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Today I attended a BSA Sociology of the Arts Study Group‘s event entitled ‘Using the Arts in Teaching and Research’. I should say that I am not a sociologist nor do I think of myself as belonging to the social sciences, so this reflection is based on my interest in using arts in teaching and research rather than on the content of the research that was presented. As so often within the arts context, for me today was all about process.
I was treated to a really interesting day. The organisers had split up the presentations into four different sessions dealing with Using Art to Engage with Marginalised Groups, Using Art as a Reflexive Tool, Using Art in Engagement and Dissemination and Using Art in Training and Education respectively. Here are some observations I made (in no particular order, I think of these as possible starting points for more detailed posts in the future, but want to get them down while the event remains fresh in my mind):
When it comes to art and research there seems to be a spectrum at work. I haven’t quite worked out all the details yet, but this ranges from no art, to using art to illustrate research (that could be findings or part of the process, and it could be already existing art or art specifically generated for the particular project), participatory art might be produced as an integral part of the research, this might then be interpreted by the researcher, or it might be interpreted by the participants themselves and then this will be interpreted by the researcher. And then there is art that has been produced by either researcher and participant or by both in collaboration that becomes a part of the outcome/dissemination.
Issues that these stages have to deal with include:
- There is almost always a hierarchy between the researcher and the participants/subjects of the research, which at some stage is likely to kick in. For example at one stage the researcher might move from facilitator to the person who interprets results and writes them up – a position of power. It seemed to me that research is more true to the person creating the art if they themselves explain it/reflect on the meaning – and to use that in the analysis of the results rather than the researcher interpreting the work.
- Depending on the set up of the research (or of the situation that is researched), participants/subjects might feel they need to present an established story (for example of a victim that gets redeemed, triumph over adversity), or might want to give a certain impression due to a (possibly hidden) agenda. Again a perceived hierarchy might complicate things.
- It is really hard to plan and tie down a research protocol, because very often you don’t know in advance what data you will get. At the beginning participants might be concerned they are ‘doing it wrong’ and might want to get very specific instructions (and the ‘but I can’t draw’ response for drawing as part of research is a common occurrence in this context). However, certainly one of the great things about using arts-based research is that once participants feel empowered by it they often develop their own way of responding, which might be completely unexpected by the researcher. But this means that the forms in which the data comes might be surprising.
- There were nods to thinking about working with artists – and being mindful of what that might mean for the artists, i.e. typically artists are freelance and payment through the university systems are notoriously slow, and the project, i.e. budget for the artists needs to be planned in from the very beginning, whether that is artist as illustrator, facilitator or co-researcher.
Of course we also discussed arts-based research in the context of today’s academic framework, so what exactly is practice-based research and is it becoming more accepted for submission as part of the (UK’s) Research Excellence Framework? Is it maybe easier to use this as part of an impact study? How can it be captured, and is it ok to collect and present research that is inherently subjective?
Needless to say, I came home with a lot of food for thought.
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.)
There are exciting developments with what I call the Fishscale of Academicness. You might have come across this before at one of my talks – or through my little booklet (which is described here).
There are two exciting new things happening – my colleague Geoff Walton and myself are working on a chapter on this for an open-access book on information discovery journeys. We have been having a number of meetings about this in the last few weeks, and I am happy to report that it is progressing nicely. We are trying to combine what I already have as written for the little booklet with a commentary on information literacy and information discernment, that locates this in an academic context. Most recently we have been working on ways of how to combine the different texts/images, here some of our working drawings:
We are hopeful that we have worked it out!
The other exciting thing is that we have been given some funding by the university to produce at least two different ways of delivering this – a hard-copy and a digital one, which we want to use to test this further with students in the coming academic year, hopefully in different departments and possibly at different universities.
Let me know if you are interested in taking part in this further research!
As I mentioned the intriguing sounding Documentary Drawing Masterclass in a previous post, I thought it was only fair to share some of what I was thinking about on the way home…
Well, firstly, it was a great day facilitated by Julia Midgley, who has documented everything from archaeology projects to hospital processes – and also sometimes draws at/for conferences. (That in itself is, of course, very interesting as it links really closely to the reflective bookmaking I have been known to go on about.)
Julia gave us some great tips as to how we could loosen up as part of a warm-up, and especially things to think about to make people less precious about the outcomes of a drawing, which allows us to focus on the energy of the situation rather than on the artefact ending up on the sheets of paper. So consider drawing with both hands at the same time, for a result full of energy (and in my case lots of cross-hatching), not allowing yourself to look back at the paper once you have started drawing, or doing an ‘etch-a-sketch’ by not allowing yourself to let your drawing implement leave the page until you are done.
We also talked about considering the paper you are using – and how much more effective a drawing can be if it is backed up by ephemera – a timetable as the background to you documenting a journey, with added tickets, for example.
Another thing that we explored was cutting out pictures of people and collaging those together – but turned over, so that we would concentrate on the shape that the human body creates. I have to admit that I didn’t really have time to do this during the workshop, but I was thinking about my previous post and thinking about how documenting workshops can sometimes be tricky if you don’t have the permissions of people to use their photographs. I also think that sometimes then the picture becomes about the people, rather than about the workshop. but what if you just used the silhouette of your participants…? I think this way we could end up with another really interesting ways of documenting a workshop. Something I will attempt to try out soon.
However, what I am probably most excited by is the way I used documentary drawing as a research method in the afternoon. Julia had given us a brief, parts of it was “By closely observing visitors to the Gallery what can the reportage artist discern about the activity of looking at art?” So I found myself sitting in the Tracing the Century exhibition and in the beginning I was randomly sketching people.
I found some typical poses, for example there is almost a standard way that men hold their arms behind their backs when looking at art. I and my fellow documentary drawers complained to each other that people never stand still long enough. I decided to ‘follow’ a group around, sketching them whenever they paused in front of art, to see how they interacted – and found that there was an opinion maker, who tried to move the group by moving herself and almost dragging the others with her, while another one seemed to be really interested in the art and tried to linger in front of certain pieces.
And then I started tracking visitors’ journeys along one specific wall. Comparing these drawings I realised that people tended to either stop at artworks or at the labels. So I am now wondering whether this form of observation is something I could use to get my students a bit more excited about primary data collection for their research. I think I spent less than an hour in the gallery, but can’t help thinking that this could be turned into more rigorous data gathering, I could develop rules, such as really try to sketch where the visitors stop and pause; the longer they pause, the more detailed/black/intensive the sketch of them should get; trace the ‘motion lines’ on the floor to capture where they come closer or step-away from the work (later put in corresponding motion lines following the whole bodies); prepare a standard background on which to sketch, so that the data can be more easily standardised (possibly superimposed). From this (and a suitable sample), it could be determined whether there really is a distinction between pictureviewers and labelreaders; it could be found out which group is bigger; and possibly whether one spends more time interacting with the art.
I made a little book transferring my sketches onto transparent paper to illustrate my mini-findings, which I might show students to get them to consider documentary drawing within their research. As you can see I was very inspired by the workshop and will be doing more documentary drawing for sure!