Leadership and role-play: A few thoughts on the LLAS Head of Departments’ event.

September 15, 2011

Our first event of the ‘new LLAS’, Thriving in the New World of Higher Education: a workshop for heads of department and leaders in languages, linguistics and area studies took place yesterday. We had an overview on the state of Modern Languages in the UK from Jim Coleman (Open University and Chair of UCML) and Pam Moores talked about the resources developed as part of Shaping the Future, a project set up in response to Michael Worton’s report into Modern Languages in English universities. Our Director Mike Kelly had some good tips on managing relationships with senior managers in the university, and on the importance of understanding your university’s mission and making sure you know who you should go to for what.


My own contribution was in the form of role-play exercise in which participants ‘played’ a Head of Languages meeting her/his Dean to discuss either a faculty reorganisation or a curriculum change programme. I enjoy role-play as a way of learning, but I realise that not everyone does. However, it seemed that most people enjoyed the exercise and benefitted putting themselves in the position of another person. Some of our HoD’s are very good actors it seems.

As the author of the role-play scenarios, it was interesting to observe the numerous directions in which a situation can play out. The briefs for each role included a section entitled ‘What is on your mind’. It was interesting to see the ways in which people used or did not use this information to their advantage (some of the items were put in as deliberate distractions, e.g. your feelings about other people). I will write more about using role-play in this context at a later date.

For me the key lesson from this event is on the importance of working relationships. In these uncertain times for higher education, how we manage our relationships is more important than ever.


Some new resources online for T&L in HE

September 5, 2011

Back into the office after a three week(!) break. Just going through the email. Spotted the following on the SEDA list and through them worth a mention. Useful for new and experienced academic staff alike.

1. Preparing to teach An introduction to effective teaching in higher education by Graham Gibbs and Trevor Habeshaw now online

2. Also, a useful bibliography from Mick Healey on

The following bibliographies have been regularly updated since 2005:

1      Active learning and learning styles: a selected bibliography  Active learning and learning styles bibliography

2      Discipline based approaches to supporting learning and teaching: a selected bibliographyDiscipline-based approaches Bibliography

3      Linking research and teaching: a selected bibliography  Linking Research and Teaching Bibliography

4      Pedagogic research and development: a selected bibliography Selected references on pedagogic research

5      The scholarship of teaching and learning: a selected bibliography  SoTL Bibliography

6      The scholarship of engagement: a selected bibliography  The Scholarship of Engagement – a selected bibliography

7      Dissertations and capstone projects: a selected bibliography Dissertations and Capstone Projects Bibliography

Review of Weft QDA: free open source qualitative research software

June 27, 2011

Weft QDA is an open-source free software package for qualitative research. Although I’ve doing qualitative research for a number of years this is the first time I have used software for analysing qualitative data. The expense of commercial analysis packages (£500+) has always been a deterrent for me and Weft QDA is first such package I’ve used. In this sense, I am not able to compare Weft QDA to better known commercial packages such as NVivo. In fact the Weft QDA website does outline the limitations of the package and when a commercial alternative will be necessary (e.g. when formatting is important).

I’ve been using the package to analyse the qualitative open answer data from this year’s non-specialist language learner survey. I found the programme very intuitive and easy to use. It did crash a couple of times so I quickly learnt the importance of regular saving! However, if like me you are new to using software for qualitative analysis then it is worth checking this out.


Weft QDA

Area Studies: plus ça change?

June 16, 2011

Liz Lightfoot’s recent article “The value of area studies” in British Academy Review succinctly outlines the difficulties and challenges facing departments of area studies. In the eight plus years I have held the area studies remit for the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, discussions about area studies invariably focus on the identity of the field–for example in 2004 LLAS ran a workshop entitled the Disciplinary Identity of Area Studies. In 2005, I attended a workshop entitled The Future of Interdisciplinary Area Studies run by the University of Oxford. In many respects the British Academy event The role of Area Studies in Higher Education in November 2010 was a revisiting of the Oxford conference. I even had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the same people.

When I joined LLAS in 2003 my primary role was to run the Area Studies Project. A key aim of that project was build up an area studies community. There have been some successes. Driven by the project and in particular the vision of Dick Ellis, the then chair of the Area Studies Specialist Advisory Group the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA) was formed in November 2003. It is pleasing to see that UKCASA is providing a strong voice for area studies in both teaching and research. Moreover, it has helped to bridge the gap between Anglophone and non-Anglophone area studies. The funding for the Language-based area studies centres was also an encouraging sign.

However, the questions raised when area studies is mentioned seem to be the same as they were eight years ago. And they are probably much the same as they were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Department closures, the apparent rewarding of disciplinarily specialisation by the RAE and REF, the reliance of area studies programmes on ‘donor’ departments and questions of whether interdisciplinarity (more breath) inevitably means less depth leading to the suggestion that interdisciplinary courses might be a bit light, intellectually speaking. Naturally the latter is denied more area studies proponents who see the demands of area studies as more rather than less challenging.

Lightfoot’s article opens with the newsroom cry “Find someone who knows about Egypt!” in response the protests taking place there and elsewhere in the Middle East.  Quoted in the article Tim Wright says “The problem with providing a national resource is that no one knows where the next area of concern will come from? Will it be a need for Kurdish specialists, or people with a deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Egypt or Pakistan?”

Or Canada maybe? Well probably not, but from a government perspective a key rationale for area studies is based on the national interest, the next protest or the next war. Talk is afoot of another referendum in Quebec, but whether that referendum, whatever its outcome, will generate much interest in the UK is unclear. The rationales for area studies tend focus on the need to understand the different, the unknown, the economically important and the dangerous. Perhaps the real worry is that we will never seek to understand those societies which we see as similar, known, economically unimportant and safe.

Reference: Lightfoot, L. (2011) The Value of Area Studies, British Academy Review 17, pp. 48-51

Should we bring drug testing into the REF?

June 3, 2011

Two items I spotted today on drug-enhanced intellectual performance.

Discussion on Chronicle of Higher Education website about use of prescription medication to increase research output.

Piece in the  TES about using drugs to enhance memory and exam performance.

We don’t tolerate drug use in sport, so why academia? Should blood and urine samples be submitted as part of the REF? Good question for a Friday!


Should support staff teach students in higher education?

May 23, 2011

I feel that Smith and Rust’s contribution in the latest edition of the Innovations in Education and Teaching International deserves the attention of everyone involved directly or indirectly in teaching in higher education. The article begins with a discussion about the links between teaching and research in the university as well as a discussion of Wegner’s ‘communities of practice’. Smith and Rust helpfully summarise Wenger’s work (‘communities of practice’ I fear is becoming a unscrutinised  catchphrase in some sections of higher education and I found their paragraph on Wenger useful):

According to Wenger (1998, pp. 72-85) a community of practice has three key dimensions: it is a ‘joint enterprise’ involving the ‘mutual engagement’ of its members, who are bound together as a ‘social entity’ with a shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that they have developed over time. These key requirements of joint enterprise, mutual engagement and social entity all seriously beg the question, who do we see as being members of the community. All too often, the concept ‘academic community’ is used in exclusive ways referring solely to the academic staff of the university. My emphasis (p. 116)

Later in the article Smith and Rust turn their attention to the work of ‘support staff’ in the university.

There have been significant increases in the numbers of staff in central support units (and therefore even further distanced from the academic community than those in academic departments) – e.g. librarians, computer technicians, counsellors, those in human resources, the registry, estates, and corporate services. There is now a need for these roles, too, to be brought into the academic mainstream instead of looking in from the outside. Members of human resources could teach in business studies or public administration, for example: counsellors could teach in psychology; librarians in publishing; computer technicians in maths, stats and computing; estates staff in land management; and corporate services in business and marketing. All of these individuals have vital and important skills and experience they can bring to academic teaching and research and to the tutoring and development of students (p. 120)

Now this is challenging bit, but the more radical proposal is to come. They continue:

In the genuine research-based academic community it is the role of support staff which needs to see the greatest changes. Indeed the demarcation between support staff and researchers and teachers should vanish with job descriptions which combine administrative and technical work with tutoring, small group teaching, and research assistance. There are, of course, at least two groups of support staff who, as well as increasing their own academic role, will also need to be centrally involved in gradually implementing the suggestions we are proposing. First, Human Resources units will have to identify the nature and extent of changes in the job descriptions of posts and develop policies and practices to recruit the ‘new breed’ of candidates to fill support staff positions. Second, Learning and Teaching units will have to develop training schemes to enhance the abilities of support staff to contribute to the research based education of students. It is in these ways that support staff can be integrated fully as equal members of the academic community and thus lose their second-class citizenship. (p.120)

At first reading Smith and Rust appear to be seeking to break down the divisions between academic staff and other staff. However the language used here seems to maintain the dichotomy between ‘support’ staff and academic staff. Perhaps the problem is in the term ‘support staff’. Whether educational developers (‘non-academic’ in some institutions), librarians, counsellors, estates staff etc., there is an underlying suggestion that support staff are not players in the ‘main game’ of higher education and are useful, but not essential to the main game. Nothing could be further from the truth of course.

Overall this article makes radical proposals and raises questions for further in-depth discussion. Can we create a true community of practice across our universities?


Pete Smith and Chris Rust, “The potential of research-based learning for the creation of truly inclusive academic communities of practice,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 48, no. 2 (2011): 115-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2011.564005

Words I don’t like 1: Training

April 27, 2011

There are quite a few words I don’t like when talking about educational development. ‘Training’ is among these words. Why do lecturers ‘teach’, but educational developers ‘train’? Why is somebody who teaches students a lecturer or a teacher, but anyone who teaches lecturers is deemed to be training rather than teaching?

The difference may seem insignificant to some but I passionately believe that higher education is a valid and legitimate field of study and there is no difference between those who teach and research about higher education and the things that go on in universities and those who teach and research about sociology, physics and nursing. This is why I like to see educational developers have job titles which indicate this (Lecturer/ Senior Lecturer. Professor etc.)