Stop stuffing the syllabus

Note: I’m specifically talking about the UK context, I’m not qualified to talk about other contexts such as the US where the differing nature of how Universities operate might make stuffing a good idea. 

A Woman carrying a lot of folders stuffed with paper and screaming!
I’ll just read these ten conflicting syllabus.

So it’s at this time of year, I see people posting about what they are including in their syllabus for the courses/modules in the New Year. A recurring theme is all of the additional support material that they are going to include that is not directly related to the module. –information about mental health, student finance etc. 

On the face of it, this seems an excellent idea to help students and who could be against it? 

Well… me.

I’ve come to the conclusion (from working with multiple Business Schools and students across the UK) that this type of practice causes more confusion than clarity and it is likely to cause information overload that prevents students getting the help they need and other negative outcomes. Individual academics feel they have done something and this method surely helps some students in some circumstances but is suboptimal to help the maximum number of students.

Let’s talk a little bit about information overload (my PhD was in Information Seeking Behaviour). In simple terms, when presented with a document (say a syllabus) there is a point at which people shift from not overloaded to overloaded and there are certain factors that will increase the likelihood of hitting this tipping point and others that will decrease it – some are to do with the information itself and it’s presentation and others to do with personal factors. 

For our purposes, let’s just say that ‘not-overloaded’ is when the reader can handle the quantity of information they are required to process. 

Problems with stuffing – Duplication

The first problem is that at the start of the semester, students are absolutely bombarded with information. They will receive multiple syllabus and each of these syllabus might include or not include this information in multiple different (and often conflicting!) ways.  

They will therefore be trying to read multiple overstuffed syllabus in a short period of time while often juggling a part-time job, caring responsibilities, health issues etc. The more we bombard them with potentially duplicate information, the more we reduce the novelty of the information and the more likely they are to skim it or simply not read it.  We already know that a significant portion of students never read the syllabus – how can making it longer help? 

Therefore a syllabus should always be unique and it’s unique because it contains only information about that module/course itself and does not duplicate information provided elsewhere.  As a result, it should also be really short (There are far more effective ways to provide things like reading lists at the point of need). 

Problems with stuffing – Domain expertise

Most academics are not mental health professionals or indeed experts in anything outside their own field.  I’ve read many course syllabus that contain a range of helpful non-academic material and it often:

  • Simply wrong
  • Slightly right but out of date
  • Differs from current best practice in the University
  • Differs from current best practice as provided by actual specialists
  • Provides URLs that are bust and go nowhere

This is all done with good intentions but it is a outcome of the ‘academics should be specialists in everything’ mess that academia is currently in. We might be the right people to point students in the direction of the information, we generally aren’t the right people to write it. There are always better placed people with specific domain expertise who can provide this. 

This can add to the student of information overload because the presentation or complexity of the language we use might be inappropriate for the message we are trying to convey. 

Even if you individually provide information you are happy with, how do you know that your fellow academics are doing the same? How does the student determine if the information you provide is correct or the information they provide is correct? 

Alternatives to stuffing

So if we aren’t stuffing – what are we doing? Well the answer is – academics should facilitate access to useful information but they not create it and they should not own it. Individual academics acting as information silos is a terrible idea.  This requires a bit of joined up thinking from Universities.

  • Each important bit of information (say Mental health) should have an owner – they provided the canonical source of information. 
  • This information should never be provided as a word document and never provided in an email – as soon as you create a word document, you create drift and some student somewhere will be provided with out of date information an academic has saved on their desktop.
  • You need the help of good web-designers, buy-in from support teams to provide a very simple top level portal which provides this information.

The role of the  *individual* academic is then to facilitate access to this information. The role of the *department/University* is to work out the best way for this to happen.  Stuffing the syllabus is to me the wrong level of abstraction.  It also creates uncertainty (another aspect of information overload) because students become unsure about the ‘purpose’ of documents – are they academic documents, support documents, administrative documents?  

At the moment (and this shift overtime) – my preferred method is to have a tab at the top level of the VLE on each individual course. Students might not read everything but they will see this each time they log-on. All the tab does is redirect to the portal.  

In this method, I’m happy that students always have the correct most upto date information and also new staff also have the most update correct information rather than receiving what might be out of date information second-hand from other staff. 

There is also an issue of staff workload that I’m only going to touch on briefly – this system to me is more equal because it stops a syllabus creating the impression (because staff have stuffed their syllabus with ‘helpful’ stuff) that THIS staff member is about serious academic stuff because they don’t include this information and THAT staff member is the likely candidate for emotional labour because they do.  Changing how and where this information is provided enforces that this is a collective not individual responsibility. 

 

Surface a go go for teaching and learning – Surface Go thoughts

So a little while ago, I ordered some Surface Pro devices for the Business School.  Although they could be taken to staff to meeting, the intention they would mainly be used for teaching – especially around Accountancy and Economics where the pen support would be useful.  In particularly for teaching, the advantage of the Surface is that you can project what you are doing to the front of the room while moving around from group to group (see this rather rough youtube I recorded):

Shift forward a year and I’ve just taken possession of a number of Surface Go devices (you can read the full spec here – we have the 128gb, 8gb version).

There are a couple of noticeable difference from the Pro – the size is smaller (10″ screen) and it uses a slow Intel Gold Mobile processor. I must confess at the time of purchase, I was concerned that the processor was going to be an issue and wondered about the smaller screen size.

However after a week or so of usage, I’m a convert and prefer it to the Surface Pro as a secondary machine. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • The screen size means that it has a portability as a corridor warrior (moving from classroom to classroom, meeting to meeting) that is superior to the pro.
  • The processor has caused me no concerns at all in practice – it does everything I need to do and does it welll;
  • Keyboard is small and nice (it’s no thinkpad keyboard but what is?);
  • Battery life is solid and although it does have it’s own propriety charger, it also uses USB-C so when travelling, I just taken the same (powerful third party) charger for my Laptop and phone;
  • When using in class, the weight is much much better for spending an hour moving around and interacting with people.

A surface go tablet charging
My Surface Go – notice how it is charging from USB-C which adds convenience when travelling.

Obviously if you want to do photo-shop or something with heavy processing this is not the machine for you but as a *department device* for people to book in and out for specific purposes, I think it’s a winner.

 

 

Answers not to give at an academic interview

I’ve recently spent a lot of time in our HR suite conducting job interviews and here are the answers to questions at interview that I suggest avoiding or at least thinking about a bit more.

My upfront disclaimer: – a) this is just my view, b) there is no academia, if you are an an ECR, talk with a trusted mentor who understands your field better than I do – there are lots of difference between fields and this means a sensible answer in one area is a dumb one in another.

So here are some random thoughts in no particular order.

I’m going to publish all of the things!

Now this varies depending on if you are an ECR or a bit further on in your career but the key rule is that it’s got to be credible in light of your CV. In a tough job market it’s very easy to over-promise but for various reasons (partly to do with changes to the REF that is a different blog entirely) it is better to have a clear research strategy that shows you are selective. I’m more interested in a candidate who can articulate a pipeline of strong outputs (which could be papers, book chapters) that are fewer in number than some promises that indicate that you are an alien who doesn’t need to sleep or that you are completely unrealistic about what can be done in a specific time-frame.

Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse makes a good point (and he makes many excellent points about research you should follow him) that your covering letter is where you should outline your research narrative. It’s good advice because covering it there forces you to articulate it clearly to yourself before anyone else.

Now if you feel that you have under-performed because of factors such as working in an institution that has given you a heavy teaching load I think it’s perfectly OK to mention that but I’d always link it to a discussion of material that you can output with more support/time.

If you are coming from a professional background and this is your entry into the academy you might be a bit stumped by this question of research anyway. I’d suggest having a chat with a friend who is an academic before the interview and have a thinking about what in your current practice might be developed into a research area. I’ve seen professional candidates (and Business Schools get a lot as do media schools and so on) come unstuck because they confuse Academic with Teacher. Academics teach but we do more than that and you need to make sure you understand that before going in. I have never once seen a professional who if they cannot answer this question where I do not think “You fool! That work you did with organisation X would be an amazing study”.

I use all the journals!

You are doing super-well and then one of the panel asks ‘So what do you consider your go-to journals to inform your teaching’. Now this isn’t a question that I actually ask myself but it’s one I’ve seen asked in interview and its one that has completely thrown people and I’ve seen strong candidates crumble. Fundamentally if you claim to be an expert in area X, we’d expect you to be able to at least *name* some journals in your area. You might even give a ‘depends’ answer but if you cannot name one…

I use YouTube all the time in my teaching!

This one is a bit of a baffler – at some point, you might get asked, ‘what do you consider to be innovative in your teaching?’ and quite a few candidates them go on about how they make use of YouTube. Now I use Youtube myself but it raises more questions than it answers. Most UK Universities spend a lot of money on various services (BOB, Lynda.com) and candidates who talk about making use of the existing T&L infrastructure in their University indicate to me that they are engaged with what is going on in their University and what it provides. It also suggests to me they are engaging with their Learning Technologists or at least reading the updates they sent out.

I can totally explain that thing you asked me about, I’m an expert in whatever it is

A usual way for a panel to conduct an interview is to divide up the questions and ask the same ones to all of the candidates. Now as a rule of thumb, people get questions based on their own specialism or job role… or they totally go off and ask whatever question they like. The bottom line is disregarding questions about your own research, the person asking it is likely to know the boundaries of any response.

The question might be about subject-level TEF, it might be about REF Impact case studies, it might be about anything. The bottom line is that bullshitting your way to an answer is the worse possible thing to do. The long you ramble on with your made-up answer, the worse it gets. The person asking the question is nodding and smiling not because they think your answer makes sense but because they feel sorry for you.

Ihavegivenmyanswerbutithinkiwillkeepgoing

Think about this – the interview panel are likely at this all day and depending on how many posts they have to offer, doing this tomorrow as well. When asked, take a moment to consider your answer – even saying “let me think about that question for a second”. Then provide the answer in the least possible words you can manage. We thank you for this.

Good question, my current University is crap

This is a tricky one – are there a lot of bad practices in HE – yes, is there bullying – yes,  Do Straight White Guys have a much easier time – absolutely. However your interview is really not the time to hash out your problems with your line manager, your department, your dean or anyone else. The real problem with raising this in an interview is that the interviewer has no way of assessing the validity of your complaints and therefore has to consider your complaints in a vacuum. Reveal all *AFTER* you get the job.

Did I mention my PhD is from X

Yes repeatedly – The TEF and REF assess your University, we don’t. It’s really not a significant factor once you are in the interview room.

Hey Charles let’s take about our kids, I’m a male candidate and we can bond over this.

This is an answer to a question I never asked and I don’t have any – stop it.

Thanks I don’t need the feedback

You didn’t get the job, so why don’t you want the feedback to find out why? A surprising number of candidates decide that it’s not worth having. Baffling.

Some quick thoughts on being an academic manager

So on the 1st of January I became an academic manager – my rather grand sounding title at Edge Hill University Business School is Associate Director – Student Experience. Now the interesting thing is that while academics will discuss pretty much anything openly the only conversations I can find online are reflections about academic managers not reflections from academic managers. That is a shame because there are excellent peer networks on places like twitter for ECRs and others but absolutely nothing for academic managers. 

With that in mind, some early thoughts:

  • Your email traffic as an academic is out of control. As an academic manager, I think the volumes of emails I received went up four-fold in the first week. My response to that has to be try and move staff away from round-robin emails to shared online documents. It’s early days but it’s making some difference. 
  • You suddenly get copied into everything. See above.
  • Your peer group shifts around you. The peer I recognised as my peers now don’t see me as their peer and people I didn’t now do. It’s a shift and I’ll write more about this.
  • I only work monday to friday, 9am-5pm. This one has been hard but so far I’ve held the line. You just have to accept there you cannot do it all.
  • Your diary becomes a fiction. No matter what you plan, in a Business School with thousands of students, stuff happens and stuff happens that you have to deal with now
  • Your diary is no longer your diary. Things just appear in it. 
  • People think you have awesome power. Actually you have awesome responsibilities and how to work out how to do it.
  • You have to learn to say “I’ll think about that”. 
  • You never read your emails after 5pm. Just don’t.

Is this a whine? Not at all, I’m enjoying the job greatly (and let’s not lie to each other – the extra money) and it’s been obvious for a while that my career was going this way. However it would be great to see some more networking for us academic manager types. I have already developed a good network in my own University but it would be great to see that extended outside in the online space. 

They walk amongst us: The invisible academic

“Silverfish: “He disappeared a few years ago.”
”Disappeared? How? said Cuddy.
”We think,” said Silverfish, leaning closer, “that he found a way of making himself invisible.”
”Really?”
”Because,” said Silverfish, nodding conspiratorially, “no-one has seen him.”

— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Although I don’t write in the area, I’ve been interested from the start of my career in academic labour and although I’m a so-so academic, I’m an excellent observer and the more literature I read about academic labour, the more I think there is a hidden class of academic, I’m not sure what to call this hidden class, I’m also not sure if they are simply a product of my imagination but the more I observe the more I am convinced they exist and walk amongst us. 

My issue with a lot of the academic labour material is that it depends to concentrate heavily on traditional academics and a rather narrow cast of stock characters – the exploited adjunct, the selfish research superstar and the burnout who wanted to change the world but couldn’t. Increasingly (and positively) there is more intersection with gender, race, sexuality but still broadly tied to our stock characters.  Now given that the exploitation of adjuncts underpins and props up the University system, it seems right to me there is a heavy concentration on that group (similarly for attempt to move us away from thinking of the academic in relation to white straight middle aged men).  However it equally occurs to me that a lot of debate is about how to get the selfish research superstar to help the exploited but this conceptualisation misses out another group who I think in many respects holds more power to enable change. 

I’ll be perfectly upfront and say there is no rigorous research – this is pure deductive reasoning based on observation, interaction with others and interaction with others as a trade unionist representing members. With that caveat,  you are well to rubbish or ignore this. This seems feels right to me. 

So who is this invisible academic who I think is missing from the literature? I think they have (most of – but not always all) of the following characteristics:

  • They never are people who went ‘straight through’ – they always are people who have come back to academia after doing something else as a career;
  • They tend to cluster around ‘professional’ areas (management, health, COMPSCI);
  • They did a PhD because it was offered and someone else was paying or it was very cheap;
  • They have no intrinsic motivation in research so either do very little or do enough to be ‘respectful’;
  • They however know that it’s important to *sound* interested in research so have a good understanding of the process and wider context;
  • They have no little or no interest in who the names in their field and the concept doesn’t mean much to them;
  • They have little or no experience of being an adjunct because they were a) recruited for their professional experience and b) if there was no full-time job, they would just carry on in previous profession;
  • They don’t tend to suffer from burnout (in the sense of the gap between expectation and reality) because they had no particular expectations from academia and their unit of analysis isn’t other academics, it’s their previous career;
  • They tend to position themselves as the person or people in the department who keep everything running because they see that as way to off-set relatively weak research profile;
  • They tend to put more stock in an individual concept of professionalism that any sense of duty to a wider nebulous field;
  • They are very political at local level because they see that as the most natural way to ensure their employment continues. The Dean always knows their name even if he doesn’t know yours; 
  • The dean knows that they can be trusted to make things go away (within limits) and are discreet. 

Maybe this invisible academic is in my head… maybe. 

 

Taking action.

Actionable provides tips to academics on how to use technology for teaching and research

So from a teaching perspective, last year was an interesting year – I won another Student Led Teaching award and I am currently short-listed for ‘Most Innovative Teacher in Higher Education’ by the THE …which is nice. 

However it has been pointed out to me that I’m not great at sharing practice so I’ve set up actionable simply to share tips on using technology to save time and enhance teaching (and I’ve been asked to do some tips for research so will do). A new tip will appear every week and every single tip can be put into action immediately. The first four weeks are already up and available. Actionable isn’t intended for navel-gazing or long diatribes about practice – its presented on a take or all leave it basis. It’s also partly to do with my frustrating with a lot of #Edtech conversations at the moment which are so high-level as to worthless to someone wanting to try out something new. There is a place for that, it’s just not at Actionable. 

Enjoy.

Charles