It takes a department…

Insert joke about Belgium’s space programme here

I’m coming back to the idea of soft ties and community building in education, having spent the weekend in Bruges, celebrating 20 years since my Masters degree.

For those of you not familiar with the College of Europe, it’s a Masters-only institution, teaching students on various aspects of European integration. It has a reputation as a training ground for those going to work in Brussels, in and around the European Union. Certainly, from my year, there are now many friends who are now senior people in European or national organisations, from ambassadors to heads of unit, professors to executive suite types.

I mention this not to brag – if anything, there’s a strong dissonance of seeing such people in such roles, when your lasting memory is of them having a food fight at a cheese fondue party – but to observe that our reunion was grounded in the very strong sense of community that we shared.

As students, the College insisted that we not only study together, but also live  and eat together, in the various residences that they provided. At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated being given 21 meals a week – especially come ‘sandwich Sunday dinner’ – but it meant that we got to spend a lot of time together, learn more about each other as people, rather than just classmates.

Obviously, such a model has very limited directed utility outside of seminaries, but the idea is a useful one. If we can build spaces for students to interact, above and beyond their direct study contact time, then we can open a range of inter-personal experiences that will serve them well, both personally and professionally.

Indeed, I would argue that this is also of value in narrower academic terms. If you’ve had a group of students that know and understand one another, then you will have noticed how much more quickly they can fall into discussion of the matter in hand. There isn’t the all-too-frequent getting-to-know-you phase, something that can be quite lengthy in a subject such as ours, where bear-traps of sensitive issues abound.

Instead, you have a group that can discuss and debate, while knowing the general lie of the land of opinions, and knowing how this conversation fits into all the other ones they have had. Thus it also acts as a partial antidote to the silo-ing of courses/modules that we all complain about.

Assuming you haven’t got a set-up like the College, then what can you do?

Most obviously, you can organise more time in and around classes: talks, socials, study groups. That doesn’t have to fall on you to arrange, but you can certainly facilitate. In my experience, you might have to put more work in of this at the start, but as you get students more involved, they typically want to do more themselves.

But you can also communicate the value of building such links between students. That means emphasising the benefit they can derive from talking to each other, about study and not about study. Of course, if you’re pushing active learning, then this is a much easier sell: you’re showing students that what they think matters.

And that’s the closing point to all this: you have to be sincere and consistent about all this. To go back to Bruges, the College holds its ‘sprit’ very close to its institutional identity and contrives to promote it in many ways – implicit and explicit – in its activity. It is in that mutual reinforcement that the message gains credibility and buy-in: every student who turns up in September has had their expectations adjusted.

How about yours?

Is Your Employer in Trouble? Part 3

FEMA Photo/Leif Skoogfors

Last week, I discussed  some of the environmental aspects of working in U.S. higher education that ought to be considered by foreign academics. Today I have some links to information that is relevant to both foreign and U.S. audiences:

First, if you already work for a U.S. college or university, especially a small one, check out my recent essay in Inside Higher Ed on how to identify whether your employer is heading for unrecoverable failure. Colleges and universities don’t fall off of a cliff overnight; many exhibit danger signs for years. Faculty should pay attention to these signs if they want to preserve their careers — but frequently they don’t.

Second, Moody’s Investors Service reported that one-third of small private colleges in the USA had operating budget deficits in fiscal year 2016, up from one-fifth in 2013.

Third, this story in The New York Times discusses the bleak financial outlook for many colleges and universities in the USA, both private and public.

Coming to America

Today marks a return to an occasional series on higher education in the U.S., with a post co-authored with an esteemed colleague, Sally Gomaa. She attended graduate school in the U.S., works as a university professor, and is now a naturalized citizen.

Are you from outside the U.S. and considering academic employment here? Does a graduate program in the humanities or social sciences seem attractive because of an expectation that it will get you hired by a U.S. university? If you are wondering if job prospects in academia are better here than at home, they probably are not. The economic foundations of tertiary education in the U.S. are undergoing a long-term transformation that has greatly diminished everyone’s chances of a stable and rewarding career as a professor.

Education in the U.S. reflects the country’s penchant for local autonomy in the provision of public goods. Although the national government imposes certain legal burdens on all  of the country’s colleges and universities, there are no league table rankings or formal budgetary outlays toward the costs of instruction. Instead, the national government helps students defray the cost of their undergraduate educations by guaranteeing loans at subsidized rates. Only universities that are deemed in good standing by private, regionally-based accreditation organizations can enroll students who receive this federal aid.

Public universities do receive a portion of their operating funds from state governments via tax revenue. But there has been a decades-long disinvestment in higher education at the state level, and legislative allocations now comprise less than ten percent of the budget at many public university systems. The decisions of elected officials in states such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Wisconsin have significantly degraded the quality of public universities in those states. If you are thinking about applying for a faculty position at a public university campus, it is wise to investigate the financial treatment of that campus by its state government overlords. Continue reading

Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways. Continue reading

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