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Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Memory, plagiarism and the truth

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

IMG_0320 (2) - Copy

I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

Screenshot 2014-12-06 13.45.24

This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

Screenshot 2014-12-06 14.10.15

What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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Perhaps because it’s the turn of a year I have encountered over the last couple of weeks a lot of people completing, or embarking upon, projects to do something every day or every week for a year. It’s the kind of thing I think I would love to do, but the kind of thing for which I always tell myself  I don’t have the guaranteed free time. One obvious option would be to do something connected directly to work: a Glacier of the Day blog for students to enjoy, perhaps? Perhaps not. An appealing and more sensible alternative would be to choose one of those things for which I keep telling myself I must find more time but which, year after year, continue to go undone. I want to paint more. I want to write more. I want to re-watch more old cowboy films. And then I’m back into the old trap of  there being so much I want to do that I can’t choose, and I go off for a cup of tea, or back to work, instead. But then I saw two websites that seem to have focussed my intent.  The first was Valerie Wetlaufer’s Poem a Day blog (the title kind of explains what she’s doing there) and the second was Jenny Matlock’s “Saturday Centus”, in which a weekly prompt is provided to inspire participants to write 100 words. In my writing (can I really call it that?) the fundamental problem limiting worthwhile output has been that I have nothing much to say, so while I work off-stage on that particular problem here’s a nice game to motivate that all important act of actually writing by providing (forcing) a constraining idea.  Perhaps this might help to kick-start my stalled writing engine and keep it ticking over until I discover what my point is. This way I don’t have to wait until I have the perfect idea for a poem – I just have to write 100 words this week on that topic. Let’s try it and see where it goes.  My first thought (as usual) was to spend the day setting up a new blog or web page to house the flood of great writing that I was about to produce. Luckily I recognised that old trap, and will just put my first attempt here right away. If I manage to keep it up (ie do another one!) or if I graduate to something more like Wetlaufer’s one a day, then I’ll take this outside and move it onto the website. So here’s my first go at the Saturday Centus:

The  “prompt” this week was a photograph of an orange, growing on a tree, but with snow on it (a bit like a little hat of snow sitting on the orange). You can write whatever you like, limited to 100 words. Here are my 100 (well, 96), which come from a context of seeing snow in cruddy back streets of Stoke and Newcastle this winter while teaching classes about ice ages and thinking about The Earth.

 

I live near the Goose Street car park.
Where the gas works used to be.
This is rain country with short, cool summers.
We don’t grow oranges here.
Before people, a glacier a mile deep
Covered everything for a thousand miles.

Snow fell last night.

When it felt the first, soft, silent, falling flakes
Did the ground remember the mile-deep ice?
Those prison years must have started the same way.
Oranges don’t have fears as old
Or memories as long and cold as that.

To them, today, the snow is just some funny kind of hat.

 


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The lost chord

Sitting in the supermarket cafe thinking about the lost chord and imagining the 1950s I noticed the aisle signs: DVD, mobile phone, frozen chips. This is not the 1950s. But it’s funny how quickly what we are thinking can speed away from the first idea that set us off. Why was I thinking about the ’50s when The Lost Chord was written in the 1870’s? And so often, for me at least, that first idea turns out to have been a misunderstanding. Trains of thought that were set off by a line from a song, which turns out to have been a misheard line. So your long internal perambulation on a theme from a song by Pete Atkin turns out to be based on a line that never actually was, other than in your faulty ears. But now, for me, that non-line remains the inspiration for a distilled thought. Clive James (sticking for a moment with the Pete Atkin example) wrote “most of our knowledge will drop away after we have condensed from it the principles which will connect into a view” (Cultural Amnesia, 2007). But it wasn’t necessarily “knowledge” from which we condensed the view. And when whatever it was – perhaps a misheard lyric or a misread sign – does drop away, and all we are left with is the viewpoint that we have distilled from it, what status does that viewpoint have? I can’t recall the music, but I know I like the tune. These are dangerous times.

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