Category Archives: Conferences

Excellence in HE Conference 2017

A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.

I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.

I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.

Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write.  How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).

After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.

So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.

I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…

I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.

 

International Meeting on Law and Society, Mexico City – Day 4

I wrote this at the airport on Friday evening but didn’t have an internet connection to post – I’m finally getting round to it now!

Last Day! I have very mixed feelings about this. I am looking forward to being home (being, not getting!) but at the same time I feel like I’m not done with Mexico City yet. I feel like it has more to show me, more to tell me, more for me to learn. There’s also something about the conference vibe and structure that I sort of don’t want to end. I have learned so much over the last few days that I think my brain will be processing for a while and it probably needs a rest but there is something nice about getting up, going for breakfast that you don’t have to think about, going to a session and hearing about interesting stuff and then going for a walk in the sun and looking at interesting things and then coming back to more interesting stuff, having a little break and then having something planned in the evening. It’s been fun.

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So this morning I went on the fun run. Yeah, the fun run! I’ll blog about it on my running blog so suffice it to say, I was, as expected, the slowest but I did eventually catch up with and meet a fellow West Yorkshire lass and we had a good chat as we ran/walked the rest of the course.

IMG_6372[1]After a shower and breakfast I got packed and checked out and then went to the first panel of my day which was my random pot luck session where I randomly open the programme at a page relating to the time slot and then place my finger on the page  – I’ve gone to some utterly boring sessions as a result of this (I do this at most conferences I go to at least once) but this time I got lucky. I heard 5 good papers one of which I thought was excellent on Sanctuary Cities in Canada by Karl Gardner of York University, Toronto and another really interesting stats based analysis of the link between crime statistics and sanctuary policies (Spoiler: There ins’t one).

After the lunch break I was going to go to a panel on Law and Gender in an International Context but I got to the room and there was nobody there. I waited a bit but no speakers turned up so I went to the reception to check if it had been moved but they didn’t know and it wasn’t on the list of amendments to the programme so who knows what went on there!

After the cancelled session I had one more panel before I’d have to head to the airport. I had two panels marked in my programme. One on globalisation of legal education and one random one which looked like it included interesting papers about law/popular culture and masculinity, regulation of midwives, migration management systems and consideration of Trump as fascism lite. I opted for the random – partly to get another chance to hear Jeff Dudas speak. I like his ideas. They intuitively make sense to me although I know nothing about any of it. Anyway, it was a great panel and a great way to end the conference.

Then I got a taxi to the airport (where I am typing this although I won’t be able to post until I get home). The taxi driver was quite chatty and drive most of the way along back roads which was fascinating because I got to see more of Mexico City while the driver told me about how pleased he was that people were now coming to Mexico City and how there was so much to do and see in the city. He also told me about other places in Mexico – both to head for and to avoid (He’s clearly not a fan of Cancun – far too many tourists. As part of that conversation we started talking about safety and how the city has, like any other city, areas which are not so nice. He then informed me that Zona Rosa was not so nice because it’s full of lesbian bars (and presumably lesbians) and ‘those sorts of people’ and that was not so nice. Lovely, now that we have that out of the way, how do you say ‘you homophobic fuckwit’ in Spanish?

Anyway, I got to the airport, dropped my bag off, found a restaurant, had some food and settled down to do a bit of work. It’s been a great conference, a really good conference. I had my doubts before I set off. LSA is intense and it requires commitment and it requires networking and it can be overwhelming. I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for that. But I did fine. I was perhaps a little less engaged than I have been at previous large conferences like this but not massively so. I also kept evening activities to a minimum to make sure I didn’t get too tired. I tried to look after myself and I accepted that sometimes my mind just wandered off and couldn’t stay focused on the session. I heard some fascinating work, I have a head full of ideas – most of them I’ll never follow up on but I don’t think that matters. It’s more about the inspiration and intellectual workout and stimulation that events like this provide. I’m exhausted and energised at the same time; tired and hyper at the same time, excited to be going home to process some of this and sad that it’s over at the same time.

I think this is me officially declaring my come-back!

 

International Meeting on Law and Society, Mexico City – Day 3

19399667_10155499617283923_5527103743590482748_nI’m behind! It’s Day 4 now and I haven’t told you about day 3 yet! Well I really enjoyed Day 3. I gave my paper in the morning. It went ok I think. It was a slightly odd panel in terms of focus and fit but it was pretty well chaired and the discussant was good. Some of the general discussion was useful and the specific questions to me at the end and after the session were useful for clarifying some ideas. To help with that clarification process I went for a walk after my paper. I walked in the opposite direction to the day before and headed for the park. It was nice to get away from the hussle and bussle a bit although you’re never really away from it.

I lost track of time and suddenly realised that if I wanted to get back to hear Chris Ashford’s paper I’d have to get a move on. At the start of my trip I’d complained about people walking too slowly – I now understand why they do. Having to walk fast was actually not very nice and I was a bit of a hot and sweaty mess by the time I got back to the hotel. I enjoyed the panel Chris was part of – some interesting thoughts there on law/ science/ regulation nexus . I’m looking forward to hearing more from Chris on Queer Legal Praxis which I think is a really interesting idea.

After Chris’ session I had a bit of time out – I’d actually planned to just catch up on some other things for the rest of the afternoon and then head to the reception in the evening. I was restless though and couldn’t really settle to anything so I went to another panel – this one on women academics. I enjoyed hearing about Olive Stone and the work Rosemary Auchmuty has done on her life. As she was talking, I was struck by a point that Rosemary actually made later on, I find Olive interesting partly because she’s not famous, because she wasn’t the first women because she was ‘just’ Olive. She was extraordinary in the same way we all are  – by just getting on with her life. Hearing the biography of a woman who was one of the first women legal academics but not the first and exploring her contribution really highlighted the importance of feminist biographies and studying and capturing the every day because it is the every day where change is embedded and becomes the new normal.

Anyway, after that I dumped my stuff in my room and then it was time to get the bus to the reception – traffic from inside a vehicle actually feels less chaotic than it looks when you’re on foot but, I could have walked there – the venue was back in the park where I’d walked earlier. It was useful to be on the bus though because it meant I got chatting to people on the way. The venue was stunning and had great views across the city. We were treated to a concert of classical Mexican music for a quartet (piano, flute, violin and cello) and then there was a wine and canapes reception. It was a little annoying because the programme had said there’d be food and many people hadn’t eaten presuming there’d be a meal. I’ve hardly eaten anything since I’ve been here really. I’ve just not been hungry. I’ve had lots of fruit pots from street vendors but the idea of tucking into your typical Mexican street food in the heat just hasn’t appealed. I was quite happy with a few canapes and a glass of wine but there were grumbles.

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At the reception I spoke to a couple of people who I’d previously only ‘met’ on twitter and a couple of people who I’d never met before. It was a nice evening and rounded of a very good academic day indeed. At 10pm the buses picked us up and so I was tucked up in bed fast asleep by 11pm.

International Meeting on Law and Society, Mexico City – Day 2

Here I am at the end of Day 2. It’s only about 10pm and my eyes are stinging I’m so tired. But, if I don’t get some thoughts down on Day 2 it’ll all muddle and blur and I won’t have a clue what’s what! I woke up at 1.23am because I was far too hot. I decided to turn the aircon on and just cope with the noise. I slept til 4am and pinged wide awake. I flicked through the news channels and then got up to go to the gym. I did a bit better than yesterday – I have got used to the altitude a bit more I think and on the treadmill just slowed down even more than I do normally. Then I had breakfast and was joined by the wonderful Chris Ashford (see his blog here) – and if you read my post about getting here you’ll know that him joining me was a good thing – it meant nobody else could as I was on a table for two and he is the one person here who I genuinely am happy to see even pre-coffee.

I’d decided to keep the queer theme going and went to a panel on Comparing Legal Categories Through the Lens of Same Sex Relationships and Transgender Identities. There were 4 really interesting papers and a good discussion afterwards. I then went to a panel on Women/Gender in the Legal Profession which I also enjoyed although I was flagging towards the end. The highlight was probably hearing Deborah Rhode speak about women in law in the context of her book Women and Leadership. Her slides we’re awesome and I think we’d do well to remember that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’ as one of her slides said. She also said that we need to be relentlessly pleasant. I’m still thinking about that. I think she may be right but I’m not sure. I may come back to it.

After that my brain was full. There was another session but that was just too much and then the afternoon was free to explore Mexico City. Some lucky people went to the Supreme Court for a tour – you had to pre-book tickets and by the time I booked the conference they were all gone. There was also a tour at the National Museum of the Revolution which I would liked to have done but again I missed it. So I explored Mexico City on my own – separate post on that I think.

I’m still doing fine (apart from being stupidly tired but then I have been awake since 4am and I have, according to my fitbit walked 20km today). I nearly went to the LGBTQ mixer at a hotel just a few minutes from here. I was going to, then not, then Chris and I were going to go together and then not – I am quite glad we ended on not given that somewhere between 9pm and now I went from a bit tired to stinging eyes and I don’t know if I can be bothered getting undressed kind of tired. So I will curl up and sleep shortly but I need to get some conference niggles/complaints, ok whinges, off my chest

  1. Uncomfortable Chairs in rows – just no
  2. Arriving late to sessions, leaving early, coming in and out at random… it’s just rude. I was sat next to a woman yesterday who nipped out mid paper to get herself a coffee. Mid paper. FFS
  3. Running over time. Goodness you’d think figuring out time was the most complicated thing in the world. You have x number of minutes, prepare a paper that takes roughly x number of minutes not x plus 10. When the chair tells you you have 2 minutes left, wrap it up. When the chair tells you to stop, stop, don’t ramble on for another 5 minutes. When you are co-presenting you don’t have the time allocated for the paper each – you have to share it. Obviously. I don’t understand why this is sooooooo hard. (Watch me be way over tomorrow now – that would be embarrassing!)
  4. Chairs – it’s ok to tell people to shut up, it really is. You might lose a fan but you’ll gain one in me.
  5. Questions and Comments – they are just that. They are not ‘I will now ramble on about my work which is only vaguely related to yours for a few minutes’. There seem to be some academic traditions across the world where this hijacking of questions is commonplace and expected and maybe I’m just grumpy but it irritates the hell out of me. Ask a question (and no it doesn’t need a 5 minute introduction) or make a short observation or comment.
  6. Discussants. I am yet to be convinced by this format. For it to work the discussant has to be brilliant and quite honestly most of the ones I’ve heard so far fall a long way short of brilliant in that role. Not that I could do a better job, it’s hard BUT it seems to me that a discussant should not speak for longer than each speaker did. It also seems to me that the discussant should briefly offer a comment on each paper but then focus on drawing out themes or questions and opening the discussion up to the audience and panel having set that scene. It also seems clear to me that they should not use the time as discussant to tell people about their own work in any great detail  – their work is only relevant in so far as it relates directly to the panel’s papers and comments on them (and presumably to the fact that they are chosen as the discussant in the first place).

Anyway, I have nearly fallen alseep with my laptop on my knee twice now so I think it’s time to hit publish and go to bed. Day 2 has been good. Mexico City if fascinating and I will try and find the time to write about that tomorrow. For now, sleep tight.

International Meeting on Law and Society, Mexico City – Day 1

19397793_10155492387093923_1849034776_nFollowing on from the last post, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my Day 1 of the conference. The first thing to do was try and work out which sessions to go to. Easier said than done. Each time slot takes up over 10 pages in the programme and there are over 30 panels running at the same time. As usual things that look interesting all seem to be on at the same time. Nonetheless, the first session was a relatively easy choice. I went to Gender Identities: Beyond the Binary and heard 4 really interesting papers. I haven’t really engaged with gender identity issues much in my work or in my life, maybe because I just don’t get it. People are people, gender, sexuality, it’s all fluid and it’s also all irrelevant to how I think about people. I’m irritated because to me this is just a non-issue. I just don’t care if you’re male, female, both, neither or choose on any given day. But of course some people do care and the law cares and the law likes categories and categories are problematic because categories by definition create divisions… anyway, I enjoyed the session.

Next I went to a Round Table on Queer and the Inter/national where I tried to get my brain round a queer marxist theory of law, queer theory as a lens to think about extraterritorial relationships between states and people outside of those states and states as having gender, having sex with each other and undergoing gender reassignment. It was a good session even if not really roundtable like. It seemed more like a normal paper session really. It did make me want to do more queer theory stuff though. I’m coming to the conclusion that my aversion to theory isn’t real. Someone must have told me once that I was no good at theory (or maybe I just presumed that) and I have internalised that to such an extent that I don’t do theory – except that I do – just as long as I don’t realise I’m doing it.

Then it was lunch time and I realised my brain was quite full already. I decided to take the lunch break and the next session slot for some time out. I had a little walk, found some street food stalls and had some fruit and a drink (my frustration at my complete inability to say anything in Spanish continues) and spent some time zoning out and catching up with Facebook and Twitter.

At 2.45 I was going to go to the Salon session on Gendered Views of Judges, Courts and Lawyers. However, I couldn’t find the room for ages and by the time I did, the session would have started and I didn’t want to be that person. I came back to my room for a little while. That I think, was the only anxiety sort of moment where I just walked round in circles for a bit and then gave up and then accidentally came across the room on my way back to my room. I should have just joined the session but I couldn’t face it.

At 4.30 I headed back down for the plenary panels and went to one on Law in a Time of Populism: Brexit, Columbia and the US Elections. Brexit was covered by Paul Craig. I’d never heard him speak before and I’m not sure I want to again. I like his work, I’ve used it loads in mine. I rarely disagree with his assessment of EU law issues in particular but I didn’t really like his style – bit shouty and loud. This was in stark contrast to Jeff Dudas who followed Paul Craig and talked about the white working class in the US. I really enjoyed his presentation because he got the balance of research, story telling and the personal just right and he spoke softly which my ears very much welcomed. Certainly my favourite paper of the day. There were then two further presentations  – one on Colombia and one on the US. Then I was tired!

I dumped my things in my room and went down to the drinks reception – mainly to take a look at the books in the publishers’ area. There was some food (for which I queued for a disproportionate amount of time) and a free glass of wine. My plan had been to go for a quick drink, look at books and then maybe head out and grab some food from just round the corner but the bread and cheese nibbles at the reception filled me so I went to bed instead. Drinks receptions are impossible when you’re on your own. Most people aren’t so joining a group you don’t know is awkward. I was tired and peopled out and not really up for awkward so I just exchanged a few polite words with a couple of people also looking at books and with a couple of the publishers.

So, Day 1. How am I doing? I get tired more quickly than normal. Or no, actually that may not be true – I get tied more quickly than I want. This may be normal! My brain can manage 2 sessions but will start getting restless about 3/4 of the way through the second. I need to make notes, my brain isn’t in sponge mode, it doesn’t absorb all these thoughts and ideas, I need to write them down there and then. I used to be able to soak it all up and then distill some thoughts at the end of the day or even a few days later. I can’t do that now. I’m finding the sheer number of people tricky. I got the lift to the lobby when I went for my walk and when the lift doors opened there was a wall of people and almost unbearable noise. I had to force myself out of the lift. It’s nice to have a few people I know here so there’s no undue pressure to ‘make friends’. Day one was good. I have high hopes for Day 2