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).

Queen Mary’s students present at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research

We all made the train this time, all 23 of us, unlike on the way up when Ahmed missed our train to Manchester by a whisker. After two intense days at the British Conference for Undergraduate Research at Manchester Metropolitan University, we were tired and looking forward to getting back to London and beyond. But there was still time for celebrating. Aiysha produced a cake to celebrate Ahmed's birthday, which we'd all missed the day before. Poor Ahmed, not only had he missed the train but his hotel room in the 'Palazzo' splendor of the Britannia Hotel was closer to a prison cell: no windows, a bed. We had the whole train carriage singing happy birthday so that he was properly embarrassed.

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...?

Supratentorian simulation

‘I’d say its probably supratentorian,’ the consultant pronounced, a slight smirk that only one of the gaggle of junior doctors noted, as they loitered at the end of your bed. If you’re ever hospitalised and you overhear this word you should be relieved. At least you know there’s nothing physically wrong with you. The idea that something might be ‘all in the mind,’ and whether doctors and nurses should discuss their patient’s condition in front of them were two themes that came up in the debrief with the students in the simulation training room at Whipps Cross hospital.

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.

Media & Learning Conference, Brussels, Nov 2014 - by slow blog

Lots of rhetoric and discourse about ‘The Lecture’ and poor lecturers (in both senses), who were characterised as illiterate and impoverished when it came to video and its use as part of their teaching. There wasn’t a great deal of discussion about how video is appropriate to different contexts or disciplines, or even how to teach with video. Video was just seen as a universal good in teaching and learning. If lecturers would just engage and use video then our students’ education would improve.

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.

Contemplative freewriting: Staff Awayday

But we're not really away. I'm a delphinium: a toxic plant that causes discomfort and skin irritation. We're told to 'meet, have fun, share experience.' We play a pub quiz in mixed teams of librarians, counsellors, career consultants, disability advisors and learning developers. But we're not in a pub.

We get told the strategy for the next five years by The Principal. KS 3.1 is to make money, at least he's honest, and that we should vote Labour.

I ask if I can ask a question in the 'Question Time' activity in which the directors are asked questions by the audience. All the questions (and answers) have been pre-prepared, so no.

At the end of the day we're told that someone has forgotten to deliver the wine to have with the crisps.

I cycle out into the rush hour traffic.

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! 






‘… the echo of words, the inaudible friction of thoughts.’

[José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis]

A while ago Graham Gibbs came to the half-day Queen Mary Learning and Teaching conference to talk about the problem of measuring quality in undergraduate education, and a lack of valid systems of measurement. I’d read his article (Dimensions of Quality, Gibbs, G. 2010), liked it, but then wondered if this wasn’t a very utilitarian approach, with all the problems inherent in a Benthamite philosophical system. In the end all this measuring, all it tells you is how accurate your ruler is, no?

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.

Writing retreats in Barcelona

Thinking Writing invited to talk about writing retreats at The Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (METM 2013).


You do wonder how monasteries continue to flourish. But then when you see their real estate, the financial acuity built on centuries of experience, and how they have adapted to the desires of 21st century life, it is clearer. In a new conference centre within a 12th century Cistercian monastery in Poblet, in the Prades mountains a good few miles north of Tarragona, The Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting (METM 2013), was just that, a meeting, even though in outward form it looked like a conference.


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.

Discourse, Power and Resistance: Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion

I Lie, I Speak (M. Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: The Thought From Outside)

For a conference called Discourse, Power and Resistance: Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion, the location and timing were almost perfect. The Baroque splendour of columns, chapels enclosing lawns, the ebb and flood of the Thames, and here we are in the old Naval college, now University of Greenwich, where officers trained for warfare could slip onto their cutters and head for the coasts. Two days earlier, on Monday, Baroness Margaret Thatcher died in the Ritz. And the British media, with predictable acumen, leapt into a ghoulish reverie, rabid in their reconstruction of the grand dame of British politics. On reflection, the irony of these events coming together, Thatcher, so marked by her fight for the Falklands, and the conference location and theme, seemed to drift past most of the delegates, at least in the presentations I sat through.

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:

HEA Seminar on Student Engagement


I’m on the train (and failed in my duty as a customer to see any ‘unintended items’ or ‘suspicious persons’ – must try harder) returning from the HEA seminar ‘Student Engagement and Partnership in Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy or Politics?’ at Keble College, Oxford. These are a few thoughts with no particular order or logic.

‘Teaching as an active act of surrender.’ Didn’t hear the source but like the quote.

It was useful (and important) to think about the ‘why’ question – as well as the ‘why bother?’  Defining ‘student engagement’ was pleasingly difficult. There seems to be a reification of these forms of educational discourse, although there was a sense that definitions very much depend on contexts. I found myself in an infinite regress as I was thinking these definitions through, and kept coming back to what we think the role of the university is in society; and what, where or even if there are boundaries and limits to these debates on engagement.

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