Friday, 31 May 2013

Reflections on teaching practice - the X Factor

So, Rate My Professor has hit the UK as As I type this I am rated number 7 out of all lecturers in the UK (from a whole, single vote). The launch of this led to an interesting debate on twitter yesterday about this and similar schemes, particularly of the "Teaching and Learning Oscars" sort that students' unions run. All of my academic colleagues in HE vehemently opposed such schemes on ideological grounds, but I wanted to do a little bit more reflection on here.

Check your privilege

The current twitter-storm of the liberal-left is around checking your privilege, so I thought I'd start here. Myself and my colleagues do extraordinarily well in this sort of thing. First of all, I personally have won one of our own Student Teaching and Learning Oscars last year. I cried when I received the email I was so touched. When an email was sent around the school with this years' winners of the same award I quickly sent emails to both winners congratulating them. I also know that because I'm young and enthusiastic students like me as they can empathise with me more. They've told me this and I feel quite uncomfortable about it.

We are also the best planning school in the UK according to the NSS. We were incredibly proud of this. The year before I started we were bottom of the NSS and have worked very hard to improve our feedback and also ensure that we get very high response rates from our students. We value all feedback, not just the positive.

Is this all a talent contest?

Now I've checked my privilege I want to consider whether this is all a talent contest. At it's worst it can be. One of the most horrible things about ratemyprofessor is staff are also rated on their "hotness" which is despicable. This is particularly the case given the large amount of evidence that women lecturers more commonly receive feedback based on their looks or what they are wearing (a close friend got class feedback saying she should sit more properly). This is also ageist.

Like all early career lecturers in the UK I had to take part in formal training on being a teacher - a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (which I have just passed!). In many ways this panders to the idea of lecturing as a talent show and I reflected on this in my first assignment. If these forms of feedback are used badly then they are part of the governmentalities of the neoliberal multiversity that privileges the consumerism of students over pedagogical good practice and academic rigour.

But reflecting on my own experience as a student, bad teaching does happen. I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge in history where lectures were fairly optional (many of my peers prided themselves on never having attended a lecture and still getting a first). If a lecturer was bad you quickly stopped going - I recall one lecturer who basically read out his book that had been published in 1983 and had been absolutely superseded by research since. Another lecturer, on the English agricultural revolution, was very old school - still used OHPs in 2002 - but was very engaging and interesting. At the end of term when the half dozen of us who had stuck with him for the eight weeks filled in our feedback forms he commented that this happened every year - he got fantastic feedback, but tiny classes by the end of term. He could never ask those who didn't attend why they stopped attending.

For me, the important thing is how feedback is garnered and then how it is used. This is where I think our Students' Union get it spot on. From what I understand, they were one of the first SU's to run such a scheme. First of all the categories that they ask for feedback in are constructive and useful, things like "Thinkers Award" and "Most Challenging Lecturer". You're not going to win one of these because you spoon feed your students and then give them all As. Secondly, students don't just tick boxes or click on Likert scales, they actually have to write a reason why they are nominating staff. Thirdly, there is a very large wooden plaque by the main entrance to the University where winners names are painted each year - the University is very proud of its innovative and engaging teaching and learning. Finally, all staff who are nominated at all receive the anonymous text of those nominations whether they win or not. That day is a wonderful day to be on campus as all teaching staff have a smile on their faces.

This is far better even than the formal feedback systems that my uni has in place - these are Likert scales and comment boxes, with questions framed in such a way that all you ever get is the most negative comments. A further aspect of this trend in HE is how your institution then responds to poor feedback. The response has to be constructive and supportive, with a whole teaching team helping teaching staff not just leaving them in the lurch wondering where they went wrong. And this includes being assertive and saying the students have got it wrong.

The marketisation of HE globally is appalling and the consumerism that is sites like Rate Your Lecturer and Unistats encourage is wrong. However, we cannot discount all feedback, or all schemes like Teaching and Learning Oscars. I mark harshly (as my external examiners have told me) and I set challenging coursework and exams and get fantastic emails from students commenting on how much they have been challenged, intellectually stretched and engaged by my teaching, either in person or by distance-learning. I value the feedback I get and I'm also pleased that we run our Teaching and Learning Oscars in such a positive way that empower students in their learning and encourages innovation.

To go back to one of the texts that has inspired me most in my teaching practice, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, what we need in all this is crap detection. Rate your lecturer is crap and I shan't be trying to maintain my seventh place in the rankings. Students can also be told when feedback systems like this are crap, but also through feedback from you as a teacher begin to engage critically with them and give constructive feedback themselves. And jeez-oh was the feedback I got in my mid-semester stop-start-continue exercise hard to deal with! 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Creating place in North Edinburgh

Earlier this year, I commented on a planning application for the first time in my life. I disapproved on urban design grounds - it's just a bog-standard development parachuted into a site. I made the point that if Edinburgh Council granted this permission they would have created a pretty much contiguous, non-place of standard two-bedroom flats all the way across the north of the city:

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And now, if councillors accept officer's reccomendations, we can add this. I'm not one to bang on about urban design, but this is bloody awful, and Edinburgh Council, even though they have design standards as part of the Local Plan have allowed this stretch of Edinburgh to become an utter non-place. Even the Council's own design panel mauled it.

Friday, 17 May 2013

What's regeneration all about?

I find myself quoting my favourite quote about regeneration again so I thought I'd put it up here:

‘…community participation should not be seen as a pre-requisite for the delivery of decent services. People living either in poor or more affluent areas are entitled to both quality services and an acceptable living environment. We should not accept a situation where people living in more deprived communities have to go to countless meetings or engage in endless arguments with decision makers simply to receive a level of service that other people take for granted.’
(Scottish Social Inclusion Network Strategy Action Team, 1999: 23)

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The public academic

I was part of an interesting discussion with some PhD students and others at the School of Life Sciences here  yesterday. It reminded me to do this - since I've discovered how easy it is to put documents online through my dropbox public folder I thought I'd do that a lot more through this blog. 

So, first up, are the PDFs from an excellent webinar I did last week organised through Interface Online. The PDFs of the presentations are available here and here.

I was rather inspired by Kean Birch's Writing in Progress section on his blog and pondered about uploading my unaccepted papers and possible even the failed grants applications. But this takes a wee bit of bravery I'm not sure I have...And when I work out how to/have time to do so, I'll put all these under a separate page of my blogger blog.

And in the meantime, I'm quite good at uploading pre-publication versions of my published papers to my university repository and this is now live. Green open-access a-go-go.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Exciting news on the longue duree and a cry for help

This post is complete writers' block prevarication, but hey-ho. These things happen.

I got exciting news yesterday that a proposal for an edited collection I've been invited to contribute to got accepted by a publisher. Basically what I've proposed is a Mark II version of this theory paper of mine (which I have written about previously).

In the manner of modern BBFC guidance statements, this actually fills me with moderate fear and dread. I've got my hook to get started - the choir of the church I attend* were moaning on Sunday that Eucharist on a Sunday morning was dragging on. It was pointed out that the most important bit of the service - communion - seemed to be particularly slowing things down. A number of suggestions for speeding it up have been suggested, some holier than others (throwing communion wafers off the balcony like confetti was mentioned...). In response to one sensible suggestion somebody said "oh, but the congregation would moan about that", to which someone else responded "yes, they would. But two weeks later it will have settled down and everyone will have forgotten that it changed".

Which is essentially the point I want to interrogate - immediate change, particularly in the built environment, is difficult, messy and will inherently be controversial. But give it a few years and everyone's happy. And given the longevity of the built environment, there are difficult intra-generational issues to be overcome. Planning theory, particularly around communicative planning, deals with this issue of historic time very badly (if at all). 

And, here's an appeal to any out there who can help, with this in mind do you know of literatures that deal with:
- the inherent future orientation of planning and policy acts;
- the challenge of deliberation around imagined futures, as opposed to present problems;
- and possibly the philosophy of time and debates around intra-generational justice.

/update 20 minutes later.

Well, I just checked my Google Scholar citations and it seems my Longue Duree piece has already been picked up - et voila. Thinking about it a bit more, I suppose I'm interested in the sorts of things being talked about in this very interesting article about the New Deal for Communities (that community empowerment led to non-optimal policy outcomes) and also this piece about homeless hostels in Rotterdam. I suppose it's trying to get to a point of saying "community engagement and empowerment is not always a good thing" without being technocratic. Hmmm. So am I arguing that technocrats have a specific sooth-saying ability to see into the future?

As ever, if you can't get access to any of the papers linked to, drop me an email