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Starting from the research I had done on/for the ‘Getting Your head Around Academic Writing’ workshops, I thought I should take this further and see whether anybody else in the HE community (and beyond) might be interested in this. I got in touch with some people who are working on similar things and then thought that it might be nice to organise a workshop to get a larger number of people together and explore these subjects.

After proposing something to the Higher Education Academy, I was granted funding to run a workshop at Staffordshire University, click here for more details.

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After my first musings on this subject (which can be read here), some decisive action was called for and I decided to run a number of workshops open to students to see whether my (at this stage very vague) ideas made sense to others.

Planned as originally four workshops (although we revised that to five) held during November 2011 (sorry for not getting a chance to write this up sooner), I opened this to all the students I was teaching/supervising in that term (which included first years, third years and MA students), as well as all the third year students that were in the process of researching and writing their ‘Design Project Report’ – a substantial research report. I also invited two recent graduates who were both thinking about continuing with a Masters.

Although some 250 students were approached, only four showed an interest and in the end only one of them, a third year Animation student, was able to attend all five sessions. The two graduates were also regulars, one attending three of the five, the other all sessions.

The workshops were focusing on the concepts of focus, relevance, academicness, context and structure, with projects being introduced during the weekly hour. While I had thought that we would be able to make together, it soon turned out that there simply wasn’t enough time, so the sessions ended up more as a show and tell, with participants showing what they had done during the week and then me introducing the new activity and showing examples. Here are some examples of participants’ work:

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While this was of course a very small sample size, the feedback of the participants was positive (I had asked them to fill in questionnaires each session), they thought the sessions and activities were both fun and useful. One of the recent graduates urged me to integrate some of the sessions into the curriculum, saying this would have helped her immensely with her third year research project.

The third year student who attended regularly and was very engaged with the making activities, she always had something to show she had done during the week, improved her mark from a lower 2.2 to a mid 2.1! While there is of course no way of proving that this was due to the sessions, I believe it shows that the simple fact of engaging with the subject matter more can make a significant difference when it comes to academic work.

Due to the feedback, I have since included some of the activities in both first and second year undergraduate modules, which are still in progress.

Another alternative presentation I used as an undergraduate to present my research was this second year assignment presented as a pop-up book. This was undoubtedly inspired by my parents giving me a pop-up book on architecture that Christmas. And you know what? – making these little models actually helped me understand some of the ‘basic theatre techniques and mechanisms’ I was writing about, the counterweight fly tower, for example.

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It does look a bit on the bland side, this remained very much an unfinished project, I always thought of it as a white card model that I would illustrate/colour further, but never got around to it (yet!).

Thanks to my parents for taking the photographs!

In my first year as an undergraduate student of Performance Design I had to put together a ‘Visual Reference File’. I don’t quite remember the details, but we had a number of ‘isms’ to research and find certain examples representing architecture, fashion/costume, jewellery, art and possibly a fifth catergory which I don’t quite remember. We also had to explain the philosophy behind the (art) movement. The idea, as the name said, was that we should refer to this initial body of work and build on it in our practice – and most of my class mates did put together actual files. I, however, really didn’t like the idea, because I didn’t think I would ever look up anything in this, so I had the choice of just doing it as straightforward as possible (with the knowledge that I would never use it and that it would be just for the sake of the assignment) or comiing up with a way of presenting it that would make me use it in future.

Visual Reference File

What I handed in was a parcel filled with letters and postcards, written to an imaginary friend, explaining the different movements and showing examples. This was accompanied by an appendix of sorts: a document explaining my reasons for presenting it in this way, a bibliography, and a list of academic references.

This was the explanatory text (just as it was with spelling mistakes and interesting punctuation, maybe I should point out that I am not a native speaker of English):

“To Whom It May Concern

This is my Visual Reference File. I realise it may be selfish to present it in this way, but it is supposed to be my VRF, and I am the one who should be inspired by it or look something up in there.

One of the things I learnt as a student so far is that it is not really the information itself that you get that counts, but it is where you can get the information you need when you need it. I know, that if I need some information on say Cubism one day I wouldn’t consult the VRF I had to compile in my first semester ar LIPA if it wasn’t fun to read as well as informative. Confronted with the fact that I’ld have to read something dry anyway I would always go for the primary source, such as the Oxford Companion to the Contemporary Arts, as for the notes, essays or reports I was once forced to write. What follows is that if I intend to use this VRF in future (which is the case), I better write it in a way that I’ll enjoy reading in future times.

I learn best by either writing things down in my own words or explaining it step by step to somebody else thus discussing it. In the following I’m doing both: I’m writing letters to discuss the VRF with … well, myself basically. The person I’m addressing is mainly fictional, and the incidents other than the art movements are either fictional, autobiographical or nicked from other peoples lifes (but I’m not telling which are which). I like reading letters and wlthough I cannot be too sure about what I will enjoy reading in future I think I am pretty close with that.

However this chosen form means that my VRF is not properly referenced. I am aware of that and am doing it on purpose, because in my private correspondence I don’t use the Harvard system of reference and although I sometimes do use footnotes they are more the type Terry Pratchett uses in his books (only not as funny unfortunaterly) than the type you find in academic work. Due to the academic approach that probably stands behind the assessment of this, I have compiled a bibliography, but this should be seen more as an appendix than as an integral part of the file.”

Looking back on this now (as an HE lecturer myself) a number of things are probably noteworthy.

It was clearly written BG (Before Google), as these days I would start my research on the internet (and expect my students to do the same).

I must have been paying some attention to learning outcomes and assessment criteria, hence the appendix, but I realise that this would have been spectacularly inappropriate if teachers had wanted to test my academic writing skills. (Indeed I sometimes tell my students about this particular assignment of mine and warn them that it would not have passed in the study skills module I am teaching – but only because here the academic essay is a named outcome, and in a way the point of the module.)

In a way I was successful with my intentions. Even though I don’t use the file to reference art movements (at the moment), that is because that is not the sort of work I do (at the moment) – I am not working as a theatre designer as I was trained to – it is one of the undergraduate assignments that I have kept through five house moves and that I do still go back to to look at and read every once in a while, that the odd postcard keeps getting added to, and that is now housed in a different parcel, because the original one was falling apart.

In my own experience of teaching academic writing to undergraduate students in a number of creative practice disciplines (i.e. students who have a ‘practical’ component that is studio based) there seems to be a certain reluctance by the students to invest into writing in the same way as they do into subject specific skills.

This is actualy something I researched into further as part of my docotral thesis, which was all about the role of writing in undergraduate design education in the U. One of the findings was that students do not seem to see writing as a skill that needs to be practiced, but rather something almost instantenous: you write it and then it is done, so then you hand it in. The idea of re-writing bits, editing others out, going out to do a bit more research, overall all the preparation work and the honing of this as a skill – all things the students would do if the outcome is something studio based, whether thrown pot or animated film – is one that does not seem to occur to them, because they see it as removed from their practice.

As part of my PhD I introduced some assignments to students of Three Dimensional Design at Manchester Metropolitan University that were aiming to link their practice to written tasks, and were located in the studio rather than on the Contextual Studies/History of Art and Design side. These were not academic essays, but rather were meant to accumulate into a reflection on their practice, actual and aspirantional. Some details can be found in this case study written for the Writing PAD network.

Recently I have been thinking about exploring the idea of making in order to ‘get your head around’ more academic processes/research/writing a bit more – especially in the context of making artist’s books. More details about this project as it develops.

Thinking about this has made me realised that I have used little strategies like that in my own work (as a student and since then) to order thoughts or turn content into something more tangible (will probably post some examples on this blog in future categorised as ‘Alternative Presentations’).