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Dear all,

I’m glad to announce that I have finished the workbook for students I have been talking about for years and that after the ‘test’ copies produced as part of last year’s Kickstarter campaign, an extended version of  “Writing Essays by Pictures: A Workbook” (ISBN 9780957665224) is now in print… just in time for all those lovely new first years arriving at Uni!

This is very much a development of the work I have been doing for the last few years, much of it chronicled on this blog, and it uses visual analogies to lead students through the process of writing essays at University. Find out more about its origins on the dedicated page here. Mainly designed for students to work through on their own, it could also be used in led workshops and is full of creative and visual ideas for teaching information and academic skills. It is priced at a level that hopefully many students will be able to afford to buy themselves, and I hope that some of you might add it to your reading lists to help students transition to writing at undergraduate level.

Available from all normal book suppliers from this week, list price £15, currently £12.99 on Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0957665229) or just £10 direct from the publisher (http://innovativelibraries.org.uk/press/thebooks/).

I am currently working with both the Writing PAD network and my fabulous publisher to organise some workshops for staff who want some more ideas how to use the material within in their teaching, which I will of course announce here once we have settled on dates.
Best wishes,

Alke

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It is February, 2nd and everybody seems to be talking about Groundhog Day (the film).  In fact, I pretty much started my day What’s App-ing my sisters (who live in Germany and Italy) that one of the Sky channels is showing it today back-to-back for 24 hours, which I think is hilarious. But while reading the connected article in The Independent online, I was thinking that while this is funny, there was an opportunity missed, because although the sections here occasionally change a tiny bit, they don’t quite change enough. The great thing about the film is that at the end (spoiler alert), Phil gets his day just right!

Really if seen in an academic context, Groundhog Day is an analogy of editing: Just like Phil is trapped in this day, when writing a paper/chapter/book/whatever, a writer can easily get into a routine where you change small things – or big things – see how they pan out, and if they don’t quite work, you go back to the beginning. You reflect on what worked out in your last draft and what didn’t quite work, and you change it. Sometimes you refine details, sometimes you change the big stuff. Sometimes you change it back, sometimes you decide that a totally new direction is needed. And only once everything is in place you can finally move on to the next piece, just like Phil finally moved on to February, 3rd. Unfortunately, though, is that even if it feels like you are stuck in a timeloop while editing your own writing, time goes on around you and you might get to your deadline before you are ready to move on. I can only assume this happens because we don’t actually live in movies…

As you might know, I am currently putting together a workbook for students that collects some of the visual analogies I have been using in my teaching. I have been getting some questions about what is meant by ‘visual analogies’ and how that would translate into a book on academic writing as part of my Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print some copies (and until the 7th May 2015 you can support this by pledging for your very own copy here). So in order to give people a better idea, here is the introduction (I will add a picture of my layout soon):

Here’s the trouble with writing academic essays at degree level: if you haven’t been to university before, you probably haven’t done it before. You will have written all sorts of things:

  • emails,
  • letters,
  • short stories,
  • social media up-dates,
  • blog posts,
  • txts,
  • reports
  • and much much more.

You might even have written essays, but if you haven’t been to uni before, you probably haven’t been writing the sort of essays that university lecturers are looking for. This might be a problem, because when they say ‘essay’ you hear ‘essay’ – but you are both talking about different things. Because quite a lot of what makes up an academic essay is specifically academic practice – using research to rigorously back up your argument, including evidence to back up your points – and even writing it to a specific blueprint.

To make matters worse, some of this practice is ‘hidden’,- academics do it, but it has become such second nature to them that they forget how to explain that they are doing it (and/or how they are doing it).

An essay might seem like a straight line when you are reading it, but really it paints a picture for the reader, a bit like a connect the dots drawing. The further you read, the more defined it becomes, and once you are finished you can see the whole picture.

Writing an essay is a bit like planning a connect the dots drawing. Only because this is research you don’t make up the image, you first find it within the evidence you consult. That means you first have to identify lots of evidence you could use, because you have to find a lot of possible points. While you are doing that you might go round and round in circles and squiggly lines, there is no real order yet, you are exploring at this stage.

Then you go through a process of ‘curation’ – you figure out what your argument is and what points you need in order to make it. This will mean looking at all the dots you have and getting rid of the ones that don’t fit into your picture.
Now you might see that there are some holes in your argument – you might need to find some more points, by doing more research.

Once you have all the dots identified that you need to show your picture you need to order them. You want your image to slowly emerge – just like you need to build on one point after the other in your essay. For your connect the dots drawing this means replacing the individual dots with numbers. For your essay it means ordering your points and writing it up accordingly.

So you as writer (and really researcher) find the evidence, identify the argument and then present it in a way that it effortlessly appears to the reader.

All these stages that go into this planning process are hidden from the reader. But for the essay to work the writer needs to go through them. This workbook is all about getting you to understand this ‘hidden’ academic practice – in a hands-on way. It contains sections to explore these stages from a number of perspectives, in the form of visual metaphors and analogies which are designed to highlight specific, important aspects of academia. Most sections also include something for you to do. Sometimes that is something you can complete in the book itself, sometimes something to keep inside envelopes inside, and sometimes (particularly towards the end) it is something to include in your next essay draft. And yes, there should be more than one draft! Just like anything else, essay writing is something that needs to be practised. That’s why a lot of things here are for you to try out, little projects to get you working on this regularly, because the more you work on it, the better it will get.

So let’s get started…

Lately, I have been writing abstracts again. Maybe it’s the time of year – the term is starting, leaves colour, and call-for-papers for conferences end up in my inbox. What I have noticed is that this time round I seem to have picked up a different understanding of the relationship between studio-practice and academic practice. In order to tell you more about this, I probably need to first tell you how I got there:

One of the things on my itinerary last spring (as a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I was on a sort of sabbatical) was a spring concentration at the Penland School of Crafts. For people interested in crafts this is a very special thing to do – you spend two months on campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with 24 hour workshop access and literally no outside distractions, giving you the opportunity to immerse yourself into your creative practice and just make. I had been there before, two years ago, when I took a two week class in the letterpress studio, and that had been pretty cool. To be able to come back for two months was an amazing opportunity and experience – and while it wasn’t cheap (as a non-American I didn’t qualify for the work study programme), it was an investment in myself that I am happy I made.

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

The finished patchwork side of the quilt

The concentration I took was called ‘Personal Cartography’, which is what attracted me. I love maps and the idea of devoting two months of my life to just concentrate on making maps and thinking about ways of documenting my environment was too good to miss.  Like probably a lot of people who teach within the creative arts, I struggle with finding the right balance between the teaching (and all that comes with it) and the time to develop my own creative practice. This class seemed like the logical extension to the work on the patchwork quilt I had been doing, which is based on mapping my learning and teaching experiences.The concentration sounded like it was custom-made for me and it came at exactly the right time (me thinking about taking a short break from teaching), so I signed up.

What was secondary for me was that this was a weaving class. Robin Johnston, our teacher, uses weaving to translate different ways she charts her own life (find out more about her work here). Most of these probably wouldn’t be considered as traditional maps, but I love the concepts and thoughtfulness of the work. And I didn’t mind to dip my toes into weaving. I didn’t really have any experience in it, we must have done very simple weavings in primary school, but I knew nothing about weaving on a big loom. However, I like learning new stuff and I figured if the weaving wasn’t to my taste I could always just find other outlets for my mapping.

Suffice it to say, I had a great two months. Sometimes it was really challenging, but at the end of the day I came home with a body of work that I am really proud of, a sort of meditation on identity. What I didn’t expect was that this experience also made me think – and understand better – the differences between studio-based practice and academic practice, between practice and theory, between demonstrating and teaching.

Ever since I started teaching I was aware that there is a difference between working in the studio and working in the lecture theatre and seminar room. Getting these two better aligned is in a way what Tactile Academia is all about. But I’m not sure I fully understood it. Don’t get me wrong, I can talk about it in detail with all the nice little references to theoretical models that the academic community likes so much (and have done exactly that at a number of conferences and in some papers). But the actual experience of it, of intensively learning a practical skill from scratch, something I clearly must have had in the past, must have faded somehow. Let’s say that having the refresher was eye-opening!

DSCI1303

My first threading of a loom in progress.

There are things that are incredibly hard to learn out of a book, but quite easy to pick up if somebody actually shows you. Case in point: For this course Robin had recommended Deborah Chandler’s book Learning to Weave, which as a complete swat serious student, I of course bought and started to read before flying over to the States. This is an excellent introductory book with lots of pictures in it – which I now know with hindsight. Initially most of the information in it was baffling to somebody who didn’t have access to a loom. Turns out that threading a loom is a mind-blowing concept for somebody with no real reference material. Getting an actual demonstration on how to thread a loom, on the other hand, makes this manageable. Putting it into practice yourself makes it easy (yes, you have to pay attention that threads aren’t crossed, and count heddles, but if you put the practice in, it gets easier – and faster – pretty quickly). So weaving, as a practical skill, I learned through demonstrations and practice. And a funny thing happens: once you have acquired the basics, the books make sense. After a few weeks of practice (practice as both a verb and a noun), I was able to understand the Chandler book that had confused me so terribly at the beginning. I also was able to learn how to do double-weave from a book with only a few questions for Robin.

Picking up the ‘personal cartography’ bit of the course was much harder. It’s a much more abstract concept. I think the difference was that while the weaving was demonstrated, the personal cartography was taught. For this we had readings on different practitioners, reference materials, sketchbook exercises, but overall this was much more loose, requiring analysis and independent study. Now you might remember me saying that this, and not the weaving, was my main reason for being there. It was scary how easy it was for me to get distracted by the call of the loom. This magical process that I could literally see I was getting better at with every inch I finished. Of course throwing a shuttle back and forth can become a meditative process pretty quickly, too, and that might have been part of the appeal. But overall, I think I realised that there is something basically almost immediately satisfying about skills that are taught by being demonstrated.

Is this one of the differences between studio practice and academic practice? Essay writing, a part of academic practice, can’t really be demonstrated in the way initial stages of studio practice can. I cannot immediately show the students what is going on in my head when I research and write. I can try to tell them – and I do. I can try to break this down into steps and give them these steps as tasks – which I do. I can show them different stages of drafts – which I do, but we rarely have time to explore these in detail. But this is more teaching by prompt rather than teaching by demonstration. Once they acquire the basics, it becomes a matter of practice. Then advice will make much more sense, just like the weaving book suddenly made sense to me. But getting there by prompt is harder than getting there by demonstration, I believe. And this might be doubly hard if they at the same time are learning skills by demonstration – the skills based in the studio, what they “came to university for” (a distinction I often hear from students trying to defend why they didn’t do the writing tasks I set them), the skills that are much more immediate and – dare I say it – fun.

I think that after my learning to weave experience I now understand the ‘call from the studio’ better. In a way it affirms my thinking that breaking down the first stages of academic practice into aspects that can be visualised or experienced somehow is a good way. Maybe this understanding can help with utilising demonstrating techniques in the seminar room.

 

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.

D:DCIM100DICAMDSCI0526.JPG

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!

 

Today’s Writing in Creative Practice workshop led by Nancy de Freitas was a masterclass in how to combine a lot of information with plenty of discussion and trying out, while still fostering a relaxing atmosphere. Honestly, the only person running around like mad and a bit frazzled was myself (but then I had to worry about the caterers – not that they didn’t do a fantastic job again!).

The idea was to this time focus on our own writing rather than our students’, and specifically on that mysterious beast: writing for publication.

People were so eager to get started that everybody was present fairly soon after we opened registration (i.e. when the coffee had arrived), so we for once had the time to go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk a little about why we were there.

Nancy then started us off with an introductory lecture that very clearly set out the process of writing for academic publication – the thinking processes that go into finding focus, the putting together of a (working) abstract, the writing itself, the editing process, the rewriting of the abstract this time for publication, the submission – and what happened afterwards, i.e. some stages of the review process. As editor of Studies in Material Thinking she was able to share some valuable insights from ‘the other side’ of the submission process (and I wish somebody had told me about all this when I was starting out in academia).

Our first little exercise used Rowena Murray’s Ten Prompts for planning a paper – and we all got some time to have a go, and then discuss the usefulness of having prompts like this. The following conversation showed that while not all questions were helpful in all contexts, the activity of sitting down and thinking with focus about the writing we were about to embark on was seen as helpful all round. Nancy also introduced us to Robert Brown’s Eight Questions and her own provocations, which include the requirement of putting forward not just writing, but also pictures. During our conversation we also found out that one of the group used a similar method for getting started in her writing – imagining she was going to the pub and having a conversation about her writing with somebody there (apparently this Pub Method is helped by actually going to the pub during a break in the writing…).

We talked about a number of ways to get started with writing and developing projects, my favourite probably the term of ‘Snack Writing’ – little writing tasks that are done regularly to put together a portfolio/file of little pieces of writing that can then help develop/be the starting point of something bigger. This could be reviews of own or other’s work or free-writing exercises, for example. I already do this with my students – setting them regular tasks to get them writing regularly – so now having a good term (Snack Writing) is great to get across to them that these tasks are meant to be non-threatening.

After a lovely buffet lunch, I did a session on thinking about different ways that writing can be published. I tied it into the Fishscale activity that I do with my students (and if you are a regular reader of this blog you will know what this is about, if you are not, search Fishscale as a Category) and shared my own experiences with a particularly frustrating article, where I made the (all too common) mistake of trying to adapt an article written for one journal and rejected for submission to another journal and ended up with what must have read as a confused mixture of data. (I now call this the Frankenfish phenomenon, after Frankenstein’s monster. Beware of the Frankenfish and always carefully tailor your writing to the journal you are submitting to!) I also made delegates design some fish representing the different ways of presenting work (hopefully I will be able to put some of them up on here soon).

Nancy took over again, and we talked some more about clarifying our practice – for example thinking about the concept, context, focus and methods of your research… and then swapping them around – what happens if you see your methods as your concept or your context as you focus? Again there was a great discussion with people starting to think about how to tailor the same research for different journals/audiences and possibly also how to mine a PhD for publications.

We ended by analysing two abstracts and discussing their strengths and weaknesses – and in extension talked about the review process a bit more. Nancy shared the form the review report at Studies in Material Thinking takes, which was again really useful.

Overall I found it to be an enjoyable and informative day – and can’t wait to do it all again, only with a bit more time, at the forthcoming Writing Retreat in Falmouth (there are still places left… sign up here!)

A special thank you to the Higher Education Academy and the Institue of Applied Creative Thinking (I-ACT) at Staffordshire University for funding this event!