For more than a decade, we, three South African teacher educators from research-intensive institutions, have been involved in collaborative arts-inspired self-study research (Samaras, 2010). We have worked with other colleagues and as a trio. Our locations in different disciplines within teacher education (Kathleen in teacher development, Linda in mathematics education, and Lungile in gender and curriculum studies) have enabled us to learn from each other’s expertise.
We have experienced diverse creative ways of learning about ourselves, our practice, and others during our self-study research explorations, raising new possibilities and perspectives (Cole & Knowles, 2008). As literary and visual arts-inspired self-study methods, we have used:
Our arts-inspired self-study projects are based on the theoretical foundations laid by luminaries in arts-based educational research, such as Barone and Eisner (2006), Cole and Knowles (2008), and Mitchell and Weber (1999). These scholars explain how and why integrating the arts with academic inquiry provides new avenues to understand concepts and allows for expressing ideas in ways traditional written texts might overlook. They emphasise the transformative potential of the arts for educational and social change. As Eisner (2002) clarified, “The arts provide a platform for seeing things in ways other than they are normally seen. In so doing, they help us wonder, ‘Why not?’” (p. 83).
With Eisner’s “Why not?” question in mind, our joint self-study research expeditions have taken us through various creative learning modalities outside of customary academic frameworks in our efforts to address pressing educational and social issues (Mitchell et al., 2020). We have experienced how presenting and publishing our arts-inspired work can create a “ripple effect” (Weber, 2014, p. 12) that involves and encourages others, serving as platforms for change (Mitchell et al., 2020).
The Castle Conference Call for 2023 (S-STEP, n.d.) encouraged self-study researchers to pause and reflect intentionally to integrate new learnings from the past, present, and future. Inspired by the call, we began this study by asking, “What can we learn by mindfully pausing and purposefully co-reflecting on our arts-inspired collaborative self-study contributions?” To respond, we selected three published articles in which arts-inspired methods served as conversation starters and approaches to data representation and analysis (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2018; Van Laren et al., 2019; Van Laren et al., 2020). We used these texts as material for pausing to co-reflect. The texts were the foundation for a multilayered arts-inspired self-study process that evolved organically through collective decision-making at each stage.
Our first article (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2018) explores how we revealed and confronted our emotional fears as advisors of graduate students using self-study research to make a difference in several South African higher education institutions. Together with three other colleagues, we asked, “How can we work collaboratively and creatively to learn to navigate emotional entanglements in supervising self-study research?” Against the backdrop of pervasive traumatic stress related to the history of oppression and conflict in South Africa, we focused on the effort required to understand and respond to complex emotional knowledge in supportive and resourceful ways (Collins, 2013; Jansen, 2009). While our study focused on self-study research supervision in South Africa, we were mindful that research supervision, in general, can be emotionally taxing (Strandler et al., 2014). This is especially true of self-study supervision because of the openness and vulnerability required (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2015a).
In this first article, the self-study process began with the visual exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation) of a painting (Hamilton, 2005). We chose to work with an expressionist painting because expressionism offers subjective perspectives and elicits emotional responses (Gordon, 1966). We composed a poem to collectively represent our reactions to the visual exegesis (Langer & Furman, 2004). Our examination showed how, over time, arts-inspired self-study with trusted colleagues facilitated the unfolding of emotional complexities in a contained and responsive manner. Emotional containment entails creating conditions in which emotions are purposefully aired in a secure environment to increase capacity for action and change (James, 2011). Our self-study showed how collaborative learning that used creative entry points and elicited subjective responses in a safe environment facilitated a deeper understanding of emotional perplexities. We believe that this is critical to developing self-study supervision pedagogy in a personally and socially just manner.
Our other two selected articles addressed HIV and AIDS education integration in higher education curricula. Considering that 7.8 million people in South Africa are infected with HIV, the pandemic continues to be a significant social issue, and the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS remains a major source of social injustice (Be in the KNOW, 2022). As teacher educators, we have a crucial role in supporting teachers in schools and higher education to openly and constructively address issues related to HIV and AIDS. As part of our social responsibility, we used arts-inspired methods to start discussions about HIV and AIDS education. In both articles, we drew on our shared interest in research and teaching strategies inspired by the performing, visual, and literary arts (Van Laren et al., 2019; Van Laren et al., 2020).
The first of these two articles focused on creating a readers’ theatre script. Readers’ theatre scriptwriting is a creative, analytical technique in which researchers create a dramatic script from edited excerpts of a research transcript (Donmoyer & Yennie-Donmoyer, 1995). We created a readers’ theatre script to reflect on our use of everyday objects for opening dialogues in an HIV and AIDS curriculum integration workshop. The workshop attendees included university educators and graduate students from various disciplines and departments at a neighbouring university (Van Laren et al., 2019). In this self-study, we asked, “What can we learn about workshopping HIV and AIDS curriculum integration research in higher education by collaboratively composing and reflecting on a readers’ theatre script?”
We chose responses from three workshop participants to illustrate the outcomes of the object activity when writing our script (Van Laren et al., 2019). As part of the consolidation, we discussed how we responded to the social responsibility mandate outlined in the Policy and Strategic Framework on HIV and AIDS for Higher Education through this work (Higher Education HIV/AIDS Programme, 2012). We recognised that writing the readers’ theatre script provided thought-provoking opportunities for us to interrogate and strengthen our professional learning. The script became a mirror in which we could see our progress in understanding the value of arts-inspired, participatory activities in higher education for containing and connecting professional learning, particularly in emotionally charged areas such as HIV and AIDS.
We wanted to build on our learning from creating a readers’ theatre script (Van Laren et al., 2019) for the subsequent article (Van Laren et al., 2020). Following the script’s completion, we asked five teacher-educator colleagues to read it aloud at a South African national education conference. The title of our presentation was “Containing HIV/AIDS: Composing a readers’ theatre script for relevant and authentic professional learning in higher education”. After the presentation, we asked, “What can we learn about imagining new ways of knowing for social change by staging a readers’ theatre script?” We then discussed how other educators reacted to possibly using such a tool to promote HIV and AIDS conversations. To reflect on the learning potential of using the script, we engaged with the script readers and the audience who attended the conference session. As poetic analysis, we composed a series of blank verse poems (Literary Devices, 2019). We concluded that staging a reader’s theatre script could aid educational and social change (Mitchell, 2008) by opening productive conversations about HIV and AIDS issues.
As a collaborative team of self-study researchers, we were the participants in the creative co-reflection on our arts-inspired research initiatives. We were based in two South African provinces and worked from home due to COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, we did most of our work via email and a virtual group space on the WhatsApp message application.
We provided step-by-step details of the exploratory self-study research process to enhance trustworthiness (Feldman, 2003). We described our data sources and analysis and how our learning progressed. The characteristic of vigour in poetic research also influenced the design of our creative co-reflection (Faulkner, 2016). Considering vigour as a quality indicator motivated us to prioritise growth, vitality, and energy in our work.
The three selected published articles served as our primary data sources. The second set of data sources consisted of rich pictures (Campbell Williams, 1999) that we individually drew in response to our research question (Figures 1, 2, 3). Rich pictures are a visual brainstorming mode in which detailed images generate new perspectives on an issue or question (Checkland, 2000). Rich pictures were initially used in soft systems methodology (Checkland, 2000), but they have also been successfully used in collaborative self-study research (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2016a; Samaras & Pithouse-Morgan, 2021). Kathleen had previously used rich images with other self-study collaborators, but this was the first time we created rich pictures as a team of three researchers.
We each drew a black-and-white image to represent our initial, personal response to the research question. After creating the pictures and sending photos of them to each other, we each shared a voice note describing our drawing via WhatsApp. The third set of data sources consisted of the transcripts of our three WhatsApp voice notes. Our rich pictures and lightly edited excerpts from the voice note descriptions are included below.
Kathleen and Linda drew similar, whirled, concentric two-dimensional diagrams. Kathleen focused on ongoing aspects of growth related to professional learning, whereas Linda provided summaries and connections related to the three articles. Lungile also drew a whirled shape, representing a three-dimensional object to emphasise aspects of working together collaboratively.
We opted to make sense of the data in a dynamic, emergent process (St. Pierre & Jackson, 2014). As the first step in our analysis, we created tweets (posts on the social media application Twitter with a maximum of 280 characters) inspired by the voice notes describing our rich pictures. We frequently use tweets for data generation and analysis (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2018; Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2016b) because the character limit and public Twitter forum encourage concise, clear communication. Composing the tweets necessitated sifting through our voice note transcriptions to discern what each of us saw as most relevant to our guiding research question:
The tweets served as material for poetic analysis (Langer & Furman, 2004). For this step, we created a found poem (Butler-Kisber, 2005) by finding words and phrases in the three tweets that spoke to each other. We were inspired by the poetic format of the Renga, a Japanese form of linked-verse poetry traditionally created by two or more poets as a kind of conversation (Britannica, 2021). Kathleen proposed an adaptation of Renga in which different team members crafted certain parts of the poem using words and phrases from our set of tweets. We worked via email to create “An Organic Vessel with Rippling Effect” (Figure 4). Instead of focusing on writing a poem with literary merit, we emphasised the fun and spontaneity of thinking and communicating through poetry.
An Organic Vessel With Rippling Effect
In making a difference
For a better world
Through intertwining learning
The arts provoking
New ways of looking, growing
With rippling effect
Our organic vessel aims
To connect, bind, and extend
Dialoguing With Each Other
The organic arts-inspired self-study process provided us with “new insights and also a deeper understanding of the original experience[s]” (Edge & Olan, 2021, p. 13) articulated in our three chosen articles. As Eisner (2002) explained, “our capacity to envision is transformed by the effort to represent what we have experienced” (p. 22). We were able to re-envision the purpose of our collaborative self-study research initiatives by expressing and representing our learning using multiple forms in a new combination (rich pictures, voice notes, tweets, and a poem).
We saw the poem as a compressed, metaphorical representation of our learning (Eisner, 2002). So, we stepped back to consider the poem as an artifact of “poetical thinking” (Freeman, 2017, p. 72) concerning our research question. This time, we asked, “What and how have we learned by mindfully pausing and purposefully co-reflecting on our three selected arts-inspired collaborative self-study contributions?” We each wrote a response, which we then emailed.
After that, using each stanza of the found poem as an organising device, we clustered resonant excerpts from our individual written reflections, emailing back and forth to create a poetic dialogue (Figure 5). Dialogue, a literary and performing arts-inspired genre, exemplifies how self-study researchers learn and grow through conversation (East et al., 2009). The dialogic responses to each stanza demonstrate how discussions with trusted peers can deepen and expand individual self-study researchers’ thoughts and ideas. The responses reveal various aspects of our personal yet resonant reactions to the research question.
The Poetic Dialogue
The Poetic Dialogue
In making a difference
For a better world
Kathleen: Once again, we have gained new insights through arts-inspired self-study.
Linda: As self-study researchers who seek to make a difference by starting with ourselves, we have articulated our common purpose. We aim to confront sensitive social issues using generative means to work towards social change.
Lungile: This new arts-inspired work has allowed us to push further beyond methodological boundaries and join risk-takers who aim to communicate critical issues differently.
Through intertwining learning
Kathleen: By asking questions in a collaborative setting, we learned more than we would have independently.
Linda: As self-study researchers from different professional disciplines, who voluntarily collaborate, we learned by connecting our ideas in exciting ways.
The arts provoking
New ways of looking, growing
With rippling effect
Linda: The combination of arts-inspired forms we used provided many possible ways of expressing concepts. Furthermore, these forms can have many interpretations, allowing for rich, exciting ways of captivating attention or developing additional art forms for reflection and action.
Lungile: This self-study has inspired us to continue making meaning by observing, wondering, forming thoughts, and expressing.
Our organic vessel aims
To connect, bind, and extend
Kathleen: Connecting in an arts-inspired place with trusted others who share similar interests provided a sense of safety and encouragement for this new self-study venture.
Linda: As collaborative, dedicated self-study researchers who have worked together for several years, we combined our unique strengths to extend our arts-inspired methods. This can enable us to consider how we might improve our teaching and research practices.
Lungile: As collaborators, an essential new conversation has emerged in our pausing as we connect what we have done and see future explorations and possibilities.
Dialoguing With Critical Friends
Mindful pausing is also about broadening our work by inviting others to comment on it to extend its trustworthiness (Mena & Russell, 2017; Schuck & Russell, 2005). Hence, to put the finishing touches to our self-study process, we asked four colleagues to join us in discussing what the found poem could communicate to extend our learning. These critical friends are academics from three South African universities with whom we have a long-standing collaboration on self-study research. They have extensive experience with arts-inspired research methods. We were confident that they would provide candid, insightful responses to help us advance our thinking beyond ourselves. This hour-long in-depth conversation featured many fascinating threads. What intrigued us most was the realisation of how collaborative, multilayered arts-inspired self-study can help us see the self as a changeable assemblage. Assemblage is a multidimensional art form created by combining disparate elements – often everyday objects – found by the artist or specifically acquired (TATE Art Terms, 2022).
The assemblage metaphor helped us understand why this work is meaningful to us and why it might be significant to others. Seeing ourselves as “assemblages, bricolages, cobblings, collages, conferences, patchworks” (Badley, 2022, p. 737) that are constantly enriched and expanded by the diversity of human lives and experiences fosters an optimistic awareness that meaningful change is always possible. We can live and act more resourcefully and imaginatively when we see that we are not fixed, unitary, or inflexible.
We could re-see, re-hear, and re-live our art-inspired collaborative self-study experiences by consciously pausing to co-reflect using a new grouping of creative methods. The organic process enabled us to learn more about our partnership and shared intentions as teacher educators and self-study researchers. In pausing to reflect on our efforts over time, we saw how we grew and learned collectively and individually. We also appreciated how our arts-inspired self-study research efforts strengthened our commitment to a more compassionate and just society. Taking time out for creative reflection helped us understand more about how and why we wish to carry out our responsibility as teacher educators to address critical pedagogical and social issues.
This self-study has demonstrated how teacher educators can combine diverse modes to represent and re-envision our professional purposes in creative material forms (Eisner, 2002). Finding and using fresh metaphors to explain the reasoning behind our everyday actions can keep us moving forward in new directions (Bullough, 1994). We hope this research will inspire others to generate multilayered creative self-studies in which they can consciously pause and re-envision their past and future contributions. “An Organic Vessel With Rippling Effect” reminds us that we can all be resourceful, adaptable vessels for personal, educational, and social change.
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