In June 2010 I was working at The Leys school in Cambridge, for Bell Educational Trust. One of the excursions we took the teenagers on was a trip to London, a regular journey that summer. There was always an educational aspect shoehorned into any Bell trip and, although most of the middle-class European kids wanted to visit McDonalds or go shopping in Oxford Street, on more than one occasion we took them to the Tate Modern. Whilst they wandered around aimlessly with clipboards, I got side-tracked by a room which featured what turned out to be my favourite art installation that I have ever seen up close. It definitely left an impact. A garden shed that had been exploded by the British Army. All the restored contents of the surviving pieces were used by the ARTist, Cornelia Parker, to create an installation suspended from the ceiling as if held mid-explosion. Lit by a single lightbulb the fragments cast dramatic shadows on the gallery’s walls. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View dates from 1991, but here it was dangling from the ceiling, mid-explosion, in 2010. It was apparently on display again at Tate Britain last year.
I was reminded of this on Thursday 4 May when Dr Emma Brodzinski gave an online keynote address at The University of Central Lancashire’s Graduate Research School annual conference. In a session based on Cornelia Parker’s installation, titled ‘Making from the Mess’, she explored many aspects of carrying out PhD research and imposter syndrome – feeling a fraud in academia. Her podcast, called the PhD LifeRaft, includes one on that topic. The garden shed was used as a metaphor for the isolation involved in PhD research. Essentially, those who own and use a shed tend to go there and spend time there away from others. The loneliness of extensive research, that undertaking a PhD in pARTicular can bring about, was clearly explained. There are five optimum stages, too, according to Csíkszentmihályi: Preparation, Incubation, Insight, Evaluation and Elaboration. The second stage fascinated me the most as it involved little or no activity. Contemplation, thinking time, rest and ‘taking your ideas for a walk’ is needed for insight to be found. Often gathering literature and/or data collection leads to a large amount to work with – but then you hit a ‘wall’, not knowing how to move forward. That’s when you might blow things up. Brodzinski found the need to ‘explode’ her own research into witch trials, which was producing some fascinating material, but no real shape. Something had to emerge. Furthermore, the trust is that out of destruction will come a new assembly. Putting things back together in a beautiful shape. The transformation of the original shed to the reassembled version is central to Parker’s piece, as is the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ approach. It’s about the relationship between the pieces. Finally, my own perception of the ‘exploded view’ is that a lot of space forms between those different pieces. All of the data is still there but it hangs perfectly well and fits, but there are spaces or gaps – which is probably true of most, if not all, research. There is always a gap!
AN EXPOSED VIEW
This fantastically organised postgraduate research conference also managed to inspire and transform my thinking so much that it has boosted my tentative ideas that I have been thinking about for about five years, but I will come to that at the end. Over two full days there were around 50 other presentations by academics and researchers, mostly in the first or second years of a PhD – work in progress. I attended several sessions, but did not record nor take extensive notes, so this is not meant to be an extensive nor critical review of the two days, but I will mention some highlights.
The day one keynote taking place in the Harrington building came from Professor of Education and Technology, Richard Hall, based at De Montfort University, talking about the challenges of trying to decolonise a curriculum. Decolonisation is problematic and even discouraged by the DepARTment of Education. But it cannot be ignored. One aim is to generate a deeper understanding of DMU’s journey to become an anti-racist institution.
Structural inequalities are maintained in many ways. For Hall, DDMU has a ‘working position’ – it is at the intersection of plural, material histories – which means the following:
- Defining decolonising: dignity of difference
- Diversity the syllabus, canon, curriculum, infrastructure and staff.
- Decentre knowledge and knowledge production away from the global North.
- Devalue hierarchies and revalue relationality
- Diminish some voice and opinions that have predominated, and magnify those that have been unheard.
As I stated, this is not going to be a critical review of this particular session, but do take a look at his website for more comprehensive information and numerous published papers on this.
Having said that, I have worked at DMU – on a summer pre-sessional course, during my personal ‘annus horribilis‘ (2013), my own wellbeing was poor and I was in a constant state of anxiety. So I cannot really comment about inclusivity or the state of the institution ten years ago. However, the anxieties (plural) that come from being excluded or overlooked here reminded me more of my Anglia Uni 1999 essay on Race Inequalities and Identities. I vaguely remember trying to write a discussion piece about multiculturalism vs assimilation, and attitudes towards BAME people. I do not have it to hand, so can’t remember exactly what I wrote or quote from it, but think I got a decent grade. However, my interest in racial inequalities stem from my first year doing a Sociology degree at Anglia.
This conference and my reporting of it, bookended the King’s Coronation in London and Windsor this past weekend. Not everyone was so praising of the ‘inclusive’ service. Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, called it a ‘sham’, saying too much of it was:
“infused’ with colonialism. The idea they would not use the Koh-i-Noor diamond, because of colonialism, yet use regalia including the Cullinan diamond, which was stolen from South Africa, from some of the poorest people in the world … What the diversity reminds us of is that the British empire has always been pretty diverse. The Commonwealth, which is just the empire rebranded and another good example of this charade, has always been predominantly black and brown people. It’s not progress, it’s just the same thing with a PR spin.”(cited in The Guardian, 7 May, 2023)
Belonging and wellbeing were the overarching themes of this conference, so that was fine. Attempts to do ‘inclusivity’ can be problematic when there is dominant culture. There were ‘sharing circles’ on both days, on gender inclusivity, resilience, anti-racism, non-visible disabilities and one that I popped into, which was on more general inclusivity and wellbeing. Like some and as shown in the topical example above, I am wary of some attempts to do this. However, I welcome genuine attempts and felt that the conference did this rather well from what I could see. Discussions were at least allowed to be had. But now this post will move onto something that I would like to discuss more.
MORE EXPOSED VIEWS
Suse Gibson‘s session on ‘surveying the outdoors’ explored social inclusion and using green and blue spaces for recovery from or to alleviate mental health problems. Suse is pART of a team at National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) that focuses on equitable place based health and care in the North West region. After I had shared my blog with her post-conference, she informed me that the photo I took of some posters that I included in last year’s View from the Summit review were designed by her at the request of Richard Whall.
The talk came with some lovely looking slides and some mindful forest based meditation at the end. She presented a multiple case study approach to explore concepts of social exclusion with nature therapy in four settings: two green and two blue spaces. A case study permits a flexible approach to research which is desirable in studying phenomena “within its real life context” (Yin, 2009, p18).
The background to the case study was shown in terms of people with socio-economic inequalities (such as poor housing, lack of services) causing mental health problems, leading to social exclusion, stigma, discrimination and an exacerbation of those inequalities – a sort of ‘vicious cycle’ which needs breaking. Social inclusion, however, is a rights issue and required for recovery:
- Improved general wellbeing
- Disconfirms stereotypes
- Diminishes stigma
- Increases citizenship and pARTicipation
Social exclusion leads to negative effects to the individual, unemployment, poor health, lack of support and increased demand on services and cost to society (Gibson, 2022).
There was a priority for lived experience with public advisors drawing their own problems, collaborating in the study. The literature around engaging with green and blue spaces or nature-based activities reports a lot of advantages for social inclusion, as well as physical and mental wellbeing. Tree hugging is scientifically proven to be good for you, it seeems. However, it appears that taking pART in outdoor activities is not easy for some and my own thoughts about barriers or obstacles to ‘social prescribing’ could be common. Agoraphobia is commonly understood as an intense fear of being in open places or in situations where it may be hard to escape, or where help may not be available. People with agoraphobia are usually very anxious about having a so-called ‘panic attack’ in a public place. A fear of being alone and/or leaving the home is also a factor. Most interviews have been so far conducted indoors, but having experienced nature first hand. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) came up during the questions. I was glad that the presenter was able to recover from a ‘wobbly’ stART and deliver this great review of her work to date. This session was a personal highlight as the most interesting and relevant for me – as I will explain at the end. So do keep reading!
Richard Whall, from the School of Sports and Health Sciences and organiser of the upcoming Nature Therapy Summit, asked what it means to be physically educated. Also, what is physical intelligence? Well one example is walking, which we all do and I am a pARTicular fan of, as well as running. I did 20 long ‘rambles’ last year, and went for another walk around Windermere on 7 May, but have stopped counting them now. Now I count my 5km ParkRuns.
“It could be said that walking is a highly intelligent activity. This intelligence, however, is not located exclusively in the head but is distributed throughout the entire field of relations comprised by the presence of the human being in the inhabited world.”(Ingold, 2004, p.332)
Whall wonders if a CARTesian separation of body and mind is limiting and viewing intelligence alongside physical nature should not just involve a more holistic approach, but is actually essential. He felt guided by a hermeneutic cycle flowing between reflexivity, data collection and analysis and data-driven literature reviews (Whall and Palmer, 2021). His conceptual model of physical intelligence was demonstrated with a Tensegrity structure. This is a combination of the words “tension” and “integrity”, a structural principle for how the human body works. We are not just a lever and pully system, but actually it is more complex than that. There are compression struts which are held into place by the tension of the wires, so they are the bones and the wires are our fascia system, as he explained in this clip. I asked about Forest Schools at the end, which I had only recently come across because a student had chosen to write about this alternative form of education.
Also in the Sport and Health Science arena came research to date by Helen O’Donnell on neurodivergent athletes in high-performance sport. The aims are to gain a detailed understanding of perceptions of neurodiversity and neurodiverse athletes, their experiences and identity and to centralise their voices to inform further research and practice. Again, I did not take many notes so cannot report on the findings to date. But it did look at the language and terms used. The word ‘neurotypical’ refers to people who have brains that function in a similar way to most of their peers. Individuals who are ‘neurotypical’ would have similar skills and develop these at the same rate as others. They can also tolerate change, disruption in routines, and distractions without too much difficulty. The term ‘neurodiversity’ itself refers to the limitless range of differentiation in every human being’s brain function as well as behavioural traits. But aren’t we all, in some way, neurodiverse? asked the presenter. Well, no. Personally speaking, I don’t have a diagnosis in this range and whilst I have struggled with mental health and negative thinking patterns, I would not even self-diagnose as having one of these conditions. Some presenters at this conference, and others that I have spoken with this week, have disclosed their own diagnosis. One comment from the audience stated that no research on this topic can be done without the involvement of those who identify this way – ‘Nothing about us, without us’.
Recently, during Neurodiversity week an installation of umbrellas were put up at UCLan in a prominent location in the new student centre to draw awareness. There is also an internal neurodiversity staff group, set up by colleagues, including my good friend, Angela Kilpatrick. The group is a non-judgemental space where staff can share experiences and strategies and identify areas which could be better improved at the University to support staff.
A NATURAL VIEW
In a final Harrington session, the benefits of Biophilia (Wilson, E.O, 1994) and biophilic design in elderly healthcare patients was explored by Amelia Chasey who was talking about a connection to nature and green spaces – but this was in relation to care homes and other healthcare environments. Biophilia refers to the innate and biological need within us as humans to be close to nature and life like processes. A natural environment leads to the majority of people feeling relaxed and calm. Personal experience with chronic pain had fuelled the researcher’s desire to draw on a background in architecture to improve the wellbeing of patients and their families. The primary aim of the research is to critically evaluate the relationship between Biophilic Design parameters and elderly healthcare patients. In developing this research, the critical matter is to maintain functionality and standards of healthcare, but to improve wellbeing by changing the environments. Lovely stuff!
AN EXPLODED BRAIN
Many of the sessions I went to had something to do with neurology or mental wellbeing and by the end of the two days I felt as if my own brain had exploded with ideas and inspiration. There were further presentations I saw and which all had a relation to the ‘brain’. There was one on positive enhancement of cognitive flexibility and working memory via ‘neurostimulation’. There was a talk on investigating the cognitive underpinnings of spoken sentences as auditory distracters. In addition, there were explorations of psychotherapists’ use of ‘Schema Therapy’ to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as a ‘trauma informed’ approach on domestic abuse service provision. Finally, there was a poster presentation on treating Alzheimer’s using biochemical processes associated with memory impairment in a transgenic mouse model. This being the week when a breakthrough in treatment was announced.
As vice chancellor Professor Graham Baldwin neatly closed the event and prizes were handed out for the best presentations, I left with much to consider. It took a few days processing not just this, but a conversation I had on Friday, which means my own journey is under way and I will finish by showing why.
MY OWN RESEARCH JOURNEY
So what is the point of this brief review of a research conference? Well, I have just stARTed taking some steps in the direction of further study – this time it will be more academic and hopefully published, not just on here. It is 22 years since I graduated from Anglia Polytechnic (Ruskin) University with a degree in Sociology. It is almost 11 years since I graduated from the University of Warwick with a MA in English Language Teaching (with a specialism in Multimedia and ICT). As I stated earlier, I have been incubating ideas around further mental health research for about five years now. However, I have not had enough job security until now. In addition, given how time consuming it can all be, a dissuasive anxiety about stARTing has remained all of that time.
However, I feel the time is almost ‘ripe’ for exploring what might turn out to be a full doctorate or PhD, stARTing in the next academic year. I have been told about a PhD by Portfolio – which makes it more likely. I could attempt this over the next two or three years or so, building this up with a number of interlinked projects. This award provides researchers and professionals with an alternative route to obtaining a doctorate, being a variation from traditional thesis, publication or practice based degrees. Even previous research – like that I carried out into language teacher mental health (both pre, 2018, and post pandemic, 2021) could be taken into considerations. An essential element of this approach is the use of ARTefacts – which can be multimedia. A sort of ‘jigsaw puzzle’ approach, perhaps? Examples of materials acceptable for Portfolio submission include:
- Project / programme reports
- Project / programme materials
- Feedback from project sponsors
- Published books / chapters / journal papers
- Conference proceedings
- Exhibitions/ gallery / productions / ARTefacts
- CD / DVD / video / film presentations
- Software programs
- Multimedia packages
- Design materials
Fortunately, I am contractually allowed a ‘scholarly activity’ or ‘study’ day, provided I can link any new research to learning and teaching and/or wellbeing within the university and the curriculum framework. My area of investigation will be broadly around nature therapy and/or ‘social prescribing’, but taking in perceptions, social exclusion and, possibly, marginalised groups. However, I will need to refine my ideas and put together a research proposal (RPA) by the summer. I have stARTed this journey by reading this freely available Nature on Prescription handbook, recommended by Samantha Pywell (Social Prescribing Unit, UCLan). I have had several discussions already and have many contacts now thanks to Sam, so will have more conversations in the upcoming months – with both friends, colleagues and academics. I will also look into some funding. So, the long process of maybe becoming Dr Phil has begun and this is the first post that will mention it. There will be more to come and I will probably look back at this post in 6 or 12 months’ time and think how naïve I was!
As you know, I am a huge Peter Gabriel fan and am looking forward to seeing him again in June. A songwriter who makes connections between the natural world and ourselves, he has been releasing a new track from his long awaited i/o album every month, coinciding with each full moon. Jupiter has a moon by that name, of course, but it also stands for input/output. He says of our moon, that:
“It’s big and it’s up there and it looks quite nice! To be a little bit grand about it, one of the things that might increase our chance of surviving as a species is reconnecting to nature. And being more aware of how nature impacts us and what sort of seasons we’re in. We know where and when it is winter or summer, but we don’t follow the moon in the way our forefathers did. They used to plant according to the moon. There’s the lunar cycle for women, you get the tides. But just looking at something natural up there and plugging into it once a month seemed like a good idea.”(cited in Uncut, 312, May 2003)
‘This is how you travel If you live to see the world EXPLODE.”
By a huge coincidence, Peter Gabriel’s 5th track from i/o released on 5 May, the day after the conference, came with cover ART by Cornelia Parker. The photogravure technique of William Henry Fox Talbot was an inspiration for her in this piece, and some of the other glass-based images in the series. It’s called ‘Snap’. There were a number of things that triggered ideas for the song as it developed, including the Buddhist parable of the Four Kinds of Horses, which describes different ways a student can approach their spiritual practice. There is also a focus on “the interesting overlap of religion and peace on the one hand and violence and terrorism on the other. There was also a wonderful film by Hany Abu-Assad called ‘Paradise Now’ which shows two young men who end up being trained to become terrorists and it’s a real insight into where the head goes. (information from the Full Moon Update, May 2023).
Note/Disclaimer: You might have seen an earlier version of this post which went out by email as it was accidentally published on 8 May. There were some mistakes and it was not fully finalised. So the post went back into draft and published properly on 10 May, then shared. As I always ask in these kinds of posts, if I have misrepresented anyone here, please do get in touch and I will fix things immediately. Or if you want to offer some suggestions about my impending research please get in contact with me: firstname.lastname@example.org or PLongwell@UCLan.ac.uk.
Bonner, M (2023). Watcher of the Skies: An Interview with Peter Gabriel. Uncut Magazine, 312. May 2023.
Davies, C and Dugan, E. Coronation aimed for diversity but real challenges still lie ahead. The Guardian Online. 7 May 2023. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/07/coronation-aimed-for-diversity-but-real-challenges-still-lie-ahead
Ingold, T. (2004) Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet. Journal of Material Culture. (9) 3, 315-340.
Mental Health Foundation (2023). Wear it Green Day. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/public-engagement/mental-health-awareness-week
Whall, R. and Palmer, C. (2021) Developing an intelligent body – what does it mean to be physically educated?. Journal of Qualitative Research in Sports Studies, (15) 1, 77-106.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press.
Yin, R.K. (2009) Case study research, design and method.: London: SAGE Publications Ltd.