some things steve paxton said

In mid-January 2012 I went and listened to Steve Paxton at Goldsmith’s University in London. The evening was, in many respects, a moving tribute to Merce Cunningham, and Paxton was eloquent, smart and funny. Below is a small collection of some of the things he said:

on accepting versus understanding:
Regarding Cunningham, Paxton described how it took him years to accept, let alone understand Cunningham’s central idea of “just doing the movement”. He described how any question (the thing one is proposing) is amplified when confronted by an audience, but what if you are proposing nothing? He described this as “the Cunningham void”.

on pleasure and Judson:
Paxton remembered, more than anything, the pleasure of the company of the Judson Church group (and also his gym team earlier on). He mentioned Judson’s rule: “Don’t copy other people’s work”, and he also said (of Judson) that “some of the work was crap” but that “it’s long gone”, and and there is “no evidence”.

on contact improvisation:

It’s a virus.
I hope it’s doing well.
I hope it’s being used to explore movement.

on standing still:

Standing still is the wrong term

I recognise that this post might be a little mysterious if you aren’t an improviser, or aren’t aware of Steve Paxton’s work, but I thought it was worth sharing these brief notes because they hint at the breadth of Paxton’s thinking.

preparing for ghosts – the many melodies

This is a reblog from @preparingforghosts’ instagram feed. I like how they speak to so many different attitudes or approaches to teaching, listening, dancing, making art and simply getting on with people.

The many melodies

  1. How to present
  2. How to entertain
  3. How to debate
  4. How to address
  5. How to encourage
  6. How to pass
  7. How to apologize
  8. How to tell
  9. How to respond
  10. How to assist
  11. How to console
  12. How to leave

This list is from Keel’s Simple Dairy: Volume 1.

Here are the images, stolen from @preparingforghosts. By the way, she also has a tumblelog called, wait for it, preparing for ghosts. It’s a ripper.

Many melodies 1/3
Many melodies 1/3
Many melodies 1/3

michael vs ken

On Thursday 9 May 2013, the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove gave an impassioned speech about his concerns about – and plans for – the UK’s education system. A transcript of the full speech is available at

On the surface, much of the speech makes sense. Who doesn’t want to have high expectations of their children such that they might experience “levels of accomplishment they may never have envisaged”? As a teacher, I have very high expectations of the attitudes and work of the students I work with (and for). I think my most important teacher as an undergraduate at Otago University in New Zealand was a Professor who made outrageous demands on our ability to think, work, understand and question.

The problem with Gove’s rhetoric is that beneath the surface he is implying that such (high) expectations should be directed towards the kind of education that worked for him. So much of Gove’s offence and defence is about “what our schools should teach”. In other words, if we can just get the curriculum right (which means Eliot, Byron, Keats, Shelley, i.e. the great canon) by “specifying more content” then we will all be ready to fight the good fight and bring equality, reason and rationality (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to the land.

Now, here’s Ken Robinson in his most recent TED talk, How to escape Education’s Death Valley:

You know, central governments decide or state governments decide they know best and they’re going to tell you what to do. The trouble is that education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.

The real role of leadership in education – and I think it’s true at the national level, the state level, at the school level – is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.

My experience – and this is at higher education level – is simply that students respond to being given responsibility. That the very best thing I can do as a teacher is to avoid being prescriptive about what it is that students should know. That my role is to get out of the way of their learning, and I can only do that if the terms and conditions of the curricula are flexible, local, and able to be adapted to the needs, interests, lives and differences of the students I work with (and for).

This does not mean lowering my expectations, but it does mean acknowledging that at the heart of all teaching and learning[1] is creating the conditions by which young people are able to live empowered autonomous lives filled with thoughtful decisions.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 he puts it like this[2]:

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Michael Gove appears hell-bent on supporting freedom or flexibility in education as long as it only includes his choices.

  1. This is not to suggest that I am succeeding in this, simply that I’m giving it a red-hot go.  ↩
  2. There’s a video-animation version of part of Foster Wallace’s speech flying around the web at the moment. I like it a lot.  ↩

writing workflow

I write a lot and for many different purposes: research reports and presentations, blog posts, grant applications, academic articles, responses to students, reflective writing, texts for performance …

This writing involves, to a greater or lesser extent, three simultaneous processes leading up to publication: collecting, processing and writing. That these processes occur simultaneously (with variations in focus depending on the project, and what stage of it I am at) is critical. In other words, writing for me is never: collect then process then write. I attempt to start writing immediately as part of the process of understanding what it is that I am attempting to articulate.

This blog post is an effort to share the different tools I use in these (mostly software-oriented) processes. It’s not my usual kind of post, but perhaps it is of interest to those of you who spend time writing.


These processes have changed enormously since my time as an undergraduate and masters student in the late 1980s/early 1990s. In those days we dealt with two ways of getting a feel for what was going on in the world of our discipline: periodicals (journal articles) and books. Later we’d use CD-ROMs to get more up to date information.

The following is a list of how I currently collect information that feeds into my writing:

  • RSS feeds –
  • Google alerts –
  • Physical books and e-books (I use a combination of iBooks and Kindle books, both read on the iPad)
  • Journal subscriptions
  • Twitter and –,
  • References from current and past reading
  • List-servs
  • Videos (almost all online through YouTube, Vimeo or sites like Culturebot and Open Culture
  • Performances
  • Websites


I’ve found developing strategies for handling or processing multiple information streams the most difficult to make as efficient as possible. Indeed, I’m still not there, and these processes involve a certain amount of redundancy (or duplication) that is not ideal.

  1. Convert to PDF where possible:
    • Download original PDFs
    • Scan physical chapters or articles
    • Save direct from website (I do this with either Evernote, CleanPrint extension for Chrome or simply using the Print to PDF function in OSX
  2. OCR PDFs in Evernote, Devonthink or Scansnap to ensure all PDFs are searchable
  3. Add to Papers – this is citation software used to add references to writing, and to automatically build reference lists or bibliographies.
  4. Annotate PDFs in iAnnotate for iPad (I do nearly all of my reading on an iPad)
  5. Add any notes to DEVONthink as small (paragraph-sized) text files which are grouped into a folder that equates to the reference or paper they came from
  6. Use Drafts to process small notes and ideas from iOS devices direct to nvALT
  7. Pocket – a read-it-later service for offline reading on iOS devices and in browsers

Points 3, 4 and 5 are the major redundancies in this system. For example, I could add notes to references in Papers, and read PDFs stored in Papers on the iPad. But, although iAnnotate has rather clunky sync services (across Dropbox) I really like its annotation tools and how these notes get synced with the PDFs.

Generally speaking, I also tend to avoid database-based systems where possible[1] (what happens if that supplier goes out of business?) but DEVONthink has strong artificial intelligence features for linking diverse ideas that make it worth my while.

These applications do, however, cost money (DEVONthink is pricey), and with students I tend to suggest using Evernote as a way of processing information, combined with their University’s citation software (Roehampton University uses Refworks which is painful to use compared with Papers). Any academic or aspiring academic who is not familiar with one form of citation software is making a very big mistake.


The key here is writing in text files using Markdown. This is for three reasons:

  1. Text files ensure backward and forward compatibility. There will never be a time when computers can’t read a text file, whereas even documents I wrote in the 1990s are no longer accessible to my current computers;
  2. I can get stuck into the process of writing without getting lost in the formatting power of applications like MS word;
  3. Markdown is not platform dependent. I can write on a laptop, a tablet or phone, and then these can all sync automatically. For example, I can quickly add an idea to a book chapter I am writing using my phone which will then be available when I go back to editing the book on my computer.

Markdown is, quite simply, brilliant to write in. It is simple to learn, flexible, and doesn’t require any special software (just a text editor). There are lots of resources online for learning Markdown but David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide is very fine indeed.

The software (text editor) I most often use for writing is Byword (available across platforms with automatic syncing via Dropbox or iCloud). It looks good – see screenshot – is distraction free, and is all about the writing. Occasionally I use Ommwriter for a bit of variety, and for longer documents I might use a combination of Multimarkdown and Marked. Most recently, I’ve started to incorporate Scrivener for multi-chapter projects. I still do the writing in Byword (Scrivener enables me to sync text files automatically), but Scrivener is very useful for, for example, re-ordering chapters. My understanding of Scrivener though is nascent (at best), and I’m still not convinced it is that useful for how I go about developing and articulating ideas.


My writing tends to get published (or shared?) either as HTML for the web or as Word documents. It’s simply unavoidable using MS word in academia. I can’t ignore what my colleagues are most familiar with, and the track-changes function is very useful for working collaboratively (although I’d prefer we used Google Docs for this where possible) or for annotating student work.

Markdown was created as an alternative syntax to HTML and I can generate HTML code directly from, for example, Byword. Getting Markdown into MS Word (and having the integrity of headings, lists and paragraphs maintained) is a bit more tricky. I use Pandoc for this. It is pretty much faultless for creating Word .docx files but it does mean using the Terminal in OSX.

For creating reference lists, I tend to do this at the very last minute. If I am sending off an article as a Word document I build the reference list (using Papers) after I have converted from Markdown to Word.

That’s it – phew. Oh, I should also mention Textexpander. It is a priceless time-saver and probably the software that I use most often without remembering that I am even using it.

  1. This is why I stopped using Evernote as a catch-all for ideas and sources.  ↩