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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?

No.

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.

Another Note on Graduate Education

Two recent articles about grant-funded efforts to reform doctoral training caught my attention. One appeared in Inside Higher Ed and the other in The Chronicle. The latter article is paywalled, so here is a summary if you can’t access it:

  1. Professional internships need to be part of doctoral training because they provide examples of non-academic career paths. Yet the internships created through the grant were in arts and humanities non-profit organizations and in higher education — industries with few jobs and low salaries.
  2. Graduate department curricula remained focused on producing subject matter experts, through traditional disciplinary coursework and production of a dissertation.
  3. Initiatives died when the grant ended. There was no institutional buy-in.

I’ve written before about the need to change doctoral programs; for example, here and here. But I don’t have much hope that this change is going to occur quickly enough. Institutionally, graduate education in the humanities and social sciences is mainly organized to replicate itself, leaving it increasingly disconnected from present reality.

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.

Some things to think about for your next open day subject talk

Having reached the age where my kids are now looking at university options, I’m now getting to see the admissions process from the third perspective (having been a student and a staff member), which is raising some reflections.

While this is going to draw on the UK experience, I hope it’s got some things of use for the rest of the world, mainly because we all do some selling of ourselves to others at various points.

For those who don’t know what it’s all about, British universities compete to get students, using open days as a key way of getting people on campus and selling the vision. A big part of that selling comes in the talks that programmes give, since you sign up to one when you apply (so none of this broad educational base/learn more once you get here nonsense*).

In my time I’ve given a bunch of these talks, but as much as I’ve tried to empathise with my audience, it’s still not quite the same as being the audience. Which is probably a useful learning point in itself.

Any way, those things to think about:

Continue reading “Some things to think about for your next open day subject talk”

From research to learning to dissemination

About 9 months ago, I had a reasonably good idea.

As in-coming chair of UACES, the UK’s European studies association, I wanted to improve the opportunities for my colleagues to share their work with the wider world. Fortunately, I also had/have good links with UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), who do exactly that kind of work.

So I suggested to the latter that my network in the former might be able to offer a useful package of materials.

And last week, we got that out to the world.

24 short (1,000 word) pieces on all aspects of the European Union, each written by an expert in their field, for a public/practitioner audience.

It’s a model that UKICE had refined over the past seven years of their existence, so there’s a robust editing process to stop authors dropping back into academic modes of presenting things.

Yes, we had to completely rework things (and delay publication) because of the war in Ukraine, and yes, some authors found the style less easy to adjust to, but I hope you’d agree it’s a good final product and one that you find useful for thinking about how you get your work out there.

For me, it once again highlights how we need to think about the links between research, teaching and dissemination.

Just as we spend time and effort on making our teaching materials work for our students’ needs, so too should we do the same for our dissemination work: very few civil servants or politicians want (or have time) to trawl through a journal article or a monograph.

I know that one of the most useful things I’ve understood in disseminating and in engaging in public-facing work is that lesson: think about your audience.

In this case, the step from ‘academic’ to ‘readable stuff’ isn’t big, which is why I offer it to you. Coupled to an active social media and media presence, we’re able to reach a lot more (and different) people than we could with the same material in conventional publications.

For that reason, I’m planning to do this again and again, as long as I can get people to join me on doing it. And if I can help you do the same, then just drop me a line.

What does new normal conferencing look like?

Given that I was speaking at EuroTLC in Bratislava about the importance of visualisations in teaching, it’s appropriate that I write now about this photo.

It’s the delicious lunch I enjoyed on the day after the conference, in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. If you’re wondering it’s sabish, Israeli street food, with falafel, humus, pitta, egg and some amazing deep-fried aubergine.

Sitting there, in the heat of a Viennese afternoon after some revisiting of places that I’ve not seen since interrailing 30 years ago, I thought about how great it was to be doing in-person events again.

EuroTLC was even better than the sabish, as I got to catch up with some long-standing colleagues and to meet a bunch of really exciting new colleagues. We did practical sessions, we talked pedagogy, we built community: we did all the stuff you’d hope a conference would do.

But equally, the sabish got me thinking about the flipside.

I was only in Vienna because my university travel agent – which I have to use – couldn’t get me on a flight back any sooner unless I wanted another 4am start (like the one I’d had to get out there). Four long days to do a two-day conference, while I had a pile of urgent admin to do, wasn’t an easy option.

Factor in the hassles of travel and accommodation (especially if you don’t work out the duvet is folded in half [cough]) and a less-than optimal diet and sleep regime and in-person becomes more of a balanced proposition. If the event hadn’t had been as good as it was, then I might well be more dubious about it all.

And this is reflected in what I see others saying too. It’s great to be back to face-to-face, but remembering the hassle was less great. Plus online did have some pretty useful stuff.

One of the questions we tossed around at EuroTLC was “why are you here?”; what do you hope to achieve by being present at this event?

It’s an odd question, we found, especially if we think about it in a more abstracted way (why go to any conference?). The answers varied quite a lot, which also matters because what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

The opening up of online spaces has had an impact. In particular, it’s made many of us see that moving people around the place isn’t the only way to generate interactions, even if it is a very good way of doing that in unstructured ways (the chat over coffee, the reflection over a pint).

All of which left me with my sabish, thinking that we do need to find a new balance for conferences and indeed all academic events. Even if a return to Before Times were possible – which it’s not, because of finances and environmental considerations – is it desirable?

Unfortunately, lunch was so delicious that I finished up before I had found a solution to this, a way to combine the best parts of online and face-to-face into a package of activity. But it will be a package, possibly with some things that we have still yet to do.

The conference isn’t dead, but it is going to have to become something rather different from before.

Food for thought, indeed.

“Oh. You’re ‘Simon’…”: EuroTLC2022

Banner!

As the blistering sun relentlessly beat down on us, a hardy band of L&T colleagues gathered in the fine city of Bratislava for the 5th EuroTLC.

As those of you who have already gone back to face-to-face conferences, it’s an absolute delight to be able to see people and interact with them, especially if you can do that over an ice cream, some street food or even a local brew (all three of which I managed in a hectic hour the other evening).

There is another piece to be written about how much we can even go back to ‘how conferences used to be’, but when you’re there it’s clear there’s still a lot of value to be secured.

Crucially, a lot of that comes in the liminal, informal spaces. This might just be a thought about how to address a very specific and small issue, or a very high-level reflection about how we work.

Since I appear to have become an old hand, I’ve found myself both recognised by reputation (hence the post title) and reflective about how we make teaching work.

The mark of the pandemic has been deep and broad: during the first day I didn’t see a single contribution of have a single conversation that did not mention Covid in some way, from delivery to assessment, student engagement to programme design.

But as we have talked, I’ve also found myself abstracting.

The change forced by Covid was radical and sudden, but it also mirrored the longer-run evolution of practice that has been taking place. The mainstreaming of IT, the increasing centrality of the student experience, the pushback against ‘tradition’: all these things were there before spring 2020.

Covid is thus both a shock and a process: necessity has meant we have to reformulate our work and our practice. Which is a good thing, in the end.

Even if it didn’t really feel like it at the time.

This equivalence has also been striking in a different dimension too. With several excellent papers on internationalisation and how it affects learning, we’ve had time to think about how it sensitises us to factors that were previously inconsequential or ignored.

In that, it is much like our developing work around equality, diversity and inclusion: the working assumptions we all make in creating learning environments are political, in the sense of carrying implications and privileging particular groups or ideas.

Work to bridge gaps to our overseas students is – in that sense – no different from work to bridge to any other student who is outside the dominant mode.

Unlike Covid, this is a slow-moving process and it will require the kind of generational shift of attitudes that brought us to the halfway-house of today. To speak to early career researchers of the kind attending EuroTLC, that is something definitely advancing, but it will take all of us to help make that change.

I know it’s beguiling, but it’s not what we’re looking at…

Via GIPHY

Another week, another big pile of British politics news (find your own links).

This made me a) weary, and b) think again about the whole “teaching fast-moving topic” issue that we’ve covered before.

Usually when we talk about this, we try to focus on giving students tools to make sense of not just today’s headlines, but of political processes more generally. The hot news becomes a way into Big Questions of Academic Interest.

But what if the hot news isn’t really all that important or doesn’t open up those Big Questions?

Despite my country’s best efforts to convince otherwise, most of its politics is still pretty mundane, so another leadership crisis/vote isn’t necessarily the key to opening those door for enquiry (although I’m sure you can find links if you want).

The basic dilemma here is that while the news can be your friend in building student engagement, it can also be your foe, distracting rather than illustrating.

Of course, since everyone loves a good dumpster fire, and since dumpster fires aren’t that hard to find, this is a problem.

Two strategies here. Note that ‘don’t mention it’ isn’t likely to work, since it’ll pop up at some point, so you should really own that discussion before it happens.

One: acknowledge and contain. Note the elephant as you arrive in the room, but then clearly mark it off-limits for the rest of the class. If it’s something really contentious and still really not linked to your class, then maybe make time for a discussion at the end of the session, or after.

Two: contextualise. Assuming the overlap to your class is minimal, get the class to mark out the overlap they see, then highlight how the ways it doesn’t map to your subject.

Neither is great, and neither is very clear-cut, mainly because so much depends on what the news is and what you do, so take every case as it comes.

Key point is that hoping it’ll work out by itself is probably not the best choice. That’s as true for your classroom as it is for politicians…