Tag Archives: Object-based Learning

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.

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.

Thursday, 13th June:  (free) workshop at Middlesex University

Within the art and design academy we witness few of the expanded possibilities that lie between writing practices and the object. This workshop will combine theoretical and practical approaches to consider different writing-object relationships, including: writing about objects, writing as an object, writing to generate objects, etc.

This day-workshop will examine different relationships between writing practices and the object in art and design.

We write about objects, we produce writing as objects, we write in order to generate objects and sometimes we write in spite of objects, yet within the academy we rarely witness many of the expanded possibilities that lie within the relationship.

Our workshop will take a theoretical and a practical approach to exploring these possiilities, so we will schedule sessions which theorise on these themes but also sessions which allow for practical, hands-on experience. We will also allow time for reflection on themes raised in the sessions and for discussion.

Papers will investigate topics such as the use of writing as a means of generating design; the role of intuition within object-focused writing practices, and its relationship to formalised writing norms; ways of drawing on art and design practices in writing, such as the use of making in writing instruction with art and design students.

Speakers at the workshop will be both external to Middlesex University and internal, and the day’s activities will involve the University’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture and its collection.

You can find abstracts for the various sessions here: Writing & the object – topics. For more information, please get in touch with Peter Thomas (p.thomas[at] and to book, please check the information on the HEA events page.

Students 'rummaging' through the Betty Smithers Design Collection at Staffordshire University

‘Beyond the Display – an exploration of collections in art, media and design teaching and learning‘ has just been published in Networks 15. In this article I try to give an overview of some museum and collection resources that may be available to engage students that use objects in a more direct way than ‘just’ looking.

‘How we experience material objects through our senses’ was the tag line of a two day workshop that I attended recently. The Sensuous Object, as it was called, turned out to be two days full of thought-provoking presentations (all centred around actual objects) with interesting people. So many issues were covered that it would be too much for just one blog post, so I may go into detail in future posts; suffice it to say that we discussed objects and the use of collections through focusing on their tactile nature, through sound, taste and smell, as well as movement. In the process we were treated not only to interesting visuals, like one presenter talking about hysteria while wearing a leather belt with which diagnosed hysterics were restrained to be kept safe in the nineteenth century, but we were also able to handle some of the objects that took centre stage.

One of the reasons that I really wanted to attend was that I was interested to see what is thought about object learning outside of my own field (of art and design), and I was not disappointed, coming home with a whole list of thoughts to follow up (once I have the time). I was particularly intrigued by the term ‘artifactualists’, the view of gloves as keeping an object of memory intact by not adding more memories, ‘imaginative imagination’, an ingenious way of visualising quantitative data, that sometimes we are talking about intuition but it may just be listening to sound without being aware of it (the sound being overlooked as it were), the question of how we listen and are we thinking about sound through metaphors, Gernot Boehme’s notion of athmosphere and the materiality of photography as well as drawing.

A big component was probably the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which, as host, allowed the presenters access to its collection and also provided an athmospheric (and slightly unusual, for example they have a recreated Victorian pharmacy tucked away in one room) setting for the two days.

A while back I interviewed my colleague Ruth Waterhouse about her use of the Betty Smithers Design Collection. Ruth (newly retired) taught Sociology and felt that integrating objects in her teaching brought another dimension to her discipline.
Here are my written up notes:

Ruth W first used the Design Collection to support teaching at adult education level outside of the university, particularly for a course where the changing nature of women’s fashion was discussed and put into context with the culture of the time. She first used garments for illustration purposes only to show the changes in fashion in a chronological way.
As the garments came from a handling collection, she also encouraged handling and this turned out particularly successful in a session with older women groups when discussing World War II and connected fashions. The tactile experience of the handling seemed to trigger memories of the participants’ own experience, in the first instance particularly through materials. As the group was made up of women who could remember similar garments, they were very knowledgeable about using these materials. Ruth states that she got a better response in this handling session than she got from lecture-style talks, because the garments triggered an emotional response and stimulated reminiscence. The participants were delighted in being reminded of these objects, not just visually, but through a tactile exploration, and this in turn stimulated discussion which contained a lot of oral history. It created a unique atmosphere and engagement.
The success of this session gave Ruth W the idea to use the Design Collection resources more at the university level and she included it in the ‘Dedicated Followers of Fashion’ module which is an option on the Sociology degree at Level 5 (she has used it in this context for the last five years). To begin with there was one session done by Ruth Brown, at the time keeper of the Design Collection, which publicised it and told students about how they could use it themselves. However, in following years they began tying it into the subject matter more, with Ruth W doing a lecture that was immediately followed by a session with Ruth B with a rack of fashion that gave a spread from the earliest items in the collection through to the 1990s.
At one occasion Ruth B dressed up in Edwardian garb, turning the clothes from the hanger into a worn dimension, and the students were asked to reflect on the role of clothing and what it reflected in life.
Ruth W states that sociology is often a very abstract subject. Examples make it more concrete. Touching items and feeling the weight of them make it easier to ask yourself what it would have been like to wear them. It makes it easier to explore whether they might have been constraining or constricting. Examining their construction close-up allow a judgement of their quality, their price and the effort it takes to maintain a wardrobe at the time, for example making it easier to understand how Edwardian clothing sustained a servicing class through the laundry, mending and pressing that was necessary to keep them wearable.
While it is very successful to use the objects from the Design Collection for that particular module, Ruth W thinks that it is the only one of the ones she teaches and knows of, that it would be appropriate. Her colleagues in sociology don’t use it as far as she knows, although she says there might be material that could be found in the archive’s collection of magazines that could relate to the ‘Deviant Bodies’ module which is concerned with sociology of the body. She states that it would have worked much more in the context of sociology of culture, which doesn’t run at Staffordshire University anymore. She also says that a collection of this nature would be useful to sociologists of popular culture; of the body  and of subcultures, especially youth cultures. The use of the collection is somewhat restricted at Staffordshire University because of the options that are currently offered, but she strongly feels that aspects of the collection could be linked into theories of consumption and identity and would resonate with many other aspects of sociology.
She says that only a minority of students take the opportunity to check out objects (she remembers a student researching shoe fashion for example). She thinks this little take-up might be due to finding the time. However, she says that even if students don’t use the collection itself, using it in class encourages them to use what they have themselves. It inspires them to ask more questions and to use objects as well as secondary sources for their research. It has freed students up from thinking they have to deal with textual material, the abstract. This is reflected in the work they put in, the subjects and also adds another dimension to their work. For example, they present their work in a more innovative way. The assessment criteria stipulate a portfolio that Ruth W interprets widely and she encourages students to utilise their visual sense, etc, alongside the written text. Almost half take this up, it gives them permission to go broader than just writing things up. This feeds their imagination, it is outside of the straightjacket of theoretical sociology, makes theory meaningful, they make sense of society through exploring its objects.
She attempts to stress that sociology is also about imagination and should be within the arts to build those bridges (at Staffordshire University sociology is located in the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design rather than linked to psychology or the sciences, which means it is located in a different academic culture) – is it narrowing its focus by being too concerned about its image? Using the Design Collection, which has mostly everyday objects in it, encourages them to use material objects from their cultural world as a starting point.

Asking whether she could recommend strategies of using the BSDC, her top tips are:
• Think more explicitly – she wonders whether her approach is a bit hit and miss, and thinks that it needs to be articulated carefully what you want, possibly in the learning outcomes.
• Use more widely – maybe she uses it in a fairly narrow way, so there needs to be a closer investigation of what is on offer (for example political magazines) and investigate its potential and content more thoroughly
• Don’t be worried about incorporating tactile stuff, the smell, move beyond just the cognitive, rather employ a full range of senses, not just thinking about stuff.
• Collaborating across disciplines is important, against pigeon holing
Ruth W states that the handling collection is vital, as it is different to a museum and the interaction that is in its centre is very important.
A big part of its importance and usefulness is a matter of personality, Ruth B is very approachable, accessible, willing to engage, helpful – can this be replaced by a data base? NO! the ad hoc nature, not preselected apart from showing the Everyday-ness of everyday life.
Items are not precious, this makes them more valuable in an educational context as it has the capacity to stimulate, trigger stories, the mind, recollections – encourages students to become experts of their own lives by interrogating them rather than just living them.

There are a number of ways in which Higher Education can get access to objects, some of which I will blog about more in future. but just to get this started a (probably very incomplete) list:
Most obviously probably are museums, which often, but not always, collect and give access to objects. Here you can find curated exhibitions, where objects have been pre-selected and arranged in a formal display. Some you might be able to touch and handle, possibly in specially arranged sessions.
Museums also tend to have lots of objects that are not on display. It may be possible to get access to objects from a catalogue, or even explore the museum stores. This depends on the access policy of the museum and if you are working with students probably space and numbers.
Universities often have their own museums, galleries or collections. Here access to objects is usually easier for students, because it is probably part of the mission of the collection, and they often grew out of teaching collections initially.
Some of these teaching collections are handling collections, where rules of access are slightly different and objects may be handled without gloves, in some items can be taken apart or even borrowed.
But objects to be used in learning and teaching don’t necessarily have to come from a formal collection, they are all around us, so they can also come from personal collections of enthusiasts or simply the home – a possibility that should not be discounted.
And then there are also the virtual objects, images that are accessed through the internet, books or magazines, which bring their own problematic, because here we obviously do not have a three-dimensional or even tactile encounter, but they probably should not be discounted.

A good starting point for using objects in art and design education, in particular, is to use them to draw from. This allows a different engagement and investigation of the object than other forms of note-taking, such as writing down label information or taking photographs.
When using objects in such a way a number of things need to be considered:

If you are working from a formal display, such as in a museum exhibition, a still life has already been set up for you by a curator. Try to encourage students to find their own perspective and not necessarily go for the ‘obvious’ frontal view. Encourage students to use sketches not to necessarily replicate what they see (this they could do much more effectively with a photograph, if photography is allowed), but rather to try to capture other aspects of the objects, like their context, details they particularly like, etc.

If you are working in a collection where the objects can be handled, you and the students can play with the setting up yourself. How would it differ if this was a museum display set up or a shop display? What would be an authentic context? Being able to handle objects often also means that you will have access to views of the objects that might not be on show in a museum, for example the back, bottom or inside – take advantage of that in your exploration.

Also take into account the different contexts of the sketching, students often lack the confidence to explore something in a museum, where other visitors might come up and look over their shoulders, possibly even comment on their work, so sketches here could be used as starting points for future, more elaborate drawings. If on the other hand, it is possible to have a drawing session that is private, this can lead to an informal discussed amongst the students, which starts the investigative process.

I asked Stephanie Boydell, curator at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections, what she thought the usefulness of object-based learning was, and here is what she said:

Object-based learning can engage students that may find formal teaching situations difficult. It offers a different way of teaching, and of learning, and uses different kinds of intelligence. Students can draw their own conclusions, can ‘discover’ answers, rather than just receive ideas from academics.
It can enrich course/lecture content, which is particularly useful if you are trying to attract new students!
The physicality of an object, seeing something in the flesh, so to speak, can be the only way to appreciate or understand form, texture and difference: for instance, how do you know the difference between a woodblock print and an etching if you haven’t seen these up close? This is particularly true for contextual and historical studies in Art & Design.
In our setting at MMU, it allows access to other professions, ie curators and archivists and different knowledge systems, and can offer students an insight and experience of how we work with artefacts. It is also outside the “classroom”, so can be more relaxed, and even privileged, as students can actually handle museum objects.
Students can develop key skills and learn new ones: such as how to observe, record, assess and analyse and question an object; it encourages critical thinking, and allows students to use prior knowledge and build confidence. When working in groups it builds on team working skills, communication, presenting, listening, learning from peers and confidence building, particularly as students can implement and pass on prior knowledge and be in a situation where all ideas are acceptable.
OBL can encourage discussion and debate: would a Chinese artefact be documented or interpreted differently in China? Why have a light fitting from Habitat in the collections when it is so readily available on the high street and has little monetary worth?
It can also inspire creativity: writing, new artworks, etc. This is hugely important for practical arts students, as the stages between encountering an object and developing your interaction and response into a design/application and how you justify and record them that are extremely important for makers, (and for assessors!).