Advice to my younger self

I’ve finally to attending a networking event for Early Career Researchers at the conference I’m at, having decided that I’m far enough down the line to have something useful to say.

(Why yes, I have recently had a birthday. Why do you ask?)

The idea is a pretty standard one: speed-dating round the room to make some contacts and share some ideas. It’s a really good format for semi-structured getting-to-know-yous.

Of course, me being me, I’ve spent a couple of days talking through ideas with my partner, who’s also an academic: what is the most useful advice you could give someone if you only had a couple of minutes?

Since I don’t see why I should limit my unburdening to the ECRs at the conference, here’s my shot.

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A Tale of Two Conferences

With apologies to Charles Dickens.

I recently presented at nearly back-to-back conferences that were not, strictly speaking, devoted to my areas of expertise. While I think it’s always good to go beyond one’s comfort zone, the experience again illustrated a principle upon which Simon and I have occasionally commented: academic conferences often don’t reflect workplace realities. To wit:

The first conference, of the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), was held in Washington, DC. Until you found out it wasn’t. I had immediately noticed from the call for proposals, unlike my wife/colleague, that the conference site was actually a 30-minute drive south, in Maryland. Public transit, including from the airport, took 90 minutes. While the hotel itself was gorgeous, its location represented additional expense and inconvenience for attendees, especially for those with limited or no financial support from their home institutions.

But the greater problem, in my opinion: it was the usual routine of presenting obscure research, completely unrelated to teaching, to mostly empty rooms. Hardly anyone who attended the conference has or will have a career that is entirely research-focused. In other words, the conference was organized to serve an audience that doesn’t exist.

The second conference, Eastern Regional Campus Compact, was a bit better in this regard, as one might expect from an organization whose mission is community engagement. But it still demonstrated the disconnect between conference format and audience. My contribution was an interactive workshop on teaching techniques, which drew a crowd of about fifty people, with some spilling out into the corridor — a clear sign of interest. The other sessions I attended, organized as traditional panels, attracted a half dozen or fewer people.

As I mention in the post at the link shown above, the economics of these kinds of conferences are backwards and not sustainable.

What makes good teaching?

But… but… he’s… he’s teaching himself. That’s not even on the NSS

Think about the teaching you have received over your life; especially the teaching that made a difference.

You might remember a teacher or lecturer who was incredibly enthused by their subject, who shared that passion to you through your time together, dazzling and enticing you to learn more.

Or maybe you remember someone who presented their material very clearly and systematic, who flagged the key points and was an excellent communicator.

Or was there someone who was a really good laugh, who made you want to be in class for the LOLZ?

I’ve had all of those.

But I’m not sure that those people where necessarily the ones that I learnt the most from.

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Ways to make a university course more attractive and to improve student learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Ulrich Hamenstädt

In her chapter, Ludmila Kašpárková discusses several methods to make a relatively unpopular university course more attractive for the students. The chapter presents first the challenge of teaching a course for which the students’ motivation is low. Kašpárková then outlines three changes she made to improve students’ motivation and learning outcomes. Finally, she presents the results of her evaluation on how the new teaching style has helped to improve the course and student learning.

For me, this chapter is a good example on how to deal with a challenge that a university lecturer faces from time to time: taking over a course that is part of the compulsory curriculum, but is unpopular among the students for different reasons. While the content of this course was relatively fixed, the approach to teaching offered many opportunities for improvement. In this sense, this chapter presents three ways to improve learning that can be easily applied to various university courses.

The first approach Kašpárková used was to implement John Bigg’s concept of constructive alignment in the didactic design of the course. To ensure that the students understand the syllabus, the learning objectives and develop ownership of learning she discussed with the students their possible takeaways of the course. This may seem obvious, but since it takes time, it is often neglected or shortened out in practice. The second change of the course was the introduction of new learning activities such as role plays and peer discussions to replace passive learning from lecturing. This was a key element of this innovation, since learning in social sciences is not about imparting knowledge but it implies – above all – enabling the students to develop their skills. Thirdly, the examination at the end of the semester was replaced by continuous assessment to enhance the quality of student learning.

Overall, it is interesting to read how all these changes together influenced students’ learning outcomes. Ludmila Kašpárková’s work presents a valuable approach to transforming and improving a course for students. The series of changes reported in the chapter can also be applied individually to course sessions or teaching situations. 

It’s not me, it’s you: framing grade-inflation

I’m still enough of a kid to be excited to see the place I work at mentioned in the news, especially if it’s in an outlet my mum might see.

Of course, it’d be better if the context of this particular mention were different, but I guess you can’t have it all.

This all comes off the back of the on-going debate in government about grade inflation.

I wrote about all this last summer, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten much further in my thinking about this, except to note the shift in framing to combating ‘artificial’ grade inflation.

While this might seem to start to take account of the other factors at play, what it singularly doesn’t do is set out a means of calculating this in practice.

Obviously, there are changes in student characteristics that have a direct bearing and these are relatively simple to capture: socio-economic status; entry grades; progressive performance in each year of study.

However, there are also obviously changes in the teaching environment: staffing changes; changes in pedagogic approach; changing curricula (we’ve made our final year dissertation optional thus year, for example); changing provision of learning resources outside the degree programme, at the library or in welfare; changes in programme regulations.

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Unsure about it all?

A very short one today, as I’m struggling with a pile of stuff that I’m not sure I understand.

While it’s great that I get to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise be able to, Brexit has also meant I get asked to explain things that are either at the edge of my knowledge, or which are so novel that no-one’s considered them before.

You might have this in your classroom sometimes – I know I still do – so a couple of thoughts on how I handle it.

Firstly, work from what you know.

Nothing is so out-there that it doesn’t touch on something that’s much more settled, so build your conceptual bridge out from that. It not only gives you something more solid to work with, but often it’s where those involved are working from too.

Secondly, consider the range of options.

Politics is great to study because of its uncertainty, but that usually works within a bounded set of pathways. The more you can work through what that set might include, the better you can evaluate how actors might choose among them.

And thirdly, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

No-one knows everything and sometimes it’s a matter of either being too early to tell, or too uncertain to guess. Park it, say what would be a marker of things changing in a way that you could tell, so that your audience is left with some tools, even if they don’t get the answer there and then.

Right, back to the world of UK Parliamentary procedure.

Shaping Skilled and Motivated Students but Whose Role Should This Be?

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Maxine David.

In her chapter Life after academia: preparing students for successful collaboration, Kovačević talks us through her 2017 experiences teaching a course on EU Enlargement at the University of Economics in Bratislava (EUBA). We are first given a little insight into teaching practices at EUBA and into Slovak Higher Education legislation, before moving on to the detail regarding the problems she felt needed remedying, the method she employed, the rationale for it and expected results. Data collection and results are then discussed, albeit the latter more comprehensively than the former. The chapter ends with Kovačević’s reflections on the application of group presentations and the challenges involved in devising a reliable research design to generate data on applied teaching methods.

Many academics who have been teaching for a good number of years will recognise their own early teaching days in the experiences Kovačević describes. At one level, this is rather depressing; I, for instance, have assessed students through group presentations for a decade and more. Even at the beginning, I did not consider it as terribly innovative given it was what I had encountered on my own Bachelor’s degree back in the 1990s. The chapter therefore raised questions for me about what might really be called innovative. In turn, that suggests the real value in Kovačević’s chapter: first, that it adds to our knowledge of other contexts; second that it highlights the wider failure of many academics to engage sufficiently in an exchange of pedagogical knowledge and practice.

Kovačević is therefore to be commended for the degree to which she has problematised the learning process, thinking about impediments to learning and how to overcome them at this early stage in her career. She grounds her thinking in the literature explaining the benefits of group work and presentations, especially in respect of developing transferable skills and enhancing employability. Based on that literature and her prior experience in teaching the course, she comes up with three hypotheses. The first of these is somewhat unclear: “The innovation—i.e. group work—takes place in a classroom environment that is supportive of learning via collaboration”. Does she mean that she is hypothesising groupwork is innovative, that groupwork is learning by collaboration, or something else? The other two hypotheses are clearer: students’ interest in the subject matter will be increased as a result of the process of creating a group presentation; and there will be a noticeable increase in subject-specific knowledge, as well as related skills.

Again, for many teaching in environments that regularly apply such methods, these will be self-evident: as Kovačević herself acknowledges, the benefits of student-centred learning are already well-recognised. Clearly, however, whether as a whole or just in pockets, methods that put the student at the centre of the learning process are not the norm for EUBA (and many another institutions).

In her course, working with seminar groups of around 13 students, Kovačević began by having students collaborate to produce a poster on Turkey in the EU’s enlargement process before moving on to the creation of a Powerpoint presentation. She is keen to point out the support that was offered throughout the process, including instructor and peer feedback. It is a shame, incidentally, that we did not hear more about this peer feedback, a notably tricky area (see, for instance: Liu and Carless).

The chapter is weakest on talking us through definitions and in the section on data collection and methods, though the latter aspects are partly addressed in the conclusions. On definitions, it is not entirely clear what is meant by “presentation”. Presumably, it is confined to a Powerpoint presentation but it could be more (role plays) or less (students acting as rapporteurs) extensively construed. The question is an important one for those thinking about adaptions to the method Kovačević applies.

Questions about measurement and comparison are also insufficiently considered. For example, the third hypothesis (“Student learning, including knowledge and skills after collaborative group work, is noticeable”) begs questions about how levels of learning can be measured, and compared to what. If we accept group presentations as innovative, we must accept also that others need to be persuaded of the relative benefits of such innovative teaching, otherwise, why change? As such, the persuasive potential of the chapter is reduced. Methodologically, it would have been useful to know how Kovačević recorded and evaluated the “student activity and behaviour” she observed.

Notwithstanding the number of unanswered questions, the chapter is an important one. It functions as a reminder that there is still much to be done to convince others of the benefits of changing ways of thinking and doing because innovation is not contagious. It is a reminder too that rigorous and reliable evidence is sometimes difficult to generate and that without that, it becomes all the more difficult to overcome resistance to change. Finally, the chapter is important because it raises implicitly the question of whose responsibility it is to bring about change. Should it be contingent on young scholars, under pressure in so many other ways, to undertake all this work? I think we all know the answer to that question, what we are doing to address it is another matter.

Do Guinea Pigs need slack?

My first-year module this semester has been a real training ground for me. Not only am I going all-in on flipping, but I’m also trialing the new assessment software that the University is thinking of using.

Something like this

By extension, that also means it’s a training ground for my students, something that I’ve been very open about with them.

The flipping seems to be working and I’ll be writing up my thoughts on that later in the semester, but having coming through the first use of the software I need to make some decisions now.

In part, my situation arises from wanting to push how we used the software past a conventional approach. Not only did students submit a literature review to it, but they then had to review someone else’s using the system, all in aid of a final piece of self-reflection (which we’re marking now).

Using the marking function is a bit more involved than just submitting work and a couple of people did get a bit lost on that. But the bigger problem was that not everyone submitted work.

In the good old days (i.e. last year and before) we did all this in-class, so it was much simpler to cover (the exceptionally few) missing pieces. However, because we’d pre-selected peer reviewers, we ended up with some students having nothing to review and others not getting their work reviewed.

That’s a failing on my part: next time, I’d leave allocation until after the first submission was in, so everyone who submitted got allocated and reviewed.

But that’s next time. What about now?

Already, I’ve indicated to everyone that not getting peer feedback won’t count against them in marking, but a couple of students have felt that absent such comments they’re not in a position to complete the self-reflection.

To that, I’ve had to underline that it’s self-reflection, so peer feedback was only ever one component of that: indeed, the whole purpose of the somewhat-convoluted exercise is to get students becoming more independent and critical about their learning.

All that said, peer review was added in here to help prompt everyone to think more about what they’ve done and what they could do.

As we sit down to mark, the question will be much we can, and should, take the circumstances into account. Until we’ve seen the full range of work, that’s going to be a tricky call to make.

However, it all highlights an important point in such situations: do we have fall-backs?

Trying new things is inherently risky – that’s why many colleagues stick with what they know – but with some risk management, that need not be a barrier to moving practice forward.

Annoying through our situation here is, it’s not fatally-compromising to the endeavour: we know who’s affected and how; they’re still able to submit work; and the assessment is relatively small in the overall scheme of things.

Yes, we’ll be using the system again for the final exam, but without the aspects that have proved problematic. Indeed, the exam has already been trialled elsewhere in the University, so that’s well-understood.

So, on balance, I feel comfortable that we can manage the situation and implement the necessary changes next time around to remove the problems identified.

Which is, of course, a big part of the reason for trying it out in the first place.

Moving offices, moving stuff

One of the many fascinating aspects of my Erasmus study abroad year in Bonn was that the town was then undergoing a major change: following reunification, the capital was being moved to Berlin, necessitating a multi-million DM programme of construction, re-construction and general upheaval.

Right now, I feel a bit like I’m facing my own Umzug, not least because while the Germans were moving only the once, I’ve got two moves ahead of me in the next 9 months or so.

The reason is the usual one for a university: the juggling of spaces against changing needs is a constant for most colleagues and the biggest wonder of it all is that our Department’s not moved in its 15 year history.

That’s great, but it means that now we are moving, there’s a problem: what to take?

Usually, this isn’t the kind of thing I’d bother you with, but because we’re doing it twice, there’s an additional constraint: I can take only three packing crates to the interim location, with the rest going into proper storage.

Three crates? Not so bad, maybe.

Welcome to my office.

I did actually get moved some years back when I was doing my Associate Dean role, and I used about 30 crates, and even then got told off for over-packing them.

So you see my dilemma: three crates to take the stuff I’ll actually use between May and January.


Of course, a lot of stuff doesn’t get used very much: I’ll admit that I cleared out a couple of shelves directly upon hearing the news, as our local book harvest is coming by next week: old textbooks might have some historiographical value, but realistically they’re not a burning priority.

Which leaves me with still 30-odd crates-worth of choices.

The priority seems to me to be around teaching: my research is mostly based around materials I can transport virtually, plus we’re next door to the library (or rather, we are now: not when we move). But teaching needs me to have access immediately to some texts and to teaching aids.

That means trying to map out what my classes might look like in the first semester of the next academic year, plus the second semester just in case we get delayed (my Brexit research on contingency planning coming in there).

Put like that, the problem suddenly becomes much more manageable: it’s now a matter of boxes of Lego, blindfolds, whiteboard markers and post-it notes rather than my extensive collection of notes on Danish euroscepticism in the late 1990s (two crates-worth, last time I looked).


An as exercise, I’m actually finding it rather cathartic: it feels like an extension of much of the rest of my work experience (I’m writing this on a crowded train heading into London, laptop balanced on my knees, for example). And if I really need something I’ve packed away, they say it can be retrieved, so the peril is relatively low.

Of course, I’m not going to suggest that you move just for the sake of it, but it is good to occasionally ask yourself whether you need all that stuff you’ve piled up. Asking yourself what you really need is a good question at any time, not least because it invites you to focus on the core of what you do.

So it’s actually all good.

Except for the plants, which are going to be a very different matter…

Political readings of “Lego Movie 2”

It’s a trap…

A few years back I wrote about the The Lego Movie and how it captured the operation of fascism in a form that was both accessible and about as enjoyable as fascism ever can be.

Some readers of this blog were unhappy that I’d ruined that film for them, so it’s only right I try to do that for another generation of scholars and young parents.

The Lego Movie 2 isn’t as good as the first one (confine discussion of whether this is ever possible to yourself, away from me), but obviously I watched it, because, well, Lego.

This aside, there’s still plenty of politics going on in the film., which I’ll write about now with some mild spoilers (because you’re not 9 years old and because you’re a serious scholar).

For the IR types among you, there’s a whole bunch of realism going on, with security dilemmas, anarchy and the brutishness that this engenders in actors. The collapse of the (ultimately benign) dictatorship in the first movie produces a literal and metaphorical wasteland in which actions are guarded and security is everything. The final reconciliation of the actors this time occurs when they identify a common external threat and work together to overcome it.

As a musing on power in its various forms, the movie offers a useful way to conceptualise how actors operate under uncertainty and the tension between collaborative and conflictual action, as captured in the notions of being a ‘master builder’ or a ‘master smasher’.

For the gender scholars, there’s a bunch of gendered roles, paternalism (and maternalism), as well as how children ‘become’ adults going on in all this too. It’s also a classic of the ‘absent father’ trope and all that implies.

But for my purposes, the film is all about constructivism.

The logic of appropriateness runs through the entire piece, as individuals strive and struggle to either fit into their environment or communicate their intentions.

If Emmet’s arc is one of finding a persona and an attitude that works from him (puberty alert!), then Bianca’s is one of learning to signal intentions less ambiguously.

As someone who teaches negotiation, I recognised a lot of these tensions from my classroom, where students are apt to adopt personae as ‘negotiators’ that don’t always sit comfortably with their more general sense of being.

In both classroom and the film, individuals try out different gambits, with varying degrees of sincerity and of success. But ultimately, as the film suggests, it is when there is a more open exchange of views that progress is made, clearing up the confusions and misunderstandings and realigning how we view other’s actions.

Indeed, the whole film turns on how individuals perceive one another and themselves: Finn misunderstands Bianca; Emmet is misled by Rex; Lucy struggles (as in the first film) with her sense of identity; Batman has to learn about living with light as well as dark; and Superman has to find accommodation with the Green Lantern.

Identity here is thus not purely about being true to yourself, but also about being true to others. Whether you accept that being doing both you end up with a happy society – as the movie argues (as movies are wont to do) – is another matter.

But however you take it, this case highlights how we can use cultural products to illustrate and illuminate our teaching: the beauty of politics is that it is pervasive, so we can find it pretty much anywhere we look, if we choose to see.