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In Conversation - Dan Robinson and Lara Eggleton - The Open College of the Arts

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In Conversation –  Dan Robinson and Lara Eggleton thumb

In Conversation – Dan Robinson and Lara Eggleton

Fine Art 1: Understanding Visual Culture

In November, the Fine Art tutor team held an assessment event. Afterwards, program leader Caroline Wright invited Dan and Lara to discuss any common issues and offer some general pointers to current Fine Art level 4 students on Understanding Visual Culture 1. The conversation below may be helpful to any Fine Art students taking this unit.

The Fine Art team are also offering a series of online group critique forums and discussions to support students with research into practice. Details and how to get involved can be found here.

Understanding Visual Culture 1

Dan: What would you say you’re looking for in a good submission for this unit?

Lara: A well thought-through and structured response that suggests some planning has gone into it. Making an essay plan before writing is always a good idea, laying out your ideas in a certain order, with a guiding question introduced at the beginning and returned to at the end. You can then ‘show off’ your knowledge and understanding in the middle section(s), being sure to quote and cite material (using Harvard referencing style) as you go.  

If you’re not sure how to write in essay form, you can return to the OCA’s ‘An Introduction to studying HE’, and there are some great UCA guides that offer simple pointers:



Dan: What are the common things students struggle with?

Lara: Essay structure, as above. Many submissions read like a long, meandering set of ideas or reflections rather than having a clear focus or line of questioning. This is often a poor reflection of how much work a student has done in their learning logs or how much reading and research they have done. A structured essay is like a well-crafted frame: it can really elevate your work.

Oh, and referencing. Consistent, correct citations and bibliographic references are crucial to academic writing, and show that you are paying attention to detail. Don’t forget to include page numbers! It’s really not hard, just a set of rules you can easily learn to follow. This goes for internet-based sources as well as publications. Keep this link handy in your bookmarks so you can refer to it later: https://www.uca.ac.uk/library/academic-support/harvard-referencing/

A final thing, whilst I’m niggling: when referring to arworks/ films/ books/ poetry, be sure to format and date them correctly. For example, Grayson Perry, ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ (2009). You could also use italics for the title, but whatever you choose, be consistent. 

Dan: I’ve noticed a few students are having trouble finding the right books to support their research, and end up relying on internet sources that aren’t always reliable. What would be your advice on where to find good journals and books?

Lara: Yes, the impulse to google sources is strong! One way is to use Google Scholar for keyword searches. This might bring up sources that you can’t access, but often it turns up a good range. JSTOR is the online database for peer reviewed journals that all OCA students can access to (which is great, because a subscription is really expensive!): https://www.oca-student.com/weareoca/jstor-electronic-resource. And libraries – remember them? You can’t beat an actual physical book in the hand, especially for subjects like art history and visual culture. Images are always richer, bigger and more inspiring on the page! Many local libraries and art venues also stock art periodicals, which you can browse with a coffee in hand.

It’s best not to quote wikipedia but there’s no harm in doing some background reading, keeping in mind that any ‘wiki’ source is written by multiple authors and isn’t reliable or peer reviewed. Always scroll to the bottom of an entry though, because their bibliographies can be really useful. Avoid blogs, personal or commercial websites or any post/page that doesn’t have an author listed. News platforms and online magazines can be okay, but note that there is a difference between journalism and scholarly writing – you shouldn’t rely too much on journalism for academic essays, unless it’s to add an opinion or give extra context to something you’re writing about.

Dan: Any tips on presentation?

Edit, edit and edit some more. It’s always such a shame to see a submission with strong ideas and scrappy presentation. Sloppy formatting and spelling and grammar errors are easily corrected with word processing software, which is why you should never write your assignments in your blog. Start in Word, edit and refine, and then cut and paste into your blog (if you choose to). I always ask for submissions in word or pdf format, for this reason. Top tip: reading your work out loud really helps to catch errors, improve flow, and catch repetition. Have a go with your next assignment, I guarantee it’ll help, even if the cat looks at you funny!

Dan: Assessors look at both the assignments and the log. How can critical awareness and research skills be shown differently in these?

There is often a missed opportunity with learning logs. It is a chance for students to show off their creative side, take risks, fail (playfully), and learn from their mistakes. They should be fun! Too often they end up being a very uninspired repository for exercises and other formal writing, and miss out the good stuff. I advise my students to use it as a place to explore, drop images, photos and snaps of their own work, and to get their heads around difficult concepts and theories however they wish – not just show that they’ve done their exercises. This is how a critical, well-informed voice emerges – by working through: reading and re-reading, comparing and contrasting, describing, interpreting (riffing), and eventually getting a good grasp of something. The log can also showcase your broader research efforts beyond the assignments – and shows how your are using sources to ask and answer questions, and gradually shape your own views. You can also use it to practice proper referencing!

Dan: What can students do if they feel stuck?

With the instant and fragmentary nature of the internet, I fear we are losing the ability to read longer texts, and to return to them multiple times. This is the best and only way to understand challenging concepts and ideas – it is how they were intended to be digested. Sometimes there is no shortcut! So, first, put on a pot of coffee, find a comfortable place to sit with good lighting, read a whole section of a handbook, or a chapter or article, making notes as you go along in your learning log. You could then come back to it a week or so later and read it again, perhaps returning to the same log and making annotations. Second and third time round, your comprehension deepens. Critical thinking and writing are creative practices too, so give them the same time and attention you would give an artwork in the studio.

If you’re still stuck (and this goes for exercises, project or assignment questions), you can always ask student support and they’ll point you in the right direction. You can also ask for a tutorial in place of a tutor report, at which point you can ask questions or discuss a problem directly. Keep in mind though, that OCA units are designed to help you along in a self-directed way and that ultimately, you are your own best teacher. Diligence and persistence are acknowledged and rewarded at assessment as much (or more) than evidence of ‘getting it right’. And allow yourself to fail – sometimes that is the only way to learn (and to resist constructed ideas of success, as Lisa Le Feuvre et al have argued here: https://shop.whitechapelgallery.org/products/failure)

Dan: Could you show us an example of a student doing these things well?

Lara: So, in UVC1, assignment five asks ‘In What ways do video installations differ from films shown in a cinema?’ One student Carolina Stander, wrote this as part of her essay:

I decided to use a video installation of Douglas Gordon, Feature Film (1999), and compare it with a Hitchcock film, Vertigo (1958) for the discussion. I also read the chapter on The Role of the New Viewer (Elwes:2005) to understand the complex artist/viewer relationship.

This is a good choice as the video installation and film are directly related. She sets out what she is going to do (compare them), gives the names and date of each work. And tells us which chapter of which book from the reading list she is going to use to help her understand an idea relate to these works, i.e. ‘the complex artist/viewer relationship’. This may seem simple, but it is a real skill to be able to be so clear about what you are doing and how you are doing and be able to tell the reader.

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Posted by author: Caroline Wright

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