Escaping your ‘new normal’

OK, this is actually rocket science, but try not to dwell on that

This week I got my first email about making arrangements for the autumn semester’s teaching. Luckily, it was for the institution I’m about to leave, rather than the one I’m about to join, so I could put it in my new and exciting email folder: “not my problem”.

But most of us aren’t that fortunate – we’ll all on a hamster-wheel of some kind, running to stand still, future commitments racing towards us alongside a bunch of deadlines.

All of which makes it hard to stop and take stock of our L&T practice.

Of the (very few) benefits of the pandemic, the ‘opportunity’ to reconsider what we do with our students was perhaps completely undermined by the associated factor of ‘you’re getting no cues on what is either possible or allowed’. Fun times.

But we have navigated that huge change, and in many cases produced learning environments that work really well. Just in time to see a possible shift once again, back into the classroom.

If you’d like an institutionalised take on this, you might try the UK’s Office for Students’ recent report Gravity Assist (plus this critique from WonkHE), that essentially argues we should be trying to retain the new good stuff, rather than just going back to the Olden Days.

That’s all nice, at a sector- or institutional-level, but what about you and me, as individuals? How do we go about that?

The issue strikes me as being primarily one of path dependency: you’ve reworking your teaching a lot during this past year, so you probably only want to tinker around the edges, rather than doing a wholesale reworking MkII.

That might be appropriate in some cases, but equally not in others: without the space to devote to some big thinking, it’s hard to tell. Changing jobs is one solution – especially if your new employer doesn’t do teaching in any way like your old one – but it’d be good if we didn’t introduce any more precarity into it all.

Instead, we have to try to keep the matter in hand as much as possible.

It has been striking how the profusion of interest in L&T during 2020 seems to have fallen back: the excellent PSA webinar series (recordings very recommended) have – in my anecdotal opinion – returned to the ‘usual suspects’ in the audience. It’s a great bunch of people, but that moment of broad professional interest in L&T has not been sustained, most likely because most people got through their crisis and got their head back down.

But pedagogy is just like research: it requires a constant discussion and challenging of ideas and approaches. Indeed, the tempo of the former is perhaps more pressing, given the sustained rapidity of producing outputs.

All of which is to say that we need to try to maintain an active culture of discussion and debate around our teaching. The more we can do that, the easier it will be to manage this transition, and the next and all the other changes that will be coming down the line.

Not very cheery, but perhaps more realistic.