The Flipped Text: A Writing Workshop

As part of the first University of Edinburgh November WriteFest, Daphne Loads and I offered a workshop called ‘The Flipped Text’.

Daphne and I both have intense relationships with the written word. She has used it in innumerable creative ways in her teaching and research practice (https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/about-us/staff/profiles/daphne-loads) and has written a wonderful book about creative writing and academic teaching entitled: Rich Pickings: creative professional activities for academics who teach, to be published in 2019 by SENSE publishers.

I am a poet (www.jlwilliamspoetry.co.uk) and writing is how I explore and reflect on the world, as well as how I seek to communicate with others. For me, poetry offers a special type of language in which we can, with the help of tools such as metaphor and abstraction, come as close as possible to conveying the shimmering complexities of human experience.

In our workshop, Daphne and I were keen to help students consider the process of creating a new text by ‘flipping’ an existing text and by working with opposites. In our own ways, what we both wanted to share was the idea that by looking at texts in unusual ways, we gain insight into our own writing practise and develop innovative approaches to our work. Our hope was that attendees would leave this workshop with a new perspective on teaching and learning, creative and academic writing and reading, communication more generally and the great, wild, wonderful, turning world.

We only had an hour and were joined by a very diverse group of students from many countries, with different native languages, and varied levels of experience with academic and creative writing. I was quickly reminded that while I have run writing workshops for many years, I often work with people who have read and sometimes written quite a lot of poetry. It was a little different working with people for whom poetry, let alone very experimental techniques for writing poetry, might be a brand new way of thinking about language, but the students were very game and all produced brilliant work.

We began by reading an abstract from an academic paper and then writing it – word for word – backwards. We then made a quick ‘poetic edit’ of the backwards text, thinking about how strange words can become when we reorder and decontextualize them, but also how they can take on new meanings, or even display the heart of the original text in spite of their reordering.

Daphne then gave us words and asked us to think of opposites – one of our favourites was when one student said that the opposite of butter was ‘a box’ (i.e. structured and empty inside, rather than full and melting). Daphne then read us a gorgeous poem and asked us to choose opposites for words in the text and using these opposites to write a new poem.

From Daphne on opposites:

‘When Elie Wiesel said “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference” he showed how by identifying antonyms we can shed new light on familiar-seeming ideas. Sometimes looking for opposites can lead us into strange territory. What is the opposite of butter? Or homesickness?’

Below you can see examples of how we were working with texts. We sent our students off to continue the experiment on their own. Our wish is that they will find these ideas useful when working with academic texts and might even be inspired to write some poems. We hope you may also find inspiration in these techniques and discover ways of using them in your own literary explorations… sometimes flipping a text is the best way to see it fresh!

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This paper explores teaching in higher education through poetic transcription in order to illustrate the range of influences that shape the ways in which we teach. Through using poetry, this paper examines dimensions such as the past, emotion, humour and uncertainty, which are important aspects of teaching that are sometimes sidelined by more traditional research methods. The paper evokes the richness and complexity of academic life through placing the personal and the particular at the centre in a way that highlights the complexity. In this way it invites participation in the lives of others through providing a window into the academic experience.

Keywords: poetry; poetic transcription; higher education; academic identity
(Jones, 2010)

Steps in flipping the text:

  1. writing it backwards and breaking it into poetic lines:

Experience academic the into window a
providing through others of lives the in
participation placing through life academic of
complexity and richness
the evokes paper the
methods research traditional more by side-lined sometimes
are that teaching of aspects
important are which, uncertainty
and humour, emotion, past
the as such dimensions examines paper this
poetry using through
teach
we which in ways the shape that influences
of range
the illustrate
to order in
transcription poetry through education
higher in teaching
explores paper
this

  1. editing the lines into a poem

Experience academic
the into window
a providing through others
of lives the
in participation
placing through life academic
of complexity and richness
the evokes paper the
methods research traditional
more by side-lined sometimes
are that teaching of aspects
important are which, uncertainty
and humour, emotion, past
the as such dimensions examines paper this
poetry using through
teach
which in ways
the shape that influences
of range
the illustrate
to order in
transcription poetry through education
higher in teaching
explores paper
this

  1. moving closer to something that looks like a poem in its own right:

Experience Academic
the into window
a providing
through lives in participation
life academic
complexity and richness
evokes
paper the methods research traditional
side-lined teaching aspects
uncertainty and humour emotion past
the as such dimensions
examine this poetry
teach
the shape that influences
illustrate
order in transcription
poetry through education
higher teaching
this

JL Williams working with a text by A. Jones

 

An Almost Dancer

Once, on a hill in Wales, one summer’s day
I almost danced for what I thought was joy.
An hour or more I’d lain there on my back
Watching the clouds as I gazed dreaming up.
As I lay there I heard a skylark sing
A song so sweet it touched the edge of pain.
I dreamt my hair was one with all the leaves
And that my legs sent shoots into the earth.
Laughing awake, I lay there in the sun
And knew that there was nothing to be known.
Small wonder then that when I stood upright
I felt like dancing. Oh, I almost danced,
I almost danced for joy, I almost did.
But some do not, and there’s an end of it.
One night no doubt I shall lie down for good
And when I do perhaps I’ll dance at last.
Meanwhile I keep this memory of that day
I was an almost dancer, once, in Wales.

ROBERT NYE (2010)

A Poem of Opposites based on the work of Robert Nye, by Daphne Loads

Often, in a valley out of Wales, every winter’s night you completely froze for what you knew was despair.

Less than a minute you’d stood here on your feet missing the sky as you looked away, dreaming down.

As you stood here you saw a toad grate, a racket so bitter it numbed the centre of joy.

You dreamed your bones will be separate from the roots and that your arms   absorbed roots from the sky.

Crying yourself to sleep, you stood here in the moonlight and you didn’t know that there is everything to be unknown.

Big blankness now that when you lay down you didn’t feel like freezing. Oh you completely froze you completely froze for despair. You completely didn’t.

And all do, and here’s the start of it.

Every day of course you won’t stand up for bad. And when you do of course you won’t freeze at first.

After that you let go of that premonition of this night you weren’t completely paralysed always, out of Wales.

ROBERT FAR (n.d.)

Works Cited

Jones, A. (2010). Not some shrink-wrapped beautiful package: using poetry to explore academic life. Teaching in Higher Education, 591.

Nye, R.  (2010) An Almost Dancer. Retrieved from  https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/robert-nye-almost-dancer/

This is a guest blog by Jennifer Williams.   Jennifer is the Projects & Engagement Coordinator at the Institute for Academic Development. She curates and supports projects that explore innovative, collaborative and creative learning at the University of Edinburgh, including the Festival of Creative Learning which is running in 2019 from the 18th-22nd February. You can explore the programme and book onto events here.

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