New Year, New Goals

The start of a new year finds me in reflective mood, I am not a fan of new years resolutions but I do believe that the new year represents an opportunity to reassess and reenergise. This year I am determined to make some real changes.

Top of my list of goals for the  year is to complete UVC and move on to level 2. I have needed to be honest with myself about what is preventing me from progressing faster, look at my current ways of working and come up with new strategies to move forward. I am really enjoying the course but knowing when to stop researching is a real issue. I need to set some tight timescales on how long I spend on projects, reading and note taking as I simply cannot continue  devoting as much time as I am. Worrying  about the quality of my work is also a major issue and has resulted in more than one bump up until now. I need to recognise that I am not going to be able to fully master all of the concepts that the course introduces. Likewise, I am going to struggle to articulate myself sometimes – the point however is to get on and do the work, commit my thoughts in to words and use the exercises as a way of exploring ideas. I am too conscious of who my audience is and I need to forget about this and simply do the work.


Time – know doubt about it, I AM BUSY! I have a demanding job and a young family and the reality is that this takes priority – and rightly so. Despite this, studying, personal development and eventually gaining a degree are extremely important to me personally and for me to achieve the goals I have set myself I need  to recognise the things that impact on my study progression. Firstly, it is really difficult to do any work when my family are around. The readings for UVC require concentration and the combination of fevered activity around me and guilt that I should not be so selfish as to be concentrating on my own interests are quite powerful at preventing my ability to concentrate. My day off through the week is key as I usually have a few hours by myself and can make some good, solid progress. At the beginning of UVC I made the strong promise to myself that this time would be mine and I would be selfish with it, dedicate it to myself and not worry about everything else  around me like the housework or the book or film I want to look at or making the family meal for that evening. The theory behind this is great but does have the pitfall of being a little idealistic – it is difficult to concentrate when all I can see is what needs doing around me and easy to find distractions when understanding from whatever reading I am undertaking appears to be elusive. Sometimes I am also physically and mentally drained by the time my day off comes round and the thought of slogging the whole day through a bunch of impenetrable readings seems impossible to cope with.

Do I have a silver bullet for this? No, but I do have some strategies that may help that I intend to employ like working little and often as detailed below.

Concentration – If you are not feeling 100%, are a little muggy headed or just generally not very sharp then UVC is a struggle! I suffer frequent headaches and can feel these exacerbated by the reading. Not sure there is a way around this one except maybe to mix up what I am doing, for example, taking notes about different concepts is less taxing than trying to gain understanding from the texts set out in the projects.

Understanding – I will finally admit it….I am not sure I get everything that I need to. Sometimes I have no idea  what the questions in each of the projects are looking for (although I suspect this is deliberate!) I put off in the hope that I will suddenly gain some sort of insight via osmosis but this rarely happens. The barrier here is actually admitting this…not only here but to myself. I no longer have the luxury  to wait for inspiration, if I do not understand I simply need  to move on.

Avoidance – I simply have too many interests and often feel a sense of guilt doing one thing and worrying about what I am not doing. In ‘Essentialism’, Greg McKeown talks about how more can be achieved by doing less – that is by focussing attention on what really matters rather than trying to do everything.1 If I am serious about gaining a degree I need to put this at the absolute top of my personal priority list and not worry about all the other things I would like to do.

Perfectionism – talking about being a perfectionist seems arrogant, it is not that I see myself and my work as perfect, far from it, it is the lack of perfection that causes me problems. Understanding how much of an impact this is on me is the first step in being able to put my fear of not being good enough to the back of my mind.


Set deadlines – I did a great job of putting together a work schedule when I first started UVC, so great I didn’t hit one of my self imposed deadlines. At the time I was philosophical as I knew I was working hard  and needed to come up with an effective  workflow for note taking and writing up the exercises. Now however the end of my allowed time to complete the course is looming and I need to do some strict planning in order to complete in the six months I have remaining.

Work little and often – As mentioned above, trying to fit coursework into extended study sessions is not ideal for me in many ways. Apart from anything else, if my whole study regime rests on working solidly on a particular day and something happens to prevent that then I have potentially lost a whole week. Momentum is really important in my belief and once it is lost study becomes even more difficult. I am asking the commitment to do something course related each day for a minimum of half an hour. Opportunities to complete work early in the morning appear promising – I am getting up earlier than the rest  of the household or before work and doing an hour or so each morning which is proving extremely productive as distractions are minimal. Likewise, at night rather than looking through social media or watching TV I am doing some reading before bed. Already I am finding my concerns about my progress reducing because I know I am making moving forward.

System and routine – As I have mentioned, I have been able to more or less establish when work and study is possible, the real trick however to turning this from grand ideas into a way of life is to eliminate the things that I know stop me from working as well as making study as easy as possible. For example, I need to make sure all my household chores are complete before  my day off so they do not provide a distraction, have my notes accessible and so I understand exactly where I am at and can pick them up at a moments notice, if I am struggling with something just move on and do not use this as an excuse to become blocked.

Develop a support network – A small group of fellow students and myself have been in contact via  email recently and we have a hangout organised in the next few weeks. I simply do not interact as much as I should via the forums and need to make an effort to use this resource more.

Have fun! – It should be rewarding and not a slog! I need to remember that and not take things so seriously all of the time.

Know when to stop – For some of the topics for the course I feel I have only (barely) scratched the surface, but I need to be realistic and understand that I cannot go on reading forever…especially of that involves being taken down a cul-de-sac that bears little resemblance to what should be originally considered.

It seems counter intuitive to lambast myself for not progressing and then spend time on a post like this which concentrates on all the ways I am going wrong. The point here is to face up to how I am feeling and by putting this down in a tangible way (and put it out there for others to see) makes it more real and will hopefully help put into practice the solutions I have outlined. Now back to work…!!!

1 McKeown, G (2014) Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Virgin Books.

Thoughts on note taking…

The entire first section of my last course, Digital Photographic Practice, was taken up with the exploration of work flow in photography, that is: the systems a photographer uses to use their time effectively, be productive and to enable creating work. The exercises seemed simplistic to me when I first read through the course notes and I felt a little disheartened as workflow was a skill I felt I had already mastered. However, I quickly began to understand and appreciate the value of having to take a step back and analyse my ways of working – this focused me to be objective and face head on difficulties I faced: that is – acknowledging the difference between how my workflow worked in my mind versus the reality of a hard drive full of unedited images. This eventually helped me to focus on what was important rather than trying to achieve everything and deliver little or nothing.

With this in mind and as I begin this very academic course, I felt a similar reflective exercise about note taking could help me. I struggle with note taking in that I am inconsistent and often find it difficult to use the notes I have taken usefully. One of my course aims is to improve this, and after a couple of exercise I now understand that taking effective notes could be the difference between success and failure with the course. I understand I need to be consistent with my approach-my aim here is that through the act of writing down my study workflow I will be setting myself a of rules to follow throughout the course. The process itself will also force me to analyse the way I work and make me think about what works and what does not.

  1. Read course materials:
  • Highlight (with different colours):
    • Authors/artists etc.
    • Books/texts/artworks
    • Keywords or phrases
    • Extended points of interest
  • Note points from further research (usually the items above) onto a post it note.
  1. First read through of text for given project:

The course notes early on reassure that most texts will require multiple read through to be understood, which is reassuring as the article for the first project might as well have been written in Spanish for the amount I understood on first reading! I am finding myself become more used to the academic language and way of writing that the course is introducing me to.

For the first read through I allow the words to flow over me and do not worry too much about gaining a full understanding.

  • Note (again on post it notes):
    • Authors, artists, key figures mentioned. (draw rectangle around to highlight)
    • Unfamiliar words, phrases, concepts. (circle)
    • Key or interesting points of interest. (underline)
    • Note any questions that occur to me – this is the part of that I am finding most difficult at the moment, however, when I manage to do this I find the questions raised to be great jumping off points for my thoughts.
  1. Further Research:
  • Based on the keywords/figures I have noted already.
  • Transfer these onto an A4 sheet and mentally assess the points that are most important and tackle in order of importance. (Often points not directly relevant to the questions posed can be answered through researching the main keywords.
  • Read different sources about each point and make notes in an A5 notebook. Reading from different sources is important as authors often approach a point from a different standpoint and give varying emphasis to different areas.
  • Note any further key points, authors etc. on post it notes and add to the A4 list if appropriate.
  • In previous courses I have struggled to keep momentum. I have usually ended up falling behind and then burst into a short period of extensive activity after which I slip back into inactivity. Hopefully, the process of breaking research down into smaller parts will help – early indications are good as I am managing to study for a short amount of time most days. So far this has meant I have not experienced the anxiety that knowing I am not working as hard as I should brings.
  1. Re-read set text:
  • At this point my understanding should be increased and the text should make more sense. I would probably reread a number of times however.
  • At this point I am thinking about completing the project and the notes I take are based upon this as well as appearing in the form of questions as mentioned above.
  1. Plan project write up:

This is the major area I need to improve. Too often I try to rush into this without prior planning. This is probably due to being conscious of time wasted, not planning properly though means that I can look over what I have written and realise I have not captured everything I wanted or answered the project brief fully. With that in mind, the notes here are more aspirational and a work in progress:

  • Make bullet points of areas to be discussed
  • List any relevant quotes form texts to be included.
  • Tick off bullet points as writing progresses.
  1. Write up:

I have been thinking a lot recently about how I can improve my writing, the main conclusion I have reached is planning (as detailed above) and practice. I usually end up with many half written blog posts and I intend to let that happen with UVC.)

  1. Read fellow students blogs:

I think at it is extremely important to read fellow students blogs as an aid to understanding subjects tackled. I am conscious however that I do not want to be influenced by what they write before I have tackled a subject myself so have taken the decision to not look at other blogs until I finished a particular project or assignment.

At this stage of the course the thoughts above represent a set of aspirations rather than system and practice, early indications are that this approach is working, however, only time and further reflection will tell. As I have indicated at some points, there are areas here that require more emphasis than others.

An early consideration is how much research should I do? With every piece of research I invariably end up with another extensive list of further points to consider. I need to get the balance right between doing enough reading to be able to respond to the projects in an informed way and yet not become bogged down in details which prevent my progress. So far I would have to say I have not done enough research, this is probably driven by me thinking about deadlines too much. One of my first considerations for this course was not to let it over run and stick to a tight deadline. I have already fallen behind which suggests that the timescales I had set were not achievable or realistic as I have not taken into account the impact of external factors. The summer break is a good example of this as my children being off school meant a massive change to the routines I was beginning to set in place. The last thing I want is to rush through the course for the sake of it. I am coming to the realisation that the amount of reading I need to do is far more than I had originally anticipated and need to adjust my expectations accordingly. Despite this I recognise I need to keep a tight track of my progress so I can evaluate where I am on an ongoing basis. Being honest with myself is the only way I can be here – if it takes two weeks rather than one to complete an exercise but I have worked hard and consistently over that two weeks to understand the issues raised then that is acceptable, if I have not applied myself and then rush to complete then that is not.

Another thought is how much of my research I should write up for my blog. Initially I anticipated posting all of my notes as evidence of the extra work I was doing. I quickly learned this was not practical – notes should be quick and if the main thought is publishing them for an audience too much time is taken worrying about grammar, spelling and logical construction which impacts speed. If I have done the right amount of research then this should be evident in the projects and assignments. Spending time thinking, reflecting and then writing this up is a much more effective use of my time with potentially much greater benefits.

Aims and goals of Understanding Visual Culture

I begin ‘Understanding Visual Culture’ with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This is my third course with OCA and my previous modules ‘The Art of Photography’ and ‘Digital Photographic Practice’ were not plain sailing as I found myself overrunning the allotted two years to complete and spending far too much time worrying about what I was doing rather than just getting on with the course. The last six months of DPP have seen me change my outlook quite significantly – partly this was due to necessity as I was given a definite amount of time to complete the course otherwise I would fail but also something seems to have clicked inside me. I am beginning to understand that it is often the journey rather than the destination that matters and failing is not necessarily such a bad thing – providing learning has taking place.

As I embark on UVC I thought it would be useful to make a note of some aims and goals I would like to achieve through the course. Completing a purely academic rather than practical course is something of a departure from what I am used to but I am hoping that a broader understanding of art and art theory will be a huge benefit when I move onto levels 2 and 3. I do anticipate a period of adjustment however.

Have an activity plan and stick to it

I have done this for each course but have never stuck to the activities I set myself. Instead of thinking about my activity planner as being immovably set in stone I intend to use it as a working document. It is likely that I will be faced with many obstacles to progressing with the course; this could be things outside of my control such as work or family commitments or it could be that I need to allow myself a little more time to complete a project or assignment.

Complete within 1 year (max)

I am hoping to complete a project each week – with 28 projects and 5 assignments this should be achievable. Of course this does not account for the fact I will probably spend longer on the assignments than the projects and other work I will put into the course such as further reading, reflection and exhibition visits will also be factors. I also have some work to do to get my submission for DPP ready which will also impact on time. I plan to take stock every week, reflect and understand whether I have put the work into the course or not.

Do NOT procrastinate!!

By applying a structure to my approach I will hopefully be able to avoid the pitfalls of procrastination that have dogged my efforts in the first two modules. Perhaps complacency rather than procrastination is a more apt way of describing my attitude – two years seems like an awfully long time to complete the course and it is often tempting to put off study for other activities. Twice now I have ended up in a place where I am way behind which then makes it so much harder to get going again. There are key times in my week that I plan to dedicate to study – my philosophy is that little and often will help keep the momentum up rather than short, extended bursts of activity.

Find a way to put the theory into practice through my photography

The main reason I embarked on study with the OCA toward a photography degree was that I wanted to gain some structure to my work and develop my ‘photographic voice’. A risk with studying UVC is that I do not invest the time to keep pushing my photographic boundaries forward. This is unknown territory as I will need to balance taking photographs and pursuing personal projects with the goals I have  set myself for completing the course. It is important that I learn to become self motivated and able to sustain my photography as I progress through the levels however.

Learn more about the history of art and art theory

My knowledge of art is limited and I am sure further study will help me to appreciate new work when I see it. Too long now I have also only been focused on photography and I need to broaden my horizons.

Streamline my note taking

Too often through my previous courses I have not been able to refer adequately or acknowledge fully books I have been studying because I either do not have any notes or the notes I have taken are of little use. Hopefully the academic nature of UVC will help me be more analytical and less random in my approach to reading about a subject and study.

Use the books I buy

I am far too guilty (and guilt is probably an accurate emotion to use) of buying books and keeping them on the shelf, or starting to read something and not completing it. At the end of DPP I was encouraged by my tutor to read Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, this is a book that has sat on my shelf for ages because it is renowned as an extremely important work in photographic thinking. I had not read it  because I knew it would be difficult, but on my tutors insistence I decided to take plunge. I do not pretend to have absorbed everything Barthes asserts but I did gain a lot from my initial read through – more importantly I realise that it is a work I will go back to many times. Reassuringly the initial parts of the course notes discuss the importance of reading academic texts a number of times to ascertain meaning and not to be worried if little is understood on the first read through. Timely advice indeed.

Use the course as a catalyst to become my active on the OCA forums

I simply do not interact as much as I should on the OCA student and OCA Flickr forums and over my time studying with OCA I have noticed many fellow students develop much faster than me using the support network available. I intend to make much more comment myself and hope to have the same outcome.

Go to see as many exhibitions as possible

I do visit a lot of exhibitions but I recognise I could also do more when I think back over the past year and shows I have missed. I believe looking at work in a gallery setting  is massively important and the experience can not be replicated through looking at work on the web or in books. I will incorporate current exhibitions into my activity planner as a reminder and hopefully a prompt.

Improve my way of approaching and disseminating an exhibition visit

Hopefully my approach to visiting exhibitions and therefore the output I gain from the visit will improve as my knowledge increases as I progress through the course. I realise however that I do not have a particular way of approaching viewing work and am probably missing out on a huge amount, I intend to review this in a similar way as approaching note taking.

These broad goals are not immovable and I am sure during the course their importance will ebb and flow. I hope they will act as a reminder to me about what I want to achieve as I begin my studies – only time will tell how much I achieve them or how closely I stick to them!