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This was the first of the Tactile Academia books I made and funnily enough I didn’t set out to do a book at all.

So here’s the story of that one:

In June 2010 I went to the Flying Start symposium held at Liverpool Hope University. This was disseminating the work that had been/still was going on in the Flying Start project, which was concerned with academic writing transition. Here I saw Claire Penketh talking about her work, and one of the things that particularly struck a chord with me was her work on reading at degree level. In her presentation she menitoned a quote from John Bean which stated that “learning to read at degree level is like learning to fish in deep waters” (2001). In her slides she made this point to her students by showing pictures of fish and likening them to certain types of reading – goldfish (a bit like emails, small and colourful), sharks (with teeth, so a bit scary, like a peer-reviewed article might be) and angler fish (just weird, like something that was written for a different audience altogether).

Now I absolutely loved this idea and built up a presentation for my students all around the idea of evaluating secondary sources by likening them to sea creatures and ordering them on a scale of academic depth. It described a number of ‘standard’ secondary sources, such as blogs, newspapers, introductory texts, academic journals and doctoral work. This seemed to go down well and alert students to the necessity of evaluating sources, something they have a problem with in my experience.

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The Fish-scale of Academicness – linocut edition 2012

As I thought this was a very good way of explaining the concept of provenance to students I wanted to turn this into an Open Educational Resource, however, my slides were populated with copyrighted fish from animation, so I needed to find a way to illustrate this. And then a course on the Illustrated Book came along near me and I signed up for that with the express plan to work on the illustrations for this. And so I made a book out of it. I played about with the layout and used tear-aways to show a sense of depths. This book, with original linocuts, was done in an edition of 7 in 2012.

At the same time I thought this might be a very good way for me to explain this concept at this workshop I was organising and how nice it would be to give the delegates something special. So I also made an edition for them, which is photocopied and has drawn illustrations, but it also has the ‘torn’ pages meant to visualise the depth of the academic ocean.

This booklet was produced in an edition of 31 and given out at the Thinking through Writing and Making workshop.

The Fish-Scale doesn’t stop with explaining the concept to the students. I have also started using it as an activity. I give students excerpts of sample text from a variety of academic depths, and ask them in groups to decide what sort of sea creatures these texts would be and draw them. What is important here is that the students also are able to articulate the reasons why they decided on a particular sea creature. We then all order them in terms of their academic depths through a group discussion. I encourage students to go through this thinking process when they are using their sources, and to visualise their bibliography in terms of the depth achieved – and ask them to think about trying to ‘go deeper’ when they progress through the years.

The very small-scale evaluation I have done on this so far, has indicated that introducing the lecture coupled with the activity has resulted in students using a better range and better quality of secondary sources in their essays.

I’m currently planning a research project to test whether this would work with students from other universities and disciplines. Maybe as part of this I will actually get around to making that Open Educational Resource. If you are interested in collaborating on this, please get in touch!

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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.

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.

When it comes to finding out what other people are researching in regards to object learning, a first point of call, particularly in the area of design is the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning through Design. Based at the University of Brighton and working in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Royal College of Arts (RCA) the projects taking place here are looking at object scholarship and object-based learning.
A particularly good starting point is the book Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See (2010, edited by Beth Cook, Rebecca Reynolds and Catherine Speight, Ashgate).