Writing from Attleborough to Wymondham: #AcWriMo in train journeys

#AcWriMo is genius. Started by the wonderful PhD2Published as an academic variant of #NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-forming, mutually nurturing community of people desperate to write something and not quite getting pen to paper on their own. The key is accountability: you declare your writing goals for the month of November by signing up to a spreadsheet, tweet your progress (or lack thereof), and maybe occasionally blog about how you’re doing.

Others in the same writing boat share tips on getting started and keeping going (my favourite this morning: “Press the bridge of your nose to stay awake” [?!]), pass on useful websites and apps, and tweet encouragement and sympathy as needed. Like this:

In between the moments of anguish caused by trying to actually write instead of talking to students about how to write, one of the aspects of #AcWriMo that fascinates me is how people declare their goals. Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s a huge amount of Pomodoro going on, along with other variations of time-based measurement. Another popular option is setting a word count. I’ve suggested both of these approaches to students as part of my former class on Academic Reading and Writing, and used to love when students, initially sceptical, would come back with the light of the true convert in their eyes to tell me that one of these strategies worked, just really worked, and was now part of their writing habit. It’s such joy when you witness something crystallising for students like that: you can see their confidence in their ability to actually write this damn thesis take a huge bound forward, along with their word count. Because although both these strategies may sound like productivity gimmicks, what they do – as ThesisWhisperer points out – is give you room to explore who and how you are as a writer without being stifled by the anxiety of perfectionism.

However, obstinate “do it my way” mule that I am, I seem to have decided on a different way to set and measure my writing goals, one that’s neither time- nor length-based. It’s … erm … spatial. Because I have a long train journey every morning, I figured that would be the best time to work: an hour and a half of time already set aside for me by the grace of Greater Anglia, and a surprisingly comfortable workspace (because I start my journey at the terminal station for that route, I’m one of those annoying people who’s already occupying a table seat when you get on further down the line). But when I record what I’ve done, I don’t write the length of time spent. I write the station intervals. Like this:

03 Nov  CBG-THF [Cambridge to Thetford]. Slow and sticky.

05 Nov  ELY-WMD [Ely to Wymondham – almost the entire journey!]. 4 pages. Not great but something there.

06 Nov  ATL-NRW [Attleborough to Norwich]. 2 pp. Unpicking ‘right answers’ [a key theme in my book].

07 Nov  ELY-HRD [Ely to Harling Road]. INTRODUCTION!

I didn’t intend to measure my writing in railway stations; it just came out that way. A bit like how I went from ‘slow and sticky’ to ‘INTRODUCTION’ inside the first #AcWriMo week. I didn’t plan it, any of it: it just came out

And there again is the crystallisation moment: the point when you look back at the pattern formed by your writing record and think: Hello, Muse.


[1] Thank you to everyone involved in #AcWriMo – and keep writing!

[2] I’ve used a bit of poetic licence in the title of this post. While I could in theory ‘write from Attleborough to Wymondham’ it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, since that leg of the journey only takes about seven minutes : ) But it’s the closest I can get to ‘from A to Z’!

The power of the post-it: on studying, sensemaking and stationery

Last week I tweeted about my joy at being back in reading mode and, as a consequence, having an excuse to indulge in stationery.

I was entertained that my tweet got favourited, suggesting that I’m not alone in seeing study and stationery as mutually fulfilling partners. I also got a request for a peek at my research diary, which I’m very happy to comply with because it reminded me how much I love seeing how other people lay out their “vehicle for ordered creativity” (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). What I mean by ‘research diary’ is not the neatly-written lab report designed to be shared and perhaps assessed, but the scruffy, tatty notebook we carry around and scribble in privately. In my kind of research diary we don’t write for anyone else’s eyes. It’s a force of nature, a place where our thoughts rampage unfiltered by academic proprieties. And it’s really not very tidy – because as I may have said a few times before, the process of knowledge creation is by its nature a messy affair.

Study kit in full glory (with coffee)

Above is my newly-started research diary along with the odds and sods that make up my study kit – pens and highlighters of various colours, post-its of various sizes, and a nifty little book of tear-out pages that acts as my mobile To Do list. I find that there’s always a degree of self-consciousness about plunging into a new notebook, a desire to make the inside as neat and pretty as the outside. But only two pages in to this new one, the mess and the overflow have already started! That torn scrap with the orange post-it stuck on it is a bit of thinking from another time and place that needs to sit alongside what I’m doing now. It will float around in this perilous, unanchored state for who knows how long, until I find the right place in the new diary to glue or staple it in (which of course, along with all the other similar thought scraps, will end up contorting and bending the outside so it does, in effect, match the inside – just not in any way that could be called ‘neat’).


Here’s my previous notebook. It’s less of a ‘pure’ research diary and even more of a mongrel planning-thinking-writing tool, as alongside research notes it contains lesson planning for work, bits of writing towards articles and a book, and random thoughts inspired by the Fen landscapes. In fact it’s such a patchwork of various facets of my life that I went back through it and post-it’d it so I could find my way around all the bits that are still ‘live’.


Post-its are also my go-to notemaking strategy when I’m in a flailing-round-trying-to-orientate-myself phase such as starting a research project, or entering a new field (as I am at the moment). Orientating yourself in a new field often demands that you read classic monographs and textbooks rather than articles and papers, which means that you have no hope of buying, printing or copying everything you need – which in turn means you can’t interact with or answer back to the text by annotating it directly. For me this is a real problem. (Please don’t be shocked: of course I write in my books. Books are knowledge tools, not decorative artefacts. As I A Richards said in 1924, “A book is a machine to think with”.)


When you can’t write in books because they’re not yours, but you’re not yet at the stage where you can mash up what a writer is saying with other stuff you’ve read and with your own thoughts – which is what the research diary is for – I find the post-it strategy is perfect. Although it’s not in the same league of bibliographic criminality as marginal annotations, I know some libraries aren’t crazy about people putting (even slightly) sticky things (even temporarily) in their books. However, I’m resigned by now to the fact that I’m a bad librarian … and active reading is fundamentally necessary in order to locate yourself in your field, to find a standpoint, and to join the dialogue. Being able to ‘talk back’ to the literature is the foundation stone of a contribution to knowledge.


Here’s another form of answering back (and another page from my old diary): the ‘double entry notemaking’ idea, where every time you copy or paraphrase something from the original, you also write your reason for grabbing that quote or idea, your response to it, or both. I love the emphasis this places on the reader’s context and reasons for reading. In practical terms it’s a great way of futureproofing the work that goes into reading and notemaking, but it goes further than that: as you capture your response to the text you start developing your own thoughts and making connections between concepts. And when there’s this much stuff chasing chaotically around in your mind, keeping hold of those connections needs all the help it can get!


Lest anyone think I might be pushing the connection between studying and stationery a bit far, it’s worth bearing in mind that according to constructivist thinking, learning takes place through individual sensemaking: through perceiving and building patterns, relationships and hierarchies for yourself rather than assimilating someone else’s conceptual model. John Holt says this beautifully and resonantly:

I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one’s mind. We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own. (1982, 145).

(This is one of the quotations on the double-entry notemaking page, above. My response is pretty concise: it says “YES!!” in large letters : ) ) If we accept the constructivist approach to learning, it follows naturally that how we organise our knowledge influences both how we learn and how we apply what we know (Ambrose et al., 2010). I think this is one of the most important principles of both learning and research, and yet we rarely talk about it explicitly or devote much time to reflecting on the practices we use to organise and make sense of knowledge, and how they interact with the practices of our academic discipline as well as our own desire or need to learn. When I do get to talk about how we organise knowledge, usually in my information skills classes, I always come away feeling inspired. Our tools for recording, ordering and juxtaposing knowledge scraps are hugely various and reflect our individual, unique approaches to learning. They can be analogue or digital, can range from the hi-tech to the humble. But perhaps what I find most endearing is that even the unassuming post-it can play a part in making connections and, ultimately, making a contribution to the dialogue.


Researchers (and anyone else) feeling the #stationerylove, please do look at these other lovely posts on creative uses of notebooks and stationery:

My notebooks and other animals by @samanthahalf, which shows some notebooks that are even more beautiful inside than out;

@florilegia‘s post on keeping a ‘commonplace book’, An anthology of one’s own;

Stationery love (hurrah!) by @Aurelie_Sol, which has some wonderful tips on journalling and notebooks as organisational tools for your thinking.

“My dolly’s bigger than your dolly”, or, Why our labels no longer matter

Here’s an expanded write-up of my part of the presentation on ANCIL at the recent Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education conference, one of whose key themes was ‘Who owns learning development?’. In response to this theme Jane, Maria and I talked about moving from theory to practice in the development of a shared academic skills curriculum that embraces information literacy, digital literacies, learning development and graduate identites. They spoke about the practical work they’re doing at LSE; I got to play with the concepts!

When Jane and I carried out the ANCIL research in 2011 one of the first things we did was to map out the landscape of information literacy and how we saw it overlapping with related areas.



Our representation situates information literacy as the central concept, overlapping with areas of specific information application (new learning literacies), practices involving a specific type of information (digital literacies), and information in use in a particular context or community (academic and media literacies). The graphic was designed to show that we perceive information literacy as interwoven with all these areas – but it also suggests visually that information literacy is a grand narrative: the overarching, ‘master’ concept that relates and makes meaningful all the others.

It’s fair to say that both Jane and I perceived this landscape through the lens of information literacy, as that’s the conceptual matrix in which our approach developed. However, we soon began to see an equal degree of complexity in other areas, in particular recognising the strength of the claim that learning development constitutes a legitimate, epistemologically autonomous, and empirically grounded field of inquiry (see this wonderful article by Lillis and Scott). In other words, learning development could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including digital and information literacies.

Similarly, digital literacy has gained a good deal of both recognition and traction in the UK higher education arena, where information literacy has notably failed to gain either. As a result, what Jane and I refer to as ‘information literacy’ is now often seen as being subsumed within the larger concept of ‘digital literacy’, in direct contrast to the ANCIL perception imaged above. In other words, digital literacy could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including academic and information literacies.

Is this a deadlock, a stand-off? Not at all. Enter the wonderful matryoshka metaphor conceived by Florence Dujardin


Hello, Dolly!

Mulling over the relationship between information and digital literacy at an SRHE event, Florence said (as nearly as I can remember): “In HE we’re always trying to put one concept inside another so that we can see our preferred one as the biggest idea. It’s like Russian dolls … and everyone’s dolls stack up differently.”

Over the past decade or so, in each of the areas of learning development, information literacy, and digital literacy there has been a radical shift in thinking away from a simplistic, functional and normative approach and towards recognising and honouring the complexity of learning outside the curriculum and the agency of those doing the learning. So here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the point now that it doesn’t actually matter which doll is the biggest, the outward, most visible one. Because of the way our thinking in all these areas has developed, maybe we’ve reached a point where although we’re coming from different specialties and start points, we’re all converging on the same goal: to provide opportunities for our students to construct and sensemake the academic landscape for themselves.

Jane’s and my attempt to map the place of information literacy was the start of a growing recognition on our part of how nuanced each of these specialist areas is, how shifting and negotiated this academic information landscape is, and likewise how fluid are our own practitioner identities as ‘belonging’ to one or more of these areas. As a teaching librarian, I move across and between the arenas of academic literacies, critical information use, digital literacy and graduate identity. I can’t separate them, even if I thought there were any mileage in trying. And I can situate my practice and my professional identity as comfortably in the context and discourse of Beetham and Sharpe’s digital literacy framework, Hinchliffe and Jolly’s VIPER model of graduate identity and employability, or Lillis and Scott’s epistemology of academic literacies, as I can within Bruce’s six frames of information literacy. It’s not that I ‘wear different hats’ in each different sphere: I do the same thing in the same relationship with students, aiming always at the same goal – to help them to realise a critical and reflective relationship with the information that shapes, filters and mediates our lived experience.


Image by Lachlan Fearney, CC BY-SA 3.0

The academic support iceberg

I’ve just had one of those meetings – the kind that make you feel all zingy and creative and as bouncy as a puppy in a ball-pit. It was a conversation between librarians and learning developers, and there are few things more inspiring or full of possibility …

A lot of our discussion was about the ‘big picture’ of what both professions do in terms of academic support, and what it might look like to students. During our talk my colleague Sarah came up with a wonderful metaphor: there are three ‘prongs’ of academic development support – provided by lecturer, learning enhancement staff, and librarians. It’s an alliterative educational trident!

Then I started thinking about how visible each of those prongs is to learners, since mainstream subject content is often perceived as providing all the potential for academic development needed by students. As a (fairly vocal) proponent of both reflective information literacy and learning development, it’s probably no surprise that I feel that subject content needs to be interrogated, negotiated and contextualised in order for deep learning to be achieved. And so I give you … the academic support iceberg!


Above the surface, the academic development environment most visible to students – that available within their discipline, through their interaction with their subject. Below the surface, the rich opportunities offered by stepping back to look at ‘how you do what you do’ and reflecting on how to manage your own learning, with support from specialists in information and education.



There are consonances here with ‘real’ conceptual models such as ANCIL and Beetham and Sharpe’s Digital Literacy framework, which express information and digital literacies as a continuum rather than a simplistic single skill, and with current thinking about learning development as a complex of situated social practices. But although the iceberg is a metaphor schema rather than a model, I still like it rather a lot – not least because it’s reminiscent of other surface/depth schemata such as Alke Groppel-Wegener’s wonderful ‘Fish-scale of academicness‘:

Fishscale of Academicness

There’s more about Alke’s Fishscale schema in this post, too. I wonder if there’s room for a trident in there next to the treasure chest … ?

Happiness snapshot

I’m going to come out and say it: I love commuting. There, you weren’t expecting that, were you? And no more was I. Last November and December, when I knew that in the new year I’d be working in Norwich and living in Cambridge, trickles of apprehension would regularly visit my spine at the thought of spending three hours a day on a train.

And now I struggle to remember why I was afraid. The sense of public exposure? Fellow-commuters’ pinstriped elbows and noisy music? Eating my season ticket in a moment of stress? In fact I suspect it was chiefly timetable fear: the anxiety of being bound by public transport, of living under the rule of Greater Anglia. The soggy dread of missing the school bus.

Yet here I am: sitting with my feet up (shoes off, of course) in a moving picture of fenland greys and greens. I have a table and a double seat all to myself. I can read, doze, watch for wildlife. Some mornings there are attention-seeking, tiger-striped sunrises; on other days the black groundrow of the trees has a gentler, dove-coloured backcloth. Branches are ornamented with cutouts of sleeping birds. Occasionally I astonish myself and do some work, in my special train notebook – but that’s a bonus, not a base-line.

Working to a timetable, bowing to someone else’s routine, is surprisingly pleasant: it relieves you of having to make timekeeping decisions yourself. It reminds me of the time I got stuck in the Tower lift at the UL. Lifts have always scared me, and being caught in a broken-down one was a favourite nightmare – so the first few minutes were spent warding off a panic attack and wondering when the emergency system would stop talking at me in a repetitive metallic voice and finally connect me with a human. After that, though, I felt a totally unexpected sensation of peace. I sat cross-legged on the lift floor, trying to remember all the verses of The Lady of Shalott, and occasionally being cheered by colleagues shouting reassurance and updates down the lift shaft. I felt vacant, relieved of all responsibilities. Nobody could blame me for not doing something, because there was literally nothing I could do: I was outside time, poised between floors, all agency suspended. And it felt wonderful.

Commuting, for me, brings the same sensations: a feeling of being still while the world outside moves; the space regained in the joints that comes when you stand up after a yoga session. Nothing is expected; it’s the fallow season. Which is precisely what’s needed in order to be productive.


Things I have learned from my commute:

Getting up at 6 a.m. is nothing that espresso can’t fix.

Every Fen dawn is beautiful, even the misty ones. (Maybe especially the misty ones.).

And no-one ever gets on or off at Spooner Row.

Fen Sunrise by meg_nicol

Image: 'Fen sunrise' by meg_nicol, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Conceptualising our practice: the library service spectrum (and who gets to decide where you stand on it)

Here’s a short piece I wrote for the UKSG Newsletter recently, reproduced here with permission. There’s a downloadable version over here if you prefer. At a recent ARLG event on ‘Librarians as Teachers’ I invited the audience to consider the idea of a spectrum or continuum of library service provision. At one extreme end of this continuum is a vision that revolves around the provision of quality materials; at the other, a focus on supporting learning and knowledge creation. These poles could be described in terms of an orientation towards collection development and learning development respectively; more loosely, they can be seen as a focus on ‘stuff’ on one hand, and on ‘the people who use the stuff’ on the other. uksg_graphic_cropped These positions are deliberately represented as the extreme ends of a continuum or axis rather than as an either/or dichotomy, because most library staff will find themselves falling somewhere along the line between the two rather than wholly at one end. It’s an interesting, and revealing, activity to reflect on how much of what we do in our daily work lies towards each end of the continuum.  For instance, at the material-facing pole will fall ‘traditional’ library processes like selection, organisation, acquisition, description and circulation – and indeed also promotion of the selected material; at the learner-facing pole we would find activities like facilitation, scaffolding, reflective dialogue and collaborative question-framing, as well as some formal teaching interventions. As suggested above, the work of many library staff will include elements of both types of provision: the interesting thing is to consider the proportion or ratio between them, and where this places you on the scale. uksg_graphic The first question, then, is: Where do you stand on this spectrum? How much of your professional time is spent organising knowledge that’s already out there – published material, scholarly communications, information artefacts – and how much in supporting and developing what’s going on in the crucible of the mind, where knowledge is still taking shape? This is a particularly interesting question for teaching librarians. Few would dispute that libraries, and in particular academic libraries, have a part to play in helping students develop their higher-level information handling abilities. These abilities include critical thinking and evaluation, interrogating and synthesising variant points of view, and developing an informed and reflective approach to encountering information – what Neil Postman called “the art of crap-detection” (1969). The issue lies in how we approach this remit of scaffolding students’ critical and academic development. Should we seek to fulfil this role by ensuring that the library offers reliable, authoritative material of academic quality, selected by subject experts to be useful and relevant? Or should we aim to support students in learning to select material themselves for its use and relevancy to the particular task at hand? Champions of the former standpoint are likely to see their role in terms of weaning students away from uncritical Googling and towards a thoughtful use of scholarly information sources. Advocates of the latter, on the other hand, will probably endorse William Badke’s assertion that “An information literacy approach … might not even in every case take the student to a library” (2010). Our own beliefs and values along this axis will influence how we perceive the relationship between the library and information. Thus a materials-focused approach is likely to conceive of the library as being the gateway to all appropriate information. In this relationship ‘library’ is the dominant concept and contains the concept of ‘information’, towards which it acts as a gateway or quality filter. lib_vs_info In contrast, an approach that aims to support students in developing the ability to evaluate information for themselves is likely to conceive of this relationship the other way around, with the library forming part of a much larger information landscape with which our students engage. info_vs_lib Sarah Cohen draws a sharp distinction between these two approaches, arguing that the former revolves around instruction in library resources, whereas “information-centric instruction” takes in the whole information landscape including, but not limited to, the library. Regrettably for theoretical precision, the term ‘information literacy’ is so elastic that it can – and does – accommodate both approaches: however, mapping them to the material-learner spectrum enables us to see how divergent they really are. Where information literacy instruction deals exclusively with promoting and demonstrating library resources, it falls very close to the ‘materials’ end of the spectrum, despite the fact that, as a teaching intervention, the vehicle of delivery appears to be learner-focused.  At the opposite pole, teaching will concentrate not on resources or products but on processes involved in learning – sense-making, question-framing, synthesis and knowledge construction. Why does this matter? It matters because where we stand on the spectrum has significant implications for how we construct our idea of the library and its mission, purpose and value in the lives of our learners. This in turn will determine how we present the library to our students and affect how they perceive what we can offer to support them in their learning journey. Yet this is nothing like the whole story. Beyond the interest, or the reflective impact, of determining your own standpoint on the provision continuum lies a far bigger question:

Where does your library stand on this spectrum?

What proportion of overall staff time is spent on materials-facing work relative to learning-facing provision? Which kind of workflow is better established and supported in the organisation’s culture? How many sections or departments on the organisational chart are named after materials-facing processes, and how many after teaching and learning activities? (I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that ‘Reader Services’ in many libraries actually falls towards the materials-facing end of the spectrum, since it often focuses on what readers do in the library building and with the library’s collections – i.e., the stuff.) Yet beyond where your library stands on the spectrum is a wider context again: that of the student’s encounters with the whole institution, from application through admission to assessment and finally (we hope) into employability. All our interactions with learners – whether formal teaching interventions or ad hoc one-to-ones at the inquiry desk – take place within this wider institutional framework; and this framework has always already influenced our students’ learning experiences by way of prior encounters or touchpoints and the values that are perceived to underlie them. So the final question to consider is:

Where does your institution think that your library, and you, should stand on this scale?

Because ultimately, that factor is likely to be the greatest determinant of how our students perceive the role, mission, and value of the library. Time to start working on that elevator pitch for the Vice-Chancellor?

How I work (what, me?)


So there’s a Lifehacker thing going the rounds where “productivity heroes” share their habits and in turn invite others to do so. I don’t know where I stand on the productivity scale, but I do know I’m one of the most disorganised researchers I’ve personally ever come across. This is great for teaching – it means I can be a sort of living Awful Warning to my research skills students – but whether it makes me a good candidate for productivity hero is definitely questionable.

But how could I resist Andy Priestner’s invitation – nay, command?

So here we go …

Location: Cambridge University Library

Current gig: Research Skills and Development Librarian

Current mobile device: elderly iPad (no camera!)

Current computer: Toshiba laptop with a missing plus key. (It got stuck on endless repeat and I eventually got fed up, prised it out of the keyboard and chucked it across the room.)

One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?: Spider Solitaire. In times of stress I play it obsessively.

What’s your workspace like? I should do some shredding. And some filing. And some general desk entropy measures. I’m sure I had a chair once.

What’s your best time-saving trick?: I have no time-saving tricks at all. I drafted a ton of self-deprecating reasons as to why not before I realised that this is not an embarrassing omission or a character flaw: it’s a deliberate policy. I don’t want to save time. I want to spend it – wisely, profitably, joyously, frivolously. I want to seize opportunities, take on new projects, meet and create ideas with people, walk all 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I could save time easily by doing none of these things. But what would I do instead?

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?: The stash of scrap paper that I cut down to A5 and hold together with a bulldog clip.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? My Moleskine 18-month weekly notebook diary.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Well, I’m pretty shit-hot at Spider Solitaire.

What are you currently reading?

  • The Oxford Book of English Poetry
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
  • The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnamable (that’s been ongoing for a while now)
  • Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn (with rising irritation)

I guess another time-saving strategy (see above) could be just reading one book at a time, but why would I want to do that?

What do you listen to while you work?: The general conversation in our open plan office – by turns funny, informative, supportive and just plain bonkers. It’s the best office environment I’ve ever worked in.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A very highly-functioning closet introvert.

What’s your sleep routine like?: Erratic.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Helen Webster answer these same questions.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”(Full disclosure: Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t actually say this to me personally.)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?: Metaphors around ‘being productive’ are often based on motion: spinning all the plates, juggling all the things, dashing around getting things done. In contrast, every research skills session I give is based on stopping and being still for a little while. They’re an invitation to pause and take stock, to look unjudgementally at how you do what you do.  Paradoxically, the best way to be productive as a researcher may be to periodically stop doing and allow yourself to reflect on where you are:

“Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

(T.S. Eliot)


Image by Rama V, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Research Skills: a five-year retrospect

Image by Luz Adriana Villa, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

It’s Annual Report time again and my savvy colleague Alex suggested: “You’ve been in post five years. Why not make this a five-year report?”

So alongside the figures for this year’s Research Skills Programme, I’ve put together an overview of how the programme has changed in ethos and direction over the last half-decade in response to changes in the wider HE landscape.

It made me a bit sad that the feedback I got on my teaching didn’t make the final cut for the divisional report, which is another reason I wanted to put this document out here * shameless self-promotion klaxon *. But I also think that the work my colleagues have put in to the tour leaders’ Peer Training and Support scheme deserves more attention. This is what I wrote in the report:

The scheme requires commitment on both sides. It is not merely about passing on wisdom in a one-way relationship, but about dialogue and sharing of experience between the partners …. Participants on the scheme have to date responded with zest and enthusiasm, willingly making time for their own and their colleagues’ professional development in an outstandingly positive way.

That bit didn’t make the divisional report final cut either, so I want to shout about it here instead!


Image by Luz Adriana Villa, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

‘Only connect …’

Andy Walsh and I have compiled, edited and published an ‘anarcho-narrative unbook’! Which is a funky way of describing a publication

  • that will be electronic by default (but is also available as print-on-demand)
  • that will be freely available online and licensed under Creative Commons
  • where the chapter authors were invited to choose the most appropriate structure and medium (or media!) for their contributions
  • in which the richness of information discovery is represented by an eclectic and inspiring range of writing styles and voices.

The (un)book consists of a series of narratives connected by the overarching theme of information discovery journeys. Read on to discover more about the individual contributions …

The Fishscale of Academicness. Image by Josh Filhol, from the chapter by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

The Fishscale of Academicness. Image by Josh Filhol, from the chapter by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

From the introduction

Into the woods: teaching trails and learning journeys

These pieces are remarkable individually; collectively they shed new light on the subtle interplay between information and identity. This holds both for the roles we occupy and the relationships we construct during the processes of teaching and learning – librarian, learner, guide, seeker – and also for identity as our innermost sense of self: how we learn who we are. As Osborne writes, “How do we become ourselves – the self that we know and others recognise?” This unbook opens with the voice of the librarian-guide in dialogue with learners and other teachers, and shifts gradually towards an exploration of how our personal identities are shaped or even constituted by the information we encounter.

The two sections of this book thus offer complementary yet deeply contrasting visions of the information journey. Section One, ‘The Mapmakers’, presents a set of planned routes, suggested and tested by knowledgeable guides: a cross between Baedeker and Bradshaw. In this section, librarians offer a range of thoughtful observations on how learners encounter, negotiate and construct knowledge. Few of these accounts are didactic; they give not so much a blueprint or template for ‘how to do it’, but rather a topographical record of their learners’ journeys.

The Mapmakers, then, offer the reassurance of well-signposted paths, including a number of ‘scenic routes’ or imaginative ways in which librarians and academics can help their students to choose appropriate sources of information. Delasalle and Cullen’s literature search “travel guide”, a collaboration between learner and librarian, is modelled as an A-Z directory of the information searching process. Gröppel-Wegener and Walton provide engaging guidelines for navigating the information ocean and identifying what you find in your fishing net, enhanced by Josh Filhol’s beautiful and illuminating illustrations. Gröppel-Wegener’s second contribution, which closes the section, portrays the qualitative difference between summary and synthesis through an imaginative, extended playing-card metaphor which enables learners to evaluate and collate their information ‘cards’ and maximise the value of their ‘hand’.

Several of the Mapmakers themselves invoke and interrogate the journey metaphor. Burkhardt and Carbery’s Prezi, which narrates how staff engage students in critical conversations about their information choices, is itself modelled as a learning journey from unquestioned assumption towards self-discovery. Importantly, the authors acknowledge that this journey requires learners to cross the threshold out of their “comfort zone”, encountering information that may confuse or disconcert them. It’s refreshing to see the emotional impact of learning acknowledged in this way, since although encountering new or contradictory information can be a deeply unsettling experience, this dimension is all too often silently omitted from information literacy discourse.

Johnson and Walsh’s exploration of the information approaches of drama lecturers also highlights the affective impact of learning. Their study sees participating academics falling broadly into two groups: those who advocate “following the paths” versus those who suggest “exploring the landscape”. Whereas the ‘explorer’ academics encourage their students to seek out new routes and new views of the subject, the path-following group focuses on getting students safely to a known information destination. Interwoven with the emphasis on “safe”, stable knowledge is the implication of possible divagation, disorientation or outright danger if the safe routes are departed from.

This shadowy peril is beautifully described by Linda Tolly, who maps the information journey to the template of the hero’s quest. In doing so she highlights one of the most important differences between mapmaking and journeying: the guide is not the traveller. Not even the wisest sage (or librarian) can accompany the learner all the way on the quest, or through the dark forest. The nature of the quest is that the “travels and travails” must be undertaken by the quester, upon whom the adventures and encounters may have a life-changing effect.

Information and identity: “I am other I now”

Our second section is composed of, and by, Travellers. These authors try less than the Mapmakers to show any objective ‘truth’ about information literacy and show instead more of the process behind an information discovery journey in a way that as yet does not have a fixed ‘lens’ of information literacy imposed. Throughout we glimpse the reflective learning self which simultaneously steps into a new position and observes itself doing so: in Joyce’s words, “I am other I now”. The result is candid, compelling and deliberately uneven. The authors employ a range of voices, registers and genres, sometimes within the same chapter; narratives are not brought to closure but left open, the linear sequence disrupted;  the learning is ongoing.

We have represented this narrative fluidity and internal counterpoint by using contrasting fonts, but our authors have also broken out of the text-only mode to include video, audio, images, cartoons, and interactive media to both record and communicate their learning journeys. As several chapters demonstrate, the connections and associations we make between concepts are far from being exclusively textual: dialogue can take place by exchanging sound clips, artworks, doodles, dreams.

Going beyond the authority of the written word is an act of subversion, of leaving the path, and it is both perilous and rewarding. As Inês Amado and Ximena Alarcón note, “the issues of migration and dislocation are always present”. The two artists connect across space in a technology-mediated dialogue, which itself exceeds the bounds of the textual, to share visions and dreamscapes which combine sound, video and objects. The students in ‘Memories’ go yet further, connecting across time in exploring how we encode and communicate identity through clothing and across generations.

Penny Andrews and Marika Soulsby-Kermode exchange and explore information in many media, discussing how it both assists and hampers a coming to terms with the true, autistic, self. Antony Osborne narrates compellingly the confusion of trying to construct an identity in the cross-fire of information available from scarce and conflicting sources – medical categorisation, cultural markers, the austerity of legal and judicial language, and the tacit social mores reflected (but never overtly articulated) in media representations of gay men.

There is neither classroom nor computer in David Mathew’s study of the (deliberately ambiguous) ‘stable group’, yet  here too the close connection between learning and identity is evident. Here the learning is entirely practical and extra-textual. Horses, humans, and the author-observer all experience a process of becoming, of learning as embodying or extending the identity. Even the dogs are learning to become guardians or gatekeepers: “Zack was teaching Bonnie how to fight and to bark with more aggression”.

The librarian: guide, gatekeeper, barrier?

What is the place of the librarian in these information journeys characterised by the creative, the experiential, the nontextual? A number of guide figures appear in the pages (or pixels) of this unbook, variously depicted as mentor, shaman, guardian and barrier, and helpful or sinister in about equal measure. While the mapmakers tend to represent them in a more positive light, it’s evident that learners and travellers regard the librarian figure with some ambivalence!

Antony Osborne’s redoubtable Mrs Fogg – a classic shusher presiding over a space smelling of furniture polish which contains none of the information he seeks – is surely related to Nick Norton’s librarians, both of whom actually withhold information from library users whom they perceive as using it inappropriately: “No, no, now no. That is not at all what the book is for.” All three are drawn from real life experiences, yet they are strangely reminiscent of the unhelpful bears and robots who staff Bryony Ramsden’s fairytale library. Far from being kindly wizards, sages, or guides, these characters stand uncompromisingly between the learner and information, proffering search ‘tips’ along the lines of “Write a query based on a combination of base 6 numbering and binary … (ensure interjections are in Assyrian cuneiform or C++)” (Ramsden).

Maze graphic by Nevit Dilmen on Wikimedia Commons. From 'The Library' by Bryony Ramsden

Maze graphic by Nevit Dilmen on Wikimedia Commons. From ‘The Library’ by Bryony Ramsden


At the other end of the spectrum, however, more positive visions of the librarian’s potential role can be found in Johnson and Walsh’s Cheshire cat, who appears at difficult forks in the path (and presumably fades away, grinning benevolently, when no longer needed); in Tolly’s Sorceress-Librarian, who can gift the power of knowledge but who also recognises that the learner must quest alone; and in Norton’s vision of a person-centred library entity based around the core Rogerian conditions of congruence, empathy and respect for the individual.

All these visions have in common a perception of the librarian as neither gatekeeper nor shaman but as collaborator and partner in learning. They also share a vision of the library – real and/or virtual – as a space in which to create and experiment, which fosters “a joyful, playful” attitude to information (Johnson and Walsh), which perhaps even “rebrands as the Zone of Proximal Learning” (Norton).

In the journey into the unknown, play and learning both require an exceeding of preset boundaries. To cross this threshold is to shift into the unimagined ‘now’ of creativity. Signposting, guiding, and the desire to reach a place of safety give way to being playful, joyful and experimental: the positive flipside of the affective impact of information.

Stepping off the path

Teaching is developmental – it nourishes, modifies and deepens our practice and our pedagogy – but learning is transformative: it changes the learner, not the practice, and it does so at a profound level. The two processes of teaching and learning may take place at the same time (in a classroom, at an inquiry desk) yet, as Norton points out, they are “simultaneously intimate and entirely distinct”. Terrain that has already been mapped is nevertheless new ground for a first-time visitor, and each newly arrived explorer steps, at every moment, into unknown territory.

The journey metaphor illustrates this slippage between the processes of teaching and learning: the contrast between retracing an established route into knowledge and the unsettling phenomenological experience of constructing the pathway for the first time. “STOP. Wait. Is that right? TRY AGAIN” (Ramsden). “I try again …” (Cullen and Dellasale).

From 'The Library' by Bryony Ramsden

From ‘The Library’ by Bryony Ramsden


Our learners go where we cannot guide them. Their learning takes place in unexpected spaces and guises, away from the pathways and into the forest: exploring beyond the ‘safe’, known structure and into to the as-yet-undefined. As educators, we know that these metaphors represent the essence of knowledge creation, and yet we fear for our learners: we can only watch, not accompany. So we must take care that in our zeal to guide learners and help them find the right, safe pathways, we don’t contain or limit or smother their intellectual journeys. We can plot a course for our teaching interventions, but we cannot predict, mandate or define our learners’ journeys through information and connectivity. We can define what a ‘winning hand’ looks like, but we can’t govern the fall of the cards. We can designate the unknown, we can even map out its extent on our charts – but that’s not at all the same thing as crossing the threshold or stepping off the path.

Learning changes the learner. Whether we find the Grail or not, we have still achieved the quest: the journey itself and the information encounters we experience have effected a profound change. And who is to say when the destination is finally reached or where the journey ends? Ramsden’s chapter offers us three endings out of a myriad of possilibities; and this unbook ends with an invitation to you to continue the dialogue. We can continue to make connections between librarian and learner, between knowledge and creativity, through communicating our information encounters.

Casting your information net. Image by Josh Filhol, from 'The Fishcale of Academicness' by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

Casting your information net. Image by Josh Filhol, from ‘The Fishcale of Academicness’ by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

Manifesto, part II: the research jigsaw revisited

While I’m in full-on manifesto mode, here’s an updated version of the research jigsaw. The content is very similar to the version I blogged previously, but I’ve tidied up the phrasing a bit and moved a few pieces around …


I use the graphic with course leaders, students and researchers as a way of showing where information-handling behaviours and values fit within the academic learning journey. I’ve found it useful because it illustrates recognisable aspects of the research process alongside some less familiar ones, which may be threshold concepts in themselves, and it helps me situate what I talk about in a way that makes it more relevant to what they’re doing as researchers.

I presented about the jigsaw and how I use it at the ALDinHE conference in March – the slides are available on Slideshare. I’ve also made a downloadable version which includes the blank jigsaw template, so if you want to make a version with alternative pieces you can!