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About a month ago (apologies this post has taken so long, I have great plans of writing up some more events from last month very soon!) I was lucky enough to go down to Bournemouth to attend the HEA funded workshop on the undergraduate research symposium. It was a packed day (with the opportunity to have a peak at the final degree show, I particularly was taken by the model making) at the Arts University College at Bournemouth.

After the formal welcome, Ruth Dineen started us off with a song of praise to the undergraduate research symposium by making the point that students need to be seen as independent from the student pigeonhole, and that this can be achieved through making them stakeholders in the Research Symposium, which with original research, research posters and presentations and Q&A discussions could really be seen as the opposite of the pigeonhole.

Kirsten Hardie and Annie Grove-White then talked us through their experiences of running these symposia for Graphic students, not just within one university, but as a point of exchange of three. They particularly highlighted the potential enclosed in making students the co-owners of such events and linking it to students’ interests and giving it professional and academic validity through having high quality keynote speakers.

What I was especially interested in was the use of posters as a way of bridging written and studio work, with its design helping to find focus and simplify ideas as well as identify new issues that need to be investigated, and the presentation of it as a ‘dry-run’ that can help develop an essay structure. Of course the poster can then also be used as a part of the portfolio, as a cover for the dissertation document, in promotional materials, etc.

We also heard a students’ perspective (which described a journey from the sceptical to the enthusiastic) and ended with discussions in smaller groups to identify challenges and opportunities before feeding back to the larger group. And there were examples of these posters to peruse, from both third and second year students.

My exercise book (which was provided) filled up with notes and ideas of how I could make this work as part of my practice of getting creative practice students to write academic texts. Could the students on the Postgraduate Certificate for Higher Education be roped in to facilitate, select, edit, organise? Could these posters be made an integral part of the conception of their written work and then showcased as part of their final degree show, at a half-time event in January, as part of a film festival for the media students? Of course in practice this might work very differently with students from disciplines that are not graphics centred, but I feel that the potential is definitely there.

Well, the second workshop that I organised for the HEA series of Writing in Creative practice was yesterday – and it went quite well again! However, as I was more involved with facilitating/presenting I didn’t actually get the chance to do my own concertina book, so don’t have any pictures for my reflection – hopefully some of the other participants will post some in the future, a first account can be found on Lisa’s blog.

This workshop was a bit more theoretical than the first one, with a key presentation by Dr. Fiona English who talked about her work with student writing and genre (published as a book I would very much recommend, it’s a bit pricey at the moment, but apparently Continuum is planning to bring out a paperback version so Fiona’s advice if you want the book at an affordable price is to call up Continuum and ask when the paperback version is coming out…).

To get delegates in the mood we started with the deconstructing/reconstructing text activity that Sarah and I had tried out (as described in the previous post) and there were some really interesting ‘poems’ created. Unfortunately the photography student I had booked again was too busy with his final degree show so I don’t have any pictures yet, but hope to provide some soon.

We then had a session with Jane Ball, academic writing skills tutor at the study skills centre at Staffordshire University, talking about ways to engage students with writing, which was followed by a lively discussion.

Fiona’s presentation was after lunch, and included delegates reading extracts from two different pieces of writing by the same student: an academic genre and the same piece re-genred into a play. We had a chance to try to analyse the shift that took place and what was gained and lost in this shift.

We ended with me sharing some ideas of writing as part of creative, practice-orientated tasks and assignments, not unlike the alternative presentations I have blogged about here previously, and I will try to post more details soon.

While we were battling the heat (the only room I could get during ‘exam season’ was in full sunlight, who would have thought the weather would turn out that nice?), it was a lively day and delegates from a number of universities were sharing their experiences and brainstorming to find ways to overcome the challenges we all seem to face.

Another conference that might be of interest is this year’s Writing Development in Higher Education international conference to be held at Liverpool Hope University, July 2-4th. The theme this time round is ‘Enacting thoughtful pedagogies and inclusive values in writing development’.

I am happy to report that my abstract has been accepted and that, pending staff development funding, I’ll be there to talk about my current research.

So the workshop mentioned in the previous post went off without a hitch, and while everything is still fresh in my mind, I thought I would post an account of my perspective. (As I was the person who had the idea and organised it I am possibly a bit biased, so keep that in mind when reading this.)

How do you describe a day full of inspiration and exciting company in just a few lines? As I don’t want to give you a line-by-line account of what happened (which probably isn’t that interesting), I am going to keep to one of the devices that we used to engage our delegates – reflective book making.

Back in December I had met with Sarah Williamson of the University of Huddersfield and she had introduced me to this idea – she asks the attendants at a conference for her post-graduate students to reflect on the papers given in a visual way making their own concertina books over the course of the conference. When starting to plan my workshop I was keen to use this idea, and with Sarah on board as one of the speakers, we started delegates off giving them a long paper-strip to use as they saw fit throughout the day.

Thinking Through Writing and Making Workshop Book
Alke Groppel-Wegener, 2012

Here are some images of mine, and what they remind me of…

While still a bit plain from the outside Рsomething I want to work on a bit more in future Рit is hard to contain, bursting with ideas. I used the ticker tape describing the journey of the first session as a belly band, but had to extend it slightly. Some thoughts are leaking out, which actually are reminders for me which will find their way into  my diary to be acted on later:

Thinking through Writing pages

The first session of the day was led by Pat Francis, who treated us to some of the activities from her trasure chest of things to do in order to develop reflective writing. (You can find out more about those in her book Inspiring Writing in Art and Design: Taking a Line for a write.) So the first few pages of my book are filled up with her warm-up exercises and then ways to get people writing (like the use of objects or photographs as starting points). This was really enjoyable and I picked up some ways in which I could improve some of the exercises I do to get my students to start putting pen to paper.

What I particulalry liked and will definitely integrate into my own practice is the idea of the concentric circles to visualise context. This is something I find my students struggling with, and using circles of different colours and sizes to show how things relate to each other seems like a really simple way to get this across and allow the students to explore this further.

Thinking through Making pages

After lunch it was Sarah’s turn to talk about her work with collage as a reflective tool. The pages in my book (again a bit sparse, I do want to draw a bit of a background to this) show that I was really thinking about this as letting the thoughts and ideas ‘bloom’. One of the things she highlighted was how many people (researchers and people experiencing this strategy alike) use the physical act of making in order to develop their ideas – it gives the thinking time to grow, which is a real strengths.

I added little faces into my petals to show two other ideas – on the one hand how putting things onto paper allows you to see your work from different perspectives – literally, but also through different frames of mind. I think this is particulalry important, and much easier when doing something visual rather than something written, words tend to pin meanings down (which of course is their strengths, but it is important that this pinning down isn’t too soon in the thinking process). The other idea about the faces is the point Sarah mentioned about having a ‘critical friend’ with whom to talk through what you have done. In a way this is then putting it into words, allowing you to find your topics, issues and possibly discovering more in the process (not unlike I do now as I write about this for all you out there). The other page is mostly taken up by an illustration I found in my pack. these were randomly distributed and I discovered this wheel people were walking in (like an oversized hamster wheel) in order to move some barrels. This very much reminded me of the team, how for me the day was very much about finding like-minded people that might be interested in pulling at the same string than I do.

I also glued in some jigsaw pieces. I had decided to include jigsaw pieces in the packs (everybody got some random ones, like with the book pages), because I think that they are a good symbol of the integration of writing into practice – they might be separate techniques, but if they fit together they make a larger whole. So I was really surprised that in my random stamps in my pack I found a stamp with a jigsaw design on it! Serendipity clearly told me to include that in my book design.

Fishscale page representing my talk

The last speaker of the day was myself, so while I didn’t really do any collaging, etc. while that was on, I thought I should at least represent it in my book. Also Jennie, a lady sitting at my group table, had found a stamp of a fish in her pack and thought I should have it, so I thought I definitely should include that. So this page is basically made at home after the event with some stamps I made for the little blue books I gave everybody to take home. It is all about the Fish-scale of Academicness, which I will elaborate on in a future post.

So far the back of the book is empty, but I hope I’ll get the chance to fill this up later on.

Once I get the photos back from the workshop I’m hoping to post some more of the made books here – if you were there and want to add your own account, just let me know!

Thank you again to everybody who came and helped make this such a good day!

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.

Another alternative presentation I used as an undergraduate to present my research was this second year assignment presented as a pop-up book. This was undoubtedly inspired by my parents giving me a pop-up book on architecture that Christmas. And you know what? – making these little models actually helped me understand some of the ‘basic theatre techniques and mechanisms’ I was writing about, the counterweight fly tower, for example.

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It does look a bit on the bland side, this remained very much an unfinished project, I always thought of it as a white card model that I would illustrate/colour further, but never got around to it (yet!).

Thanks to my parents for taking the photographs!

In my first year as an undergraduate student of Performance Design I had to put together a ‘Visual Reference File’. I don’t quite remember the details, but we had a number of ‘isms’ to research and find certain examples representing architecture, fashion/costume, jewellery, art and possibly a fifth catergory which I don’t quite remember. We also had to explain the philosophy behind the (art) movement. The idea, as the name said, was that we should refer to this initial body of work and build on it in our practice – and most of my class mates did put together actual files. I, however, really didn’t like the idea, because I didn’t think I would ever look up anything in this, so I had the choice of just doing it as straightforward as possible (with the knowledge that I would never use it and that it would be just for the sake of the assignment) or comiing up with a way of presenting it that would make me use it in future.

Visual Reference File

What I handed in was a parcel filled with letters and postcards, written to an imaginary friend, explaining the different movements and showing examples. This was accompanied by an appendix of sorts: a document explaining my reasons for presenting it in this way, a bibliography, and a list of academic references.

This was the explanatory text (just as it was with spelling mistakes and interesting punctuation, maybe I should point out that I am not a native speaker of English):

“To Whom It May Concern

This is my Visual Reference File. I realise it may be selfish to present it in this way, but it is supposed to be my VRF, and I am the one who should be inspired by it or look something up in there.

One of the things I learnt as a student so far is that it is not really the information itself that you get that counts, but it is where you can get the information you need when you need it. I know, that if I need some information on say Cubism one day I wouldn’t consult the VRF I had to compile in my first semester ar LIPA if it wasn’t fun to read as well as informative. Confronted with the fact that I’ld have to read something dry anyway I would always go for the primary source, such as the Oxford Companion to the Contemporary Arts, as for the notes, essays or reports I was once forced to write. What follows is that if I intend to use this VRF in future (which is the case), I better write it in a way that I’ll enjoy reading in future times.

I learn best by either writing things down in my own words or explaining it step by step to somebody else thus discussing it. In the following I’m doing both: I’m writing letters to discuss the VRF with … well, myself basically. The person I’m addressing is mainly fictional, and the incidents other than the art movements are either fictional, autobiographical or nicked from other peoples lifes (but I’m not telling which are which). I like reading letters and wlthough I cannot be too sure about what I will enjoy reading in future I think I am pretty close with that.

However this chosen form means that my VRF is not properly referenced. I am aware of that and am doing it on purpose, because in my private correspondence I don’t use the Harvard system of reference and although I sometimes do use footnotes they are more the type Terry Pratchett uses in his books (only not as funny unfortunaterly) than the type you find in academic work. Due to the academic approach that probably stands behind the assessment of this, I have compiled a bibliography, but this should be seen more as an appendix than as an integral part of the file.”

Looking back on this now (as an HE lecturer myself) a number of things are probably noteworthy.

It was clearly written BG (Before Google), as these days I would start my research on the internet (and expect my students to do the same).

I must have been paying some attention to learning outcomes and assessment criteria, hence the appendix, but I realise that this would have been spectacularly inappropriate if teachers had wanted to test my academic writing skills. (Indeed I sometimes tell my students about this particular assignment of mine and warn them that it would not have passed in the study skills module I am teaching – but only because here the academic essay is a named outcome, and in a way the point of the module.)

In a way I was successful with my intentions. Even though I don’t use the file to reference art movements (at the moment), that is because that is not the sort of work I do (at the moment) – I am not working as a theatre designer as I was trained to – it is one of the undergraduate assignments that I have kept through five house moves and that I do still go back to to look at and read every once in a while, that the odd postcard keeps getting added to, and that is now housed in a different parcel, because the original one was falling apart.

In my own experience of teaching academic writing to undergraduate students in a number of creative practice disciplines (i.e. students who have a ‘practical’ component that is studio based) there seems to be a certain reluctance by the students to invest into writing in the same way as they do into subject specific skills.

This is actualy something I researched into further as part of my docotral thesis, which was all about the role of writing in undergraduate design education in the U. One of the findings was that students do not seem to see writing as a skill that needs to be practiced, but rather something almost instantenous: you write it and then it is done, so then you hand it in. The idea of re-writing bits, editing others out, going out to do a bit more research, overall all the preparation work and the honing of this as a skill – all things the students would do if the outcome is something studio based, whether thrown pot or animated film – is one that does not seem to occur to them, because they see it as removed from their practice.

As part of my PhD I introduced some assignments to students of Three Dimensional Design at Manchester Metropolitan University that were aiming to link their practice to written tasks, and were located in the studio rather than on the Contextual Studies/History of Art and Design side. These were not academic essays, but rather were meant to accumulate into a reflection on their practice, actual and aspirantional. Some details can be found in this case study written for the Writing PAD network.

Recently I have been thinking about exploring the idea of making in order to ‘get your head around’ more academic processes/research/writing a bit more – especially in the context of making artist’s books. More details about this project as it develops.

Thinking about this has made me realised that I have used little strategies like that in my own work (as a student and since then) to order thoughts or turn content into something more tangible (will probably post some examples on this blog in future categorised as ‘Alternative Presentations’).