It’s that time of year…


As this post publishes I am on my way to the Tate Summer School, the gallery’s annual professional development programme for teachers. I’ve been making this journey at this time of year since 2012. This is my sixth Summer School. Why? Because I work as a partner ethnographer, “embedded’ in the Tate  Schools and Teachers team who are responsible for the event.

Our shared interest has been to understand “what’s going on here” – or put less colloquially, we want to develop systematic understandings of learning in this very particular context. Learning in Summer School always has to take account of the specifics – the high-profile gallery, the collection and exhibitions, the artists, the material spaces and stuff, the participants with their various histories, interests and experiences, and the focus of the week. This all makes up an ’offer’ which participants variously take up, at the time and afterwards.

Summer School 2014 – taking over the Turbine Hall. Alice Walton from S and T team on the right.

In between summer schools we have conversations, meetings, email exchanges, writings. Some years we’ve made deliberate attempts to pursue the question of research more thoroughly. At other times, we just talk and ‘do stuff’ together. We spend about twelve to fifteen or so days a year, some years a bit more – by my reckoning, we are now up to eighty-one days. In terms of ethnographic practice, this really isn’t that much actual time. This is pretty slow scholarship, it’s a sporadic ethnography. On and off.

And there isn’t that much to show for it yet in university publishing terms. Early on I wrote a working paper and more recently a chapter. For the last year or so we have also been working together on a rather large document called “lexicon” – our way of focusing on the keywords that we now use to discuss the gallery pedagogies. At some point fairly soon, this text will become public. Meanwhile, it just grows, an archive of the major conversations and tentative agreements we have reached to date. Alice and I recently presented together on this writing, the ethnography and our partnership at the recent Ethnoarts conference.

BUT the partnership has developed a complementary research project, TALE, which follows teachers back to school. TALE examines, over three years, how teachers have taken their professional development experiences with Tate into their own teaching, and what their students say and do in response. So there is now research income – a direct result of our shared investment in slow thinking-talking together.

I love this work. I really, really love my partners. I want to say this out loud, as naff as it sounds, because we hear a lot about research partnerships, impact and engagement and it’s all very instrumental and clinical. Yet doing research together – co-constructing it might also be called – is much more than utilitarian. Establishing a proper adult relationship with research partners involves more than ‘the cognitive’ – it’s also about our emotions, our bodies. It’s like a proper friendship, right?

But doesn’t that get in the way of being able to be suitably researcher ‘distant and critical’ you might be wondering. Well no, quite the reverse. If know each other well, and trust each other, if the conversations are always just between you until the point when you all decide that it can be made public… if the research is understood as always ‘emerging’… well, it means you actually get to talk about whatever concerns you. The researchers doesn’t simply go away and write something that partners will find shocking and offensive. You actually get to be more openly ‘critical’ together. It’s not adversarial, it’s a discussion. It’s reciprocal. It’s give and take. This is something that I‘d really like us to write about at some point.

Anyway, as part of the process, I’ve taken to blogging each day at Summer School. It is a digression from what I normally do on patter, but it’s also a bit of an insight into a working researcher’s week and some early thinking. Expect to see something a bit different and daily.

This year’s Summer School is about gender. The artists running the week are Travis Alabanza and Linda Stupart. We are promised encounters with other artists who also work on/with/through questions of gender. I’m expecting lots of interesting activities, some making and some challenging and provocative ideas. And wigs. At an early meeting I heard something about pink wigs. So bring it on. I’m ready. As is our room.

And yes, just in case you wondered, participants do get to decide if they want to be included in the research or not. All the usual ethical caveats apply.

Some reading –  if you are interested in the work of the Schools and Teachers team at Tate you might like this book. In site of conversation. On learning with art, audiences and artists.