Classically Inclined

December 19, 2011

Reflecting on the autumn 2011 semester

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 2:27 pm
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A recent Faculty Focus post on End of Semester Reflections: Beginnings, Endings and Spaces Between reminded me that I wanted to do some thinking about the term that has just finished, especially since it is the first term that I’ve spent in a full time position. I’ll do some more specific reflection on the new assignments I’ve been tracking later in the week (I hope!), but this post is more of set of general reflections on the experience while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I think what I will remember most about this term in five years is that actually, I coped rather well. Not only did I have to learn an entirely new system of timetabling, assessment setting, university norms and all the general institutional process that comes with a new job, but I stayed on top of it – and even managed to get some research done. I kept two weeks ahead of my teaching prep, which is the practice that keeps me sane and gives me a buffer in case something goes wrong; I didn’t stay up until 3am doing prep; I got all my marking done on time; I gave every lesson and lecture I was supposed to; I didn’t miss any deadlines. True, I was sometimes scrabbling around said deadlines, but I got there in the end – and I think that’s a pretty impressive achievement for a first term. (more…)

October 27, 2011

Busy, busy bee

I think this has been the most busy week I’ve had to face at Birmingham, and it’s driving home to me just how much catching-up work I have to do as a new academic. This week is crunch point for student meetings of several types – I have dissertation students coming to talk about the first piece of written work they’ve produced for me; my first year students have their Adjustment Tutorials to make sure they’re settling in to university life, and to help us identify anyone who might be in need of extra support; and I’m having initial meetings with the second years planning their study tour, a great feature of the Birmingham course which funds students to go overseas and visit sites and museums relevant to their areas of study. These are all crucial and exciting meetings to have with students – the first real insight I get into how third years are tackling their dissertation work, sharing the highs and lows of the first month at university, beginning to plan foreign travel and come up with realistic ideas about what can be accomplished in the time available.

But all of this exciting student contact has to be fitted around writing my lectures, which this week includes planning a seminar on the first two books of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica and preparing a comparative lecture on Greek cults and hero worship, plus what now seems like an inordinate amount of other meetings. I’m sure that if I’d been thinking straight, I wouldn’t have planned to attend both the university Central Induction event and a training session on supervising students in the same week as the mid-term IAA school meeting… but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s too late to worry about that now. The lecture on Greek cults and heroes seemed like a great idea when I was putting the syllabus together, but as usual, coming to write it is a bit more complicated than I expected. There have also been some admin jobs that I haven’t been able to put off, including such domestic delights as buying a new mop and picking up a kettle from the Post Office – which don’t sound particularly thrilling, but demand their own chunk of time which I can’t then devote to other things.

Mind you, after you’ve gone through eight adjustment tutorials in a row, like I did this morning, your brain has turned into well-intentioned mush – it’s important to check in with first year students that they’re making friends, the finances are alright and they’re balancing their workload, but moving out of pastoral care mode into hardcore lecture writing mode is surprisingly tough. It’s days like this I envy my senior colleagues, who are able to review and revise their lectures rather than do a whole series from scratch, or at least have notes for one course they’ve taught in this format before. I’m consoling myself with the thought that if I put the effort into producing good lecture notes this time around, I’ll have good material to reuse elsewhere. It doesn’t hurt that it’s reading week next week; after this week of back-to-back meetings, I’m going to appreciate a bit of a breather.

September 27, 2011

An update on those new assignments

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 1:35 pm
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So, back in August I posted some random noodlings about what innovations I might incorporate into my teaching for the coming year. Now that the syllabi have gone live and I’m starting to implement those ideas, I thought I’d let you know what form they finally took…

  • Learning journals/reflective journals – I ended up using two versions of this for different purposes. As planned, I’m asking my religion students to keep a reflective journal that expects them to do quite a lot of thinking about their learning experience, how things are going, that sort of thing. I’m also asking my first year tutees to keep a learning log, which is a rather more basic kind of journal – all I want them to do is log how much time they’re spending on each activity for each course, as a way for them to be aware about how they’re spending their unstructured time at university. They’re serving two very different purposes, and I’m hoping that they’ll both work well.
  • Blog posts. I have followed through my original idea of getting the students in my epic seminar to contribute to a group blog, and decided to do it via WordPress; I’ve set up a ‘private blog’ that seemed to be the best option, given that I didn’t feel I had enough time to get to grips with how the  built-in blog function in WebCT works. I will admit to a minor crisis yesterday morning when I managed to convince myself that I had just invited all the students to have complete control over this blog rather than managed control over their blog (hello tech paranoia), but now that the first group have taken up their invitations I can see that the permissions are working as I hoped they would. Now I just have to hope that the blog does its bit in starting some significant discussion on secondary literature!
  • The Critical Incident Questionnaire. Again, I’m following through with this for the Epic seminar; small numbers are definitely the way forward. Until I’ve actually had a few weeks of this in practice, though, I won’t be able to say how it’s working.
  • I did indeed go ahead and work in Twitter. All my classes have hashtags assigned as an optional extra way of discussing the course material, so if anyone fancies uses that casually, they can.  I’ve also gone the extra mile in expecting my first year students to set up and maintain a Twitter account for the purpose of keeping up with developments in the classical world – the latest archaeological discoveries, for example, the latest department under threat, the latest from Classics for All, or the current Big Classics Television/Radio Programme. It also will hopefully give them a bit of an insight into the norms of academic practice, given that I’ve given them a starting list of Tweeters who are professionals in the field.

All in all, quite a lot of innovation there, although it’s mainly to do with community building and reflective learning rather than formal ‘written’ assessment – but then, these kinds of reflective and formative activities make improvement in those formal assignments possible. I’ll keep you posted on how things develop…

September 2, 2011

Survival tips for new academics (like me!)

Last week’s Guardian Livechat was on advice for new academics on how they might survive their new roles. (I’m afraid that there seems to be some overall issue with the WordPress code at the moment that won’t let me insert links, so the shortened link for the chat is http://bit.ly/q0bBA9.) As a new academic of sorts, I was taking pretty frantic notes. While I’ve had teaching experience in the States, including a full year’s worth in a faculty-level position, I’ve never had to deal with anything beyond the teaching side of things. Administrative meetings remain a closed book to me (until later this month, when their mysteries will be revealed), as do many of the other practicalities that being a grad student sheltered me from. I thought I’d put together my Top Tips from the livechat – do tell me if you disagree or think I’ve left out something important.

Get to know people. Surprisingly basic, but at the same time there’s a wide range of people to get to know – the subject-area librarian, other library staff, the support staff for your department, colleagues inside and outside the department, senior administrators and deans, research administrators, security guards, catering staff… anyone you see, really.

Use your resources. This includes making sure you’re getting most from your university’s benefits for employees; talking to the library to make sure you know all they can do for you and your students; asking colleagues if you can watch them lecture to get ideas and a sense of the “house style”; reading any minutes of meetings that come your way to get a sense of how things work without actually being involved; going to staff development workshops or training events for new tech;

Get a mentor. Whether official or unofficial, having someone to talk stuff over with and ask for advice is going to be vital.

Be keen. You’d think this would be a no-brainer. After all, you’ve spent mumble years finishing the PhD, you clearly want an academic career, and you’ve made it to the first step on the ladder – you’ll be overflowing with joy and bonhomie, right? Well, I’m doing my best, but I’m also moving my life from one city to another and not getting enough sleep, so I’m going to have to put a bit of effort into sounding as enthusiastic as I actually am about starting a new job, and this new job in particular. Not because the enthusiasm isn’t there, but because the energy to express it is hiding under the sofa.

Learn to say no. Ah, the eternal truth of the time eater. I personally believe this is a small anteater type creature that sits under my desk and snuffles up time when I’m not looking. Learning to politely say ‘no’ to things that I don’t have time to do on top of my teaching and research load is going to be one of my biggest challenges, because I’m an obliging sort of soul who likes taking advantage of opportunities. However, that’s got to be balanced with a firm dose of reality. All the opportunities in the world aren’t going to be any good if you’re too overloaded to take advantage of any of them properly.

…but know when to say yes. Some opportunities will be golden. Learning how to discern which ones I should pick up and which ones I can safely say no to is going to be another key skill to develop. (While I’m at it, I might try to sharpen my mindreading and fortune telling skills as well…)

Think about assessment. The Livechat had a particularly productive thread on how to approach assessment and feedback, which always seems to score low on the National Student Survey. I’ve picked up a number of helpful ideas, and am just going to have to make sure that I follow through with them!

Remember why you’re doing it. You need to build time in for doing the things that made you happy to be an academic in the first place. This means being strict about not letting teaching or admin expand to fill the time available, and leaving space to get on with research (or vice versa). There’s no point in having the job you love if you don’t actually love doing it. That balancing act is going to be tricky – but it’s all part of the learning curve.

If anyone’s got any more Top Tips for surviving the first year of being a full-time academic, please share them in the comments!

August 8, 2011

Syllabi wrangling – new assignments

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:57 am
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Over the weekend I’ve been putting together some syllabi for the courses I’m going to be teaching at Birmingham. Specifically for the first semester, this involves working out what I want to do for an option course on religion, myth and ritual, which will be lectures for about 70 students; a seminar course on ancient epic; and a first year project course designed to help student improve their research skills, which I am going to base around the Roman novel, because I can’t think of a better way to start your university career than some quality time with the smutty bits of the Satyricon and Metamorphoses.

The syllabi are still quite rough and very much in outline, but I’ve got a better sense of what I intend to cover in each course. I’ve particularly been mulling over what I want to do in terms of course assessment. Now, formal assessment at Birmingham is very formalised, but there’s plenty of space for informal activities within the course itself – which suits me fine, as I can use that flexibility to try out some things I’ve wanted to experiment with for a while now without going through the paperwork necessary to use these ideas for formal assessment. The ideas I want to play with are as follows: (more…)

July 6, 2011

Next year’s plans – good news!

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 5:26 am
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I have spent the last few months working through the job application process, and my endeavours have borne fruit. I am delighted to tell you that I will be joining the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham as a Teaching Fellow in Roman literature for the 2011-12 academic year.

I’m looking forward to joining the department very much; it sounds like I’m going to be doing a wide range of teaching, both in terms of subject and approach, and the course requirements are set up in very interesting and cool ways. The final details will probably be hammered out next week, but whatever the final details look like, it’s going to be an exciting year.

Of course, next year’s job market will usher in another period of running around like a headless chicken in pursuit of multiple forms and paperwork, but for now, it’s very satisfying to be able to rest after the chaos of this year’s job hunt, and the international move, and, um, finishing off the PhD. I suspect I’m due a proper holiday…

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