Before taking up my current position at Wits School of Education, I lectured in Graphic Design and Multimedia at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) when Rand Afrikaans University was merged with the Technikon Witwatersrand (Tech) to become UJ. I was employed to develop and teach a research methodologies course for all graphic design Honours students, and supervise all the student’s research reports. With little or no experience in academic practices, former Tech students were expected to do more theory and to engage in authentic academic research, at Honours level, now that the institution was a ‘University.’ The students were required to plan and conduct an investigation of contemporary developments in selected areas of visual communication using appropriate research methodologies, and present their findings in a verbal presentation and written research report at the end of the year. Further, their research reports had to link with their practical work, enabling students to make interesting links between their different practices within the context of their degrees- and to theorise their own practice, and position their design within visual culture theory. Their diplomas did not prepare these students for the demands of an honours level project. Further, the students’ attitudes towards their practical work were markedly different from their attitude towards their theory work: with regards practical work they were highly skilled, interested, innovative, and very creative. The students felt aversion towards “theory”, which they mostly found tedious, difficult, and arcane. They were not readers, and they mostly were also not very interested in ‘academic’ writing. They felt alienated and excluded from academic practices. I was sensitive to this issue and tried at each part of the course to address their feelings of alienation and exclusion.
Without having a name for “group supervision”, I quickly realised that I would have to develop a way of working with all the students together if I was to catch them up on methods of research, relevant theoretical paradigms and also to conduct the research and write the report. I also had to change their attitude towards theory in order to get enough buy in so that they actually did the work. I wanted the course to be exciting and thereby enticing; for the students to have as much interest in theory as in their practical work. I also wanted to show the students that they could understand the world and themselves through different ‘theoretical lenses’, and that this is an exciting process. In doing this I hoped to demonstrate the ways in which we could use theoretical frameworks as lenses to look at a number of cultural practices, that we usually take for granted. In this process we would “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar” (Shalem et.al, 2006, 36). Part of my aim was to show them that critical thinking is not something that they do at varsity only- that they should be critical of those cultural formations and taken for granted common sense ideas around them, and at all times. I also wanted to build students confidence in their own ability to do academic research and breakdown their negative attitudes of “I can’t’. I also wanted to demonstrate that academic research and writing is a process, and that they would get better as they engage in the practice. In this way I hoped to inculcate them into the conventions of academic practice, showing them that conventions are by definition constructed, and regulated for particular reasons, with the hope that understanding why the conventions were in place they would better understand using them. Through these aims I hoped to develop students’ academic ability and identity as emerging researchers, and create a learning environment in which they felt safe to explore their emerging identities. Underpinning the course was a philosophy of learning as situated practice, in which participants were constituted as a community of practice. Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989, p. 32) argue that “knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context and culture in which it is developed and used”. They point out that “learning abstract concepts independently of authentic situations, overlooks the ways understanding is developed through continued, situated use” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989, p. 34).
All knowledge, we believe, is like language. Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced. A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in new, more densely textured form. (Brown et al., 1989, p. 34).
In my course, there were two ways in which learning was situated. Through the seminars we modelled some of the practices of sharing research that academics must participate in. We also modelled practise of how to engage with academic texts, and what counts as quality resources.
I was given 2 x 2hour lectures per week for about 24 weeks. With the above aims in mind I divided my course time into a “research methodologies” component (in the first lecture each week) and a research seminar component (in the second lecture each week). The research methodologies component included discussions around theoretical frameworks relevant to the fields of Visual Culture Studies and Visual Communication. During these sessions we discussed conventions of academic writing and methods of research. Meanwhile (not during class time) students were working on finding a suitable research topic that interested them, and related to their own practical work. Included in the methodologies component of the course were specific outings to a bowling alley, kitchens where chefs learnt how to cook, and a gaming arcade. Each of these outings was constructed as an empirical incursion, to apply methods of analysis, or test theories that we had discussed in lectures. For example, a series of lectures that focused on understanding Barthes theory of semiology culminated in an outing to kitchens used to train chefs how to cook (figs. 1-8). Students were grouped into pairs, and had to bake a chocolate cake using a recipe that I provided. All students had the same recipe, the same ingredients and the same equipment. This scenario provided a good opportunity to talk about the differences between the rules and conventions of language and the speech act (langue and parole in Barthes’ terms) (Barthes, 1967).
Some students had never baked a cake, but all had eaten a cake. Where possible we actively tried to make links with what we were doing and Barthes’ ideas. Students took photos that we used to deepen our discussion in the following lesson. What I liked about this was that we used images of our own experiences for exploring theory. This is one example of an outing – we went on 6 different outings throughout the year.
This component of the course was an integral part of the supervision process since it provided the theoretical paradigm for the students’ research reports, and in which I was actively trying to develop students’ capacity and confidence. I was modelling practice through constructing myself as a fellow researcher on these outings; also waiting to see what would happen. Even though these outings were part of the course design, they interrupted the expected flow of learning, and challenged students to new capabilities, as students were participating in ‘research’, and questioning taken for granted assumptions. The outings drew attention to what we do in lectures, as well as what we don’t do outside of lectures. Thus, this course the lecture theatre and by contrast the environments outside of the university, like the bowling alley and other spaces were utilised as context and content, highlighting the ways in which theories can be used to critique taken-for-granted assumptions, and to foster a culture of critical thinking.
Parallel to these lectures and outings, each week, in the second lecture slot, we held mini-seminars, in which group members at first including myself, (to model practice) took turns to present ‘literature reviews’ of articles we had read. Because the presentations were framed as ‘literature reviews’ we discussed the characteristics and purpose of a literature review is, and set up assessment criteria for the presentations, which were linked to the assessment criteria for the research report before the first presentation. Each student who attended the mini-seminars was given a peer assessment form and had to make comment on each presentation and present these in a portfolio of evidence at the end of the semester. This helped the students to record their engagement with the presentations and also meant that they were engaged with the assessment criteria that would be used to assess them form early on.
At first the articles were prescribed by me, and had to do with theories related to the analysis of images, issues in visual culture studies and notions of visual communication in graphic design, which make up the theoretical frameworks related to their discipline of graphic design. Thus there was a direct, deliberate relationship between the content of my lectures and the articles that were initially prescribed to students for these weekly seminars. Once their research proposals (which they were working on from early on in the course) were accepted, the students were required to present articles that they sources themselves, and that were directly related to their individual research.