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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Live Projects Pedagogy International Symposium 2012

This poster arrived tonight. It’s obviously great to see such a large and well organised event happening just a few months after I finish my PhD on the subject (and not just for the usual cheeky reasons of self-promotion). I’ll be there in May and presenting a paper drawing on some of my findings. If you’re interested, I hope I can encourage you to come to Oxford as well. There’s more info here.

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Call for participation: Common Grounds 2012 – On Site

Last year, with Anna Holder of the University of Sheffield, I helped to organise and curate a colloquium for postgraduate researchers entitled Common Grounds. This year, Common Grounds returns for a second event, to be hosted by the Sheffield Graduate Architectural Society and is being organised by Carolyn Butterworth and Adam Park. The call for participation went out this morning; you can find more information on the website.

Common Grounds: On Site

An open call for active participation in a postgraduate research colloquium.

20th – 21st April 2012, University of Sheffield School of Architecture

Common Grounds is an opportunity to collaborate with postgraduate students and other early-career researchers in exploring what it means to engage in situated/active spatial research, and what might be gained through a propositional or praxis-led research agenda. Researchers that actively engage on and with site, people and place are encouraged to apply from any ‘spatial’ discipline (including activists, architects, artists, geographers, performers, planners, sociologists, and others).

Please find further details and the full call at the colloquium website: http://exploringcommongrounds.wordpress.com/

Please forward to anyone else who may be interested in submitting!

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The road less taken

(Post updated to include a PDF of the AIARG programme)

Happy new year to all who kindly follow this blog. After a brief excursion to celebrate my fiancé’s thirtieth birthday somewhere warmer than the northern half of the UK (re: the photo, we did not turn right), I’m now back at my desk and knuckling down (minor administrative duties permitting) to the final three months of my PhD. I am extremely excited (if not a little bit nervous) to have received a tentatively positive response from a highly regarded academic who may be able to be external examiner. The intention is to submit my thesis for examination at the end of March, with a viva to follow sometime in the spring.

In the meantime, I’ll be presenting a paper tentatively entitled Negotiating pedagogies: developing a grounded theory of architectural education at the inaugural conference of the All Ireland Architectural Research Group (AIARG) at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) on Friday 20 and Saturday 21 January. The conference costs just €50 for two days and more than thirty-five papers, plus a keynote from Adrian Forty. You can download the finalised programme from here. For more info, contact Brian Ward at DIT by email on: brian <–DOT–> ward <–AT–> dit <–DOT–> ie

Other activities will be posted here in due course. But for now… onwards with 2012.

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To Crit or to Big Crit

With apologies for the slight blogging backlog (backblog?) it’s only today I’ve been able to get round to reviewing my notes on the 2011 Big Crit at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture. This was the second year that I’ve roused myself early enough to catch the deliciously timed 05:55 train from Glasgow to Aberdeen (scheduling it just five minutes later would make it much more bearable). That meant that by the time I was home late that night I was too wrecked to process, let alone share, any cogent thoughts on the day.

The Big Crit is, first of all, a fantastic idea and a fantastic experience. For the last three years, an evolving group of staff and students have volunteered their time and energy to organise a one day event that’s open to the public. Over the course of one day, a selection of students from every year group in the school present their design projects to invited critiques and a public audience of students and guests. Scheduled after (most) students have finished their submissions, it comes at a point when the school (internal examiners notwithstanding) can breathe a sigh of relief after the stressful final weeks of term. The school dusts itself down, projects itself against a wall and considers its progress.

The guest critics this year included Annalie Riches (Riches Hawley Mikhail Architects), Peter St John (Caruso St John Architects), William Mann (Witherford Watson Mann Architects) and Ellis Woodman (editor, Building Design). This tranche of London and south-east-England based critics was balanced by visiting professors Alan Dunlop (Alan Dunlop Architects) and Neil Gillespie (Reiach and Hall Architects) who provided an informed voice both from within the school’s own faculty and Scotland’s central belt. They were supported by lecturers Neil Lamb, Penny Lewis and David Vila-Domini. It was, as always, also a particular pleasure to catch up with the head of school, David McClean.

The role of ‘the crit‘ in architectural education is far from assured. At its best, it can be at the heart of an inclusive, discursive and critical architectural education. At its worse, it can be an inhumane, destructive and pointless waste of time. By scheduling the Big Crit away from assessment and after final submission (for most students), the Scott Sutherland School proposes an interesting twist on the old format. Over the course of one day, about three dozen students “pin up” (electronically) their projects from the preceding academic year, and present them to the visiting critics for reviewing and conversation. The conversation is opened to the floor for varying degrees of interaction.

Over the course of the day, I skipped between two of the three parallel sessions, witnessing a variety of projects and a variety of critique. As might be expected, the day starts with first year students and works its way up towards five year thesis projects in the late afternoon. All of the projects I saw were located in or close to the city of Aberdeen itself, starting on the very campus of the Robert Gordon University and working out through the city towards the mouth of the Dee and the city’s lively port.

As is the template in schools of architecture the world over, projects start small and get progressively bigger, peaking with somewhat uncomfortable thesis projects that survey vast areas before settling down to design a singular object or set of objects at an architectural scale. The fact that, unlike in France for instance, planning is a discipline taught separately from architecture is immediately apparent. However the gradual rise in design sophistication from first to five years is palpable, as is the confidence with which students describe the ideas behind their projects. Some of the undergraduate projects felt, to me, as thought an early “good idea” had been pounced up and not let go off until it had yielded a building. By the later years it was pleasing to see students making informed executive decisions about which themes and concepts to develop and which to abandon as they progressed their designs.

The inverse complexity of designing that most basic of architectural forms, the residence, was apparent throughout the days. As I offered in one comment from the floor, “housing is damned difficult,” and none of the residential projects I saw was entirely satisfactory. The decades of experience of the guests critics will, hopefully, have reassured students that it takes a long time to get housing – especially apartments and sheltered accommodation – just right.

In the afternoon I got to see a number of fourth and fifth year students present their schemes from their penultimate and final projects. Having now spent more than two years learning how to research, I can look back at my own M.Arch projects as well as those at the Big Crit and see a clear cultural deficiency in Part II architectural design research. Just as in my own thesis project a few years ago, there was only a vague understanding of the difference between subjective and objective data, and never quite enough time to really get inside the information that was being presented. That said, the standard of work I saw was, across all five years, consistently high. I was assured that the students were not just selected based on academic performance, but represented an accurate cross section of the school. Given the small size of the student body and the enviable location, the Scott Sutherland School is for me one of the most interesting architecture schools in the country.

There remained, at the end of the day, just one sad observation. While the projects presented were of a remarkable range, depth and quality; and while the critiques from the guests were informed, thoughtfully provocative and intelligent; the overall level of conversation between the floor and the panels was disappointing.

I was reminded, on the long journey home, of this remarkably handy sketch prepared by the Glasgow-based architect Simon Chadwick (click to enlarge):

Reviewing options. Drawing credit: Simon Chadwick.

Drawn in the oddly specific language of the architect’s sketch, this diagram explains neatly to visiting critics the aspirations of architectural educators who want to curate lively, inclusive and public discussions about students’ work. Since architectural education depends to a great extent on part time tutors and visiting critics, such guidelines can be extremely helpful in ensuring a school’s pedagogic aspirations aren’t lost when guests are invited to review work.

In the first option, as has been practiced in schools of architecture across the world, the critics sit at the front of the room to get the closest view of the student’s work pinned on the wall. A disaffected audience of non-presenting students lingers in the background, doubtless exhausted by their own deadlines and only half-engaged with conversation between student and reviewer.

In the second option, a simple relocation of the three critics to different points of the room encloses and engages the audience. While not guaranteeing the engagement of the audience, it does at least establish the landscape of a room in which students and educators can interact.

At the Big Crit (see my shitty five minute SketchUp illustration above), guest critics sat at either or one end of a table arranged lengthwise beneath the projected image of the students’ work. Models, books and pamphlets supporting the project were placed on this table. The audience sat in the body of the room, on rows of chairs facing the screen. When the critics engaged in conversation with the student, the audience continued to sit in silence. Turning to the audience of students with specific questions rarely initiated more than a simple response to the stated question.

While I love the post-evaluation timing and format of the Big Crit, it demonstrates that there is still some room to develop the way we present and discuss design projects in architectural education. While I share the sentiments of David McClean who, at the end of the day, expressed a desire to see Big Crits starting at other schools of architecture, I’d like them to push for an even greater inclusiveness of critic and student. As Simon Chadwick’s diagram suggests, a simple move might be to re-arrange the spaces in which guest critics are invited to review student work. Without disrespecting the valuable experience and opinions of the invited critics who give their time to come to schools of architecture to review the work of students, I would propose a quick 90º rotation of the critics’ table. Instead of reinforcing the front/back relationship between “stage” and audience, it could penetrate the body of the room like the perfect proportions of a dining table in a large kitchen. Or, more appropriately, like a university’s seminar or business’ conference room. Critics and students can then take their place around the table, turning to face the screen, presenting student, or one another as appropriate.

There are naturally some flaws. You can fit more people into the room if you arrange the seats in rows. You will also likely struggle to get everyone at the table itself in the alternative proposed above. But you might well be able to get everyone within at least one row of it, making it easier to reach models and books.

The increasing availability of digital data projectors in the academic environment has made great things possible in architectural education. Whereas my early experiences of them were dominated by illegible drawings projected by students who thought it was a straight substitution for plotting A1 sheets, there is an increasing sophistication of the visual language used by the students to present their work digitally. While high resolution plots and prints of drawings are still irreplaceable for the detailed examination of projects (especially when they’re being assessed) an event like the Big Crit benefits hugely from being able to present a large quantity of student work with relatively little disruption between presentations. Furthermore, the critics and audience are no longer beholden to the physical spaces of the school, being able to see all projects under consideration in one space (rather than moving peripetically around the studios and crit rooms, audience in tow, perched on whatever furniture is near-by).

Regardless of my beef about how schools of architecture arrange and populate their crits, there is no doubt in my mind that the Scott Sutherland School’s Big Crit is one of the most engaging and valuable events of the summer exhibition season. I’ll be making a date for next year’s event, and invite you to join me for a day out at the country’s northernmost school. It might provide the perfect model for a public day of reviews at your school of architecture.

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Tough Times

RIBA Library, Portland Place, London. Photo: Nick Garrod

Tomorrow afternoon, the Education team of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) will be contacting thirty students of architecture who have been selected to attend the following event:

Tough Times RIBA Student Forum
Tuesday 21 June: 18.00-21.00 at RIBA, London

Establishing a shared understanding of how the architectural community can best support architecture students in tough times. 

This unique forum is open to students from UK schools of architecture. It will be chaired by Niall McLaughlin and give you the chance to share your thoughts with RIBA staff, practitioners and students from other schools. 

You will hear about some of RIBA’s recent initiatives and have the opportunity to:

• Help consider future policies to improve pay and conditions in practice
• Debate employment options and alternative career paths for graduates
• Discuss how to survive architectural education in a new era of university financing 

The forum is open to thirty students, ideally representing a range of architecture schools and students at different stages of study. As capacity is limited, at this stage we cannot promise a place to every applicant. If you secure a place we will reimburse UK travel expenses (second class, advance booking on set tickets). 

The forum was promoted on RIBA Education’s Facebook stream earlier this month and was covered briefly in Friday’s Building Design. The subsequent “conversation” amongst online readers of the article (of varying shades of anonymity) reveals some of the usual perspectives on the relationship between the RIBA and architectural education today.

“Why should firms contribute to UK architectural education if it is no use to practices?”

“The future of a the profession and of the lives of all of its members requires a sense of SHARED responsibility. These young architects are the FUTURE of our profession – something that all of us surely want to INVEST in.”

“It appears to me (a 26 year old currently studying for part 3) that the current process of obtaining an architectural education is woefully removed from the wants and needs of modern architectural practice.”

“Let’s hope that the selection considers students from at least ALL the UK schools of architecture and not just the usual ones.”

For my part, I’ve emailed the RIBA with an expression of interest, and I fully expect not to be invited. I may be (as far as I know) the only person in the UK writing a PhD on architectural education at the moment, but I expect the RIBA to prioritise the very limited number of just thirty places to just students on taught courses. The attitude of the RIBA towards students of architecture – both through the validation procedures that accredit UK schools of architecture every four years, and events such as these – is that traditional architectural practice in a commercial environment is the principle aspiration for everyone. And yet anecdotal evidence and fag packet calculations of recent RIBA statistics would suggest that as many as two thirds of all students who commence RIBA Part I (undergraduate) studies in architecture never complete Part III (professional examination that follows the postgraduate degree or diploma and a minimum period post practice-based experience).

While it is a recurring feature of architectural education to call for its reinvention, the difference between previous upheavals and those of today is that they’re now out of the control of the profession or academe.

Architecture has always been expensive to study. Now, however, the stable little ecosystem of five years in university and two years in practice has been received a blinding broadside by the sudden reality of £9,000 p.a. tuition fees. While the interface between academe and profession adapted begrudgingly when the Labour government first introduced tuition fees, the disrespect between the two has suddenly been brought into sharp relief.

Whereas foundation level doctors in the UK (who will by the end of their education have spent the same amount of time at university as architects) earn a starting salary of between £22,000 and almost £28,000, a Part I graduate (after three years of study) is lucky to earn £20,000 (graduating in 2004, I started on £10,000 pre-tax). After Part III, an architect can expect £30,000 – £34,000, whereas a newly qualified GP can start on a salary of well over £50,000. If a medical student chooses to train as a consultant, they can expect to earn in excess of £70,000. (Sources: RIBA and NHS)

While few architects save lives in their day to day line of business, because of the RIBA Validation criteria and the established system of architectural education in this country, both they and doctors have to spend lengthy periods at university. And now that a three year degree at pretty much every self respecting university costs £27,000 before living and ancillary costs, the maths doesn’t add up for architecture.

As those selected comments on the BD article above show, students are reluctant to spend such a huge sum of money without better employment prospects or remuneration, and employers are reluctant to pay their graduates more without education becoming demonstrably more vocational. A stubborn rump of practicing architects expect graduates to be ready for professional practice, even though as little as one third of graduates ever take up a career in the profession.

Neither the RIBA, nor the schools of architecture, nor the profession itself, can do anything to reverse the Conservative-led government’s decision to charge (and the Liberal Democrat’s failure to obstruct) university tuition fees of £9,000 per annum. It is, therefore, up to practitioners, educators and the RIBA to negotiate a future for architectural education and practice.

The RIBA are to be congratulated for the apparently genuine intent to see a diversity of students represented at the forthcoming Tough Times forum. Reimbursing travel costs is also to be commended, especially for those students selected to represent schools far from London. However, given the RIBA’s diversity of spacious venues, it’s regrettable that only a small number of students can attend. While I appreciate the venues are commercially available to others and are likely booked up, it’s a shame that the strategic decision wasn’t taken to open the event to a wider number of delegates. If RIBA funds are too tight to reimburse all attendees, then some students, like myself or those studying in London, could have attended without necessarily claiming travel costs. Thirty travel bursaries could then have been provided for those in genuine financial need.

I hope to see you at Tough Times. But then I doubt I’ll be invited.

Postscript, 24 hours later: I’ve been invited to attend. Egg, face, etc.

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I also write about buildings

Having gone to some length to persuade the editors of a certain architecture periodical that (as a Glasgow/Belfast based correspondent) I’m ideally placed to write on new buildings in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it turned out that my trip to the Isle of Skye began in London. After an excellent evening in the company of Public Works and others for Engaged and Enraged, it was time to head north.

Really north.

Four hundred miles by train, then another two hundred or so by car and ferry, on assignment to report on some fascinating new houses on the Isle of Skye by Dualchas. More on that in your favourite architectural weekly in the next couple of months.

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Things

In the manner of the insanely beautiful but highly distracting Things Magazine, it behoves me to offer my loyal readers something of a disjointed update on what’s going on, and why I’m not telling you more about it here. For regular 140 character updates, you can now follow me on Twitter.

1 April 2011 will mark the beginning of my third and final funded year of PhD studies. I’m aiming to complete a draft of thesis chapter three, which discusses pedagogical theories appropriate to architectural education and live projects this month. Ruth and I have also been invited to co-write a chapter for a very exciting forthcoming book, but have a very tight deadline.

As you may know, in October we will be hosting the 2011 Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) International Conference, Peripheries 2011. Earlier this week I joined the organising committee to sort through the abstracts we’ve received for them to be distributed for double blind reviewing by our scientific committee. The standard of abstracts is very high, and 21 countries are represented.

On 7 March the 2011 Street Society begins, bringing our first and fifth year students of architecture together for a one week live project, working with eight clients outside the school of architecture. I’m delighted to be working with all of the client groups and look forward to bringing two of our more segregated year groups for the week. The Ulster Museum have also generously donated their refurbished lecture theatre for the end of project presentations on Friday 11 March.

On 25 March, we welcome speakers from eight schools of architecture for a CEBE-supported one day colloquium, called Live Projects 2011. Registration is completely free, and open for a few more days here. If you need help finding affordable travel to Belfast, I’ve compiled everything you need here.

Finally, I’m delighted to announce that Amanda and I are engaged. Planning a wedding is naturally the perfect compliment to completing a PhD.

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AHRA 2011: Peripheries – call for papers

Save the dates, and we hope to welcome you to Belfast in October.

Call for Papers

PERIPHERIES
27-29 October 2011

Architectural Humanities Research Association Conference 2011
School of Planning, Architecture & Civil Engineering (SPACE)
Queen’s University Belfast

Peripheries are increasingly considered in contemporary culture, research and practice. This shift in focus challenges the idea that the centre primarily influences the periphery, giving way to an understanding of reciprocal influences. These principles have permeated into a wide range of areas of study and practice, transforming the way we approach research and spatio-temporal relations.

The 2011 AHRA Queen’s Belfast Peripheries conference will invite discussion via papers and short films on the multiple aspects periphery represents — temporal, spatial, intellectual, technological, cultural, pedagogical and political – with, as a foundation for development, the following themes:

  • Peripheral practices
  • Practice-based research
  • Urban peripheries
  • Non-metropolitan contexts
  • Peripheral positions

From these themes might arise a series of questions:

  • How do notions of periphery and proximity impact on the construction of cultural memory?
  • Is globalization facilitating the inclusiveness of peripheries or denying their local value to favour the centre?
  • How does architecture respond to the challenges of temporal peripheries in varying historical, spatial and political contexts
  • Does being on the edge heighten or transform architectural practice?
  • What infrastructure is required for peripheral positions to exist? How are peripheries networked to one another and to centres?
  • Can architecture support peripheral populations, and can these voices offer critique of architectural practice?
  • How does interdisciplinarity — the communication between perceived peripheral disciplines — affect architectural practice?
  • What are the shifting boundaries of alternative or peripheral currents of education, research and practice? Do architecture schools recognize the importance of peripheral subjects in their teaching?

Queen’s University’s School of Planning Architecture and Civil Engineering operates within a context of an increasingly non-metropolitan society, on an island of rural communities resistant to normative patterns of urbanisation. The culture, economies, politics and social networks in Ireland are often perceived as “on the edge of Europe”; it is a place of experimentation, translation and evolution.

Belfast is thus an ideal setting in which to pose questions of periphery: it is a city in simultaneous states of flux with multiple political and social reiterations and repositionings. In a city where extremism was once the norm, there is much to ask about how to moderate and manage the tensions and potentials that exist between the edge and the centre.

Timetable

  • abstracts of papers (500 words) and digital video (5-8 minutes in length:) 15 February 2011
  • notification of acceptance: 15 April 2011
  • registration open: 1 June 2011
  • submission of summary paper based on abstract (1000-2000 words) or film: 1 August 2011
  • categories/sessions determined and session chairs chosen: 1 September 2011
  • chairs of sessions distribute expanded abstracts/films to co-session paper presenters; all chairs and paper presenters asked to provide structured feedback/reflection on session papers: 1 October 2011

Submissions and registration via conference website: http://www.qub.ac.uk/peripheries2011

Contact peripheries@qub.ac.uk with any questions.

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Common Grounds 2011: four days to go

I’m very excited to that Common Grounds: exploring methodologies for research within or research about architecture and the built environment is very nearly upon us.

Last year Anna Holder and I caught up at symposium in Manchester and bemoaned the trials and tribulations of all matters methodological in our PhD studies. So we decided to do something about it that would be proactive and fun. The result is this, a two day winter colloquium for post-graduate students and early career researchers on methodologies for researching architecture and the built environment. It’ll be happeningin the Anwyl Room at St. Deiniolʼs Library, Clwyd on Friday 14 & Saturday 15 January 2011. Common Grounds proposes a weekend away from the university to present, discuss and constructively critique research-in-progress.

The intent of Common Grounds is to nurture an informal student-led research colloquium dedicated to that most tricky aspect of research: method. It’s been our experience of architectural education that too many students of architecture avoid or consciously postpone any engagement of technical, structural or detailed design in their studio projects. It’s a fear of the unknown, the hard-to-grasp unknown skills that are best learnt through real experience. In our PhDs, we’ve had precious little structured introduction or discussion of actual research method and methodology.

The deadline for abstracts is long gone, but perhaps if you missed it or haven’t found out about the event until now, there might be a chance we can squeeze you in. Head to the Common Grounds webpage and drop us an email. Accommodation at the library is now limited, but we hope we can see you there.

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A flying pigeon interfering

On Wednesday I began the long journey home. For three short days I’d been in the south-west and south of England meeting with academics at schools of architecture to talk about live projects and architectural education. I began this research trip – which covered six meetings – with an early morning flight from Glasgow to Cardiff. The journey home would be much slower, this time by train. After my last interview in Portsmouth, I turned north and headed for home, all the way from the south coast towards the central belt of Scotland.

For the first leg of my journey, the cheapest train ticket to London was also on the slowest train. So I had some time to begin transcribing the interviews I’d conducted in the previous days. Upon arrival at Victoria and with a couple of hours in hand before my connection from Euston, I skirted around the livelier distractions of London town and went directly to Tate Britain. Until 16 January 2011 you can catch the excellent exhibition on Eadweard Muybridge here, and I strongly recommend that you do so. As you may be aware, my previous research investigated the intersection between the sequential art of comics and architecture. Were it not for William Hogarth, you might say that Muybridge created the comic strip: a sequence of frozen moments, each presented graphically in a sequence that could read, releasing the narrative into a user-controlled recollection.

Most striking for me was this print,  Head-Spring, a flying pigeon interfering, exhibited courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (who, it seems, have sadly not permitted a postcard or poster reproduction to be sold by the Tate). Muybridge set out to capture, from two angles, the human form as it performed a head spring. As part of a long lineage of such sequential photographs on show at Tate, it is nothing special, but for the interruption in the images of a pigeon meandering and then flying through the set naturally captivates the viewer. The print has become not only a sequence of a human but also a bird in flight. No matter how hard you try to establish the scientific conditions for your research, something fuzzy from the real world will always creep in. And it will usually surprise you with something quite beautiful.

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About the project

learning architecture is an academic blog of James Benedict Brown, previously a doctoral candidate in architectural pedagogy at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. James passed his viva in September 2012 and graduated the following December.


About the author

James Benedict Brown has worked and studied in England, Northern Ireland, France and Canada. Following the completion of his PhD at QUB, he was appointed Lecturer in Architecture at Norwich University of the Arts. A short bio is here.


About the supervisors

The project is supervised by Prof. Ruth Morrow and Keith McAllister. Prior to his appointment at Qatar University in 2009, Prof. Ashraf Salama also supervised the project.


Bibliography

Click here for the bibliography to date.


Words

Click here for a selection of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed writing.


Glossary

Click here for a glossary-in-progress of key terms used in the project.


Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


Note

All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it.


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