Research the Write Way

Credit for the subject of today’s post goes to Lindsay LaChapelle, writing center acting director, and Alicia Vaandering, education and instructional design librarian, at my university. They can be contacted, respectively, at lindsay [dot] lachapelle [at] salve [dot] edu and alicia [dot] vaandering [at] salve [dot] edu.

I attended a presentation by the above-mentioned individuals on leveraging the expertise of academic support staff when using research-driven writing assignments. Undergraduates trying to complete these assignments typically lack proficiency in critical skills like:

  • Identifying peer-reviewed journals for literature reviews.
  • Knowing when and how to cite sources.
  • Decoding the rhetorical techniques of scholarly literature.
  • Applying the authentic writing principles of role, audience, and format.

For example, students often locate a pile of sources that they believe are pertinent, and only then begin writing. Or they do the writing first and then seek out what they think are a sufficient number of not-really-that-relevant sources to cite in the text.

Incorporating instruction from your university’s writing and research specialists can help solve these problems. The first step in the process is to consult with writing center and library staff, to share assignment information, identify your goals and expectations for the assignment, plan classroom workshop content, and schedule the workshops in relation to assignment due dates.

Workshop topics should reflect the four phases of the research writing process: exploration, reflection, revision, and becoming a creator of information. Each workshop can target one or more of the specific objectives for each phase, as shown in this table. “L” indicates a practice that normally falls within a librarian’s area of expertise, while “W” indicates a focus on writing. Think of the table as a menu from which to choose the skills in which your students most need training.

The classroom workshops allow both academic support staff and the course instructor to interact with students about their work as they proceed through the research and writing process. They can include probes of students’ pre-existing knowledge of college-level research and writing principles and the review of students’ work as they complete different components of the assignment.

Collaborating with librarians and writing specialists benefits both me and my students because it:

  • Reduces redundancy in instruction.
  • Shares the workload for lesson planning, delivering instruction, and assessment.
  • Reduces the instructor-to-student ratio in the classroom.
  • Models the collaborative nature of academic research.
  • Allows writing center staff to identify research-related problems that require librarian support, and vice versa — instead of leaving students in the dark about the kind of specialized help they might need and who can provide that help.

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.

Emotional Labor in the Digital Age

Katherine Wright’s recent post on Twitter as a hostile environment caught my attention, especially her point about employer expectations that faculty “engage” with social media.

If you’re like me, you never received any formal training in using social media for professional purposes. Whatever you see from me on this blog, it’s self-taught. A learn-as-you-go process where mistakes, whether technical or editorial, get made. But the consequences of these mistakes are quite small given that the format allows me to retain most of the privileges (male, Caucasian, overly-educated, etc.) that I enjoy in so-called meatspace. Comments are few, come from like-minded colleagues, and in the end, moderated. The content doesn’t attract hackers, doxxers, or nuisance lawsuits.

That is not the digital world that many of us live in. We know that some people, because of their identities, are regularly subjected to negative biases in the work environment. Expecting them to communicate in mediums where such biases can be infinitely amplified, while not preparing them for what they are likely to encounter, is simply disastrous.

Making matters worse: employers that want their employees to act as semi-public figures for marketing purposes often expect those employees to endure the harassment and abuse that they subsequently receive, or, as if this were somehow possible, prevent the harassment and abuse from occurring in the first place by tailoring their communication to the needs of an anonymous and dysfunctional audience.

Cause for Pessimism?

A bit of self-promotion, which most academics need to become better at . . .

Yesterday Inside Higher Ed published an op-ed of mine on a simple metric that helps identify which small colleges and universities in the USA are at risk of failure. I wrote a bit about the metric on this blog in December. If you work at a private, non-profit college with fewer than two thousand undergraduate students and an endowment of less than half a billion dollars, you will probably want to read the op-ed. Feel free to add to the comments.

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.

Why I’m never writing this blog again: Twitter as a hostile environment

This guest post comes from Katherine Wright (Newcastle University).

A recent blog post from Simon Usherwood highlighted some very salient benefits and costs of using twitter as a PhD/ECR. A noticeable absence was the lack of consideration of just what it means to be a woman or other marginalised group on twitter.

Simon, to his credit, engaged and has revised the original blog to include a reflection on how twitter is a hostile space for the many. As he pointed out in the resulting twitter thread, for someone who doesn’t experience twitter this way, it can be a difficult issue to write about. I would argue this is exactly why you should.

This is therefore a blog post to link to or preferably quote from if you are unsure of how to engage with the backlash which makes twitter a hostile environment for those around you. This is your ‘toolkit’.

This is not just an issue relevant for ‘how to’ blogs, gender blindness can and does characterise advice from PhD supervisors, informal conversations on twitter over coffee and institutional training. As Ben Bowman tweeted:

Given the severity of the gendered and racialised pushback many experience in the public eye, and twitter specifically, all training on social media or engagement should start with this. It is a responsibility of our employers and us as individuals who care about whose voice is heard.

Our Universities are increasingly encouraging us to tweet in order to ‘engage’. Less frequently does this advice come with any sort of recognition of the risk those of us who identify as women or other marginalised groups will be putting ourselves at (or corresponding support). Twitter can seem like the obvious tool to engage beyond the academy. But obvious for whom?

And just who can you engage with anyway? As Simon and I have argued previously: “Online spaces offer echo chambers that potentially reinforce divisive political agendas and undermine democratic logics of interaction, compromise and consensus”.

Yet to understand how twitter is gendered we need to go further than this and ask just who can you engage with as a woman on twitter? Twitter functions as a ‘gendered echo chamber’. Men and women use twitter in equal numbers and yet the key influencers (those shaping debate, who show up more in your feed) are men. A 2017 report by Lissted found that even when women engage with twitter equally, their voices are not heard to the same extent. So if you are a woman who tweets, your tweets are at a disadvantage from the outset as you are less likely to be an influencer. There is a good chance you will not be heard.

So even before we get to trolling, we find women marginalised from a space often presented to us as one we can engage with on fair terms.

Twitter is not a utopian ideal, misogyny is built into the infrastructure of twitter. Trolls (understood here as both bots and people) disproportionately target women and other marginalised groups (along racalised, ableist lines and targeting LGBTQI). Trolls also target content on gender, so those of us researching gender face an additional challenge to getting our work heard.

What does trolling feel like? Often the takeover of your mentions can make twitter unusable in terms of volume and the type of tweet you are receiving. Whether it is one death or rape threat, or hundreds you are made to feel insecure and unsafe. At the most extreme, this can translate to a user going offline to escape the trolls and the police being involved.

We only have to look at how women MPs in the UK have been treated on twitter to see how this is also deeply racialised. Diane Abbot MP, for example, receives almost half of all abusive tweets sent to women MPs, something she has described as ‘debilitating, corrosive and so upsetting’.

Gender and race then shape the digital environment and this can and does lead to silencing of those who do not conform to a particular ideal of a white cis gendered man. It is beyond time that this was acknowledged by us all in the advice we give, whether informal or formal. And that we begin to push back against the discourse that twitter offers an opportunity (for all) to engage beyond the academy. It doesn’t.

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.

Pay It Forward Assignments

Today we have a guest post from Loleen Berdahl, Professor and Head of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. She can be reached at Loleen [dot] berdahl [at] usask [dot] ca.

I am very excited to road test a new ‘Pay It Forward Assignment’ (PIFA) in my classes this fall. The PIFA requires students to create something that will help a student in the same class in subsequent years. It is inspired by David Wiley’s argument in favour of non-disposable assignments. My hope is that this assignment will inspire students to approach the material with creativity, and draw upon their own interests and personal strengths while they engage with class material. Ideally, the assignment will create a library of resources for future classes that can grow over time.

Here are the assignment’s instructions for students:

Have you ever mastered a topic and wanted to share what you have learned with other students? Have you ever wanted to demonstrate your mastery of a topic in a creative manner, rather than the usual format? Have you ever spent a tremendous amount of time on a class assignment and been disappointed to know that the only person who would read it was your professor? If so, the Pay It Forward Assignment (PIFA) is going to be fun and interesting activity for you.

The PIFA is an assignment that a student creates to share with future students. A great way to select the topic for your PIFA is to find something that you initially found difficult in the course. Once you have a good grasp of the topic, create a resource of some sort to help others. Some possibilities for your PIFA:

  • Graphic novella: create a graphic short story that explains a key idea.
  • Mind-map: construct a mind-map for a specific topic or a core idea.
  • Power-point slide deck: create a short series of lecture slides that teach a major point of a lesson.
  • News story video: present a key idea from a lesson as if it were a breaking story for a television news program.
  • Audio: create a short podcast that provides a tutorial on a key idea in a lesson, or that connects a key idea to a current issue in public debate.
  • Photo essay: use a photo or series of photos to illustrate a key idea in a lesson, and then use short amounts of text to explain how the photos illustrate the idea.
  • Checklist: create a critical reading checklist for students to use when assessing a research study, news story, etc., for trustworthiness. Go through an actual article and apply the checklist to demonstrate how it works.
  • Learning activity: outline a new learning activity for a lesson.
  • Lesson table summary: construct a summary table of the lesson’s key points and terms.
  • Linking our class material to another class: using text, audio, or video, explain how something from this class relates to something you learned in another class.
  • Relating lessons summary: using text, audio, or video, explain how the material in a particular lesson relates to the lesson that came immediately before it.
  • Social media activity: create a tweet-thread explaining a core concept covered in a lesson.

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.)

Continue reading

More Changes to a Course on Development, Part 3

The final exam for this course last year asked each student to write an economic rationale in support of one of two policy options, using information from course readings as evidence. Generally students students did not do well on the exam, mainly because they did not discuss applicable concepts like moral hazard and discounting the future. These concepts were found in several course readings and discussed in class. While I didn’t explicitly mention these concepts in the exam prompt, the benefits of including them in the rationale should have been obvious given course content.

Now I’m thinking of a question like this for the final exam:

What has a greater influence on economic development in Egypt: law (institutions) or geography (luck)? Why?

In your answer, reference the items below and relevant course readings listed in the syllabus:

The downside here is that I’m giving up an authentic writing exercise in favor of (I assume) even more transparent alignment with course objectives.