academia, Higher Education, teaching

Lest we drown in student feedback (episode 4 of the Fabulous Four)

Fourth and last (for now) in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The last post, on Powerpoint, is available here.

Episode 4 (teaching)

Lest we drown in student feedback

(warning: this blog post contains a rant)

Not long ago I stumbled upon a heated discussion on Twitter, regarding plans of the University of Leeds to implement an anonymous student feedback plan. I couldn’t access the article reporting this fact (wasn’t bothered to pay the subscription fees, sorry), but apparently module leaders would need to respond to the anonymous student posts on the discussion board within five working days. Sure, why not just install self-flagellation poles in every faculty building. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

In the debate, people particularly expressed their concern about teaching staff being confronted with anonymous attacks upon their gender, ethnicity, class, physical appearance and clothing choices, even their teaching style.

They’re not exaggerating. Research has shown that the ethnicity of teaching staff can affect the outcomes of student feedback, which in the UK is gathered mainly through the National Student Survey (NSS). I have also heard accounts of students complaining about too much feminism, for example. I love this reply from the author of an Academics Anonymous article on the topic:

The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion. My response to the […] feedback was to include more content on feminism, not less.

Student feedback is not always useful. Given that participation is voluntary, response rates tend to be low, and when it is made compulsory things get worse: students are asked to comment on a course they might not have attended, or they just didn’t like the topic, leading to useless comments like the one cited above. Let’s face it: students don’t necessarily know how to assess teaching. We might just as well introduce HappyOrNot smiley terminals across campus, like those at airports or public toilets.

In my own experience, the whole student feedback business seems to be mostly a matter of ticking boxes and scoring high in the NSS. In fact, one university department was even caught instructing students to falsify their approval ratings, telling them that nobody would want to employ them if the responses were negative.

Yep, once more it all comes down to rankings, numbers, assessments. What is it about universities always wanting to score highest, or be the best? There’s even such a thing as the Top 20 UK University Campus Awards, which in my opinion have been more beneficial to building, furniture and gardening industries than for students and staff alike.

Let me tell you just this one anecdote, about a criticism I got on a grammar rehearsal class I ran in the last year of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. The purpose of the course was to repeat grammar topics the students (in their second year) had studied the previous year. They had to buy a textbook, from where we selected topics and exercises, and then I added some exercises of my own, occasionally also using songs and other, unconventional sources—y’ know, to make it all a bit less boring.

So basically I would refresh their memory by briefly explaining the topic, using the whiteboard, and then we would do exercises. If the topic covered multiple lessons I would do a brief recap. As they say, repetita iuvant. Additionally, I told students where to find the grammar rules explained in the textbook, and I had published a schedule on Moodle, the university’s online learning platform, with the weekly topics listed. In sum, anyone who missed class could stay on track.

In theory.

In practice, they didn’t. Quite a lot of students, in fact, skipped class every other week or so, especially the one at 9am. Maybe they thought attendance was an optional, or they believed to be doing an online, self-learning degree?

What’s worse is that most of the students didn’t buy the textbook. The result was me regularly facing half a dozen of lost souls staring at me as if I was the Dalai Lama doing a tap dance, often stubbornly justifying their failure to do any exercises by the fact that they had missed class. Poor lambs. As if that was my responsibility.

But see, that’s precisely the problem: I was responsible for making the course material available to them, but in the way THEY wanted it to be. Now I realize I’m coming from one angle, and who knows what kind of study/workload the students might have been struggling with, but when I was an undergrad I always tried to catch up if I missed class, copying notes from fellow students, or at the very least doing the required reading. Is it so hard?

It felt as if I had to deliver a product, and if it didn’t reach the student-consumer, even by their own fault, I was nevertheless to blame.

What really blew my mind, though, was the student feedback: I hadn’t uploaded Powerpoints to Moodle. POWERPOINTS. So they could catch up when missing a class.

Now I know my last blog post was all in favour of Powerpoint, and I maintain that stance, but obviously it depends on the context. I actually used PPT a lot in my classes, just not in this one. After all, it was a rehearsal class, with the grammar being explained in the textbook and then briefly illustrated in class: why should I copy and paste all the rules into a PPT presentation? All I did was to give concrete examples of the grammar rules on the whiteboard. Had I used a PPT instead, the students would undoubtedly have complained that the slides were too concise.

Anyway, in my response to the feedback I explained my teaching method for this specific course, and pointed out that many students were playing hooky, a fact that was backed up by the attendance forms. Surely this would be a point of concern for the College, much more so than my not using Powerpoint?

And yet, my line manager – actually a staunch supporter of traditional, non-visual teaching methods – completely disappointed me when I read his proposed solutions to the raised criticism, something he had to communicate to the College as part of the whole student feedback process. Probably didn’t think I would read the report, but I did.

He literally wrote that next year there would be a new teacher. As if the problem was the teacher, not the students skipping class à gogo.

Obviously the issue here is not the line manager. Lord knows how many of these reports he has to send off to his superiors every year. It does show, though, how ineffective student feedback can be, and the harsh impact it can have on staff. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here’s my recipe for a more humane approach to student learning experiences:

  • First, course convenors need to make it absolutely clear to students what is expected of them (also in terms of attendance), and what they should expect from the course.
  • Second, students need to be given proper instructions on how to assess teaching—a simple “be as objective as possible” sentence at the top of the survey will not suffice. And I would add, also tell them not to slash off teachers.

Most of all, I think we ought to do away with the anonymity culture behind student surveys. Maybe get them to share their experiences in a group chat run by an intermediate figure, who will liaise (so to speak) between students and teachers, making the former understand their responsibilities and filtering out potentially unfounded criticism when reporting back to the latter.

Wouldn’t that be a lot nicer?

 

academia, conferences, dissemination, Higher Education

What’s the point of Powerpoint? (episode 3 of the Fabulous Four)

Third in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The last post, on REF 2021, is available here.

Episode 3 (dissemination)

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

As the academic year draws to an end, conference-goers get on their way. Powerpoint (PPT) has, by now, become an almost indispensable visual aid at conferences and in the classroom, certainly in the UK. It is gaining ever more momentum, even if some are highly critical of it. But, as one person commented in a recent Twitter debate on the topic, “PPT snobbery is just bullshit for people who like to pretend they’re doing a Ted Talk.”

PPT is particularly frowned upon in Italy, I have found, perhaps because of a certain defiance of technological forms of communication? Or maybe the rhetorical tradition – in its original, oral form – is more rooted in the Italian academic context? That said, not all Italians master the art of rhetorical speaking. I vividly recall a conference of the Society for Italian Studies, where an Italian bloke totally missed the mark in terms of presenting. I don’t recall the topic of his talk (which shows just how terrible his presentation skills were), but I do remember how tedious, almost tormenting, it was to sit through his presentation. Yes, “sitting through” is the right description, and I’m not just talking about the audience! In fact, the speaker basically sat behind a table, sliding down the chair as if he was watching telly on a lazy Friday night, his shoulders pending to one side as the relative arm rested on the table edge, his hand barely holding up the paper while the other hand hided in his pocket. He read the whole paper without bothering to look into the room, obviously going way too fast. I can’t recall how good his English was, but if you add bad pronunciation to it, well, you have a worst case scenario.

Apart from being truly indispensable in certain disciplines, such as art history or film studies, PPT can be a really good visual aid, both for the not-so-confident/skilled public speaker and for the audience. Provided it is considered just that: an AID.

In fact, a lot of people make an excessive or bad use of PPT, which results in equally ineffective presentations. This includes established scholars. I once attended a keynote lecture where the speaker seemed to have copied and pasted his talk, or large part of it, into a PPT presentation: his slides were packed with text, text and still more text, one slide after another…impossible to read while also trying to listen.

So, if you’re guilty of the above or any other misuse of PPT (e.g., flashing colours, flickering lights), or if you’re one of those people who speeds through their slides as if they’re worried they’ll miss their flight, here’s five tips on how to deliver a decent, and effective, PPT presentation:

  1. Don’t stand in front of the slides, but on the side: if you’re right-handed stand left and vice versa.
  2. Don’t overcrowd. Forty words or so is enough for one slide.
  3. Don’t prepare too many slides: my advice is 10 to 12 slides for a 20-minute talk.
  4. Choose your background wisely: MS offers a lot of available PPT templates, but they’re not always appropriate. See if your university has its own PPT template – they always look smart! Also avoid dark backgrounds: dark writing on a light background works best.
  5. Limit, or indeed avoid, excessive clip art and animation features. If you do need to make multiple data appear within the same slide, at different moments, practice this in advance, marking the points in which the data is to appear.

By way of example, have a look at one of my own presentations, on 1968 and the Italian right (ASMI annual conference 2008): Hajek PPT 1968. Note how I’ve added sources when using images from Internet, well except for the iconic photo of the French “Marianne” (by Jean-Pierre Rey). It must have skipped my attention! Also, looking at it now, I would have added a reference – on the first slide – to the name of the association organising the conference, and a final slide containing email address and any social media.

To conclude, only use PPT if it has sense or if you think it will help you. But it’s not a must. Different things work for different people: some are great public speakers, others less. The point I want to make is that PPT can contribute to inclusivity by giving inexperienced or nervous speakers confidence, or simply a visual aid to help them deliver a clear and structured presentation. That also goes for the audience, especially people those who aren’t English native speakers, as it helps them follow the narrative and catch up in case they might miss a word.

In sum, if done correctly Powerpoint is really helpful, and audiences will thank you. I certainly would.

Note: other than building on my own conference experience, for some of the tips described above I have drawn inspiration from the “Presenting to an Academic Audience” course led by Dr Steve Hutchinson, from Hutchinson Training & Development Ltd. 

academia, Higher Education, job market, research

It’s that time of REF again! (episode 2 of the Fabulous Four)

Second in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The first post, on the correct placement of notes in a text, is available here.

Episode 2 (research)

It’s that time of REF again!

REF.

Research Excellence Framework.

If you study or work in a UK higher education context then you are bound to have heard of it. And if you don’t, you will.

In short, the Research Excellence Framework is a national assessment of the quality of UK higher education research. Last undertaken in 2014, the next REF will take place in 2021. Expert panels will assess three elements for each submission: research outputs, impact and environment. These elements will form the overall quality profile of an institution. Each eligible member of staff has to submit 1 to 5 research outputs, which will mostly be publications.

I contributed to the REF of 2014, when I had only just been awarded a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in a Scottish university. My first monograph was being prepared for publication, whereas a number of journal articles and a special issue had been accepted or recently published. I remember the Head of Department – who was collecting data for the REF submission ­– sounding awfully pleased as I sent him details of all these publications. Too bad my “impressive” contribution to the School’s pool of outputs didn’t leave any further marks on him, given his forgetting to mention me in a list of recently departed staff members, in a School Newsletter published three years later. I guess that’s the REF for you.

The REF is, indeed, quite an opportunistic business, as was its predecessor: the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise). Back in 2007 I approached a British university for a doctoral project – I had recently finished an MA and was temporarily selling clothes at the weekly market of Bologna (Italy), where I had participated in an Erasmus exchange programme. Failing to win a fellowship competition in my home university, in the Netherlands, and without much hope to get into the Italian academic world, I decided to seek my fortune in the UK. Unfortunately, it was too late to apply for any funding schemes, but I was offered a fee waiver, provided that I started my PhD in July as opposed to September 2007. As I didn’t see myself selling clothes at the market for much longer, I accepted, even a bit flattered that they had offered me a fee waiver, thinking that my project must have sounded really interesting to them. Oh the naivety! It seems, in fact, that the offer of fee waiver/earlier start date allowed the Department to count me among its PhD cohort for the upcoming RAE, a strategy other departments had apparently also applied, so I discovered later on when talking to other PhD students.

So you see, it all comes down to numbers, assessments, rankings. Some institutions don’t even bother to cover this up: recently, a job vacancy was posted where a university explicitly wrote that it was seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to help deliver high-quality outputs for REF 2021, in particular for impact case studies. Given that the position was fixed (one year) and part-time, and that self-motivation was among the required skills, we may deduct from this that the university was looking for someone to help organise exhibitions or write up reports on behalf of overworked staff members…And to then have the courage to write that the successful applicant could “progress” to a higher rate – on a one-year contract?!

It’s not unusual. I constantly come across one-year job postings, and they all sound pretty much the same. I understand precarious researchers feel their heart leap with joy whenever such a position opens within their discipline, or maybe at the same university where they are completing a PhD or a postdoc, but it’s usually a trap. Of course there is chance that, once you get a foot in the door, you may eventually obtain a permanent position. And it does occasionally happen for real. Most of the time, though, it doesn’t.

I recall a temporary teaching post being opened in the university where I was completing my postdoc. I decided not to apply, because I knew all my time would go into teaching, marking and admin, with no time left to do any serious research or publish articles (which counts A LOT when applying for lecturer jobs). All this for not even a year’s contract, for the job would only cover the teaching and marking period (September-May). How to keep paying your rent and bills during the summer recess apparently didn’t interest the School, a clear indicator that it had no intention whatsoever to extend the job position beyond the contract itself. In the end, the School did actually create a permanent lecturer position, the following year, but apparently the person who got the one-year teaching job – and who obviously applied for the lecturer job – wasn’t hired for that. Instead, they offered her to cover a maternity leave: better than nothing, but hardly what she had bargained for.

In sum, as the REF 2021 deadline approaches, many HE institutions will be recruiting short-term staff members to help stack their REF submissions. My advice is to refrain, if you can afford it. Early career researchers deserve respect and support, as well as long-term perspectives: job- and research-wise. You are not numbers or boxes to tick, but qualified scholars who need some level of stability and security to do their job. As important as even a nine-month job might seem for your bank account or CV, spilling energy and academic capital to then find yourself applying for new jobs – a really time-consuming part of academic life – within less than a year, well, it’s not really worth it, is it?

That said, the REF also puts much pressure on those in a permanent job, and there is a steadily rising wave of UK academics leaving permanent jobs (as this Twitter thread demonstrates). This is obviously not a result of the REF alone, but granted, it doesn’t help either. Maybe universities themselves aren’t even to blame entirely.

So what can we do about this? I would say: be more selective when applying for jobs, and most of all, believe in yourself and in your skills. You’re not a number but a person, with academic capital, and if universities want that, they need to give something back.