Reflections on teaching in the pandemic

During this academic year, as well as teaching through a pandemic, I have been working on a PCAP course (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice). A few months ago, as part of the assessment of this, I had to write a number of reflective case studies about my work. These were linked together with a reflective introduction which was quite heartfelt, looking very briefly at the experience of pandemic teaching as a new starter in the context of established theories/models about early academic life. I’m not wholly ashamed of that introduction and I thought it might be of more general interest, and so I’m posting it here with minor edits. It is, of course, very basic: I am no expert in this area and make no claims to novel insight!

The early years of a lecturer’s first permanent role are generally expected to be hard, for multiple reasons: the new academic is coming to understand their new role and identity (Simmons, 2011, Wilkinson, 2018) while also learning the systems of their new institution and, often, developing a large amount of new teaching material. Kugel (1993) described new lecturers initially focusing on self, and then subject. Only later do they shift to considering students, and hence transition from a teaching-led to a learning-led way of thinking – which in turn leads to consideration of more sophisticated pedagogies.

Covid-19, and the resulting emergency shift to online teaching, has added to this load. Watermeyer et al (2021) speak, based on a large survey, of “academics bruised by their experience of emergency online transition… A story of trauma in the face of… profound professional and personal disruption… Of self-concept on trial and in tatters”. The emergency introduction of blended learning has upended Kugel’s progression by forcing staff who are in their first year of teaching, who are still developing self and subject knowledge, to engage very firmly with learning-led approaches. It is not clear whether this is beneficial for students, but it has surely increased the level of rapid adjustment and assimilation of ideas that Simmons and Wilkinson described.

This research feels quite pertinent to my own situation as a new starter. Much of the material that I have been adapting for emergency online learning is material that I have never taught before, and I have been learning to navigate the systems of a university in flux without any knowledge of how those systems work in normal times.

Goffman, as cited & described by Wilkinson (2018), discussed university teaching through a theatrical metaphor. He described “backstage” contexts in which lecturers can stop performing, and “stage talk” where they discuss performance techniques with colleagues. Wilkinson discussed differences in how much backstage space is available for a woman in a male-dominated field, but it is also interesting to consider how these concepts may differ – and how this might affect the development of professional identity – in a year when lecturers are working from home, and are connected to students and peers only during clearly designated periods when their webcams are on.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Six months in

Dear reader, if you ever get the choice, I do not recommend starting your first permanent academic job in the year of a pandemic.

The first year of a job is always hard: you have to create teaching materials for the first time, you have to try to get yourself set up for research and, if like me you’re taking over leadership of a degree programme, you have to figure out a lot of “how stuff works at this institution” and build relationships with a lot of people in a hurry.

That’s the baseline. But thanks to COVID, workload for anybody with teaching responsibilities has increased dramatically beyond that level. We’ve been working really hard to deliver a good learning experience through a “blended” approach, but this takes longer to prepare, and also (despite seemingly having less – but not always much less – face-to-face contact) takes longer to actually run and deliver.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of my own institution; it’s something that’s affecting most of the sector. Nor am I unaware of how lucky I am to be in a job right now. But nearly everybody I speak to who has teaching responsibilities in UK HE is teetering on the edge of burnout. This has obvious implications for mental health – it isn’t sustainable, and it will require recovery time – but also slightly less obvious implications for the research side of our careers. Of course having very little time available for research is an impediment, but so too is being constantly exhausted: one just isn’t creative in that state.

Once the dust settles I’m predicting four long-term consequences:

  1. A partially lost generation of early career researchers, who were on precarious and/or fixed-term contracts when the pandemic hit.
  2. A mental health crisis of gigantic proportions across the academy. Some would say that we already had one of those, but this will be worse.
  3. A noticeable difference in research output, and probably also career progression, between people with and without teaching responsibilities.
  4. A similar, or greater, difference in research output and career progression between those with caring or other responsibilities outside work and those without. Greater than usual, I mean.
Posted by simon in Reflective

The A-level results mess

GoT meme: "Brace yourself: Results are coming"

I should caveat this post by mentioning that I know nothing of secondary education, and am not involved in undergrad admissions for my university – so this is purely the view of an uninformed layperson.

As most of my readers will know, there’s a row in the UK at present about A-level results. A-levels are the exams that people sit at age ~18, at the end of secondary school, and are key to getting into universities. As of a few years ago, thanks to the views of Michael Gove on how education should work, they contain no modular exams or coursework and are judged entirely on one set of exams at the end of the year. And this year, thanks to COVID-19, those exams didn’t happen.

Students apply to universities long before they know their A-level results, and so their applications are based on predictions made by their teachers of what grades they will probably get. The universities then make “conditional offers” that commit to providing a place to the student so long as they achieve a given set of grades at the real exams. This has a host of problems that have led some to campaign for years for a change to the system, but that’s a different story.

Thanks to the lack of actual exams this year, students’ final grades have been based on their teachers’ predictions. But for various (mostly sensible) reasons, teachers tend to be generous / optimistic in their predicted grades, and so simply using these would have led to what the government and the tabloids call “grade inflation” – more people getting high grades this year than usual. To avoid this, the regulatory body OfQual was charged with adjusting the predicted grades using a statistical approach. As near as I can understand it, the grades of students in each school were adjusted according to how students from that school usually do. Many have been downgraded from their predictions, leaving them surprised to find they are rejected from their chosen universities. Some smaller number have presumably been upgraded, though we don’t hear about that, and though that won’t impact them as much as they are unlikely to have conditional offers above their predicted grades.

Of course, students are disappointed every year. But there’s a huge difference between being predicted good grades but then failing to achieve them through your own efforts in an exam, and being predicted good grades and then having them reduced because a government algorithm said so – however accurate that algorithm may be when validated through hindcast. One is, ultimately, down to individual performance (albeit in a single exam, which nobody except Michael Gove thinks is a good way of assessing ability), while the other is something that the individual in question is unable to affect.

The task that OfQual were set was clearly impossible to do with any sense of justice. They have probably succeeded in producing a set of national marks which in a big-picture, statistical, sense, reflects what this year’s cohort of students would have achieved. But however good their statisticians, there’s no way that they could achieve that while remaining fair to individuals. As somebody beautifully put it on Twitter:

So given a choice between the problem of “grade inflation” and the problem of arbitrary-seeming marks for students, I find myself asking… is grade inflation really a problem? If, for one year only, the aggregate student body does better than usual, what harm does that cause? This entire year is inherently a set of mitigating circumstances, and there doesn’t seem to be any gain in punishing students even more for the year in which they happen to turn 18.

Sure, an excess of high grades would cause some trouble for the most prestigious universities, as they may not have room to take all the students they gave conditional offers to (I say “may”, because they’ll have lost international numbers this time around). But given how keen these universities usually are to increase recruitment, I’m sure they can find inventive ways to deal with that. Maybe some of the students are even asked to defer to the following year. That feels like much less of a problem than effectively telling a generation of new adults, “What you do doesn’t matter, you will be assigned a place in society according to the school that you come from”.

Given the situation all around us, would it really be so terrible to be kind?

Posted by simon in The wider world

Advice wanted from LGBT / gender non-conforming students

Thinking about my teaching practice, especially as I move towards being a personal tutor as well as lecturer next year, it feels as though I should try to indicate to any LGBT, NB, or other minority students in my class that I’m a safe person to be out to. Obviously I realise that there’s no way of proving that as a hypothetical, and hence some students may always be wary, but is there anything helpful that I can do?

A quick Etsy search reveals various designs of “ALLY” badge… what are are people’s feelings about that? Is there a better idea?

Thanks for any advice.

Posted by simon in Reflective

Losing is not binary

This article from Mary Heglar is a powerful, and worthwhile, thing to read. I’m not going to talk about it, because you can go and read it yourself – it isn’t long – but it reminded me of something I wrote a long time ago, on a blog far far away. It was just after the 2009 COP summit in Copenhagen, which was perhaps the first time that calls for climate action really became a mainstream mass campaign, rather than something for environmentalists. I’m going to quote some bits.

A lot of commenters are being despondent in the aftermath of COP-15. I can understand why, because it was the first climate summit where it had actually become a mainstream public issue, and the first in recent memory when a (arguably) sympathetic line from the White House meant that there was some chance of co-operation from the US. Additionally, time is pressing, and this was the first time so far as I remember that anybody had identified “this is what we need to aim for NOW”. Which we’re not going to do…

…I feel that while the solutions are technically within our grasp – just about – at present, there is no way that they are politically possible.

I’ve spent a certain amount of time thinking “If I think that the cause is hopeless, why am I wanting to work in the renewable energy and/or energy efficiency fields?”. The answer is that although the goals being debated at Copenhagen are politically hopeless, every little still helps…

…millions – if not billions – will suffer… but for every bit that we can reduce our emissions, less of this will happen. The fact that the situation is so terrifying, depressing, and hopeless… doesn’t mean that we can’t try to lessen it.

That… was a while ago. Time has moved on by a decade, and so has climate change. It’s reached a stage where effects are evident to many people. And perhaps partly because of this, and partly because of youth protests and Extinction Rebellion, and partly because of so many other people, the politics have moved on as well, to a place that I honestly didn’t think was possible just a few years ago. The support from the White House has vanished, but we’ve discovered that it wasn’t really needed after all.

In 2019, it’s probably too late to stick to a 2°C rise, let alone 1.5°C. We’re already well past the 350 or 400ppm that was being discussed in the run-up to Copenhagen. In that sense, we “lost”. But what I wrote in 2009 is still true: that that loss isn’t binary, and we can still influence how much worse things get.

As Heglar says in her article, simply giving up on the problem because we can’t totally avoid it is not helpful. Nor is criticising people for being optimistic. Or pessimistic. Or any other natural reaction that they may have. As a friend put it once, there’s a grieving process here, and everybody grieves differently. Recognising that climate change is going to have impacts, and putting effort into adapting to or mitigating those impacts, does not require us to give up on trying to limit the amount of change that is not yet locked in, but to do this we need to embrace everybody’s input[1], rather than shutting people down.

[1] That is, everybody who acknowledges that there is a problem.

Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world