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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.

 

As already mentioned (and with Susan posting her experience of it recently), after the Making Writing workshop, Pat, Nancy and myself stayed on in Falmouth for a weekend writing retreat. I was especially interested in seeing whether the approach of writing warm-ups and visualisations could be combined with some focused structuring and writing activities in order to produce writing for ourselves – and the gorgeous Cornwall seemed to be just the right place! (So a thank you to Pedare and especially Caroline Cash for hosting us.)

D:DCIM100DICAMDSCI0493.JPGAlthough some of us had been there for the Friday as well, we started off with (re-)making name tags, really an excuse to see what materials were available to use. I thought it would be very important to have a sort-of ‘break out’ space with making materials in case we would be stuck in our writing endeavours and needed what Gauntlett calls the ‘longer stretch of thoughtfulness’.

Then Pat started us off with a writing warm-up to loosen up our creative juices. I then led an exercise in objective setting – thinking about where you are, want to be, what you want to work on and what the specific objective for the weekend was. I suggested using fish as a visualisation (yes, I feel the time has come where I have been working on the fishscale for too long!), but as always with these things there are no wrong ways of doing this. So when we shared what people had come hoping to achieve, we heard about the full backpack that had accumulated throughout the year and now needed to be unpacked, aired, washed and lightened; the experiences that needed to be put into an academic framework; and the reports that simply need to be written up in order to be able to close the door and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel – and many more. It became quite clear that our initial plans for structuring the weekend would be useless as attendees were at very different stages in their planning/writing, so Nancy, Pat and myself, set everybody a little task to crystalise what they were doing (mainly based around abstracts – writing one for the people who hadn’t done one yet and extending or editing it for the people who had), while we went off to formulate a new game plan.

In the end we split up the larger group into three smaller groups depending on the stages that needed to be tackled: Nancy worked with the people who were already very far in their research and mainly needed to make a decision on the audience for their writing piece(s), Pat worked with the people who were trying to fit experiences (their own and others) into an academic framework and I myself worked with the people who needed to develop a clearer focus – and that Pat’s group ended up with only people whose first name began with a P was purely coincidental!

We came together at different points over the two days to share progress and to break up the tasks – while still keeping large chunks of time in which people could work on their own pieces, either with us in one-on-ones or on their own, dotted around the campus.

It became quite clear that the humble sticky note and large wall space are some of the best tools an academic writer has at her disposal as thoughts were sketched and written, stuck and re-stuck, and linked with arrows all over the place.

D:DCIM100DICAMDSCI0526.JPG

evening in Mylor

As it is important to see writing not just as a solitary activity, but also to appreciate the social aspects, there was some shared time away from the keyboard. On Saturday night we went on a little excursion, taking the train to Falmouth and then the water taxi to Mylor where we had a lovely meal followed by delicious ice cream.

On Sunday we started with another writing warm-up, where Pat got us to draw the journey of the day before, reflecting on our progress, and then draw the shape of our writing project. This was an ideal way to think about (and share with the group) what we had achieved so far, and gave a great starting point as to focusing on goal setting for the second day. In order to explore focus, Pat also did an exercise based on the image of a brick wall (with paper that had little brick walls on it, apparently wrapping paper she had found somewhere!): we were first invited to summarise the paper we were working on in two sentences… then one… then three words… then only one. I found this an incredibly useful exercise (and very hard), which really helps you to focus (and possibly question the focus you thought you had already sorted out!). Thus prepped we were ready for our second day of intense writing, broken up only by food and a little excursion to the Seasalt outlet shop, which is but a short walk away (and really it would have been rude not to go and support the cornish economy…)

Overall it was a very enjoyable weekend. And it also seemed quite productive. while I myself didn’t get much work done on my own writing, that probably would have been too much to ask for, as I was busy facilitating, but from my chats with the others it seems like a lot of progress has been made, and I think that the mix of focused time for work and creative loosening up and sharing activities was just right. All the retreaters have been invited as authors onto this blog, so hopefully we will get to read some updates on their work in due course!

 

After our December workshops had gone down quite well, Falmouth University invited Pat and myself back to this time put together a whole day as part of the Writing in Creative Practice series – Making Writing.

We started off with making name tags in order to explore the materials available for reflective bookmaking – and I don’t think we ever had as many feathers to use before!

Pat then started us off with an extended Writing Warm-up, which we used to explore writing on different textures ending up with writing about both objects and photographs. Again, a very rich experience to loosen us up (we didn’t really need to warm up as the weather was absolutely fantastic!).

Nancy de Freitas then shared her expertise of coming to writing from a material studies background, talking about Writing and Materiality (Falmouth_workshop2) – starting us off with blue sky thinking, introducing the importance of having a working abstract when doing any sort of research project, the usefulness of questions to prompt where you are going, the utilisation of images in both abstract ‘writing’ and planning structure as well as the differences between personal and academic writing (yes, there should be one!).

What I particularly loved was her use of the image of a shed to illustrate what a working draft of a piece of writing is like – yes, it might feel cobbled together (and the shed on the image she showed us really was…), but the important thing is that it is holding together! in a way this is the point when writing goes from a solitary to a social activity – now you can show it to somebody else, because it has enough structure to make sense. And from now on it can be worked on, carefully turning the precarious shed into a house with foundations, a solid structure, a roof that doesn’t leak, maybe even a conservatory… No, she didn’t actually mention conservatories, that is just what I was thinking, she did however go on to talk about the importance of editing as a social practice, because writing should work for the ‘other person’ – the reader! (An important fact that my students often don’t seem to be aware of.)

Nancy also shared some interesting thoughts on active documentation, and how that can be used to get students to think about structure and editing.

After lunch Oliver West took over sharing with us his journey of how he developed the Footnotes project out of his own struggle with writing as a dyslexic student and then practcioner. This is based around taking notes on a simple folded grid – allowing visuals to be recorded, annotated and then reordered. And of course we got to have a go – and I saw Nancy’s shed make an appearance on not just my grid!

I ended the official program with a gallop through the visual anaolgies and metaphors I use in order to engage my students with writing and particularly academic practice. Using the ‘mini’ quilt’ developed for the recent School of Education conference as a starting point, I introduced the framing of Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle and then really briefly talked about The Land- and Seascape of Creative Practice, The Butterfly Challenge, ways of using objects, reflective bookmaking and poetic inquiry, The Dress-up Doll of Formality, visualising introduction/main body and conclusion of an essay as stages in journy planning, The Fishscale of Academicness, The Button Connection and The Winning Hand of Independence. And while I am not convinced all of them made sense with only a few sentences to explain them, I believe the gist of it came across – and I had some interesting feedback at the end of the session.

We ended with a discussion round wondering whether approaches are different for practitioners and teachers, people who see themselves as more comfortable with words rather than images – and how we can make sure to cater for different learning styles of out students.

It was a fantastic day full of interesting sharing, and some fabulous reflective books were made that will hopefully inspire things to come – and I hope that we can do it again sometime. (And then we immediately did with a Writing Retreat the following two days, about which I will blog soon!)

We have been working hard on the programme for the workshop on July 2nd – here’s a preview: (There are still some places left, if you are interested, send an email to tactileacademia[at]gmail.com)

Programme

(as this is going to be a very hands-on workshop, this might change slightly)

 

10:00 Registration and Refreshments (Make your Own Nametag icebreaker)

10:30 Welcome

10:40 Writing Creative Practice / Material Thinking: towards academic publication.

            (Introductory lecture: Nancy de Freitas)

11:40 Small group work part 1 – see ‘what to expect’ below.

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Genre and Academic Writing

            (Alke Groppel-Wegener)

14:45 Small group work part 2 – see ‘what to expect’ below.

15:30 Refreshments

15:45 Reporting back – see ‘what to expect’ below.

16:30 Summarising – see ‘what to expect’ below.

17:00 end

 

 

What to expect

 

·         A lecture: to orient the session.

 

·         Handouts: will be circulated at the workshop.

 

·         Provocations: will be set for individual and small group work – tone of voice, audience, and shape.

 

·         Small group work part 1: writing plans – structure/schema; writing abstracts with clarity and keywords.

 

·         Small group work part 2: clarity of concept; image text intersections; concluding and making sense; fearless editing.

 

·         Collegial critique: for personal growth and improvement.

 

·         Role models: finding one.

 

·         Reviewer perspective: sitting on the other side.

 

·         Reporting back: group plenary discussion for sharing insights.

 

·         Summarising: feedback session to take stock of what we need to do better.

 

 

 

 

What to bring

 

1.             Bring your own laptop or iPad, etc. if possible.

 

2.             Bring one of the following:

 

·         An example of recent writing

·         A full draft of a research paper in progress

·         One completed draft of a previously published paper

·         A title/idea for a new piece of research writing – a potential paper you are thinking about.

 

Hope to see you there!

dsc_ 78On 2nd July 2013, Staffordshire University will be hosting another one-day workshop in the Writing in Creative Practice series. Since starting this series, which developed out of the work of the Writing-PAD network and has been supported by the Higher Education Academy, we have mostly shared best practice and allowed some space for exploration to link to engaging our students in writing for Higher Education in the creative disciplines. To find out more about what we have been doing, explore this blog, particularly the ‘workshop’ category.

This up-coming workshop will focus not on students’ but on our writing, and how we can turn it into writing for academic publication. Therefore it is aimed at members of staff who want to publish in this very specific context for the first time (or just more); it would also be suitable for post-graduate students within art, media and design.

dsc_ 309Nancy de Freitas, Associate Professor at AUT University, New Zealand and Editor-In-Chief of Studies in Material Thinking, will share her expertise of writing in the context of material thinking practices, introducing workshop participants to methods and insights on good structure, clear writing and elegant style when talking about research, processes, images, objects and spaces. There might also be the opportunity to discuss the genre of academic writing – and review this as currency within the creative, studio-based disciplines. This day is meant as a day of starting points, sharing tips to get (academic) writing projects on the go. It would be helpful if participants come with a particular writing project in mind.

The attendance of this workshop is free of charge to all those interested in the workshop topic, with preference being given to staff working in HE institutions and HE in FE colleges from across the UK. Places will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. Lunch and refreshments will be provided, but travel expenses will not be covered.

For more information or to book a place, please get in touch with Alke Groppel-Wegener (tactileacademia[at]gmail.com).

And, if you are interested in following this up with a more immersive experience where you can actually get some writing done, check out the related Pedare Weekend Writing Retreat  at Falmouth University.