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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I have finished the ‘virtual’ patchworking and am working on fabric now – thanks to the lovely technicians at Staffordshire University who printed my file onto a quite substantial cotton.

The Patchwork printed onto fabric

The Patchwork printed onto fabric

The patches are all colour coded – so one purple is for the Tactile Academia stuff, blue for the Writing in Creative practice workshops, black for publications, grey for publications in the works, white for very early publication plans, green for teaching activities, red for administrative/uni stuff, orange for important outside influences and yellow for ‘old’ stuff, i.e. my PhD and things before that. And I am really pleased with how this turned out.

However, to add a bit more interest, I have decided that before I attempt the actual quilting, I am going to add some (very basic) embroidery, picking out the odd word or illustration. The way I choose these colours are based on the content – so really it is another layer of colour coding. I started with the content relating to the Tactile Academia booklets, mainly because there I already had colours picked out: blue for The Fishscale of Academicness, red for The Winning Hand of Independence, yellow for The Button Connection, cream for The Dress-up Doll of Formality (and all sorts of ways of playing with written genre), dark green for The Butterfly Challenge and light green for The Land- and Seascape of Academic Practice. Actually this last one I thought was very complex and deserved two colours really, so I used the light green for the islands as well as anything connected to object-based learning and introduced a pink for the ‘shallow’ waters – and anything connected with the ‘off-loading’ practices of craft (the pink inspired by the Pairings Project, which really should have been more magenta, but I decided to stick with the colours liberated from my grandmothers sewing box rather than buying new ones). You can find a very light blue representing The Underwater Iceberg (a book in  preparation), and orange representing my work on blogging (inspired by the colours of the blog on that which is now defunct).

Since then I have also added dark blue for the work with collage and reflective bookmaking, purple for the overall tactile academia ideas, a light brown for genre that is not written and olive for experiential learning (although I don’t seem to have a picture of that – oops!). I will post soon about the actual quilting of it…

And, just as with the whole process of putting this together, this work has allowed me time to reflect and analyse my work. I have been able to see how the things I do interconnect with each other – and how long I have already been on this journey of ‘Tactile Academia’ without knowing it. This has been particularly useful as I have also been in the process of putting together the portfolio for the accreditation to Senior Fellow of the HEA . Taking the time to work on the quilt has allowed me to see a lot of things more clearly – and it has given me an example with which I can visually and conceptually explain what I do in a learning and teaching context.

And another link…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!