Embedding social media

The piece I wrote some weeks back, about how to do social media, continues to attract interest from various quarters, possibly because of its amazing insights, possibly because I keep linking to it on my assorted feeds [sic].

One aspect that I didn’t explore very much was how to embed social media into what you do.

It’s easy to produce lots on such platforms, but harder to link it all up, especially with non-social media activity, such as teaching.

This came back to me yesterday, watching a webcast of Jon Worth. Jon’s a super-active campaigner and consultant, dashing around Europe to offer advice and support to all manner of groups. Continue reading

The REF Impact & Pedagogy conundrum


For reasons that I think mainly relate to having missed the relevant meeting, I am my Department’s Impact lead for REF, the multi-annual evaluation exercise of research quality in British universities. The Impact part of it relates to efforts to measure what, um, impact that research has outside of the academic community.

For the purposes of this post, let’s assume I’m thrilled with this honour.

The intention behind REF might well be an honourable one, but as so often in life, the practice is more complicated than the theory. How does one measure any of these things? What does one measure? And so on.

A particular bugbear for me, and other UK-based academics in the same situation, is the ambiguous position of pedagogic research. Continue reading

Universities and academic freedom in the age of Brexit

Me, corrupting young minds yesterday

Academic freedom isn’t the kind of subject that comes up very often in the UK. I would say it’s benign neglect, but actually it’s just neglect: no-one really seemed to fight that fight and so things just trundled on. We’d watch events in Turkey, Hungary or the US, sigh or tut and then get on with things here, where nothing really changes.

As such, the past week has been a bit of a wake-up call.

The short version runs like this. A Conservative MP, part of the Whip’s office, wrote a couple of weeks ago to all university vice-chancellors, asking for a list of names of ‘professors working on European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also asked for links to syllabuses and to any online teaching materials.

About a week later this broke in public, with VCs accusing the MP of ‘mcCarthyism’ and ‘witch-hunts’: his own unwillingness to speak publicly about his intentions for this material only gave further to people’s suspicions.

As much as the government disowned the MP’s actions, the response from academic quarters gave a perfect opportunity for sections of the press to lay into the ‘liberal brain-washing’ that apparently goes on in universities: I’ll pass on linking to such pieces, but if you want to find them, then I’d look in the right-wing press.

At the root of this is a basic talking at cross-purposes. Universities (and academics) feel very concerned these days about their position: their general situation is ever more precarious, be that in terms of students, funding, research or the role they play in society. In their eyes, this all looked like an attack on their core values. I’ll put my hand up on this too: I’m not normally one to sign public statements, but I did so as Treasurer of UACES, an association that was very much in the front line of all this. Continue reading

Supporting a pedagogic community

Yeah. It’s like this. Just like this.

When I talk with people about the work I have done in L&T over the years, I often find myself remembering that I’ve covered a lot of ground in that time.

However, I’m also frequently reminded that there’s a lot more I could have done, and could be doing. And so it’s been in recent weeks, where I’ve just started mentoring some colleagues at my home institution as they prepare for their application to Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the HEA, it’s the UK body for HE teaching. I was very proud to become one of its National Teaching Fellows a couple of years ago, having been a Fellow for a lot longer.

The Senior Fellowship is the next step for most colleagues once they have their initial qualification and UK universities are putting a lot more effort into getting staff to work towards these higher levels of recognition.

For me, it’s a new opportunity to translate existing skills into a new environment. My mentees have to produce an e-portfolio to document how they meet the various criteria and then either write an essay or give a presentation in a viva, to show how all those elements fit together.

Once again I am reminded that we often don’t reflect on our teaching practice very much, and that we also tend not to document what we do: my mentees are having to start with some discussion about how to capture their activities, despite their copious experience.

It also makes me think that this blog – and the ALPSblog community in general – has been a very positive development on this front, precisely because we do all unpack and explore the different aspects of what we do as educators and pedagogists in a way that goes beyond the usual forms of quality assurance that we experience.

As so often, I’m finding that I’m gaining as much as those I work with from this process, as I am asked to reflect on how to engage with the particular requirements of this process and on how to make the most of it.

In short, there’s always more to learn out there.

Observers or actors? Academics as participants

Last week’s office

I got to spend a couple of days in Florence last week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association, of which I’m Treasurer.

We spent some time looking back, but also a lot talking about where we are and where we might be heading, both as an association and as academics in general. Being joined by the heads of our American and Irish sister bodies also raised some really interesting ideas about collaboration across borders.

Underpinning that discussion was a debate that has been coming ever more to the fore in recent years: how much should we, as academics, be trying to offer ideas and solutions to public debate, rather than just analysis?

Clearly, this has always been a question that has been there for the academy, since our fundamental objective of trying to understand the world is necessarily linked to participating in it. But the various events of late – from government crack-downs to elections and referendums to societal challenges – have all pointed towards a role also being forced upon us.

Put differently, if everyone thinks we’re getting involved any way, shouldn’t we get involved properly: if we’re taking the costs, then shouldn’t we try to generate some benefits too? If you like, this is the equivalent of my post on social media a few weeks back: if you don’t project an image, then someone will project it for you.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that we didn’t crack that particular nut last week, not least because the fineness of the line between contribution and campaigning leaves many feeling very uncomfortable. Having seen how some of those who have been seen to cross that line have been treated, that discomfort is understandable, if not necessarily the only factor to consider.

At a time when politicians seem to be facing ever more issues to which they have no good response, the role of the academic in providing insights and options surely becomes more important. It’s literally our job to try and make sense of assorted phenomena and it would be remiss of us not to share that sense-making with others.

That might be easily said, but how that translates into practice is unclear. Do we wait to be asked? Do we have to agree among ourselves? Do we just call out bullshit, or try to advance evidence-based solutions?

All big questions, with assorted viable answers.

At the very least, we need to be talking about this, before we find ourselves pushed into roles that others have chosen for us.

Collateral damage in the rise of active learning


I finally started teaching again last week, and as usual, I got students on my negotiation course to play the Hobbes game, to get them to reconsider their view of the world.

I do this because it’s a really neat way of highlighting fundamentally different logics of interpersonal relations – competitive versus collaborative – and getting them to start thinking about to handle each other (in a negotiating sense).

Except this time, it didn’t really work.

The usual run of things – in fact, the only run of things in my experience – is that everyone fights each other and there’s only one winner at the end.

But in this instance, about half the group refused to challenge others, only fighting when challenged, and once the challengers had been knocked out there was still about one-third of the class standing.

Now, I’d like to say that this was because somehow our students have developed such a mature sense of their political being that they all divined the cooperative solution to the game. But they didn’t.

They’d just played it before.

In my enthusiasm to share the Hobbes game with colleagues, one of my more IR-inclined colleagues took it back to the roots it had when Victor first made it, back in the nineteenth century.* My colleague played it in her theories course a couple of years ago, to great effect.

And lasting effect too, it seems.

When we discussed it, everyone who’d played before had adopted the cooperative solution, even though it’s no more ‘correct’ than the competitive one.

As a consequence, I was left explained a lot more of the game than I ever previously had. Even though my basic message – other people are a pain in the neck – still held, it was rather differently framed as a result of the game-play.

Now this has little to do with you, except insofar as it raises the broader issue of how we use such activities and games. My experience with this tells me that it’s largely a one-shot exercise: if you play it with a group more than once during their education, you’ll likely skew the result. And if you’ve been sharing your games – as I hope you would – then the chances of a student encountering your work rises.

At the very least it’s something that requires some reflection on your part: how essential is it that students come to this without any prior understanding of your aims? can you adapt your reflection/feedback to such a situation?

I’ll happily admit I was caught totally unawares this time, but now I’m working through all the other stuff I’m planning to see if it’s likely to happen again, and what I can/must do about it.


    • rough guess

A game to start your interactions with students

I realise this is probably a bit late for most of you, but here’s a game to play with students to teach them a valuable lesson about how education works.

I was taught it about a decade ago by David Jaques, but never had a) the equipment, or b) the opportunity, until last week, at our Departmental awayday.

the only photo I’m allowed to post

You’ll need a piece of string long enough to go comfortably around the room you’re using (which will be a bit longer than you think), plus blindfolds for everyone. On the latter, I had hand-made some out of old t-shirts, but then I checked on Amazon and found that as a side-effect of Fifty Shades, you can get multi-packs for a few pounds. Avoid the fluffy ones, and also be prepared to see your suggested purchase algorithm take a hit.

Before the game, arrange furniture with tables and chairs, so that the string can be threaded into a big loop. I had cut my string into several sections and tied them back together, so that when I tied it all into a big loop, that last join wouldn’t be exceptional. Leave some way to allow access to the central of the space.

Then you bring in the participants, with their blindfold on and join them to the string.

The instructions you’ll have given beforehand are as follows:

“You’re in a burning building, and thick smoke means you can’t see at all. However, there is an escape route: follow the string to the end. If you need help, just stick up your hand.”

Once everyone’s attached to the string, off you go. Or off they go.

Now, as I’ve explained it to you, you know there’s no end to the string, but what do you think they’ll do?

That’s right: spend 20 minutes blindly chasing around the string, trying to find the end and getting annoyed with you/me.

Keep reminding them of the rules, as set out above. I certainly found myself putting more and more emphasis on the last sentence (because that’s the key one).

When someone puts up their hand, then go over to them, whisper to them to take off their blindfold, then gestue that they have escaped and should let go of the string and step silently to one side and watch. In my game, that took 15 minutes before anyone did that, and it took 30 minutes before the final group decided to ‘concede’ and ask for help.

The point of the game is, obviously, that if someone offers you help, then you should take it.

I have always liked the idea of the game, because it’s very clear in its purpose (seen from the end), and I’m really keen to try it out on students, especially since I now have a pile of blindfolds. It opens up a conversation about learning styles and interpersonal dynamics: do the people you think will ask for help do so? Is help cheating? And so on.

It might be a bit late for the start of semester, but if my colleagues are anything to do by, then it’s never too late to try out.