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.

“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…

Running in-class presentations

My daughter reminds me that the last presentation I made, I ended up sobbing, so maybe take that into account

Absent an in-person class of my own to run these days, I’ve been interested in my children’s educations once more. Last week, this included a discussion about how to chose who had to do their English presentation in class.

Talking about it with the kids, it’s clear they had as many ideas as I did about the way(s) we go about this, shaped by their understanding of the exercise. And since it’s something that most of us have to do at some point, I thought it’d be handy to run through some ideas once again, ahead of your autumn/fall commitments.

Note, I’m going to put to one side presenting of work done in class, even if it involves presenting. I assume here that we’re really only looking at presentations that students have had to prepare beforehand.

First things first: what are you trying to achieve with a class presentation?

For my kids, there’s a requirement that they all do a short talk to class, to develop speaking and research skills. That’s really clear and defining; it’s also very unlikely to be your situation, if only because you don’t teach an English (or any other language) class, but a PoliSci one. Plus you probably set most of the curriculum.

So you probably had some other objectives in mind. What those might be is up to you, but you need to be clear to yourself about them, since it will shape whether and how a student presentation is used. So do you need everyone to do a presentation, or do you need all the presentation topics to be covered? What happens with the stuff that’s presented: do we never really hear of it again (please say no to this one BTW) or is it pulled back into other content (and if so, how)? Does it need to be individual presentations or can groups do it?

Once you have this clear, you can work on formats.

Continue reading “Running in-class presentations”

Content currency

Not like it used to be

A couple of months ago, I had to update some materials on one of our courses. Written in 2015, it dealt with the UK’s relationship with the EU.

We can leave the extent of the rewrite by noting that I was just happy to have something material to contribute.

Obviously, this is an extreme example – a function of our distance learning model and material revision cycle – but it highlights a long-standing challenge of how to address the ever-changing landscape of politics and international relations in our classes.

This has been brought home once again by this weekend’s election of a new Australian government.

Normally, it’s not somewhere that much crosses my path, but I’ve been working on a climate policy negotiation for our new IR programme and have spent some time of late working up country information sheets for the various roles. Including, well, you get the idea.

Continue reading “Content currency”

Scenario modelling

One of the more regular questions we get from students of Politics/IR is ‘what’s going to happen on X?’

We study political events, they see political events and not unreasonably assume we know how it will all play out.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. As my own track record on assorted elections, referendums and scandals has demonstrated.

But the question still remains a good one, because it’s an opportunity to apply theory to practice, and to appreciate where the uncertainties lie.

Of course, right now the invasion of Ukraine is the big example on many peoples’ minds in Europe, but you could add in the looming SCOTUS decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, or the renewed tensions in North Korea, or Taiwan’s situation, or pretty much anything else really.

Each of this political situations has a wide range of possible outcomes, so working through what those might be and the factors that might weigh in deciding between is a useful exercise, for students and colleagues.

This reminds me of the excellent work done by Jon Worth during the hot phase of Brexit, where lots of uncertainty existed and everybody had a hot take to share.

His approach was to work through necessary decision points and allocate weightings to the likelihood of various outcomes, ultimately producing a summary set of overall results of varying probabilities. You can find his last set of diagrams here.

Crucially, Jon did this in a very transparent way, gathering input from social media contacts on both the steps involved and the probabilities to attribute. As you’ll see, this made each diagram an iterative process.

Jon used open-source software for this and put in a lot of time. He’ll freely discuss how getting feedback proved harder and harder over time, so this isn’t something to be done more than once by students, but certainly you can see how a small group could produce a diagram within a session and then work to refine it among themselves: for many topics you could return to those diagrams the next time you ran the class, a year later, to see how they stood up.

The value here is in the unpacking of assumptions and the explicit consideration of how things fit together. Whether students make the right call on what happens or not, they learn – through debriefing – why things turned out the way they did.

Creating Wicked Students 3

Time to reflect on the previous semester’s successes and failures:

I might be on to something with the Wicked Problems that I created for my comparative politics course. Previous posts on the subject are here and here. A brief synopsis of the activity: in class, teams of students have to quickly determine and present a possible solution to an unstructured, authentic problem. I put four of these exercises into the course:

  • Political risk consultants recommend to Volkswagen executives which of two sub-Saharan African states is most suitable for establishing a new automobile manufacturing site and sales network.
  • Defense Intelligence Agency analysts identify which of three Latin American U.S. allies is most susceptible to a Russian GRU election disinformation campaign.
  • The United States Institute for Peace delivers a conference speech on constitutional design for leaders of Libya’s major political parties that compares constitutionally-established institutions of government across four states.
  • Members of Iran’s Mujahedin-e-Khalq create a strategy for overthrowing the Islamic Republic by examining revolutionary movements in four other states.

Students found the exercises engaging. My exams included a question that asked students to reflect on what they learned about their problem-solving ability from each Wicked Problem, and their answers indicated a reasonable degree of meta-cognition.

But it was obvious that students failed to use the methods of comparison that I repeatedly demonstrated during class discussions. I expected students to organize their cases and variables into a simple table, like I had, but they didn’t. So, for example, instead of something like this:

BotswanaNigeria
Ethnically heterogeneousNoYes
Prior civil warNoYes
Major oil exporterNoYes
High level of political riskNoYes

students presented the equivalent of this:

Nigeria has a large population and represents a larger automobile market than Rwanda, so Volkswagen should site its new operation in Nigeria.

I suppose the solution is to require that students create their presentations by filling in a blank table, which will force them to select cases and variables in a logical manner.

Ungrading

A short one today, to encourage you to read this thread from C Thi Ngiuyen on how he’s challenging students’ understanding of grading:

Suffice to say here that his ideas resonate a lot with my own, but he’s in a position to do more about it with his class. For those of you who are bound to your institutional requirements on grading and assessment, this is still a really useful discussion to have, with both students and colleagues.