‘Thanks for today’. Just three little words made all the difference to me earlier this week. I’d been teaching my first ever Legal Skills workshop block which runs over 4 hours from 9am to 1pm. I was pretty happy with it. Some of the timing was a little off and it could do with a little more activity based stuff in the first half but essentially it worked well. It was quite hard to gauge the student reception. They were pretty alert, mostly on time, they came back after breaks, they did the tasks, they asked some sensible questions… and many said ‘thanks’ in the sort of generic way you say thanks when you are leaving somewhere where you’ve had a not too horrid time. However, 3 students separately did more than that and made an effort to come by, make eye contact and actually say ‘thanks for today Jess’. None will have known how nervous I was before I started that session and none will have known how welcome their comment was after 4 hours of pretty full on teaching. Knowing that to some students I made a little bit of a difference is why I do what I do. So, the nerves have gone now (see earlier post) and have been replaced with a very familiar end of September feeling – a sense of happy exhaustion.
Why? I’ve been doing this for a while now. My first lecture is an Employment Law lecture providing a brief history of employment law and an overview of the key institutions. I first gave it in September 2007 and it hasn’t changed substantially. I know what I’m doing – and yet, the little butterflies are slowly turning into big winged dragons in my tummy. And it’s not like I am not prepared. All my materials are ready, copied and laid out in my office for the first week, the second week is ready – in fact apart from a total of 6 lectures across my 4 modules, everything is prepared. If I fall under a bus today, someone can come in and just run with it… so the nerves.
I don’t like being the centre of attention, not really. I’m too self-conscious. I’m not naturally extrovert. I’m not shy exactly and I do have confidence in my abilities but I’m actually more of a ‘behind the scenes’ kinda girl. But let’s face it, a lecture theatre full of about 100 strangers or pretty much strangers is a scary prospect and it’s even scarier if it falls to you to keep those 100 strangers entertained and informed. It’s a performance and performances are nerve-wracking. The adrenalin is part of what makes a good performance – so I keep telling myself. I will therefore be focusing my efforts not on trying not to be nervous, I know that won’t work; but on trying to channel those nerves away from dry mouth, can’t speak, sweaty palms kind of nerves to productive nerves.
For all those of you new to teaching who are nervous about it, I’d love to tell you it gets easier and the nerves go away but they haven’t for me, not at the start of term anyway. It’s just that I have experienced all of this before and therefore know that I will get to the end of the lecture and when I do I will have loved it. I will be exhausted but elated and because I know that, stepping into the lecture theatre on Monday at 11am will be tummy – churning hell – but in a good way, if that makes any sense at all.
I had a meeting as well as several conversations with colleagues last week about approval of a new course, an LLM to be precise. Throughout these conversations and to some extent the meeting itself, there was a real sense of a ‘them and us’ culture pitching those on the approval team/committee and administrators against the academic team (so in this case mainly me) designing the course. It was a pre meeting to get the paperwork right for the approval event in a month’s time. Apart from arguments about whether the institutions ‘validates’ or ‘approves’ and whether it is ‘Master degree’, ‘Masters degree’ or ‘Master’s degree’, there were elements I found both interesting, frustrating and ultimately a little upsetting. The details of the meeting and issues we discussed are really not important here but at one point I was told in a nice but firm way ‘it isn’t your programme’. And of course the person making that statement is right, it isn’t mine, it’s a university degree course, if it is anybody’s it is the university’s. But as I left the meeting (with issues resolved and everyone sort of happy) I couldn’t shake off that statement and I am beginning to wonder whether it might be at the core of the tension between admin staff particularly staff charged with quality and QAA matters and academics.
Because you know what, that LLM is my programme. Not only have I invested a ridiculous amount of time in creating the paperwork required for it to be approved (not validated!). I have invested far more time thinking about it, designing it, redesigning it, making it coherent, making it flow. But it’s not just time, there is so much of me in that programme. The learning, teaching and assessment (LTA) strategy reflects my LTA philosophy, it reflects my socio-legal background and convictions, it is built on my ethos of education and research. Of course it’s my programme. I’m not a complete nutter, I realise that in due course someone else is likely to take over as director of studies (or programme leader as I think we now call them) and that as we start to teach the programme it will move from being mine to being ours and staff will take ownership of their modules and the programme overall. I know that, but at this stage, it’s very much mine. It has had input from students, other staff, administrators etc but essentially I have put my heart and soul into it (see I can do drama queen quite well!) and it is most definitely mine.
If that is not something that is clearly understood by staff in the Academic Quality Unit (AQU – or whatever equivalent there is at other institutions) and if academics don’t fully appreciate that staff charged with quality assurance issues are likely to see programmes as university programmes without the emotional baggage attached to them then it is no wonder that discussions can get heated, defensive and ultimately get us nowhere. I suspect academics think administrators and AQU staff are stifling creativity and innovation and are caught up in a tick box culture and that administrators think academics are in their own little bubble with little regard for regulation. Neither is probably true, or at least it needn’t be if only we talked to each other in a language both groups understood.
You see when I talk about a module being at Level 7 I am talking about the module itself, the content, the way I see the module delivered and the way I see it fitting into the programme. AQU staff can’t possibly think of it that way – they don’t have the knowledge of the course or the teaching experience to do so – they are thinking about the module descriptor and what that reflects. Asking me to amend the module descriptor so that it better reflects the Level 7 module is one thing, something I will find irritating but will ultimately be ok with. Telling me my module is not at Level 7 is something else entirely, I will get defensive about – I designed it, trust me, it’s at Level 7. There are other examples of academics and administrators using the same language but meaning very different things but I don’t want to bore you, essentially I (and maybe academics generally) am talking about the programme etc and AQU are talking about the paperwork.
As academics we perhaps need to be less precious about ‘our programmes’ but then I didn’t really think I was. I am just as interested in providing documentation which is ultimately going to be for students, which is clear, user friendly and provides the reader with a strong sense of what the programme is about as AQU are. What I am not interested in is ticking boxes for the sake of it. I know my LLM is a good quality programme which will engage students and help them become better researchers, critical thinkers and writers. What I need AQU to do is help me turn my vision into paperwork the institution can understand because, as it turns out, I don’t speak the institution’s language – and I don’t think I want to either.