Category Archives: teaching

Five thoughts on why "I" blog

Mewburn, Inger, and Pat Thomson’s article “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.”* is a content analysis and not and a study of academics’ self-stated motivations for blogging. Nevertheless, five thoughts on why I blog here: 

  1. Self-promotion: I started blogging in earnest when the Higher Education Academy decided not to fund subject centres any longer. Whatever the rights and wrongs and politics of that decision it motivated me to raise my profile in the online world. I’ve promoted my research, conferences, publications and other ideas on my blog. I’m not ashamed of the self-promotion aspect of my blog. I’m not sure how many people actually read it on a regular basis, but this is part of my voice in academia.
  2. An aide memoire. Many of my more technical posts are to help me remember how to do things. A web developer colleague gave me the idea of blog things which I have worked out how to do, but can’t be relied upon to remember. If others are helped by this sharing, then that is great.
  3. Responding: I’m not a person who responds to every news story that comes out about higher education (or anything else for that matter). The annual ritual of worrying about how many people are studying languages is something I’ve written about fairly frequently trying to get behind the data, and get away from some of the less thoughtful discussions about why (or even if) language learning is in decline.
  4. Reviewing things: I’ve written about software such as nanDeck and AQUAD7 on the grounds that not many other people have.
  5. To help people: I hope it doesn’t sound ‘corny’ to say I’m motivated by helping others, but it is true. If people say they find my posts helpful then I’m all the more pleased to have written them.

*Mewburn, Inger, and Pat Thomson. “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.” Studies in Higher Education 38, no. 8 (2013): 1105–1119. doi:10.1080/03075079.2013.835624.

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Five good things about starting a new academic job

I’ve been in my new job at Brighton for nearly three weeks now. I thought I would write a few thoughts about the positives about starting a new job. It has been over ten years since I was the ‘new guy’, and so far I’m enjoying it immensely.

Five good things about starting a new job:

  1. I’ve let go: I find it easy to start getting involved in things, but difficult to stop doing them. After ten years in the job I was the ‘go to guy’ for lots of different things. I had accumulated a lot of roles and responsibilities I did not want to give up. Some of these roles and responsibilities were probably not that important, or they are less important than they were. Someone else has to do the stuff which is really important now. The rest of it doesn’t need doing.
  2. I’m ignorant and naïve: Usually this is a bad thing but for a newcomer it’s a (sort of)  strength. If I don’t understand how something works I can ask without sounding clueless. If there is an elephant in the room I can brazenly draw attention to it (if I want to).
  3. I can be known for something else: Past achievements can be an albatross. After a long time in a job, people can appreciate talents, skills and achievements you wish to move on from. You can become known and appreciated for the wrong reasons.
  4. I’m meeting new people and having new experiences: I was always meeting new people in my previous job, but it has been particularly nice meeting new people in my new job. Brighton has a very different subject mix to Southampton, so I’m meeting people who teach and research different subjects like sport, hospitality, fashion design and Youthwork.
  5. I’m really doing new things. I’m teaching on the Postgraduate Certificate course, working with students on the Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) scheme, working on Brighton’s professional recognition scheme. All this is related to my previous role, but new enough to be exciting, challenging and daunting.
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17 things every graduate should know.

What everyone should be forced to learn was the title of a recent thread on the Chronicle of Higher Education forums. I think the discussion os still going on, but last week I noted 17 things which appeared on that thread in some form.

  1. Basic probability and statistics.
  2. Basic social psychology principles, enough not to get suckered by con artists and manipulative politicians.
  3. Basic micro and macro economics
  4. Basic understanding of American government
  5. Understanding of the scientific method, error and uncertainty.
  6. The work of Elvis Costello
  7. How credit works, how to make a budget, and basic financial planning skills.
  8. Where food actually comes from and how to get it yourself.
  9. A course in Decision Theory
  10. Etiquette.
  11. Pass the test to grant citizenship to foreign nationals
  12. be able to read and understand a semi-literate news magazine cover to cover (i.e. Time; Newsweek)
  13. Understand the basics of world geography
  14. Change tyres and oil on car
  15. Basic first aid
  16. Basic chemistry (not be taken in by claims about water and skin creams).
  17. A second language
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Socratic circles for critical thinking: an exercise with PhD students

I promised that my ‘Critical Thinking 2’ session for the PhD students would focus more on the development of oral critical thinking skills.  I came across the idea of ‘Socratic Circles’* and thought I would give it a try. I did it slightly differently to the linked document – for example I did not distribute the texts in advance. I shared some thoughts about the concept of ‘critical thinking’. These are explored more in Critical Thinking 1 (which not all the students had done—this wasn’t really supposed to be the case).

  • Not making assumptions
  • Precise questions
  • Precise answers
  • Thinking carefully about what other people say
  • Being able to defend your opinion
  • Thinking about thinking
  • Open to the possibility of being wrong
  • Making time for thinking

What I did

  1. I had seven students in the session who I divided into two groups.
  2. I distributed to each individual a sheet of paper with two quotes:

TEXT 1

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • ·         the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 43. [Bruntland Report]

TEXT 2

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

On reflection the second quote was too complicated, whereas all the students were able to discuss the first. I will choose another if I do this again.

3. I gave the students a few minutes to read the quotes and make notes if they wished.
4. The first group sat in the centre of the room and discussed Quote 1 whilst the second group observed.
5. The discussion time was set at about 10 minutes. I had minimal input into the discussion and the observing group were not allowed to comment or intervene.
6. After the discussion, the second group had ten minutes to discuss what had just witnessed. Before the discussion I suggested the observing group look out for:

  1. Arguments and opinions put forward
  2. Where and when opinions were challenged or not challenged.
  3. Was there anything which surprised them or particularly stood out.
  4. Did any of the participants appear to change their views?
  5. The groups then swapped over the group which previously observed discussed quote 2 and those who had discussed quote 1 observes. This was a struggle, in part because the students found the quote much harder to understand.

What was got out of it?

I did not know quite how this was going to work out. The discussion of the second quote did not go well at all, but it was encouraging to observe the discussion the sustainable development quote went . There was a high level of critical thinking displayed in thinking about the content of the quote, and whether, as it was written in 1987 was it appropriate for 2013? Ideas of wants and needs were discussed. A discussion on vegetarianism was particularly interesting.

In a short 10 minute discussion the students were able to dig into the complexities of the sustainable development quote, thinking about assumptions, definitions, actions which might be needed, who was responsible, how behaviour needs to change and the ethics of asking ‘less developed countries’ to forego the development and prosperity experienced by the ‘west’. It wasn’t the purpose of the task to come to a consensus or a conclusion.

I did this exercise PhD students. It might be a risky with undergraduates who might be reluctant to talk and fully participate.

Will I do it again?

I will try it again. I will definitely use a different second quote. I might reflect more on the outcomes, but the process is central to the exercise.  There might be a case for distribution a longer passage of text in advance, but then I would have to rely on students reading and thinking about it before the session.

*Some things on this website are a bit ‘out there’, but I thought this exercise was worth a try.

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Applying for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (Professional Recognition Route)

Added 17/12/2013

See also: Ten useful things to remember when applying for HEA Fellowship­ (D1 and D2, Professional Recognition Route) 

This post is only about becoming a Fellow by Application. The alternative route to Fellowship is through accredited provision (e.g. a Postgraduate Certificate course taken by early career lecturers). I do not discuss the Senior and Principal Fellowships here.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) or assess Fellowship applications. These are all my own thoughts/ opinions.

From time to time I have discussions with colleagues asking for my advice about applying for Fellowship of the Higher Education. In some cases they have been advised that it would be a good to get the Fellowship. The application route is aimed mainly at experienced teachers in higher education who have not yet got a fellowship through the professional recognition routes or through membership of the Institute of Learning and Teaching (ILT) prior to about 2005.

Why apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA)?

There are many reasons why you might apply for the Fellowship. Some universities are aiming to ensure that all academic staff either have the FHEA or are on their way to getting it. After all students do not want to be paying up to £9,000 to be taught by people with have never studied teaching in some form.  An increasing number of jobs are listing FHEA as an ‘essential’ job requirement, as opposed to a ‘desirable’ attribute as was often the case in the past. Those without FHEA may find themselves being unsuccessful in applying for jobs and promotions they are otherwise well qualified for.  Even if your university has no requirements for FHEA there is the possibility that this could change or that you may wish to apply for a job in a university which does have the requirement. With many academics facing redundancy and re-deployment being FHEA-less at a time of great uncertainty could be a potential barrier to taking the next step.

Most of those who talk to me about FHEA are experienced academics or educational developers who have ‘never got around to it’. (Newer colleagues tend to get theirs through the accredited provision route). They find the application form somewhat daunting though it is only around 3000 words in total. Unless individuals are strongly encouraged/ forced by their managers, more pressing professional and personal activities take over and the FHEA application is always at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list.

The application process

The HEA website helpfully lays out the application process. The centrepiece of your application is the Account of Professional Practice (APP). This is laid out in five sections under which you need to write your evidence. It can seem daunting at first, but all you are really doing is writing about your own practice. Writing about the things you do shouldn’t really be that difficult. The sub-questions in each section are actually there to help and give ideas.

  1. Evidencing A1: Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study
  2. Evidencing A2: Teach and/or support learning
  3. Evidencing A3: Assess and give feedback to learners
  4. Evidencing A4: Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
  5. Evidencing A5: Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices

Things to remember.

Essentially the guidance notes and sub-questions are telling you exactly what to write, removing some the ambiguity in the previous form (I got my fellowship in 2008).

‘Learners’ are not just 18-22 year old undergraduates, but could be academic colleagues, evening class students, community learners.  I was not involved in teaching undergraduates when I applied and my ‘learners’ were the academics I ran and organised workshops for.

Similarly assessment and feedback are not just assessed summative assessments, but also formative assessment and feedback. This might include feedback to colleagues, evaluation work or providing academic support to students outside the formal boundaries of their course.

Most importantly the FHEA is a benchmark for all those who teach or support teaching in higher education. In short this is not about being the best, most popular or innovative teacher, but about showing that you are competent to teach in higher education. Awards such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme exist to recognise and reward excellent learning and teaching. The FHEA is about competence, not greatness .

Finally

Crucially, this is about you and the things you do and think . Writing about yourself, your experience and your practice can only be beneficial for your development as a teacher in higher education.  Don’t see it as a burden. See the Fellowship application as a great opportunity.

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No open learning without open access: a portal for open access research into teaching modern languages.

LLAS logo

My abstract for the LLAS 8thannual elearning symposium next January has been accepted, so all begin well I will be speaking about YazikOpen and broader issues surrounding open access there. The symposium will take place in Southampton on 24-25 January 2013.

Abstract

The effectiveness of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be seriously undermined by lack of open access to original academic research. Copyright restrictions and subscription fees mean that most research is completely unavailable to those who are not staff or students at a university, or who work in institutions or countries where financial resources are very limited. At best, those with limited access to original research are forced to rely on the summaries and interpretations of others.

This presentation showcases YazikOpen.org.uk a portal for open access research into the teaching and learning of modern foreign languages. The portal catalogues language teaching research published in open access journals or on open websites. This research is available to anybody, anywhere in the world with access to the internet without viewing or subscription fees.open access logo

Those teaching on courses relating to language teaching (e.g. TEFL, Applied Linguistics, Teaching Training etc.), whether face-to-face or online, can search YazikOpen to identify course readings which will be available to all students, irrespective of institution, geographical location or access to financial resources. Open access also means that original research is accessible to practitioners such as schoolteachers, Teachers of English as a Second/ Foreign Language, teachers at language clubs and teachers of languages in the community. Bringing down access barriers also means that practitioners and other interested parties can engage in debates and publish their own research with fewer disadvantages.

The presentation will also explore the wider discussions currently taking place about open access from the ethical as well as the financial and organisational perspectives. Open access to research is also crucial in ensuring that MOOCs are genuinely open and inclusive and do not perpetrate the current privileges of students and staff in well-resourced institutions.

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Severe grading at GCSE and A-level MFL: Consequences for Higher Education

Issue 1: Severe grading

Research into grading at GCSE and A-level has revealed that Modern Languages are graded more severely than most other subjects. A pupil who takes a GCSE or A-level in a language is, on average, likely to get half a grade lower in their language than they will in their other subjects. For example a pupil who gets a mid to low C in English is likely to get a D in their language GCSE.

Issue 2: Preparedness for university-level study.

When the severe grading issue was discussed at the recent LLAS workshop for Heads of Department, it prompted discussion about another entirely separate issue—the extent to which students are prepared for language studies in higher education. Students are getting good grades at GCSE and A-level, but are not as well prepared as university lecturers would like.

Issue 3: the proportions of students getting higher grades in language GCSE.

Over 70% of students got a GCSE grade C or above in French, German and Spanish in 2012 compared to 58% in mathematics. This would suggest that it is easier to get a higher grade in languages than mathematics. This is fairly straightforward explanation here: the students who take languages GCSE are generally speaking of high academic ability than the cohort as a whole (nearly everyone takes mathematics, irrespective of academic ability). The GCSE data alone does not tell us this, but when we examine all of an individual student’s grades we can see that those who take GCSE languages will, on average, do worse than they will in other subjects.

Consequences for higher education

Some in higher education welcome severe grading—it could be argued that those who succeed at school, despite severe grading are those who will do best in higher education. The reverse argument is that those seeking to recruit school pupils to study languages at university are essentially trying to convince students to study their worst subject (assuming that pupils consider there to be a link between grades and how good they are at the subject). Work by Felix Maringe on university course choice found that employability was an important factor in the choice or subject, but only alongside performance. If potential students believe that they are not as good at subject A as they are at subject B they are less likely to choose it.

Conclusions

The argument about severe grading is entirely based on averages, and, as the statistics joke goes it’s normal to be deviant; some students do consider languages to be their best subject and their grades will support this belief.  Others will be getting more than half a grade lower on languages compared to their other subjects. Grading adjustment could benefit universities enormously in terms of recruitment—if students did as well (or better) in languages than in their other subjects more would consider languages to be their best subjects and choose them in higher education.

Questions about the actual curriculum and standards are actually separate questions entirely. Severe grading is about relative performance, ensuring the highest performing students in languages get the same grades as the highest performing students in other subjects.

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T S Eliot, Spiderman and the ugly apples: sustainability in the humanities

A report on "Nature and the natural in the humanities: Teaching for environmental sustainability"

As the organiser it is predictable that I will be biased but the LLAS-organised, HEA-supported workshop on environmental sustainability and the humanities was an excellent event which far too few people attended.

Peter Vujakovic spoke about Christ Church Canterbury University’s Bioversity Project. Although the campus is modern it is located on a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sense of place and a connection with history was very much at the heart of Peter’s talk. One of the highlights is the planting of an orchard with local Kentish varieties including Pride of Kent cooking apples, apparently considered too ugly to sell in supermarkets (I can’t find a picture of one online, even in this otherwise illustrated leaflet).

The place theme continued with Alun Morgan’s talk on sacred places. Sacred places can be of any scale from a tree to an entire landscape. Alun’s sharing of a personal sacred space from his childhood, aided by OS maps and Ariel photographs led to thoughts about my own sacred places.

Adrian Rainbow provoked an interesting discussion about whether science is reductionist and whether storytelling offers a way forward. He quoted from Greg Garrard that we need “…ideas, feelings and values more than we need a scientific breakthrough”. In a second literature paper Elizabeth Harris spoke about how she has engaged urban students with sustainability issues through the study of T S Eliot’s the Waste Land.  Elizabeth argued that locating sustainability in the rural (e.g. through the study of the Romantics) can serve to exclude students from more urban backgrounds.

The key thing I’ll take from Arran Stibbe’s discussion on discourse analysis was his comment that with exception of hot sunny days most weather is defined as ‘poor’ and in negative tones. After the workshop I tried to gauge Arran’s reaction on the opposite platform of Birmingham University station as we were warned to take extra care on the station platform “…due the poor weather conditions” Rain is poor weather, not wet weather.

Paul Reid-Bowen set up his talk though talking about the “post-everything” discourse and the human evolutionary ability to manage anxiety – however this attitude is maladaptive when we reach overshoot. His ecological philosophy course focuses on reconceptualising and rethinking economy, nature life, ethics and what is valuable in the world.

Andrew Stables drew on the work on Kant discussing whether sustainability could be said to be a moral principle and universal ethical law.

A couple of good quotes from his paper:

In effect, it is unsustainability far more than sustainability that prompts human action. Furthermore, we are often most strongly prompted when the illusion of sustainability  is shatter by the reality of unsustainability.

… it can be argued that the arts, humanities and critical social sciences have a disillusioning role. They serve to perpetually disabuse humanity of its naïve, often vainglorious commitments, to remind us of the limits of our ambitions, even of our ambition for sustainability”.

Bertrand Guillaume teaches humanities to engineering students at Universite de technologie de Troyes. Engineering students need insights which go beyond the technical and he draws on philosophy, ethics, poetry and graphic novels in his teaching, including the Peter Parker (Spiderman) quote "with great power comes great responsibility".  Sustainability has changed the nature of ethics—traditionally ethics has not engaged with reciprocity to future generations and non-humans.

I hope to be able to organise a similar workshop next year. The opportunities for the humanities are tremendous. We need to get more people involved.

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The 5th issue of Debut: Thoughts and observations on undergraduate research

7 thoughts

I have spent this afternoon editing the next volume of Debut: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. I am pleased that the journal has kept going and is now in its fifth edition.

Many colleagues complain that students do not like putting effort into work that does not count towards their degree. Much of the work submitted to Debut is based upon assessed work (I know this because they don’t always remove the lecturer name and course number). In most cases the student will have received a good mark (they often tell me this when they submit) and in some cases their lecturer has suggested they submit their work to Debut.

Their work is then reviewed by an academic in another institution who makes comments and recommends whether or not the work should be published in Debut. Few of these students, if any, will have experienced this double-blind review process. It is daunting enough for those of us with experience but for undergraduate students this is unknown territory. Last year I conducted a small-scale consultation on whether Debut should maintain the review process. I was fairly surprised that those who responded said that the review process should be kept.

 

After five issues I have the following thoughts and observations on Debut and undergraduate research in general.

  1. Undergraduate research publication completes the research cycle (Walkington and Jenkins) but only a very small number of students seek to get their work published.
  2. The review process not only prevents weak work from publication, but also good work on which the student is not willing or able to put in the necessary work to bring the work up to a publishable standard. In these cases I encourage students to persevere.
  3. What is the standard for publication in an undergraduate journal? This remains the critical question for me. Work on the linguistics of a ‘less-widely taught/ used language which received a first class mark on a general linguistics course often gets a harsh review from experts in the language itself. In retrospect I feel that many articles submitted in the first year of Debut did not make it to publication when they probably should have.
  4. Some reviewers think that certain topics should not be attempted by undergraduates (the subject of my editorial in this issue).
  5. Undergraduates do not necessarily know that multiple submission is not customary. On a couple of occasions it has been revealed by a student that their work has been accepted for publication in another journal and “is this a problem?” I don’t think that this means the student is a bad person—it merely shows that the student has not been told that this not considered the proper etiquette in most disciplines (I now mention this in the ‘Instructions for Authors’ page). It reminds me that undergraduates do not automatically know how academic publishing works, it does not automatically occur to them that this is something they should find out about and I suspect that few academics teach students about how academic work comes to be published.
  6. We allow students to submit up to a year after graduation. Sometimes reviewers suggest additional reading, sometimes from items to which the student no longer has access – another issue about closed access.
  7. As a journal of languages, linguistics and area studies Debut has a very broad remit. As editor I have to rely very heavily on advice from reviewers and it can be difficult to separate reasonable and unreasonable judgements.

In conclusion

I believe that discussions of academic publishing should be included in any undergraduate degree. Detractors might see it as ‘another thing to teach’, but surely an awareness of the process by which the articles and books they read came to be published must be seen as essential. Lecturers often complain about students citing unreliable sources in their essays and teaching them how to identify a good and bad source. However, a better, more detailed understanding of the process of academic publication may be a better way forward than teaching students to use context to discriminate between sources.

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