Musings on the 2020 January Challenge: Part 1

This is my fifth year taking part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge and, as in previous years, I’m taking time out at the end of each week to reflect on the experience and draw parallels with the (often un-creative) world of higher education. Here are my thoughts on the first week (or so)…

So far I have kept up with all the challenges. We’ve been on holiday in Western Australia since the New Year and I have come to rely on the daily challenge as a way of taking time out – to step off the holidaying tread mill (What’s for dinner? Are these socks clean? Why won’t this stuff fit in the case? Where did we park the hire car?), properly engage with my surroundings, and appreciate the impact that creativity has on well being. For the first time, this year, I’ve really found it an effective way of de-stressing!

I think the reason for this is that I have worked out how to make time for and enjoy the reflective parts of the activities. The framework that supports the January Challenge is ‘Do Think Share’; I have really cracked the ‘Think’ bit this time, and not just focussed on the ‘Do’ and ‘Share’.  This has made me think about how we teach, support and value reflection in our teaching, and work as academic developers – how we walk the walk as well as doing the talk.

Do

Anyone who has followed my tweets in Januaries past will know that I am an enthusiastic photographer and a very reluctant poet. I danced once in 2016 and declared that was enough! The whole point of the January Challenge is that it encourages people to take risks, have fun and just play. Failure is just as important as success.

So far, my most satisfying activity was Make Something Small Look Big (Day 5). I’ll admit that I was lucky with this one – it landed in my mailbox just as we’d made the decision to visit Wave Rock (Hyden, WA) in the morning, and I just knew what I had to do.  Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no craft materials made it all the more fun – amazing what you can do with a penknife, an up-cycled boarding pass and a glob of stolen blutack! The mini super-surfer was born and it was a lot of fun playing around with perspective in the awesome surroundings of a 130 million year old landscape!

The hardest one (and least enjoyable) was Post-it Possibilities (Day 7). Yes, I know, imagine the shock!  Post-it notes are my lifeblood, my currency and I was quite smug when I first read the challenge – to do something creative with a post-it note. But then I was hit by complete creative block. I had nothing. I gave a note each to the (5) kids – within a minute they’d made chatterboxes, fangs, wobbly eyebrows, airplanes. But I sat for hours in the the car with an empty head and a pen, and inspiration never came. The deadline came and went and I failed; I failed the one task which should have been easy. The post-it pad is still on my desk, taunting me.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think there is something in the fact that the Post-it note challenge brief was very open – just ‘be creative’ – it lacked the structure and assessable/observable outcome of the perspective activity. What is an easy or safe activity? What IS creative? I’ve seen so many creative ways of using post-its in my time, perhaps I was interpreting it to mean new or original? I was setting myself up to fail. It has made me think about how we introduce reflective practice to our students and colleagues – do we adequately explain what is ‘expected’ and how do we support the process? When we introduce new forms of assessment (which I absolutely believe we should) then how do we ensure there are no victims to the sinking sands of ‘creative stuckness’? Actually immersing myself in the experiential side of these questions has exposed new layers of complexity.

Think

It is interesting to think (!) about what I’ve done differently about the Think tasks this year.  I see a marked difference between noticing/observing what I have done, and actually uncovering the meaning beneath or within it. I have been reflecting semi-objectively, consciously, and that is not new…but there have also been times when realisations just pop into my head (‘maybe I did/felt that because…’). It is not always comfortable enlightenment!

I have found myself thinking deeply about the significance of being here in Australia, rather than in the UK. Some of the challenges need a twist of interpretation – so for example the challenge to write a winter Haiku (Day 8) led me to reminisce about the sensations of the British winter (cold, wet, grey but with soft lights, fires, comfort food) and contrast them to those of the Australia summer (which I LOVE) – being warm, outside, swimming. January brought the most horrific bushfires to our doorstep and this led to some poignant reflections on the power of nature and the threat of climate change (in both hemispheres). As the month unfolds, there will be more explorations of my identity, connection to country and desires for the future.

Context, then, is important. We can set the same task for all, yet the meaning they attach to it will depend entirely on the context; what came before, the place, the priorities. And context changes: hourly, daily, annually. Reflection never really ends – its a life long thing. The trick – and I think this is my breakthrough – is to find your themes. This is, of course, exactly what underpins the work I do to support Awards/Professional Recognition, but this is a great example which I will find really useful to share when I am explaining it to people in the future.

Share

This has been the one area of difference for me this year. In previous years, both Jenni and I have enjoyed the sense of community that has emerged as fellow challengers (strangers) connect and play.  This year, the only real connections have come in the form of a few ‘likes’ – that is nice of course, but there isn’t the sense of being part of a collective generative project that there was in the past. Looking at the tweets via the hashtag #£64millionartists, though, it seems like there has been a big take up of the challenges in physical spaces – community hubs, libraries, museums – this is brilliant and it has made me think about how I could do that next year.

There is a Facebook group and I have never used it in the past – I don’t tend to use Facebook in that way. But out of curiosity the other day I joined, and the conversations there are literally awesome – the levels of emotional honesty, openness and personal exposure almost terrify me. Perhaps the lull I am experiencing, then, is a Twitter phenomenon, and could be just as much a product of my own relationship with social media as anything else?  I’ve certainly used social media differently since moving to Australia – I notice and value interactions more acutely. It has made me think about the ways we connect online – use filters, crave ‘likes’, (mis)interpret silences, choose words and imagery to express emotions. It has made me think – again – about feedback…the message, the purpose, the vehicle, the emotion…..that’s another can of worms open!

So, that’s a wrap on my reflections for the first week or so.  It is not too late to join the January challenge if you want to give it a go this is a good place to start: Do Think Share.

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