Thursday, 15 June 2017

Developing a visual-textual academic paper: lessons on process and style.

I have begun working on a visual-text journal article with a colleague at work. This has continued a learning process about developing a visual vocabulary that began for me in earnest at Christmas, when I asked for a graphics tablet so I could integrate my artistic practice much more into my teaching and research. Some of my most challenging learning in this context has been about visual style.

The year started really well on the visual front, and I had some good feedback on using illustration to teach a social policy module on my Childhood and Early Years Studies programme. It reminded me of the power of the visual, but also how much work has to go on behind the scenes in order to make it accessible, inclusive and meaningful to students. It's not 'just drawing' or 'making things look nice', and it IS valid academic practice when appropriately utilised. At the same time, drawing in academic contexts is not automatically valid, relevant or accessible - hence the need for serious consideration.

Examples of new illustrations used in a recent Social Policy module.

My more recent focus has been on the article I mentioned, in collaboration with a colleague who is a cultural geographer. It has been a real eye opener in terms of building technical skills, swapping audiences and most significantly, thinking about my visual style(s). This has allowed me to take the learning from my teaching practice and really forge something new for me.

Because I love drawing and painting, I entered the process of creating visuals for an academic article in quite a relaxed way, but quickly realised that drawing, like writing, could be lots of things. I have learnt whilst doing, as multiple challenges and questions arose. Practically, I have learnt about sketching, layers, line art and colouring in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. I have asked questions about whether I start with line art or blocked tones and about what sorts of marks work well together. More importantly, I have thought very hard about what job my visuals need to do in articulating a particular narrative, alongside text. I tend to call this the development of my visual vocabulary, and I realise it needs as much thinking through (and work) as does writing. I have dealt with questions such as: what do I want to draw attention to? how might it be 'read'? how does a visual narrative differ from decoration? Therefore, my focus is on how I communicate visually in specific contexts, or my style for shorthand.

The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language defines Style as;
"A general term that primarily means a way of doing things, with additional senses such as doing them appropriately, doing them well or badly, doing them in a distinctive way, or doing them in one of a number of ways." (OUP, 2003). 
Finding a way of doing things is a simple phrase which requires serious attention, especially if we want to that way of doing things to be appropriate and distinctive. It has made me think about how the various parts of my artistic repertoire will work well together, what I should select and reject, and what is going to help my 'reader'.

You can see some parts of the process below. It's a work in progress.

Parts of the development process towards a style that works for one article.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Drawing and writing together: pushing my boundaries

Shocking mess at my desk.
I started my occasional blog on developing visual methods in research and teaching as a way of documenting my own process of grappling with developing my artistic-academic practice. It gives me an opportunity to connect up thinking about how I can know things, my perspectives on subjects and how I develop and use visual methods in a coherent way. This is important for me, as my fields of teaching and research (e.g. children, young people and families, service design and evaluation, leadership and organisation) are ones, like others, that benefit from the application of visual methods but deserve more than decoration or illustration in the traditional sense. So - I am here to push myself both in my teaching, research and writing activities. Below are a couple of examples: firstly from teaching, then from a writing project in progress. They are not perfect, but that's not the point.

I started this academic year with a personal commitment to increase the use of drawing in my teaching practice, which I have done (and loved). The images below are from a module I have taught with a colleague on social policy for children, families and communities. As someone who has studied social policy and public administration, I know this can be a dry subject if simply considered as a body of knowledge to be transmitted, so the challenge for me has been to use drawing to stimulate the imagination, disrupt thinking and to provide spaces for thinking and and questioning. I have done this with a fairly loud voice in my head saying "stop playing about on the edges", as I have introduced imaginary machines that make social policy, or birds that get involved in family life. I know, it sounds a bit crackers. The thing is, I have found from student evaluation that drawing has enabled some of my students to find new 'ways in' to this topic. This new sort of access has also helped them to explore and navigate in new ways, but I have more to do to document this which will be exciting.

An education / schooling "machine" 

Family intervention birds.

Three point perspective 'community' with contrasting elements.

On the writing front, I'm also working with a colleague who is a cultural geographer and fellow childhood person to develop a way of thinking and writing together. This is new territory for me, which I can tell because I spend my time thinking (again) "is this properly academic?" "am I wasting my time?" "shouldn't I be doing this the other way round?" and so on. In the end, I have realised that this process of exploration and adventure will result in learning, and I will be a better writer and illustrator because of it. After some initial conversations, I've made drawing my starting point, which has been a challenge, as I'm normally thinking about what the issue is, what contribution I offer and what impact it has had to please reviewers and readers to please a more (social) scientific audience. I am more than sure the process of writing and then peer review will develop clarity and rigour, but I'm starting a conversation (which includes visuals) with my co-author. Examples from the early part of the process are below.

Sketching elements that will eventually feature in a image-text article.

In this process, we are imagining a composite image which will also be deconstructed and used with text (sort of) in a way inspired (but not copying) a graphic novel format. I'm taking some of Deleuze's ideas I've previously blogged about (stacking, mapping, folding etc.) and applied them to early childhood education practice. I have found the process of sketching multiple versions has been helpful, and has caused me to think about relationships between elements and "arguments" in new ways. We will be discussing how text will interact with the images.

An early composite image featuring the elements previously sketched. 
This is an early version of a composite image I have produced with a graphics tablet which may start or end the article. The time spent drawing and revising has given me space to consider and reflect on the topic in a way which writing alone does not tend to do. It's helped me avoid some of the early editing and self-censorship that can sabotage my writing projects, so that has been helpful.

Creating elements as artifacts to support writing collaboration.
I am developing new ways of collaborating for academic publication which are helpful for me. In addition to having a shared Google document with my co-writer, I am also in the process of creating a series of visual artifacts (in this case, the six 'elements' of the composite image above) which we can use to configure a visual and textual narrative. I am also finding that adding in ideas and themes as text boxes to imagine possibilities helps, and the test will be when I meet up with my co-writer and we see how they make a difference to the writing process.

I will continue to think about what all of this means for the sorts of journals and special editions I submit to, as I think I need to continue to be really clear about what 'counts' as valuable, useful and clear to audiences. As I become even clearer about my artistic-academic practice and identity, that will help, so here's to that journey.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Drawing-with-others: visual and hermeneutic ethnography

I think I have reconnected with the reason why drawing (and other production of images of various sorts) is one of the central strands that runs through my work. I am beginning to understand - again - what drawing is to me, and my research practice and I am excited to explore the implications of these ideas more fully. This is good timing, as I was beginning to fall into the trap of seeing drawing as ‘a thing’ somehow apart from me, a method to be used, or worse, a decorative stimulus. I was becoming disconnected from drawing through this objectification, and this was fatal. Instead, I write this post to remind myself that drawing demands that I am fully authentic and present with others, that drawing is meaningful and vulnerable communication where my horizon of understanding connects with them, enabling real conversations. 

I am not sure exactly how this translates into research methodology other than to say I am seeing drawing is a way of being-with-others, one in which things are re-presented and encountered in new ways, supporting insights and new stories for those participating. I am finding it helpful to think of as a form of visual ethnography, in which there is a shared hermeneutic encounter. My philosophical basis for this is the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer (as as you may know from previous posts, I find motifs in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze inspiring although the connections to the former two sources are minimal, if not non-existent). I have another post I plan to write on Gadamer’s Truth and Method which I have found, together with several of Ricoeur’s works frame these sorts of ideas. 

One of the implications of these thoughts about drawing as conversation with others is to prompt me to keep it alive. I stalled when I began to think about images in a passive way - simply ‘things’ that needed to be impressive. As I have re-focused on the activity of drawing, and how I might help others encounter and respond to images, I saw something I wanted to develop. Part of what motivates me is to put myself and others in situations where genuine enquiry and curiosity can come to the fore. There is too much formulaic, ‘safe’ social research out there, in which people play the roles of expert and subject, we ask the same questions and get the same answers. The problem is, people taking part in research like this know this. If I can put myself and others in a much more interesting place, where I and (hopefully) others see things in new ways, and we are equally engaged, then we might work harder to understand. I will be interesting to test out ways to develop this ‘drawing with others’. 

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Making mapping (of professional lives) work

Alongside the activity I am undertaking to develop a conceptual base for using visual methods, I am getting on with the job of creating tools that I and others can use to explore professional life. As a researcher, I am particularly interested in helping children, young people and adults to understand services and organisations they work in or use better. As a visual person with a background in community work, I have had the opportunity to do things like develop visual methods with young people in the care system (reviewing their experiences of mental health services, for example). More recently, my PhD research used visual artifacts (cartoons, data maps and table top assemblages) to help leaders of early childhood services understand their professional narratives. Since then, I have begun to introduce visual and interactive teaching methods in my lecturing role at university - and have taken visual tools into my research practice in schools.

Developing visual and interactive tools is a real test, because I want them to be meaningful (to both people using them and academically) and effective (which includes them being fun, easy and intuitive to use). Combining all these things is harder than you might think, and many hours of practice and refining have gone into this so far. I am now at the stage when I want to formally test and develop visual tools within my research context -  services and educational settings that work with children, young people and families. I have a particular interest in emotional well-being, inclusion and how children experience settings and services. Specifically, as a coach I want to develop tools that I (and professionals) can use to better reflect on their practice, so they can be more effective, self-aware and inclusive.

I have lots of potential directions and sources of inspiration (on the conceptual front, see previous posts), and am currently working with the idea of mapping professional life. The picture I have included here is one example, which thinks about the idea of mapping as an activity which relates and brings elements into the same 'space' so work can be done with them. In that sense, this example is inspired by my use of the visual in my coaching practice, the ideas in my previous post and generally by Adele Clarke's work on situational mapping.

...I have lots of scribbly pages and messy models ahead of me.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Foundations for a visual methodology

As I have previously blogged about, I am working on a philosophical and practical base for my developing research practice. As the title of the blog suggests, I am a researcher of professional practice and service user experience having come from roles in UK Children's Services. Specifically, I am interested in developing user-friendly, interactive visual tools to explore both children / young people's experiences of institutions or services and that of the professionals that work with them. I do this with a fairly long track record in developing interactive and visual tools in community work / planning and teaching practice in higher education. I took my next steps in developing this work through my PhD research, which utilised various visual artefacts and was influenced by the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur

My post-doctoral challenge is to take what worked so well and develop it practically and conceptually so it speaks to children / practitioners and the academic community. Most people try to specialise in one direction (children or academia, not the band), but I am convinced that there are benefits to having a practical method rooted in a philosophy of practices and experiences and vice versa. In other words, good methods can speak in profound ways and philosophy and concepts should be things that can be shown. That's the aim. 

My journey into this practical philosophy, or towards philosophical tools has involved (amongst other things) reading some of the sources that have inspired me so far. Superficially, these sources are diverse. More than that, they are written utilising very different positions on the nature of being and knowledge (i.e. ontological and epistemological positions). This is dangerous territory that I have explored knowing that I am dealing with a minefield of possible contradictions, languages, metaphors (or none) and communities of thought and practice. Ultimately, it has been a heuristic, exploratory and pragmatic journey, where I have sought to 'look across' sources of inspiration for common space, connections or points of overlap. It is certainly not complete, but as I move between this work and the practical work of developing visual tools, each activity provokes and refines the other.

Amongst these sources I have found authors who deal with a huge range of visual motifs. Some use visual or metaphorical devices explicitly, some implicitly. For example, Ricoeur deals with the significance of the metaphor, mimesis and transformation from one state to another, texts as traces and sedimentations of activity. Heidegger addresses the nature of being in experiential life-worlds as spaces with (intentional) horizons, objects, modes of being with their own patterns and possibilities. Ted Schatzki takes Heidegger and practice theory and develops his take on human practices as spatial and temporal things with patterns of involvement. The outlier is the work of Giles Deleuze, whose philosophy rejects much of the existential or hermeneutic foundations of the previous thinkers. Despite this, Deleuze is profoundly and explicitly visual and conceives of an immanent space characterised by virtual planes, lines and maps which stack and fold into diagrams. 

I have yet to decide if and on what basis I can find points of connection between all of these elements, or pivotal concepts, but I play with the idea of a life-world, one with actual and virtual elements connected in a system: places, objects, habits, structures and so on. I'll start with the life-world, because that is currently my 'canvas' for a visualisation of experience and activity.

The life-world: So far, the concept of the life-world has been helpful to me as a rather abstract ‘holding space’ for everything to do with the subjective experience individuals share with others. It is a phenomenological term used initially by Edmund Husserl (1936) to describe the way in which the world is self-evident, ‘given’ or already existing in the form of socially, culturally, historically constituted meanings: a “we-subjectivity” (Ibid). The life-world therefore acts as a passive background to defines things as meaningful to people. I have noted how the concept has been adapted by Martin Heidegger to focus on the  nature of being-in-the-world, and by authors such as Alfred Schutz and Jurgen Habermas who focused on sociologically meaningful action and communicative action respectively. For me, the life-world is a interesting candidate for a ‘canvas’ for the visual description of everyday life precisely because it is not an abstract transcendental concept, but (certainly for individuals like Schutz and Habermas) it describes how life (and schools or systems) are meaningful to groups of people based on socially, culturally, historically constituted basis. Consequently, I am thinking that the basis and operation of life-worlds can be described, sketched and mapped as a sort of landscape of experience or space for action. 

Beyond this early thinking about lifeworld as canvas, I become interested in how this space can be explored as I make the connections between ideas and practical activities (or you could say, in moving from ontology > epistemology > methodology > methods). For me, the ideas are useful in a very pragmatic sense insofar as they justify certain sorts of visual and material enquiry. Towards this, I am thinking and playing with the following ideas which have caught my attention in the texts in mentioned. As I have said, this is not a logical enquiry, but a heuristic  and pragmatic one, considering things in the same space and drawing up questions about how and if they might relate. The aim is that as I think this through it results in a very practical method of enquiry that is simple but very grounded in the ideas I am working with.  

The sketch: Made up of visual and material marks in space, the sketch is a virtual state of composition that prefigures actual things. Zdebik (2012, p.139) suggests the sketch is created to create a general concept - something one might draw out before making a sort of trip, something preparatory. It is a "contracted image of a thing" (Ibid, p.108) which allows the one drawing it to explore something materially and to direct thought along certain paths. Elsewhere, Heidegger (1927/2010) provides a sense of the sketch as something analogous to a theoretical schema.

The map: In the work of Deleuze (1983/2013;1988/2013), the map provides a way of navigating a space and is a form of potentiality in that it enables discovery and is creative or generative. It organises spaces and thinking but as Zdebik (2012, pp.10-11) notes, this creativity and production does not rely on the activity of tracing, which "...although necessary, cannot offer anything new to thought because its function is to copy and represent what is already there" (Ibid, p.34). In other words, mapping explores another aspects of the thing and as the map is also virtual, it connects and communicates between things not necessarily proximal in time or space (Ibid, p.100), visualising functions, intentions and ways in which elements intersect or diverge. Practically, the idea of mapping (which is not always the material map itself and certainly not the traditional cartographic map) is making everything that is relevant visible, enabling a way to explore the workings and possible directions of a thing like a school, a policy or a family.

Stacking: It is through the function of stacking that maps form diagrams, described below and in a previous post. I have previously mentioned the idea of stacking, which is concerned with reducing the distance between images and the things themselves (Zdebik, 2012; Simondon, 1958). It is a form of analogy, where connections are made between disparate elements. Zdebik (2012) states that the purpose of stacking is to "...visualise an unrepresentable process that is no less actual because it is virtual" (p.43) - in the activity of stacking, a visual form begins to connect and mediate concepts that may be from different orders or depths. For me, I can visualise different orders of things - the physical space of the school, the discipline system, the movement of teachers and pupils for example - and in placing them (actually or conceptually) on one another, questions may be prompted as one connects functions and structures. 

Folding: In Fold: Leibniz and the baroque, Deleuze (1992) articulates the fold as the connection made between autonomous and concepts, things or systems. Whilst it helps to appreciate the materialist metaphysics of Deleuze's work (and I am not sure I am there yet), it is an intriguing idea. As I understand it, the function of the fold is to move an object from one dimension to another (Zdebik, 2012, p.73). For my purposes, it helps me to imagine a piece of paper folded so parts of an image which are separate are connected. When a fold is created, objects are contracted, and conversely can be unfolded and expanded. For Deleuze, existence is things folded together. Deleuze (1992) relates the fold, or inflection, to the work of the artist Paul Klee (p.15) and the way in which points or fold on a line can reveal the change of direction of an active line. I imagine this through the idea that in a painting, a line has the potential to move different ways.

The diagram: It seems that partly through the activity of stacking and folding things like maps, the diagram is assembled. It multiplies the characteristics and functions of the sketch and the map, enabling an exploration of possibilities as processes are connected to structures. Zdebik (2012) describes it as a "productive dimension" (p.139). As I have previously described, the diagram is not representational, but is a way of connecting functions and traits in two things. An example might be the school and the exam system, or the residential home and systems of managing risk: two 'things', not the same, but which can be connected as functions of one thing (a policy, discourse or system) connect to a different but related other, perhaps something spacial and material like an institution.  

I continue to think about these possible activities or motifs within the canvas that I would like to create to explore children's and professionals' experiences of institutions, systems or processes. As you will have gathered, they are not offered in any particular relation to one another at this stage, but I continue to play with them and see how I can use them to ask about very practical things. If you have any views or insights, please leave a comment, I'd like to hear.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Beyond decoration: committing to visual (research) practice

Although I haven't posted lots here yet, my journey into developing a thoroughly 'visual' research and teaching practice is something I've been thinking about and working on. Although I'm on a mission to go 'beyond decoration' with drawing, painting, photography and map making, I've 'decorated' my office with a recent painting test. Why? I think if you want to thoroughly integrate something into your daily activities and workflow, it should not sit in a draw somewhere. It's on my wall not because I love it, or because it's my best possible work, but as a statement of intent and a point of connection - with whatever I am doing. I am becoming committed to thinking visually first, and that's what's going on for me at the moment. 

I'm doing this because activities like drawing are intensely practical and philosophical. I love how thinking visually has necessitated being visual. It has pushed my practice on because I have needed to get off my backside and kick-start my painting, to use a sketchbook in all my academic meetings, and to work on visual research methods as 'plan A'. Doing this has also made me think about how all this is received. Tradition dictates that visual arts are consumed or admired by others, which is something I am aware of when people look at what I am doing; we are conditioned to respond to certain types of visual artefacts we are told are 'art'. I want to push past that and to locate my work in a collaborative process of work with others, not as 'final product' but as a response amongst other responses. My work is intended to prompt, to open up, to question, to shift - not because it is 'great art', but because it presents a different view, and one that calls for a response. At the moment, I am thinking through a research project that I hope will involve me in drawing aspects of professional practice. I have a job in health, education and social care research to blend this visual process with a philosophy of the social sciences and an ability to speak to pressing and concrete professional issues. In other words, my visual practice is not 'simply' about visual art as a product - I am not primarily presenting myself as an artist - but I am working on a sort of accessible, practical visual philosophy. The sort social workers, looked after children, teachers and so on can engage with and that speaks to their frame of interpretation. 

The second image here is a page from my sketchbook. Again, it's quick work, but it is an example of me thinking through an article on the 'life-world' of young people in school. For me, it was more than decoration because it forced me to commit to a visual explanation of what I was thinking through in a previously vague way. I have been able to build on this in my reading and writing, and have come back to my workbook to build on it. Visual thinking is as valid as, and complements writing but provides a different set of practices for exploration and questioning. The experience has been therapeutic (I find drawing and painting therapeutic) but also exposing, because I have to put my naivety on the page, or canvas, or Instagram, in an academic world which is all about 'performing' expertise.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ambitions for drawing in teaching and research

I started this blog to explore my thinking and practice around drawing and using images in my research and teaching practice. If nothing else, it gives me a sort of accountability for making progress. Because I am doing that, I am looking out for things that will get me thinking. I came across one such opportunity when I read about a public lecture to be given by Professor Keith McIntyre entitled 'Lines of Desire'. I have written about it here because it has given me a great opportunity to reflect and think about what I am doing in going back to drawing in my academic work.
 A short description of Keith McIntyre's work was provided on the page promoting the public lecture:
"Keith McIntyre’s work is well renowned for crossing over a range of studio practice and performance disciplines. His interest lies in drawing, graphic fine art media and theatre. Keith has had numerous exhibitions and has been Visual Director on a range of collaborative projects including Rites (Scottish Chamber Orchestra), New Constellations for Wind, Reed and Drawing Instruments (BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead) and HEID (Sounds of Progress). Keith has previously won the Scottish Open Drawing competition and recently worked with renowned children’s writer David Almond and actor Kevin Whately to produce The Savage, an ITV documentary in partnership with Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books.
Central to his current research is an interest in constructed narratives and the potential of the contemporary diorama. Large black ink works on white foam-board are produced in the studio and became the catalyst for a series of improvisations in workshop practices with other artists working across other arts disciplines. While drawing remains the fundamental interest in McIntyre’s work, the cross-fertilisation nature of this activity means that there can be a number of project outcomes, either as an exhibition, a live performance or both."

(see the original on the Northumbria University web site)
After a frantic car journey back into Newcastle Upon Tyne to get to the lecture, I found the studio where the lecture was being given and not only enjoyed the lecture but was kept awake afterwards thinking about my response to it. Professor McIntyre spoke about drawing and making as academic / research practice. His focus on lines, assembling, responding, 'larking' (playful innovation, change, improvisation) and collaboration with others was amazing. Because he was speaking about his practice over time, it was great to hear about the tree like structure of his productive and not so productive routes, and the value of learning from failure and embracing of that as necessity. 
self-portrait edited in iOS
It made me want to pursue what I have (re) started to do with more energy and purpose. I made a note to myself that I need to develop my artistic practice so that it can work with and respond to others in research and teaching contexts. Sitting in the lecture, I realised that I had backed off from doing this in my research and teaching until recently. I felt, perhaps because much of social science, organisational and sociological research has an uneasy relationship with the arts, drawing was seen as illustration or decoration, and certainly not serious enquiry. To counter this, I decided that I needed to do something. My response is to develop, discuss and apply my rationale for using artistic practice to teaching and learning. I must address the question of what am I doing in drawing, assembling, presenting, responding to visual things.
developing a new teaching and research landscape
I caught myself thinking in and after the lecture about Keith's thoughts on collaboration, and saw his conversations 'in the process' of making, and in the process of responding to presenting his work as the sort of research conversation I have had in a small way. I noted to myself that I just need to launch in, to give myself permission, to create, discuss, listen to responses. The idea of assembling and making together as collective enquiry was central to this. In making progress, I should not be embarrassed that my drawing is somehow imposing something on people: rather, I decided I must see it as a way to participate in conversation and to open up responses in others. I have already seen through my PhD and other research projects that others participate not so much by drawing with me (although that sort of collaboration would be interesting, but I find people don't want to do this) but by moving pieces, selecting, framing parts of images, annotating, responding with narrative. This research data that gets constructed in that site is where I can locate myself in as an artist.
These reflections have helped me think about what I can do to make this happen. To date, much of my work has been an 'add on' to teaching and research practice, and many of my images have ended up on my phone, accessible only to me. I can take from the lecture some encouragement to draw and make images in a more prominent way, but not simply 'for the sake of it', but at the same time developing a rationale for how the process and product of drawing can enrich my teaching and research. Watch this space.