Spiral Learning

Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns… What was once barely intelligible may be deeply meaningful a second time. And a third. (Bateson, 1994; p.31)

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions by Mary Catherine Bateson (1994), enjoying how she weaves reflections on research, items and places. The quotes above are from a section on the non-linear nature of learning which appeals to me; what Bateson calls “spiral learning” in the example above. She talks about how rote learning can have a value in embedding information deeply within the minds of students, with the view that it can be returned to and puzzled out over a lifetime.

I have a fondness for poems from school and know many friends and colleagues who will recite word-perfect poems from their childhood. We often return to them in the way that Bateson speaks of, unpick and stitch them into our lives, our speech and our stories. But all too often, I think we memorize to forget; here I’m thinking of the large amount of cramming I have done for examinations only to see the “knowledge” drift away once the exam is completed. When I return to the same textbooks now, it is with a sense of rediscovery, of connecting the information with the life experiences I have had since, of reaching a deeper layer of understanding by revisiting with time to explore.

I am conscious of the packed curricula that students in most disciplines encounter, the resulting sense of panic at the volume of material that has to be absorbed, soon to be regurgitated for examination. Working on the PhD has given me a space to spiral back, though also a sense of that same panic, the awareness of the volume of material, and the desire to find my space and place in the discourse.

[In] the action of the needle, the embroidered line grows through the repeated looping back of the trailing thread-line between where the point meets the surface and where the thread meets the eye. Telling stories involves a similar looping back of present experience to connect with that of the past. (Ingold, 2011; p. 195)

Newgrange tomb entrance passage and stone with spirals
spudmurphy, Newgrange, Meath, CC BY-SA 2.0

The image is of the Newgrange passage tomb in Meath. I love this place, the silence and peace in the tomb, the steady temperature no matter the weather, the little lightbulb set up in the roofbox to simulate the return of the sun at midwinter. Thinking of spirals brought me spiraling back to the entrance stone, the guardian before entering the tomb. This is matched by the kerbstone on the rear of the tomb, discussed in the short YouTube video below. The spiral is not just a spiral, we are told, it is more complex than that. Following Ingold’s quote above, I loop my experience to my past and to the distant past, to others who traced the spirals before me.  There’s probably a metaphor for my PhD in this 🙂


Finally, you may be wondering why there is a snail in this post. I like snails, with their mathematical shells and way of spiraling across paths, writing in a silver code that I can’t decipher. I envy their ability to regenerate their nervous systems. And returning to Bateson, I find myself wondering what their “peripheral vision” is with their multimodal view of our shared habitat (Matsuo, 2017).


Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: HarperCollins. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060926304/peripheral-visions

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Matsuo, R. (2017). The Computation and Robustness of the Mini-Cognitive Centers of Terrestrial Mollusks: An Exquisite Outcome of Brain Evolution. In Brain Evolution by Design (pp. 101-122). Tokyo: Springer. https://www.springer.com/us/book/9784431564676

Becoming Frog

In February, I took part in an event entitled The Mobile Campus: Imagining The Future of Distributed Education at the University of Edinburgh, run by two colleagues, James Lamb and Michael Gallagher [see end of post for their respective blogs or click on their names for details on the event]. This was a neat exploration of what it meant to be “at Edinburgh” and acknowledged how the participants were distributed across the globe, drawn together in the event hosted in George Square.

Michael and James facilitated a range of discussion topics, sharing of images and sounds. When asked to define what digital education was for me, I took a picture of frogs on the pin-board behind my desk and said that those who knew me wouldn’t be surprised. There were some there who remembered that I presented my MSc dissertation as a half-woman-half-frog avatar. I have a picture of that somewhere; when/if I find it, I’ll add it!
Photo of pin board pictures of frogs

So what is the link between digital education and frogs? Why are they my digital education totem species? I was all geared up to investigate and discuss frogs in myths and legends, the permeability of frog skin and its role as a metaphor for inter-connectedness. In my random searches, I discovered there is something called a Frog Leaping Algorithm, and indeed a Shuffled and Improved Shuffled Frog Leaping Algorithm as the nerve-centre of programmed neural networks (Dash, 2018). I was planning to explore “Sharon-as-frog-avatar” building on a Gregory Ulmer paper I have had sitting waiting for just such an opportunity.

Avatar is not mimetic of one’s ego, but a probe beyond one’s ownness, as a relationship with community. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome is much invoked in association with the Internet. Our use of the figure follows their example of rhizome as a symbiotic relationship between two separate domains brought into mutually beneficial alliance. (Ulmer, 2011)

And then I found, as with so much in my PhD reading, that someone had got there before me. Or rather, some people – a group of primary school children were “becoming frog” and incorporating digital practices long before I was.

It was on a prac. visit that I entered the world of frogs. (Somerville, 2007)

This blog post now becomes a celebration of Somerville’s paper; one of those awesome papers that only synchronicity and random frog searching can gift you with. Her paper is exciting for two main reasons linked to my research. First, she talks about local wetlands experts working with schools in their area to extend the knowledge of the local ecology; citizen-science and public engagement at its best. Second, she brings together a whole range of theories and research I have been reading about for the past few years, from Deleuze & Guattari “becoming-animal” to Gruenewald and place-based and -responsive pedagogies. Wrap all that in the glorious global knowledge-sharing with other frog-excited students via the web in an Australian and US collaboration, add a touch of storytelling, and you’ve got a darn good paper.

In this thinking human bodies, as corporeal entities, then, are continuous with human and non human others but also with artefacts such as pens, paper, paints, computers, fabric, metal and machines, that they are linked with through production, and with the productions themselves. In other words, the representations we produce are conceived as part of our bodies. (Somerville, 2007)

Somerville’s comments about human continuity with “others” links with Timothy Morton’s symbiotic real, as mentioned in a previous post. This inter-connectedness is inherent in Indigenous epistemology and ontology, and Somerville touches on the complexities in engaging with Indigenous knowledge practices. This is an aspect of her research I will draw on later for a post I am currently drafting.

Back to the 2007 paper, and I followed the link from Somerville’s references to see how the online community has developed. While the link provided no longer directs to the community, it seems there is activity as of 2017 on the Project Corroboree Community page. I can’t seem to access or explore the web-journey she speaks of, but the idea stays with me, the sense of the web as a songline. Her process of “visiting” the wetlands via the web echoes my investigation into developing connection to place at a distance, where “place” is defined as a meaningful location. The sense of meaning appears to be linked, for Somerville, to the memories of being physically present, the “thousands of intimate moments” associated with the place. I wonder if it is possible to separate the two, for the digital to connect. Will I find, as Somerville suggests, that any meaningful connection to place-at-distance will only come from reference to my local place connections. I put that to one side as a direction to explore, a gap and an uncertainty.

One thing is for sure, I am invited and inspired to learn more about Somerville’s work and to more actively “become-frog”. I am off to perfect my frog dance!

I can feel in my body the extension of self-into-other required to perform frog. How does a frog move? What do its limbs do? How can your fingers be frog fingers, how does your body move to frog music? (Somerville, 2007)

Blogs posts on Mobile Campus event

James Lamb: https://www.james858499.net/blog/remixing-the-campus

Michael Gallagher: http://michaelseangallagher.org/mobile-learning-in-distributed-universities-summary-of-recent-festival-of-creative-learning-event/


Dash, R. (2018). Performance analysis of a higher order neural network with an improved shuffled frog leaping algorithm for currency exchange rate prediction. Applied Soft Computing67, 215-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asoc.2018.02.043 #paywall

Somerville, M. (2007). Becoming-frog: a primary school place pedagogy. Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Freemantle, 26-29 November. https://www.aare.edu.au/publications-database.php/5511/becoming-frog

Ulmer, G.L. (2011). Avatar emergency. Digital Humanities Quarterly 5(3) http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/3/000100/000100.html

Vampire Researcher

Due to some behind-the-scenes digital footprint weirdness, I discovered that Google Scholar was reporting one of my papers as being written in 1759. That got me thinking: asides from outing me as a vampire to the world, who is the Sharon from 1759? And before you ask, no, my skin does not sparkle like diamonds in the sun!

scholar_1759 (2)
Screenshot of the Google Scholar auto-entry dated 1759 instead of 2016


This process of looking back to 1759 highlighted my bias about women at that time. I expected to hear about difficult lives and fashions. While some of this was true (panniers!), women writers existed, at least those fortunate to be born into privilege and with understanding male family members to support them.

My colleague Jessie and I come from a science background, and even that was not so strange. The first paper by a woman was published in the Royal Philosophical Society’s Transactions; all credit to Anne Whitfeld and her report on the thunderstorm that struck her home in 1759 (Whitfeld & Van Rixtel, 1759). By the 1780s, Caroline Herschel was discovering comets (Herschel, 1787) and working as an astronomer for the King (Hoskin, 2005). She was the first woman to be made a member of the Royal Society, albeit honorary, and managed to do all that while still taking care of her household duties. Chemist Marie-Anne Lavoisier was born in 1758 and feminist philosopher and author Mary Wollstonecraft in 1759.

Had we been born into the right circumstances, perhaps we would have printed our paper; not everything was so straightforward. I was born in Ireland and studied in Trinity College Dublin. In 1759, they were putting the finishing touches on the west front on College Green, but women would not be permitted to study there until 1904.


Herschel, C. (1787). An Account of a New Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, MD Sec. RS. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London77, 1-3. Retrieved from http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/77/1.full.pdf

Hoskin, M. (2005). Caroline Herschel as observer. Journal for the History of Astronomy36(4), 373-406. Retrieved from http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?2005JHA….36..373H&classic=YES

Whitfeld, A., & Van Rixtel, J. (1759). An Account of the Effects of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, on the 16th of July, 1759: In a Letter from Mrs. Anne Whitfeld. Communicated by Mr. John van Rixtel, F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 51, 282-286. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/105375


My Immortal Microbiome

This post neatly links to the previous one on digital compost; you would think I planned it! With digital compost, I expanded on a metaphor for the digital footprint of places and the more-than-human. With my immortal microbiome, I’m focusing on the biota that exist in and on my body, a wonderful network that lives in the liminal spaces between what I view as “my body” and perceive as my “external environment”.

My husband, Gavin, and I recently participated in the International Microbiome Study (http://imsms.org/home/) via the Anne Rowling Clinic. The aim is to compare the microbiomes of two people who live together, one with MS and one without. The team are investigating and comparing our gut flora, given that we live mainly in the same environment and eat roughly the same food. We gave blood and stool samples which will be stored at the main research lab in San Francisco. I joked that it is not my heart I have left in San Francisco!

I am keen to see how this study progresses. It was pretty much painless thanks to a great phlebotomist and the kit for taking the stool sample was fun to use and appealed to my inner MacGyver. There was a food survey and I’m a survey geek, so was delighted to work my way through it. I also get a kick out of the fact that part of me is getting to visit somewhere new in the world, as I’ve never been to San Fran. But I digress…

What was most interesting at the outset was the consent form and we both discussed this at length before signing up for the study. We have essentially gifted our DNA and microbiomes to the research team to be sequenced and cultured and kept in perpetuity for health-related research. Somewhere in a lab, a unique portion of us lives and is cared for, ready and on standby to help research teams better understand the organisms that are part of us.

Linking back to the post on digital compost, this is a whole deeper level of data that gets right to the coding of what makes us. It also calls into question what is “us”, the two people who share a life and a home, or the trillions of microbes that co-exist with our “selves”. More accurately, perhaps we are a community, an extension of the participatory, relational understanding that I touched on previously. Reading Timothy Morton’s Humankind this week, linking his discussion on symbiosis and the “symbiotic real” with Donna Haraway’s exploration of symbiogenesis, I can see it is more than this.

I like this quote (Morton, 2017; p.40):

“Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.

What I define as “me” is a symbiosis, a biosphere, operating in a “hum of solidarity”. There is no firm, fixed boundary, no inside/outside; instead at most a permeable  membrane, ebb and flow between what appears to be me and me-as-part-of “the loose connectivity of the symbiotic real” (p.2). Does that mean there is no “me”? Even “I” don’t know what “Sharon” truly is, but there is a plethora of Sharon-data. To paraphrase Tim, what the team in San Francisco will have is definitely a lot of Sharon-data, it isn’t raindrop-data or blue-whale-data, though there may be a fair whack of daffodil and earthworm. But it will not be “Sharon”.

At the start of this post, I talked about the “network” of my microbiome. Over the week, with Tim’s help, I understand that it is more truly a network of solidarity, a collective, a doing-being, a deep inter-relatedness. Kindness and kin-ness have returned. Miriam Lueck Avery’s TED talk is a good way to finish this week’s post; unsurprisingly, I particularly like the “medicine as gardening” idea!

Image is: “Bacteriaby Caroline Davis2010. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0. Original source via Flickr


Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind

Digging into digital compost

I have a confession to make – I’m rubbish at writing catchy titles for things. I know a great title when I see it, but the Title Muse has passed me by. This causes problems when writing articles or conference abstracts; you want something that sounds interesting, but can end up causing confusion.

My recent abstract to the Networked Learning 2018 conference is a case in point. I knew what I meant when I added “Digital Compost” into my title, but completely failed to explain to my readers. The very kind reviewers pointed out that I should either explain or remove, hinting that I should seriously think if it was necessary to include.

And that’s the key point – is it essential? I knew it was, but I hadn’t explained why. I included an outline in my revised paper and am now sharing my thoughts with a little more depth. So on we go – let’s dig in to digital compost!

My brief explanation in my paper is as follows:

Inspired by her partner, Haraway (2016) proposed the term “compost” as an alternative to posthuman, as human and more-than-human alike become compost. I see the data gathered and shared through [my proposed research] networked stories as forming “digital compost”, acknowledging that the networked relationships include human-to-human, human-to-more-than-human, human-to-things, and human-to-place.

I like this term, I like “becoming compost”, as I personally find “posthuman” a bit anti-human. Moving from being anthropocentric to ecocentric does not make me any less human. Instead, it encourages me to be aware of all my relations, to connect as best I can with the Others that I share my life with. As Haraway states, it is about “making kin”.

Compost, that rich living humus cake, is wonderful stuff. I am at my happiest when up to my elbows in soil and take great delight in making more, making-with my soil-production kin of microbes, earthworms, fungi, et al. Refer to “soil”, “fungus” and “posthuman” in the same paragraph and I’m off on a rhizomatic tangent with Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Better yet, Ingold’s (2011) moving mycelial meshwork of relational, participative engagement in the world. I talk about “living compost”; compost is decay-in-action, decomposition of the dead to nourish the becoming of the living. By choosing this term, Haraway reminds us of the process of living and dying in kinship with each Other. I am aware I’m comfortable with this process, but it is not so for everyone.

So much for compost, what about the “digital”? Our “digital footprint” could as easily be termed our “digital compost”, the data we can be reduced or decomposed to, the traces we leave online. Part of my work includes using various forms of digital data to gather more detailed information on a location to share with others. In some cases, people actively wish to “capture” something from their local place; the use of digital and analogue media means that the element in question is left in situ, yet “taken home” by the person. “Digital” may facilitate an Ingoldian entangling of the person and place data, a composting of the physical and the virtual. The goal is to create a rich substrate to nourish stories from our places around the world, to celebrate our relations.

I’ll keep you posted on how that progresses!


Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/thousand-plateaus-9780826476944/

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

An Adventurous PhD

It was the phrase “challenging academic journey” that stood out for me in a recent guest post by Donna Franklin for Pat Thomson’s patter blog. The phrase was followed by “difficult PhD journey”, “emotional upheaval” and “doubtful thinking”.

The post went on to provide a clear and helpful outline of the process of mindfulness in helping to deal with the concerns associated with undertaking a PhD. It was encouraging and uplifting in the end as Donna had reflected directly on her own personal experience and the benefits she had found in taking a mindful approach to her studies. Nevertheless, it got me thinking…

Last year, I had the good fortune to read Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World by Simon Beames and Mike Brown. They tease apart the difference between “adventure” and “adventurous” learning practices. The challenge, they say, “should start with the learner, build on their strengths and extend their skills and attributes” (p. 90). Unlike adventure learning, the goal is not to push the student outside their comfort zone, but to encourage them to set their own challenges and explore new terrain. Key to this is provision of a “safe and supportive environment” allowing students to “be actively involved in self-directed experimentation” (p. 92). For me, that safety and support is akin to the equipment and buddy system for hiking and climbing. Your partner helps you check your gear, motivates you and acts as your belayer. You choose the route and you do the climbing, trusting that you’re safely anchored.

Standing at a point halfway up the Krimml waterfalls in a thunderstormWhen I read Donna’s piece, it left me unsettled and wondering where her safety and support came from. I reflected on my own PhD journey – I am conscious of the risk and sense of uncertainty, I discovered a range of peaks ahead when I naively thought I just had one mountain to climb! The mindfulness process she outlines is helpful, but more important for me is the knowledge that my supervisors, colleagues and research team are on standby. They challenge me to think more creatively and independently, to take a different route for the fun of experiencing a new viewpoint and to discover what is authentic for me. As Beames and Brown suggest, any anxiety I feel comes “from the process of adventurous inquiry” (p. 90). As part of the institution’s research community, there are opportunities to share our stories and to discuss our individual adventurous learning experiences. It reminded me again how very fortunate I am to be part of a strong network.

I had the great privilege of being shortlisted for a teaching award in 2016, and I used the mountain-climbing metaphor in the short video created to celebrate the awards. The concept of “teaching as climbing” was inspired in part by a blog post by Ben Orlin reflecting on his development as a teacher, and in part by my colleagues undertaking a charity climbing challenge.

Reflecting on my comments, Beames and Brown remind me that my role as an educator is not just to “throw down a rope”, but to provide a strong foundation, an anchor, as demonstrated so well by my own supervisors (“skillful educators” for sure). Our adventurous journeys should be authentic – have meaning for us, our community and our wider network. We develop our sense of agency and mastery as we overcome the (frequent!) sense of uncertainty and tackle the challenges we set ourselves. At the end of the day, we have campfire tales to tell in good company.

To quote Jamie Davies, winner of The Kendell Award for Teaching in Medicine:

“The most important things [in staff development sessions] come from the conversations between the lecturers who are there to learn. And I think that mirrors what happens with our… learning and teaching-that it’s the whole group working together to take a journey and to learn something.”

Beames, S., & Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning: A pedagogy for a changing world. Oxon, NY: Routledge.