The context for this reflection was my application for HEA recognition at senior fellow level during my MA in Creative Arts Education. The author’s early experiences as a novice contextual studies lecturer, in an isolated department, are reflected upon as establishing a certain belief system around questioning assumptions of students’ needs and capabilities. Consideration is given to the relationship between students’ engagement, enjoyment and their perception of theory content’s relevance to their visual practice. An attempt is made to imagine what a novice teacher’s approach looks like for a dyslexic student, in vignette form. The authors’ aims to develop an inclusive and student-centred teaching practice are elaborated, ending upon a fleshing out of the Alexander framework.
Published on 21st May 2019 | Written by Lynda Fitzwater | Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash
Previous to my current role as Critical Theory Senior Lecturer embedded in the BA (Hons) Fashion Promotion and Imaging course (FPI), I had since 2003 designed and delivered theory units to the full range of undergraduate courses at UCA Epsom based in the centralised Contextual Studies (CS) department. Concurrent to development of UCA’s MA in Creative Arts Education, academic, administrative and management dissatisfactions with the effectiveness and relevance of centralised provision were mounting. This was as largely due to unsatisfactory results in the National Student Survey (NSS) and UCA’s Internal Student Survey (ISS), alongside increasing mitigating circumstances applications, referrals and non-submissions. I felt the MA was a golden opportunity to strengthen my knowledge of pedagogic approaches to theory, particularly its generative integration with practice, as well as again operate within a supportive learning community as I had while studying on UCA’s Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Arts Education. Management’s concerns resulted in restructure, and disestablishment of my role while I was halfway through the MA, and I successfully applied for Critical Theory Senior Lecturer in FPI. So, the MA in Creative Arts Education provided a unique experience to critically examine my teaching and its underpinning beliefs simultaneous to a radical re-contextualisation of my practice.
Towards the end of my MA, I was offered my first teaching job to give a CS lecture to first year undergraduates at UCA on a range of courses, and to assess essays. What is contextual studies? It could be described as the teaching of theoretical perspectives as part of a vocational degree. Variously termed complementary or critical studies; regarding art and design specifically, Raein (2003) claims its original purpose was to “lend academic credibility” to the studio, resulting in a dichotomy between creative “doing”-based teaching which foregrounds the “I” and the detached objectivity of history and theory instruction. Durham and Kellner (2006) look quite differently at the potential for theoretical perspectives to guide creative practitioners towards compelling and relevant visual solutions: “[theories] enable critical readers to see cultural texts and phenomena in a new light, generating insight into the sometimes hidden production processes and ideological constraints of media culture” (2006: x). I have inspired by this approach in my teaching, and I introduce it dialogically to learners. I was really excited to have the opportunity to persuade students that theory is not peripheral.
Brookfield analyses new tutors’ idealism (2002), and social constructivism is also a relevant reflective lens because I was basing my knowledge on my own experience (Armitage et al, 1999). The marginality of theory was a view held by my friends on the degree but not myself, because I enjoyed and benefitted from the inclusion of theory on my course, and it was probably why I was chosen to give this lecture. Swinglehurst’s (2008) unfavourable comparison of Quality Assurance to Quality Enhancement provides a relevant reflective framework for the CS department’s concern about engagement, and my attempts at improvement which may have been more effective if I had emphasised discussion and learning more as a social practice, rather than focusing on my “performance”. As well as feeling excited, I was also petrified of having to stand up in front of a large group and tell them about something they find irrelevant. I was a novice in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), making a lot of mistakes that I assume more experienced, less naive teachers can avoid. I felt my lack of qualification would be ‘found out’ by students, and, to a lesser extent, colleagues. Elbaz (1987) theorises this as ‘impostership’ which is significant because the ‘imposter’ self-attributes all the blame for failure, rather than acknowledging a range of factors.
The overall topic of the lecture needed to be fashion theory. I adapted it to focus on bricolage in high fashion, partly because it was my main research interest, and partly because I picked up on the CS department’s assumptions about what was lacking in students’ subject knowledge and also in their approach to research for both theoretical and studio projects. Classical critical theory terminology like bricolage and deconstruction were deemed to be what learners should learn (Alexander, 1992). The formality of the teaching and learning environment of the lecture theatre made it difficult for me to interact with individual students’ questions, which when they did occur diverged widely from the topic at hand – I interpreted these features of the lecture as signs of a lack of engagement on the part of the students. Zepke (2014) questions how engagement should be interpreted and whether it is an unhelpful neoliberal construct. I am interested to research the dimensions in which this might be problematic. Neoliberalism has been described as “encourag[ing] particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens” and “the management of populations with the aim of cultivating the type of individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behaviour which the liberal tradition has historically assumed to be the natural condition of civilised humanity” (Gilbert, 2013: 9).
I was also concerned that the topic would be viewed as irrelevant to the Graphic Design and New Media students, which may have been unfair, but at the time I assumed that they are male, heterosexual and conforming to the usual stereotypes of rejecting fashionable dress as a valid topic for conversation. In contrast, I believed that students on fashion-based courses would be attracted by discussion of examples of bricolage in promotional practices of consumer culture that are contemporary and, ultimately, ‘fashionable’. I based the lecture around the bricolaged design process of Vivienne Westwood’s pirate boots. Students’ misconceptions about “conceptual thresholds can cause much hesitation for practitioners approaching academia” (Rowe & Martin, 2014: 33), for example, that theoretical concepts are divorced from the contemporary fashion experience.
To visually display the information that I thought would be important or interesting for the students, I prepared hand-written acetates sellotaped together because I had not yet heard about powerpoint. Academic enquiries about the pedagogic effectiveness of powerpoint often emphasise its persuasive potentials, especially for novices. This is intriguing considering both myself and the students were novices (Guadagno et al, 2013). But I felt, and still feel, embarrassed to have used such a rudimentary technology. At the first opportunity, I threw away my materials. My new colleagues ‘helpfully’ advised me that the students ‘liked lots of pictures’, but found academic ideas too challenging to engage with (because many of them are dyslexic). So I photocopied onto acetate examples of the way fashion magazines promoted pirate boots, and how celebrities’ stylists combined them with different outfits, assuming that these were the kinds of sources of information that students were most comfortable with and thus could start a dialogue. Instead of researching pedagogy for myself, I believed my colleagues. Pollak (2009) challenges the presumed limitations associated with dyslexia, and interrogates assumptions about dyslexics’ ‘visual’ preferences more precisely as verbal and visual learning skills. Thus informed, I have since facilitate the engagement of dyslexic students through inclusive adjustments supporting a range of neurodiversities, rather than through the deficit model.
I tried to use the imagery as a scaffold to introduce academic terms that I assumed were unfamiliar and difficult to understand, so I provided my explanations of their meaning. These explanations came from my own interpretation of academics’ definitions e.g. Raymond Williams (1983), and I didn’t ask the students what they thought the quotes meant. During the lecture, I remember feeling worried and was distracted from communicating the content, uncertain that the students were enjoying the topic because they appeared to be confused and anxious. Brookfield acknowledges the “primary joy” in learning that can motivate teaching (2002: 33). I felt unsure that what I was saying was having a positive impact upon changing students’ view of the redundancy of theory in a vocationally-centred creative arts course because I was experiencing what I interpreted as apathy from them. I felt I had failed in what I had aimed to contribute to the profile of the CS department within the campus at this time. But maybe I should not have assumed the norm of enjoyment.
“Anxiety, boredom, and apathy appear to be much better represented in college classrooms than full concentration and enjoyment of learning. College instructors who feel as if they are dragging students through their college educations against their will may also disengage, invest decreasing effort, or invest their energy in cynicism and hostility toward students” (Gute & Gute, 2008: 192)
What did this look like from the point of view of a student?
My invitation to the students would be something like this: ‘Please tell us your experience of today’s teaching. There are no wrong answers and you are encouraged to be honest about how you feel. What you tell us is anonymous which means anything you say cannot be linked back to you – your comments will just be used to improve the teaching next time. Points you might want to include are what you liked/disliked, how it could be better next time, what you feel you learned and what you could have done differently in the session.
I thought she was really enthusiastic at the beginning and it’s nice to see a young teacher, and she was here recently, but what she was saying was a lot harder than my other classes. What I dislike is why some classes use a lot of writing and some don’t (today’s did), it makes it hard to see the information from the back of the class. I am dyslexic so I am going to struggle anyway. This room is a problem. I don’t like it because it gets very hot and I start to feel sleepp and can’t concentrate, thhen I panic that I’m not keeping up.
I don’t feel confident to ask questions because people will think I don’t understand. So I have to get my friend’s notes later. It would be better to do this complicated information in a more relaxing room, because I know we have to know it for the degree, and some of it is actually interesting, like the way stylists combine different accessories (can’t spell the word she said). And might be useful when I do my sketchbook for this photography deadlins cos they said they want us to write in it, not just use tearsheets.
I learned that a few of the high street fashion trends I see in magazines are actually coming from what Vivienne Westwood researched at the V&A, so that’s quite coool. But the rest of it I have forgotten already – I could record it next time if I’m allowed. It’s also a bit weird that I am studying to become a Cashion Designer but I am in a class with different people.
Learning from this experience, I have developed my teaching practice to eshew received notions of delivering the theoretical canon instead reflecting upon what my practice actually models for learners. I have taught increasingly inclusively (gaining much from my 2010-2011 PGCert) focusing on the meta-cognitive level (helping students learn how to learn), before tackling relevant threshold concepts co-constructively.
Now my embedded practice is an opportunity to initiate pedagogic dialogue with students by sharing my research. My teaching is learner-centred informed by noticing and reflecting upon students’ explicit and implicit needs long term. Some examples of how I am striving to improve:
- Introducing moving images wherever possible, to replace words or still images
- Closely monitoring how many and which words are on screen simultaneously
- Creating teaching materials from professionally-designed powerpoint templates (see appendix 1)
- Increasing opportunities for peer-to-peer learning e.g. scaffolding teaching around group and individual visual activities, and alternative assessment e.g. presentations
- Publicising materials on myUCA in advance and in hard copy
- Strategising my whole-group questioning technique, for example avoiding unfamiliar academic terminology (Harper, 2013: 41)
- Updating my theoretical basis to offer students an expanded range of subject positions and voices which they can critique, engage or identify with
- Including an experimental proposal stage within dissertation for exploration of subject positions as a novice.
I have coordinated close collaboration between Learning Development Tutors (LDTs), Teaching and Learning Librarians (TLLs) and my team to design and integrate long-term teaching objectives and programmes (directly linked to assessment criteria) into the delivery of theory units. This is because students’ “strategic” learning intentions can cause disengagement with ‘unassessed’ support sessions (Moon, 2004: 150). I coordinate far in advance of crits, formative and summative presentations to ensure LDTs and TLLs are present and involved, as part of my mentoring of support staff to close the perceived divide between academic teaching and other sources of student advice.
Students’ reliance on one-to-one teaching and anxiety about concomitant taste-assessment are challenges requiring long-term Quality Enhancement strategies (Swinglehurst et al, 2008). I believe that shifting to a peer-to-peer focused approach will develop independent learning techniques to better support a professional life beyond university, but this needs modelling across FPI studio teaching. My criticisms of my approach in 2003 centre upon my uninformed basis for teaching decisions. I have acted upon this ever since by researching effective learning through students’ evaluations and through pedagogic theory, developing strategies to feed into my next projects.
Reflecting in these ways was only made possible because, at the time, I felt able to open up about my assumptions while part of the supportive community of the MA cohort. Inclusion within a group of peers all working towards a similar goal is not the only space in which reflection can be facilitated at UCA, but it certainly helps! Since writing this reflective account, I have gained the confidence and longitudinal perspective needed to appraise my teaching as succeeding in having some of the kinds of impacts I want it to. I also feel more able to acknowledge both the extra unintended impacts I have on students’ learning, as well as the limitations of my impact as part of their hypercomplex and extraordinarily affective lives at university. As the University evolves, I find myself again reassessing what teaching methods effectively enhance students’ dialogic critical social and political engagement with generating their own emancipatory understandings of their own role as creative visual practitioners.
An outline of how I would address the Alexander Framework (Alexander, 1992) in my current embedded role
What should learners (of FPI Theory) learn?
Engagement with cultural/critical theory can generate innovative solutions to briefs, plus emancipatory potentials personally, especially if engagement occurs through dialogue with other students.
How should FPI Theory be learned, taught and assessed?
Dialogically involving the tutors, support staff and students.
What is an educated person?
They know where and how to find and apply concepts to problems to construct new personally relevant understandings of culture, about which they can dialogue with others presenting ideas compellingly
Why should learners be educated in this way?
To develop confidence about collaborating with other people, and their concepts, on solutions to challenges, for the greater social good.
Lynda Fitzwater joined the FPI team as embedded theoretical tutor in 2015. She has taught across a wide range of cultural studies including fashion history and theory, design history, feminist film theory, post-feminism, race and intersectional theory and disability studies. Lynda graduated from UCA with a Master of Arts in Creative Arts Education, achieving a distinction. She has a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from UCA, Master of Arts in History and Theory from LCF, and a BA (Hons) in Fashion Promotion and Illustration.
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