“Oh. You’re ‘Simon’…”: EuroTLC2022

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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.

We should screen student course evaluations: the best idea from ISA

ISA was full of great ideas in the teaching and learning space, as it usually is. I want to talk about the one that has prompted me to blog for the first time in too long. Short version: chairs or course coordinators should screen student course evaluations for harmful, vitriolic comments prior to passing them on to instructors. First, credit: this idea originates with Dr. Meg Guliford, Penn Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a panelist on a roundtable for early career faculty to talk about their experiences as teachers. It was a fantastic panel set up by Michael Murphy of the University of Ottawa, and I’m using this platform to raise the signal on what I think is an important practice that should be standard at all institutions.

Dr. Guliford noted the harmful effects of reading vitriolic comments on student evaluations, particular for a professor that is BIPOC, a woman, LGBTQ+ or a member of another marginalized community. Imagine you are scrolling through stacks of evaluations after a class has ended, looking for constructive feedback that you can use to reflect on your teaching practice. Instead, you read the most unconstructive of comments–racist, sexist, hurtful language that is included under the veil of anonymous end of course evaluations. There is no value in an instructor reading such comments; the practice is strictly harmful to the morale and mental health of the instructor.

So why not screen them first? Student evaluations are not private–they are typically processed by someone who passes them on to instructors after course grades are posted. Often copies are given to departmental leadership to review the performance of faculty in the classroom, and they are referred to in decisions on tenure and promotion. Why not then, as part of the process, have a step where someone in leadership reviews the evaluations and simply removes any comments that are entirely unconstructive and hurtful? Of course negative comments that are constructive in nature (“I did not get any feedback on assignments; the professor showed up late constantly; the professor was unprepared or unclear”) should remain–I only advocate for removing the kind of comments that can are entirely meant to hurt. To use the famous phrase, ‘you know it when you see it’. If you don’t think that happens, or have never seen it–I’m happy for you, but ask that you don’t assume your experience is representative.

In my view, this practice should be standard at all institutions. Sure, it will require some extra time from departmental leadership, but I can think of few things that cost so little and yet could do so much. Big thanks to Dr. Guliford for raising this idea and I hope to see it adopted widely.

Who cares about your teaching?

Also, cats

Last week I got to be part of a training event run by E-NOTE, a EU-funded project to understand and develop teaching excellence. I should also say I’m on their advisory board, but don’t hold that against them.

My session dealt with the question of the difficulties of moving from any theoretical consideration of what makes teaching ‘excellent’ (and yes, that’s a whole big discussion by itself) to a practical operationalisation.

For me, that means working with the constraints you face. That runs from the physical space you have access to, to institutional requirements on accessibility and assessment, to the nature and number of your students, not to mention all the other stuff you yourself have going on. Some of these you can’t really change, while others you can subvert or even push back on, but in all cases they shape what and how you teach.

One of the themes that emerged from the discussion – for me, at least – was the implicit need for someone to be bothered about working towards excellent pedagogy.

Given all the hassles that we face in putting together classes, navigating institutional policies and regulations and committees, trying to make running adjustments to better fit students’ needs, the question does arise of what’s the point? Especially if you just end up with mediocre evaluations at the end and some kind of ‘developmental’ meeting with a line manager to ‘get better’.

And I say this as someone who’s had all of that, right up to now. If fancy stuff doesn’t really seem to be valued, why don’t we just stick to the old fashioned way of doing class and read them a lecture?

At one level is this an easy question, because the kind of people who read this blog care intrinsically about teaching: we do it because we think it’s valuable and important and worth working on, well before anyone else – our employer, for example – suggests it’s also part of your contractual duties to ‘teach good’.

But that self-motivation can be hard to sustain, especially when the demands seem to grow all the time.

And if you’re finding it hard to keep on plugging away, then you might feel no one else is going to help with this either.

However, it is precisely through sharing with colleagues that there is a way forward. Your institution might not really understand what you’re trying to do, or the pressures you face (although they should), but those you work with (inside and outside your uni) will have a pretty good idea.

And because everywhere’s a bit different, everyone’s got a different set of challenges, or a different set of responses to draw on. And that can be a real help to you, to share, to empathise, to get fresh takes, and to give them too.

So reaching out is worth it. Together we can share the load and help us all get to where we want our teaching to be, for our students and for us.

And yes, you can take that as an invitation to drop me a line.

TLC@ APSA 2022 – and a request

A one-day Teaching and Learning Conference will be held at the 2022 APSA meeting in Montreal. The call for proposals is here.

Young-Im Lee, assistant professor of political science at Cal State University-Sacramento, would like to organize two workshops for the TLC@APSA. Here is her request:

  1. I am curious what other political scientists/their departments do to practice antiracist pedagogy and create antiracist institutions.
  2. I wonder how other political science programs offer career advising for undergraduates, in terms of both graduate school application support and non-academic jobs. I am particularly interested in programs mainly teaching underserved and minoritized students.   

I am not yet in the position to present on these two topics, but I am interested in learning about what others do. I am happy to do the organizing work. Please let me know if you want to share your experience and expertise on either one of the two topics above.

Dr. Lee can be contacted at young-im [dot] lee [at] csus [dot] edu.