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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.

Through booking forthcoming events, I also get to catch up with people who came to previous workshops – and I of course always ask whether they were able to put anything into practice since then, or whether they went away inspired.

Well, today, Sara Eaglesfield got in touch. She was at the second workshop in Stoke last year, and says that

During the summer I created a series of workshops for our first year students which combined my multiple intelligences research with some collage-making-sticking ideas I’d picked up from our day in May (we have since got through incredible amounts of glitter).

And she also sent this Poster she made to disseminate her research, to share it with all you lovely blog readers. She is very interested in taking this research further, possibly in a collaboration, so if you think this looks interesting, please do get in touch with her at Sara.Eaglesfield[at]bucks.ac.uk

One of the things I particularly wanted to explore at the second workshop in Stoke-on-Trent last year was genre, and why academic writing specifically seems to be such a problem for students. Yes, there are the students who ‘don’t like to write’, but in my experience a lot of students also come to university safe in the knowledge that they KNOW how to write, because they learned it at school. And it is difficult for them to understand that they now need to write at a different level – and for a different purpose.

I was talking about this with my colleague Jane Ball, who works at our study skills centre and was scheduled to do one of the presentations at the workshop, and she mentioned the Concscious Competence Model/Ladder/Matrix. In brief, if you are learning skills you go through four main stages:

  • Unconscious Incompetence (You don’t know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Incompetence (You know that you don’t know)
  • Conscious Competence (You know that you know)
  • Unconscious Competence (You don’t know that you know, because you have internalised the skill)

(Some people argue that there is a fifth stage which is akin to either mastery or coaching, but I don’t want to make this more complicated here.)

Now I think that this is a really good model, but one of the problems with it, is that there are some tongue twisters in there and it becomes really complicated to try to talk about the difference of concious incompetence (which is the stage I would like my students to be at) and unconscious competence (which is the stage most of them seem to think they are at, due to them not paying attention to what I am trying to teach them when it comes to essay writing), because frankly the terms all sound so much alike. So we needed some better terms, and possibly a little visual to tie this together. And we came up with the lifecycle of a butterfly – and that is what The Butterfly Challenge became about.

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So the trick is to be aware of what stage you are in for each skill you encounter. Are you at the egg stage (blissfully unaware of anything going on around you – and not really caring)? Are you a caterpillar (hungry for knowledge you realise you don’t yet have)? Are you at the crysalis stage (knowing all the rules and quietly practicing applying them all)? Or are you indeed already a butterfly (having internalised all the rules to the point where they are second nature to you)?

different types of butterfly representing different genre

different types of butterfly representing different genre

This becomes particularly tricky if a transferable skill is concerned, because you might not be aware that the rules have changed. (And I think this can often be the problem with my students.) Surely once you know how to write, that is it? Well, here it becomes important to understand the concept of genre – not all written pieces are the same. There isn’t just one type of butterfly, there is one for writing text messages and one for writing academic essays, and they are not necessarily exchangable. But because some students are not aware of that, they think that they are a butterfly (or in the crysalis) as far as writing is concerned, when really they are only at the egg stage for the writing they have to do.

When I presented this idea as part of the talk I did for the Staffordshire University School of Education conference, this seemed to particularly strike a chord… at a different level. Not of undergraduates coming into Higher Education, but rather of graduates continuing on at Masters and PhD level. There also, academic writing (and other research skills) takes a ‘step up’ (in the case of PhD work quite dramatically), and students are sometimes not aware of this. Indeed, somebody in the audience said that when she was working on her PhD it felt like she was a butterfly who got slowly torn apart… In order to avoid this sort of student experience, it might be well worth to introducing the students to this model at the beginning of their courses.

A possible activity to go with this would be to get the students to make butterflies out of copies of different types of texts, and then put them together on a museum type tray complete with labels that identify the specific rules the different texts have to adhere to. (I developed this as an activity a bit, I thought washing pegs might be good for the body of the butterflies, but then never actually used it as the idea of using a paper doll came along and seemed to make more sense – see The Dress-Up Doll of Formality, to be blogged about soon.)

(This booklet was made in a preview edition of 31 handed out to delegates at the Writing in Creative Practice: Integrating Writing into a Studio-based Curriculum workshop, each with a pop-up butterfly in the middle.)

On 17th December 2012 the University of Northampton will host a workshop in the Writing in Creative Practice series, which is run in conjunction with Writing PAD and funded by the Higher Education Academy.

Titled Practicing Theory in Art & Design Education, this workshop (Programme Practicing Theory) will explore ways to build and strengthen the relationship between theoretical modules of study and studio-based learning within HE art and design courses.

The scheduled talks and activities will allow participants to share experiences and discuss best practice when it comes to overcoming the perceived separation between the lecture theatre and the studio/workshop.  Methods and approaches will be discussed that attempt to bring together simply a concept of ‘practice’

A downside of the modular nature of HE delivery is that the various taught elements within a programme of study can appear to be ‘stand alone’ with little or no connectivity between other areas of the student learning experience. This separation can be found in the institution that is the undergraduate essay. Whilst formal written assignments that draw together hypothesis, research, analysis, method and execution are excellent ways to investigate and underpin learning, for students they do all too often appear to be a dry and perfunctory task that bears little relation to other areas of study. Within the context of art and design education too often the perception is that the ‘creative stuff’ happens in the studio and workshop, whereas text is just something one is required to do, regardless.

The challenge for HE educators is to breakdown perceived divisions in order to match ‘creative expectation’ within all areas of art and design undergraduate study.  To this end the Writing In Creative Practice: Practicing Theory In Art & Design Education event will bring together colleagues from Northampton and from other institutions to consider ways, through workshop activities, conference papers and discussion, by which theoretical studies and studio practice can be effectively integrated in order to emphasise simply creativity and build a more holistic notion of ‘practice’ for students.

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 Will Hoon  (will.hoon[at]northampton.ac.uk)

Well, the second workshop that I organised for the HEA series of Writing in Creative practice was yesterday – and it went quite well again! However, as I was more involved with facilitating/presenting I didn’t actually get the chance to do my own concertina book, so don’t have any pictures for my reflection – hopefully some of the other participants will post some in the future, a first account can be found on Lisa’s blog.

This workshop was a bit more theoretical than the first one, with a key presentation by Dr. Fiona English who talked about her work with student writing and genre (published as a book I would very much recommend, it’s a bit pricey at the moment, but apparently Continuum is planning to bring out a paperback version so Fiona’s advice if you want the book at an affordable price is to call up Continuum and ask when the paperback version is coming out…).

To get delegates in the mood we started with the deconstructing/reconstructing text activity that Sarah and I had tried out (as described in the previous post) and there were some really interesting ‘poems’ created. Unfortunately the photography student I had booked again was too busy with his final degree show so I don’t have any pictures yet, but hope to provide some soon.

We then had a session with Jane Ball, academic writing skills tutor at the study skills centre at Staffordshire University, talking about ways to engage students with writing, which was followed by a lively discussion.

Fiona’s presentation was after lunch, and included delegates reading extracts from two different pieces of writing by the same student: an academic genre and the same piece re-genred into a play. We had a chance to try to analyse the shift that took place and what was gained and lost in this shift.

We ended with me sharing some ideas of writing as part of creative, practice-orientated tasks and assignments, not unlike the alternative presentations I have blogged about here previously, and I will try to post more details soon.

While we were battling the heat (the only room I could get during ‘exam season’ was in full sunlight, who would have thought the weather would turn out that nice?), it was a lively day and delegates from a number of universities were sharing their experiences and brainstorming to find ways to overcome the challenges we all seem to face.

As preparation for the second Writing in Creative Practice workshop (to be held at Staffordshire University on 24th May), Sarah and myself got together to try out and explore an activity to get us started on the day. We had been inspired by the work of Mary Frances, particularly her ‘cut-up technique’ of creating poetry from existing articles and texts, and other practitioners who use poetic inquiry as part of their research.

We each started with Martina Margett’s article ‘Action Not Words’ from the Power of Making V&A catalogue (edited by Daniel Charny), looking for phrases and words which caught our attention, cut them out and then reassembled them in a vaguely poetic format. These individual responses to the source material turned out to be surprisingly different as you can see in these pictures.

Sarah's poem

Alke's poem

 

A detail from Sarah's poem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Sarah’s colleague Judith Kidder remarked, these outcomes were almost like wordles or word clouds, but because they were not computer generated, they did not look for the frequency of the words, but rather related to the personal meaning that phrases had – invoking ideas, images and thoughts.

Looking at each other’s work we found intriguing similarities and differences – fascinated by each other’s choices there were some phrases we had both seemed to connect to, while there were others one of us had seemingly passed by.

A detail from Alke's poem

Sharing the two works was an important part of the process, highlighting unexpected connections, making us want to revisit the original. We (with Judith) subsequently reflected on the potential this could have in our teaching, particularly the value of this as a means to get students to engage with academic texts. On the one hand tutors could prepare their own take on a text in this visually poetic way in order to entice students to give the whole piece a go. On the other students could be tasked with creating their own poetic response reflecting on an academic piece of writing – deconstructing and reconstructing a text.

P.S.: while the idea was to try this out for the workshop, we were so eager to start neither of us noted the time when we began. Consequently we have no idea how long it took, suffice to say that we ended up being quite engrossed in our making… sitting on separate tables in content silence, armed with scissors and glue stick, completed immersed in the ‘flow’ of the creative process.