Nick Swarbrick on Compassion, Kindness and Charity

Nick Swarbrick has been busy again, this time on the #365daysofcompassion blog, a tale of complex roots and etymological confusion. He writes:

“It’s tempting to talk about compassion by selecting from one or two very specific traditions, using soundbite sources such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Bible –  as if the soundbite is everything. Compassion in many ways cuts across religious traditions and it is therefore easy to take a syncretistic line, mashing Tao, the Buddha, a bit of Plato and the foundational texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all together in a kind of psychological fusion food. What I’d like to do here is to disentangle this a little by looking at compassion in the early Christian West. That’s not to claim it as a western phenomenon, or one from the first centuries of the Common Era, but simply to look at one of the ways it has been explored, discussed, and developed.”

For more see the original #365daysofcompassion 


Mat Tobin on masculinity, reading, and changing lives

Mat Tobin has been writing for ‘Beanstalk’ about the men in primary education, reading and assumptions about masculinity. He argues for more men becoming reading helpers in a primary classroom, as sharing books can create conversations and bonds that can change lives. Read more here:

Nick is Spellbound

From Lewis Carroll to C. S. Lewis, Tolkien to Garner and Cooper, and to the present day with Philip Pullman (who has written an excellent essay to accompany the exhibition), Oxford is seen – or maybe sees itself – as a centre for writing about magic and fantasy, and the museum and library collections support this in so many ways. Nick Swarbrick has visited the Ashmolean Spellbound exhibition and reviewed it for Folklore Thursday. Here is his review.

Stranger Visitors

Nick Swarbrick again on Maurice Sendak, published on his own blog site on 10 May. Here’s a snippet, but go to the original for much more.

Five years ago we lost Maurice Sendak, or at least we lost his continuing ability to create. It was an amazing, richly endowed talent. In this post from BrainPickings, for instance, we are presented with his anarchic, triumphant pair, Jack and Guy – it was the eagle-eyed Mat who first pointed out the illustration of Trump Tower in it to me – whose carnival through the chaos of modern times has lots to tell us about how to live well. For me, it is his pictures of the outside breaking in – the Goblins and the menacing sunflowers in Outside Over There – that always make me wonder about the complexities of breaking-in from outside in stories. What is so bad about things breaking in?

From Generation to Generation: An Exploration of Myth and Landscape in the Work of Alan Garner

Research Group members Nick Swarbrick and Matt Tobin have been busy in the Cheshire countryside, in this guest post for Folklore Thursday.  I suspect others might be retracing their steps soon!

Reading between the lines of landscape, and drinking in a sense of place from the unpicking of a collective memory, be it literary, anthropological, geographical, or our own sensory experiences, is something that has been toyed with for decades. The emotional and spiritual dimension of being in place, in the work of Alan Garner, powerfully reminds us of our connection to, and relationship with, the land and the memories/stories attached to it.

Alan Garner is a prolific writer perhaps best known for his two books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963). These are both magic realism adventures in which two children visit his Cheshire homeland and encounter creatures from British legend. All of his books are either re-presentations of folktales or an unearthing of the mythologies which have collectively been woven into the landscape over the centuries. The commonality throughout is the emotional and spiritual connection that modern peoples have with their past. With a gap of some fifty years, he completed the trilogy in 2012 with Boneland. After reading Garner’s last two novels – Boneland and Thursbitch – we came to the conclusion that the landscape itself is a character. There is something sentient about the physical space; it is as if the elves in the earlier novels and the psychological disturbance of his middle-period fiction are revisited with an almost surgical exploration as he looks at the relationship between spirituality, landscape, and story.

– See more at:

University as both vehicle to, and shelter from, the future

Research group member John Lowenthal’s latest blog post for the ‘Imagining the Future’ project on urban and rural youth transitions – this project also involves Humanistic Perspectives member Patrick Alexander. John is currently resident in the States but sharing his thoughts online…

Discourses of education are often centred around notions of investment and the future. Young people are encouraged, as well as threatened, to go further and further into their studies through an ideology of delayed gratification. By “sacrificing” the present and committing time, effort, and in the case of HE, a great deal of borrowed money then you’re in with a chance of great things. Whilst a lottery, the future is kept alive through the promise of possibility. Failure to strive within this forward momentum is depicted throughout schooling as dangerous, degenerative, and against one’s own future interests. Yet even then, education is framed across the life course as salvational and solutional. Adults without a degree may “redeem” themselves later in life; much like aspirational immigrants who “use” education to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”; meanwhile, those already with a degree increasingly consider further, and yet further qualifications, trying to escape a dull or competitive present in the hope of something better.

For more see:

Why Picturebooks Matter

And here is Mat Tobin, introducing a post on his own blog:

What is children’s literature and why it is worthy of our time, as adults, is something that I have been exploring since first graduating as a Primary Teacher. Although the two words could be read as mutually exclusive, they do in fact go hand in hand. In order to break down the walls of criticism that comes with studying children’s literature, I decided to write the following blog as an introduction to exploring what children’s literature does and why it is important that, as educators in all forms, we recognise its potential.

Lessons from the History of Reading

Our research group member Nick Swarbrick has his own blog. Here is a taster:

It is now unorthodox or even heretical – except among those for whom it is not – to claim that the simple view of reading is fallible. I noticed recently a University lecturer being taken to task for “pedalling tripe” by suggesting he was going to read Davis’ critique of systematic synthetic phonics. We live in a time where vitriol is easily poured out – whether on those heartless fascists who espouse a top-down model of teaching or those careless, loveless airheads who think that children should find it all out for themselves. Such, at any rate, would be the Martian judgement (for “Martian” see the work of Eric Berne as shorthand for a commentator completely outside the system). No matter how important they seem to the protagonists, Single Issue Politics -whether at national or staff-room level – can get very nasty very quickly.

And for the rest see:

Drawing a Response to the NSEAD’s Survey Report (2015-16)

Rachel Payne

Dr. Emese Hall (University of Exeter) and myself were part of a team of four who designed and interpreted the National Society in Education for Art and Design (NSEAD) survey report 2015-16.  We asked over 1100 art educators in England how policy had impacted their experience of delivering the subject in schools (

We presented our qualitative response to the survey report at the International Journal of Art and Design conference, November 2016.  The aim was not to discuss the content of the report but instead to present a series of drawings which represent our experiences of it.  In the process we constructed a visual narrative enquiry by curating drawings created collaboratively during an afternoon in August.


I am currently co-authoring a journal article with Emese examining the implications of the NSEAD survey report findings, with a focus on educational policy and subsequent marginalisation of visual arts education experienced by many.  We wanted to explore a more original angle than just regurgitating findings, and in the process of deconstructing them, ‘value’ emerged as a core theme.  This refers to what teachers tell us about experiencing an undervaluing of the subject and themselves in schools, and to creating a counter argument.  We recognise a need to champion the value of the subject in a challenging political climate.

When we met in August we started the drawing process by writing down words that resonated with us as a result of writing the article and interpreting the survey findings.  We began by considering how to visually interpret some of these words through mark-making.

Starting was difficult until we realised that our emotional responses were the most immediate and tangible.  We have both experienced the effects of government policy in our own professional contexts, through our students and school partners, and we intentionally drew on these experiences at the beginning of the drawing process.  For me, this was immediate, intuitive and spontaneous. I tried not to think too hard about the process of making and just responded with the materials at hand.

We made art standing on opposite sides of a large table, sharing a range of media and drawing onto a large roll of brown paper.  Unconsciously we began to share a visual and spoken dialogue, something we became more conscious of through constructing the conference presentation.


This image is my first drawing.  I was thinking about two different positions: the ‘devaluing’ and the ‘valuing’ articulated through the survey findings and our journal article.   Devaluing is represented by the blackness; I wanted to created depth which absorbed energy although in reality I was frustrated by the limitations of the materials.   Valuing is represented by the fragile thread running through the centre of the drawing, a conscious reference to what we know is valuable in the subject.


Emese made this piece simultaneously to my first drawing.  It is based on the experience of constant devaluing of the subject, which she represents as a bleak landscape, a battlefield with echoes of a loss of hope.

Media intentionally references constraint where the red tape symbolises bureaucracy and the rope represents subjugation.

We had a follow-up meeting in Exeter in October where we made further sense of the drawings, their meanings and the importance of the collaborative component. In retrospect we recognised a shared visual language emerging right from the start, evident in the repetition of marks and shapes across both our visual responses that act as metaphor for experience.


This is my second piece, which indicates more of an internalised response where I re-experience being professionally devalued.  This links to Emese’s previous image of the battlefield through the suggestion of a fleshy wound (red element).   In this piece I managed to achieve the depth of black I was striving for in first drawing, and intentionally produced it on a piece of discarded wrapping paper.

During the creation of the conference presentation I realised I was engaging in a reflexive oscillation where meanings emerge from the act of making marks – then responding to marks – and finally reflecting on their meaning through discussion.  A cyclic process of connecting the concrete to the abstract and back to the concrete as a method for generating new understandings.  Here the collaborative component was operating unconsciously.  We didn’t recognise until we created the PowerPoint that we had been having a visual discussion all along.  I was also surprised at how visceral the experience was.


Emese created this as an external personal angle compared to my internal response (flesh fragment).  It conveys feelings of alienation, dejection and disregard, and speaks of relationships with other people in professional institutions.  In its crudest form it can be read as symbolic of exclusion of the arts from the E-Bacc.


This drawing is a deliberate, process-driven response to the word ‘restriction’.  It is one of a series of images constructed using recycled materials, such as cardboard packaging, which I used as a barrier placed between the paper and the drawing implement to restrict my mark-making.  I was exploring which media enabled the best mark qualities through restrictive play where the final image wasn’t revealed until the restriction (e.g., packaging) was removed.

We deliberately chose to show the image from this distorted view.  It speaks of the relationship between the ‘desperate’ marks situated within the confines of the environment, a reference to how we are shaped by our environments and in turn shape them through our acts.  In the process of making these drawings I realised the complexity of meaning in my actions, some of which are deliberate, spontaneous, confined, restricted, and liberating.


Emese constructed this piece, which in its original form explored the feeling of imposed structures such as timetables on professionals, drawing on previous visual devices such as an echo of the red tape from an earlier artwork.  By destroying the artwork she subverts reference to imposed structure by taking something conservative and reproductive and transforming it into a productive form.

Core meanings underpinning this piece include representing the positive difference between the visual arts and other curriculum subjects.  Emese is articulating visually what makes our subject special (its non-conformity) although it wasn’t until after the presentation that we realised we had found a way to articulate the value of the subject.  We achieved this using our language, a visual language.


Building on the previous piece Emese was inspired by the word ‘imbalance’ and the social divide that is exposed in the NSEAD survey findings report. This is a metaphor for discrepancies in cultural capital experienced by learners in some State school settings.

The golden ball symbolises the privilege of the independent sector with its emphasis on rich cultural learning experiences, access to visual practitioners, cultural institutions and unfettered opportunity to study the subject at GCSE and A Level.   On the opposite side is the State sector and its less consistent cultural offer, where marginalisation is a real experience for some groups of learners across England.


We were concerned that our overall response was very negative and we wanted to  locate and communicate a genuinely positive component to our drawn responses.  To achieve this we originally planned a second drawing session to focus on the survey report’s recommendations, although this didn’t happen in the end.  Instead we revisited our initial drawings to make more sense of them.

Through discussion we recognised that this piece demonstrates glimmers of hope and rebellious energy.  It symbolises the good practice we know exists which can’t be constrained by existing marginalisation.  The threads represent the subject’s ability to transcend the current political agenda; an indication of the potential for generative growth through bearing witness.  Collaborative support is key in articulating new positions of value: to value and be valued.

The NSEAD survey report findings provided opportunity to begin addressing issues that it raises.  As academics we recognise the need to balance professional passion for a topic and the researcher’s role of generating trustworthy knowledge claims; this has been an unashamed passionate enquiry.  However, it has also been liberating.  We have reclaimed value in and for our subject through implementing a visual language to articulate our understandings.  As a result, art-making processes supported through collaboration, reflection and dialogue reveal fresh insights into the political educational climate we are living in.

Armistice-tide past and present

British Legion Poppies 

In the interwar years (1919-1939) it was common to speak of armistice-week or armistice-tide (alongside armistice day itself). We see echoes of this today, in the British Legion’s poppy-selling, and in the near-annual public controversy about remembrance (it was FIFA and footballers wearing poppies on their armbands this year).  Members of the humanistic perspectives research group working on a long-term project about remembrance and education have experienced versions of such intensive remembrance-related activity too.  Our online three-county survey into what schools do to mark armistice day on 11th November – an apparently simple question which seems to have received little attention – which we first ran in 2013, has been reprised in November 2016. On both occasions, David Aldridge, Patrick Alexander, Annie Haight and myself have devoted many hours to collating and checking school email addresses in preparation for the survey launch. We’ve also done related work more rooted in our particular disciplinary backgrounds. In November 2014 David Aldridge launched his philosophical insights on the subject, asking how war ought to be remembered in schools. And this year I’ve been looking at this theme from a historical angle too, examining the League of Nations Union (part anti-war pressure group, part mass political movement), and its armistice-time activity: part recruitment drive, part informal education, part civic ritual. An 18th November conference paper meant armistice-tide work on this too.


On 11th November itself, Armistice Day, my working hours were (bizarrely) devoted almost entirely to remembrance-related activity and this got me thinking about continuity and change. The early morning was spent preparing for my conference paper, reading through scans of the League of Union’s periodicals. A front page from 1938, depicted the cenotaph wreath laying parade and the headline ‘Twenty Years On. Save the League to Save Peace’, caught my attention. I was struck by the combination of solemn civic ritual, and anti-war message; the noting of the common act of commemoration but also (at this point in time) the explicit challenge to government foreign policy and, perhaps, an implicit challenge to aspects of militarism in the cenotaph ritual itself. At 10.45 am I attended the annual remembrance service, in the Harcourt Hill chapel (our ancestor institution was a Wesleyan Methodist teacher training college). I walked past the rolls of honour listing college staff and students who died in the two world wars. We observed the two-minute silence, and heard a historically-focused talk from our chaplain (who wore one red and one white poppy) about staff at Westminster College, our ancestor institution, and the war. Many staff joined the forces, but there was at least one conscientious objector, and the chaplain. Prayers focused on remembering the war dead but also the need for peace. I felt that the League of Nations Union would have approved. I also wondered why I felt compelled to participate in a communal act of remembrance like this when I had the opportunity – certainly not just objective, academic interest. That afternoon a few more hours of checking school email addresses for our online survey followed; the urgent need to release the survey soon after the event dictated my timing. Changes in the funding and administrative landscape of schooling since 2013 – particularly academisation – left traces in changes to email addresses. Will any of this have affected how schools have observed the armistice? Will we see any of this in our survey findings?

Members of the research team are intrigued by a commemorative day with elements so ritualistic, communal, even commonplace that they seem to simply ‘happen’ – who organises the wreath laying at the war memorial, the two-minute silence in a public space? – but which at the same time attracts so much controversy. We are enjoying bringing our own disciplinary perspectives to the subject; framing the survey, working on our own related projects. And others seem to be interested too: survey responses are coming in, my conference paper generated interesting questions. Why did all this matter so much in the interwar years was one that stayed in my mind. We could ask the same question now.

Image attribution (British Legion Poppies): (Photo: Mike Weston ABIPP/MOD [OGL (, via Wikimedia Commons: