Surprising Spaces: arts-enriched reflection

Daphne Loads  This week I took part in a workshop that tackled some of the more slippery elements of lecturers’ continuing professional development: imagination, risk, surprise and self-exploration.  Hosted by the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, and funded by the Higher Education Academy, it was called “Surprising Spaces: arts-enriched reflection in professional development for academics teaching in the arts and humanities.”

Fifteen participants from all over the UK gathered together to experience and evaluate arts-enriched reflection.  Some were lecturers, some were staff developers.  All of us were concerned with how academics can learn to improve their teaching.  We began with poetry.  I asked a small group to respond to Tell all the truth by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies

What struck them as surprising or significant about particular words, I wondered?  What connections could they make with their teaching?

Meanwhile, my colleague, Charity McAdams, introduced her group to Theme for English B by Langston Hughes:

“The instructor said,
Go home and write a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.”

Her group got to talking about notions of truth, frustration, their expectations of the workshop and what it feels like to be plunged into uncertainty.

Next, Brigid Collins welcomed us into a room filled with an abundance of stuff.  There was paper of all kinds, ribbons, wool, sheets of coppery and silvery metal, spools of wire and paperclips.  There were enticing tools and toys including hammers and blocks of print, scissors, knives and needles, as well as paintbrushes and pots of ink and paint.  Brigid is an illustrator, artist and educator. She works between poetry and images, creating what she calls “houses for poems to live in.”  Brigid had prepared a brown paper bag for each of us that contained more treasures: fragments of maps, pages torn from old books, photographs, a glue stick, bits of wall paper.  Each bag also contained a blank postcard and a small flat pack box.  We were asked to find words, cutting them or tearing them from books, stamping them on metal labels, or printing them with wooden blocks, drawing on our earlier encounter with poems.

Then we moved into three-dimensional collage and used the cardboard boxes to make a house for our words to dwell in.  Brigid drew our attention to the inside and outside of the box, to how we foregrounded particular aspects or moved them into the background.  She spoke of the potential of collage for creating unexpected juxtapositions, the learning from taking risks and making (and redefining?) mistakes.  Soon the room was filled with the hum of purposeful activity.  People were hammering, cutting, holding their boxes up to the light, laughing, pausing, deep in thought.  As we worked, Brigid told us about how David Bowie had used the cut-up technique to write his lyrics, how the Dadaists had created found poems, how Eisner talked about “thinking with our hands.”

After lunch I invited colleagues to spend some time in contemplation of their poem houses, looking for ambiguities, patterns, and questions, and making connections with their identity and practice as educators.  I asked them to consider what they might take back to their workplaces.  Then I invited them to share these musings with one other person in the room.
So what was the purpose of all this? I think this workshop was a great example of arts-enriched reflection, by which I mean active engagement with collage, poetry and other creative ways of prompting deep thinking about teaching practice and teacher identity.  This kind of work matters because although university lecturers are required to demonstrate that they are reflective practitioners (HEA, 2011) they often need help in initiating and sustaining meaningful reflection.   And events like this also remind us of the value of open-ended, exploratory development activities.  Often I feel that there is a lack of reflective space in our universities (Savin-Baden, 2008) and that development is at risk of being squeezed out by performativity: by the “narrow conceptions of usefulness that are articulated in terms of measurable performances” (Rowland, 2007, p.10).  For me, active engagement in arts-enriched reflective activities offers an alternative to this depressing instrumentalism.  It also directly addresses the question of the relevance of the arts and humanities to professional development, in this case for university lecturers.

Daphne's house Sometimes the insights from arts-based reflection come quickly and easily.

Sometimes the learning is delayed, indirect or elusive.

Here’s the poem house I created on the day.

I’m still in the process of working out what it means.

 

 

 

 

References:
HEA (2011) The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/ukpsf/ukpsf.pdf%5Baccessed 31.7.13]

Rowland, S. (2007) Academic Development: A site of creative doubt and contestation International Journal for Academic Development 12(1) 9–14

Savin-Baden, M (2008) Learning Spaces: Creating opportunities for Knowledge Creation in Academic Life Berkshire: Open University Press

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