How to give a presentation that bores your audience, giving a rubbish impression of you and your research

Worth sharing as the conference season gets into its stride.

Sorry about the gap


I’m very sorry that I haven’t posted much this month.  Oddly May-July is a really busy time for me and a lot of academics.  We have exams, exam marking, exam boards, external examining of other people’s exams, seeing lots of fed-up students, doing course reviews, getting stuff ready for  conferences and so on.  So not much time for anything.

But I thought I would share this quotation I found in the London Review of Books.  It’s from Charles Collingwood, who was a British philosopher, now slightly out of fashion.  It’s taken from a new biography of him in which he talks about what he learned about what constitutes a work of art as he was growing up:

I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the attention of virtuosi, but the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt had gone.  I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all.  Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it.’

My first thought on reading this is that it is a contribution to the perennial art vs craft debate.  I can tell when my craft pieces are quilted by and large.  There is a grid to fill in with quilting and once you have done that it is fairly easy to decide that something is finished.  The puzzle with its one right answer has been solved.  But the art pieces I make are different.  They are really never finished.  My Starbucks quilt still isn’t finished now, and I was making it a good ten years ago.  I could always do a bit more with the art pieces.  I am not quite sure how this fits with my contention that our work talks to us and tells us when it’s finished.  Maybe it tells us when that’s enough.  I also wonder how this fits with the reception theorists, and my hero, Walter Benjamin’s contention that meaning is immanent and that it changes depending on context and the spirit of the age, so we can’t ever understand Shakespeare in the same way his contemporary audiences understood him because we don’t have the same mentalite, to use the technical term.  The thing isn’t finished and neither is its meaning ever fixed.

I really thought that there was some wisdom in the idea that having to have something ready for an exhibition is common stopping point, or we get tired of things (which is a problem in academic writing when we are constantly reworking things we are no longer all that interested in as we have to take account of reviewers’ comments), or sometimes we just get sick of working on something and shove it in a drawer.  Sometimes when we come back to those suspended things they surprise us with how good they are.

The idea that he starts with that works of art are an attempt (usually abandoned) to solve a problem was compelling.  I often work with the ‘what if?’ question which is the cornerstone of a lot of creativity techniques: what happens if I paint this, what happens if I put the hot air gun on this, what happens if I stitch this from the back?  But I also address bigger problems: how can I say what I want to say about corporate excess in cloth?  How can I express a brand in patchwork?  How can I upset our ideas about what an academic text is, but still produce something intelligible?  People like the American Pragmatist John Dewey have remarked that artists and scientists aren’t that far apart in what they do.  And Collingwood went on to to remark that the work of natural scientists was never finished either – all knowledge is temporary as Popper would have it.  One theory replaces another eventually.  On a much more domestic scale, I can never resist saying to the dentist, oh, that’s the fashion now is it, when they give you the latest piece of advice.  Or like we are beginning to hear that low fat diets are bad for you.

So, quite a lot of positive if exhausting ideas about how art and knowledge works as I toddle off to address a group of PhD students tomorrow!

Anyway, I do have some new work which I will be posting about.  And sorry for the gap.


Collingwoood quotation taken from: Jonathan Ree (2014) ‘A Few Home Truths’ London Review of Books, vol 36, 112, 19 June,  pp. 13-16; 13.






We had an important day

I know some people who read my blog love to make books. I thought this one had its own kind of perfection.

Recommended quilting blog

If you are a quilter you will probably love this blog:

Well worth having a look.

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What I did on Saturday – Bristol Quilters’ Exhibition



This weekend we held Bristol Quilters’ Exhibition.  It comes round once every two years which is a really good spacing because it gives us time to produce some very nice pieces.   I can’t single out any one piece, and I can’t put everything in, so I will just include a photo of a poppy made by Alison, one of my oldest and best quilting friends.  I am just stunned at the craft and skill and know-how that went into the production of this:

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In some ways, though, the standard and beauty of the quilts is a secondary issue about the exhibition.  What was really striking was the atmosphere in the halls.  We had over a thousand visitors, which is exceptional, and they were all really enjoying the occasion.  With my academic hat on, I was wondering why this was.  There has been a lot of work in the past looking at what makes voluntary organisations work.  Why do people work so enthusiastically for free.  Peter Drucker, the very well-known Swiss management guru wrote extensively on this.  Of course, a lot of the academic interest in this is how can we take this enthusiasm and commitment and turn it to commercial advantage.  No-one has succeeded so far as I know.  I am less interested in that than I am in why that exhibition was such a lovely experience for those visiting.  I am still working on it so here are some bullet points!

  1. The rooms were awash with colour and pattern.  I am convinced that colour therapy works.  Goths dress in black for a reason.  I love bright pink and orange, preferably together, when I am a bit depressed.  Humans love pattern.  We read pattern.  We know when it is wonky.  We love it when it is regular.  We make pattern instinctively.  Our concentration, it seems, improves when we doodle.  We are pattern-making and colour-loving animals, and that room was full of both.
  2. The rooms were stuffed to the gunwales with love.  The quilts were often made with love for someone – a husband, child, friend, relative, but they were almost all made for the sheer love of quilting.  I think that this is one of the great mysteries of the material world.  We really do sense the emotion behind made things.  Not all the time, but often we love a textile because of the emotion which has been infused into it.  I think visitors were picking up that they were in a great vault full of love.
  3. People were joyful.  The magnificent organisers of the show, again it is invidious to name names, were really delighted with the way it was going.  The welcome at the ticket desk was warm and genuine,  The people who exhibited were delighted with the response to their work.  We all felt proud to belong to a group which could produce such high quality work.  Other quilt groups who came felt inspired to try out some of our group ideas.  There was a tremendous feeling of ‘we did this’.  I imagine that you get this in all sorts of settings: concerts, community gardens, charity runs and so so on.  We did this.  We are successful.  We have made a contribution.  We are good.  And I think that is infectious.
  4. There was cake.  Now this is not as flippant as it sounds.  There was cake, reasonably priced, beautifully presented, served with real warmth, and largely handmade.  Again, this is really important.  Not only do we want the unprocessed delight of a cake made in a domestic kitchen rather than stuffed full of preservatives in an industrial bakery, but we also, again, I think, ingest that love that we sensed in the quilts.  One of my favourite novels is Like Water for Chocolate in which the cook’s emotions all find their way into what she is cooking, with all sorts of consequences.  I think there is some truth in it.  Love on a plate.
  5. The whole event was a celebration of creativity.  I have long thought that thwarted creativity is responsible for all sorts of ills in people.  Expressing your creativity is, again, a very human act.  Until very recently in our history we had to be creative to survive – someone had to build a shelter, a pot, a trap, and it would probably help you get a mate if you were good at it, and we tend to be better at things we enjoy.  So your DNA as a good maker would probably get passed on.  Being creative is part of being alive.  I am tempted to think that we should give the socially disruptive a couple of hours with a gelli plate and some paint and let them get on with it.  Creativity and boredom don’t really go together at all.  I live in a city famous for its graffiti which tends to bear this out.  That creative urge will express itself somehow.  So a ritual celebration of our usually overlooked creativity is bound to make everyone feel better.

I am not totally starry-eyed about this.  There is huge competition in quilt groups, and jealousy and resentment.  There are major disparities in wealth and the access to materials that brings.  There are hours of tedium in quilting, which is why so many who can afford it tend to have their quilts professionally quilted (including me).  There is frustration at getting it wrong, or where it won’t fit, or running out of a particular fabric, or the sewing machine playing up.  But overall, we love it because it allows us to access part of ourselves which would otherwise be frustrated and would turn in on us.  And, I defy anyone to say that the atmosphere was not positive, joyful even, but at the very least infused with delight.

In addition…

I put in two pieces: my little Lauras quilt:



which I will blog about later – now that it is finished, and my memorial or mourning quilt:


Not a great photo, but you can see the very basic piecing with a lot of embellishment on top.  The fabric came from Peggy Pounce, whom I used to quilt with for a very long time.  When she died we all had some scraps leftover from a quilt she made and used them to make something of our own.  I am very interested in the way that we commemorate so much with quilting: new babies, weddings, children leaving home, anniversaries and so on, but don’t really continue the old death quilt tradition.  There was a quilt in the exhibition made of a husband’s shirts, which had a really elegant simplicity:


Made by Ann Kelly, it was called  A hug from John.  There were other memorial quilts, but these were really outweighed by the celebration of life pieces.  We don’t do the sitting by the bedside that our Victorian foremothers did, so we don’t need to have something to fill the hours and take our minds off things, but I think there is also something about the last taboo that we don’t want to engage with.

An added bonus was a small exhibition of the school magazine covers of Badminton Girls’ School which was our venue.  They ranged across most of second half of the twentieth century, and were produced by the girls.  They are a rich source of data on the changing fashions in graphic design:

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The 2013 issue, by contrast had a photo of a young woman, positively glowing, as she climbed a sheer rock face.  Although I loved the image of her, I thought it was a bit of a shame that the treasure trove of graphic styles seems to have come to an end.