Category Archives: thinking

Hopefulness or not?

I don’t know where the last year went other than into a busy working life. I think my last blog piece was in April last year. Part of my plan for the blog was to remind myself how to write, and use the blog as a way of keeping writing. Keeping writing seems to have been a bust! At least in blog terms. Although I have been working on a couple of individual pieces for publication, done an introduction to a proceedings and am editing (with colleagues) a collection for SEDA, so maybe writing has still been going on.

My daily working life is one which is fairly full with a lot of reading, writing, presenting, talking, thinking aloud and generally trying to keep up with the busy-ness of developing professional staff and understanding (and helping others understand) the sector I work in. I mostly, most of the time, enjoy what I do. Of late, working has taken over far more of my other time (for my partner, my cat, my house, my sense of self, my connection with friends and novels and the world beyond work – yes there is one, honestly!) and in particular seems to have left me with little time for thinking.

I read two things recently which have pushed me back to this blog and to thinking through writing (and writing to think), and about the future of higher education, as well as my own future place in HE.

The first piece I read was a blog about hope and despair (or not) and higher education in the USA I thought the piece was sad, but I recognised too a familiar sense of hanging in there by the fingernails that is echoed by many of those I know working in HE in various countries round the world. All we can do is teach, and write and try to make small differences and not be overcome by the pressures of governments and money to undermine any values HE provides, and the despair of a world that seems to grow less fair, less equal and more divided. The author doesn’t believe they can change the world for the better through their work, but there is a sense of trying (not despairing) to make small differences to individuals.

The other piece I read was an article about being an academic reflecting on the impact of overwork on health and trying to find some balance. I was reminded of the besetting problem faced by those whose work is often cerebral – we separate our bodies and our brains so very effectively that our bodies have to shout at us, very loudly, to be heard (usually by laying us flat!) . My own body has been sending me signals for a while now, and I’m trying to listen, but the bruises from a recent fall are a strong reminder that I wasn’t listening very well!

It seems to me that HE is at a crisis point (which may take 20 years to actually fully show). Governments have/are ‘tinkering’ and the ideological shape of that tinkering has yet to be understood. Technology is radically changing the sources and ownership of knowledge. Economic changes and approaches are driving students expectations, managerial processes and professional practices to such an extent that HE is already very different to how it was even 20 years ago. Not all the changes are negative; in fact the partnership between students and staff in Universities and the opening of HE to a far wider range of participants (both as students and as academics) is a bright light in murky waters.

But we can’t go on hoping it will all go away and everything will return to normal. And I’m definitely not convinced that the increased managerialism and business-minded approaches that seem to be advocated as an alternative are in any way suitable for education at any level.

Education changes lives. Education opens doors. Education creates citizens and revolutionaries. Education is scary, and beautiful. Those who are educated ask questions, they think, they interact, they explore creative solutions. Universities are full of educated people, so surely the answers are already seeded in the minds and hearts of those people. If we are at a crisis point, we should be well placed to identify creative solutions. We shouldn’t be despairing the end of HE as we know it, but imagining and even creating the future HE as it could (and maybe will?) be.


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Selfies without makeup – “stop the presses”

Selfies and remarks about them seem to be dominating social networks at the moment. I get that the whole notion, and the clever (but tacky) term for them, is a logical product of social networking and the technology that supports it. Touch phones and tablets and their tools made selfies inevitable I guess. I’d largely been ignoring the sheep-like spread of selfies through Facebook and Twitter, but it turned out I was a bit of a sheep too. On a recent visit to Bruges, the selfie I produced looked more like a still from a Bergman film than anything cheerful and social!

What I have found more interesting and also rather frustrating has been the recent rush of selfies by women, partly attached to a campaign for a charity, where women have been putting up selfies ‘without makeup’. There is so much in this that frustrates me and saddens me. WHY is this so provocative, so ‘radical’ that it creates a furore. I’m glad for the charity that they have benefitted, but really disappointed that one of the reasons they have done so is because it is considered such an unusual thing that a woman would put a photo up on a social network with no make-up on!! How many men would even be considering this. Yes, I know some men wear make-up, but the majority of men on Facebook and Twitter have all of their photos without make-up. Virtually all of the photos (maybe all! I honestly don’t know) of me are without make-up. I’m middle-aged. I wear make-up sometimes, but really mostly, what you get is me, clean, mostly tidy (tho I have long wild hair, so sometimes not), fresh faced and often smiling (though not on the aforementioned Bergman selfie!) I don’t even think about the fact that the photos of me out there relating to both work and play are make-up free. Good grief I’m a radical, I’m weird, I’m strange; maybe I’m a man? In my weird world men or women can wear makeup but really it isn’t automatic for anyone, and mostly what you get is people smiling.

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After Nature

I belong to a book group and we read a fairly wide range of books: mainly fiction, but not exclusively. I wrote an earlier post on Moran’s “Like a Woman” which was a book group read. Recently we read “After Nature” by W.G. Sebald. It’s a prose poem about three men: The painter, Matthaeus Grünewald, the botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and Sebald himself. It was translated from the German by Michael Hamburger (translation approved by Sebald apparently who lived in the UK until his death) It is something I would never have thought about reading, but I really liked it. It made me laugh, and made me think, and made me research the characters and events to which it referred. It also seemed a timely read given my current fixation with nature and with seasonal changes. (see several previous posts).
“At the moment on Ascension Day
of the year forty-four when I was born
the procession for the blessings of the fields
was just passing our house to the sounds
of the fire-brigade band, on its way out
to the flowering May meadow. Mother
at first took this as a happy sign, unaware
that the cold planet Saturn ruled this hour’s
constellation and that above the mountains
already the storm was hanging… ” (p.86)

The book isn’t very long if you are tempted.

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Dancing butterflies

What you cant see on this picture are the dancing butterflies. I sat in a quiet hidden part of Millhouse Gardens, Richmond North Yorkshire and watched a pair of butterflies chase each other, flirt with each other, and I’m pretty sure: dance.

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Watching swifts under a solstice moon

It’s been a strange Spring and Summer so far. Both Spring and Summer seem to have come together! Everything is growing at once having had such a late start. Tonight it’s the solstice, and the moon is big in a light sky. We’ve been sitting enjoying the smells of the season (whichever it is!) and the sounds of the birds, and seen a few swifts dancing the sky.

So, while everything, in theory, has a season, maybe that season isn’t quite when we think! Some things come late, and run into the back of the next thing. Life isn’t quite as ordered as we hope; but the swifts, even if few in number this year, are still dancing.


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Maybe Spring at last?

The garden is still really bare, despite Monday bringing the middle of April, but today, at last it feels like Spring. We wrapped ourselves up and had breakfast in the garden.


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Thinking about subject disciplines and assessment

A percentage of my work involves helping academics in HE think about the design of their teaching and assessment. My priority in this work is helping them explore the variety of ways they can create good learning environments for their students, and can help the wide range of students now in HE in the UK to succeed. However, there are days when I feel deeply frustrated about the ways in which the cultures and codes of disciplines constrain imagination and creative teaching. Of course on good days it’s the other way round: discipline perspectives and ideas produce a richness which enhances teaching and learning.

I work with staff from a breadth of discipline areas and have learned to approach ideas and issues in different ways (heh, sometimes I even dress differently when I work with different discipline teams!). Ive learned too, to value the variety of ways of thinking that come from different subjects and approaches. Sometimes taking a good idea from one area and translating it to another is a deeply satisfying part of my job.

Today hasn’t been one of those good days though. I’ve had a conversation about assessment in science and listened to a really forward thinking teacher argue that they should have more exams in their faculty because that’s what other science faculties in other universities do. I tried to suggest that maybe they were ahead of the game and other universities should be copying them (not the other way round) but apparently they don’t want to be outliers. I was also informed that employers in these disciplines like exams too.

But there is plenty of evidence that exams (of the blind time constrained kind, which is what was being advocated) don’t actually test what graduates (in any discipline) need to know. Being good at exams is a very useful skill for passing exams! It appears to have little real transferable learning to offer (unlike presentations, project reports, practicals, and even, to some extent, essays). In a modern world, having a good memory for facts (vital for success in exams) is a far less useful tool than having good research skills (relevant for projects and essays for example) or being able to build or produce something (practicals). There is fairly strong evidence that exams tend to encourage surface and rote learning, but we keep being told that our employers and our society want deep thinking, analytical, adaptable, reflective, creative workers and citizens.

In a UK post 1992 University, where many students have already done relatively badly in conventional exams before they get to the University (it has always interested me how many students having done badly at school under an exam model blossom in a HE context which is not too wedded to exams), using an exam method only reinforces their lack of success, whereas one of the potential advantage of some modern university learning is that it provides an environment for enabling students from diverse backgrounds to flourish and succeed.

It is frustrating to me that this retrograde thinking in favour of a return to a traditional assessment model, ‘because that’s what other science programmes do’, runs alongside a context where promoting diversity in assessment and encouraging the idea that assessment can improve learning has been on the table for quite while! And where so many good developments in both teaching and assessment have been happening across all disciplines, including science.

If you are interested in ways to think about assessment in the sciences, its worth looking at Phil Race’s guide. He also suggests ways to make exams as effective as possible so this isn’t an anti exam guide! It’s available here

NB just in case anyone wondered, Im not against exams per se. In fact, oddly enough, I was pretty good at them myself (i’ve not had a use for that particular skill for a fair number of years though!)

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