Color Walks & Documenting Walkabouts

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I love working with Keri Smith‘s How to Be An Explorer of the World in my academic research and writing classes because it helps me reinforce the scholar adventurer dimensions of field research and the noticing deeply needed for imaginative learning and  precise writing.

But having the students share their findings can get a little tricky, especially when I try to integrate the explorations into digital kinds of sharing–ePortfolios, blogs, discussion boards. I’m trying to get them outside to practice & cultivate a keener awareness of the often-overlooked details (and potential sources of inspiration and insight) in their everyday surroundings and then to use various tools–sometimes digital (e.g., phone camera), sometimes not (e.g., rubbings with crayons)–to preserve their observations.

Thanks to one of my MOOC colleagues, I just found this blog post on Color Walking from RadioLab‘s episode on Color. Their multisensory exploration was inspired by William S. Burroughs’ Color Walking; Keri Smith  recommends it also. What I’m loving especially is the way they used the timeline tool to plot their findings. This is so much better than attaching a photo to a discussion board posting, in so many ways. The timeline communicates the journey so much better and the inclusion of multiple images and short textual descriptions of each encounter with the image/color-source captures the interpersonal aspect of the trek. Sometimes the color is on a person, not an object, so they don’t just snap the photo but ask permission first and include a snippet of that discussion (or an acknowledgement of it) in their caption–reinforcing so many important learning objectives regarding citation and scholarship as conversation and so forth. I’m really jazzed.

I was already planning to use a timeline tool in one of my classes–Tiki-Toki–but now I’m also going to look at the tool RadioLab used: Timeline JS. I can see the color walk assignment as a way to get the students comfortable with the timeline software in preparation for a larger, collaborative timeline we’ll be doing as a class.

I’m also thinking about how the timeline tool might work with one of my favorite ice breaker assignments, a mad libs style exercise based on George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From.” In it, students compose poems that are litanies of significant artifacts and names from their personal histories. I’m wondering what it might look like to translate those metaphors into images on a timeline–what would be lost and gained through that translation or remediation.


Going [Nearly] Non-Verbal

Wesch clip - A Vision of Students Today
As much as I genuinely appreciate the digital ethnography work done by Wesch and his students, I’m irritated by the smugness of this video–the sense that it’s somehow OK for students to dismiss books and classroom lectures as irrelevant so long as antiquated pedagogies take the blame.

I say all this, yet supposedly I’m one of the “good guys”: I teach small classes where we mostly sit in circles and discuss current events and view wacky-but-insightful websites and interrogate visual literacy and collaborate with community organizations doing field work and hands-on curatorial work and writing and arts-integrated experimental learning . . . yadda yadda yadda . . . . Like I said, my classroom is not the sort directly critiqued by the video.

And yet . . . And yet I just spent 3 hours reading a book on metaphor theory–a densely written, scholarly text with almost no pictures. I had to retrain my brain to concentrate on the writing, sometimes reading passages to my slumbering dog and using colored pencils to sketch out the complex ideas unfolding in the text. And it was glorious. If I assigned this book my students might not read it unless I somehow coaxed them through it and helped them read it page by page. My personal techniques with the colored pencils and so forth could serve as models but ultimately learning from the reading of dense text is about sitting down and wanting to figure out your own methods for learning from words. According to Wesch’s students (and they’re probably right) most of my students would not read the book just because I assigned it–even if class discussions and reading responses were part of the assignment my students might not read the whole book but rather just enough portions to get the gist of it. Does that mean my students are lazy or does it mean that they’re savvy consumers of text?  Neither. That’s my point. That’s my dilemma.

Of course, I could assign more interesting texts. And shorter texts. And texts composed as comic books. And podcasts. Yes I do all those things. But I’m still not convinced that reading 8 or fewer books per year is OK, or that I’m a good teacher if I exhibit empathy for students who believe books are an outdated source of relevant knowledge or entertainment.

We’re living in this transitional phase where highly motivated teachers are doing everything we can imagine to navigate the space between how students want to learn and what we believe they need to learn. (Notice I didn’t say the gap is between how they want to learn and how we want to teach. I’m operating under the assumption that we want to teach in whatever way will help them learn. An attachment to a particular pedagogy is not necessarily the problem here. I also didn’t say the gap is between what they want to learn and what we want to teach–though I do believe that’s part of the dilemma.)

One of the things I believe they need to learn is how to actively (not passively) learn–and active learning doesn’t only mean being entertained and engaged by the learning; it also means deliberately doing the learning. Among the things teachers like me need to learn are: how to teach them to be (and to want to be) active, deliberate learners of things–even things that might not appear to be immediately relevant to their personal lives; also we need to learn what is most important for them to learn–what things will spark their desire to learn more on their own, and how can we best equip them (intellectually, personally, and otherwise) to do that digging on their own?

So what does any of this have to do with books? A lot.

My background is in rhetoric and composition studies. I believe that writing helps us learn. I believe that reading helps us learn. For a dozen-odd years I’ve taught writing in ways that I hoped would help students learn. The raison d’etre of academic writing is that it helps students to learn what they’re studying and to communicate they’ve learned it. We don’t teach academic writing so that students will do academic writing for the rest of their lives (unless they become academicians). We teach academic writing because it helps students synthesize, interrogate, articulate, and otherwise engage and demonstrate what they’re learning. Reading good scholarly writing helps them get better at it. Reading any kind of writing generally helps them get at least somewhat better at doing their own writing. In turn, getting better at writing typically entails getting better at thinking through one’s ideas, composing them coherently, demonstrating knowledge. Our great hope is that compulsive Facebooking and texting will somehow also enable students to remain sufficiently literate (as readers and as writers and thinkers) to continue strengthening their abilities to digest, interrogate, communicate, and demonstrate knowledge derived from non-Facebook sources.

I’m a reasonably optimistic person. I’m willing to set aside my Postman-esque concerns about Farmville and Twilight and so forth for now.

So it’s within that context that I’m beginning this thought experiment: What if the purpose of first-year composition isn’t to teach academic writing? This isn’t a new question, really. Lots of us in rhet/comp do multimodal composition pedagogy–meaning we have integrated visual literacy and digital composition into our writing courses. What might be different about my thought experiment is that I’m removing the words altogether. If the purpose of the first-year composition course is to help students locate, synthesize, and demonstrate knowledge, could that be done entirely through the kinds of 3D assemblage my visual rhetoric students did last spring? Or via a primarily visual composition with a spoken or written explanation? Or via a community-engaged, applied learning project accompanied by reflection that might be spoken or written or sung?

The answer is No, to the extent that first-year composition is a service course to other academic disciplines expecting us to teach MLA/APA citation formats and grammar and the writing of literature reviews. But if our goal is to teach the acquisition of knowledge and the synthesis of ideas–would it become our job to teach composition as a cognitive act as well as a communication task? Would it require us all to learn how composition–the arrangement of information–connects with the acquisition and transmission of knowledge in all its forms?

What then?

And shouldn’t we already be teaching that?

Contemplating Collage


Later today I’ll meet with my colleagues again to explore the uses of collage–specifically as a heuristic or as a way of doing critical thinking during (as well as through) visual composition–for our upcoming workshop with educators.
I’m still resisting the commonplace: I don’t want this to be simply (yes, yes, I understand it’s never so simple) a metaphorical exercise but instead an activity that draws upon a kind of aesthetic instinct as well as other dimensions of the composing process.
I don’t want to over-talk the exercise and yet somehow I want the participants to experience (within a very short time frame–eek!) a way of exploring ideas that transcends verbal and visual and that culminates in a composition that speaks to them in complex ways over time.
The image above is one of my early experiments. My original plan for the workshop was to have everyone do something very much like this. It’s modeled after Joanne Leonard’s “Hand In” series, which was an exercise in constraints: she challenged herself to complete a series of collages that used a single, simple, repeated image: an outline of one hand in white pencil on black silhouette paper.
I love the basic design: it’s simple but potentially sophisticated (at least, in Leonard’s execution of it!) and for a workshop with mostly novices it seems like a lovely to create something complete and aesthetically pleasing guided by a model in a process that although somewhat imitative yields a work as unique as the hand of the artist outlined on the page as well as her choice of imagery.
But I worried that participants expecting to do collage (a genre associated mostly with masses of images rather than spare ones) might find this approach too limiting, and my colleagues agreed. So today we’ll be exploring with alternative methods, visuals, options. I’m hoping to at least retain the hand symbol as a common constraint.
Beyond all that, though, remains the purpose: how do we communicate that this activity is intended to help us tap into a way of knowing that is aesthetic, cognitive, intellectual, emotional, instinctual?
I’ve been reading more of Maxine Greene’s work on aesthetic education (as part of a course through the Lincoln Center Institute) in which Greene seems also to be struggling to find clear ways to explain, in layman’s terms, what happens when we use art to learn. Her writing style is so fluid and her voice so authoritative that you might not perceive her composition as a “struggle” (and indeed she might not describe herself as “struggling” either) but as her reader, as someone who has thought about this sort of thing for years and is combing through Greene’s writing to find a clearer expression of the academic and rhetorical aims of aesthetic education, I must say that I’m finding lots of lucid explanation that ripples through the subject without yet clarifying it. At least not in the ways I need. She is concerned mainly about art education period: What it means (or really ought to mean), why we should do it, how it works.  My concern is this: how does the process of making and engaging art help us do a better and more interesting job of teaching rhetorical ingenuity: identifying potential sources of insight, locating/mining/interacting with those resources, tapping into one’s own prior knowledge and experience as ways of knowing and not-knowing, determining what kinds of knowing are needed by and for one’s audience/oneself/those beyond who might benefit from your work, plus all that other rhetorical canon stuff (invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, taste).
Of course any educated rhetorician can rationalize the use of art to teach composition. What I’m looking for is more information: research data from other disciplines, explanations I haven’t already thought of or read about elsewhere, and also I’m looking for more discussion of the creative process as something novices can authentically do with satisfying outcomes that aren’t purely responses to “real” art done by experts.
But I digress. Sort of. Not really. As I search in Greene for a way to articulate the collage workshop I come across this from her “Notes on Aesthetic Education””

Surely we can learn to articulate more clearly what it is about making
and attending that so often opens up new perspectives, that allows people to
perceive new experiential possibilities, that offers them new symbolic
languages through which to express themselves. Surely, when we are
aesthetically educated, we can break through the either/or [of cognitive vs affective learning]. (19)

So far that’s as close as I’ve come (see what I mean?) to what we’re supposed to be doing with the collage. And perhaps “critical thinking” is too specifically Schonian a term for that process.  I am more comfortable calling it “deliberation.”  I’m hoping that the collage-composition experience will be a deliberative experience in which the participants:

  • Keep their minds open to sources of insight and inspiration from unexpected sorts of artifacts.
  • Approach the collage activity as one of contemplation as well as of creativity.
  • Work with a “believing game” attitude: expecting the process to reveal something to them.
  • Produce something that feels complete and satisfying.
  • Generates an artifact they will want to look at again and again, one that intrigues them and speaks to them in different or nuanced ways over time.

All of that is true of my collage above:
Although my underlying purpose the day I made it was to compose a complex image that in some spoke to myself-concept as a teacher, the images I gathered were chosen rather serendipitously. I ended up cutting the above image from a full-page photograph of a group of masqueraded revellers in Spain from a National Geographic magazine.
I drew my hand-configuration first and selected the image later as one that might lend itself to the composition As I slowly snipped the image and as I shifted it around on the page the activity became a meditation on not only what should go where but why and why not. I made decisions about the positioning of my hand or hands on the page that would ultimately feature the image and whether to keep the reveller’s hand visible; I asked myself about the significance of the masks and about the fact that the mask remaining in my image is really on the top of a reveller’s head rather than on his face. Is that somehow relevant to my self-concept as a teacher? And so on.

Ultimately, I completed an image that I could explain in a variety of ways but, to be honest, I am still listening to what it has to say.
Image source: HB Hessler

Goats and New Media


In the weaving studio yesterday I overheard someone discussing her next project, a rug she began some time ago with the spun wool of an angora goat that has since died. She has been searching her herd for just the right goat, whose donation of hue and texture will complement–but cannot duplicate–the existing yarn.

Dying the wool won’t make them match; each goat’s wool is distinctive.
I smiled as I heard all this. A palette of goats.
And I found myself pondering what other sorts of materials and resources exist that just haven’t been on my radar. And what might I do with them? How might they speak differently than other materials I’ve used. Their conventional symbolisms of course are part of their rhetoricity. A sentence woven into bamboo cloth (something I’ve just completed, actually) communicates contextually and visually and culturally differently than the same sentence squeezed through a label maker or typed onto a blog.
Nothing new there.
But there’s something exhilarating about recognizing the collaborative potential of livestock for the very first time.
Image source: Kris247

Research as a Design Problem

I’m listening to Mozart’s Requiem and I’m almost too captivated by it to read or write another word. Let’s see if I can write within it.

I logged on to record another development in my summer project. A colleague found a marvelous site on reflective writing in visual sketchbooks and it has me inspired to re-try using sketchbooks/journals with my fall students with an emphasis on the nature of researched writing as a “design problem.”  I’ve taken this approach with my students before but never felt that I adequately conveyed the idea that I don’t mean it as an artistic metaphor for the research process but as an adjective. Design is visual and it is conceptual and [academic] research is those things also.
Anyhoo, in an effort to walk the talk and to give my students a couple of [hopefully] clear models, I’ve decided to compose a digital sketchbook (a blog) and a tangible one, dedicating each one to a specific research project that is not directly tied to art.  (I have so many different projects underway that this commitment doesn’t change my life much except to extract two of those projects from their existing journals/blogs/sketchbooks for the models.) Since anything I do for students tends to get done long before anything I do for myself this commitment is also likely to help me be more productive as well.
As I do the sketchbooks elsewhere I’ll report on them periodically here on this blog, at least in terms of my evolving thinking about research as a design problem. (Update: I’ve begun a separate blog as a possible model of a digital research sketchbook for my fall students. There I’ve also done some thinking and writing regarding the design problem approach.)

What Weaving is Teaching/Reminding Me About Writing


That timidity is never rewarded in any art form. When I try to avoid tangles, I get tangles. When my beat is too cautious my threads don’t cohere well–so I overcompensate with extra beats that still aren’t as good as a single firm one would have been. When I give in to worry my rhythm falls off.
That beauty comes from practice and repetition.
That the art is in the process.
That there is no single product; instead, there is a body of work, which includes an array of output, some of which is made public but all of which teaches and illustrates our craft.
That everything hangs on something, even if we cannot see it.
That preparation is at least 50% of creation.
Weaving is also getting me to think more vividly about patterns. Visually, I’m paying attention to weave structures–these are the algorithms designed by experts for novices like me to follow, but also the way those algorithms play out once I’ve made use of them, which includes everything from my choice of palette, weight, and sources of yarn to how I set up the loom and how I manage the work of making the cloth. To the extent an analogy might be useful, I suppose the syntax of the cloth is the warp and its grammar the weft, which would leave us to call the rest of the variables its narrative style.
All of this can be programmed ahead of time and generated mechanistically–even the most elaborate tapestries. (Which we all learn in Software Programming 101 with the history of the Jacquard Loom–punched cards serving as the precursor to Babbage’s computing machines.) So why bother making any of this stuff by hand? Likewise, why bother learning to write in college when you’re already literate enough to get into college, able to read and mimic existing documents for any given task?
Because at some point the creators of algorithms die and others must take their place and create new algorithms, new patterns, or new ways of working with the old in order to preserve our ability to make cloth when the machines crash and in order to help us generate cloth that can serve and delight us.
Because at some point the people with interesting and important things to say die and others must take their place and create new arguments, or new ways working with old arguments, in order to preserve our ability to know, think, communicate, and do things essential to our survival and happiness.
Because textiles [and texts] are a fundamental component of the human experience. Someone will always make them. Making them ourselves connects us with those on whom we depend. Having made them ourselves empowers us to choose self-sufficiency or interdependence.
Because there’s so much more to express. And because our imaginations should never be constrained by ignorance about what properly constitutes media or message.
Image source: Jeremy Butler

The Trials of “Noticing”


Giacometti Figures in a Room by Vi




For the first time in my arts-immersion experiment I’m experiencing real anxiety. And that fact itself fascinates me.


The class is basic drawing. I’m in week three. It’s been more than 20 years since I sketched-for-teacher. I dread this class.

We work on giant sketch pads. We draw big. The scale overwhelms me. I’ve filled reams of blank pages with words but now words aren’t an option. My job is to draw what I see, to become more skillful at noticing what’s before me and to represent that visual composition with lines. Shapes. To scale.

The first day the instructor taught us “the Giacometti method,” which involves painstakingly marking the relationships between objects in space. It’s a brilliant method, explained much better by the artist on this blog than by me. The method relaxed me somewhat because it requires me to stop attempting to replicate everything before my eyes and instead to choose just one small thing as my starting point, drawing a line to indicate where it is going to exist on my paper. Everything else proceeds from there. 


I notice an apple. I ask myself, “How big is that apple going to be on my page?” I mark that. I see a troll doll sitting on the apple and ask myself, “Where does the troll doll touch the apple?” and “How many apples tall is that troll doll?” And so on. I work slowly, sequentially, I forget about whether the thing is art and instead do the work of marking the locations of things.

But I still feel panicky.

Why is that?

Some of it is just ego. I want to be good at this. I don’t need to be the best but I dread being the worst. Why is that? Why does that matter? If the room were filled with professional artists (instead of novices like me) would I still feel the need to be not-the-worst?  Yes, I think so. On some level, yes.

But there’s something else too. Noticing is hard work. Much harder and much less fun than I expected. Like doing leg curls at the gym after years of not doing them. Only worse. Like attempting to do chin-ups. I’ve searched my mind for other analogies (like speaking French to a Parisian, like assembling a toy train, like trying to get my Lab to come when called) but honestly the best ones are physical. I find myself commanding a level of coordination and skill that is definitely within me but utterly dormant and resistant and under-prepared. Attempting to materialize what I’m noticing–to make marks on a page (not even drawings, just marks) documenting what I see–is physically and intellectually awkward. It’s challenging me to use a part of myself I haven’t developed. It makes me feel weak and inept and stupid.

Functional illiteracy. That’s also what this is. In the world of words, my world, literacy is about reading and writing, both of which are physical and intellectual activities that demand a type of focus and concentration and imagination that aren’t activated in exactly the same way by any other task. Other activities are comparable, but not the same. I believe this is also true of drawing. Doing it well requires repeated practice, and practice achieves first physical-mental coordination and later a leap into a different dimension of experience. When I read or write fluently I experience “flow,” not sequences of words on the page.

Noticing is also extremely intimate. In terms of sketching, noticing can’t be done superficially. We must look closely and make note of things no matter how inconveniently they are positioned, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us (physically or otherwise), no matter how intimidating they are now or how insignificant they might be tomorrow. In this moment the job is to notice them and nothing else.


Noticing can’t be faked. What you see is what must appear on the page. It will always be an interpretation of sorts, but certain things must be there in order for the image to be complete. To the extent that visual composition parallels verbal composition we might say the artist simply can’t “bullshit” the composition. If fundamental things are missing or sloppy your audience will know. She’ll know, that is, if she also approaches the work with the intention of truly noticing it.


So perhaps that’s what makes sketching so scary: the vast complexity of seeing anything for what it truly is.



Image source: Vi