Emotion and politics

The morning after the night before.

But not the night it was going to be.

I was going to write this morning about the black-tie do held by our Politics Society last night, and the importance of building a soft, social ties as part of a communal identity. I was going to write about how me looning about the dance-floor to classic disco tunes was something for you all to try with your students.

Instead, I’m sat in (a very quiet) Department, turning over the other events of last night, the attack in Manchester.

Maybe it was the relative lack of sleep, or maybe it was because my daughter was asking me what had happened, but this attack moved me more than most: the sense of distress and loss of so many parents, siblings, friends is one that I feel all too palpably right now.

In the worst possible way, it underlines the point I was going to be making: emotions matter.

They tie us together and tie us to what we do. When something moves us – for good or bad – then it engages us.

What we need to do is find ways to do more of the good engaging, and less of the bad. Something to write about next week, I think.

Flipping, active learning and the post-truth era

Challenging your view of chemists…

I really like doing L&T work, in part because I get to meet people I’d never otherwise would.

One of those is Simon Lancaster, a Professor of Chemical Education at UEA and a big L&T champion. We crossed paths a while back, discussing new teaching materials and his feed is great for both practical tips and more abstract reflection on what we do in classes.

Yesterday, Simon was tweeting about a conference that was coming up, when he posted this:

When I reposted this to our ALPSBlog feed, he added:

Much as I love debating on Twitter, I thought this was worth expanding on here first, especially since it touches on several debates that have graced these pages over the years. Continue reading

“The internet’s broken…”


Reading this piece of investigative journalism over the weekend, I was struck by the sub-text that if something’s not on the internet, then it doesn’t exist.

The author was investigating the use of micro-targetting of social media in the EU referendum and funding links to the US, and much of it turned on the absence of an online footprint of the various companies and entities.

This struck me as a marginal issue for two reasons: firstly, I’m a digital migrant, so I remember a time of card-filing and dusty archives; secondly, I work in a field where much activity remains resolutely off-line.

However, from the perspective of one of our students, things might look a lot different: we know that many of them seem to struggle to get beyond the first page of whatever Google search they have entered, so how do they cope with this kind of thing?

Three basic elements suggest themselves here. Continue reading

Doing it yourself, or helping others to do it

One of the more common challenges in HE is the “it’s just quicker to do it myself” thing. In the past week, I’ve heard this mentioned in teaching, research and administrative contexts: the idea that it might well be someone else’s role to do something, but it’ll be quicker to do it yourself.

I’ll take a guess that you’ve said this pretty recently. I know that I have.

If we want a justification for it, then we can argue that our professional lives are hectic and there isn’t much slack. As such, the marginal cost of doing it yourself is smaller than the marginal cost of helping someone else learn how to do it. You might take a more refined view of it and say that it’s just something that you’re doing now/this one time, but I’ll also guess you haven’t yet got round to addressing the root issue.

And this root issue is itself a bit complicated. Maybe the other person is new to their role, so simply hasn’t got the necessary experience. Maybe they’ve not done it for a while and have forgotten. Maybe they know but they’re not very good at it. Maybe they haven’t got the time to do.

What are you going to do?

The obvious choice to be made at the offset is whether you’re doing something about this or not. As a general rule, I subscribe to the ‘either do something about it, or put up with it’ school of thinking: if it’s a problem, then try to solve the problem, but if not then you don’t get to grumble about it. Sure, that makes me a bit of a repressed individual at times, but that’s my problem (and I’m not going to complain [sic]).

I appreciate that individuals vary, but in the contexts that we are talking about, bitching has no real value. Despite what we sometimes like to think, there are very few individuals ‘out to get us’ in the sector, just people pursuing objectives shaped by very varied incentives and interests: othering them and grumbling behind their backs isn’t going to change things for the better.

[And please do remind me of this when you catch me grumbling about something next time we meet.]

So if we’re putting up, rather than shutting up, then how to do it?

I’d suggest the way into thinking about it is to see matters as a collective endeavour. I know that treat our work as very personal, but much of it is actually highly transferable and we’re almost never in a situation where there is literally no-one else to be involved in our work.

If you can identify the common purpose that binds you to others, then it becomes easier to motivate yourself and those others to finding more efficient solutions.

Then you have to bite the bullet on dealing with the situation. Assume that this is as good a time as any. Unless there is something very obviously and immediately pressing in, just do it: there’s always going to be some reason not, so things aren’t going to improve. I speak from experience when I say that the mystical time in the future when ‘things are quieter’ doesn’t exist.

If the issue is one of experience or timing, then I’d suggest speaking directly to the person involved: try to understand their situation and their needs and try to help them understand yours. Again, this isn’t the moment for a long ‘you have no idea how busy I am’ tirade – this will just invite an equivalent response – but instead an effort to solve a problem – ‘how can we deal with this situation’. In short, you make it about the problem, not the people. as much as possible.

Of course, sometimes it is the people, in which case you need to get line management involved (especially if your line manager or those you manage are the problem). Again, focus on the solving of the problem as much as possible: management issues are management issues and there’s a whole architecture of policy and procedure to deal with those.

Maybe the key point to take is that the effort is worth it in the longer-run. Yes, it will take longer this time and it will be a faff, but if it leads to an improved situation down the line, then that will pay off for you and the team around you. Handled constructively, it’ll even improve the culture and environment for all of to deal with other things that come up.

And if it doesn’t work, then feel free to grumble to me about it.

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.


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.