Archive

Tag Archives: academic writing

Dear all,

I’m glad to announce that I have finished the workbook for students I have been talking about for years and that after the ‘test’ copies produced as part of last year’s Kickstarter campaign, an extended version of  “Writing Essays by Pictures: A Workbook” (ISBN 9780957665224) is now in print… just in time for all those lovely new first years arriving at Uni!

This is very much a development of the work I have been doing for the last few years, much of it chronicled on this blog, and it uses visual analogies to lead students through the process of writing essays at University. Find out more about its origins on the dedicated page here. Mainly designed for students to work through on their own, it could also be used in led workshops and is full of creative and visual ideas for teaching information and academic skills. It is priced at a level that hopefully many students will be able to afford to buy themselves, and I hope that some of you might add it to your reading lists to help students transition to writing at undergraduate level.

Available from all normal book suppliers from this week, list price £15, currently £12.99 on Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0957665229) or just £10 direct from the publisher (http://innovativelibraries.org.uk/press/thebooks/).

I am currently working with both the Writing PAD network and my fabulous publisher to organise some workshops for staff who want some more ideas how to use the material within in their teaching, which I will of course announce here once we have settled on dates.
Best wishes,

Alke

Advertisements

As you will know if you are following this blog, last year I put together my own version of a guide to writing research essays (see Writing by Pictures), which I am currently revising for a proper release. Caught up in the excitement of this project, I don’t think I have ever really talked about WHY I thought it was important to do so. Yes, I wanted to collect the analogies and activities I do with my students in one place, but in a way this came out of a much larger context, which I am trying to tackle at the moment. I recently presented my initial thoughts at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference as well as the Writing PAD East Midlands Forum and thought I would sketch it out here, too, in case you are interested, but couldn’t make it to either of these meet-ups.

In my work my main challenge is to engage art and design students with academic research and writing. We are using a Writing in the Disciplines Approach, so these students are not doing something like Composition 101 with other subjects, as they might be doing as part of a liberal arts college in the US, for example, but rather they are in the cohorts that they spend most of their time with, which are very subject focused. I have some sessions with them in their first year (most of them in the first term), and I believe I give them the skills to research and write a pretty decent basic essay. Most of these students, however, I don’t see again after these encounters – other colleagues are taking over their contextual studies education. One class, however, I do see again in the second and also in their third (and final) year, and I noticed that they urgently need a refresher in all these skills. Of course the main issue here might be that they don’t have to write enough research papers to internalise these skills as part of an academic practice, but that is probably a different discussion (and also something that ultimately I probably won’t be able to change…). Anyway, so I was wondering whether there is an appropriate resource out there to teach or remind them of how to write an essay. And there are some very good books on this, but I could only find TEXTbooks, in the sense that they are predominantly made up of text. Occasionally you’ll find the odd diagram or cartoon, but most of them are very much text based.

This got me thinking about the textbook as a genre, and I came up with three pillars upon which the development of the textbooks that we know, use and, yes, also write are based on:

  • An assumption that knowledge can (and needs to be) expressed in words (both spoken or written, but really better written) in order to be counted as ‘proper’ academic knowledge.
  • The transmission model of education, which assumes that there is fixed knowledge that needs to be transmitted to the students, filling them up with it.
  • And, maybe slightly overlooked in academic discussions on learning strategies and resources, the simple fact that when the textbook genre developed, printing technology had become very good at printing words (removable type and all that), but until fairly recently was very expensive when it came to reproducing quality images in large numbers.

Since this happened, however, a lot of development has taken place that has challenged all this. I would argue that while writing is still seen as a very good way to share insight, it is not considered the only way to develop your thinking. There has, for example, been a noted rise in the popularity of taking notes in non-written ways, which has come to the fore recently particularly through very popular publications in the business/management sector. Dan Roam argues in his Back of the Napkin series (my favourite is Blah Blah Blah, 2011) that words don’t work in some contexts, that drawing doesn’t mean you are ‘dumb’ but rather that we need ‘vivid‘ thinking, the visual and verbal working interdependently (Roam, 2011). Sunni Brown makes very similar points in her book The Doodle Revolution (2014), where she questions the usefulness of copiously written notes, that don’t really question the noted or put it into a personal context. Mike Rohde has developed the same problem into ‘sketchnoting’, which he states developed out of frustration with purely written notes (2013). Now, none of these people write for an academic context, but the success of their publications makes clear that the way to develop your thinking (which I would argue is actually quite crucial in an academic context) goes beyond the written word. While these books aren’t academic textbooks, they challenge the ‘three pillars of the textbook genre’, however, they are still pretty close to the familiar format of lots of text.

So I was wondering, are there any examples out there that go beyond this and that are aimed at an academic audience?

Design Fundamentals by Gonnella, et al

Design Fundamentals

Rose Gonnella, Christopher J Navetta and (illustrator) Max Friedman have put together a series of books on Design Fundamentals (2013, 2014, 2015), and I would say that the contents of these books are very close to textbooks, but the presentation is very colourful and visual. The idea behind these books is that these are the notes your friend might give you if you have missed class. They include summaries and exercises of sessions, seemingly taped in, as well as the most important facts of the subject matter at hand.

The Good, the Bad and the Data

The Good, the Bad and the Data

The Good, the Bad and the Data (2013) is the second of Sally Campbell Galman’s Shane the Lone Ethnographer’s Guides. These are set out like comic books, with very simple black and white line drawings. They use the narrative device of Shane, the heroine, becoming the clueless student, asking all the questions we might ask about ethnography, and allowing us to go on a journey of learning with her.

Syllabus

Syllabus

Syllabus, Notes from an Accidental Professor (2014), by Linda Barry also has traces of a comic book in it, but then it is about a class for comic book students written and drawn by a comic book artist. This book has a very eclectic feel, simulating a yellow paper composition book popular in the US, and consisting of seemingly collaged together notes Barry made throughout her first few years of teaching a new course.

Unflattening

Unflattening

Unflattening (2015) is Nick Sousanis’ PhD thesis that was conceived in form of a graphic novel. It is a fascinating document that is a commentary on current educational practices, using the format of the graphic novel to make some very complex points in an incredibly elegant way.

While they are very different, and all of them have advantages and disadvantages, I think these four examples demonstrate that it is possible to redraw the textbook. While they all include linguistic knowledge, this is complemented – not just illustrated – by images more akin to a symbiosis. They are more inclusive in that they cast the reader in a role that makes you work for it – these are texts that need to be actively read in order to make sense of them, thus transcending the transmission model of education. They also use the current possibilities in printing, until quite recently none of them would have been able to be produced to this quality for a mass market.

A similar treatment might not be suitable for every subject discipline, but these examples show a way to open up the genre of the academic textbook and encourage us to redraw its rigid templates in order to allow our students to learn more effectively.

Do you know of any examples that should be included here?

Yesterday I went on a little daytrip up to Glasgow. This was a fairly short notice affair after I had spotted a seminar intriguingly titled ‘Troubling the Academic Thesis – An Artist Teacher Public Seminar’ via Twitter. It promised the perspectives of Dr Chris Dooks, whose doctoral work included sound presented on three vinyl records, including sleeve notes with an essay on one side and story-board like image sequences on the other – find out more at his Idioholism website -, and Dr Nick Sousanis, whose thesis was developed and presented as the comic book/graphic novel Unflattening (Nick skyped in from Calgary). It was a really interesting conversation organised by colleagues from the University of the West of Scotland, which provided a lot of food for thought.

Maybe my favourite bit was a quote that Chris shared with us from Knowledge in Policy, a book by Richard Freeman and Steve Sturdy. In the Introduction they write:

Drawing a simple analogy with the three phases of matter – solid, liquid and gas, we argue that knowledge too exists in three phases, which we charaterise as embodied, inscribed and enacted. Furthermore, just as matter may pass from one phase to another, so too can knowledge be transfromed, through various kinds of action, between phases. (Freemand and Sturdy, 2014: 1)

This is surely to become one of the quotes I use all the time when talking about my teaching practice and Tactile Academia. I don’t know whether I agree with the three phases of knowledge they point out (I’m planning to read the book soon to find out), but what I really like about it is that it emphasises the idea, no the necessity, of transformation within knowledge and knowledge making. This is something that came up over the course of the seminar again and again (or maybe it is just something that I picked up on particularly because for me another PhD was in the mix, I am currently reading Stephanie Black’s PhD thesis on Illustration as a form of practice-led research, which highlights similar issues).

So, there is the process of doing research (in this case doctoral study of some kind), and then there is the finished product that is presented. Within the creative practices there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the academically written thesis should be a required product. I think there is a lot of insecurity about writing in particularly and there seem to be some insecurities as to whether one is (or maybe even we all are) ‘good’ enough to claim our place in the academy (whatever that might be). Very often it seems to me that writing in this case is cast as the obstacle – and usually here writing seems to mean putting together an academically written exegesis, ignoring the potential of writing as a process.

This made me think back to my own PhD thesis, which was a straight academic thesis based on some action research done through teaching, so one could argue it was practice-based, but you couldn’t really call it based on creative practice. One of the things this explored was the importance of writing for designers (and design students). While I was writing this I was concerned by a movement that seemed to try to almost get rid of writing within art and design disciplines, putting forward the photo essay and dissertation. I was concerned by this because the process of writing is incredibly useful in order to develop your thinking – as is the process of sketching (as Nick showed by sharing some of the development work of his comic not just with us at the seminar, but also in the notes/appendix section in the published book) and making other work (as Chris talked about). At one point Chris stated that a lot of the words that he wrote didn’t make it into his thesis (he decided to write a thesis to go alongside the work). I was thinking: “well, of course not!” I bet not all of the things he produced as part of his practical exploration made it onto his LPs either. This is the process, the knowledge going through the different phases – only a fraction ends up in the product to be presented. I’m a big fan of the concept of regenring (as explored by Dr Fiona English and mentioned elsewhere on this blog), and I think that works so successfully because it changes the phases of knowledge – but also because it is a process that generates more work, work that will not necessarily end up in a final piece.

So maybe the problem here is this weird ambiguity that seems part and parcel of traditional (Western?) educational systems: there is the learning that is all about the process on the one hand and then there is the ‘thing’ that gets presented and evaluated. At times these seem so apart that they could almost be called a dichotomy. Which is tragic, really.

So maybe we should try to put the process of research first and the ‘product’ (i.e. the physical outcome) last. Because the latter should develop out of the former. Don’t worry about finding an innovative or alternative way of presenting your research, find the most appropriate way of presenting the outcomes of your research. That might be through academic writing, or it might be something else. But on the way there, explore the different phases of knowledge (and here writing can be your friend!) and then see in what phase it seems to want to stay. I would argue that is what both Chris and Nick did.

As you might know, I am currently putting together a workbook for students that collects some of the visual analogies I have been using in my teaching. I have been getting some questions about what is meant by ‘visual analogies’ and how that would translate into a book on academic writing as part of my Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print some copies (and until the 7th May 2015 you can support this by pledging for your very own copy here). So in order to give people a better idea, here is the introduction (I will add a picture of my layout soon):

Here’s the trouble with writing academic essays at degree level: if you haven’t been to university before, you probably haven’t done it before. You will have written all sorts of things:

  • emails,
  • letters,
  • short stories,
  • social media up-dates,
  • blog posts,
  • txts,
  • reports
  • and much much more.

You might even have written essays, but if you haven’t been to uni before, you probably haven’t been writing the sort of essays that university lecturers are looking for. This might be a problem, because when they say ‘essay’ you hear ‘essay’ – but you are both talking about different things. Because quite a lot of what makes up an academic essay is specifically academic practice – using research to rigorously back up your argument, including evidence to back up your points – and even writing it to a specific blueprint.

To make matters worse, some of this practice is ‘hidden’,- academics do it, but it has become such second nature to them that they forget how to explain that they are doing it (and/or how they are doing it).

An essay might seem like a straight line when you are reading it, but really it paints a picture for the reader, a bit like a connect the dots drawing. The further you read, the more defined it becomes, and once you are finished you can see the whole picture.

Writing an essay is a bit like planning a connect the dots drawing. Only because this is research you don’t make up the image, you first find it within the evidence you consult. That means you first have to identify lots of evidence you could use, because you have to find a lot of possible points. While you are doing that you might go round and round in circles and squiggly lines, there is no real order yet, you are exploring at this stage.

Then you go through a process of ‘curation’ – you figure out what your argument is and what points you need in order to make it. This will mean looking at all the dots you have and getting rid of the ones that don’t fit into your picture.
Now you might see that there are some holes in your argument – you might need to find some more points, by doing more research.

Once you have all the dots identified that you need to show your picture you need to order them. You want your image to slowly emerge – just like you need to build on one point after the other in your essay. For your connect the dots drawing this means replacing the individual dots with numbers. For your essay it means ordering your points and writing it up accordingly.

So you as writer (and really researcher) find the evidence, identify the argument and then present it in a way that it effortlessly appears to the reader.

All these stages that go into this planning process are hidden from the reader. But for the essay to work the writer needs to go through them. This workbook is all about getting you to understand this ‘hidden’ academic practice – in a hands-on way. It contains sections to explore these stages from a number of perspectives, in the form of visual metaphors and analogies which are designed to highlight specific, important aspects of academia. Most sections also include something for you to do. Sometimes that is something you can complete in the book itself, sometimes something to keep inside envelopes inside, and sometimes (particularly towards the end) it is something to include in your next essay draft. And yes, there should be more than one draft! Just like anything else, essay writing is something that needs to be practised. That’s why a lot of things here are for you to try out, little projects to get you working on this regularly, because the more you work on it, the better it will get.

So let’s get started…

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!

DSCI1303

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.