Clearing out the office after ten years in the job has brought back lots of memories. In sorting through my stuff I have unearthed materials and publications from many organisations and projects which no longer exist, their functions having been absorbed by other organisations, or in some cases eliminated altogether.
Having worked at the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, I am unlikely to be dispassionate about the subject centre network. Publications such our Liaison magazine and the English subject centre’s Wordplay are among accidental archive. Some of the subject centres published academic journals which have been taken over by the Higher Education Academy or commercial publishers.
The Learning and Teaching Support Network.
Before the Higher Education Academy there was the Learning Teaching Support Network (LTSN) which consisted of the 24 subject centres based in UK universities and a Generic Centre based in York. The LTSN Generic Centre published a number of useful guides on topics such as employability and assessment. These were rebranded and republished when the HEA was formed.
Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL)
FDTL consisted of five phases, each open to different subjects. Universities were able to bid for subject specific teaching development projects. If I remember rightly phases 1, 2 and 3 predated the formation of the subject centres. A number of languages projects were funded in phase 4, notably in the area of residence abroad.
National Disability Team
I have one of their mouse mats on my desk right now. Produced lots of good resources for helping university teaching staff address the practical and legal aspects of supporting disabled students. I seem to remember that the Special Education Needs and Disability Act (2001) was a key focus for some of this work.
Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs).
CETLs received a total of £315m to enhance learning and teaching across the sector. The legacy was mixed, as outlined in the HEFCE evaluation:
The report concludes that the legacy of the programme rests largely in individual staff and in those institutions which have embedded CETL developments, rather than in a general enhancement of teaching and learning across the entire higher education sector.
The funding sounds substantial (and indeed it was) but a lot of the funding went into infrastructure, notably new or extensively refurbished buildings.
Mainly paper work here. The languages and humanities diplomas occupied a lot of our subject centre time in the last year or two of the previous government. The languages, humanities and science diplomas were to be the last to be introduced. The policy was abandoned when the present Coalition Government took power. Although extensive consultations took place and drafts of the curriculum were written, these diplomas never implemented. Possibly a missed opportunity to break the tyranny of A-levels.
As part of my Fellowship of the Staff and Educational Development Association I have to write an annual review of what I have been doing and what I’ve learnt and what I plan to do for the future. We are then alloated 'triads' of other fellows and we will comment on each other's reports. I wanted to do something a bit different year as we don't have to submit as a written report. I couldn't think how I might do it differently, so I decided to make my report public, crowdsource my professional development I suppose.
This year has been the most challenging of my career so far. Last year the Higher Education Academy took the decision to withdraw funding from its 24 subject centres. The decision focused my mind somewhat. What had we achieved as a team in the lifetime of the subject centre? Where were we going to go from here? More crucially what had I achieved in the eight years I had been part of the team? Where was I going?
Subject centres, LLAS at least, was very much a we organisation. This was great on one level, but I had found it increasingly difficult to distinguish myself from subject centre. I have also learnt a lot about how people see subject centre staff, and I don’t always like it. In 2010 I wrote a short piece for the Teaching in Higher Education about the identity of subject centre staff in the educational development community. The anonymous referee was adamant that subject centre academic coordinators are essentially administrators though one or two do some good pedagogic work (we need adminstrators of course, but I sensed very negative undertones in the reviewer's use of the word). I wanted to raise awareness about the job I did and somebody seemed to be suggesting that I had misinterpreted my own job. The reviewer said that he/she was a member of a subject centre advisory board—my first response was that I hoped they weren’t on our advisory board. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. I'm not sure that I am.
As the 2010-11 academic year drew to a close my angst increased. Our director did some good work in persuading the powers at be in Southampton that it was worth keeping LLAS work going as an independent unit—another opportunity though painful reflection was involved too. Who were we? Could we continue as we were? (How) would we have to change? The team, which had grown through Routes into Languages and Links into Languages would have to be much smaller. We had to reapply for our jobs. I was fortunate in this process, but lost a day of week of hours. We still had some funding from the HEA, but we needed to start charging for the sorts of activity which used to be free or low cost. And we had to start getting the funding in to keep going.
What have I done this year? What have I learnt?
The LLAS work
One of the challenges with the subject centre goings on has not been the changes which have taken place, but the continuity. As usual I organised and participated in workshops for Heads of Department, a workshop for new academic staff and a workshop on sustainable development in the humanities. I have received funding from the British Academy to produce an online statistics books for humanities students under the Academy’s Languages and Quantitative Skills Programme. I have long been dissatisfied with statistics textbooks. In my opinion they explain too little and assume that the reader will take concepts such as the normal distribution as an article of faith. The book uses the sorts of examples that humanities students will use such as historical and population data. I hope that by providing a more verbal resonating approach the book will help students (and academics) who find quantitative data difficult to deal with.
I edited two further editions of Debut: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. In the latest issue my editorial reflects on the concept of publishing undergraduate research, how good it needs to be and how undergraduates journals help students to complete the research cycle. I am also part of LLAS’s EU-funded Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality(SPEAQ) project which, in my view at least, seeks to allow students and academics to reclaim ‘quality’ for themselves. I often feel that the term ‘quality’ has become increasingly associated with ‘tick-box’ approach to teaching which has little, if anything to do with the learning experience. We have developed a workshop to enable students, lecturers and quality managers to come together to reflect on the concept of quality.It has been interesting to learn about the experiences of academics from other countries who are our partners in the project.
I also headed up the organisation of the main LLAS biennial conference, the first of the post-HEA era. This year it was called 'Language Futures' and was held in Edinburgh.
One of my first tasks of the 2011-12 academic year was to provide maternity cover for my colleague Lisa who was coordinating the HEA’s Islamic Studies Network. As a non-expert in the field I knew this would be challenging, but with the closure of the subject centres most team members left the project too. Lisa was kind enough to draw up a plan of what had been done and what needed to be done. My main task was to begin the post-Islamic Studies Network (funding is about to end) sustainability plan. I drew up the consultation questionnaire over the Christmas period and we received over 50 responses. Now that Lisa is back this work is her capable hands and it looks likely some sort of scholarly association for Islamic Studies will be formed in the near future. I was fortunate to be able to draw on the wisdom and enthusiasm of the Advisory Board members.
Other University of Southampton work
I have been part of the University of Southampton’s participation in Green Academy, a scheme run by the Higher Education Academy to support institutions in embedding sustainability in the curriculum and overall life of the institution. One of the key achievements of our participation is that we have secured funding for full time programme assistant who is working on embedding sustainability into the CORE (curriculum, operations, research, experience) of the University of Southampton.
I will also be involved in teaching on a new Southampton-wide module: Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment. As in previous years I have also contributed sessions on employability and writing book reviews to the Faculty of Humanities Doctoral Training Programme.
The entrepreneurial John
I have used my 'non-working' time to develop skills in new areas. I have developed a website in Drupal called yazikopen a portal for open access research into learning and teaching modern languages. This has been a steep learning curve on the technical side of things as I do not have a background in web development. I am pleased that the website is functional, but I would like to work out ways to grow the website and see if there is any way enabling the website to generate revenue to cover its costs. I have also been being doing some freelance work and hope to develop further in this area.
Hope (Future plans)
At LLAS I am again organising a workshop for Heads of Department which will focus on the growing sources of public information about teaching in higher education (e.g. National Student Survey, Key Information Set etc.). I will also be putting in bids for various projects. I would like to continue development of the yazikopen website and will look for further freelancing opportunities.
I also hope to have a say in the open access debate. If true open access is to become a reality universities have a greater role to play in academic publishing.
The new LLAS: Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies will come into existence on 1 August. Despite the withdrawal of most of our HEA funding we are fortunate to be able to carry on with some of our activities as a ‘not for profit’. We will continue to work with HEA as well as with subject associations in LLAS.
We have a programme of workshops and conferences lined up already and we are planning further workshops on areas such as employability, language teaching and sustainable development. We will also be available to provide staff development in departments and will continue to publish Début: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies.
Nevertheless, this is very much the end of an era. I will greatly miss the many colleagues in other subject centres I have worked with over the years though I hope that I will continue to see them in other settings.
I'm pleased to report that LLAS activity post-July 2011 is shaping up nicely. Our first event of the new academic year will be one for Heads of Departments which will take place in mid-September. We also have dates for our annual e-learning symposium and our annual new staff event. Dates for e-learning and research methods courses will be up on our website soon.
Thriving in the New World of Higher Education: a workshop for heads of department and leaders in languages, linguistics and area studies
Date: 14 September, 2011
Location: Room B202, Bloomsbury Suite, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Event type: Workshop
e-Learning symposium 2012
Date: 26 January, 2012 - 27 January, 2012
Location: Avenue Campus, University of Southampton
Event type: Conference
Life and work in academia: event for new and aspiring lecturers in languages, linguistics and area studies
Date: 12 April, 2012
Location: Conference Aston, Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham, B4 7ET
Event type: Workshop
For further details please see the LLAS website. There are more details here about the work we will be doing from 1 August.
I have an unstated objective to write something for my blog at least once a week. Preferably that something should be fairly interesting. Now I realise that two weeks has past since I wrote anything at all.
Not that nothing is happening. In subject centres there is a lot happening. We face an uncertain future as the HEA withdraws our funding. Whatever I am doing on 1 August 2011 won’t be what I am doing now.
In 2010 I had an article published in the Points for Departure section of Teaching in Higher Education.The Invisible Developers: Academic Coordinators in the UK Subject Centre Network sought to draw attention to what I saw as the neglect of subject centre staff in narratives about educational development in the UK. With the impending closure of subject centres the whole point of the article is largely redundant. Even when I wrote that article at the end of 2009 I had imagined a bright future for subject centres, a (relatively) inexpensive alternative to sporadic rounds of short term project funding.
What next? I don’t know, but in a few years time some report or other will recommend a UK-wide network of discipline-based centres to support teaching and learning on a national basis.