Tag Archives: Conference

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 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 – Getting there and getting ready

Some of you may have been expecting frantic tweeting from the conference but quite honestly, These huge conferences are too intense to keep up the live tweeting, there are lots of papers in each session and I can’t keep up. Also (and the real reason I’m not even 19427707_10155492387128923_2091055679_ntrying) is that I have a new very cool notebook and I adore new notebooks. There’s something about the promise of those empty pages and I love starting a new notebook with something like a conference because that means that at least the start will be exciting, inspiring and full of ideas. I’ve gone old school. I have actually been writing stuff down!

Anyway, I am at the annual Law and Society Association conference which this year happens to be in Mexico City. Here’s how I got here. Feel free to stop reading now – it’ll be me rambling on- mainly because I think me getting and then being here has the potential to hit – or completely wallop – a huge number of my anxiety triggers. Writing helps me be more aware of that and how I am doing managing anxiety, exhaustion and stress levels. In other words, this post is for me not you. You’re welcome to come figure it out with me though

I had a very long Monday yesterday, leaving the house about 5.30 to get to Manchester airport. So possible trigger number 1: Tiredness. Tiredness is funny – I still get unreasonably tired in certain situations, I find being around people exhausting (oops) but also being tired, even if not anxiety related, means I deal less well with potential triggers and am more likely to become anxious. Anyway, I thought I’d left ages so I could have breakfast there and have a nice relaxed trip but instead I spent over 90 minutes in the security queue and had to jog to the gate. Never mind, I thought I’d have enough time at Frankfurt airport to just chill out a little bit and sit with coffee. Nope, that airport is hideous and I think specially designed to fuck with people who already don’t have a sense of direction. I don’t know if I got lost or went wrong or whether it was just an idiotic and long way but I got to the gate as they announced boarding would be in ten minutes – I got to pee at least. Several triggers there: Things not going as planned, having to do something different to how I had imagined it, running late, not being in control. I was a little antsy but ok.

The flight was fine – no chance of getting any work done really, although I did read a little. Mostly I watched films though. I started, maybe foolishly with I, Daniel Blake. Hm, I’m not quite sure what to think but I’ll untangle that another time – it is however hard hitting and I cried a fair bit (it’s a film, of course I did, I cry at anything if you stick it on the telly box) – so that sorted the possible awkwardness about having to speak to the person next to me. We spent 12 hours ignoring that we were basically sat on each others knee. Trigger: Feeling forced to engage with people – didn’t apply. I then watched the new Beauty and the Beast (Don’t judge) and Emma Watson is brilliant. I vaguely thought about going back to something serious then but instead watched Sing which was quite fun but twice as long as it needs to be. I dozed off for a bit.

Arrival in Mexico brought another queue – an hour or so this time but then I was through immigration and customs. I don’t like immigration control. I don’t like that feeling of some official being in complete control of your destiny. They decide if you continue or have to turn back. I realised I find this worse when I know I can’t adequately communicate with the official. I got frustrated at myself for not keeping up with learning Spanish, for always getting so far and then dropping it. It’s not a difficult language, it just takes a bit of self discipline and I still understand much more than I thought I would but I can say almost nothing. I had an hour in the queue to get properly irritated with myself.

I was nervous about getting a taxi, I’m not normally edgy about travel. I think as a woman travelling on your own you always need to be aware of what’s going on around you and of course in same places that applies more than others. I read the safety stuff, I knew where to get an authorised taxi and all of that but so many people were so adamant about how dangerous Mexico City is and how I must be careful (how do you do that exactly? Be careful, I mean) that I’d got a bit spooked. I came out of customs, saw the authorised taxi counters, told the woman where I wanted to go, paid, found my taxi and off we went. It was fine. The thinking about it was far worse than just getting it done.

It wasn’t as busy as I expected and the journey took about 25 minutes. For the first part 19225275_10155488903603923_2266758315210817616_nwe were driving through slightly run down areas directly towards the sunset which was turning the sky a spectacular colour (and made the pollution haze quite visible). Then we turned though and the sky was less spectacular and the buildings started changing to more high rise and posh and then we were at the hotel. Alma at check in was lovely and found me a room with a big bed rather than 2 small ones which apparently was booked (University travel booked it form me and I just said to go for the cheapest) and it is also higher up so I get a bit more of a view. Well sort of

 

The hotel’s too posh so there was no way of avoiding the bell service – I hate not just being able to take my own bag and find my room but I was escorted by a lovely bloke who was at pains to stress that I shouldn’t just work at the conference but make sure I went out to see the beautiful city too. He didn’t get a tip because frankly I was too knackered to work it out and I only had big bills anyway I think. I’ve been feeling a bit bad about that ever since.

I managed to hang on until about 9.30 by unpacking my stuff and hanging my clothes up, checking Facebook etc and trying to check the online programme and I then collapsed into bed and slept through til 4am. I’m quite pleased with that.

I watched a selection of news channels for a bit and then went and found the gym. So altitude, jetlag and warmth are an interesting combination. I ran 2km on the treadmill  – I was actually aiming for a very steady 5k but I was a puddle by 500 metres and panting like a dog on heat (sorry, not an image you needed). I gave running up as a bad job, did a quickish 5km on a bike and then hit the shower. Things not going to plan. I wanted to run 5km!

Then I had to go for breakfast. I was hoping to be early enough to not see anyone that would require a calculation of whether I know them well enough or not to do the whole ‘Hi, not I’m not being rude but no, you can’t talk to me pre coffee and I am certainly not going to sit with you’ thing. You see there are very few people I can tolerate at breakfast unless it’s pre-arranged. Breakfast is where I get myself and my brain (like we’re two separate things – weird) ready for what lies ahead. If I know I am meeting someone that’s fine, somehow that works but if it’s not planned, no no no! There’s only one person here who I’d be totally ok with (Hi Chris) in that situation. No offence to everyone else intended at all. It was fine, I was seated at a little table in a corner and understood enough Spanish to get coffee and be directed to the buffet. Win.

19366538_10155490277028923_409495622792190202_nNext, I registered for the conference. It was still quiet so that was easy too. I had a quick flick through the programme and then decided that actually I wanted a little look outside given I hadn’t seen anything at all of Mexico City yet really.

I stepped outside for 15 minutes and then found a quiet spot to decide on the session. The programme is overwhelming. It’s nearly 200 pages! Quiet spaces are hard to find now the conference is in full swing. Going outside doesn’t help – it’s Mexico City! It worries me a little how this will play out over the next few days. My room may become my little sanctuary.

So why am I telling you this? Well this is the first major conference event I have been to since being ill. I did of course go to the Association of Law Teacher’s conference – but that was much much smaller and I was surrounded by friends. This event is a different ball game, it’s far away from home, it’s in a country where I don’t speak the language, I know very few people, it’s long and intense… This is a test as to how well I’m really doing. So I am telling you about the travel and all of that to give you the context for the next few days. Travel went well. Anxiety triggers were definitely there and I was anxious when time became an issue for both flights and I was anxious about the taxi and all of that but a manageable anxious. The same is true of this morning and going for breakfast and registration. It was all fine, I’m fine and I am excited to be here.

 

CRonEM Annual Conference – Reflections and Thoughts

I have spent the last two days at the Centre for Research on the European Matrix Annual Conference in Surrey. The conference was titled Sex Gender and Europe and was run in conjunction with the ESRC International Network: Unintended Gender Consequences of EU Policies. The programme is online here

I am writing this on the train home as I reflect on the last two days and just let my – rather full – mind wander. It might therefore be the case that I change my mind about the thoughts captured here, that I think differently in a few day’s time when I have slept, processed ideas and reflected further. For that I make no apologies, it’s all part of the process!

Day one was long and intense but at the same time inspiring and encouraging in the sense that it created a really productive environment for sharing ideas. As Roberta Guerrina introduced the Gender network and the work it had been doing over the last two years it struck me (not for the first time recently!) how creative, innovative and productive a bunch of people with similar interests can be when given the time and space to talk to each other, to think, to challenge and to support. The work that comes out of these collaborations have had the benefit of feedback at all levels – from basic idea to finished paper and it is amazing work for it. What that means is that the network is significantly more than the sum of its parts and this is something to really think about in research funding. Academics, or at least this bunch of academics and I suspect many others too, need to be able to engage with each other in a meaningful way over a sustained period of time to be able to produce their best work

The papers on day 1 were all great, many given by PhD students who are engaging in some really interesting work which made me more hopeful that there is a bright future for gender and EU studies. I really enjoyed Muireann O’Dwyer (University College Dublin) speaking on the EU democratic deficit and although I am still grappling with her use of some of the concepts (like intersectionality) I am sure she has tapped into something which can push our understanding forward – I am looking forward to reading the full paper. I also enjoyed Gill Allwood on the prostitution debates and whether we should construe prostitution as sex work or violence against women. While I have on occasion picked this theme up in discussions in my Law and Society module, I hadn’t particularly thought about this in an EU context but I think it might be worth re-visiting some of the worker case law involving prostitutes in the light of the discussions we had. Koen Slootmaeckers spoke about Pride in Serbia which made me think about Pride and what it means – this will continue to whirl through my head for a while because here the personal does turn into the political. I can so absolutely see the political and symbolic importance of Pride in some contexts and yet Pride is not something that I have ever particularly engaged with. On day 2 the panels related mostly to gendering the economic crisis and I found Rosalind Cavaghan and Emanuela Lombardo’s paper helpful because it pointed me in the direction of literature which will help me get my head round some of these issues more. Denise Amram presented from Italy via Skype and by outlining the legal position of married couples where one spouse changes their sex in several European Countries, she made me think about what a European Union response might be and how this might then play out in a free movement context. Wow!

The highlight for me however was Carl Stychin who gave the plenary paper on Day 1: Status Symbols: European Same-Sex Couples on the Move. The absurdity that can arise where people marry in one state, live in another, move to a third, potentially divorce…. It’s complex for heterosexual couples who usually do not have to worry about their marriages being accepted as valid (although of course, these issues could also come up!) For same sex couples these questions are even more complex. I started trying to reason this out in a paper published in 2011 but Carl’s reasoning takes this debate further and is rather more sophisticated than I managed!

So, here I am on the train reflecting on a really packed but great 2 days which were full of conversations, excitement and a mutual belief that the work we are doing is important and worth persevering with and that is something to hold on to as we all go back to the everyday grind of the academic job.