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Peter Gilderdale - calligrapher and design history lecturer | S1E6

October 24, 2021

Peter Gilderdale - calligrapher and design history lecturer | S1E6
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In this episode:  What’s involved in being a professional calligrapher, what’s driving a recent resurgence of interest in calligraphy among young people, and why it is that so many good calligraphers also turn out to be good at playing golf. What good education looks like in design. What universities do well but also how they can shut down free thinking and innovation and why they may be writing themselves out of being relevant. How assessment gets in the way of learning. The difference between pursuing excellence for yourself versus being part of a place that exudes excellence. How to keep the university system happy without losing your soul. Engaging with the past as a way of finding other people. How doing a PhD about Edwardian postcards helped Peter connect with his family’s history as immigrants. How a timetabling clash led Peter to discover one of the world’s oldest signed works of art while working on an archeological dig in Egypt. What it’s like to be an insider-outsider in the art community.

About the Guest: Peter Gilderdale is a freelance writer and calligrapher and recently retired lecturer in Design History at Auckland University of Technology. He is the author of recent instalments in The Little Yellow Digger series of popular children's stories, originally created by his parents Betty and Alan Gilderdale. [Peter's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/peter-gilderdale-b4a8ab15/]

Recorded 7 October 2021

Links:

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About the Host: Danu has been thinking hard about education, technology and society for 30 years. His ambition is to start a company that offers holistic learner-first experiences that set the soul on fire. He is based in Auckland, NZ and is currently working as a consultant on research information systems, academic performance and games for education. [Danu's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danupoyner/]

Music: Kleptotonic Swing by Tri-Tachyon

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Website: stillcuriouspodcast.com
Twitter: @stillcuriouspod
Email: stillcuriouspodcast@gmail.com

Transcript
Danu Poyner:

You're listening to the still curious podcast with me Danu Poyner. My guest today is Peter Gilderdale, who is a writer, calligrapher and recently retired lecturer in design history at Auckland University of Technology. I first met Peter when we were both working at AUT and he was serving as head of research for the art and design school. In this episode, we discuss what good education looks like in design, what universities do well, but also how they can shut down free thinking and innovation, and why they may be writing themselves out of being relevant. We explore how assessment gets in the way of learning, the difference between pursuing excellence for yourself versus being part of a place that exudes excellence, and how to keep the University System happy without losing your soul. Peter talks about what's involved in being a professional calligrapher. What's driving a recent resurgence in interest in calligraphy among young people, and why it is that so many good calligraphers also turn out to be so good at playing golf. We hear about engaging with the past as a way of finding other people and how doing a PhD about Edwardian postcards helped Peter to connect with his family's history as immigrants. And we also learn how a timetabling clash led Peter to discover one of the world's oldest signed works of art while working on an archeological dig in Egypt. Finally, we discuss what it's like to be an insider outsider in the art community. And why one of the top results when you Google Peters name is an article about why he can get stuffed. This episode is slightly longer than some of the others. And while Peters dog eventually loses patience with the discussion, I hope you will find it enjoyable and interesting throughout its many tangents. It's Peter Gilderdale coming up right after the music break on today's episode of The still curious podcast. So hi, Peter, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. How are you?

Peter Gilderdale:

I'm good. Thanks.

Danu Poyner:

That's good to hear. lots to talk about. I'll jump straight in if that's okay. Yep. So you describe yourself as a specialist in typographic and design history with an interest in user experience design. And until recently, you were lecturing in Communication Design. So that strikes me as a really interesting mix of things. And I'm going to ask you about some of them in more detail. But is there a thread of interest running through those things? How to use story that?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, I think, yeah, and you can probably add artistry and Egyptology into that mix as well. That was the the early part of it. I think, for me, the the bit that goes through, most of that is the marrying of image and text, I've, you know, my parents were an artist and a writer. And I've always had those two things sort of going alongside each other. And so I write and I make, and I'm interested in the place where that the two intersect. And so graphic design or Communication Design in in various forms is where that happens. But the more recently, the user experience part has come in as a sort of third element to it. I think, traditionally, it was very easy to just get caught up with the, the form of it. And actually thinking about what it's for, and so on is is also important. So that element is sort of come in more recently.

Danu Poyner:

Thanks, that's a really good summary, and lots of things to dig into a little bit more there. I guess. Can I just probe a little bit on the design history side of things? Yeah, cuz that's a really interesting idea. And I wonder if you, I always like to ask people, can you explain how would you explain that idea to a 10 year old version of yourself?

Peter Gilderdale:

I don't think my 10 year old version myself would be terribly interested to be quite honest, my 10 year old version was, was very interested in art history. And even my 20 year old version would have been struggling with with with design history. I kind of found found design really when I moved to Denmark, and became interested in you know, because design here in the 1960s and 70s and early 80s was not exactly a huge thing. We'd have wonderfully designed things and then I moved to Denmark and I saw the potential that, you know, design could have to, to affect people. So I think, for me, design history if I had to explain it to a 10 year old would, would simply be that it's about understanding the things that are around us and the ways that we communicate, and the ways that people have used those things in the past and how what we do now has developed out of that history. And I'm always interested in engaging with the past as a way of finding other people, you know, you can do it as an anthropologist you do it in the present with different cultures as a story and you engage with people across time. But it's always about finding those different ways of doing things and yet also the same things, you know, the same motivations drive people, we all want to make our lives a little bit better and a little bit easier, and, and so on. And and design has always attempted to do that.

Danu Poyner:

You mentioned you're interested there in how design affects people? Are you thinking of any particular examples of what that means?

Peter Gilderdale:

Oh, well, I mean, so you know, on the one hand, you can pick out design that looks good and functions terribly. So you know, the Alessi, lemon squeezer if you know that particular object, you know, is it, every designer of a certain year, a hand that hanging around in their office, because it looks so cool. But you would never want to squeeze a lemon on it, the juice went everywhere. So that's, that's an example of aesthetic design. An example of the sort of design that I think is is cool would be the, you know, whoever thought of the countdown at traffic lights for the pedestrians was genius. Right? That is such a simple, straightforward way of making people's lives better, so that you know, whether you have to run for the light or not, you know, and when you go everyday on a bus, and you have to cross, you know, traffic lights, and so on that that has that has materially improved the experience in my day. And that's, you know, that's a wonderful piece of design to my mind.

Danu Poyner:

Absolutely. So, okay, so you're particularly interested in calligraphy as an artistic form. So we'll talk a bit about that. And you've worked as a professional calligrapher in New Zealand and also in Denmark, some have some international recognition for that work. And can you tell me what, walk me through what's involved in being a professional calligrapher,

Peter Gilderdale:

huge monetary uncertainty abiding thing. The reality is that people who want calligraphy you know, to pay for calligraphy or people who are doing weddings and things like that, and so your your life as a professional calligrapher, that tends to raise, resolve around doing certificates and wedding invitations and things like that, which you can only do for so long. And, you know, alternatively, you, you can try and make your calligraphy into some kind of art so that people can put it up and put up texts on the wall, and so on, all of which I, you know, I've found, you know, I've done it various times, none of which is terribly satisfying. And I'm still sort of struggling to find exactly where I want to, you know, make calligraphy function. So yeah, I don't think I've hit the sweet spot yet. But the good thing is that it's had quite a major revival in the last 10 years or so. And there are a lot of younger people who are in the, you know, in the calligraphic arena doing really cool work. And so, you know, unlike about 20 years ago, where it felt like it was sort of stultifying, there's actually a really interesting body of calligraphic work out there. It's still mainly in those sort of areas that I was talking about, but I'm hoping that at some point, it will spread outwards. I mean, I, I'd like you know, using interesting, different lettering in in any kind of context, it's very easy to pull it into a graphic design context, it's a little harder to figure out how to use it in in ways that are meaningful for people. Mainly because people are very unfamiliar with, you know, the same way that people don't really know much about type or recognize the subtleties of typographic expression. Most people recognize a gothic, you know, as looking heavy metal, you know. And they'll recognize that a copper plate piece of calligraphy is sort of looking fancy and wedding like, and that's about the limit. And so, so the struggle always is, is that if you're trying to push to the limits of the medium, you have to try and take your audience with you. And that's not an easy thing.

Danu Poyner:

Just to linger on this point a little bit. And I'm wondering if you could help me understand the difference between site typography, graphic design and calligraphy? Because they seem like they have a lot in common, but you're very careful to separate them out. Yes. What can you tell? Can you tell us about that?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, graphic design or Communication Design is the overarching use of text and image to communicate something. So that's the overarching thing. Within that, you've got the different elements. So there's the pictorial element, which is illustration, and so on. And the use of text, traditionally, in a typographic medium is using, you know, used to be using hot, you know, lead letters, which you set out. Now, it's it's digital, but it's always about a finished letter form that has a fixed, you know, shape in an alphabet, which you put together with other letters to communicate something. And you can design typefaces, but generally speaking, they just have one shape. calligraphy is about taking a pen and using movement to create a shape and no two shapes are ever going to be the same this individuality and and kind of unique quality to the calligraphic mark. I would, I would say, for me, the piece of typography is is an is an exclamation mark. Whereas a piece of calligraphy is a question mark. For me, you know, when you're doing a calligraphy and I work improvisationally it's always about finding something out is you never know, you know, what, what the piece is going to be until it's finished. Right? Whereas generally speaking in design, you you have a very clear idea of what the draft is, you know, you've got a draft of what it's going to be and then it's just about finishing it off using typography to make it you know, a little bit tighter. It's a different different way of approaching but I think that if you think of type as as the stamp and calligraphy as as the wave, you know,

Danu Poyner:

yeah. So different different process, different motivations for this.

Peter Gilderdale:

Yeah. I think I mean, I think calligraphy tends to attract people who want to make something that is, is a bit individual and unique.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. I'd love to ask you about the revival that you mentioned about bits all zoom out for a moment first, I think because you obviously have a love of calligraphy and you're a teacher of calligraphy, I'd love to hear how you became interested in it. Given that, you know, you you mentioned that design history is something you got into after a little while and wasn't first cab off the rank, so to speak. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in these things?

Peter Gilderdale:

Yes. I think from memory, we lettering was included in the art curriculum at school. And I remember having to do some job the teacher asked me to do some lettering for for some project or other that the school was doing. And I used some calligraphy pens for it. I'd forgotten all about that until quite quite recently, that what I remembered more was that after I left school, we'd had my seventh form year in England and I went to a boarding school for a couple of semesters and then to art school for one semester. And then art school. I didn't get taught calligraphy, but there was somebody teaching it to other students. And periodically you'd see examples of calligraphy posted up and there was one particular poster that got put up around the studio. caf and I looked at it and said, God, that's terrible. And of one of the other fellow students said that, that's calligraphy it's much harder than it looks. And I can remember sort of thinking, I reckon I can do a heck of a lot better than that. When I got back to New Zealand. My dad had calligraphy pens because he'd learned a little bit. When he was at the Slade School of Art. He never did a lot of calligraphy wasn't his thing. But he had a couple of models sheets. And so I just sat down and started to try it out. And our by a couple of weeks, I was doing stuff that was better than what he did. And since I'd I'd given up ever being able to draw better than him. I moved from thinking that I was going to be an artist to think I was going to be a calligrapher.

Danu Poyner:

That's interesting. Finding any area where you can make your own mark or wave, as it were,

Peter Gilderdale:

yes, yeah. Well, that that's the thing is, is you know, if you do something, you want to do it well. And calligraphy just felt very natural to me, I've always drawn rather than painted. You know, I am a black and white person I like, I like the immediacy of the ink line. I don't much like painting things and filling things in with color. And so

Danu Poyner:

yeah, right. That

Peter Gilderdale:

was right, right, from right from the start, right. As a kid, I always Drew.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah. I mean, given your background and what your parents do, was there ever a chance that you wouldn't be going into taking an artistic line? Did you ever consider, you know, investment banking or? Or another

Peter Gilderdale:

career not not investment banking, my maths was never my forte. But I did you know, as a teenager, as you know, well, as a small kid, I was professional cricket. And later on, you know, I played golf to a reasonably good level. And, you know, did did have have thoughts about doing that professionally. But when I hit calligraphy, it was like, it's the same process. Right? It's interesting, mentally, I didn't realize this for quite a long time. But actually, a lot of a lot of calligraphers are also good golfers.

Danu Poyner:

And you need to tell me more about that.

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, well, the, when you when you swing in golf, you have to set yourself up, right? And then you you simply use muscle memory. And you have to get your head out of it as much as possible. Because the moment that your head starts going in there and thinking, Oh, I'm doing this nicely, or, or O's, something's going wrong, it goes wrong. And the results magnify, every little bit that goes wrong in the process of the swing gets worse. And that's exactly what happens with a khaligraph. When you're making a calligraphic letter. You start it and then you just have to see what happens and it has to flow. And ideally, the the, the line comes out fluid, but if if the moment that something starts going wrong, you're in big trouble. And so mentally, mentally, I think it's it's exactly the same process.

Danu Poyner:

Aha, that's so interesting. Are any of them typographers?

Peter Gilderdale:

No, not not usually. I mean, you were the overlap is in letter design. So you know, I, you find some people that are really interested in calligraphy we'll move over into letter designing, but actually, I think most calligraphers feel typography is just a bit constrained to be honest.

Danu Poyner:

So interesting, if he did so, coming back to what you mentioned about the revival of interest in this form, what what have you noticed about where that's coming from and what driving that

Peter Gilderdale:

it's actually coming out of popular culture, there was a merging of graffiti and calligraphy, it's called calligraphy tea. And suddenly, you know, suddenly, you've got a lot of people in the, in the sort of graffiti subculture to tattooing and and areas like that, who suddenly discovered calligraphy and a number of them have then gone on to become very fine calligraphers. But this this You know, they're following and they're following on social media and so on has as has linked up with, you know, more traditional calligraphers. And there's really quite interesting sort of mix. I, I finally put my toe onto Instagram a couple of years ago. And it's a very interesting area to look at, to see how, how the very traditional calligraphers and these sort of young active people who are coming out of this graffiti subculture are finding common ground.

Danu Poyner:

I mean, podcasting is of course, a very famously visual medium. So normally we'd hold up some examples here maybe we'll put some in the notes but that's really interesting. How do you think people today we discover a curiosity about about this way of of doing things given that everyone sort of digital first and got electronic devices and this is a very kind of physical medium?

Peter Gilderdale:

I'm guessing via YouTube you know, and videos of of it happening? I mean, traditionally people would you would discover an interest in handwriting, at least from school from being taught it certainly, you know, I old enough to have been taught copper plated school. And, and I was always interested in handwriting, you know, and I think most people, you know, older calligraphers came in via that but now I think it will be from people seeing it as something a bit different and exotic you know, and there's, there's a pretty large amount of calligraphic democrat demonstrations on on YouTube so if if somebody gets sort of sucked into seeing one or two of those and is interested, I think they'll easily find a lot more.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, yeah. I'd like to ask you a little bit about how you like to learn yourself Peter because you have a really interesting way of framing things and combining theory and practice of course. So how do you like to go about learning things

Peter Gilderdale:

in is unstructured away as possible I think I I really just find what I'm interested in and then go for it is what it amounts to I mean, I I've I've kind of always been like that, you know, I've never been bored

Danu Poyner:

you know, other people

Peter Gilderdale:

it's certainly never been me I you know, I've always you know, and I noticed as my mother used to say, as a child that I you know, I never you know, it was shorter things to do. So, you know, I, I read over I'd look at things you just think about them. And if something is interesting, I try it out it means that I'm not at all systematic. You know, and I don't sort of set goals and you know, try and achieve them I just find what's interesting and find how it connects with other things I'm interested in and yeah, think about it.

Danu Poyner:

That's really interesting. Of course, that resonates with me as well I'd certainly take a similar approach. I'm interested in how that translates to the professional space because you've spent a fair while as a as an academic at a well regarded academic Art and Design School in Auckland. What can you share about that experience and systematizing knowledge whether it's structured or not yes a deep

Peter Gilderdale:

deep well it's it's it's the thing thing was when when I when I went there I was I was sort of still in the phase of you know, do I finish off an Egypt illogical PhD and and, you know, go into that arena or do I go into the calligraphy and which I'd been getting into more, and I had an offer from Auckland uni to come and finish the PhD and then you know, they'd be a job going. And I had, you know, six hours of part time teaching it at a ti as it was then. I opted to go to a ti because the education was so much better. To my mind, it was A student focused and, and exciting and, you know, what was what was happening there was such innovative and, you know, people were kind of figuring it out as as they went along, but it was really exciting. And gradually, the, as the place got bigger, the structures got put in place and you've got faculties put in place and, and people came in and they wanted to make papers which had fixed links, and and then the dreaded learning outcomes thing came in and you, you have to figure out what it is that you want students to get at the end of it so that you can measure it. And that is not my experience of learning. My experience of learning comes from, you know, getting people excited about things and then waving goodbye as they go sailing off into whatever it is they're interested in, you know, and good art and design, education has always gone down those tracks, and trying to fit it into the horrible constraints of a traditional University. And particularly when we became University, which I was, you know, one of the few people who was heavily opposed to the idea because, you know, I got out of the university sector, because it is such a constraining thing you have have, you know, the disciplinary apparatus just shuts down free thinking and innovation, in my experience. And I just, you know, I've seen, you know, they're amazing people, my colleagues, you know, ex colleagues now, are, are amazingly good educators, and they're still, you know, fighting to do good education within the constraints. But it is really hard, you know, when I think back to what we were actually doing in the 1980s and early 90s. To look at that, and then to look at how we operate today, and I just don't think students get the same experience.

Danu Poyner:

Well, let's talk about that a little bit more, can you? Could you share any examples of what it looked like, when it was working really well?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, for example, when the 1990 Commonwealth Games was happening, the organizers came to us and said, that they, you know, could could we get involved with the graphics of it, they had a logo, and that was about it. Rather unwisely, it turned out we we said yes to this because it pissed the industry off no end. But But what what we were able to do was simply with this, take the second years, and say, right, we're canning all of your classes, and you're going to work on this for two months.

Danu Poyner:

Right? That does sound exciting.

Peter Gilderdale:

masses, it you know, and they got their work out there, it was, it was an absolute way to get students to learn on the job, and to see, you know, to see the reality of what they were doing. And it was, it was a hugely beneficial educational experience for them. But the shortly after that, we had a paper structure put in, and once you have that, you can't do that sort of stuff, you can't, you can't suddenly leap on the opportunities that come in. And over the years, I've had many, you know, in managing courses, I've had many people come with ideas that could have been that beneficial. But it's like, well, that would have been good if it had come in last semester because we could have fitted it into that paper. But right now we can't do it, we don't have a paper that has those outcomes. You know, it's that sort of thing. And I you know, to me learning is is about excitement, and it's about you know, people individually picking up the pieces that they need to move forward trying to systemize that and putting it into papers and say, you know, we're going to give you all of this stuff and at the end of it Well yes, you may have a toolbox but are you actually very enthused about using it that's the that's the that's the real issue for me and I you know, I can I can say that now I'm retired.

Danu Poyner:

You, you're very free to speak. Well, to play, I guess devil's advocate here for a moment, then do you see any benefits to the structure and the systematization? For the people doing the learning, I can learn, obviously a lot of administrative benefits, but you see any benefits for the learners?

Peter Gilderdale:

I think it probably, there will be some learners who need reassurance. And, you know, particularly these days, as people are coming in through from the, you know, absolutely ghastly NCAA system. You know, needing to be spoon fed? Well, the system as it is, does spoon feed them trying to throw them into figuring stuff out for themselves would be probably way beyond most of their capacities. Because the school system is so not doing that. Yeah,

Danu Poyner:

one of the common criticisms of the structure is that it focuses people on on trying to pass tests and be really instrumental about their learning to get to the outcomes and prove that they've gone through it. Do you have any thoughts on that in a, in a creative kind of endeavor? versus curiosity based?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, I think the two things are the same. But the you know, in terms of creativity and curiosity go together, I think, but, but in terms of assessment, I, you know, if I could, I would simply not have assessment. You know, it's, it's so counterproductive. I managed in my own small way to go a bit towards that. Because when I started out, teaching design history, I had a lecture series, and I had a test at the end of it. And what I found was that the students were sitting in the lecture, desperately trying to figure out what was going to be in the test. Right? So they weren't actually listening, to learn and to think and to make connections, they were just trying to figure out, what would you know, what be the test. And this annoyed me because it meant that they weren't looking and they weren't thinking, and they weren't making the connections that I wanted them to. So I thought, Okay, well, I'm gonna, you know, I know that design students are usually refugees from assessment Anyway, you know, they mostly don't like exams, and stress massively about them, and focus on all the wrong things. And it tests their ability to remember stuff, which mostly they, if they don't have a good, good oral memory, they're visual people. So I just did away with with that test. And so the the lecture series stood on its own as a beast, which was about getting people excited. And then the we use the tutorials to teach to the the assessment, but the lectures were their own thing. And of course, there were about maybe 20% of students who, after about two weeks figured out they weren't going to get any marks for it. So therefore, disappeared. But the vast majority of them stayed, and were able to listen and focus and, and so on. And that that, for me was was a small victory within a, you know, losing a large war.

Danu Poyner:

You've got to take those where you can find them. Yeah. So I have a couple of questions on this, with, you mentioned some of the importance of getting students excited, but also, you know, building confidence. And I'm also just remembering something you said earlier about when you were discovering that you were better than dad at cetera. So that's an interesting idea, because part of assessment is to give you some independent external validation of what you're doing. So how do you if you take that away, how do you get that kind of external validation of what you're doing? peer

Peter Gilderdale:

group, you know, I mean, the best teaching tool is not assessment. It's having a group of people around you who are learning and you know, pushing one another In the best possible sense, I mean, the culture that we, you know, we had was one where, you know, everybody chipped in where, you know, as an assignment was coming in, if somebody was falling behind other people who'd finished would help them, you know, that was that was the way it operated. But, but if, you know, everyone was sort of trying to be good, but equally trying to make sure everyone else was good, and if you get that, that culture of, of supported learning, and people people wanting excellence, but wanting it, not just for themselves in a possessive way, but wanting to be in a place that is, is exuding excellence. That's, that's what, that's where, where the magic happens, that assessment just gets in the way of that.

Danu Poyner:

Mm hmm. How did you, yourself recognize that you were better than going to be better than dad at calligraphy?

Peter Gilderdale:

I could I could see it. I mean, I trained with dad, basically, you know, one of the reasons I didn't go to a lamb was that I kind of felt I'd learned what I needed to in art from my father. So I had a good eye. And I could see that, you know, I knew what drawing look like I knew what good drawing was, I knew what good Mark was. And I could see that the marks I was making were better than it. So it was a reasonably sophisticated decision. You know, it wasn't, it wasn't a blind one, I go, you know, I could see it and he could see it.

Danu Poyner:

Now I asked about that, because it's, there's a lot of Bevy just explained a lot that goes into that kind of judgment, and just being able to see something and part of it is confidence and being aware of, of what there is, and where you've fit into that mix. So I'm wondering how you think about injecting that into a learning environment with with students that being aware of where you're at,

Peter Gilderdale:

huh? Well, that's the See, that's, that's where the, you know, teaching people history and, and so on, I I found was a good place, because the worst way to, you know, try and teach people to be creative is to look at what's happening now. Right, because there's so much pressure to conform to what's fashionable, that people get very uncritical. But if you look at things historically, you can actually pull them apart and think about them, and look at the bits and, and so on, in in a more analytical way. And you can, you can actually train your, your critical abilities in that arena, I think better than you can, when you're when you're looking at just it what's around you, you know, it's hard to look at, look at Facebook, or Instagram in a particularly critic critical way, you just you're absorbing it, and that's fine. You know, designers have to be very much in that space. But it's not a good thinking space for really learning how to go beyond doing what's fashionable. Now, you know, if you want to create anything that's a bit different, then you have to, you have to go to places that that give you connections that are different to what everybody else is doing.

Danu Poyner:

I think that's a really insightful point. And it makes me want to be a bit cheeky and press you just a little bit more on the structure point, which is, I guess, is there an idea of cannon? In that what it's what it's when the history in mind and reflective distance? Is there a value in taking people through some of the stuff that has been before and kind of curating that? And is that a structure?

Peter Gilderdale:

Yeah. I mean, the Canon thing is, is what caused a lot of the whole thing to fall over because there was there was a fairly clear canon of, of good design and also good, good art. And, of course, we had a post modernism as well and truly trashed all of that. It's created its own little canon of post modern luminaries. I've never taught things from the point of view of of, this is the one and only thing that you have to know. You know, I, I just teach them because I happen to be interested in them. And, and I make it very clear that that this is just this Just my set of interests and other people would do it differently. But, you know, there's been a huge de emphasis on the person of the teacher, you through the, you know, this last 20 2025 years, which I think it's unfortunate because for me the my role, as I see it as a teacher is to inspire people. Right, is to get them excited, you know, not to not to set up. You know, I don't want to be the person that that that people can't get past. You know, you can you see some teachers who are so influential that that their students never surpass them. There was a calligrapher called Edward Johnson, who's sort of the the doyen of English calligraphy, but he was so dominant as a teacher that his students never could go beyond what he did. And so, you know, you've got to be very careful to make sure that you are not not imposing a way, you know, your way onto the students, what you're trying to do is to encourage them to have the confidence to find their own way. But at the same time, what you try you have to model is a certain enthusiasm about the things that you do believe, while at the same time not not trying to say, mine is the only true and true way to do things. I don't know whether that quite makes sense. But

Danu Poyner:

I think so yeah, I think the the idea of de emphasizing the person of the teacher is an important one, because certainly in the conversations I'm having on here and with others, the bits that really get people excited and actually change the course of their lives are usually individual teachers doing things to make them excited and little moments. So that's really important that point, I guess, then, just to not entirely shift gears, but just maybe go a bit further. So you have a PhD, which you've completed relatively recently in the scheme of things. And PhD qualification is not something that's always common in this space, I guess, what can you tell me about doing the PhD as a learning experience, given everything that you've said about the university system?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, I mean, I guess I can, I can give you this from two perspectives, because I did start, you know, I began a Ph. D. in Egyptology back in the in the 80s. And I hit a point through it, well, you know, I, I was doing it from Durham University, but living in Denmark at the time. And that was quite hard. And then they close Durham down. The Thatcherite reforms came into, into play. And I had to think at that stage do I carry on at another university, and I was getting interested in in calligraphy it young family. And something a friend of mine, said to me, a few years earlier sort of came wafting back into my mind, which was at some point, mate, you're going to have to decide whether you're a generalist or a specialist. And I, that came back, and I realized that at that point, I didn't want to be a specialist. That going down this particular Avenue was was taking me into a narrow point when I actually needed creatively, to be going broader. I think, I think it's an interesting thing about the university that when I was going through, you know, in the 70s and early 80s, there was still a lot of people in the university who were what I would call scholars. They didn't publish much. I mean, my my Ph, my master's supervisor, didn't publish at all, he made an absolute point of it. He said it was a rat race, and but he was the most scholarly and brilliant person, a guy called Rob Carlin, and I've met other people who've been hugely influenced by him. And I felt that that's more recently the The university has has kind of lost its way because it's got all specialists, and no generalists. And you know, it's like when you're trying to weave things together and make connections between subjects you need people who are reading widely across many different subject areas who can connect those things together, I think that academia is much the worse for having lost that particular, you know, set of connections that were made by scholars that worked in, you know, across disciplines, and just read for the sake of it. So that was that was my first PhD was realizing that the second one was really came about because I kind of developed a personal hobby interest in collecting a type of postcard. And after about two years of digging into trying to figure out why the why there were so many of this type of card, which is called a hands across the sea postcard, I realized that this really, if I was going to take it any further, it really felt like it needed to be a PhD. And that, at that point, you know, in my 50s, that was the right thing to do, because it it allowed me to really dig into something and I had resisted doing a PhD for the sake of, you know, I could see that, that academia was moving in the direction whereby people who didn't have PhDs would start to be knocked through, you know, disappeared. Didn't want to take a PhD, for that reason. But given that, given that I had had something that felt very much like it, it was turning into a PhD have figured I might as well do it.

Danu Poyner:

Okay, the rest of the way. I know there are people who are listening at this point who are wanting me to ask you, what is a hand across the sea postcard? And also tell me about the Egyptology? Let's, let's just do that.

Peter Gilderdale:

Okay. All right. In the Edwardian? Well, the idea of hands across the sea is, was used in postcards, in order to sum up the experience of people who were partnered through immigration, the Edwardian period had huge amounts of people who had family overseas. And for the Edwardians hands across the sea summed up you know, in a very compact way, the the experience, the haptic experience, experience of touch, you know, to shake hands with somebody was a very meaningful experience, you know, it's bodily contact, you know, so so the metaphor of a handshake across the sea, carried a great deal of resonance. And consequently, once this idea moved into postcards I, I've collected probably, I'm counted them recently, but well over two and a half 1000 different designs of these cards. And, and there were a lot more than that. So, so that they were an important thing. It's not the only way that hands across the sea was used, it was also a it's still used in politics for a kind of relationship between countries. So the American and relationship between America and and Britain, there was a certain point where that was the it was seen as hands across the sea. And I documented all the different ways that this phrase was used. So yeah, that that's the hands across the sea. They're, they're very, you know, they've, they're bright, they, they usually have a clasped hands or some kind of image like that, that included in pictures of aeroplanes and trains, and ships and so on. And they, they allowed, they allowed people to say something deep about a relationship without having to put it into words on the back. So they could say nice, chirpy, friendly messages. But with the bigger emotional work being done by the card.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, that's important. It were there. Well, what were the dare I say it learning outcomes for you from the PhD.

Peter Gilderdale:

I mean, well, but by the end of it, I kind of felt like, I'd figured out that what I wanted to find out, which was why the Edwardians were so besotted with this phrase, You know, and that was really the whole PhD was about trying to figure out that, I mean, I developed a whole set of other skill sets, you know, in terms of researching, and so on out of it, but those were kind of incidental. And certainly the PhD took me to places that I, you know, I thought that I was pretty, pretty good as a historian, you know, I knew what I was doing. And the PhD certainly gave me a whole other set of skills. And, you know, I realized I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did. For me, the main main thing was that I could I could now, at the end of it say, I know why I know why that was important.

Danu Poyner:

is is is the why it's important. Something you can you can share in a in a relatively glib way on a podcast, or is the point. Well,

Peter Gilderdale:

I mean, it it was important, because, you know, it's what I what I've said it was, it was a meaning of the phrase took on a popular cultural meaning for people but it related to to immigration, you know, I've always enjoyed that era, because my grandmother grew up in it. And, you know, I always enjoyed her story. So there's a certain part of this, also, I think, I think it connected me to my family's experience, because we, we came out as immigrants in the 1960s. But you know, there was still enough enough, even then, of, of what it would have felt like for people further back. So for example, when my grandfather died, my dad got a letter to tell him about that, you know, I can remember, you know, he just got that news in a letter. And, you know, quite a quite a lot later. And, you know, you don't, you just, you don't appreciate how tough it was for the early immigrants to places like Australia and New Zealand to have, you know, to have to wait nearly a year to get a letter answered, you know, which, in the 1830s and 40s would have been the case by the Edwardian period. It was, it was it was, you know, eight weeks maybe it kind of made me understand a little bit of my own experiences and immigrant.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. Whenever I spend any time in the Victorian Edwardian period, it always strikes me how much everyone writes everything all the time, there's so much writing going on and it's just just an observation.

Peter Gilderdale:

But they did increasingly I mean, the postcard was part of the process of weaning the the working classes into a literary culture that use previously being more of a sort of middle and upper class thing and the letters were quite imposing things. Then the first world war came along and people discount who'd been using postcards discovered that they weren't adequate You know, when you were at the front trying to write your experience back the postcard didn't hack it and and so they moved into the into letters and IV, you know, they're examples of people saying, you know, I'm really not very comfortable writing a letter, but here goes

Danu Poyner:

yeah, yeah. Very interesting. I know we've been talking for a while I've got one more line of questioning I want to get into but I do want to ask you about the Egyptologist because people will crucify me if

Peter Gilderdale:

I mean I was again interested in Egypt as a kid as as kids you know, you get excited about the two military COMM And and all those sorts of stories. I I went to, you know, when I went to university, I was intending to study history and art history, and then the timetables didn't work. So I ended up doing ancient history and fell in fell into back into Egyptology and it sort of took off and when I when I was going to do a Master's I wanted to do it throughout history, but on Ancient Egypt and the art history department was not interested in this because they said they, they if you didn't know who the artist was, you couldn't study them. Was was what I was told this was because they were back in the Friday and days of you know, if you can not Just, you know, get into people's psychology you can really study this study the art. Well, I didn't think that that was the case. So I went to the ancient history department and did it. And I was lucky enough to hit a period where, where the, the lecturer had a concession to dig in Egypt sighs spent a couple of months in Egypt on a, you know, on a deck, where we discovered one of the oldest signed works of art, you know, a tomb where the where the artists had actually put a signature on it, which almost never happened in ancient Egypt. So I was very into that for a long time. But as I say, there was a point where the calligraphy kind of just took over.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, okay. Well, thank you for sharing that. That's another interesting, by the way.

Peter Gilderdale:

Don't expect to get anywhere in a straight line with me.

Danu Poyner:

No, that's what's so interesting about all these conversations, is it never it's never a straight line and things that are interesting. I guess. I want to spend a little more time in the in the ambivalence about the universities and formal education because it's so interesting, and I think you're well placed to talk about it. You spent some time as the head of research. Yes, at a UT where you kind of on the front lines of administering the systems that you've been critical of? What can you share about that experience?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, as you know, this, this was, this was where I got to know you. Because we were I did feel rather for my sins that that, you know, I absolutely don't believe in in systems that are, you know, measurability, and, you know, measuring research, competence, and all of these sorts of things. It's not something that that I desperately agree with. But I was in the situation of being in a job where we were going through a PB RF cycle.

Danu Poyner:

Before Peter goes into his next point, I should quickly explain what a PBR IP cycle is. Many governments around the world fund significant parts of science research and innovation, through National Assessment exercises that allocate funding based on how well research in different institutions is performing and having impact. In New Zealand. This happens every six years, through the performance based Research Fund pbf quality evaluation, where basically all academics in the country who are involved in research, prepare a detailed individual portfolio of their most significant research publications and contributions, which is then scored by a team of peer reviewers. And then the university receives funding based on the quality scores. In this case, yours truly had the responsibility of coordinating and leading the university's PBR f submission, which took in around 750 individual portfolios across 17 different schools, one of which was Peters, back to Peter.

Peter Gilderdale:

So actually, it was an interesting experience, because it was about figuring out how, how could I make the experience of doing that exercise, which most of the staff were pretty critical of, and felt, you know, it didn't represent them and their research in a good way, it was about how could we take that experience and turn it round, so that actually people could get make it useful for their, their research. So it was about how to not fall into deep cynicism about it all, but rather than to take take it and, and, you know, use the bits that that could be used effectively. So to help push people's research forward. And, you know, in a university context these days, you, you have to have research, you have to have outcomes. It may be regrettable, I still think that, you know, there should be a place for somebody to spend 10 years studying one thing and come out with one publication at the end of it, because that will be, you know, deep thing. But that's not the system that we've been working in. So it's more than about saying, Well, how can you if if we've got that person, how can we protect that 10 year journey? And still, you know, protect their job in ways that don't feel completely foreign and unpleasant to them. You know, so how can how can it? How can you keep the University System happy while not losing your soul?

Danu Poyner:

Well, there's the tag line right there. It is, it is a, as an ethical skill to navigate that space, I think on its own, and well, everything,

Peter Gilderdale:

you know, everything's ethics. I mean, really, really, in the end, you know, I'm probably more interested in the ethical dimensions of education than anything else, you know, in the final analysis, I'm, I'm much more interested in, are the people you know, coming out, or coming out of, of university, going to be good people, you know, I mean, that that ethical thing of students helping one another rather than shafting one another, you know, it's, it's that the sort of culture that you create, and the sort of people that come out of it, but in the end, is the most important thing, you know, it's it's, are you turning out good people who know how to be curious, creative, excited, you know, with that, that's, that's what you want. What you don't want is people who just want to tick boxes?

Danu Poyner:

Yes. I'm gonna let that sit, because that's a really nice summary of many things. Thank you for sharing that with that level of clarity, Peter, I appreciate it. So the last thing I want to ask you about in this space, then is a few years ago, you wrote a piece in the spin off, which is one of New Zealand's current affairs and pop culture magazines, that I guess was quite controversial and in deliberately so I suspect. And you correct me if I'm wrong on any of this, but it was in response to Auckland uni, closing of subject specific libraries around its campuses. And there was a lot of kind of consternation and uproar about this at the time. And I think in your article, you said, well, written as that is that abroad boils down to RT people expressing outrage to other RT people. And the people doing those cuts don't really care about RT folks. So you were wondering out loud, whether the arts community entirely realize the depth of antipathy or worse indifference towards them, that those cuts represent. And if I understand this, you're sort of saying there's a bigger point here about who holds cultural capital and the arts community are often missing that bigger point, because they can be a bit self absorbed and busy virtue signaling to each other? Is that a Is that a fair assessment?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, it's here. Yeah, kind of, I mean, I wrote that piece, primarily because I was, you know, I spent most, you know, a large chunk of my university time sitting in the LEM library. So one was a wonderful place. And I most certainly did not want to see that disappearing. And what was bugging me was that all of the commentary around this was written in a way which was, would have worked 10 or 15 years earlier. When the arts, you know, I mean, I couldn't imagine an earlier Vice Chancellor taking on the arts community in that way. You just wouldn't have I mean, I, back in the, I think it would have been the early 90s, there was a Picasso exhibition that came here, and I was teaching artistry for, for the Auckland University's continuing education department and they put on a course specifically to teach, you know, Picasso to staff at at the university. Now, all of the staff who took that course in quite a number were coming out of the sciences and you know, just did not get not not right and want to understand it. Now, what that tell told you was at the time, that the lack of understanding of art was seen as a problem for people in that in that area. You know, the cultural capital of the arts, in other words was quite high. I can't imagine that happening today. Right. And the fact that the Vice Chancellor was prepared to simply cut out all of these subjects specific things seem to me to be hugely significant. And, you know, I had almost no time during that week that that piece was written in two hours. Right? Just out of sheer frustration at what was happening. I think if I actually sat down and thought about it, I wouldn't have published that. It certainly, you know, the, the reaction to it was pretty horrific. And I don't want to go there again, just because, you know, the internet is not a very safe place, very mixed reaction to I knew there would be, but I was kind of imagining that that would be a debate in the spin off. I didn't quite realize how widely that, you know, art bloggers would would take that. I very much regret it. I think I, you know, I love the the the arts areas, I get frustrated by them. But it's very much my background. So I wasn't in any way attempting to put put the arts down, it was simply to say, have you, you know, you actually do need to think about the fact why is this happening? And, and figure out how to talk to your audience. Right, because this is an audience who do not get the arts? And if you're going to going to negotiate this new middle class, you need to understand that. Right. And I, I stand by that, you know, that opinion, I still think that that that is going to progressively become a situation, I do worry that, you know, in 20 years time, will it be funding for orchestras and for art galleries, and so on. Because there's so many people now whose education has not included any element of the arts. Right, an arts degree is, is is way less common than a business degree, for example, you know, and, and those people are educated, but they don't have an appreciation for the arts. So why would they fund art galleries? So I think the arts need need to move back more and more into the, into the, into the mainstream is my my own feeling. That's why kind of why I ended up in graphic design was that I've felt that that was that was, you know, had the potential, there are a lot of illustrators and so on who are working, who end up going into art, and doing art that does have have appeal, you know, to a wider audience. But I don't know, I'm not sure I desperately want to really litigate this one because as I say, to the To this day, if you search me on the on the net, you will, you know, you will find a find, you know why Peter Gilderdale can get stuffed? Yes. And, you know, I desperately want to put myself through that one again, it's not not pleasant.

Danu Poyner:

No, that's fair. And I don't think we want to re litigate it. But I thought it was interesting, because I guess what comes through very clearly listening to you, you're in on this conversation is that you have a deep love and appreciation and respect for the, for the, the arts and the craft that you're engaged in. But also, you're very conscious about what the world is that you're operating. And you'd mentioned that the profound monetary uncertainty of professional calligraphy and also connecting calligraphy to, to graffiti as the way that people are actually engaging with it, and also making the best of the university research assessment exercise to turn it into something positive. So that kind of you know, it said that a critic needs to love what they criticize. It's it's an interesting kind of place to be and I guess what I was really interested in is what it was like for you to take that insider outsider position. You've already sort of answered this a little bit and why you did that. What's come of it for you. Would you do it again, you said you wouldn't do it again, but I'm not I'm not entirely convinced.

Peter Gilderdale:

I think I think in in doing that, I was looking at You know, I was taking a fairly clinical look at the issues that were playing into this. I think I think that understanding how profound profoundly unsettling those issues actually is, for, you know, the arts community was was something that I perhaps underestimated that, you know, you're you're, you're naming something which people really want left unspoken, right? And when when you do that, you're going to get people lash out.

Danu Poyner:

I guess this connects to the broader point, then about, as we've said, some interesting and challenging things about universities themselves and what they represent and what they're for in the spaces that they are. And, and you sort of also said in that article, it's not enough to resort to saying arts and universities are the critic and conscience of society. That's not enough to justify the existence of traditional universities or the arts. And so you've said that this, this new middle class, you've mentioned is often of the view, you don't need universities at all. And I suspect that, you know, the people listening to this podcast, there will be some recoiling in horror at that thought, but also some nodding along and saying, Yeah, well, we don't need universities and what, so I'm very ambivalent about this myself, which is to say, I have strong feelings on both sides. But what would you say to those who can't imagine a future without universities, but also those who can imagine it very easily?

Peter Gilderdale:

Well, I I mean, I don't like this, the, the kind of what was happening around about the point when I wrote that there was a very big push happening in the media to try and say that, you know, you don't need to be go to university to be an entrepreneur, etc, etc, that, that you can learn other ways, which, of course, I think is true. My own conclusion on this is that I think, you know, I, I very much believe in the university for the things that the university does well, essentially, that is subjects which are, which function as theory to practice. Right? If you if you go theory to practice, then a university is a very good place. Now, there are a lot of subjects, which are not theory to practice subjects in, I would, I would argue that graphic design is not my advice, students very seldom benefited from learning theory before they actually got into making mostly it was you make, and then you figure out what that means. Right? But but the learning comes through the hands, first of all. And I, I think that you need different learning spaces for those types of learnings, which we used to have, they were called politics, the problem was that you had an inbuilt class system based around this. I would like, you know, institutions that were equally prestigious, but which did things in different ways, you might have to call it not a University, the University in the direction that they are going currently will write themselves out of being relevant. You know, I do think you in the end, you want to do good education, and I just don't think that actually what's coming out is is anywhere near as good as it used to be. And, and, you know, the the other the other thing that you, you know, for undergraduate education, I think you have to completely eradicate the idea that, that everything has to be read, you know, research led. This is a self service serving thing that the universities have managed to put into legislation here. But actually, what you want is people who are desperately excited about this subjects, whether they are good researchers or not is another matter but at undergraduate level and I'm talking here undergrad, you want people who are good teachers, and who can excite and that doesn't necessarily mean that they're great researchers, right? post grad i think is another matter. That is you need the research and to go hand in hand with with the teaching but at undergrad. I think that the whole research put sometimes gets in the way. Right? And I, you know, I've known many very, very good, good teachers who were not necessarily great researchers. And I have certainly I'm sure you will have had the same thing at university encountered people who were great researchers who could not teach, you know, at all, and should never have been near a class.

Danu Poyner:

Yep, fair to say, all those people exist.

Peter Gilderdale:

Yeah. So so you know, it's a very complex, very, very difficult area. And I don't know that I've got all the answers. In fact, I'm sure I haven't got all the answers for this. But I do have an abiding sense of of disquiet about the direction that's things are going in on the one hand, and optimism that I know that it's possible to do better, because, you know, we would we were doing better back, you know, back then. I've seen good education occur. So I don't think it's be a beyond us to actually make that happen again.

Danu Poyner:

Yeah, I guess it's okay not to have all the answers because it's not an exclamation mark. It's a question mark.

Peter Gilderdale:

Absolutely. Nice.

Danu Poyner:

So, Peter, it's been a great pleasure talking to you today. And I'm sorry, I've kept you longer as usual than I then I said I wouldn't. But it's, it's been nice to not follow the straight line. Is there something that you're working on at the moment that you that you'd like to give a plug for or, or a shout out to anything on? How can people get in touch with you?

Peter Gilderdale:

Oh, well, probably LinkedIn is the best platform for making contact. In terms of things, things that I'm working on. I've got a new children's book just out at the moment. This is another thing but I, my parents wrote his series of books called the little yellow digger series, which is one of it's probably in the top three New Zealand children's stories still pops up, but I think it was number 15. On the recent children's WIC calls children's All Time list. And I've been writing a few more stories in that series, I've kind of been adding to that if you're just done one on the grounding in the Suez Canal. So bringing the bringing the Egypt interest. Yeah.

Danu Poyner:

These things always come back together.

Peter Gilderdale:

So So yeah, that that that's that's one thing that I'm I'm, I'm doing I enjoy the writing part of the a part of that. And I've there's a project which will be coming out in November called 26. habitats, which is a collaboration between poets and artists. And I'm collaborating again with with Paul white. Who I've worked with doing beach calligraphy but in this case, we went over to Moto E and explored the habitat over there and he's written a poet poetic response I've written I've done a calligraphic one. And that will that will come out on the 26th habitats thing starting in November, there's a British version of it happening at the moment. Right. So wonderful.

Danu Poyner:

We will put links to those in the in the show notes and also just your Instagram and some examples of your work people can see it is really great. And and fascinating.

Peter Gilderdale:

Oh, that's the dog. That's a dog. He's, he's had enough.

Danu Poyner:

Had enough. So that's a good sign to wrap it up. I think I'm faded. Thank you so much for speaking with me this morning.

Peter Gilderdale:

And good luck. Good luck editing. We've gone way too long.

Danu Poyner:

Oh, good. Thank you so much. Alright, bye The rest of your day.

Peter Gilderdale:

Okay. Cheers.