Managing discontent

Wonderfully, several parts of my professional life have seen recent instances of people being less than completely satisfied with my work, or that of my colleagues.

Choooooon!

I say wonderfully not sarcastically, but genuinely, because it’s a great opportunity to question whether things are working or not.

It’s easy to get stuck into a rut, where you’re comfortable or feel you have the answers. Sometimes you need a bit of a bump to get you re-engaged.

(Of course, some bumps are a bit bigger than others, but hey, what are you going to do?)

Sometimes these things happen because you’ve not keep up your standards; sometimes because things you thought were explicit have become implicit; sometimes because things have changed.

In each case, it’s more useful that your response is open and enquiring, rather than closed and defensive. No-one likes being told that their work isn’t up to scratch, but that’s not a good enough reason to carry on regardless.

Importantly, you have to start by recognising that problems with your work isn’t the same as problems with you. Contain the issue to your actions – which you can control – rather than allow it to be a comment on your being – which you can’t.

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“You know, it’s like…”

I spent the weekend cycling through Northern England, with an old school friend.

It didn’t rain all the time…

If I were so-minded, I could write you a whole blog post about how this was an analogy to the learning process, or to our professional careers, or something else.

But I won’t.

I won’t, not because I can’t, or because it’s not useful, but rather because during one of the quieter stretches of our ride, when we’d exhausted the catching-up chat and the comments on the beauty of it all, I got to thinking about the place of metaphor in teaching.

As you do. Or, at least, as I do.

It’s a truism to note that all teaching proceeds by metaphor and analogy: we explain the things people don’t understand by drawing connections across to things they do understand. Everything is like everything else, in some way.

However, it’s easy to forget this, to think that we are building radically new structures of understanding for our students with what we do.

But even that notion of ‘structures’ is an analogy: it gives us a visual metaphor for how we can understand this very thing.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I found I rather good example of this on Twitter, using almost-Lego:

As often happens with my Thoughts While Cycling, I’m not sure it comes to a whole lot, but if we recognise that this happens, then we can use it to good, or better, effect.

Importantly, it also helps us to be weary of mis-using metaphors, as happens a lot in my other work: metaphors can blind us to things as much as they can enlighten.

Holiday coping

A short one, because I’ve got too much to be doing.

Too long, but right idea…

And it’s precisely because of that I want to share this piece from Oliver Burkeman.

Burkeman writes about being overwhelmed by Stuff To Be Done, and how we might manage that, in this case by having a list of (at most) three things we are thinking about at any one time.

Do one, and only then can you add something else to the list.

For me – and I’m guessing for you – summer can be difficult like this, as the graveyard of All The Things We Didn’t Have Time To Do During Semester. Unfortunately, that means summer often feels even more busy than semester, even as we want to get out of the office altogether.

Just as I’ve stopped planning to work while travelling, so too might this technique help in making less turn into more: if I’m not crippled by anxiety about not doing something, then maybe I’ll get the something else done done more quickly, so I can get back to the something.

Of course, if you’re one of the people waiting on something from me, you might feel different.

Have a good summer, and don’t overdo it.

The difficulties of reflecting on “being not very good”

This is a guest post by Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University).

Last week Simon discussed the need to reflect on our teaching and learning, in particular also on what’s not working. This made me wonder, are we actually able to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses?

We all know how difficult self-reflection can be. I personally remember a management training during which I was asked to evaluate my own actions in a difficult situation of my own choice – and struggling to openly critique myself and reflect upon my behaviour.

I recently witnessed how some of my colleagues find it easy to talk about teaching and learning, whereas others seemed to be struggling.

Active learning is in Maastricht University’s DNA, with problem-based learning (PBL) being used across its programmes. But often PBL does not come natural to teaching staff; we are expected to take a backseat role and focus on process rather than on content.

Hence, good teaching staff training is essential. New staff are introduced to PBL and need to follow a more detailed teaching training trajectory after a year of teaching. Events such as my faculty’s annual Education Day also play a role in this, through the exchange of experience and best practices.

In the run up to this year’s Education Day I was asked to talk about a new teacher staff development programme, called Continuing Professional Development. This programme is aimed at stimulating further development of teaching staff and at further enhancing the university teaching community.

Since it is not yet fully clear what kind of activities staff can do in this context, I planned two exercises that should give me an insight into colleagues’ needs: a bingo and a generative interview.

The first exercise I have already discussed in more detail in a post published in November: a bingo. The bingo I used this time is pictured here.

I explained to my colleagues that the aim of this exercise was a) to experience how easy it is to discuss and share teaching and learning ideas and best practices and b) to come up with some first ideas concerning their own training needs. This is also why I asked everyone to make sure to at least complete the box on the bottom left. The exercise worked well – and this time I timed it well too. People found it easy to talk, also because of the variety of topics to be discussed.

The second exercise was one that I picked up during the recent Joint International Teaching and Learning Conference in Brighton. During the conference, Colin Brown (Northeastern University) hosted a workshop on teaching peer review in which he made use of generative interviews.

We worked together in groups of three: one interviewee, one interviewer and one observer. Interviewer and observer together try to find out the interviewee’s views on a certain topic and formulate these views for them, which helps to actually more clearly formulate those views. Roles rotated. This was an interesting exercise and I decided to try it during the Education Day. I explained to my colleagues that this exercise was meant to get a more detailed understanding of their teacher training needs.

While I participated in the Bingo, I decided to only observe my colleagues during this second exercise. Interestingly, where some immediately started talking (as I experienced myself during the conference workshop), others started to focus on details of procedure.

I noticed that those colleagues who I know to be very involved in teaching and learning, seemed to find it much easier to do this exercise. They sometimes ignored the procedure, but they did eventually end up filling in the main part of the form pictured here:

Colleagues less eagerly involved in teaching and learning were the ones who seemingly found it difficult to talk about themselves, their strengths and their weaknesses. Instead, they spend lots of time talking about the form and the procedures.

This shows that Simon’s call to speak out about our mistakes and our weaknesses may come quite natural to those of us who think about these issues on a daily basis (the readers of  the ALPS blog or my faculty’s own teaching and learning blog). But this seems quite different for those colleagues for whom teaching does not come naturally or is rather viewed as a thing they have to do (instead of something they like to do).

Staff training will hopefully get more teaching staff to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, but, as Simon writes, academia unfortunately encourage us instead “to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.”

PS During both exercises I played music to create a good atmosphere on a day that temperature went well above 35 degrees. You can find the playlist here.

Is it worth tweeting if you’re starting out in academia? UPDATED

Today I’m in Manchester, for the UACES Graduate Forum annual conference, speaking about what the future might hold for Europe: I may not be very cheery.

Money? There’s money? I’m not sure that’s right, Mr Clip-Art-Creator…

The conference has been a great opportunity to get to know the work of grad students and early career researchers, a group that the association has always been very keen to support and encourage.

Perhaps inevitably, it’s a point to discuss How To Get On.

One really interesting conversation I had during the drinks reception last night concerned all the social media work I do and how I find time to do it.

[In this specific case, because it’s 6 in the morning and I can’t sleep. Not a good model.]

The question that came up was whether it was worth a new academic pursuing a similar building-up of a social media profile.

I was a bit ambivalent, because the incentives are still rather mixed, and bear much thought before you get stuck in.

Let’s start with the upsides.

Blogging especially – but also tweeting – has been really helpful for me in getting me unblocked with the act of writing: I’m very much happier now about sitting down and just getting going than I was beforehand. That’s great for my general productivity and getting things moving off my desk (usually).

Social media work has also been excellent for letting me work through thoughts and ideas on my research areas, getting them in order and getting instant feedback. On that latter point, I have always been struck by the generosity of people in offering constructive ideas, even if you do sometimes have to dig that out from the bots’ blather.

And social media has been great for raising my profile, with all sorts of people: yesterday was a case in point, where various delegates introduced themselves and said they read my work. Beyond that, I know this work has led directly to invites to brief or present to practitioner audiences and academics, so it’s a great calling card.

More specifically, my research area has a lot of activists on social media, so the move made even more sense for me, in terms of awareness and access: I even managed to get a journal article out it.

But that brings us to the costs.

Social media might not need much time for each individual element, but overall an active profile represents an opportunity cost.

In the hardest of terms, time tweeting isn’t time producing conventional academic outputs. And the latter are still what people look for when making hiring decisions.

It’s great to be active on social media, but it’s certainly not yet an expected – let alone, demanded – part of an academic’s work. Outputs are.

And that’s not just an issue for new colleagues: I know from personal experience that promotions have come more slower than if I’d not spent so much time online and churned out articles. I’m comfortable with that, but you may not be.

One more thing to think very seriously about is the scope for getting attacked online. I’ve not suffered this, possibly because of the accident of nature that gives me an X and Y chromosome, but plenty of my female colleagues have had to endure some really awful hazing. There’s a good piece here (and you should read the twitter exchange that led me to add this section in), but my main message would be that even if you’re reasonable and measured online, you might well encounter others who are not, so you need to be a) clear you’re willing to face that, and b) prepared to resist.

Ultimately it comes down to what your priority is. I’m old enough that social media didn’t really exist when I was starting out, so the dilemma didn’t present itself: I was nicely ensconced in a permanent post when I started.

That aside, I do it because I like doing it and I find it useful. It’s opened some doors, even as if made some others open more slowly.

Your journey and your choices will differ, but you need to think actively about it, rather than just letting circumstance happen to you.

And if you’d like to write a blog about your choices, then we’d be very happy to offer it a home here.

On being not very good

Woo hoo!

The last few weeks have been a bit of a L&T whirl for me, speaking at various events on simulations and on my practice.

One theme that came up, especially on the latter topic, was me talking about my shortcomings.

At one level, I’m in a very strong position to make a case for being a ‘good’ teacher: I have lots of experience, I’ve held senior roles in L&T, I do this blog, I’ve got prizes.

But at other levels, I’m less good. My student evaluations are usually alright, but nothing to write home about (and this last year have been not so hot); there’s no clear additional learning gain from taking my modules over colleagues’; and some of the things I try out don’t really work (see, well, the past seven years of this blog).

In short, I’m like you: good at some things, less good at others. The main difference is that I’m writing about it.

And I’m writing about it because I was struck of late that talking about what’s not working is rare. We’re all encouraged to big ourselves up, to represent a bold vision of progressive and successful practice.

(You can add your own ironic thoughts about how we’re teaching students to become critical and self-reflective learners, yet we don’t do it ourselves.)

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Virtual conferencing

This morning finds me in Antwerpen, where yesterday I was very pleased to sit on the jury of Dorothy Duchatelet’s thesis. Dorothy – occasionally of this parish – did as excellent a job in her defence as her thesis, plus she even managed to get most of the jury on the dance floor afterwards, so that’s got to count for something.

Literally missing the point

When we weren’t viva-ing, or dancing, we were all having various conversations about learning and teaching. And one of those was with fellow juror Heidi Maurer about conferencing.

As Heidi rightly noted, the cost of attending conferences can be prohibitive for more junior colleagues, especially if it’s in L&T, which they might see as less of a priority area.

Quite aside from any registration fees, there’s the travel, accommodation and subsistence to factor in, and that’s even before the carbon footprint of it all. Sure, it’s lovely to travel the globe to exotic locales, but it’s certainly not cost-free, even if we are lucky enough to have someone to pick up the tab.

Hence a discussion about a virtual conference format.

Heidi noted that while online might solve one problem, it created another: format. Losing the physical co-location means losing a lot of the freedom you have when you’ve got people in a room.

Or does it?

Part of addressing this is trying to work with the advantages that virtual spaces have. Central to that seems to be the capacity to time-shift.

Imagine a conference format that lasts a week. From an initially-rather-basic website, you establish a programme for that week with some very different activities.

You could certainly have a keynote and or conventional panels – both as live-streams and as replayable content – with space for Q&A. Such communal events might be good bookends for the conference, helping to generate a sense of ‘who we all are’, but without necessarily having to commit everyone to being online at the same time the whole time.

Alongside that, you could also run some asynchronous workshops, where people could dip in and out through the week to experience different activities and cross paths with others. The obvious examples here would be online simulation exercises, where delegates could get their hands dirty, or design workshops, where you could get communal feedback on addressing your L&T challenges.

Throw in some spaces for more informal discussion and you’ve got something that’s not a normal conference, but which does something else.

And the cost? Some for a website and the event organisation, but very much less than usual. Maybe you ask people to chip in via PayPal, or just tell them to set aside $20 to buy themselves nice coffee, instead of that stuff you normally find in the breaks.

Of course, there are issues. First, you still need people to organise and facilitate. Second, the loss of co-location means you risk people signing up and then never showing up, or drifting away. Third, there’s all the concern about encouraging and policing appropriate behaviour. Fourth, could the format work on a recurring format: you’d do it once, but would you do any more often?

But similar problems exist for ‘normal’ conferences.

So, something for someone to think about. I’d really welcome your thoughts on it all in the comments below.

The most irregular podcast in the world…

We’re great at many things here at ALPS, but producing regular episodes of our podcast is not one of them.

Sure, we could actually do something about that, but where’s the fun?

Instead, Amanda and I took a moment out of #IntTLC2019 to discuss various things, including how to avoid re-inventing the wheel, what it is we love about using sims, and why more of us should be bringing our students to conferences.

Listen here:

What’s it for?

Amanda and I are here in Brighton at the first International Teaching & Learning Conference, co-organised by APSA, ECPR, BISA and PSA: I’m hoping we’ll be bringing you a podcast shortly, once we can find a bit of spare time.

A symbol, today

Cheapskate that I am, I’m not in the conference hotel, but in a, um, particular little place along the seafront. It’s a bit bizarre, but it’s got the best view from the front door.

For those that don’t know, the thing is the BA i360 and the donut bit goes up and down, so people can check out the views of the coast.

It’s one of those civic projects that you either love or hate: I’m in the former camp.

But what’s it got to do with L&T?

Well, it took an age to build, with both technical and planning issues a-plenty. And quite a few people wondered whether it was worth it, because the view’s alright, but it’s not that special (remember half of it is sea).

But that’s to miss the intention behind it. It’s also a symbol of how this city is progressing, re-inventing itself, creating new focuses and opportunities. It is art and it is confidence. It’s also very phallic, in case you thought the gendered aspect had passed me by.

And all that – OK, maybe not the phallic bit – echoes with the discussions we have about moving L&T on.

One of the big concerns at the conference is about how to cope with populism, fake news and the changing nature of society.

As our keynote, Alison McCartney, pointed out, it’s not enough to be transmitters of knowledge: we also need to be supporting our students to become active and engaged citizens, by giving them skills, and opportunities to use those skills.

I’m totally on-board with that: it’s been a cornerstone of my advocacy of simulations for a long time now, as it has been for everyone I know in the field.

But it’s easy to forget that.

Last week, I was running a workshop on sims at an institution that has never really put L&T high on its list of priorities. I talked quite a bit then about how to make sims work and I found myself posing the question of whether it’s worth it.

Simulations take time and effort and they come with a lot of hassles. Over the years, I’ve met various people who have jumped into using one and then given up, because that hassle was too much.

And I totally sympathise with that. With all the other pressures colleagues face, it might well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But the potential mistake we make is to confuse problems. Simulations are not a silver bullet: they don’t solve all the problems in teaching. They should be a tool in your tool-box, but not the only one. I don’t use them all the time, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did.

But that’s a different problem for sims being a hassle.

We need to come back to the big phallus outside my hotel front door: there are a multiplicity of meanings and intents, and if we are to make a rounded and informed judgement on it all, then we need to keep that breadth in mind.

In the case of simulations, I use them despite being a pain, precisely because it lets me achieve learning objectives that extend well beyond those that get listed in the module description.

I may not frame it in my institution as helping to prepare our students to go out into the world and be an active part of it, but maybe I should. As Alison said in her talk, if we don’t fill the political spaces, then others will.

Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

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