From puppetry to project briefings: PgCert Academic Practice project work

The Self-initiated Project (SIP) is the final unit for participants on the PgCert Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication.  Participants identify a topic of interest for investigation that is located within their specific area of academic practice, whether pedagogic or disciplinary. 

The projects are as creative, varied and interesting as the participants’ multitude of practices, but this unit is not about stellar final research findings. Instead it is an applied introduction to the processes and methods used in academic research. Participants are encouraged to experiment with methods of enquiry that are most appropriate to their content and contexts. The pedagogic frame utilised is Problem-Based Learning, with participants learning in triad peer groups, linked by their own interests.

Assessment takes the form an oral presentation of project process and findings to the class, which creates a practice point for further dissemination back into the learner’s professional course or departmental context.

SiP is such a great unit to teach on because you get to learn about the huge variety of teaching and work that goes on across the university. We hope the projects act as catalysts for the ongoing enhancement work of participants to help drive forward the student experience at UAL.

Neil Currant, Educational Developer & tutor, SIP unit, UAL

We dropped in on an assessment session this week, and a (very un-scientific) sample of their varied projects is outlined below. 

What are the benefits of puppetry as a teaching and learning method in higher education?

Sara Ekenger (Course Leader, MA Design Management, London College of Communication)

With a creative background in business, design and theatre, Sara is interested in non-verbal storytelling, body language and play as teaching methods.  Whilst well-recognised in primary education but somewhat underused in HE, puppets are widely used with adults in applied puppetry (for example in community or therapeutic settings).

The project began with structured email interviews with experts in the fields of applied puppetry or performative pedagogies. Sara hoped to gather practical ideas for use in a higher education setting, which could then be used in a follow up workshop with students. 

Sara was initially drawn to narrative inquiry as a methodology, given its focus on storytelling, but after attempting to extract stories from her interview data realised this was not appropriate.  Instead she shifted towards action research methodology as the project progressed, due to the iterative and co-evaluative nature of the work.

Additional changes were that the email interviews became a smaller number of face-to-face conversations, and unfortunately coronavirus ultimately interfered with running the student sessions. 

However, Sara was still able to identify benefits of puppetry as a teaching tool. The advantages discussed by participants were many, such as:

  • Puppets are trans-disciplinary
  • Puppets can be used to examine power relationships and disarm taboos. They provide a safe, semi-distanced way for participants to visualise, play with and tackle serious subjects.
  • Puppets are inclusive, with universal emotions being embodied/acted out across languages and cultures, allowing students to express themselves and gain confidence
  • Puppets improve students’ session recall: the lived experience of this learning makes it more memorable for students
  • Puppets can facilitate collaborative working: for example, students controlling individual puppet limbs must co-operate to animate the whole.

What is the student experience of project briefing?

Serena Katt (Teaching / facilitating second year lead tutor on BA (Hons) Illustration at UCA, Farnham)

Serena’s focus was on student-led learning, combined with a desire to practice teaching inclusively and to foster community amongst staff and students. 

The research questions of PgCert participants evolve during the unit. Serena’s initial “how can I enhance the inclusivity of my teaching?” became a more specific “how can I introduce a brief in a student-led way?” However, she realised that this implies we understand the current student experience and any pitfalls, allowing us to make improvements to it. Her final project became an investigation into project briefing, specifically with undergraduate Illustration students.

Serena’s approach was narrative inquiry, that is collecting the stories of students via interview and interpreting them.  Conversations with two focus groups of interviewees were recorded and then coded line by line to aid systematic interpretation.

The focus groups were constructed carefully, for example aiming to include students achieving across the grade spectrum in each session. Due to the pandemic, the first focus group took place in person and the second online, which unintentionally added a group dynamic variable that could be analysed across the flow of the two conversations.

The project provided signposts for what students want to see in briefing (such as clarity) as well as glimpses of other findings which could be pursued: such as the apparently relatively higher confidence of male vs female Illustration students as reflected in their focus group participation. Follow up studies might also investigate the impact of participation in the research project on the ongoing tutor-student relationship:  has it made the students feel (more) empowered?

What is the invisible value of international academic teaching exchanges from the perspective of the hosted tutor?

Francesca Bonetti (Lecturer: Fashion Marketing, London College of Fashion)

Francesca has participated in numerous academic exchanges and this year went to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, USA.  Francesca kept a diary, recording her expectations each day and then reflections on actual events every evening, – an autoethnographic approach to research.

Her project reflects on how the attitudes of the visiting academic and the host lecturers impact the experiences of both parties and their students.

Has my body of fine art work created original research or new knowledge or forms?

Edmund Clark (Senior Lecturer, MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, London College of Communication)

Ed is considering applying to do a PhD by published work and used this project to research the impact on others of his career: for 20 years he has been publishing and creating exhibitions internationally around the dual themes of firstly the war on terror, and secondly incarceration and criminal justice.

Initially deeply uncomfortable with this topic, the project allowed Ed to start conversations and understand more objectively how others view his body of work.

What do PgCert students do next?

PgCert participants can continue their research onto the MA Academic Practice, the PgCert’s big sister course, where their individual research interests and methodological expertise deepens and develops further.

The ‘Academics, in Practice’ exhibition at LCC in February showcased the research from the MA class of 2019.  The variety of research interests continues at this level, with exhibits spanning themes as diverse as roleplay, failure, walking, values, learning spaces, weaving, sustainability and fighting. 

Want to know more?

Read more about the PgCert and MA Academic Practice in Art Design and Communication at UAL. We’ll be running information sessions for the courses starting in January 2021 soon.  Keep an eye on the Professional Development webpages or sign up to the Exchange bulletin for all the latest news.

If you’d like any more information do get in touch: teachingexchange@arts.ac.uk.

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