Rise up rooted


My second novel, Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams, drew on the woods and witchcraft for inspiration. I have always been fascinated by the woods - and the people who live in harmony with them in some way. I’m also very lucky to live in a part of the world where I can walk for five minutes and lose myself in one. My seven-year old daughter has grown up sharing my love of the woods and, this morning, we went out to bathe in their cool, green shade. Here are some pictures we took of just some of the things that stopped us in our tracks.

I’m savouring these small spaces of time where I can gather ideas for my next novel, which I’ve been quietly thinking about for a very long time now. As we walked among the trees, I could feel them calling to me. It’s almost as if they are already writing my next book for me.

As Rilke, who also loved the woods, wrote:

‘If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.’ `
(from The Book of Hours)


The feeling of learning

This week, I’ve been experimenting with data visualisation.

In this graphic, I’m playing around with the idea of ‘moments of learning.’

I’m going to bring data visualisation into my learning and teaching this coming semester, beginning with our students on the MA Creative Writing (Distance Learning) at Teesside. There’s a lot of anxiety around about data at the moment - and this is increasingly important to think through it seems to me, when it comes to learning analytics and student experience.

Data can be useful and powerful when it helps us to work with students in new ways. However, I want to ensure that our students feel that they have ownership of their data and involvement in how that data is generated, so I’m going to ask them to keep their own record of their learning experience from Welcome Week onwards and I’ll invite them to share it with me and/ or with their peers.

Together, we’ll explore ways to visualise their data that feel meaningful and helpful, with a focus on qualitative data over quantitative. In other words, as well as doing some counting - how many times did I feel anxious and when? - we’ll start to notice and record how each activity, session, interaction or week of learning feels, so that we can begin to get to know ourselves better as learners over time.

I’m hoping that this will enable students to gain new insights into how they are developing as learners - and to identify their strengths and any areas where they need support. I’m hoping that, by encouraging them to take ownership of the process by sharing how their learning feels for them, they will be able to get a better understanding of their own learning journey. I’m also hoping that this might help to normalise some of the natural anxiety and concern that we all feel when we start a new phase of learning.

I also think that this will be invaluable feedback for me as a teacher. What do I do that is most helpful? What could I do better or differently?

Below is a key that I made to my own data visualisation about the ways that I noticed myself learning over the past week.

key to ‘moments of learning data viz

key to ‘moments of learning data viz

The feeling of digital - part 1

In my last post, I wrote about how important it feels for me to set up the right kind of online space for thinking and writing; because an online space never feels fully online. It is always partly inside me, since it is my thoughts and feelings before they leave my body and make themselves known in the world; and it is also partly outside me, moving away from me into the world to combine with the thoughts and ideas of others, to be read, remade, recombined, perhaps rewritten. This is the rhythm of making. It is also what can often feel so challenging about sharing our words with the world. How do we negotiate this relationship between inside and outside, private and public, process and product? 

How do we think out loud? 

The role of space in this process is crucial. If I'm going to put myself 'out there,' the space has to feel right. In the same way that I like to have a clear desk to write from, I need to spend time getting my online space arranged in the right way before I can feel free to begin thinking and writing. Any unresolved niggles or doubts will only get in my way, sidelining or distracting me from what I need to think about.

Setting up my space over the past few days was a relatively easy process, compared to some of the many attempts to create writing and thinking space that I've made in the past. However, it still involved a lot of fiddly stuff and I needed help with making changes to some of the code, which made me begin to reflect on just how 'open' open source is (is it really open to everyone?) and why certain aspects of online experience (the bits behind the scenes or under the hood) still feel so closed to me, as someone who knows only basic html.

All in all, I counted 6 main steps to my initial set-up, which I'll detail below. 

1. Identify platform (ghost).  [Note: Since writing this post, I’ve reverted back to Squarespace.]
2. Select, purchase and download theme. Upload theme to platform. Upload failed.
3. Open zip file, select correct version, re-upload.
4. Set up 'General' settings. 
5. Experiment with theme e.g. upload image headers and find out how home page and posts behave. Experiment with post editor and adding images, video, links, etc.
6. Strip out unwanted detail e.g. widgets from sidebar, metadata from post. Get social media feeds working. This involved reading the theme documentation, making changes to code in the theme files, re-uploading the theme and crossing my fingers.


Although my experience of ghost and the related theme from Aspire was impressively easy and smooth compared to many experiences I've had in the past, it still involved anxiety. Had I spent money on a theme that I might not be able to get to work for me? Despite my ideological commitment to open source, was I kidding myself that I was up to it? Would I break the code? With so many platforms and options available to me, had I chosen the right one? As I say, these emotions have become very familiar to me over the years but this is the first time that I've had the confidence to talk about them out loud.

I've tried to capture the feeling of this process in the log below. Recently, I have been influenced by the beautiful work of Giorgia Lupi in 'humanising data.' Data visualisation and 'writing with data' is something that I'm increasingly bringing into my learning and teaching. Here, I wanted to find a way of visually representing the feeling of making a space for learning and thinking.

Data vizualisation of making a space online - Sophie Nicholls

Data vizualisation of making a space online - Sophie Nicholls

This raises important questions for me about open source and OER. In my experience, open source is a world of respect, kindness, generosity and community. And it is full of people with a deep knowledge of code that I will probably never have. This can feel intimidating and it can also surface practical problems. I believe that my job as a learner and teacher is to negotiate the feelings involved in making hybrid things (digital and analogue) and to hold the space open for my students to do the same.  As digital innovator and educator, Tom Smith, reminded me the other day, it is more important than ever before that we are able to access and lay collaborative claim to the means of production of our times. That means of production is code.  Let's talk more about the feeling of making in digital.

Thinking out loud

Thinking out loud

I've been here many times before, creating a new space online for thinking out loud. I wish that, over the years, I'd documented all the different online spaces that I've built: the first site that I made in Drupal; my various tussles with Wordpress, where I struggled with templates and getting things to line-up; my move to an author site that I made in Squarespace.  

That's the funny thing about online writing, isn't it? We forget about archiving and documenting. Or in my case, I've actively chosen to delete those earlier versions of myself. Unlike my notebooks, which fill boxes and drawers and reach back into my teenage years, I haven't kept very much of my online writing. The blogs and sites that I've created and then abandoned over the years are like the rooms and houses that I've lived in. I move on, without much of a backward glance, until one day I look back on them with a nostalgic glow, forgetting that on some days they drove me crazy, how they never felt like quite the right space for my thinking out loud.

But I do want to think out loud, especially right now, at this moment in my own learning and teaching, when there are so many conversations that I'd like to have, so many ideas I need to synthesise, process, develop further.  The problem with notebooks is that ideas can just sit there forever and never benefit from the magic that happens in connection and dialogue with others.

And so I've made this new space and, for now at least, it really feels like the right space for me. I like Ghost, both in terms of its values - non-profit, open source - and its design - minimal, pared-back, a crisp, clear font, lots of white space for writing.  

I've spent an evening getting comfortable in my new space, which is always what I most need to do whenever I'm beginning something new. In the same way that I like a clear desk and white walls, I find that I need to get my online space right, everything arranged in the right way, before I can feel free to create. In this sense, online has never just been online for me. Spaces for making have always been hybrid, partly public and partly private, partly inside and partly outside of me at the same time, transitional spaces of play, in a Winnicottian sense. (More on this later.)

Perhaps this is why I've always struggled so much to make a permanent online home for myself. How can we be ourselves online, knowing that this is only part of the story? How can we remain open, in all the many senses of that word?

I'm sure that lots of us must struggle with this. In my next post, I want to say more about those struggles and to document how it feels for me (practically and imaginatively) to set up an online 'thinking out loud' space, this time around.