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

A license to teach in HE? Maybe yes, but…

July 19, 2011

Craig Mahoney’s call for a Higher Education Teaching ‘license’ predictably polarises opinion. Any article in THE about ‘training’ (don’t like the word) for teachers in higher education inevitably leads to comments along the lines of “I haven’t had any training and I get great evaluations for my modules”.

I have mixed feelings about Mahoney’s call. As an undergraduate and postgraduate student I had many great teachers, the vast majority (or possibly none) of whom had ever done any training in how to teach. Their lectures were interesting, even inspiring. They encouraged me to think for myself about the material. They asked interesting questions and challenged conventional wisdom. Sure, there were a few who were a bit boring but I never believed that teaching in higher education was broken and in need of fixing. Nothing I’ve seen, read or heard in eight-and-a-half years working for a subject centre has ever led me to seriously revise this opinion.

On the other hand it seems right that people who teach should have some sort of support as they embark on their academic career. Perhaps the students deserve to know that their lecturer is a ‘fit and proper’ person to teach just as one needs to be a fit and proper person to run a minicab firm, a football club or a multinational media company – OK bad analogy—or that their lecturer is competent to teach just as a person who passes their driving test is competent to drive. No doubt when the driving test was introduced there were those who said “I’m a good driver and never had to take any lessons or a test—all my friends and family think I am a good driver”. On the other hand we all know that the driving test has not eliminated poor driving. And whilst there are claims that public exams are ‘dumbing down’ the driving test only gets longer and more difficult.

Along with their warnings about not going under a car supported only by a jack and not changing a tyre in the fast lane of the M1, the Haynes car manuals have a section in the front about advanced driving. To paraphrase, those who learn by experience react to problem situations when they arise often depending on the quality of their ABS brakes. However, the advanced driver will avoid getting into the problem situations in the first place. The ‘experience-led’ driver may see themselves (and be seen by others) as a good driver and be accident free, but the advanced driver will foresee problem situations before they have the opportunity to arise.

I think the advanced driving metaphor is really what learning to teach in higher education is about. I find it impossible to believe that good (notice I say good) courses about teaching in higher education can be anything other than a good thing. However, licensing will not prevent poor teaching any more that driving tests prevent poor driving. Most of those who learn to teach by experience will probably not be ‘found out’, but when the syllabi change, students expectations change or leadership change the experience-led teacher will be unprepared and stressed out. However the thoughtful the lecturer who invests his or her time in becoming an advanced teacher through thoughtful reflection on teaching, reading about teaching and continuing to learn about teaching will be a good teacher whatever the difficult situations arise in the future.

A critical examination of proofreading (from latest edition of Studies in Higher Education)

June 21, 2011

I find proofreading difficult, especially proofreading my own work. I’ve long taken the view that proofreading my own work is beyond my abilities, particularly when a manuscript has gone through multiple drafts. Friends and colleagues generally concur; “You’re too close the text” they sometimes say. I’m always grateful for the professionals who perform this service on my journal articles.

Joan Turner’s critical examination of the nature of proofreading in the most recent edition of Studies in Higher Education is the first treatment of the subject I have come across (not that I have especially been looking out for an article like this, but it caught my attention when the e-mail alert from the journal came into my inbox). Student support centres which provide guidance on writing often emphasise that they are NOT a proofreading service. She writes:

 Such services offer some analysis of issues of style, grammar or rhetorical organisation that students should be aware of and attempt to resolve in their own writing, but they do not provide a ‘clean’ copy or ‘proof’ that the student can immediately submit for assessment (p. 427).

The article engages the question of proofreading from different angles. For example:

  1. Is proofreading is a skill which all students should acquire— particularly students whose first language is not English? Is it part of learning to write well?
  2. There is an ambiguity between teaching writing skills and proofreading.
  3. There is a moral question about whether getting someone to read an assessed paper is unfair. And is there an ethical difference between asking a friend to read your work and paying a professional (or non-professional) proof-reader?
  4. Will a proof-reader ‘just’ improve the writing or will they also improve the content of the text? At what point does using a proof-reader become cheating? What is being accessed—the writing or the content? Is it possible to even separate writing style from content?
  5. Does use/ overreliance on a proof-reader lead to lower standards? Does it prevent the students from learning how to write well?

Article reference

Joan Turner, “Rewriting writing in higher education: the contested spaces of proofreading,” Studies in Higher Education 36, no. 4 (2011): 427-440.

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

What is innovation in higher education?

June 8, 2011

I enjoyed Karen Smith’s article in Teaching in Higher Education exploring innovation in higher education. Smith addresses innovation in a university-wide context as well as the individual context.  She draws on Kanter’s metaphor of innovation being like flowers. Of course some of those flowers turn out to be weeds.

Karen Smith, “Cultivating innovative learning and teaching cultures: a question of garden design,” Teaching in Higher Education 16, no. 4 (2011): 427-348

“We are learning slowly as we teach over the years”: Teaching the Green Humanities

May 27, 2011

“We are learning slowly as we teach over the years” is the last thing I wrote in my notebook at the “Teaching the Green Humanities” workshop on Wednesday. I can’t remember exactly who said it or even whether I wrote it down exactly as it was expressed, but it was said during the final panel with the workshop speakers. The second last thing I wrote down was “Slowness as virtue”. Six years after taking on the Education for Sustainable Development brief for LLAS I am still learning and still learning very slowly.

I’m not able to do justice to the ground which was covered during the event, but a few things will stick in my mind.  Arran Stibbe’s reminder (or was it a revelation) that “more sustainable” planet is still unsustainable will stick with me. I need to ponder Greg Garrard’s suggestion that the philosophy of ecology might be a good potential bridge between humanities and the sciences—sometimes it really does “just depend” and the ‘unlaw like’ nature of philosophy may allow this possibility (I hope I’m not mis-representing Greg here in any way). Jessica Frye’s discussion of engaging EFL students (mainly scientists and engineers in her case) through reading eco-poetry demonstrates the potential to teach about environmental issues in a context where many would not think it possible.

Still learning, very slowly.