Using social media as an academic

A slightly different post this week, off the back of a session I led in Brussels for TEPSA’s PONT project, on how to use social media. I talked with a group of 15 young professionals, planning academic or think-tanky careers, about why social media can be of use to them.

The key message was that even if you don’t really care about social media, it cares about you.

If you’d like a demonstration, then google yourself and see what comes up. I did that for the group and put up a slide with the first photo that appeared on google images. Suffice to say that everyone had a photo, just not necessarily of them, or a particularly relevant one.

Put differently, even if you’re not created a virtual profile, others might be, so you need to engage with things enough to address misrepresentation.

But if we’re going beyond that kind of hygiene model, then what’s important?

Be active

Social media relies on content, so if you want to have a meaningful profile on a given platform, then you need to create content. There’s little worse than setting up a platform, making a few desultory contributions and then leaving it to rot.

The speed of decay is much higher than in other media, so my recommendation is to plan and get into the habit of regular new content production. For me, that means weekly diary slots for blogging (like this), fairly standard points in the day for checking news sites to tweet, plus a slightly more flexible schedule for podcasting. Especially when starting out, being strict about producing is really important, otherwise it’s very easy to fall out of the habit.

If you are giving up on a platform, then give up clearly. If it’s early days, then try to delete your efforts, but it there’s any substance you should produce something to make it clear to any visitors that you’ve actively decided to stop (rather than just drifting off).

Be yourself

My primary social media audience is me: I assume that no one else is very interested in what I have to say, so it’s an opportunity for me to understand my thoughts on a subject.

That means I think of Twitter in large part as a public bookmarking of interesting content, and blogging as working through contentious issues, en route to more formal outputs and discussions.

Of course, over time that has changed and I have had many excellent interactions online with people about ideas and developments. And it bleeds over into real life [sic], where people want to talk with me about stuff I’ve written online.

But still I try to stay close to me and my interests.

In part that’s because I know that once I produce something, I lose control over it. Over the years, I’ve seen stuff I’ve made appear in all manner of random places, used to bolster all kinds of arguments, and not always in a way that I intended. However, because I feel that I’ve tried to be internally consistent, and frank about the limitations of what I produce, then I won’t get a nasty bite on the bum down the line.

Which is why I never produce content when I’m drunk. And to write nothing I won’t be happy showing my mother.

Be interesting/useful

The final idea to share is about focus. Don’t try to be some kind of master-commentator, opining on everything and anything: pick out what you’re good at and stick to that.

Sure, there are individuals who can cover vast tracts of social/political/cultural issues in an interesting way, but you’ll note that they are very rare and they always have a strong underlying philosophy or mentality that ties it all together.

I know I don’t have that, so I stick to what I know I can do: learning & teaching; and euroscepticism. Many are the ills of the world on which I have personal opinions, but nothing useful to say, so I say nothing.

If you’re starting out on social media, the temptation is to get stuck into everything. Resist, and build up a reputation and profile in something specific: that’s the best way to build your profile and credibility as a commentator, researcher and professional.

 

Social media’s huge attraction is that it’s in your control: you can build a presence that doesn’t rely on anyone else. But to make it work for you, you need to know your limits and know your objectives.

Beyond the mountains

As part of the various discussions on learning & teaching at UACES last week, we held a roundtable on the INOTLES project that I’ve been involved with for the past few years.

We were talking about the difficulties of designing pedagogic materials for use by others, and I gave the example of the photo above.

It’s from my summer holiday in Croatia (yes, we had a lovely time, thank you for asking).

Most days, we would sit on the beach, swim a bit, read a bit, generally laze about. But I would also find myself asking what was on the other side of the mountains that I could see.

At one level, I know exactly what’s there. I have a map, guidebooks; I’ve even possibly spent some time on Google Earth, flying over the terrain.

But at another level, I have no real idea what it’s like. I’ve never visited (having found that the beach was a perfectly lovely spot); I’ve never even talked to someone who has been over the mountains.

And that’s rather the situation I find with designing materials for others to use.

I feel I had a good grasp of what’s important in any given pedagogic method, the core elements that must be present for it to work, and I feel confident that I can communicate that to others.

But I also know that without actually experiencing the situation of the end-user, it’s very hard to make something that is very useful (rather than just functioning), because there are a wide variety of factors that come into play.

To come back to the INOTLES project, one of the big challenges was re-adjusting my understanding of the situation of our partners in Eastern Europe. While I was worrying initially about aligning assessment with game-play in simulations, they were worrying about a lack of furniture in their classrooms.

Problematically, this is not an easy situation to resolve. When we create materials for sharing, we always do with a number of assumptions that are more or less implicit. Even if we could list all those assumptions, it’s not immediately obvious how they might impact on pedagogy (the presence/absence of furniture might be a good example).

Perhaps the best we can do is be alive to this issue and to be open to discussion with end-users about how they see things and what adjustments might be suitable. In short, talking with each other might be the way forward, to take us to the edge of the mountains.

Checking assumptions, breaking the ice: the UACES L&T workshop

Oh, I seem to be promoting this website… (thanks to @bentonra for the photo)

I’m in Poland this week, for the annual conference of UACES, the world’s largest European Studies association, of which I’m very proud to be Treasurer.

As part of the conference, we run an L&T workshop on the day beforehand. We’ve been doing this for some years now and it seems to be a good way of ensuring some critical mass on things teaching-y and for giving an opportunity to try out some different formats.

As such, each year, we do different things in a very deliberate way: it not only keeps it fresh, but also demonstrates to participants how they can reconfigure their practice.

Last year, I was tasked with an ice-breaker task, so I tried out an activity that sought to marry ‘getting to know you’ with ‘talking about teaching.’

Obviously, I used post-it notes to achieve this.

As we started, we gave out a post-it to everyone and told them to write one idea that they have found useful for improving their teaching practice. I was keen to stress that should be no limits to this, so it could be anything at all.

Once they’d done that, I got people to stick their post-it on to their name badge and then go and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and explain their idea to each other.

Within minutes I had a room of people chatting away.

After a while, as chat began to die down, I got everyone to swap around, to meet a new person they didn’t know and repeat the exercise. We did a third cycle too.

Having broken some ice, I then asked everyone to stick their post-it on a whiteboard, which I’d marked up with two axes: a horizontal one of small things-big things, and a vertical one of degree of subject specificity.

The final stage was to talk about what had been posted and using it to flag some points that fed into the next part of the workshop.

As an exercise, I’d observe that it was very helpful for getting a bunch of people who mostly didn’t know each other to start conversations, but also in getting me to think about the variety of what people bring to such sessions.

I’m very fortunate that I have a great community of people with whom I exchange regularly on L&T: we share a lot of language and range of considerations.

But that’s not the only way of doing things, as this exercise demonstrated.

I’d made some assumptions about what people would write: my own contribution was ABC feedback; small, quick, generic. Surely everyone would do the same.

Well, as you can see in the photo, there was a load of that (group 2), but we also had a lot of other stuff too (see list at the bottom of this post).

In part, this reflected some debate about “what’s ‘small’/’big’”, but it was mainly about the different backgrounds of the people. A browse of the list will show that all kinds of things are there.

So it’s a good moment to remember that we have to check our assumptions, not only with our students, but also with each other.

Now to find out more about what inverted learning might involve.

That list in full:

1: Quite small, relatively subject specific

  • Innovative assessment (e.g. briefing papers, not always essays)

 

2: Small and generic

  • Student field trips (with prep talks)
  • To do the work at the best/highest level, to bring to discussion new, sometimes challenging ideas
  • Find a balance between interaction and structure and guidance
  • Inverted learning, leading to advanced study, leading to connections of experience and debates
  • Tell jokes
  • ABC feedback
  • Role play
  • Tell jokes
  • Get students to use Moodle in class
  • Good use of first and last 5 minutes of the class
  • Involving participants in the discussion

 

3: more substantial, but still generic

  • Meetings to exchange experience/knowledge
  • Tour de table: get students to hear their own voice
  • Discussing current news by linking current problems with EU studies
  • Setting up workshops
  • Role play exercises
  • Brain-storming sessions
  • Use professional exchange: people of different scientific and professional backgrounds address cross-cutting issues
  • Working with students’ practical experience
  • Using self-reflection as a teaching method: students reflecting their performance during an internship, classes
  • Engagement through debating
  • Introduce student-run blog
  • Using study visits to enhance students’ experience and understanding

 

4: big, and quite subject-specific

  • Teaching EU business (school) students
  • Visit Brussels
  • Mixing masters and undergraduate cohorts in same unit

Fancy a week in Cyprus? A call for proposals

Did I mention you’ll be right next to the Green Line? #PoliSciHoliday

As the staff close up Chateau Usherwood for the traditional summer break, I’m reminded that the call for paper for the ECPR Joint Sessions is now open.

These Sessions run on a similar format to APSA’s TLC – a firm ALPSBlog favourite – but with four full days sat with the same group, working through papers on a common theme, with an output very much in mind at the end.

The idea is that you spend a proper block on time, focused on the issues and get/give lots of feedback to each other to move things on.

Plus, next year it’s in Cyprus, so that’ll be good too.

I share this because Peter Bursens and I have organised a Session on learning gains from active learning, i.e. exactly the kind of thing you guys are well into.

If you’d like to join us, then you just need to submit a proposal via the online portal: you’ll need to sort out your status with ECPR first (membership is institutional rather than individual). There are also some funding options available too.

I really hope you can join us, both because this is emerging as a critical area of work in L&T, and because it’s good to have the time and space to discuss such things.

 

Fight! Fight! Fight!

So, I’ve had an unusual experience this week.

I’m teaching in a summer school at another institution, and I put up a photo of the UKIP “breaking point” poster (google it), only to have several students lay into it, about its veracity, legitimacy and loads more.

In these situations I like to let things run a bit, because it often conveniently sets out points for subsequent discussion. And this did that.

However, very quickly it became a bit personal. And then a bit more.

I intervened at this point, asked for a bit of self-reflection on it and then trying to get things moving again. At the end of class, there was some apologising.

Continue reading

Blown up out of all proportion? Grade-inflation in the UK

So, grade inflation is back in the news over here. Using government data, the Press Association constructed tables showing how the percentages of first-class honours degrees have risen very markedly over the past five years.

It’s a dubious honour that my own institution tops the list, with the biggest percentage increase.

You can read my Vice-Provost’s comments in the story linked at the top, noting that this is both a national trend and a reflection of the efforts we’ve put into making sure we make the most of our teaching of students.

I’m in no position to comment on this, having left the heady heights of middle-management behind some time ago. However, one thing that’s not been mentioned – and which I can note – is the more mechanical effect of our changing student intake.

For the period in question, the university was rapidly ramping-up its entry requirements, as part of an effort to improve its position in university league tables. In essence, the argument was that by taking stronger students, the university’s entry tariff would go up, there would be fewer students dropping out (because they’d be more able), and they’d get better final results, and be more likely to get employed. All those things are counted by league table compilers.

And so it has proved: our rise up the tables has been very impressive.

However, as this story shows, that is not without problems. And certainly it’s not the only thing at work here.

As American colleagues will know better than I do, grade inflation is a pervasive issue and one with its own logic. Notwithstanding the very different quality assurance regime here in the UK, that logic also sticks here too.

I offer no answers on this, but will leave it as something to chew on over the summer break.

Back in the mix – UPDATED

Like this, right?

A short post right now from me, as I’m back to school for the day.

Elements of my family felt that I needed nothing more than cookery lessons, so I’m spending the day working on my cucina italiana, at a secret location in nearby countryside.

I think it was meant in a positive way.

In any case, I’m off and like any self-respecting pedagogue (pedagologist?) I’m wondering how one structures such classes.

Is the focus on techniques (ways of preparing food that are ‘Italian’), or on basic elements (key ‘Italian’ flavours), or some vaguer ‘Italian’ sensibility? Or perhaps I’ll be walked through a few dishes then I’m on my own?

Put differently, what am I going to get from the day that I couldn’t get from reading Marcella Hazan? Continue reading