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The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals – University of Reading

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  • Learning Journals

    A student-staff collaboration between the Departments of English Literature and Typography & Graphic Communication

The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals

'Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals' is the result of a student-staff collaboration in the Department of English Literature and the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.

The book presents a 170-page collection of the critical and creative writing of third-year English literature students on the Margaret Atwood module.

The book was funded by the University Teaching and Learning Deans and was published in June 2018. The work received the 2019 University Collaborative Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning.

Margaret Atwood Learning journals group image

(From left to right, Eric Kindel - Department of Typography, Madeleine Davis - Department of English Literature and James Lloyd - Department of Typography. )

Dr. Madeleine Davies, who teaches the Margaret Atwood module in the Department of English Literature, was the inspiration behind the book. She explains that, as a result of her work with Dr Chloe Houston on the TLDF-funded 'Diversifying Assessment' project, she began to feel as though the exam format was not permitting students to reveal their true potential; in particular, continuous engagement could not be rewarded in the exam. As a result, she replaced the exam with the Learning Journal and retained the assessed essay so that the students were able to showcase their formal critical writing skills.

 

Madeleine explains:

"One benefit of the learning journals is that they encourage consistent engagement. Students have to enter 500 words a week, picking up something they found interesting in the text that we are currently studying. Content can include critical writing or a range of formats including recipes, poems, screenplays, letters to Margaret Atwood, letters from characters in the novels - anything."


Often students find this freedom a bit difficult to get used to:

"Students quickly learn what a good assessed essay looks like, but writing a learning journal is usually a new experience. Students don't think we mean it when we say, 'show your engagement in any way you want' - the lack of restrictive handrails can be disorientating. But it is precisely the move towards independent thinking that we are trying to create in our use of learning journals. Students quickly become used to the new freedom and begin to produce the kind of innovative work that would be difficult to accommodate in a formal essay."

A benefit to the students is that they learn to demonstrate flexible writing skills and adapt to different writing environments. Those who find an essay format restricting can really stand out in a learning journal. They are also preparing themselves for the world of work where they could be required to write across many different formats.

The staff also benefit:

"For the first time I enjoyed a clear view of students' engagement with their studies and I was able to appreciate their inventiveness and initiative. […] I decided to publish the students' writing because I did not want to lose their hard work to a digital black-hole […] and I wanted students to have a material record of the quality of the work that they achieved with us[…]I was astonished by their creativity and deeply impressed by their ingenuity.

With Second Sight , 28 students from the Department of English Literature gave editing rights to the publishing team. They then selected pieces to submit from their learning journals and Madeleine chose Bethany Barnett-Sanders, a student who was interested in a career in publishing, to become the student editor. The book was designed by June Lin, a student in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, as part of its 'Real Jobs' scheme. June designed the cover, and the layout and typography of the pages, supported by department staff who also helped her manage the printing of the book.

Students were then able to evidence their creativity and experience in subsequent job interviews by taking Second Sight  along with them.

Next year the focus will be Virginia Woolf. The project will be even bigger with three student editors who are participating in the School of Literature and Languages Professional Track scheme and a student designer from the Department of Typography. There will be an art competition for the artwork within the publication and the cover and this is being run jointly with James Hellings in Fine Art. As well as knowledge-sharing between students in English Literature and Art, there could be collaboration with Film and Theatre students too.

Second Sight was sent to Margaret Atwood herself 'who sent back warm feedback and the leading Atwood Scholar sent a letter saying the book contained the most original Atwood criticism she'd read in a long time.'

Madeleine sums up the initiative:

"I think this project demonstrates how closely we work with our students and how their engagement and success is our top priority. The project evolved naturally out of their outstanding work and I was so proud of them for their effort and their wit. With the learning journals, you can see clearly how hard our students work and how they think beyond the limits of the module. The work begins in the seminar but the journals demonstrate that it certainly doesn't end there; ideas are extended and connected to a range of contemporary and historical debates and to their work on other Part 3 modules."

 

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