Long (educational) Covid

That should do it…

Being of now of an age where I have a growing parental interest in higher education, as my kids get close to making applications, you might understand my worries about what the coming years might bring for universities.

Even if – and it is ‘if’ – we have got on top of containing the worst of Covid in the global North, the impacts of the past two years will be felt for a long time yet.

Most obviously, there is the shift in practice that we’ve discussed and debated at great length: more online, more hybrid, systems that can allow for increased flexibility in matters of co-location. I’ve yet to see an institution that has not sought to embed all that Zooming/MS Teams-ing/Blackboarding into their work patterns on a more standing basis.

That’s all fine, as long as those same institutions can keep their minds on the project and not drift back to the ‘good old days’ of putting research first: these new models demand more of students, staff and universities as a whole, so assuming that it’s just like before will be a recipe for growing problems.

But Covid has also created a long tail of issues elsewhere.

To return to my starting point, admissions for the next several cycles will be out of kilter. The huge disruption for the past two cycles from both changes in school-level grading and in deferrals cannot be smoothed out overnight.

Even if the issues are more pronounced in the UK – where school-leavers have been given teacher-based grades, resulting in much grade inflation that the government wants to crawl back, and where a demographic bubble is working through too – it’s also to be found in other countries. All of us will find that our plans on promoting diversity in our HE student population will come under more strain.

Of course I’m aware that of all the people facing these challenges, my kids will have a head-start on multiple fronts, but if our teaching is to mean anything then it has be about helping others to achieve their full potential, so it’s on all of us to reflect upon – and to act to address – how this plays out.

Business is very much not as usual.

Back up, back up

It’s been one of those days when major portals have been on the blink, with the result that my Twitter timeline is full of Facebookers stumbling into the (much less curated) light.

That even such mighty beasts can be felled (again) by the vagaries of technology is a good reminder that as a teacher you need to assume your tech isn’t infallible.

Most obviously, that means having a Plan B for when you can’t log into your classroom’s system, or the bulb of the projector is broken.

But it also means thinking a bit about how to handle your institution’s IT being on the blink (I know, hard to believe such a thing could happen, but just play along): even if something like that is someone else’s problem to solve, it’s also your problem to manage, especially in our hybrid era.

It also includes all the non-electric tech you use. I still have a unpleasant memory of trying to do an activity using post-its that wouldn’t stick to any surface, for example.

Like all these things, there’s a sliding scale of responses, dependent upon the nature, severity and duration of the tech glitch.

Yes, most of the problems you’ll encounter can be fixed with a bit of effort (and a call to a helpline), but if you’ve done your prep then you can either cut that effort or even cut it out altogether.

The crappy-classroom-set-up is something we’ve all come across, probably both as student and as instructor: the rebooting; the missing cable; the software update; the screen-(not)sharing; the sound quality.

So take some steps to address that proactively.

If it’s a room you’ve not used before, go and check it all out beforehand.

Take your own device with key files, just in case the classroom machine is an issue. Remember to bring a power cable and (if you can get one) your own HDMI/VGA cable/adaptor.

I’m old-school (OK, I’m old), so I like to print out my class notes, so that’s disconnected from any tech issues. And I put them in a protective sleeve, to disconnect from wayward beverages (yes, I’ve seen notes disappear in a latte-ish mush).

When I do class, I pick up my back-up bag, which has whiteboard markers (that I check at least once a semester), post-its, chalk, spare biro and sometimes some blindfolds.

Moreover, when tech goes wrong, I’m just as likely to switch about my class, so we don’t have to use tech, as I am to phone for help. If nothing else, students seem to respond well to a different classroom set-up, especially if PowerPoint isn’t to be seen.

It’s a bit like deciding to do your class outside if the weather’s nice: that’s a cinch if you’ve got your back up plans together.

If it all sounds a bit excessive, then you’re right: 19 times out of 20, I don’t use any of this stuff, because things work.

But sometimes, well, sometimes things don’t work.

Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

Christopher L. Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton U. Press, 2020) is packed with sound career advice for people who have obtained doctorates. The book is also highly relevant to anyone who is just contemplating post-baccalaureate study, because it points out three systemic flaws in graduate education:

First, graduate programs typically emphasize the production of subject matter experts, leading to what Caterine calls the overspecialization trap:

“[N]obody outside the academy can monetize knowledge of . . . constructions of gender in eighteenth-century French novels. Even scientists aren’t safe on this count . . . many still face hiring bias because of the excessive specialization that graduate school requires. Trying to convince nonacademics to value what you study is probably a losing battle” (p. 89).

Just as doctorate holders should emphasize how they study when applying for jobs, graduate programs need to be oriented around methodological training rather than the delivery of factual knowledge. Any worthwhile graduate program needs to teach its students how to quickly distill large amounts of unfamiliar and often contradictory information down to its essentials and present “a coherent narrative in a public forum on short notice” (p. 123). This skill is in constant demand by employers, whereas being the world’s foremost authority on a post-Augustan Roman poet is not.

Second, the elements of good teaching are also immensely beneficial job skills, yet how many graduate programs train their students to become competent teachers? Good teaching requires one to be adept at project management, public speaking, running meetings, balancing divergent stakeholder interests, and emotional intelligence (p. 104). For example, running a classroom debate on a policy topic for which there are no cut and dried answers is an example of the ability to engineer “discussions that orient people toward a shared understanding or goal” (p. 108). These are the kinds of attributes that employers prize.

Finally, just like anyone else, academics need to present themselves and their expertise in an understandable, unambiguous manner. Judging by the terribly written cover letters and resumes I have seen from job applicants, this is not a skill that people commonly acquire through graduate education.

So, for anyone out there thinking about graduate school, what’s the evidence that a program in which you are interested will adequately prepare you for a non-academic career? If you are already university faculty, what aspects of your work have value outside of academia, and how can you clearly communicate this to potential employers? Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide will show you how to find answers to these questions.

More active learning resources

As we might have mentioned before, one of the loveliest things about working in pedagogic circles is the generosity of spirit that colleagues display.

You see it here with the numerous contributions from our guest authors (and you’re always welcome to drop us a line with something new), but more generally there is a strong culture of sharing materials.

One relatively recent addition to this is the Active Learning Network, run by an international group that cuts across a number of disciplinary boundaries.

They have a good selection of materials and activities, plus the option to share resources of your own. Certainly worth some time to have a look and, hopefully, to contribute.

Dog, meet tail

Another reason to be a cat person

Conscious that many of our readers are in even more commercialised HE sectors than my own here in the UK, I hesitate to complain again about commercialisation. At the same time, we seem to be locked into a bit of a vicious circle here about how to teach.

2020 was characterised by endless discussion about how to make remote teaching models work effectively, for the obvious reason.

This year has instead been about the need to move back to in-person instruction as much as possible.

To be very clear, these are not two sides of the same coin.

The former was about optimisation under a particular constraint, while the latter is about pursuing a particular model whatever.

If you like, this is the backlash that we might have expected when the world embraced the potential of remote and online options: a desire to ‘return to normal’ and to throw out all the innovation that has taken place in the past one and a half years.

This was encapsulated in an interview by the head of the UK’s Office for Students – a government body that has some regulatory powers – this last weekend, where in-person was placed firmly as the path to ‘quality teaching’.

The logic behind this isn’t entirely clear from the interview, but it appears to be grounded as much in path dependency and student satisfaction as it is in any objective evaluation of pedagogic value.

‘Student satisfaction’ here is a very slippery concept, based as it is on highly problematic measures such as the UK’s National Student Survey (knock yourself out with the growing literature on this) rather than any systematic data collection on effectiveness of learning. Is it more important that students achieve their full potential as individual learners or that they like what they do/get what they want?, as much of the commercialisation debate goes.

Simple commercial logics will undoubtedly mean more students back in campuses – in the UK, universities make a lot more revenue that way than through tuition fees – but the risk only grows that the need to focus on providing a learning environment that is optimal for learning becomes secondary to other requirements.

Yes, universities need to stay financially viable – as Chad keeps on reminding us – and students who like what they’re offered are probably going to be more engaged, but all of that becomes rather redundant if our pedagogy isn’t up to scratch. And a (small-c) conservative attitude towards ‘what works’ isn’t conducive to finding pedagogic solutions for our learners’ needs: you don’t pick your solution before you start.

Something to consider as we have our next institutional-subsidising coffee on campus.

Is it that hard to depict teaching on screen? Anyone? Anyone?

For the past few weeks, my Twitter stream has been filled with colleagues noted their feelings about The Chair, Netflix’s excursion into Liberal Arts. The mix of joy at finally seeing ‘people like us’ on screen and trauma at the reliving memories of their day job certainly made a change from the usual psephologists-arguing-with-each-other.

I’m sure someone else can better comment on the politics of the show, even if much of it feels all too familiar, but here I’m going to think about another aspect: the teaching.

TV and film have been pretty consistently bad about convening the reality of teaching a class, despite every person involved having sat in classes at some point in their life. My personal low spot was the round of spontaneous applause for Stanley Tucci’s lecture in The Children Act: maybe you’ve seen that happen, but I doubt you’ve seen it happen for that.

The Chair has a bunch of teaching, mainly falling into the two classic camps of such things: the overly dry and the super-hip. Partly this is about conveying the tensions among the faculty, but throughout the teaching is problematic, a source of issues rather than solutions. The old guard are set in their ways and their knowledge, the young are not rigorous enough, it suggests.

Of course, much is not depicted, but what we do see invites questions, about respect for students as learners, about team-teaching, about the (mis)use of technology, about finishing classes with key takeaways. And, of course, the entire series hangs on an incident in class that is, at best, unthinking.

Much as I understand that teaching isn’t necessarily the most conducive of things to portray, and that it’s also at the service of some dramatic arc, it matters inasmuch as it shapes students’ expectations of how things might be.

Maybe teaching is about performance: ours and theirs. But ultimately it has to be about learning, and the tropes of on-screen aren’t really a way forward.

That means that the priority isn’t about being down with the kids or having published the definitive study, or even about being a famous actor who’s also done some academic work: no, the priority is about building a space that works for you and your students to explore and understanding the subject. It’s not that lectures are bad per se, or that you have to get your students perform humorous songs about Moby Dick, but that any activity you have is connected clearly to your learning objectives.

This won’t be the same each time you do it, because it’s a contingent process and one that you have to find your way to.

And because you’ve stuck through the post, I offer you the archetypes of the film options of ‘what’s teaching like?; nice Ethan Hawke on a desk in Dead Poets’ Society and Econ with Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. You can decide if either is realistic or useful.

Keep fit, online

I’m deep into our annual UACES conference today, which means lots of sitting in front of a screen, with periodic dashes to make a cup of tea.

Since I recognise this isn’t going to suffice for three days straight, I’m happy to share a video from the organisers from someone who’s got some better ideas about keeping it together.

There’s more content coming in later days, but it’s a great resource even if you’re not WFH’ing.

Learning is forever/scarred for life

A particularly rewarding part of being an educator is when someone you’ve taught comes back to you, years down the line, and recounts the experience they had with you and how it changed them.

Usually I like to illustrate this with the case of a former student who told me how my negotiation class had been front-and-centre of their thinking when sacking someone at their business, but now I get to add a new example. Not much better, I fear.

Some years ago, I ran an exercise with colleagues during an awayday.

They still remember it:

You might recall that I wrote it all up at the time. And yes, I do still have the other photos and video, before you ask.

As you’ll see for the responses to the tweet, they all remember the point of the exercise, which I think makes it a success. The exercise took under 30 minutes, and no clown costumes were needed.

And this is maybe the key point.

Looking at the dress-up-as-a-clown thing, I’m not sure if that would necessarily be the take-home from that activity. Yes, you’d rapidly forget about your outfit as you did other stuff, but is that ‘losing inhibitions’? Not really: maybe more about being reminded about how much you have to put up with stuff in your job.

So what to take from this?

As so often, it’s all about clarity of purpose: what are you trying to get the participants to learn?

It’s super-easy to get lost in the mechanics and the (metaphorical) dressing-up of your class, but you always, always have to come back to whether it helps improve the likelihood of your learning objectives being reached. If that doesn’t happen, then you’ve failed the most basic test of efficacy.

Feel free to point this out next time you’re sat in a wood in a clown outfit.

Keeping up with the literature

OK, actually a bookshop, but the same idea

I don’t know about you, but this is one of the hardest things to do.

Being of an age that I can remember trawling through the card index at the university library, and then spending a day or three browsing the stacks to discover some interesting piece in a journal I’d not heard of until that point [which is how I ended up with my PhD topic, but that’s another story], I am now swamped by a constant wave of new publications.

Which is great, but also problematic. Maybe because of that struggle to find stuff I now worry that I might be missing something, even as I now find I don’t have enough time to read it all, let alone ruminate on it.

Currently, my system works like this.

I’m signed up to about 50 journals for new issue alerts. I keep a spreadsheet of these journals, so I know that I’ve not missed anything from them: some of the alerts are a bit ropey, so maybe twice a year I’ll go to my library website and go check for missing back issues.

Right now, I’d totally recommend doing that, since many publishers seem to have loosened up access to journals that your place might not usually subscribe to.

I’ll download PDFs, reading the abstracts as I go, plus the full piece if it’s particularly salient. You might consider this piece when you write your next piece, because it’s certainly true for me.

In addition, I have a Google Scholar alert set up for a keyword for my research, which produces about an email a day of links to new content. Again, I try to access as much as I can.

And then there’s the stuff that I read about on Twitter or other blogs.

Again, I’m not sure this is the ideal way, but it’s the one I’ve worked with for many years, so it’s comfortable for me, which is also important.

From experience, the most difficult thing is letting stuff build up. A few years ago I left the library ‘visit’ for well over a year and I ended up with several hundred pieces, about which I could tell you pretty much nothing.

Anyone got any better models for doing this? Stick it in the comments below.

‘sup, D?

As we roll into the summer break, I have little to offer in the way of insight on matters pedagogic, so I’ll leave you to ponder the following:

This got a lot of attention over on Twitter last week, with opinion less than settled about whether it was A Good Take or A Bad Take. You can read the many, many comments by clicking through.

Me, I’m a pretty relaxed person about names, not least because of several decades of mangling of my surname and occasional uncertainty about what my actual title is.

I know I’d rather have a student contact me to ask something and make Simon (even Si), than for them to be too worried about honorifics to email at all.

Yes, there are pitfalls all over the place – from hierarchies of power to false matey-ness – so probably the best thing is to talk to students about it directly, when you meet them first.

And as the OP put it, it’s not something for the syllabus, because no-one reads that, apparently.

Which might raise some questions about why your syllabus isn’t working. But that can be one for next time.