Classically Inclined

March 1, 2012

Holy motivational force, Batwoman! Reflections on the first #femlead chat

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 5:22 pm
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So, last night was the first Twitter chat of #femlead, which is a new project of the University of Venus. You can read more about the logic behind it through the link, but the main goal is to provide a space “for those who lead, those with vision, those who seek to support one another in the challenges and opportunities facing us in all areas of academic life”. I’d count myself in the second and third categories, and I’d like to be in the first category one day, so I thought this was a good thing to take part in – particularly given the lack of women in leadership roles in higher ed. My immediate concerns going into the chat were centred around what opportunities there are to develop leadership in the world of the short term contract, and what I could do to develop my skills and my career path.

I have to say that I got a great deal more than that out of the chat, focused around the topic of service vs. leadership, and which is now available over at Storify. A couple of broad themes emerged. Firstly, leadership has to fit into the wider narrative of who you are and what you do – there’s no point in taking on a leadership role if it doesn’t somehow fit your picture of yourself and where you’re going. There was also a lot of emphasis on noticing the rhetoric of how you present these things.  You need to talk about achievements as demonstrating leadership rather than be modest about them.

The chat wasn’t short of ideas about how to cope with the short term contract problem either. As I was often told, there are plenty of opportunities out there – you need to look for them and make sure it’s clear you are interested in them, and then present them in such a way in the next short term contract that more opportunities arise. There are opportunities for leadership that arise outside the institution you are based in, such as in professional organisations, that aren’t affected by moving about. Whatever the location, you should still be aware of the power structures and create mentoring opportunities, because that’s how you let people know that you want these kinds of responsibilities.


January 24, 2012

Book review: The Good Supervisor – Gina Wisker

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:14 am
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Back at the end of October, I went for an afternoon of supervisor training. The point of this experience was so that I could get a bit of advice on how to go about providing useful feedback to the undergraduate dissertation students who have been placed in my tender care this academic year. While my experience with my writing group has given me some experience with how to provide useful feedback, the power dynamic with peers is very different to that with students and, as became clear during the session, there are important differences between how one deals with undergraduates and graduate students.

During that training session, one of the books we were pointed to as a further resource was The Good Supervisor, which deals in the main with how to deal with Masters and doctoral students, although there is some discussion of how to transfer the concepts to undergraduate students (namely, remembering that the average undergraduate thesis is not going to be considered for publication and is thus allowed to be a little less ambitious and more directed than would be expected of graduate-level work). The contents page certainly promises a comprehensive survey of the issues a supervisor will experience, from managing your first contact with a student to how to provide after-viva care. (more…)

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…)

December 12, 2011

The Blue Form Of Death: end of term evaluation forms

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 12:02 pm
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Over the last fortnight, I’ve been distributing Module Evaluation Questionnaires to my students, this year printed on fetching blue paper (hence this post’s title riff on MS’s Blue Screen Of Death). Most of them went out on Friday the week before last, and I gave any stragglers the opportunity to fill out one in the last lecture of term, most of which I gave last Friday.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that on the Friday when I first distributed the forms, I was not a happy bunny – I had, like an idealistic novice, looked straight through the evaluations to try and see any patterns or information that would be of use. Which meant I was looking at the tick-box scales – you know the ones, the ones which ask students to score on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree with statements like “the module was intellectually stimulating” and “the module was well structured”. I’m afraid I flicked through the tables and the written feedback, and all of the really negative material jumped out at me, in the way it always does, and my confidence in my teaching abilities plummeted to the floor.

However, last week I started dealing with the forms in a rather more systematic way; someone else will collate the numerical data, but I like having a record of written feedback, both to remind me what students have said as positive, but also as pointers for what I might work on improving next time. With some feedback, of course, you just can’t win – for my religion lectures, I had responses praising my use of Powerpoint juxtaposed to requests for the slides to contain more detail and more information. For that lecture, too, I had students expressing appreciation for the detail and depth of the lectures next to responses requesting that we do more analysis and suggesting the course should be more challenging (particularly difficult when I know I have students with greatly varying prior knowledge in the room, which makes it a challenge to teach at a level where everyone is going to get something out of the lecture).

What really struck me, however, was the disjunct between the written feedback and those blessed ticky-boxes, which are considered so important as a numerical metric of our teaching ability and effectiveness. They just didn’t see to add up with the written feedback. I’d have an enthusiastic comment about the course content, with only a 4, or even a 3, ticked for ‘the module was intellectually stimulating’. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of what these forms were for, or how they were going to be used once students had filled them out. (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.

October 14, 2011

Taking risks in the classroom and listening to the CIQ

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:45 pm
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I took a really big risk in my epic seminar today. I wasn’t sure if it was going to pay off, to be honest – but the whole point of trying a CIQ approach is to actually listen to what your students are telling you, be honest with them about the pros and cons they’re bringing before you, and actually try to do something about it. The point of using this particular approach in a seminar setting was that I felt that I had the confidence I could have a proper discussion about issues raised with a smaller group (as opposed to, say, my lecture group of 65+), and thus manage what needed to be changed.

So in last week’s CIQs for epic, I had two members of the seminar report that the moment when they had felt most distanced from class activity and most puzzled or confused was when discussion had gone too fast. Both people reported the speed of discussion twice on their forms, and one of them suggested perhaps trying to focus on key topics rather than having such broad discussion. Now, I thought that my notes were the key topics, but the fact that the same issue reported twice gave me pause.

I thought a lot about whether or not to bring this to the class – should I just adjust my own notes and hope this fixed the problem? But then I faced up to it – if I was to be using the CIQs properly, I actually had to discuss the issue with the students. So, with some trepidation, at the start of class I laid out the issue, and invited student responses. (more…)

September 15, 2011

A better way of marking essays?

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:47 am
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The assessed essay forms a big part of the formal assessment for students’ degrees at Birmingham, and students have the opportunity to write practice essays throughout the year. Now, I have a small confession to make – I think that I saw a reference to the article I’m going to talk about here in a Faculty Focus e-mail, but the piece I remember appears to have vanished into thin air, so I may have come across it somewhere else. In which case – sorry, whoever  I’ve forgotten! However, clearly the idea in the e-mail or blog post jumped out at me, because I downloaded it straight away, since it seemed that it might be a useful addition to the arsenal of resources for providing useful assessment feedback for this kind of work.

The article is titled Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets, and is authored by Susan Bloxham and Liz Campbell; I’ve put a full reference at the bottom of this post. Their starting point was that dialogue is starting to be recognised as a really important part of meaningful learning (that is, active engagement trumps passive receptivity). The dialogue they want to create, without overburdening staff, is between student and tutor about written work, with students asking questions about their own work when they submit each assignment. There were problems – students didn’t always know which questions would begin a “meaningful dialogue”, for instance – but nonetheless, the idea still seemed to have potential. (more…)

July 29, 2011

The Cambridge 2011 Triennial Conference

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:18 am
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I’ve been a bit quiet over the last few days because I was at the Cambridge 2011 Triennial conference. The Triennial happens every three years, alternates between Oxford and Cambridge, and is envisioned as the gathering of great classical minds from across the UK and, more recently, across the globe. It was a bit of a nostalgia-fest for me, as the last time I was at the Triennial was in 2005, just as the practicalities for me going to Rutgers were starting to come together; there was something pleasantly reminiscent of ring cycle composition in coming back to a Triennial after the PhD after leaving the UK for a PhD after a Triennial, if that makes sense. Mary Beard has already written on her blog about the inside mechanics of putting a do like this together, particularly the public debates, and I wanted to add a couple of thoughts as a participant.

The first of these thoughts relates to a promise I made back in my post on Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, which was to use the Triennial as an opportunity to reflect on my own experiences as a learner and to use those reflections to identify my own underlying expectations about learning, which would then feed into reflection about my own teaching more broadly. However, I’m sad to say that my attempts to engage in reflection largely fell flat, at least in part because Brookfield’s book is still in a box under the care of Her Majesty’s Customs officials, so I wasn’t able to refresh my memory about useful questions to ask myself about the process. I did end up noticing how much things like the disposition of rooms, creeping worries about other things that needed to be accomplished and other such apparently irrelevant things kept on drawing my mind away from what were very interesting talks, so perhaps the reflective lesson is to make sure students have an opportunity to get properly settled in their lectures before starting to feed them information. (I’ve wanted to try out the ideas in this ProfHacker post on breathing and pedagogy for a while now, so this is a good reminder to give that a go at some point.) (more…)

June 17, 2011

Book review: Becoming a critically reflective teacher – Stephen D. Brookfield

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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I’m the sort of teacher who would very much like to think that she’s reflective – I put a lot of thought into my teaching, I view it as a continually developing process rather than a fixed artefact, I like experimenting with assessments and in-class activities. You know the sort of thing (or at least, I hope you know the sort of thing). However, my attempts to keep a reflective teaching journal have, as a rule, flopped. The one I tried to keep in  my first course ever degenerated into a list of notes of things to follow up for the next class, which isn’t a bad thing per se but doesn’t exactly merit the description of ‘reflective’. The notes I kept when I knew I was going to be presenting on a particular class in the course and its content were a bit better, but I was very focused on how the course was leading up to that one key lesson, and didn’t really think about the course more broadly, or about anything unrelated to the issues I planned to discuss in the conference paper.

Brookfield’s book seemed to promise some answers to my desire to become a critically reflective teacher, and I’m glad to say that the promise was not an empty one. Brookfield’s main premise is that critically reflective teaching is better teaching. It helps us to uncover our assumptions about teaching and how the process should work; it alerts us to underlying systems of oppression in our classrooms and how they affect both our teaching and our students’ responses to us; and it helps us stay flexible, grounded and supported in what we do. Any assumption about teaching is worth challenging – that lecturing or active learning is the best thing to do in the classroom. Each assumption has its own underlying rationale, and when we understand that, we can both explain it to other people in a convincing fashion and deal with any of the problems that it poses. Brookfield gives four lenses for critical reflection – our autobiographies as learners and teachers; our students’ eyes; our colleagues’ experiences; and theoretical literature in the fields of critical pedagogy, reflective practice and adult learning and education. (more…)

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