Designing curricula when you have a blank sheet of paper

Opportunity, or bear-trap?

One of the more challenging challenges in my professional life has been curriculum design. I’m currently on my fifth major project, effectively designing an entire programme from scratch.

For those of you from countries/institutions when you don’t get to handle such things, I offer you a mixed greeting. On the one hand, you’re missing an amazing opportunity to contextualise your teaching within a much bigger picture. On the other, it’s a massive pain in the neck to do.

Here in the UK, we have prescribed degree structures: universities validate a package of modules/courses, which together make a named degree. There are options (some of which might come from other degrees), but there’s almost no mixing-and-matching by students to build a major, in the American style. It’s good in that it provides clearer progress and development (plus shorter time-to-completion), but at the price of the limited options for intellectually-curious (or uncertain) students.

Usually, this is a task undertaken by a team from the lead department, but in my case that’s only happened the first two times. All the rest have been for degrees that the university didn’t offer beforehand,  which opens up a whole new can of worms. Continue reading

Stand up for your community

Pretty, if not necessarily insightful

We’re nearly at our Easter break here at Surrey, so we’re tying off classes for a few weeks, before heading to our research activities/graduation events/annual leave. Rather than bore you with details of the Cornish village that will be enjoying presence during next week, I’m rather going to focus on something completely different.

In the past week, I’ve had several different conversations where I’ve been asked about what I do as a citizen of the academic community. For non-academics, this is the unknown side of our work, as they assume we just write books, lecture and have the same holidays as our students. for other academics, there’s a bit more variety, depending on why they’re asking you, but possibly not as much variety as you might expect.

In short, doing stuff like being active in your study association, or reaching out to non-academic audiences, or sharing your work through social media: it’s all just CV-points, right?

Well, I’m aware that I have a dog in this fight, but I’m going to say that it’s certainly not like that.

Instead, it’s one of those tragedy-of-the-commons things: it’s easy to free-ride off the work of others who are maintaining the networks and the groups that exist, but at some point if no one does it, then the whole thing comes down around our ears. Sure, it’s nice when someone else organises things for you, but that’s not a reason to avoid chipping in to help yourself: many hands make light work.

But it goes beyond this.

Getting out there, talking and connecting with people is good for you, individually as well as environmentally. Being an active member of the community is an excellent way to get to know people working on interesting and relevant projects and to share your own work.

This blog is a case in point: this group found each other largely by chance at TLC and we’ve since used it to develop our own thinking on various research matters, to build a wider contact group in the discipline and to provide a space in which to debate and discuss. I particularly like that we now have a steady stream of guest contributors, because it means I’m getting to know more people, even as they get an opportunity to get to do the same.

The short version of this is that academia is a fundamentally collaborative profession. Even if we work by ourselves, we do so on the basis of others’ work and with a view to contributing back into a continually-evolved debate. Yes, writing your high-impact outputs is an important part of that, but it’s not the only part. The more you work to participate, the more you can shape the debate, directly and indirectly.

Finally it’s worth saying that the more people you meet, the more you’ll know what’s what and who’s who. Time and again I’m surprised by how small our community can be, so never underestimate the value of contributing to our communal life. And remember that reputations travel further than you think, both good and bad.

Rules (and how to use them)

OK, so some rules don’t change…

For various reasons – some political, some professional – I’m thinking about rules.

So much of the work we do as scholars is about understanding the formal and informal rules of political interaction, and how political agents use, adapt to and shape them. The norms of political life are often purely conventional, but they can exert powerful effects, even before we get to notions of (il)legality. Take a moment to look at the leader of your country and think how much of our understanding of that individual is about their mastery of rules and conventions.

Fun, wasn’t it?

And so too in the classroom. Our institutions set up rules and regulations, codes and practices: in our classrooms, we fall into roles and habits.

One of the most useful things in my development of my practice has been to tackle those local rules in a political way: to think how I can make those rules work for me, rather than against.

To be (very) clear, that doesn’t mean breaking or ignoring rules, but reflecting on their intent and their definition and how they fit (or don’t) with what I’m trying to do.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways this works.

The first is when you’re doing something and then the rules change. This tends to be the more common, because we’re always doing stuff and the rules are always changing (or so it feels). The conventional view would be to throw up one’s hands and demand to know why ‘we’re fixing stuff that isn’t broke’: if it was good enough then, then why isn’t it now?

But rules do change and almost always for a well-intentioned reason (even if that latter point isn’t always immediately obvious). Rather than having a strop about it, we can more usefully consider how the rule changes impact on what we do and how we can adapt. Remember that change is usually evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, so it’s not a blank-sheet exercise.

Usually.

Moreover, rules are mostly about process, not substance, in a HE setting, so adaptions will tend to focus on broad frameworks, rather than much more invasive details. You might be told who can run a seminar, but you very likely aren’t told what has to happen (or not happen) in that seminar. Or even what a seminar is.

As any of you with exposure to any legal training will know, rules are always incomplete, so think about what isn’t said as much as what is: it’s the gap that offer the opportunities.

And this is the second category: doing stuff where there are no rules.

When I set up my negotiation module, many years back, there was very little guidance from the regulations, because they were blind to formats of sessions. As much as the regulations where there, they set expectations on how I lectured and how I assessed. The former simply didn’t apply, because there were no lectures, while the latter acted as a starting point for getting creative with my assessment. In the end, I used that to anchor a sound pedagogic model of self-reflection within a ‘conventional’ assessment regime. I was happy, my institution was happy and my students got a strong incentive to work towards the learning objectives that I’d written. Everyone’s happy.

Of course, at some rules change (see above) and I’ve had to evolve my course most years to accommodate this thing or that. We’re now quite some distance from where we’ve begun, but I still get to exercise a considerable degree of freedom, while also meeting my institutional obligations.

Of course, this can all happen at a much more prosaic level: the number of students who take your class is largely out of your control, so you have to adapt (sometimes majorly so, as I’ve discovered). Likewise, the number of students who turn up for the class, or who have prepared is a variable that you work around.

If you think of these as just variants on the rule problem, then you can start to see how you can work to the other rules in your life.

Until they change, of course.

My students don’t turn up: Responses to another classic problem

This

As I looked out across the lecture theatre yesterday afternoon, I did wonder what had happened to the two-thirds of the class that weren’t there. The sun was shining outside, but still.

Following on from Amanda’s post, I wanted to think about why this happens and what we can do about it.

Causes

  1. It’s the timing. Oldest one in the book, this: “it’s too early/too late/the other side of campus from my other class/the only thing I’d be coming in for/etc.” It’s easy to mock this one, but you remember feeling the same way when you studied: some times just feel more difficult than others. And just because I like teaching at 9am on Monday doesn’t mean my students like it. In yesterday’s case, it wasn’t even the usual slot, because I’d had to move times to avoid a clash with research commitments.
  2. It’s the room. Provision varies across campuses, even the most well-endowed ones. Sometimes rooms aren’t what they should be for the task in hand.
  3. It’s the other commitments. Another classic: I’m aware that yesterday’s class came a couple of hours before a deadline for most of the group and I’m guessing that some people decided they needed to focus their energies on that. Going off and enjoying the sunshine falls in this category too.
  4. Personal issues. I’m also aware that several of my class have been in touch to give valid personal reasons for their absence, due to ill health and other personal issues. This is a standard environmental factor for all of us, but sometimes it can be more substantial than others.
  5. It’s the class. Sometimes it’s not them, it’s you. Your class might not be very exciting or relevant or well-designed or it might be redundant because of other stuff you do. If you take all the other causes above as par for the course, then you can’t ignore this.

Solutions

1-4 All these things aren’t necessarily in your control, so you need to work with.around them as best you can. That means working with colleagues and your timetabling service to find time slots that make sense within the various constraints that exist. It means reporting faults with rooms promptly. It means coordinating assessment deadlines (that can be another post by itself). And it means ensuring students get appropriate and timely pastoral support.

Which leaves the class.

Think about how your class works, both in of itself and as part of a broader course. Is it offering something useful and something engaging? Note that these are two different things. Hopefully none of us teach stuff that isn’t useful – at least in our own minds – but the engagement aspect is more easily overlooked: there’s often an attitude that it doesn’t have to be engaging, because it’s important. Research methods is a good example of this: you have to do it, so it doesn’t matter how we do it.

If you’re aligning your teaching properly, then students will know what they’d doing at any given moment, and why they’re doing, and that they’ll be assessed on it. But if you’re flipping and/or providing powerpoints with all the key information on them (as I am in this present case) then are you undermining the need or desire to attend class?

This is one of the more tricky aspects of alignment, namely that you want to reinforce key elements, but then students take that as redundancy. If there is a solution, then it’s that we don’t tackle those key elements in the same way each time, but instead approach from another angle. Instead of just ploughing the same furrow again and again, you’re marking out criss-crossing tracks that join up into a mesh of knowledge and understanding (and mixed metaphors).

There’s more to be said on this, but I just wanted to get the ball rolling. If you have thoughts about this, then we always welcome comments and guest posts.

Confidence and simulations: a rising tide?

Yeah, pretty much like this

I’m in Antwerp today, as I’ve just joined the supervisory panel for Dorothy, who’s working on measuring the effectiveness of simulation games, something that we’ve repeatedly questioned here on the blog.

Reading up on this once again reminds me that one of the biggest difficulties understanding what happens in a simulation is that very much of it appears to be profoundly subjective.

Sims are vehicles for developing not only improved substantive knowledge and a range of skills, but also for creating safe spaces (yeah, I know: not that kind) for participants to explore other roles and personas than their own. Put differently, they can be moments for building confidence.

Now I don’t’ see confidence as a skill, because it strikes as more of an emotional state. Yes, you can train people to develop strategies that can make them feel more confident – preparation routines, reframing, distraction techniques – but ultimately one needs to feel confident to be confident.

Sims can be helpful in this by taking individuals out of themselves, and giving them licence to act differently. At some point, you are acting ‘out of character’, but the character you’re acting out of is your own. Continue reading

Thinking about classroom problems in general

The other three-phase

Amanda’s excellent post yesterday on students not reading put me in mind of a very useful conceptualisation of classroom situations that I was taught in my training, more years ago than I care to remember.*

In essence, the conceptualisation suggests that there are three phases in our pedagogic practice, and our movement through them reflects our increasing confidence and ability: and they look not so different from Amanda’s options.

The first phase is to centre everything on yourself, the teacher. You are the sun and everything revolves around you. If students don’t get it, then it’s because you did a bad job; likewise, their successful learning is down to you and your amazing classes.

If you like, this is the rollercoaster phase, with rapid highs and lows, where the euphoria is mixed with a heavy dose of nausea.

It’s obvious that this should be the starting point, because you’re new to all this and you’re discovering your own powers: it’s a very human instinct to work from oneself, because that’s what you know best.

However, this model is not only emotionally draining but it also runs into the (usually quite swift) realisation that you’re not the only agent in the learning-teaching nexus. There’s got to be a different way of looking at things. Continue reading

More Rashomoning: Considering truth in political communication

After our recent posts on teaching Trump, and on problematising interpretations of phenomena for students, I now find myself sensitised to such matters.

Walking through town at the weekend, I found a leaflet thrust in my hand. As you can see from the photo, this is obviously an individual with something that they feel strongly about: my very first impression was that the paper was irregularly cut, which means they have cut it by hand – no small effort.

And then you read it.

By itself, it’s an excellent piece for a group of students to discuss in class. The argument is there, but jumbled up and obscured: I’m still not sure the proverb makes any real sense (plus, it seems like a very long, and specific proverb).

But the bit that pulls one up is the arrest. How can promoting veganism get you put in jail? Continue reading