Tag Archives: visual methods

As already mentioned (and with Susan posting her experience of it recently), after the Making Writing workshop, Pat, Nancy and myself stayed on in Falmouth for a weekend writing retreat. I was especially interested in seeing whether the approach of writing warm-ups and visualisations could be combined with some focused structuring and writing activities in order to produce writing for ourselves – and the gorgeous Cornwall seemed to be just the right place! (So a thank you to Pedare and especially Caroline Cash for hosting us.)

D:DCIM100DICAMDSCI0493.JPGAlthough some of us had been there for the Friday as well, we started off with (re-)making name tags, really an excuse to see what materials were available to use. I thought it would be very important to have a sort-of ‘break out’ space with making materials in case we would be stuck in our writing endeavours and needed what Gauntlett calls the ‘longer stretch of thoughtfulness’.

Then Pat started us off with a writing warm-up to loosen up our creative juices. I then led an exercise in objective setting – thinking about where you are, want to be, what you want to work on and what the specific objective for the weekend was. I suggested using fish as a visualisation (yes, I feel the time has come where I have been working on the fishscale for too long!), but as always with these things there are no wrong ways of doing this. So when we shared what people had come hoping to achieve, we heard about the full backpack that had accumulated throughout the year and now needed to be unpacked, aired, washed and lightened; the experiences that needed to be put into an academic framework; and the reports that simply need to be written up in order to be able to close the door and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel – and many more. It became quite clear that our initial plans for structuring the weekend would be useless as attendees were at very different stages in their planning/writing, so Nancy, Pat and myself, set everybody a little task to crystalise what they were doing (mainly based around abstracts – writing one for the people who hadn’t done one yet and extending or editing it for the people who had), while we went off to formulate a new game plan.

In the end we split up the larger group into three smaller groups depending on the stages that needed to be tackled: Nancy worked with the people who were already very far in their research and mainly needed to make a decision on the audience for their writing piece(s), Pat worked with the people who were trying to fit experiences (their own and others) into an academic framework and I myself worked with the people who needed to develop a clearer focus – and that Pat’s group ended up with only people whose first name began with a P was purely coincidental!

We came together at different points over the two days to share progress and to break up the tasks – while still keeping large chunks of time in which people could work on their own pieces, either with us in one-on-ones or on their own, dotted around the campus.

It became quite clear that the humble sticky note and large wall space are some of the best tools an academic writer has at her disposal as thoughts were sketched and written, stuck and re-stuck, and linked with arrows all over the place.


evening in Mylor

As it is important to see writing not just as a solitary activity, but also to appreciate the social aspects, there was some shared time away from the keyboard. On Saturday night we went on a little excursion, taking the train to Falmouth and then the water taxi to Mylor where we had a lovely meal followed by delicious ice cream.

On Sunday we started with another writing warm-up, where Pat got us to draw the journey of the day before, reflecting on our progress, and then draw the shape of our writing project. This was an ideal way to think about (and share with the group) what we had achieved so far, and gave a great starting point as to focusing on goal setting for the second day. In order to explore focus, Pat also did an exercise based on the image of a brick wall (with paper that had little brick walls on it, apparently wrapping paper she had found somewhere!): we were first invited to summarise the paper we were working on in two sentences… then one… then three words… then only one. I found this an incredibly useful exercise (and very hard), which really helps you to focus (and possibly question the focus you thought you had already sorted out!). Thus prepped we were ready for our second day of intense writing, broken up only by food and a little excursion to the Seasalt outlet shop, which is but a short walk away (and really it would have been rude not to go and support the cornish economy…)

Overall it was a very enjoyable weekend. And it also seemed quite productive. while I myself didn’t get much work done on my own writing, that probably would have been too much to ask for, as I was busy facilitating, but from my chats with the others it seems like a lot of progress has been made, and I think that the mix of focused time for work and creative loosening up and sharing activities was just right. All the retreaters have been invited as authors onto this blog, so hopefully we will get to read some updates on their work in due course!


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.


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!

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.

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

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.

some typical poses observed

some typical poses observed

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.

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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!

While checking out the Tate Liverpool website to find out more about the ‘Tracing the Century’ exhibition, I came across a workshop they offer on documentary drawing on 19th January 2013. While it might be a bit too focused on the connection of documentary drawing to war artists for my taste, I am intrigued, especially because I know that there is a lot of drawing going on when it comes to documenting and reflecting within academic research.

I’ll be there…

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]

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.

I too attended the workshops and found them to be really useful. Many of our ‘direct entry’ students up here in Scotland have little or no experience of critical theory when they come to us from an HND course, so engaging with academic writing can be extremely challenging, even more so if they are dyslexic, as some are.

I hope to work with our Effective Learning tutor this coming year, when we offer a summer school for these students. I’ll take what I learned from the day and expand on some of the excellent ideas from Pat’s workshop, I’ve already suggested that they buy her book, as I have. It will be my companion all through my PhD. It’s rekindled my love of John Berger for a start!

 The collage workshop in the afternoon, I found particularly difficult to engage with; this is my own doing and no fault of the workshop itself, which was excellent, offering as it did, convincing references and arguments as to why collage is good for reflective thinking. Trouble is; this is what I’m doing as part of my qualitative inquiry for my own research; using collage to think, to articulate what I can’t say out loud, sometimes because I just don’t know but other times, it’s because it’s just too hard to find the words, let alone say them.

 So, because this method of reflection is embedded in my poor brain, I found that I couldn’t just ‘go with the flow’ and enjoy it, I took it far too seriously. So much so that I took scissors to my concertina book, cutting into its form, almost deconstructing it. (there’s a paper in there somewhere!)


But all was not lost, I came home and reflected on my response and this has fed into the research. So maybe I did engage with it after all but not in the way intended? It was heartening to watch all the delegates immerse themselves in their collages; you should do it more often guys!

 I came back up to Scotland invigorated and inspired, hopefully I will be able to pass this feeling onto my students and they too will benefit from some lateral thinking.

Thanks folks!

Alison F Bell

Artist & PhD candidate

University of the West of Scotland.