Thinking writing encounters

Thoughts and reports on what we are doing.  Subscribe to Thinking writing encounters

Thoughts from Wollongong (measuring the unmeasurable?) Part 1

I’m with Jim (Donohue), at the University of Wollongong, Australia, where we’re working with Emily (Purser) on understanding and sharing practices and ideas around embedding communication in the disciplines, prior to presenting our work at a symposium at the end of the week. Our discussions have been ranging over themes and ideas from our own and each other’s contexts.

Thoughts on Suzhou, China

Twenty years a pilgrim,

Footing east, west.

Back in Seiken,

I’ve not moved an inch.



A week in Suzhou, China, can really only begin to give you limited insight into such a complex culture and people. I’ve been working as an external examiner, along with 18 other staff from across the UK HE sector at XJTLU, Liverpool University’s English medium campus in Suzhou, now in its tenth year. Located in University Town alongside 42 other universities and next to an industrial park, its north campus consists of a rectangle of huge modern buildings. I’m surprised by the scale of things here (Suzhou is a small city of only 12 million inhabitants).

Thesis Boot Camp snapshot

Squishy block image

24 participants, 1 Peta Freestone, dispensing tough love, 2.5 days to focus only on getting words down, 514 hours of writing in total, 20 pizzas, 32 ice creams, 48 bagels, 2 jars of pickles, innumerable cups of tea and coffee, 46 squishy blocks delightedly received: 23 green, 16 blue, 5 red, 2 gold, a breakthrough where a  previously un-noticed pattern emerged from the data, a realisation of how it all fits together, an almost finished first draft, a quietly muttered ‘I’ve got this’, 1 cemetery, no casualties, some tears, some stretching, 244 000 words written.

Now who wants to come to the next one...?

Thesis Boot Camp is coming to QMUL!

Could you write 20 000 words of your thesis in one weekend? Come to the QMUL Thesis Boot Camp and find out...

Thinking Writing is pleased to offer the first UK Thesis Boot Camp, an award-wining program designed to help late-stage PhD candidates get over the final hurdle of writing up. We are lucky to have Peta Freestone, one of the creators of TBC at the University of Melbourne, coming to QMUL to lead the weekend for us, and we are all looking forward to seeing how this more intensive approach to writing can add to our existing program of writing retreats.

For more information about the Bootcamp (or to come along) have a look at our events page here.

Developing criticality - reflections emerging from work with schools

Wordle cloud of criticality text

Over the last few weeks we have had two opportunities to share some of the resources around developing criticality that we have produced as part of our ongoing collaboration with teachers in a local secondary school - St Angela's Sixth Form - and a post-16 college - NewVic. We presented this work at the QMUL Language Centre's annual professional conference and also to a group of colleagues visiting from Haugaland and Skeisvang upper secondary schools in Norway, and De Duine school district in South Africa. In both cases there was plenty of discussion on what is meant by criticality in different contexts, and what we need to consider in order to develop students' ability to be critical as well as to nurture their critical dispositions. Please have a look through our presentation from the days and get in touch if you have any questions or comments.

How to go about running a writing retreat

Retreat at St Margaret's House, Bethnal Green

Every now and then we are contacted by someone in another institution wanting to set up a writing retreat and wondering what they might need to consider. Recently Claudia Kratochwil from Vienna University of Economics and Business got in touch with a bunch of questions; she had heard about our retreats from Bernadette Kamleitner, formally in the School of Business and Management at QMUL. We decided to merge our responses to Claudia and create a new advice page on our website.  If we have spaces we are happy to include occasional external participants on our retreats and we're also sometimes able to facilitate retreats for institutions outside QMUL.  NB One of our key tips for a successful retreat is a good location and good food - see image! 





What's in a question?


One of the favorite maxims of Thinking Writing is ‘a small amount of writing for a large amount of thinking' - attributable to John Bean, I think. So I was very thrilled a few weeks back when student emails started coming into my inbox that demonstrated just that. The emails were from the Forum of the first year Shakespeare module I’ve been lurking in the background of this semester. Students had been on a trip to the Globe Theatre and were now preparing for a visit from a Shakespeare actor, part of which would be a Q and A.  A number of years ago the module leader, Warren Boutcher, first asked students to submit a possible question to the actor; now he is using the VLE (QMPlus) more fully. Students post their question (or rather set of linked questions) to the Forum; fellow students read and rank them to decide which should go forward to the actor; finally, the actor makes a choice of their favorite question- and this wins a £50 book token prize.

Time for a paradigmatic approach?

Interesting to read this week about growing challenges to what's perceived as an 'intellectual monoculture' in many university Economics departments. Students from Manchester University who've formed the Post-Crash Economics Society want to see more discussion in their courses of why economists failed to foresee the crisis and a shift away from an emphasis on city job's training. They are supported by academics from a number of universities whose letter to the Guardian contrasts a 'dogmatic commitment' to a single neoclassical approach in economics with 'the openness of teaching in other social sciences, which routinely present competing paradigms. A group led by Professor Wendy Carlin at UCL is apparently seeking to set out a new curriculum for the subject. I'm reminded of the work in the late 1990s of the TALESSI project led by Peter Jones and Quentin Merritt at Greenwich University.

By Students, for Students, with Students

screen shot from student-produced video

We're delighted to have been awarded a grant by the Queen Mary Westfield Fund for Enhancing the Student Experience to develop learning resources in the disciplines - by students, for students and with students. The project taps into current thinking about collaborative relationships and the co-production of knowledge in higher education (McCulloch 2009). It will involve working students and academic staff to develop resources that can be used, especially in large and core modules, to address areas of particular challenge - for example 'troublesome' or 'threshold' concepts, scientific procedures, or presentational conventions.

Constellations Launch

Draper’s Bar, last night of the teaching term and, in a sense, these final year students’ last day at Queen Mary – they are feeling nostalgic for the times they first frequented this place as first years. They’ve come tonight to launch their new website developed as a part of the final year Comparative Literature module, Constellations. The site, built in WordPress, contains anthologies curated by the students around themes of their choosing - and perhaps, on this evening, they notice a rather elegiac meta-theme emerging – Mortality, Pessimism , Endings…

The anthologies each consist of six texts (poems, prose, drama, film) commentaries and an editorial survey piece. The students have worked in groups, and the writing is both collaboratively and individually produced; it’s exciting to see it published and accessible to anyone. Do take a look and post a comment:

Paying attention to - and through - writing

Lisa Emerson, Massey University

When she visited Queen Mary in October, Sarah Moore, Associate Vice-president of Limerick University observed that lots of little conversations about writing – what we do with it, how we value it, how we share it with students – contribute to a bigger collective discussion (and perhaps some consensus) about the kinds of students we’d like our university to turn out – put differently, our graduate attributes. 

Writing retreat, doing and learning

Writing retreat November QMUL 1

I spent two days last week running a retreat for PhD students, with a twist – in addition to the usual retreat goal of supporting PhD students in their writing, we had a new agenda, to train them as facilitators to help us run Thinking Writing retreats. Over the last three years our writing retreat program has grown from two staff and postgraduate student retreats each year to a range of retreats for retreats for staff, graduate students, undergraduates and local school teachers and students, usually one or two days in length. In 2011-2012 we ran over 15 retreats, and demand is continuing to grow.

Writing in Danish Upper Schools

Conference participants talking together about thinking and writing in their subjects

The Danish Ministry of Education is currently supporting a project across its upper secondary schools to develop writing in the teaching and learning of all subject areas. The work is coordinated by Bente Kristiansen from the University of Copenhagen’s Humanities Faculty, and she invited me along to a one-day conference in Odense on October 9th where teachers were exchanging some of the ideas and practices that are emerging from the work. Although hampered by my lack of even a smattering of Danish, I learnt that the project had made significant strides in bringing together staff teams in schools to think about what progression in writing might be like and to agree strategies for developing it.

Writing in class

Last summer Gabrielle Jones an English teacher and Programme Manager for Literacy and Learning at Leyton Sixth Form College brought 15 or so of her colleagues to Queen Mary for a day’s Writing Retreat. Last week she invited us to the College to see how she and others had adapted some if the ideas and incorporated them into their teaching. Teresa and I sat in on two A2 classes where students were revising for their exams in a couple of weeks and also talked with teachers over a sandwich lunch. In what was a really fascinating morning we picked up a number of shifts in the way writing was being used by teachers and students.  Before, writing was set as something to do after class; now it was much more regularly part of class activity; students were becoming used to finding a focus and writing for short bursts of time, usually of their own choosing: 10, minutes, or 20 or 30; they’d share their goals with a partner before writing, and afterwards discuss how they’d got on.

Draper's Academy workshop

After weeks of rain, the sun finally came out this week on the second day of our two day workshop with teachers from the Draper's Academy. They will be welcoming their first sixth form students in September and in collaboration with their Head of Sixth, Julie Armstrong, we drew up a plan to help support its development, starting with this workshop and running throughout next year.  We spent much of our  two days together in conversation, unpacking understandings and experiences of writing in the teachers' own classrooms, in their subject areas, within the culture of the school and in 'the system' - of assessment for the students and inspection for the teachers.

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