclosure rather than the activity. Several students in this group made collages about personal feelings unrelated to the lecture (Figure 6). On the whole, I felt that there was less resistance to the activity in this group; but again, this informal interpretation suggests a number of more specific lines of enquiry, about prior experience, current skills, gender, age, ethnicity and so on.

Tentative conclusions indicative of need for further research

In the first problem-solving collage activity, Example 1, participants expressed reluctance to participate connected with not regarding themselves as ‘artistic’ or being convinced about the method. I also think that a self-consciousness about participating in a ‘soft’, reflective activity underlies the comment in Text 1, ‘I can bullshit at length’.

In all cases, the extent to which participants identify themselves as ‘arty’ impacts on willingness to engage (‘I am not a person who does collage’ Text 2); as does prior experience of qualitative research methods. Gauntlett suggests that willingness to engage with creative activity and its impact are related to prior experiences and self-narrratives (Gauntlett 2011). There are perhaps a whole raft of other contingent and structural factors related both to personalities and context. These could be subject to research enquiry in a number of feasible ways.

However, I would suggest that in all the examples shown here, where there has been an engagement with the process, these impacts could be inferred from discussion and examination of the collages to be possible pathways for further research:

1. Contribution to understanding of self or problem solving not available by other means (Texts 1-3)
2. Expression of feelings in a different (not verbalised) way (Figures 5 and 6)
3. Figure 4 also suggests that collage is not necessarily a distraction from new learning. Combined with the comments in Text 2, I relate this to the physical process of selecting and discarding, combining and juxtaposing, in other words, to the embodied enactment of thinking.

Sue Challis

Butler-Kisber, L (2010) Qualitative Inquiry: thematic, narrative and Arts-Informed Perspectives London, Sage
Challis (2013) Sketchbook Postal Exchange Journal of Writing in Creative Practice Vol 6 No 2 London, Intellect

Gauntlett, D (2011) Making is Connecting :the social meaning of creativity from DIY to knitting and YouTube to Web 2.0 Cambridge, Polity Press

The Writing in Creative Practice: Writing and the Object workshop was held at Middlesex University on 13 June 2013. It was a very full day – full with delegates, speakers and, above all, ideas. (You can find the official schedule here). Here are my initial impressions… (so far only my photos, more to follow soon)

Peter Thomas, who had organised the whole day on the Middlesex side, started us of with putting the day into a larger context, talking about the tension between the object representing tacit understanding and the writing, which records explicit knowledge. This is something that is very close to my understanding of the relationship between the word and object as well (as can be seen in The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice), and I particularly liked Peter’s notion of the tension, which visually could also be read as interference in a way, which is somewhat ironic, because what the object particularly can give to writing is the focus and relevance that is so often lacking in student writing.

I then took over from Peter, introducing Sarah Williamson’s reflective book making activity (yes, by presenting everybody with a long paper strip, ready to be filled with collage/drawing or whatever else people felt like), giving a tiny little bit of background and particularly flagging up David Gauntlett’s notion of the ‘longer stretch of thoughtfulness’ (2010) that making brings. I then gave a brief overview of how I use objects in my teaching, particularly how interviewing an object can become a non-threatening precursor to an academic investigation (framed as an article) – because the genre of interview is less scary to students than the academic essay, because they are familiar with the former. I then put the two starting points – of using objects and making objects – together in the discussion of the 2D Challenge – making a sample copy of a magazine/newspaper based on the question ‘What would me work be like if it was a newspaper/magazine?’

Following this, Grace Lees-Maffei gave an overview of the different perspectives from which the relationship between words and objects are approached in Writing Design: Words and Objects, a book she has edited recently. What particularly stuck with me was the notion of triangulation – we need to approach objects from different angles, because really they “defy all attempts to define them in language”.  I was thinking how looking at objects can become a great illustration of the concept of triangulation within academic research through using different perspectives/shots of the same object (maybe a future tactile academia booklet?). I also liked her talking about omission, how it can be revealing to look for what is not written about.

Luke White talked about the sense in which objects can be seen (or can become?) ‘haunted’ after Derrida’s Hauntology, framed through his own encounter with Hirst’s shark. This really opened thoughts of the real and unreal – can we really attempt to talk about an object’s ‘truth’, or is what we are talking about ALWAYS an interpretation? Does objectivity exist at all, or is it always – or sometimes? – more akin to reflexivity? Does Design Writing take possession of the objects that are its subject?

Pauline Sumner took over and talked about her work in dyslexia support. She started with a brief overview of how dyslexia connects with related learning difficulties and some facts, for example that why it has been shown that 3D visual information processing skills are better in dyslexic men, this has not been found to be the case for women… I found particularly interesting the system she described of colour coding and chunking text – breaking up text that needs to be produced for a whole essay into manageable chunks and colour code them in a reverse traffic light system (the introduction in green, the main body in sections of various colours and the conclusion in red).

And this was all before lunch! Over lunch I had a really interesting discussion with some delegates about the use of the reflective bookmaking as note taking, which seemed to be a big hit. (In fact this came up a fair few times in the feedback: “Absolutely LOVED the new method of taking notes and found I was able to focus on my own responses to the presentations in an entirely new way.” “Lots of memory triggers now to reconnect me to my thoughts today and take back into my practice.” “Didn’t think collage and listening would be so compatible.”)

After lunch, Peter and Ossie Parker told us about their interventions on an animation course, where they use a generative writing cycle of free-writing, reviewing for pathways, freewriting on the pathways, reviewing for a short presentation to facilitate an inner dialogue in students, basically scaffolding the developing and editing of ideas in preparation for a 15 second stop-motion animation.

Then Tony Side told us about how a writing portfolio (also as a designed object reflecting the content) has replaced the traditional dissertation on an Interior Design/Architecture course – and how this is supported/scaffolded through writing workshops including object/image analysis and site-writing to name but a few.

The last session by Peter, Emma Dick, Richard Lumb and Marion Syratt Barnes started by letting us experience how they link objects from their collections (the Museum of Domestic Architecture and the Library Special Collections) to student research, exploration and writing. They refer to a method of material artefact analysis described by Valerie Steele in ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than A Clothes Bag’ (1998), which goes through the steps of Description, Deduction and Speculation. Again one of the threads running through this approach (as in the approach to the Animation Project mentioned above) was making it clear to the students that there is a space in the process of generating writing that is (and should be) private – when you are still figuring out what you want to say.

We ended the day with Stewart Martin responding to the themes and issues that had been raised. I particularly liked his thought that both creative practice and academic writing are (or should be?) about the creation of something new… a novel contribution. Questions that came out of the following discussion were: “Should writing be considered as an independent field?”, “should we throw out the notion of ‘academic writing’ and just focus on writing?” and the idea of the “artefact of text”.

While there may have not been any answers, I found it a very stimulating day that has given me a lot to think about.

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!

if walking alone
I am lonely it is both
a place and a path
        Thomas A. Clark

This was the haiku I found on my bag at todays writing in creative practice workshop at the University of the West of Scotland in Ayr. I will blog about the actual event – including why there were haikus on the bags – in a few days when I’m back at my computer, but these few lines made me think about the nature of this growing network… while it may sometimes feel like each of us is walking alone in the teaching and support we are providing in our respective posts at our respective universities, getting together for days like this, meeting in a place, allows us to share a path. And maybe even point out shortcuts (or detours) to each other.
Today new friends were made, the network got a bit bigger and the path might become a bit more travelled.

National Centre for Research Methods (Uni Soton) are holding a conference at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University 2-5 July

Thought some of you might be interested, I’ll be attending on Wednesday when visual methods will be discussed in various ways throughout the day….can’t pass up an opportunity to hear Gillian Rose speak as Key Note!

Elizabeth, Uni Chester