Daphne Loads (2018) Rich pickings: creative professional development activities for university lecturers. Brill Sense, Leiden – Book review by Hazel Christie, Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh
Every so often a little book crosses your path, stops you in your tracks and encourages you to look at the world around you with a different set of eyes. Rich Pickings is one such book. It’s not a conventional academic text in any way, shape or form. For one thing, it’s concise. Only 80 pages in total, it’s made up of a series of 26 mini chapters, some of only around 500 words in length. For another, it’s not heavily referenced. Here you will find mention of the thinkers, mainly from the humanities, to whom Daphne looked for inspiration in developing her approach to teaching, but you will not find any lengthy investigations about what we might mean by creativity or how to achieve this in our own practice. And it has illustrations! Each chapter is accompanied by a line drawing that really enhances its theme and speaks to visual thinkers. Daphne’s book is a testament to the power of prose that is short and succinct to grab our attention and really make us reflect on what we’re doing in our campus classrooms.
For this is undoubtedly a book about face-to-face teaching and the kinds of activities that Daphne has a long track record of using to great success in her own classrooms. We are asked to enter a world that many of us are unfamiliar with – one that she encourages us to approach with an open mind – and to concentrate on the beauty and joy of university teaching. For Daphne, this is found in many of the practices that are more familiar to academic developers with a background in the arts and humanities. Thus, for example, she looks to textual practices such as collaborative close reading, collage making and poetic transcription to ‘offer both inspiration and practical advice to academics who want to develop their teaching in ways that go beyond the merely technical’ (pp.1). This, clearly, is a book that begs us to read it if only to find out what collage has got to do with academic development.
Throughout the book Daphne asserts the role of creative practices in engaging students. She wants teaching to be about both mystery and mastery and illustrates this in a series of ways. You could, perhaps, read a policy document as if it was a piece of literature. What might this reveal to you about its authentic meaning? Or you could read a journal article slowly and deeply instead of widely, really pausing to stop and make connections that capture the nuances and associations of the words. The imaginative leap here is to use this reflective reading to make connections with the teaching identities and teaching practices of the students. Another suggestion is to slow down and really immerse ourselves in our activities – whether it’s reading a book or viewing a painting – and to close off the continuous distractions that beleaguer us. Daphne urges us to stand back and contemplate what we’re doing with a view to encouraging us to rethink who we are and what we do in our classrooms. This is essential to warding off some of the worst excesses of the accelerated academy.
The book is great fun, indeed Daphne describes it as a joy to write. I especially liked the chapter on how to make a Dadaist poem as well as the invited contribution by Amy Burge on threshold concepts and the student-as-vampire. Read it – you will never look at a student again without thinking about if, and how, you invite them in to your classroom. It’s polemical too. Daphne takes issue with the urge that many university managers have for innovation. What, she asks, about the things we do really well? Should we not be thinking about conserving, maintaining and restoring our existing practices? And we should caution students on our PgCAPs that they read educational literature for affirmation of what they do just as much as for what they might choose to do differently. Maybe if we did this the mental health of the profession would be improved.
Throughout the book the emphasis is on playing with words – what do they mean, and how might we trouble or disrupt them in ways that create new associations and meanings? Indeed, Daphne suggests that by paying attention to language some of the simplistic dichotomies between surface and deep learning disappear as we generate fresh insights and ask important questions. I loved the tantalising chapter titles (You gotta have soul; Trouble; Taming the wild profusion of existing things) and the illustrations with went with them.
Whatever practice you choose, Daphne is clear that teaching has to be a carefully managed and guided process. Herein lies one of the book’s real strengths – the wealth of carefully curated and illustrated examples of what you can do to enhance the role of creativity of your classrooms. We hear more about some approaches than others. For example, there’s a detailed description of how you might undertake a collaborative close reading but relatively little on how to read a policy document like a piece of literature. But, throughout there’s an emphasis on doing stuff with our students that troubles their understandings of texts in ways that communicate insight and wisdom. In short, Daphne is urging us to change who we are and how we think about the world in order that we might become better teachers and that our students become better learners. What Daphne doesn’t tell us is just what a skilled academic developer she is to be able to pull off these kinds of approaches in her classrooms.
I read this book in one greedy sitting. I was at my kitchen table, the radio was on and I had a big smile on my face. Read it. It will brighten your day and make you think differently about who you are and how you teach.