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.
Posted in Academics, Conferences, Higher Education, Uncategorized
Tagged Academia, Conference, Education, Excellence, higher education, Leeds Beckett University, Quality, students, teaching, TEF
1st September always seems to signal the start of a new academic year. Attention turns to teaching which starts in just a few short weeks, the research done and not done over the summer, the sort of inevitableness of the academic cycle and the fact that once teaching hits it won’t be long until Christmas – but it will feel long because there’s no half term or break to let you draw breath. I remember the last couple of early Septembers as being times to grit my teeth and tackle everything with a ‘right, here we go again then’ attitude. However, I also remember early Septembers which were full of the ‘back to school’ excitement – the same excitement I used to feel as a child shopping for new notebooks and pens and folders. You know what I’m talking about, right? That promise that a new academic year holds, things to learn, to discover, to talk about, to read, to find out…
Today I realised that I am recapturing some of that magic of the childhood back to school wonder. I start new job on Monday and the closer it gets the more excited I am. I am no longer anxious or worried about it, I am just excited. Excited to get back into the classroom, excited to see what a new academic year in a new institution holds, excited to push my research forward, excited about the conversations I’ll have and also quite excited to head upstairs to my study at some point today and choose a new notebook from the collection of notebooks I seem to have amassed over the last couple of years. I’ve stuck to boring, ruled, institution supplied ones for the last year at least. Now I feel it is time to choose something else. A new notebook for a new chapter of my academic career.
So on Monday I start as a Senior Lecturer in Law at Leeds Beckett University. Once I decided I was leaving Bradford, I knew that if I was going to go for another job in academia it would have to be something that allowed me to get back to teaching and to my research and to make a real contribution. I have been told again and again that I did a good job in management, and maybe I did, but I don’t get excited about it. In just 2 years it managed to extinguish the September magic. Now that September magic is back and I intend to hang onto it with both hands – sod that, I’ll sit on it if I have to.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suddenly cured of the crap of the previous job. I can’t read my previous blog post without crying or without feeling slightly sick. I am cautious, very cautious, all institutions are mad and the sector is in a right mess. I know all this and I am not going into my new role with rose tinted glasses. I still wonder if I am good enough sometimes; I will, I’m sure, get frustrated at the idiocy of things but that’s not what this is about. It’s about new beginnings, it’s about the promise of those new beginnings, about the excitement and wonder and about hanging onto that promise and the excitement for as long as possible into the academic year – and then finding ways to renew them.
Thank you for all the lovely, kind and inspiring messages of support. Please join me as I step onto the next rollercoaster in my journey through this academic theme park.
I have been so wrapped up in Clearing and preparing for the new academic year that I missed a recent Guardian article about the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) completely until it appeared in my Facebook timeline. The article claims that the Survey should be abolished before it does any more harm. I couldn’t agree more.
The NSS is one of my pet hates (I have many), one of those utterly stupid games we feel we must play in HE. The articles captures its uselessness for actually telling us anything well. I won’t add to that here but I do want to reflect on how the NSS and all that comes with it plays out for me. The NSS is a game, unfortunately it is a game with high stakes with the results heavily influencing university rankings and rankings heavily influencing student recruitment and with student recruitment heavily influencing the institution’s bottom line… You get the drift. Just leaving students to complete the survey, or not, as they wish is thus a risky strategy. Students must be encouraged to complete it, cajoled or bribed into completing it or, dare I say it, forced into completing it. We didn’t force anyone to complete the survey here – at least not that I am aware of but the university offered prizes/discounts etc when certain completion rate thresholds were reached.
Of course completion is not enough – we need positive scores. The survey is a ranking tool, not a tool through which universities genuinely seek feedback from students. So how do you ensure your students give you the ‘right’ score? Well I would argue you don’t. You let them get on with it and if they mark you down you should have a think about it – they may have a point, they may not! But that’s not how it works in HE anymore. We are constantly asked to think about student satisfaction. What can we do to enhance it, what can we do to make sure we get high scores in the NSS? These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in education. Education is not about being satisfied. Higher education is about learning to cope with uncertainty, about being pushed out of your comfort zone and to your intellectual limits, it’s about confronting your own prejudices and ideals, it’s about thinking deeply and critically about everything you thought you knew. That is a lot of things but it probably isn’t ‘satisfaction’ – particularly if you find it difficult.
I am all for seeking and listening to student feedback and students’ views. I am open to having some really challenging debates with students about what they want from their higher education. I will challenge their views and expect them to challenge mine but I don’t pay much attention to the NSS. It doesn’t tell me anything about how to make our programmes better or how to engage students. It doesn’t tell me how to be a better teacher or how to help students learn. The higher the scores go and the less variation there is, the more depressed I get. There are so many things wrong with higher education at the moment, programmes and universities vary so much, it is absurd to think that the scores across the sector could genuinely vary so little. So the results tell me this: – we are teaching our students to tick boxes in a stupid game that tells us nothing. That’s not why I’m an academic, don’t know about you.
So here we are again. It’s the end of September and in universities across the country staff are welcoming new students. I have just spent three days in London in various meetings and they all in some way required me to think about what we teach, how, why… my head is full of that strategic, high level, sometimes theoretical, sometimes just jumping through hoops stuff that I guess is now my job. It’s been interesting, it’s been intense and it’s been fun and as always after these sorts of meetings I am knackered. And yet, as I head back north there is an underlying excitement about the coming week. It took my a while to figure out what it was but now I have it: I’ll be teaching next week. I am excited about teaching! I can’t wait to get back in the classroom. This excitement started to build on Monday evening, just a little bit. I was giving the induction lecture to the new first years on Tuesday morning and on Monday I was getting exctied, on Tuesday I was buzzing. The hour in the lecture theatre on Tuesday was, it seemed at the time, everything I had been working for over the summer. They were here, the first years were here and I could fire the starting pistol for the journeys that can change their lives – that could change the world. Wow.
On Wednesday I took one of the tutorial groups for our sample/intro tutorial and personal tutor meet. Again I was excited and again the experience didn’t disappoint. It was a small group and we sat and chatted about so many of the things that matter to me – law, justice, morality, legal education, making a difference. I can whinge about students as much as the next academic but let’s not forget that we can learn so much from them, that if we encourage them to engage with us, we will be better for it. So, induction is over. I have my first EU Law lecture on Tuesday – I’ll be telling stories about EU citizenship (just in case anyone cares) and I can’t wait. Am I nervours? Hell yes, I will be walking into a lecture theatre with 100+ students and I’ll be putting my views, my research, my knowledge on the line. I’ll be performing and performances can go horribly wrong but I will have fun; and I will learn something and the more I think about it, the more I cannot imagine an academic career without teaching. That’s not an option for me, I need to be in the classroom, thats where I can see my vision, ambitions, hopes and dreams come true; it’s where I make a difference and it’s where I can re-charge my batteries and my sense of humour to help me deal with all the other rubbish being a manager in the HE sector can throw at you. So, I may be Head of School, but I have no intention of shifting all of my teaching – that’s just not me!
It looks like I will again be teaching EU law next academic year. I am sort of excited about this but I am also already thinking and worrying about it. Most students don’t really enjoy EU law and many find it boring and difficult and frankly irrelevant to them. So what am I going to teach and how and why?
Well, we have a first year course which is all about the EU instituions, law making etc – what you might call the instituional, administrative and constitutional elements. Our Level 2 course is a substantive law course which has always focused on free movement of goods, services and persons. I can’t change that too much as the modules are validated along those lines.
So my plan for year one is to focus on the legal elements of EU integration and think about how law and legal processes have pushed the integration agenda. I want to think about power relationships between actors, relationships between institutions and between Member States and the EU and each other. I want to think about gender awareness in this context – well because that’s my thing and because it gives me an angle to make this more engaging.
Year 2 – well I guess I will stick to mostly free movement stuff but I think I will start with questions around EU migration and explore contexts of highly skilled, low skilled, economic activity, other activity, meanings of citizenship etc. Maybe there is scope here to also explore the external dimensions and some Human Rights stuff. I’d like to do less of the goods and services stuff because that’s not where my interest and expertise lies – although there are some cracking cases and having an understanding of the internal market is useful and important.
I’m thinking if not recommending a specific textbook but prepare detailed reading lists based on online material, a fairly detailed module manual and journal articles, blogs as well as some textbook chapters. So, what do you think? Any suggestions for how to make these EU modules stand out, make them interesting and engaging. Suggestions for coverage, approach, materials? What do you do? What works?