Moar metrics!

Thoughtful herbs??

The UK’s Office for Students has now published its decisions on student outcomes.

As I discussed earlier this year, when the consultation went out, this is an intellectually-dubious way to ensure sub-standard university providers are held to account.

My dubiousness stemmed then from the metrics used, which focused on progression, completion and post-qualification employment: to reduce the ‘value’ of a degree to these points suggests a rather narrow view of what we try to do with our teaching and with students’ learning.

You’ll be shocked to hear that despite much grumbling from providers, the OfS has broadly stuck with its plans, albeit with a rather less automatic penalty process.

Speaking as someone whose institution is below its benchmark for various elements, I’m aware this might all sound like motivated reasoning, but equally I’m also aware that my university is easily the biggest provider in the UK, taking in mostly non-standard students (so typically mature and part-time), so I do wonder why a one-size fits all approach was deemed to be appropriate.

As others have pointed out, the discretion in the application of penalties effectively leaves us very uncertain about how any of this plays out: the OfS could take a very rigid view and just hit every infringement of metricised performance to make a point of how standards need to be raised, or it could be very relaxed about it all and treat this as a diagnostic tool for providing support.

Certainly, contextual factors are mentioned here, but equally it is fair to say that OfS has tended to be somewhat at loggerheads with universities about How Things Should Be, especially with a government standing over them that seems to want a recasting of Higher Education.

Even if we are [back?] in a phase of British politics being very much less than settled, it’s clear that all of this will mean more interest by providers in metrics, and that colleagues will need to keep in mind how that plays out in their subject fields.

As much as I like to say that the best and most sustainable route to good metrics is through good academic practice – i.e. not through metric-chasing – it’s also clear that we have to have a clear eye on what metrics count for internal managers and external regulators.

The more we can articulate a coherent and cohesive vision of how our efforts to build learning environments for our students, the better we can push back against the effects of trying to reduce such things to points on a dashboard.

What’s your point?

Source: Giphy

I was listening to the radio the other day, to a big news show, when a colleague I know came on to talk about a thing that’s in the news. Apparently politics still makes the news.

I think this colleague is a good person, doing good work and is very personable. Unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed by their interview. Mainly because I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say.

With that in mind, and very much in a constructive spirit for all of us (since I can be as bad as anyone on this), I thought it might be helpful to run through some key points of ‘doing media’.

The main take home is that it’s like teaching, inasmuch as you need to focus on your learning objectives.

When you teach, you’re trying to get your students to learn something. When you do media, you’re trying to get the interviewer and the audience to learn something.

So the big question for you with any media interview should be: “what am I trying to say here?”

The answer to that should be a short sentence of the kind spoken by non-academics. In the case of this post, it’s “make sure you say what you are trying to say”.

Three ways to achieve this.

First, make sure you literally say the thing that is your main point. At some point in the interview, use the actual wording of your point. You can paraphrase it elsewhere as you talk, but just say it as bluntly as you can.

That seems really basic, but it’s oddly tricky when you’re stressed, when someone’s lobbing questions at you, when you might be just focusing on getting any response out of your mouth. If it helps, write your point down and fix on it for a moment just before you kick off.

I’d suggest you get your point out as soon as politely practical, mainly because you always have less time than you think you do and you might get cut off mid-flow (like my colleague on the radio): get in early, then it’s done.

Second, remember your ABC: acknowledge the question, bridge to your point, continue.

Assuming we’re talking about you inputting to some news story of public interest, remember that journalists aren’t necessarily all that deeply invested in the details as you might be. That’s kind of why you’re being interviewed. But it means the questions you get asked might not be the ‘right’ questions to ask, stopping you from saying what you want to say.

So handle that by landing the question with a metaphorical nod to show you’ve understood it, then redirect it towards the thing you think needs to be understood here (which might well be your main point). You might have noticed this feels a bit like how politicians talk, because they’ve had their training, but it’s still a good way of ensuring you’ve got an opportunity to make your point, even if not directly asked about it.

Finally, remember that journalists are (almost always) on your side. They want you to say interesting and useful things, so trust they are trying to help you get to do that.

If you have a chat pre-interview (as often happens for radio and TV), make sure you get your main point across once more and most times that will lead to them asking questions that allow you to directly make your main point on-air. And if not, there’s almost always opportunity by pivoting as just mentioned.

Of course, that still needs you to say what you want to say.

…the more they stay the same?

On the back of Chad’s post – which I take to be more in disappointment than in anger – it’s worth considering why we still get (and I paraphrase here) crappy conference presentations.

At one level, this is about the cues that organisers (don’t) put out to delegates. Yes, there’s a bunch of stuff on the website about ‘roles’ at conferences, but I’ll hazard a guess that most people don’t read this. So where’s the follow-up by organisers? Do they push out info direct to individuals? Do they provide extra instruction to chairs on management of panels?

More broadly, do they encourage variety in panel formats? Having lots of different ways you can run a panel (as a roundtable, workshop, activity-based session, etc.) partly allows people to find a structure that works for them, partly creates incentives for everyone to check on the format guidance.

At a second level, this is about colleagues being mindful. In Chad’s case, it looks like someone made an assumption and ran with it, without checking that assumption was correct (which it wasn’t). If we all took some time to consider what others are doing and what others (the audience especially) might want, then we’d probably be able to run things pretty smoothly and sensibly by ourselves. Which is rather the idea.

Of course, that we’re even having this discussion points up the problem: not everyone is mindful.

So maybe the third level is that we all might need to help colleagues be mindful. Calling out bad practice is something we should all be doing: people spend a lot of time and money to get to conferences, so we should respect the effort by making sure we’re giving everyone a fair crack.

In short, these kinds of things are on all of us to shift: if we all played our part then we’d hopefully find less and less of this, as colleagues started to see the benefits.

Looking forward to seeing you at the next panel!

Should I do that talk?

Probably the furthest I’ve got

Oddly, seeing Chad’s post about writing reference letters made me think of this current topic. In both cases, it’s work that’s obviously linked to our ‘day job’ (whatever the hell that might be), but also feels like an add-on, and certainly one with resource implications.

Before you switch off from this because you don’t get asked to give talks, stick with it, because all of us used to be in that position and a big part of getting past that was precisely about working out what to do.

So, some context here. Right now, I get asked to give a talk outside my home institution about a couple of times a month, which sounds not too bad until I re-present it as possibly 24 talks a year. This includes speaking to local study groups, research seminars and keynotes, briefings to practitioners and the occasional request to run a workshop on L&T. If we chuck in media interviews (which is slightly different), then I’ve got maybe another hundred queries to handle.

I do not do 24 talks a year. So how do I decide?

Continue reading “Should I do that talk?”

Should we have to say this?

Local saying (I’m guessing): “don’t be the pumpkin head with the spade”

It’s just like the before days: I’m waking up in an unfamiliar bedroom, very early, after an evening of wandering around a city I don’t know, looking for a meal, after a day of chatting to colleagues, listening to presentations and making some (hopefully) insightful contributions of my own.

Yep: it’s conference time.

In my case, it’s also do-the-things-that-association-chairs-do time, as UACES holds its annual conference in Lille.

One of those things at yesterday’s opening plenary was to remind colleagues that they’ve all signed up to our Code of Conduct, which is a new thing for us and for study associations in general.

The aim of the Code is – in terms I didn’t quite use yesterday – to reinforce the message that you shouldn’t be a dick. If you are – if you treat colleagues unprofessionally, or harass them, or bully them – then you can expect others to call that out and sanctions to follow from us.

At one level, none of this should be controversial. It’s an academic conference, not Fight Club, and our expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable shouldn’t cause anyone difficulties.

And yet, we find ourselves hearing more stories of colleagues behaving in ways that might make for colourful gossip at the coffee break, but which really have no place in the modern workplace. You can insert the example you heard about here, which might well involve someone confusing their fancy job title for the right to treat someone else without respect, or someone else being less than thoughtful about the language they use.

I’ll note here that it’s not something that I’m aware of particularly in our association, but equally I don’t doubt that some colleagues will have crossed at some point the line our Code now sets: just because I’ve not seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

And so we made explicit what had been implicit. As a field, European Studies contains plenty of controversial topics and the world continues to provide plenty of events that aggrieve and inflame tensions: the war in Ukraine and how we discuss and describe is only the latest (non-random) example in a long list.

Moreover, if we are sincere in our desire to support colleagues – especially those earlier on in their academic careers – then we have to make sure that the words on a page are also make material in our actions. If we want to spread values of equality, diversity and inclusion then we do that much more effectively through what we do than through what we say.

So I’d encourage all of you to live the values we profess [sic] to: treating others with respect; being mindful of how others might see things; acting after thinking; not letting poor behaviour by others just slide.

The more we do that, the more we can embed and make real the constructive and collegiate community of scholars that we all gain from. Something to think about next time you wake up in an unfamiliar bedroom in a new city.

Specialist the lifeboats!

Appositely, my daughter decided to round out the summer holidays by watching Titanic the other night. Obviously, she did this by herself, as her parents had already lost several hours of their lives seeing it when it first came out and as even the meagre charm of watching (oh so young) Leo drop through the icy waters wasn’t going to make up for the late night.

However, its apposite-ness came from an earlier moment in the summer, when we were coming back from a trip on our holiday in Croatia.

While enjoying another sunset, my eye was caught by this:

As you’ll easily observe, it’s the instruction for lowering the lifeboat. This one:

My distraction came not because I was in any immediate danger of needing to use the facility, but because it passingly struck me that if the need did arise, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to turn those instructions into the necessary action.

Let’s look again at those instructions.

There are at least six technical terms that I couldn’t confidently tell you what they mean.

There are processes that kind of make sense, but the proliferation of cables and of stages might well see me drop a big lifeboat into the sea from a height in a manner that might be very detrimental to anyone ‘lucky’ enough to be inside at the time.

Also, not pictured are at least two other escape/rescue systems, also with specific and not-that-helpful instructions, but there’s nothing to tell me what’s the optimal way for me to off-ship in an emergency.

So the sunset wasn’t that gripping?

The point of this isn’t some attempt to show you some holiday snaps, but to get us thinking about how we communicate key information. For many of us, now is the time of year we are making handbooks/syllabi and when we start with the grousing about why students never read them.

That’s like this.

Those documents are intended as baseline repositories of key information, to be referred to through the course/module and to be a way of avoiding multiple repetition of the same information.

Likewise, the usage instructions for the lifeboat are there should a member of crew not be around to lower and load the boat for you.

But in both cases, the information needs to be not only useful but useable.

The tannoy might well be saying to check out the safety protocols when we boarded, but you’ll be unsurprised that I was the only person reading that poster. Likewise, your students might not have sat down to work through the syllabus when you told them to in the first class.

Should a problem arise, in either case, then you might imagine more engagement would ensue.

Just like sailors, we use a lot of technical language and our institutions have a lot of weirdly-named processes and organisations. Just like sailors, we can get more caught up in our own world than we realise. Just like sailors, we swear a lot.

So when we’re producing student-facing materials, we need to remember that what makes sense to us might not make sense to them.

That means double-checking they have got the information they need in a form they can understand without you lowering the metaphorical winch (bowser?): should disaster strike, they have enough on their plate without having to also work out what they need to do.

Any way, that was (part of) my holiday. I hope you had a good one too.

Only the best. For everyone!

Great library, for panoramic purposes

We’re picking a new leader of the Conservative party here in the UK. Which also means a new Prime Minister, the incumbent having somehow managed to turn a huge electoral win in late 2019 into being such a liability that his own MPs kicked him out.

Which no one could have foreseen.

Any way, this contest isn’t being done by any old bunch of people (such as the electorate of the country), but the membership of said party. Just because.

This select group isn’t that typical of the population at large, which might explain this weekend’s policy gambits by the leading candidate, Liz Truss.

For those yet to be familiar with her, Truss is someone who pulled herself up from her (self-described) mediocre school to go to Oxford and become the woman she is today. This heart-warming tale has made her want everyone to have the same opportunity for getting the best possible education.

But how to do it?

Maybe by pouring resources into all stages of education, to broaden the base and to increase the capacity of high-quality providers to teach students?

Perhaps by incentivising (or even mandating) educational institutions to provide rigorous training in pedagogy?

Or is it by abolishing tuition fees and re-introducing grants to allow the most disadvantaged to attend university?


It’s by saying that any college student predicted to get top grades in A-levels (the British school-leaving qualifications) should automatically get an interview at Oxford or Cambridge.

At the risk of sounding bitter, just because I didn’t attend either of these institutions, this is a stupid idea.

I’ll leave you to ponder the numerous gaps in this idea, whether it’s the impact of the thousands of extra interviews will have on Oxbridge staff (who might want to do some research or teaching), or the notion that only these two universities are worth this accolade, or the game-playing it will cause for school predictions, or the structural barriers to bright but disadvantaged school pupils from even getting good predictions.

If you’d like a (slightly) more sympathetic view, try this.

Any way, the key takeaway from this is that British higher education policy remains in a rut and the new Prime Minister isn’t about to change this.

Sometimes a policy impasse can be a blessing, if it means government isn’t sticking itself into things too much. But in this case, those things need action now.

A case in point is the looming end to automatic international recognition of British HE qualifications, which is kind of a big deal. But we have yet to see anything happening to avoid this. Possibly because one of the main regulatory bodies – the Office for Students – might be on its way out too.

Lots to ponder, as I head for a summer break. I’d love to say it’ll all be sorted by the time I’m back online in late August, but I think we all know that’s not happening.

Ding! Ding! Change here!

It’s the middle of the summer, so what better time of year than now to tell you about some shifting roles?

From 1 August, I’m very happy to be part of the new team that will edit APSA’s Journal of Political Science Education.

This continues ALPS Blog’s long-standing connection with the journal, our own Victor Asal having been editor-in-chief these last years: expect more blogging from him now he has a bunch of spare time.

For my part, I will be just a lowly Associate Editor, working with an excellent team headed up by Charity Butcher from Kennesaw State. With Alasdair Blair also based on the right side of the Atlantic, we aim to increase the profile of the journal for European colleagues in the coming years.

Right now we’re doing hand-overs, but once we’re in place we will telling you all more about how we plan to go about running and developing the journal, so do keep an eye open for that.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about submitting to JPSE, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll be happy to answer. Likewise, if you’re not sure whether to be publishing your work, then also ask: one of the things we’re particularly interested in is exactly this kind of activity that too often gets lost in the morass of our busy work lives.

Up, up and away? Academic promotions

Let the fax number give you a sense of how long it took to get from one to the other

Straight up, let’s note that I only feel comfortable writing this because I’m not in the game for promotions any more.

Which is rather the point.

This time of year is littered with announcements of colleagues getting the next step up the ladder. It’s always heartening to see people succeeding and getting some recognition of their efforts from their employer.

But it’s also always a bittersweet time: for everybody I see making it through the institutional loops, I’m aware of several others who didn’t make it.

And they don’t post about it.

I know I didn’t, each of the several times I put in for promotion and got knocked back.

Luckily for me, I’ve never done this work for a job title or the pay and I had plenty of other reasons to stick at it. But I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt.

So why mention it? Isn’t it just ‘part of the job’? Shouldn’t we just be happy to have jobs at all?

Not really.

For most colleagues I know, the money thing and the recognition thing matter (the job security thing for those places with tenure). I don’t think anyone really likes to feel they are being bled dry by their employer, prodded to hit some ridiculous targets and then told they ‘didn’t quite make it’, always with the ominous shadow of being able to get in someone else, newer/cheaper.

I want to say we just overthrow this system, but that feels like an overly-ambitious task right now, so instead I want to focus on how we can play it, collectively.

I can think of three ideas might inform how we start going about this.

Continue reading “Up, up and away? Academic promotions”

Workload planning: a quick thought

I’m well ahead of you in appreciating the irony of not having more time to write about this subject, but let’s make a virtue of it.

Workload is the bane of our lives: people wanting stuff from us, all the time, making it impossible for us to focus on – errm – the other work we’ve got.

In all my various mangerial functions, dealing with your workload is the most frequent issue that colleagues raise: they’d love to do X, but they haven’t the time.

Given my opening sentence in this post (and the contents of my inbox), I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, but I have suggest some things that have made it less bad for me.

Idea 1: think about timescales

My teaching is essentially about preparing materials on a multi-month schedule now, so I’ve had to become much more mindful about this.

As a result, I not only keep my diary up-to-date, but I also have a planner that runs out at least six months.

In that planner, I note landmark deadlines, for research and teaching, plus the likely timeframe beforehand to do that work, so I have a sense of when’s particularly pinched [right now, as it turns out].

That longer-term view helps me to make better decisions about more short-term obligations.

At the end of each week, I mark up the next week in my diary, defensively marking out slots for the big stuff, but also aware that things are likely to pop into my email that I must do, so I might have to flex on that.

It’s not an exact science, but with time I’ve gotten better at judging where the margins are, allowing to keep on track with the different lines of work.

Idea 2: remember to say ‘no’ to stuff

One of the best suggestions I even got was to say ‘no’ to one thing each day at work.

That might be an invite to write a guest piece, to participate in a collaboration, to do a thing. It might be as little as not ducking out early for a drink, or as big as not joining in that huge funding bid your colleagues are doing.

But importantly, it’s not about saying ‘no’ just to hit your daily quota, but about being mindful of what you can carry as workload.

If I get asked to write an article, or give a talk, or join a bid, I always ask myself whether the benefit is worth the investment I’ll have to give to it.

That time needed to write something up is time you can’t use for another project that matters. And if that bid comes off, then it’s even more time you’ll have to give.

The calculation of cost/benefit is very personal, but be frank with yourself about what you need and what you want. It’s nice to be nice, but it’s also good to be thinking about yourself, not least because relatively few others will be.

The best way to keep workload manageable is to avoid picking up any more work than you have to.

And don’t be an arse about saying ‘no’: be prompt and polite and maybe it’ll come back round again when you’re able to say yes.

Idea 3: know when to bail

Let’s say you said ‘yes’ to a thing a while back and then stuff happened.

Now you’re off schedule and unlikely to get back on.

Start off by telling the people you committed to about it: often there’s more flex than they first said (probably because they’ve worked with academics before and know about ‘deadlines’).

If that doesn’t solve it, or isn’t going to solve it, then be willing to cut the cord on the work. You’ve holding them up and you’re holding yourself up.

Again, doing this sooner rather than later is best, so they can try to get someone else in. And this is very much a point not to be an arse: it’s definitely on you, so accept that and work with them to try to find a mutually-acceptable solution.

Of course, bailing is really only possible in certain circumstances: it’s very unlikely to be an option for your regular internal commitments. Hence the other two ideas.

Like I say, these are just ideas and ones that I follow imperfectly (as some of you will know). If you’ve got suggestions, then I’d love to hear them.

Whenever you’ve got the time to. Obviously.