Spiral Learning

Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns… What was once barely intelligible may be deeply meaningful a second time. And a third. (Bateson, 1994; p.31)

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions by Mary Catherine Bateson (1994), enjoying how she weaves reflections on research, items and places. The quotes above are from a section on the non-linear nature of learning which appeals to me; what Bateson calls “spiral learning” in the example above. She talks about how rote learning can have a value in embedding information deeply within the minds of students, with the view that it can be returned to and puzzled out over a lifetime.

I have a fondness for poems from school and know many friends and colleagues who will recite word-perfect poems from their childhood. We often return to them in the way that Bateson speaks of, unpick and stitch them into our lives, our speech and our stories. But all too often, I think we memorize to forget; here I’m thinking of the large amount of cramming I have done for examinations only to see the “knowledge” drift away once the exam is completed. When I return to the same textbooks now, it is with a sense of rediscovery, of connecting the information with the life experiences I have had since, of reaching a deeper layer of understanding by revisiting with time to explore.

I am conscious of the packed curricula that students in most disciplines encounter, the resulting sense of panic at the volume of material that has to be absorbed, soon to be regurgitated for examination. Working on the PhD has given me a space to spiral back, though also a sense of that same panic, the awareness of the volume of material, and the desire to find my space and place in the discourse.

[In] the action of the needle, the embroidered line grows through the repeated looping back of the trailing thread-line between where the point meets the surface and where the thread meets the eye. Telling stories involves a similar looping back of present experience to connect with that of the past. (Ingold, 2011; p. 195)

Newgrange tomb entrance passage and stone with spirals
spudmurphy, Newgrange, Meath, CC BY-SA 2.0

The image is of the Newgrange passage tomb in Meath. I love this place, the silence and peace in the tomb, the steady temperature no matter the weather, the little lightbulb set up in the roofbox to simulate the return of the sun at midwinter. Thinking of spirals brought me spiraling back to the entrance stone, the guardian before entering the tomb. This is matched by the kerbstone on the rear of the tomb, discussed in the short YouTube video below. The spiral is not just a spiral, we are told, it is more complex than that. Following Ingold’s quote above, I loop my experience to my past and to the distant past, to others who traced the spirals before me.  There’s probably a metaphor for my PhD in this 🙂


Finally, you may be wondering why there is a snail in this post. I like snails, with their mathematical shells and way of spiraling across paths, writing in a silver code that I can’t decipher. I envy their ability to regenerate their nervous systems. And returning to Bateson, I find myself wondering what their “peripheral vision” is with their multimodal view of our shared habitat (Matsuo, 2017).


Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: HarperCollins. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060926304/peripheral-visions

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Matsuo, R. (2017). The Computation and Robustness of the Mini-Cognitive Centers of Terrestrial Mollusks: An Exquisite Outcome of Brain Evolution. In Brain Evolution by Design (pp. 101-122). Tokyo: Springer. https://www.springer.com/us/book/9784431564676

Becoming Frog

In February, I took part in an event entitled The Mobile Campus: Imagining The Future of Distributed Education at the University of Edinburgh, run by two colleagues, James Lamb and Michael Gallagher [see end of post for their respective blogs or click on their names for details on the event]. This was a neat exploration of what it meant to be “at Edinburgh” and acknowledged how the participants were distributed across the globe, drawn together in the event hosted in George Square.

Michael and James facilitated a range of discussion topics, sharing of images and sounds. When asked to define what digital education was for me, I took a picture of frogs on the pin-board behind my desk and said that those who knew me wouldn’t be surprised. There were some there who remembered that I presented my MSc dissertation as a half-woman-half-frog avatar. I have a picture of that somewhere; when/if I find it, I’ll add it!
Photo of pin board pictures of frogs

So what is the link between digital education and frogs? Why are they my digital education totem species? I was all geared up to investigate and discuss frogs in myths and legends, the permeability of frog skin and its role as a metaphor for inter-connectedness. In my random searches, I discovered there is something called a Frog Leaping Algorithm, and indeed a Shuffled and Improved Shuffled Frog Leaping Algorithm as the nerve-centre of programmed neural networks (Dash, 2018). I was planning to explore “Sharon-as-frog-avatar” building on a Gregory Ulmer paper I have had sitting waiting for just such an opportunity.

Avatar is not mimetic of one’s ego, but a probe beyond one’s ownness, as a relationship with community. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome is much invoked in association with the Internet. Our use of the figure follows their example of rhizome as a symbiotic relationship between two separate domains brought into mutually beneficial alliance. (Ulmer, 2011)

And then I found, as with so much in my PhD reading, that someone had got there before me. Or rather, some people – a group of primary school children were “becoming frog” and incorporating digital practices long before I was.

It was on a prac. visit that I entered the world of frogs. (Somerville, 2007)

This blog post now becomes a celebration of Somerville’s paper; one of those awesome papers that only synchronicity and random frog searching can gift you with. Her paper is exciting for two main reasons linked to my research. First, she talks about local wetlands experts working with schools in their area to extend the knowledge of the local ecology; citizen-science and public engagement at its best. Second, she brings together a whole range of theories and research I have been reading about for the past few years, from Deleuze & Guattari “becoming-animal” to Gruenewald and place-based and -responsive pedagogies. Wrap all that in the glorious global knowledge-sharing with other frog-excited students via the web in an Australian and US collaboration, add a touch of storytelling, and you’ve got a darn good paper.

In this thinking human bodies, as corporeal entities, then, are continuous with human and non human others but also with artefacts such as pens, paper, paints, computers, fabric, metal and machines, that they are linked with through production, and with the productions themselves. In other words, the representations we produce are conceived as part of our bodies. (Somerville, 2007)

Somerville’s comments about human continuity with “others” links with Timothy Morton’s symbiotic real, as mentioned in a previous post. This inter-connectedness is inherent in Indigenous epistemology and ontology, and Somerville touches on the complexities in engaging with Indigenous knowledge practices. This is an aspect of her research I will draw on later for a post I am currently drafting.

Back to the 2007 paper, and I followed the link from Somerville’s references to see how the online community has developed. While the link provided no longer directs to the community, it seems there is activity as of 2017 on the Project Corroboree Community page. I can’t seem to access or explore the web-journey she speaks of, but the idea stays with me, the sense of the web as a songline. Her process of “visiting” the wetlands via the web echoes my investigation into developing connection to place at a distance, where “place” is defined as a meaningful location. The sense of meaning appears to be linked, for Somerville, to the memories of being physically present, the “thousands of intimate moments” associated with the place. I wonder if it is possible to separate the two, for the digital to connect. Will I find, as Somerville suggests, that any meaningful connection to place-at-distance will only come from reference to my local place connections. I put that to one side as a direction to explore, a gap and an uncertainty.

One thing is for sure, I am invited and inspired to learn more about Somerville’s work and to more actively “become-frog”. I am off to perfect my frog dance!

I can feel in my body the extension of self-into-other required to perform frog. How does a frog move? What do its limbs do? How can your fingers be frog fingers, how does your body move to frog music? (Somerville, 2007)

Blogs posts on Mobile Campus event

James Lamb: https://www.james858499.net/blog/remixing-the-campus

Michael Gallagher: http://michaelseangallagher.org/mobile-learning-in-distributed-universities-summary-of-recent-festival-of-creative-learning-event/


Dash, R. (2018). Performance analysis of a higher order neural network with an improved shuffled frog leaping algorithm for currency exchange rate prediction. Applied Soft Computing67, 215-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asoc.2018.02.043 #paywall

Somerville, M. (2007). Becoming-frog: a primary school place pedagogy. Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Freemantle, 26-29 November. https://www.aare.edu.au/publications-database.php/5511/becoming-frog

Ulmer, G.L. (2011). Avatar emergency. Digital Humanities Quarterly 5(3) http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/3/000100/000100.html

Ghosts on the windowsill

It is spring and I was watering and repotting houseplants the other day when I stopped to look at my leafy companions. Sitting side-by-side were three plants whose original owners have since died. That got me thinking – we write wills to distribute our bits and pieces at the end of our lives, but do we think about our plants?

A quick search on the interweb and I get plenty of suggestions about what to do if a plant is dying, but not what to do if you discover you are suddenly in charge of someone else’s plants because they hadn’t/couldn’t make prior arrangements before they die. That’s now on my to-do list; I’m seeking out a plant guardian who will take care of my plants if I’m no longer able to do so. It’s the least I can do for all the fine, clean air and calm, green, de-stressing companionship they have given to me.

As for the memories of plant-owners past, Freeman et al. (2012) discuss plant memories, or plants-as-memories, in the gardens of New Zealand homeowners. As in my case, there are histories associated with the plants, how old they are, why they were planted, the memories associated with who gifted, planted, played with and shared space with them. Freeman et al. emphasise the importance of the role the plants play in the mental wellbeing and emotional support of their human co-habitants, highlighting that there is little research focus on this value to date, though awareness of these benefits is increasing.

In the spirit of sharing the ghosts on my windowsill, what follows are three brief introductions to the plants who brought this to my attention: Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie, Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye and Margaret’s jade tree.

Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie

Busy Lizzie plant in pot

The original plant lived on the turn of the stairs in Aunt Ella’s house in Tuphall Road. Aunt Ella was my husband’s aunt and she was kind enough to adopt me too. She caught me eyeing up the plant, as it was a glorious flowering mass. In good form, she snapped off a bit and gave it to me. Following good family practice, I wrapped it in a bit of damp tissue and brought it home to plant up. It has grown very well, sitting in a pot I inherited from my paternal grandparents. Like its parent plant, it flowers gloriously and needs a bit of a trim to defy its triffid qualities every now and again. There is a very nice spider that lives in the middle, who wanders out to complain when I water her too much. Aunt Ella moved into sheltered housing about five years ago and passed away in 2017. I have no idea what happened to the original plant. Part of it though, is growing happily with me.

Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye

Photo of tiger's eye begonia with busy lizzie in the background

Auntie Brede was my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so in good Irish respectful terms, she was Auntie to all the assorted small people. She was renowned for being able to feed hordes without the slightest effort and won my brother’s heart by cheerfully letting him climb her wall shelves and rummage in her cupboards for biscuits. She passed away over twenty years ago, but her memories, and her plant, are still here. The tiger’s eye begonia (the name I’ve always known it by) that lives with me came from a cutting of a cutting that Auntie Brede gave my mum when I was small. My mum no longer has the original plant, so I’m growing a cutting to give back to her.

Margaret’s jade tree

Jade plant Margaret was our neighbour when I moved in with Gavin to a flat on Gilmerton Road in 2004. She had a jade plant that expired when she was away on holiday, so I gifted her with a new one. I maintained a range of plants on the windowsills in the common stairwell and one day, Margaret came out of her apartment to ask me if the jade tree could come back into my care. I was happy to look after it, so it moved to the windowsill outside her door so she could see it as she went in and out. Shortly afterwards, she passed away and the jade plant moved with me when we went to Haddington. That jade plant now has many siblings across the Lothians, as I harvest cuttings now and again for our student “grab a plant” wellbeing sessions at the vet school.

My partner in plant “crime” is Louise and we both share cuttings from our plants and from plants around the school sitting on colleagues’ windowsills. We have joked that no one ever really buys a spider plant anymore, that they are offshoots (pun intended) from family plants of long ago. My windowsill ghosts also include a red peace lily gifted to me when I left Stevenson College over 10 years ago and a Christmas cactus I adopted when I found it abandoned in an office at the vet school. There are memories in the garden too, with plants that have traveled in damp tissue carried by friends and family members to take root and keep us company.

The very least I can do is ensure someone cares for them when I go. I’m off to make a list!


Freeman, C., Dickinson, K. J., Porter, S., & van Heezik, Y. (2012). “My garden is an expression of me”: Exploring householders’ relationships with their gardens. Journal of Environmental Psychology32(2), 135-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.01.005 [#paywall]

Vampire Researcher

Due to some behind-the-scenes digital footprint weirdness, I discovered that Google Scholar was reporting one of my papers as being written in 1759. That got me thinking: asides from outing me as a vampire to the world, who is the Sharon from 1759? And before you ask, no, my skin does not sparkle like diamonds in the sun!

scholar_1759 (2)
Screenshot of the Google Scholar auto-entry dated 1759 instead of 2016


This process of looking back to 1759 highlighted my bias about women at that time. I expected to hear about difficult lives and fashions. While some of this was true (panniers!), women writers existed, at least those fortunate to be born into privilege and with understanding male family members to support them.

My colleague Jessie and I come from a science background, and even that was not so strange. The first paper by a woman was published in the Royal Philosophical Society’s Transactions; all credit to Anne Whitfeld and her report on the thunderstorm that struck her home in 1759 (Whitfeld & Van Rixtel, 1759). By the 1780s, Caroline Herschel was discovering comets (Herschel, 1787) and working as an astronomer for the King (Hoskin, 2005). She was the first woman to be made a member of the Royal Society, albeit honorary, and managed to do all that while still taking care of her household duties. Chemist Marie-Anne Lavoisier was born in 1758 and feminist philosopher and author Mary Wollstonecraft in 1759.

Had we been born into the right circumstances, perhaps we would have printed our paper; not everything was so straightforward. I was born in Ireland and studied in Trinity College Dublin. In 1759, they were putting the finishing touches on the west front on College Green, but women would not be permitted to study there until 1904.


Herschel, C. (1787). An Account of a New Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, MD Sec. RS. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London77, 1-3. Retrieved from http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/77/1.full.pdf

Hoskin, M. (2005). Caroline Herschel as observer. Journal for the History of Astronomy36(4), 373-406. Retrieved from http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?2005JHA….36..373H&classic=YES

Whitfeld, A., & Van Rixtel, J. (1759). An Account of the Effects of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, on the 16th of July, 1759: In a Letter from Mrs. Anne Whitfeld. Communicated by Mr. John van Rixtel, F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 51, 282-286. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/105375