Snap Happy – Images of Community

 

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Blue things on the school run. Poppy, Ethan and Jaida (aged 7)

Followers of our blog might recall that, last year, Jenni and Natasha took part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. Well, we’re embarking on it again this year and we thought it would be interesting to reflect at the end of each week on our experiences and try to relate our activities to the world of learning and teaching. Here, Natasha reflects on the first week…

 

 

So, the first week has passed and already we’re awash with creativity. The first few days were a struggle for me because I had tonsillitis. I managed to design the front page of a newspaper and to draw the view from my window. I’ve still not got round to building a tower, but that is fine because there are no fixed deadlines (well, end of January I suppose). I find it interesting that I have every intention of going back and catching up – I am not sure my students would be so enthusiastic about a missed seminar task! My assiduousness, I think, is partly down to a curiosity about the learning gain (what will I discover?), and partly because I am invested in the challenge commitment (I can’t miss a day!).

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Sheffield shades of blue

My momentum finally got going on Day 4 with a challenge to photograph and share things which are different shades of blue. I enjoyed checking in to twitter throughout the day to see other people’s collages. What really struck me about this challenge though, was the way in which it brought together the virtual and real worlds. On the afternoon school run, I told the children what I was doing ( I had to explain why I was snapping a tatty old chip fork!); before I knew it a whole bunch of adults and children were pointing at objects and shouting ‘BLUE!’ and ‘Put mine on twitter!’. It was a very striking example of how an activity can capture the imagination of a group and result in a collaborative mission to collect and produce.  And if that weren’t satisfying enough, imagine the delight when a 7 year old, completely unprompted, excitedly reflected on how we so often go about our lives without noticing things. This was, of course, the point of the whole exercise and provided a powerful moment of shared reflection to everyone gathered around the phone.

New in the January challenge this year is ‘Collaborative Friday’ – a weekly task which can be completed in groups. The first was a game of ‘alphabet photo tag’ which required team members to work their way through the alphabet posting images and tagging others*.  Unsurprisingly, we immediately magnetised to form our own group, but it was so nice that several other people – strangers – were keen to join us to make a wider community. As the day progressed, our identities started to emerge; we playfully mocked ourselves, glimpsed into people’s workspaces, enjoyed sharing what we ate/drank. Without actually meeting or asking direct questions, we learned an enormous amount about each other and, I think, built bonds. At the end, we were proud of what we had achieved and looked forward to working together again.

So, what was it about these two tasks, in particular, that have engaged me in week one? Well, they both involved the use of images and I think that is important for giving learners confidence. Images allow us to explore, analyse, test and communicate ideas and there is massive potential for using imagery in teaching, even in the most unlikely of subjects. Another aspect, I am sure, is that these tasks were easy to complete with a smart phone; the fact that I could seamlessly integrate the tasks into my day was convenient but also empowering (no guilt!). But the biggest thing I will take away from this week is the power of the learning that takes place when you are involved in creating, sharing and co-producing – whether this is in the real or virtual world, part of a game or just something I do on my own. Feeling you are part of a community is energising and gives you the motivation to actively participate, interact and reflect on events; isn’t this the holy grail of teaching in higher education?

*Amusingly, the technicalities of the ‘tag’ game escaped our attention and we launched instead into a free-for-all game of ‘splatter’.  Our teammates were very generous in tolerating our complete disregard for order and rules.

Feeling inspired? It’s not too late to join. Sign up here if you want to get challenging! Follow the daily conversation on twitter #64millionartists .

Post Script:  Day 5 was poetry. I disliked it. I got on and did it. I think I passed (just). I got a bit of gentle (sympathetic) feedback. I am not sure I learned anything. Let’s move on. (thinks: how often do students feel like this about an assessment? Might come back to this…)

 

 

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – Singing for freedom ‘Old Tongue’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Jackie Kay’s poem, Old Tongue

The following reflective pieces were taken as ‘fieldwork’ for our SRHE 2016 paper on metaphorical inquiry.

 

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Catriona:

This poem highlights the way in which language is part of our identity and that sometimes learning something new actually invokes loss and even a connection with the past.

This sad tale of transition hits me in two ways. Firstly, it reminds me of the trauma of moving to France when I was a student and being completely lost in another language before eventually finding all those new words at once exhilarating and stimulating. However, unlike the narrator in the poem, I didn’t feel like I was ‘turning back’ or that ‘I would have taken them in,/swallowed them whole, knocked them back.’ For me, it was quite the opposite and I was desperate to absorb as many new words and sounds as possible with the aim of becoming French, becoming other…

The phrase ‘It made my mother’s blood boil’ made me smile (and not only because of the real ‘Scottishness’ of the phrase – she may have lost her words but not the sound). It reminded me of how upset my own (Scottish) mother was when – as I became increasingly fluent in French – I muddled up words, used the wrong prepositions as I substituted French syntax for English. There was a sense of betrayal. Yet it was this love of French, this desire to become French that was my intrinsic motivation to pursue my studies and keep going through the PhD. I have never lost this ‘new tongue’ and it has enriched my language, my ‘old tongue’ endlessly.

However, I chose my exile. For the narrator in the poem, this imposition of another language and culture is not made by choice. It makes me wonder – given that English is the lingua franca of higher education – how many others feel like that. How many of our international colleagues or students are economic migrants who arrive in our institutions, their ‘own vowels start[ing] to stretch likes bones.’?

The sense of rage, of helplessness, and finally in the last words, of defiance implies that the ‘old tongue’ lives on regardless despite being ‘lost’ and ‘buried’, the entire poem itself rejoices in the sounds and intonation of that same language. On a very personal way, it also evokes my own transition into higher education where I was struck by the inadequacies of my own language, particularly in English Studies. Like the narrator in the poem, ‘words fell of my tongue’ as I was forced to learn and become fluent in academic English. I remember returning to my hometown in a former industrial part of Scotland where I was mocked for ‘having a posh university accent’. I had abandoned my roots.

This imposition of English, of academic English in particular, in order to succeed in the world of academia and its paralysing and empowering effect on both staff and students is the thread that comes through both of these critical reflections of the poem. In one of our workshops, which we ran in Singapore, one of the participants was herself a Scottish academic who had lived there for a number of years and she chose to read the poem aloud to the group. She wept. The act of speaking those Scottish words aloud that had been ‘buried’ inside her triggered an emotional response. But also, as her tongue wrapped its way round those long forgotten words, she still knew them. As a learner and as a teacher, her ‘old tongue’ continued to speak to her. Another layer of identity to be unravelled…

Jennie:

The most striking aspects of Kay’s ‘Old Tongue’ relate to ideas of agency. Loss is a consequence of compulsion, a driving out, compelled by unidentified (or unidentifiable) external forces. Linguistic dislocation is an unconscious reaction to relocation. The result of this is similarly unseen, the gradual processes of loss not initially perceived, cannot be stopped until it is too late. Words fall, lost – although not lost. They still leave echoes, and can be recalled and listed in memoriam. It is this memory of what was before which perhaps creates the emotional experience of loss more than the actual changes in linguistic register. This knowledge of the ‘wrong sound’ – can only come from a remembrance of the ‘right sound’ – which was homely, and in which identity and sense of self and the expression of that self were aligned. This dislocation of self – can only be realised within the person who knows the before and after. It is imperceptible from outside. The new words which ‘march in’ are not ghastly if they have always been your words – ‘scones said like scones’./ Pokey hats into ice cream cones’. The poetic richness of language becomes functional, imaginatively sparse, anchored firmly to a prosaic explanation.

This speaks to my own loss of disciplinary familiarity. When I was 28 I was forced ‘south’, changing fields from the critical traditions of English Literature, which celebrates subjectivity and creative interpretations, revels in metaphor and reading against the grain to academic development. Immured in the social sciences, I felt compelled to swap pokey hats for ice cream cones.

My ways of disciplinary knowing become Kay’s lost language. They stole away, did a moonlight flit, loading the cart with academic identity, confidence and prestige leaving behind only a debt of methodological uncertainty. What happened to these ways of knowing? Kay’s poem seems uncertain, they are wandering and might be found, they are buried in her new alien land. In my own practice, like Kay, I try to call them back, ‘like calling in the sea’. I want them back, I want the right sound in my mouth, the old disciplinary ways of knowing which for me are forceful, powerful vehicles through which we can know more profoundly. In order to engage academics in pedagogic exploration, I reach for ways of expression which ‘gie it laldie’. This power can only be mastered as Heaney phrases it ‘in the language of first utterance’ – which for me is the creative, the poetic, the subjective, that which is powered by the force of critical imagining.

Yet, I pause. Is this desire to ‘gie it laldie’ and to find succour in my old ways of knowing, even now my disciplinary bones have stretched, and as I have grown into a new identity, like calling in the sea? It looks like my work is having impact, but the sea would have returned anyway. Has my new language, the language of learning and teaching, with its frameworks, paradigms, and data, born of the social science ‘south’ stealthily become my own? Is this professed desire to ‘gie it laldie’ – to express academic practice in an ‘old tongue’, a tongue which is lost, just a performance which testifies to my loss.

 

 

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – singing for freedom ‘The Moment’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Moment’.

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The following reflective pieces were undertaken as ‘field work’ for our conference paper at SRHE 2016, ‘Educational birds: a hybrid metaphorical enquiry’.

Catriona

This entire poem spoke to me as an extremely powerful metaphor for knowledge and raises the pertinent issue of ownership of knowledge. In our current exploration of how students learn and in particular the positioning of the student as co-creator of knowledge. This shift in teacher-student power has implications for the role of knowledge in the ‘supercomplexity’ that is the contemporary university (Barnett) as well as who controls and therefore owns that knowledge.
In my context, the first stanza strikes me as an apt description of the PhD process. The fact that there is no full stop throughout the whole stanza gives such a strong sense of the length of the process. The positioning of ‘you’ at the beginning of the third line draws in the reader at the ‘centre’ and forces us to look inwards, to reflect on what it might mean to us, as individuals. This inclusive ‘you’ brings the reader closer to the narrator, but this sense of self that is brought out through the use of the word ‘centre’ is further emphasised through the enlarging sense of space spreading out from the ‘room’ all the way to the ‘country’. This vastness of time and space highlights the extraordinary depth and breadth we go to in our ‘voyage’ with all its connotations of peril and adventure to cross the threshold and reach the other side. The doctorate. But who is the gatekeeper? As the poem continues, doubts creep in, reading through the lens of learning and teaching, the imposter syndrome grows and ‘No, they whisper. You own nothing.’ The insidiousness of these voices, which is highlighted by their plurality imply the impossibility of ever truly crossing that threshold to the other side. The gatekeepers – for the PhD students – are their supervisors of course but they are also the academic establishment. The chilling words at the end of the poem ‘You were a visitor, time after time/climbing the hill, planting flag, proclaiming’ emphasise the precariousness of knowledge. As PhD students, with each new discovery, new reading and new argument put forward is the sense that you are getting closer to that moment of ownership, of validation. And yet, as the poem expresses so poignantly, this is an ever-elusive process. For once you have the PhD and you in turn supervise others, you realise that actually ‘the cliffs fissure and collapse’ as you are not really the gatekeeper you had assumed existed. The more you read and learn and even teach, the less in control the knowledge becomes and in fact the more ambiguous everything feels… Working with this ‘found poem’ in workshops, participants respond to this metaphor and begin to probe their role in terms of gatekeeper or owner of disciplinary knowledge. Discussions around whether we can ever actually ‘own’ what we know or if everything is in fact known only in its relationship to what has been before emphasises how individual our contexts are. This may seem obvious but in fact, it is not. When we talk generically about ‘knowledge and understanding’ as a key benchmark for our disciplines, this glosses over the complexities the poem draws out as well as the way in which the individual has been shaped by and in turn shapes their own knowledge and then translates it as teachers and learners. Without reflecting critically on what this poem as metaphor means to me, these messy layers of ambiguity would have been left unexplored and the assumptions remained under wrap.

Jennie

The powerful inversion of ownership in the final lines of Atwood’s poem asserts an unfamiliar and uncomfortable authority. The emphatically end-stopped lines admit no challenge. What you thought was is not. Hard work, journeying, success does not mean possession, even though this is the story that you tell. The sense of just reward that you feel is fallacious. The right of ownership, not just disputed but denied, is not just material – of a room, of a dwelling, of a domain, of a community, of a nation. It is also deeply entwined with mastery of your own narrative, you stand not only in the centre of your space, but also at the centre of your story: ‘knowing at last how you got there,’.

For me this speaks of the reflective self, and uncomfortably confronts idea of the reflective practitioner that I promote in my academic development work. For example, I draw upon the work of social anthropologist, Geertz (1995) asking academics to position themselves within the parade of their lives, representing where they have come from in order to understand their pedagogic assumptions, and to ‘own’ their future development. It speaks to my allegiance to narrative enquiry which I believe sustains multiple truths, but which still creates ‘knowledge’ to be transferred and exchanged. I wonder, can you truly deal in that which you don’t own?

In Atwood’s poem it is at the point of certainty, of attainment, of tenure that knowledge disintegrates – melting back into its component parts. All which was comforting and secure retreats, ‘soft arms’ ‘unloose’, the language which you thought was your own is reclaimed, high ground is leveled, you have no medium within which to exist: ‘you can’t breathe’.

So, which certainties does this poem interrogate? What is this contested property? Knowledge? Narrative? Identity? When I first read this poem I thought of it as knowledge – that is imagined and reimagined, which belongs to no-one but belongs to the world. We stake our claim, we proclaim our interpretations (which we often present as certainties) but each fresh clutch of academics supplants our readings, rushing up the hill to plant a flag of their own. Like most academics I rushed to interpret the academic world through its research activities. But now, I read it again, and I wonder whether this could represent learning and teaching. We speak of ‘our students’, ‘our practice’, ‘our teaching philosophies’ – we impose ownership, we are recognised, certified, exhibited in offices, we tell stories of our teaching and about who we are as teachers. But perhaps Atwood’s poem prompts us to question this. Are the unloosing trees our students moving into independence, taking back their language as they learn and then unlearn, as they draw away do we gasp for air wondering how we can be teachers when we no longer ‘teach’?

If we relinquish our acquisitive grip on education, the story of our practice is no longer our story alone, and we can no longer be the truthful tellers of it. Rather we are the sum of many stories, and it is in the ways in which we are found by students that we earn our place in the world.

“We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round”

 

Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.

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A communion with learning: inside the lacunae

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Inside the Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh @Helen McCrorie, 2016

We know that learning happens informally and formally, and in all sorts of learning spaces but how often do we pause and consider the serendipitous nature of learning in all its forms? In this blog post Catriona Cunningham reflects on possibilities that open when creative and academic practices intertwine.

August 2016: Helen McCrorie stood on the threshold of her exhibition – opening the wooden door to allow us to enter into the dark and intimate interior of the former meeting house. A symbolic choice of location. We made our way along empty pews before nestling in the corner, right in front of three large screens which flickered between moving images. I could see the outlines of other heads around me but my eye was drawn to the murky glass skylight panel above my head, which cast a sombre light on the room; it felt like we were being watched from above. We were also participating in our own ritual. Our communion.  With one another? With nature? With ourselves?

The images on the screen went round in a loop with no obvious demarcation between beginning and end – the ceremony is not the climax here. It is the process that counts. So, we watched the men as they prepared for their own commune. We observed one man’s everyday ritual banal and familiar as he ate breakfast and started to prepare for his initiation into the priesthood. We watched others, a collective of men, who banged and moulded the raw material of wood from their surrounding landscape to create the flambeaux that they would then carry through their local Scottish village in Hogmanay celebrations.

McCrorie’s commentary on these male rituals is far from neutral: the camera lingers on the physical surroundings of each context – the mysticism of the lay priest undermined by the sight of him sitting on the sofa eating his toast and marmalade or by the laddish enthusiasm with which the other priest embrace and slap him heartily following on from the ceremony. There are other juxtapositions: the solemnity of the male procession through the village gently parodied by the close-up of a can of irn bru or by the way in which one of the young man struggles under the weight of the flambeau. Male power and strength, both physical and societal, are thereby questioned and critiqued, albeit without malice. The voiceover commenting on the film is anonymous and androgynous. Ambiguity reigns.

This theme of watching, observing and noticing matters for the purpose of McCrorie’s probing bird’s eye view on our society’s male rituals. But the act of observing her observations inspired me to notice more closely and carefully what I learned. My role in learning and teaching positions much of my reading and observing in the domain of scholarly thinking, of pedagogical research as a way of informing my own academic practice and my work with colleagues as they cross over their own learning and teaching practice into professional recognition. McCrorie’s film made me remember how powerful art and literature can also be in shaping the way we think about learning and teaching.

These simultaneous films going round in loop highlighted to me the rituals of what we do in academic development and how little we question the process of how we recognise good practice in learning in teaching. Are we also trapped in the lacunae where we collaborate to ensure that the process remains the same? In his most recent novel, David Mitchell illustrates the danger of conserving the status quo in a most chilling way. Madeleine Mien’s novel gives us terrifying perspectives of the danger of sacrificing the collective for the individual and for trying to make education fit the purposes of a political agenda. McCrorie, Mitchell and Mien have all influenced the way I think about my own work in the last month alone. The theme of laddism; the danger of the collective; the purpose of society and its rituals. These issues all matter in higher education but it is through creative media that I understand why. My learning cannot be contained to the rules of the academic world. Can yours?

McCrorie, H. The Clock in Commune, video installation at The Glasite Meeting House, Edinburgh Art Festival, August 2016

Mitchell, D. Slade House. London: Sceptre Books. 2015.

Thien, M. (2016) Do not say we have nothing. London: Granta.

 

 

Why are we here?

IMG_6987In this blog post, Natasha Taylor and Catriona Cunningham reflect on life in the wonderless classroom…and the perils of asking ‘why are you here?’…

Natasha’s story…

I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach this term, but it has turned into one of the most frustrating teaching experiences I have ever had. Attendance is a serious problem and even when they do come they are not engaged – it is like they don’t care. Out of a group of 16 students, I have never even met 8 of them. Nothing in my arsenal of ‘tried-and-tested strategies’ works – absence reporting, pleas to collective conscience, signposts to assessment, promises of fun. Not even chocolate.

Perhaps it is about misplaced expectations? It is a topic that I find interesting – academically, but also at a more general level. Who wouldn’t find crime investigation, prisons and the courts interesting? Who wouldn’t want to come and have a discussion about these things? What is interesting is that in the conversations we have had, they don’t seem to have any awareness of what is going on in the world – be it in real life news, or fiction. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that their lives are enriched with new movie releases, tweeted news headlines, trashy holiday reads and Netflix?

I have been determined not to accept the argument that they are all slipping into ‘consumer mode’ and just want to be presented with a certificate at the end of three years. Surely students come to university to learn, not just be fed knowledge? At the end of one mediocre discussion, I challenged them on this very point. WHY are you here if it is not to take every opportunity made available to you? WHY the inertia?

Devastatingly, the response was numbing. They didn’t even seem to care that I was challenging their very being, demanding them to justify themselves. It was so utterly frustrating because I know what they are missing.  Am I wrong to get cross with them for that?  Should I be letting them decide how and when to engage?

Catriona’s Story

January 2016: Return to institutional life after 5 years in the academic jungle of the Higher Education Academy with its many different tribes and territories. Now, I’m in an institutional landscape where learning and teaching is taking root and sprouting. In academic development we are launching a new HEA-accredited CPD framework and are piloting a (non-accredited) course for those aiming to become Associate Fellows. Within a few days of launching this course, waiting lists for the sessions were full; there was an appetite or even a hunger for teaching and learning… As the weeks have gone by, however, I’ve often felt like I was back in the jungle constantly battling through shoots that are resistant and occasionally hostile.

I had imagined sharing the excellent practice taking place across the UK and beyond, looking at this study, or this website and helping them see the magic you can unleash in your class. They explain very patiently to me that this is all great, exciting, possibly even inspiring and yet they have no time to integrate this new way of doing things. It is as if I am bringing them brightly wrapped gifts from around the world and they don’t even want to unwrap the paper. I want exploration, they want answers. I want change, they want empathy. I want hope, they want job security.

Yesterday, to my shame, I let my emotions show in a class. In an open discussion, I felt a surge of anger I couldn’t – or didn’t – conceal and asked them why they were here to learn about learning and teaching if they didn’t actually want to change. Unlike Natasha’s participants, there was an audible gasp and lots of comments in the session feedback sheets. They were confused, had learned nothing and were deeply offended that I had questioned their reasons for being there. And they were right to be angry because instead of opening up a model for collaboration and ensuring their space was ‘safe’, I was imposing my agenda on them.

But how, in academic development, in the spirit of openness and educational enquiry, can we change hearts and minds without getting battle-fatigue? Where can we find an open clearing in the jungle?