Every picture tells a story: ‘Creative Interactions’

An experiment in creative learning

On a grey Saturday morning in March 2020, as the UK teetered on the brink of the first lockdown, a small group of students gathered at the Open University campus in Milton Keynes to take part in an experiment. Half of the group were studying Creative Writing, and the other half were students of Art History.

The experiment – a project called ‘Creative Interactions’ –   had been dreamt up by me (Dr Heather Richardson, Creative Writing) and Art Historian Dr Clare Taylor, ably assisted by two of our Associate Lecturer colleagues, Dr Helen Mosby and Dr Diana Newall. The plan was to find out what happens when the teaching techniques of the two disciplines are swapped around. Luckily for us the Open University has an extensive art collection, much of which is on display around the campus. This meant we were able to come face to face with artworks from all around the world over the course of the day.

Ekphrasis and visual analysis

Ekphrasis is a familiar phrase to many people studying Creative Writing and comes from the ancient Greek words for describing or speaking out. Put simply, ekphrasis is writing that describes a piece of visual art, and it’s cropped up in literature for hundreds of years – think of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, for example. Every Creative Writing tutor has some ekphrastic exercises in their toolbox, where we show the students an image and encourage them to let their imaginations off the leash. What we’re hoping for is an emotional response – a gut reaction – that will lead students to a creative response in the form of a story or poem inspired by what they see.

Art History tutors and students on the other hand engage with artworks in a very different way. Their first step when they encounter an artwork is to carry out a visual analysis, considering issues like composition, colour, and the materials used. Another important element is the historical or social context in which the work was produced. It’s all very different from the way Creative Writing students make use of visual art.

Of course, we wanted our student volunteers to get practical benefits from the workshop that would help them on their modules, so for the first part of the day they worked with the tutor from their own discipline and engaged with several pieces of art in the usual way for their subject. It was then that the experiment really began as the two groups swapped, with the Art History students working with the Creative Writing tutor, and vice-versa for the Creative Writing students.

Imaginative adventures

I sat in with the Art History students as Creative Writing tutor Helen Mosby led them through a series of activities while looking at David Tindle’s Mural Panel C. At first glance this looks to me like a lovely image of a summer day, viewed through partially open French windows. Helen drew our attention to the old-fashioned telephone, receiver off the hook, sitting outside the French windows, and we tried to imagine the circumstances behind it. Had someone been trying to make a secret phone call, out of earshot of anyone else in the house? Or had some emergency occurred which had led them to throw the receiver down and run off?

The Art History students pointed out the areas of shadow amongst the trees on the right-hand side of the painting, and the misty effect caused by the barely-visible voile curtains, and with our creative writing hats on we wondered if these suggested a darker or unsettling aspect to the stories we were inventing.

For the final part of the workshop we all came together to consider a triptych – an artwork made up of three pieces – with input and discussion from both disciplines, followed by a creative writing session.

Lined page filled with text

Participants response to one of the artworks

Insights

At the end of the workshop we asked the students what they had learnt. Unsurprisingly, both disciplines said they felt better able to carry out a visual and formal analysis of artworks. One Creative Writing student said, ‘Looking at artwork from an art historian’s perspective would lead to different stimuli’, while another said they had learnt ‘How to interpret art as a medium with a purpose’. The Art History students commented on the creative writing activities, with one saying, ‘Spontaneous creative writing is hard!’ while another acknowledged the benefits of writing without hesitation, stating emphatically, ‘I can write!’

The students reflected on how the workshop had enhanced their appreciation of both their ‘home’ and ‘other’ discipline, with Creative Writing students feeling that analysing the artworks in detail would help them with their descriptive writing, while the Art History students concluded that thinking of an artwork in terms of narrative or subject matter would add a new dimension to their interpretation.

What next?

After the workshop Clare, Diana, Helen and I agreed that the experiment had proved the value to students of a creative interaction between their disciplines. Our next step will be to roll out a virtual version of the workshop. Going online isn’t just about dealing with the ever-changing Covid-19 regulations, but also a way to ensure that more students get the opportunity to participate – not just those who live within travelling distance from Milton Keynes. And we plan to talk about ‘Creative Interactions’ at conferences and staff development events for Creative Writing and Art History tutors. Exciting things happen when two disciplines work together, and we’re going to make sure that story gets told.

For further details please contact:

Heather Richardson, Senior Lecturer, Staff Tutor & Deputy Director FASSTEST

The Battle for Latin: Reports from the front line of research into Latin teaching

Hiding behind any respectable project that seeks to improve the student experience is always an element of nerdiness – an obsessive love of stats and number-crunching – as well as a curtain-twitching urge to take a peek into the lives of others. What precisely do teachers and students get up to in their classrooms? How does it all go so right for students – and sometimes so wrong?

Well, that’s our experience anyway. We are James Robson (Professor of Classical Studies at the OU) and Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student) and our story starts about seven years ago when we met up for the first time over multiple cups of tea, nursing the shared ambition of carrying out a bold project that hadn’t been attempted for a generation: a nuts-and-bolts survey of beginners’ Latin and Greek teaching in Classics departments across the UK. We carried out this survey in 2014 and as the data poured in and we feasted greedily on the diet of bar charts and pivot tables we were creating, one statistic kept jumping out at us: nearly one in four students who began studying Latin at university (23%) didn’t complete their module. Why was that? And how come the pass rates at different universities varied so greatly?

Image: Mair and James drinking tea in contrasting settings

That is how The Battle for Latin was born, a project dedicated to examining the factors driving student success, failure and withdrawal amongst beginners’ Latin students. More in hope than expectation, we put together a bid for the British Academy small grants scheme, drawing on James’ long experience of classical language teaching at the Open University and Mair’s expertise in Modern Foreign Language and Latin pedagogy. Importantly for the bid, we were able to cite the statistically-rich research that we had already published. And crucially, too, we had a burning question that, to us at least, seemed so vital to answer: why were so many aspiring Latinists in UK universities unable to stay the distance?

A few months later, we learnt that our bid had been successful and when our spontaneous whooping and partying eventually subsided, we set to work. As stats fiends, one thing we felt we needed was more targeted, up-to-date data, so we ran a new survey of UK Latin instructors, who between them kindly furnished us with data on 30 different Latin modules covering 888 students nationwide. As our graph below shows, the variation in completion rates was striking once again. Remarkably, too, we also learnt that, while a greater number of students were completing and passing our own Latin module at the OU, this was not a picture reflected across the sector: nationwide the completion rate for beginners’ Latin modules was stuck at 76%.

Image: One of Mair’s and James’ signature graphs: Beginners’ Latin modules in UK universities listed by anonymized alphanumeric code, showing percentages of those starting the module who passed, failed and withdrew.

So, what were the factors driving student success, withdrawal and failure? Our data allowed us to rule out elements such as module duration, credit value and even student contact hours to a large extent (the exception being a handful of particularly intensive modules which included five or more hours’ classroom time each week). Nor did the choice of textbook or assessment strategy appear to be determinative (although we did note a possible benefit of including substantial elements of assessed coursework). Ultimately, whatever hypothesis we investigated there always seemed to be modules that bucked the trend. Clearly, staring at the stats was only going to get us so far.

Fortunately, our project also built in human contact: a series of whole-class observations, interviews with instructors and students, and even an online student survey to allow us to understand better the obstacles to student success. We learnt a lot from our activities, not least the need to ask a small number of very focused questions if you hope to finish the interview on time! But we were also delighted to discover the warmth, dedication and reflectiveness not only of Latin instructors, but also of the students they teach, who were generous with their time and hugely thoughtful and thought-provoking in their responses to our questions.

So, is there a magic bullet for improving student success on beginners’ Latin modules? Well, maybe not, but our research nevertheless provides some useful trends and pointers, we hope. Plus, our forthcoming paper also distils some of the top tips that Latin students would pass on to new starters – all the more useful, we hope, for being direct quotations in the students’ own voices. If we have an overarching conclusion, however, it is perhaps that the magic lies somewhere in the dynamic interactions between the teacher, students, textbook, teaching methods and class as a whole. Of course, these are factors that are challenging to quantify and pin down – but this merely convinces restless enthusiasts like us that another research project is needed to scrutinize these more closely.

A paper with further details will be published shortly, we will post a link here when the article is live.

For further details please contact James and Mair:

James Robson, Professor of Classical Studies

Dr Mair Lloyd (Associate Lecturer and former OU PhD student)

Welcome to the FASSTEST blog!

FASSTEST (FASS Teaching Excellence and Scholarship of Teaching) is the Centre for Scholarship and Innovation at The Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. By ‘scholarship’, we mean the scholarship of teaching and learning. This means that FASSTEST supports the critical, scholarly evaluation of approaches to teaching and learning in the Arts and Social Sciences with the aim of providing an evidence base for good practice in higher education.

Our blog will include posts from practitioners and researchers discussing issues and research findings relevant to teaching and learning in the Arts and Social Sciences in HE. Here at The Open University we can draw on particular expertise in online and distance education, and we are especially inspired by The Open University’s mission to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. We are committed to placing innovation at the heart of teaching and learning and to exploring new and better ways to inspire and enable learning, opening up higher education to all, regardless of background or circumstances.

We welcome blog posts from anyone with an interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences. If you are interested in contributing please get in touch with FASS-Scholarship@open.ac.uk with a title and brief description of what you would like to write about.

Stefanie Sinclair
(FASSTEST Director)