Winning teaching awards (why I think I do)

Had an interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about student nominated teaching awards that was prompted by this tweet. 

One of the problems with teaching awards is that people don’t generally talk about why they think they won them and the article mentioned in the tweet said that winning is a source of embarrassment for some and others think that it’s down to being ‘cool with the kidz’ or funny – both of these are likely true. There is an argument that white straight men are more likely to win by default because of privilege and that’s unconditionally a factor so I’m not even going to get into it or dispute that is an influence.  I freely admit (and other white straight dudes hate I do this) that I’ve benefited from privilege,  even if you know about it and acknowledge it, it’s really hard not to – it’s built into every level of the academy.

Since I joined Edge Hill in 2012, I’ve been nominated for student led teaching awards every year and won in 2013 and 2015 (#humblebrag). So even with the caveats mentioned above, I think it’s useful for people who win teaching awards to discuss *why* they think they won them because even if we factor in popularity and privilege, there might be some useful themes that occur from such discussions about what we do as academics.  I run a debrief every year with my students, look at my feedback and ask students who’ve nominated me if they are happy to talk to me about why they do so.

I’d love to say that the feedback from students was that is because I am inspiring figure but the most consistent comments are structural and about process not content (although some do common on content – my assignments are largely open ended with a high degree of student choice). As far as I can determine a lot of students vote for me because my modules are well structured and it is clear from week one where we are going and why and I don’t blow deadlines.

This is (based on what the students have said to me) what they like: 

  • All of my module handbooks outline the module assignment and dates before the course starts – students hate with a passion assignment deadlines given late or assignments that are poorly communicated. My module handbooks are really short, I don’t have a detailed syllabus, just themes in maybe two paragraphs, no student has any complained or commented upon this.
  • All of my module content follows a consistent structure from naming conventions to style – a seminar handout has a style that is consistent from week to week, presentations styles don’t randomly change from week to week. 
  • Ever assignment is handed out for consultancy to check that it is free from error or there are no confusing elements before official release
  • Every assignment has clear assignment criteria that is given in advice to the students and clearly outlines boundaries all the way to hundreds (I’ve seen assignments that uses boundaries that are 70-100% – just no). 
  • My blackboard site follows a clearly logical structure – things aren’t hidden in a mishmash of folders
  • Lecture slides are provided in advance in a PDF note form – students really like this because generally it helps structure their own notes and how their organise their folders.
  • Students really like that my office hours are bookable online so they aren’t wasting their time emailing me
  • I don’t blow deadlines – if say X will happen on this date, X happens on this date.

Fundamentally students seem to like if you run a module as if you aren’t making it up as you go along






How I mark (not with a pen)

I’m deep in marking so I thought it might be worthwhile covering how I try and trade off getting the best marking experience against time spent. 

I never accept paper submissions under any circumstances nor do I accept them via email or any other means except for our VLE (which is blackboard). This is for a number of reasons:

1) I mark once there and this also informs the student of grade and comments plus it populates the spreadsheet of marks and informs the students of their progress without emails from me. For example if a student is undertaking three assessments, they will know after the first assessment how much of the module they have already passed. This saves hours if it is a big module (100+). Especially at the end of the module where I simply download the mark spreadsheet for entry on our system. 

2) I can mark on the go if needed via the turnitin ipad app (you can sync assessments to it). The iPad app is also the quickest way to check what needs marking and if I am working with colleagues I can see where they are upto and also quickly second mark as and when needed. It also means if a student wants to talk to me about their assessment, I can bring it up on my ipad in seconds.

3) It creates an audit trail – all of the data about when submitted etc is collected in one place. More importantly if there is a problem later where work is lost etc, it’s an institutional problem not mine. 

4) I can make use of rubrics to provide a lot of very quick feedback besides my bespoke comments – this is important because although (paradoxically) I provide a lot of feedback I actually think it’s a waste of time because it occurs at the wrong time (I was an assessment post-doc and all the literature I read said the same thing).

5) Over time I’ve built an extensive collection of ‘quick-marks’ – customise comments that I can drag and drop over an assessment. 

Now when I’m at my desk, the quickest way I find to do it is… Dual-monitor – now a dual-monitor is useful for lots of things but I find it’s a massive time-saver for marking. 

Assessment  on the left, rubric on the right.
Assessment  on the left, rubric on the right.

All taken together I find that this cuts many many hours from the marking process, I couldn’t see any circumstance under which I’d return to paper.  

Some HE 2020 guesses

Some random guesses about HE in the near future…

I’m not going to call these predictions but rather guesses because that is what they are:

  • Merger of some research councils – at least at the back office level
  • Attempts by RCs to manage the duel problem of falling success rate/higher applications/less money by general raising of lower limits for bids to decrease bid rates
  • System leads to further clustering of research cash around small number of Universities
  • System leads to further clustering of research cash based on “do you wear a white coat?”
  • Quite a few universities cut out entirely simply because as the bid limits raise they don’t have the expertise, infrastructure to bid and get hit with penalties for ‘poor’ bids
  • Shifting balance of power in some Universities between researchers and teachers as Universities realise that no matter how many interesting sociology papers Sarah turns out there is no cash at the other end
  • Increased pressure on ECRs because there is now less cash and it becomes increasingly unclear why and how churning out lots of papers in their own time will lead to a FTE post
  • TEF = Panic, REF = Metrics and Panic and many staff realising that they shaped their career around the wrong measures, more panic 
  • End of collective bargaining – performance related pay
  • A University falls?
  • Lots of McDonald Universities emerge?

Mostly bollocks (Current Research)

How writing ‘mostly bollocks’ on a table lead me to a new research project. 

By and large I don’t believe in passion,not in the workplace at least. At the individual level its problematic but at the organisational level its a disaster for collective action by workers and a key way in which our rights are destroyed and pay and conditions are eroding. 

However I’m not completely immune and although I try to keep work and my passions entirely separate, recently there has been some overlap. I love watches, I just love them – be it an iconic Omega Seamaster Pro, a more little known but amazing Casio Oceanus S100 or a G-Shock MTG.  I am obsessed with watches. I like reading about them, I like handling them and I like trading them with other watch collectors.  

One of my favourites - the Casio Oceanus s100 - solar, atomic time-keeping - my day to day work watch
One of my favourites – the Casio Oceanus s100 – solar, atomic time-keeping – my day to day work watch

A little while ago a student came to be and said that they wanted to do their thesis on counterfeit goods. I said OK and we had a look at some papers together. As we were talking I saw this table:

Summary of Anti-counterfeiting measures from Cesareo and Stottinger (2015)* 
Summary of Anti-counterfeiting measures from Cesareo and Stottinger (2015)* 

We talked about it and the student left. Then A little while later I realised that while we had been talking I’d scribed “mostly bollocks” on the table. Why had I scribed this and in what context has I meant this? 

I then realised that it was related to watches. If you get into watches and you build up a collection at some stage you run up against counterfeits and therefore you have to develop a working knowledge of them and where they come from. So why did I think it was bollocks? 

What if I told you that Seiko watches run into the many thousands of pounds - Here's a Grand Seiko SGBH001
What if I told you that Seiko watches run into the many thousands of pounds – Here’s a Grand Seiko SGBH001

Because like a lot of responses to a problem, the underlying message is one of education – if we inform people about X, they will stop doing Y. Except I already suspected from my hobby this wasn’t actually true and the opposite was occurring. So how do to turn that into a piece of your actual peer reviewed literature? 

So I went away and spend a few months collecting data on the buyers of counterfeit watches, the sellers and also in some ways most interestingly the producers. I ended up with about 10,000 data points which I analysed via Nvivo and this seems to confirm my thinking and also add some other surprisingly things around supply chain and customer service I’d never considered. For example, would you be surprised to know that many watch counterfeiters offer QC pictures to buyers? 

Here comes the dull bit

So my upcoming work in this area critiques current thinking about Counterfeiting Avoidance Measures (CAMS) via the case of the conspicuous counterfeiting of luxury Swiss watches. It uses this case to produce an analysis of consumers not as passive purchasers or subject to deceptive practices, but co-producers of knowledge who are involved in complex interactions with each other and actively engage with counterfeiters. This in turn leads to improvements in the quality of counterfeit goods and simultaneously increase the expertise of others in their community of interest  about how to obtain ‘high quality’ counterfeit goods. It further argues that this interaction and dialogue assists economic intermediaries (‘Trusted Dealers’) in ensuring that their customers receive watches of the standard that they expect and reduce the need to provide after-sales service. Each stage in this process provides its own challenge to CAMS.

It also challenges this underpinning idea that education of consumers or their exposure to expert views in a reference group (information susceptibility) will make them less likely to buy counterfeit goods but rather may helps them to be more selective in obtaining counterfeit goods of higher quality.

* I should point out that the table represents Cesareo and Stottinger’s summary of the extant literature not their actual position which in many ways in similar to mine – especially around what they call Hybrid consumers. 


On working for free (academic labour – Part 2)

On the decisions I make when I decide not to work for free. 

I wasn’t going to return to the topic of academic labour so soon but a couple of things prompted me to do so – first was this twitter conversation about training and if people should attend for free (no, it’s immoral to ask people to attend work training for free) and then this article today in the Guardian about choice.

What’s the relationship between the two? In my first blog about this I discussed the economic reasons for not doing this but I’ll tackle it from a slightly different angle. As the guardian article makes clear:

That wasn’t how endless choice was supposed to work, argues American psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.”

Academics are faced with endless choices but limited resources in terms of times, energy, existing commitments. There are  internal pressures to do research, teaching, service and there are the external pressures of actually having a life. Many academics react to the first by not having the second. We know that female academics feel pressured to put off or carefully time when they have children to fit around things such as their REF submission.  

My choice was slightly different in that having come from industry and doing a PhD part-time I never got the graduate school indoctrination because I rarely mixed with other students. I therefore saw my job as something I do from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (and actually that is what I am contracted to) and nothing happened during my PhD to change that view.

The problem therefore came up – how do I match the fact that I’m not willing to work all hours with the fact that there are endless potential decisions to make as an academic? I needed a rule or heuristic that I could use to aid me in my decisions and “you have to pay me for this” principle seemed the most straight forward heuristic to apply. Moreover it fit in with my world-view having grown up on a council estate and there being a strong principle that work is something you get paid for. 

 I quickly found that the decision making process was actually quite straight-forward. You want a freebie? that’s a no. You will pay? Good so now I can pay someone else to take care of x (generally teaching). Decisions are easier because I have limited the number of possible outcomes at the start.

Have I missed out on some opportunities? More than likely but so what? there are always more opportunities than hours in the day. 

This does however lead to some uncomfortable conversations – I don’t do peer review for journals because I cannot see why I should prop up some multi-nationals with fat margins in my own time. Now the response to that is – ‘But you expect others to review your stuff?’ If academics undervalue their own labour, how can I stop them? Why should they? Who am I to force my radical position on them (and that’s the nonsense -asking to get paid is the radical position in the academy). 

Operating profits - taken from
Operating profits – taken from

Oddly academics who campaign for restaurants to pay the minimum wage and make sure staff keep their tips see nothing incommensurable between that position and providing their intellectual labour for free to an equally profitable large multinational. 

Have a nice weekend. 



I got bored of lecturing so the students quit me (and my take on the active learning debate)

I describe how active learning put me out of a job in a follow-up to an earlier post on how I scrapped lectures in one of my classes. 

This is a follow-up to an earlier post where I discuss running a project management module with no lectures and no traditional seminars – so go read that first.

We have reached week 4 of my project management class and I have hit upon a problem that I did not anticipate. To recap, the two students groups have 300 hours each to allocate to complete their project. I thought that the students might have issues getting their projects started and I also worried that the projects selected (an enterprise app and updating an open source strategy text book) would prove to be too complex. 

Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.
Besides the students using Zoho projects to manage tasks, we have a more low-tech way of updating status.

No the issue we have hit is… the students don’t seem to need me… at all. I thought that I would have to intervene to get them to pick projects, I didn’t. I anticipated I would have to intervene to get them to separate into two project  groups, I didn’t.  I was convinced that I would have to very directive at the start to get them to work out the starting tasks, it never happened. 

I have had a couple of short conversations about the number of manhours that the book group should allocate to find new examples for the book and another conversation with the App group of estimating the number of hours given they have never attempted this task before. Other than that, I have largely been reduced to making cups and coffee. This might change as the weeks progress and we run short of man-hours but I wouldn’t bet on it. I have therefore found it pretty hard just to get out of the way. I think so far I’ve managed to keep this in check but it’s a very different experience from the traditional lecture and seminar. 

Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks - so much so we made signs for the door. 
Students are making really extensive use of their phones to track, manage and complete tasks – so much so we made signs for the door. 

So, you might conclude from this that I’ll be switching all of my classes to this active learning approach – well.. no. There has been a lot of discussion of the merits of active learning vs the traditional lecture but frankly most of it is rubbish. In a UK HUM/SS context that gap doesn’t exist in the same way it seems to in the US to start with. However the real reason it is an impoverished debate is because the discourse is centred around the perspective of the individual lecturer or how it would change individual modules which is a myopic approach.

When I decided to run this project management class this way, I carefully considered how it fit within the overall diet of the students – that is to say – how would it contrast with their other modules this year. So the debate for me wasn’t really about my individual choice but how it fit the development of the student body in the context of their course of study. Students should be engaged in a range of ways and to do that properly, programme teams need to think carefully about how everything stitches together not simply “what do I want to do?”

Tips for being a good ally (part 1)

Some tips on being a good ally from a female academic

These were sent to me by a UK Female academic, I present them unedited:

I’ve been thinking about the practical steps white male allies can take to support women and ethnic minority colleagues. I suspect many of these could also apply to white women academics who consider themselves allies. Much of these relate to ‘speaking out’ which is probably easier for some than others. Some ideas, in no order.

1. Draw attention to all male/all white panels, meetings or committees. Are you in a position to step aside so someone equally experienced or qualified can take your place?If there is a social event, e.g. lunch with a big academic cheese – who has been invited. In my experience senior men invite senior men to give talks, and invite other men to the lunch or dinner.

2. Don’t just send your distressed students to your women colleagues. We have enough to do with our own students, never mind your work too.

3. Don’t send your work on to women to do e.g. you can’t work the VLE – please don’t send your material on to a woman who does know how to work it. Learn how to do it.

4. Please don’t come into my office and spend 40 minutes showing off your feminist credentials to me. Lets see a little less conversation and a little more (feminist) action please!

5. You’re at a meeting – are the appropriate people there? More than once I’ve seen all male academic meetings about a degree programme run by a woman. She’s not there to inform the discussion.

6. Please don’t laugh at sexist jokes in meetings. Please.

7. Notice who is and who isn’t speaking in meetings. Notice who is being heard and who is not being heard.

8. Look at the admin roles in your department – who has the high workload, low prestige roles, and vice versa. (often a teaching, research split).

9. If you’re a manager think about who you are allocating roles to. More than once I’ve seen (strategic?) incompetence rewarded, with roles taken away from those not doing them well and passed to those who will do them. This is not always a male to female transfer, but can be. Consider the implications here for career development and advancement.

10. This applies to us all but do respect people’s non working time. No weekend/evening emails – or at least don’t expect a response.

On this blog as a safe-space

On the swift response to my last blog post. 

Yowza – my previous blog post within 10 minutes of going up  resulted in me receiving virtually instantly a number of DMs on twitter from three female academics who were interested in writing an response. 

I’ll make anyone reading the blog the same offer I made them – I’ll publish anything you like on the topic with no-name and at no point will I reveal your name to anyone else or keep any records of your name. 

I did also receive an offer of a blog post talking about the struggles of white males like us via a throwaway email account – I’ll keep your name a secret as well but rather than offering you the opportunity of a blog post, I’ll leave you with this.