Teaching over the summer

Having found myself in several ‘normal’ university campuses in recent weeks, I’m reminded that most of you have an obvious cycle to the year.

Right now, I imagine you’ve probably put most of your teaching duties to bed, with final assessments done and graduation ceremonies leaving you with the usual dilemma of ‘what goes with a gown?’

I also imagine that you will know of colleagues who see this as the point in the year where they get to focus on the ‘proper bit’ of being an academic: research.

But you’re not like that; you understand that teaching is an integral and essential part of the job too.

So some quick thoughts about this time of year.

Firstly, capture your fine thoughts about your teaching now. As with every class you have, your proximity to that interaction made you think about how you’re doing, and how you could do better.

Making a note of that as you go is ideal, but now, with the whole year just behind you, is also a great moment to take stock, while it’s still fresh in your mind.

Waiting until just before the start of the new academic year is likely to result in several good ideas getting lost, or just trampled in the rush.

So the second thought is to avoid the trampling.

Update handbooks/syllabi/VLE/etc now, as much as you can. Again, you’ll have the thoughts of the last use fresher in your mind and even if you can do it all until someone in a back office works out the timetable, you can certainly ease the load.

And maybe next year you might try creating a living draft of the 2024-5 materials, to make that even smoother.

Finally, now is a good time to work on whatever bigger teaching project you might have.

Maybe that’s trying out a new thing in class, or a switch to flipped, or a restructuring of sessions. All these macro changes take time and effort, so you can’t really leave them until later.

And if you want to make some more of it, think about writing a paper/blogpost about the changes: you get a research output, plus you like about how you embed data collection, plus an editor out there [waves] will love to hear from you, plus colleagues elsewhere will benefit from your insights.

What’s not to like?

Making good use of the time you have together

That’s us: totally free of any issues whatsoever

For many, now is the time for the annual departmental away-day(s). There’s no teaching to do done, just a pile of marking, so someone senior feels the best thing would be to get everyone into a room to do something.

I used to consider that it wasn’t an away-day if you could still see your campus from the window, but times/finances have changed.

Last week, I spent two days approximately 20 metres from my departmental building for our away-day, but since a) I’m very rarely on-site and b) I’d never been to this particular building, I didn’t feel aggrieved about it.

Plus if left enough money for the accommodation and for nice lunches.

Perhaps precisely we don’t see much of each other, a good amount of reflection and debate went into making the days worthwhile.

That meant avoiding reporting anything and giving much time to discussion and advancing projects.

Reporting is a killer: lots of description of things that have happened, which if it were important to you then you would know about already. It’s largely a relic of the Good Old Days, when committees where actually the beating heart of academic governance: now it just makes sense to keep such things confined to written notes or access to dashboards.

By contrast, discussion is something that is increasingly rare, especially as remote working destroys the notion of water-cooler moments.

For us, just being able to spend time chatting about anything with a colleague in person is much valued, and if we can tie that towards something specific and valuable then even better.

This year, we tried making the research-focused elements build up to generating more internal collaborations. That meant making space for sharing interests and ideas, and nudging everyone to think about linkages, without imposing anything too heavy.

For teaching, we worked on sharing best practice tips and trouble-shooting, as well as revisiting the long-term planning ideas we created at last year’s event.

Stick in a nice meal at the pub in the middle and it was a recipe for constructive and purposeful community-building, rather than a chore. We didn’t even need to resort to a team-building exercise.

If your away-day isn’t giving you that, then maybe you want to offer organising next year’s event, to everyone’s enjoyment.

Let there be music!

The sight of a piece whose authors include an erstwhile ALPS colleague on the use of music in teaching politics neatly coincides with the past week’s European extravaganza of music/politics: Eurovision.

I’ll assume that a good number of you know about this, but for the culturally-void here’s a quick run-down.

Each member of the European Broadcast Union gets to submit a song for a competition, where everyone gets to vote, but not for their country. Someone wins.

Obviously, there’s more to it than that.

‘Each member’ obviously doesn’t mean each member does submit, or is allowed to submit. And Australia (very much neither an EBU member nor in (or near) Europe) get to submit for, well, reasons.

And the whole voting thing is quite involved. and occasionally corrupt. Pardon, ‘irregular‘.

Throw in a revolution-triggering song, landmarks on clipboards and opening of borders and you see why it’s catnip to the passing academic.

A quick squizz on Google Scholar throws up thousands of results, from imagery to regional voting blocks, LGBT+ identities to governance. This year you’ve also had a Zelensky dimension too.

Someone’s even made a lovely dataset of voting for you to play with. To help with things like analysis of the popular v. jury voting.

Throw in the wildly varying conceptions of what might constitute a popular song and if you struggle to make a class out of some aspect of this, then you are really not trying.

And since you didn’t ask, here’s my personal favourite of recent years:

‘king Charles III

So there’s been a coronation here.

You might have missed it: I sadly found that I had other, unavoidable, commitments all weekend.

Given that many of our readers might be working in states that have made the (not actually that difficult) leap to becoming republics, this is maybe a good point to suggest some resources for class discussion about constitutional monarchies, and whether they are morally defensible.

I raise this partly because of the arrival of someone new on the throne of the United Kingdom, but partly because it’s also a good way into some basic questions about constitutional design and the relationship between governors and governed.

Moreover, as much as you saw a bunch of Brits all dressed up in union jack-print clothing and cheering the pagent of it all, there were plenty of others from whom it wasn’t a thing at all.

To get a sense of the ambivalence around the coronation and the installation of Charles III, visit the BBC website to see the kinds of stories being created: not quite the effusive or fawning position you might have expected (even if the BBC isn’t a government-funded news channel, Elon).

The Guardian offers a more critical take, on the back of recent investigations into the Royal Family’s extensive assets, but also some archive content to further point up How Times Have Changed.

You might also explore the semiotics of more pro-Royal outlets like The Sun or the Daily Mail. The framing of the Royals as celebrities here is perhaps my main takeaway; any notion of leadership feels distinctly in second place.

Which begs a question of why we put up with it all?

There’s plenty of polling on this (here and here, for example) which highlights the benign neglect of most people: it’s fine, but also not that important.

The question of what you’d replace the Crown with is also a not unimportant point: even Republic, a key protest group, are clearer about problems than solutions.

And for a more scholarly overview, there’s this from my colleagues at UK in a Changing Europe.

Finally, if that’s not enough to stimulate class discussion, try a taste comparison of the official dishes of the past two coronations: Coronation Chicken (Elizabeth II), and, um, Coronation Quiche (Charles III).

The odd situation of assessment

It’s May 2023 here in the UK, which means we are having so many public holidays that it feels like Belgium.

As a distraction from celebrating the arrival of someone else that we didn’t select into the position of Head of State, academics have been more focused on the latest stage of strike action by the main union, the UCU.

Right now, that means a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This means not returning marks/grades to the university, which in turn means there are gaps in calculating degree classifications for completing students.

Rather than get into the mechanics of all this, I’ll instead focus on the new approach that employers have taken to this.

In the past, there would be a relatively small deduction of pay for participating in a MAB: 10-20% was the typical range, reflecting the amount of time that might be involved, plus a bit for the disruption it caused.

This time around, employers seem to be going for a rather different model:

Continue reading “The odd situation of assessment”

Is my class going to work?

Not the target audience

I’m in the unusual position of getting some feedback from students on some teaching that will be happening at the end of this year.

Our distance-learning model means we build our resources a long way in advance, so we have the opportunity to get some road-testing of new elements beforehand, through a scheme run by the university.

In this case, that meant inviting a bunch of undergrads to try out the asynchronous negotiation exercise I’ve been working on for the past couple of years for our new Masters in IR.

Sadly, only a handful of those invites turned into feedback. While all positive, it does still make me wonder whether it’ll work in practice when our students get to it shortly before Christmas.

And it raises the more general question of how we can do this for people in more regular settings: typically, we only find out if our class is going to work when we deliver it.

With that in mind, there are several things we might do to improve the chances of that happening.

Firstly, we can follow good design principles. That means using our generic knowledge about course design to create something new. Having clear learning objectives and ensuring alignment between these, the activity and any assessment is the obvious go-to, but we might also consider what we know about how students behave and about the impact of the various constraints we operate under.

Oddly, this can be harder to remember to do when we have a ‘standard’ session than when we try for something more original or innovative. A lecture might not break any new ground in its delivery, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make something that sucks: you have to work on being clear about your purpose and how you’re using your time to achieve that.

If we follow the insights that basic pedagogy teaches us, then we are already much more likely to hit our goals.

Second up, we can talk it through. Teaching isn’t a heroic struggle, where one woman/man does it all on their own, but a collective endeavour: we help each other to help students learn.

In all the major simulation activities I have built, I have also sought the advice and input of colleagues, both within my institution and beyond it. Their ideas and comments have been a major asset and opened up a lot of ideas that I wouldn’t have had on my own, certainly not before trying things out with my students.

There’s really no downside in sharing your teaching practice: you get useful input, they get a warm glow of being helpful (plus someone they can ask for advice in return), you all get a stronger community of practice. So if you don’t do it already, try it.

Finally, we can wargame it. This is really only necessary for major projects, where the costs of failure are relatively high.

Basically, you become the most pessimistic person you can think to be and ask for each step of your activity ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’, and then think about ways to avoid, minimise and address those things.

You used to do this when you started out teaching and asked yourself ‘what if they ask a question?’: like that, but with the confidence in your abilities that has developed through practice. [Which possibly leads you to ask ‘what if they don’t ask any questions?’, but hey].

Sitting down and working through all the worst-case scenarios is helpful for the same reason as the previous idea: it takes things out of you and places you in someone else’s shoes. Here, you’re actively empathising with the student.

If you want a single take home on this, then it’s that the more you think about how things might (not) work, the more likely it is that they will work when needed. Failure to prepare leads to preparing for failure, and all that.

What’s the point of conferences?

I know we’ve been around this one before, this is an increasingly common question.

This week, it’s been brought back to the front of my mind by a couple of things. First, there is the impending departure by my significant other across the seas to a conference about which a degree of ambivalence is being expressed. Second, there was this thoughtful post from Jenny Thatcher which I heartily recommend:

The crappy response to Jenny’s critique would be ‘pfft, sociologists’, but it would also be to deny seeing pretty much all of this at politics/IR conferences over the years (like Jenny, it’s not finger-pointing at particular things, just more the general vibe).

Academic conferences were built for a different time, like a lot of other bits of academic life: before we had the internet, physical co-location was the only viable way to have discussions about research at any speed. Sure, you could write a letter, but it’s not the same.

Add in a big dose of commercialisation for all involved and the tightening of the labour market and the mix that Jenny describes can be found across the sector: systemic inequalities, predatory behaviour of all too many kinds, stasis.

If the piece resonates, then it’s also because I chair an research association that holds its annual conference as a key part of what it does. While it’s not as central or as exclusive an activity for our overall profile as it is for other associations I know of, it still is A Thing.

So what to do?

Continue reading “What’s the point of conferences?”

Fostering exchange (and an invitation to come visit)

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans, Maastricht University.

A few weeks ago, many of you visited the ISA conference in Montreal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend myself, but I was able to read up on some of the many interesting discussions on teaching and learning that you seemed to have had. Indeed, this blog and others (I also shamelessly promote our own) are my go-to places for learning about and engaging with such discussions, just like I always attend dedicated teaching and learning conference panels and days (for instance, during the annual UACES conference) and enjoy attending teaching staff professionalisation workshops here in Maastricht. In fact, I coordinated and organised quite a few of those before taking on my current role of associate dean for education in September of last year.

The value of these forms of exchanging experiences and ideas cannot be overestimated. In fact, I think that they should even be emphasised and pursued much more in a time in which teaching and learning seem to be gaining importance in academic careers in at least some places. For instance, in the Netherlands universities are now starting to implement a programme called Recognition & Rewards, which is all about valuing different academic careers (read more about how this is being implemented at Maastricht University here).

At the start of this year, I had my best exchange experience so far. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend two full weeks at the University of Leeds on an Erasmus+ mobility grant. Leeds has embarked on an ambitious programme that I wanted to know more about, called ‘Curriculum Redefined’. But I also used the opportunity to shadow my friend Simon Lightfoot, who’s in a similar position as I am, but has much more experience than I do.

Those two weeks have been among the best and most inspiring of my time in academia. I talked to many students and colleagues from a whole range of disciplines, attended super interesting events and workshops, and hosted two workshops on problem-based learning myself. I learned a lot and brought home many new ideas on issues such as assessment, decolonisation, and the hidden curriculum. But it also became clear again that the grass is not always greener on the other side; not only do we encounter similar challenges, but sometimes the solutions for these challenges back home are not that bad at all.

I also was reminded again that words matter and that a sense of belonging is important, for students and teaching staff. In fact, one of my key take-aways is the need to “find your own people”, as a participant in one of the workshops put it. I think that this blog is one way of doing so, just like attending teaching and learning events and workshops. Yet, when it comes to developing and reflecting upon your own experience nothing beats spending a little bit more time in another place.

I have already decided that I want to do more of this. I’m not quite sure yet how to finance it, but, ideally, I’d want to spend one week at another university each year. Perhaps connect these visits to conference attendance? Frame it in the form of a project? Something that I will still have to explore further.

But in my experience, it is equally rewarding to welcome colleagues here. Just the other month, Christopher Huggins visited us from the University of Suffolk to learn more about Maastricht University and problem-based learning. We had many interesting discussions and I’m looking forward to contributing to an online Suffolk event in July to continue those discussions.

In short, while I may not be stating anything new to the converted teaching and learning geeks who read this blog (‘my own people’), do feel free to view this post as an invitation for you to get in touch to see if we can arrange a visit to Maastricht!

How to debrief a simulation

Being able to see what’s happening in your session is probably also important

One of the topics that popped up at various points at TLC and ISA was the question of debriefing.

Everyone who does active learning and sims work agrees it’s important and there was lots of head-nodding whenever it was mentioned. Yes, it’s essential for reconnecting students’ learning within the activity back into their wider understanding and development, so why wouldn’t you agree?

However, at neither conference did anyone really get into what happens in a debrief.

Part of me nearly jumped straight into ‘I’ll write a blog’ mode, but then sensible me rocked up to say ‘maybe check to see if anyone’s already written something about this first’, which is good advice. Well done, sensible me.

And there’s loads of stuff. Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “How to debrief a simulation”

Do you need to livestream your event?

Nor do you need a swing in your seminar room

Short answer: probably not.

A colleague of mine, who has a lot more experience than I do, has a rule of thumb for events.

For a free, in-person event in London he estimates that only about 50% of those who sign up will actually turn up, plus a handful of people who didn’t sign up do turn up.

Add in a fee and/or a less immediately accessible location and you get more of your sign-ups showing on the day.

I thought about this at various points in recent weeks, as I organised, attended or discussed the new hardy perennial of events: do we livestream?

As someone who doesn’t want to just pretend that Covid didn’t happen, I’m glad that we’re exploring how best to connect online and in-person experiences, but I worry that the default of ‘stick a camera on a speaker and you’re done’ isn’t the solution we’re looking for, whether in the classroom or the conference panel.

This is where we go back to my colleague.

Continue reading “Do you need to livestream your event?”