#HEAdayC21, or, A wonderful sharing of ideas

I mentioned in my last post for this blog that I’d attended some Higher Education Academy workshops in order to develop my teaching practice. I’d like to share a little about my most recent outing, Teaching Post-Millennial Literature (University of Brighton, 2nd July 2012) [http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events/detail/2012/seminars/disciplines/DW238].

Attending this one-day symposium was thoroughly invigorating. The presentations ranged from provocations on the organisation of English studies to practical suggestions that were firmly rooted in the realities of the classroom.

In keeping with the twenty-first-century focus, I decided to engage with the symposium using new technology. Along with a few other delegates, I gave live commentary on the day’s proceedings via the social media website, Twitter, using the hash-tag #HEAdayC21. You can see the full collaborative Twitter commentary on the symposium here [https://www.martineve.com/2012/07/03/teaching-post-millenial-fiction-conference-archive/].

The relationship between creative writing and critical practice was a hot topic. Presentations by Helen Pleasance and Mark Slater convincingly challenged the separation – and hierarchisation – of the two:

This conversation is timely, as AQA introduce Creative Writing as an A-Level option from September 2013. Hopefully this cohort will find a cross-fertilisation of creative and critical practice when they arrive at University. In fact, the Department of English Language and Literature here at Reading is already well ahead on this, with rigorous Creative Writing options at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The symposium showcased a number of new kinds of text, such as gaming narratives, technotexts, and graphic novels.

It’s curious that this digital age should produce literatures as profoundly material as graphic novels. Such physical fictions can be hard to access, and so difficult to teach. Zara Dinnen offered some thoughtful solutions:

In the final session, Nicole King reminded delegates to make connections across disciplines, be it through guest lectures or the informal sharing of solutions to pedagogical problems.

Using Twitter throughout enabled me to test the possibility of using new media as a pedagogical tool. It has real potential to encourage students to engage critically and dialogically with their lectures. After this workshop I’m newly excited about harnessing the technological skills of the digitally native generation, through strategies such as e-Learning. I’ve seen that the post-millennial isn’t just a textual object of contemporary English studies: a category of literature. Instead, it’s an interactive way of relating to the world that has the potential to shape the very methods of teaching and learning.

Nicola Abram

To count or not to count? – Time out for the Part One Debate…

Those of you who attended the University/RUSU debate on the motion that Part One should count towards students’ degree classifications (30th November 2011) will recall the persuasive arguments presented by both teams (see the Part One Debate summary for a reminder). Like me, you may have found your initial conviction in one side of the argument wavering slightly as proceedings developed.

As the debate came to a close we remained divided on the issue with a vote of 24 in favour of the motion and 31 against. 6 were still unsure. A larger audience may have resulted in a more definitive outcome, but given the relatively low attendance at the event (influenced by industrial action on the day) any evidence to support the University taking this issue further at this point in time is limited.

I’m not sure if we have heard the end of this debate though, as students experiencing the new fees regime begin to have their say. Suffice to say it is parked, for now.

Joy Collier


Response to Student Engagement Event: A Students’ Union perspective

The 2nd May saw CDoTL host an exciting event billed as ‘Exploring Student Engagement at Reading and Beyond’. Attending as a students’ union staff member with a passion for student engagement on a local and national level, I was excited to get the chance to hear about different viewpoints and approaches – especially from Scotland, where I feel the funding climate means the pressures & priorities within Higher Education are slightly different.

Karl Hobley, the President of RUSU opened the event with a frank statement about the impending threats to quality engagement with students for the UK HE sector and passionately requesting that Reading lead the way in national debate on the matter. He stressed that discussions about ‘engagement’ can frequently focus on methods rather than results & stressed the importance of reacting to student input and ‘closing the feedback loop’.

The main speakers of the event (Dr. Catherine Bovill from University of Glasgow and Prof Peter Kruschwitz, Helen Bilton & Dr. Richard Mitchell from University of Reading) provided some varied and interesting perspectives on and methods of engaging with students in relation to curriculum design, student representation & red-flagging of issues. I particularly enjoyed Prof Kruschwitz’s light-hearted yet frank approach to the bureaucratic barriers to effective engagement (such as new module approval delays) and his statement that ‘working towards the equality of opportunity to participate is better than chasing the unrealistic goal of total participation’.

Dr. Bovill’s interactive session involved the audience discussing and ranking examples of curriculum design on her ‘ladder’ of student engagement. It was clear that Dr. Bovill had done (and published) extensive research on the matter, but I felt that there were few conclusions – the session led to further questions for most attendees. These included questions such as: ‘should students be able to design their own learning outcomes?’ The ensuing discussions failed to arrive at a consensus, but I believe this was Dr. Bovill’s intention.

A shining example of excellent representation work came from Helen Bilton of the Institution of Education, who provided logistical and evidence-based accounts of the way her Staff Student Liaison Committee functions. What was most apparent about Ms. Bilton’s departmental success was the amount of tangible changes that had been made as a result of student input – something that echoed Mr. Hobley’s comments on ‘closing the feedback loop’.

Dr. Mitchell presented some very interesting examples of the systematic tracking of individual engagement which has huge potential in being integrated with the RISIS database. Dr. Bovill voiced my own concerns at the binary nature of the system (students were either ‘engaged’ or not) but with some tweaks I am excited to see what this type of system might mean for an institution’s ability to correlate engagement with academic success.

Overall, the event raised very interesting questions as well as suggesting innovative answers to some existing ones. The audience was a refreshing mix of academics, administrative staff & students and the discussions brought to light some important ideas, questions and concerns for the future. The finest quote of the session was, in my opinion, from Prof Kruschwitz: ‘we need to empower students to take ownership of their brains and invest that power as they see fit’.

Emily Collins – RUSU

Response to Student Engagement Event: An academic perspective

Last month I attended the first part of an afternoon conference on ‘Exploring Student Engagement at Reading and Beyond’, which took place in the Agriculture Building at Reading University. Towards the end of Cathy Bovill’s excellent keynote talk I asked the following:

“Shouldn’t we be thinking about why we want to engage students in the curriculum? There seem to be two parallel agendas here. In the first, student engagement is an end in itself: it takes some control away from academics and demystifies the profession at the same time as it increases the influence and the responsibilities of students. In the second, student engagement is a means to an end since students will learn better if they have a bigger stake in the curriculum and understand how it is constructed.”

The question was poorly timed because the discussion had moved on to practicalities and away from the rationale for student engagement. I ought to have saved it up, if I was going to ask it all, for the closing session – but I had to leave before then. But I want to suggest here that the rationale for student engagement can affect the practicalities. A key issue for me here is who exactly we mean by ‘students’ when we talk about ‘engaging students’.

If we say that student engagement is a good in itself then this goes some way to explaining the increased presence of students in the University’s committee structures, including committees that control the curriculum – for example boards of studies and periodic review panels. But these offices are available to only a minority of students; and they tend to provide opportunities for those who are already keen and articulate. There is a clear gain for the University from having a student perspective in discussions; but the wider benefit to individual students is harder to track.

If however we say that student engagement has instrumental value in the learning process then this encourages lecturers to involve all their students in the management of teaching and learning. Plenty of this already goes on. When I supervise a third-year dissertation the student chooses the topic and frames research questions; so, with guidance, the student is responsible for setting some of the criteria for a successful piece of work. Perhaps there is room to do this in taught courses too, asking students not only what topics they want to cover but how and why; making them think what the learning outcomes will be.

All of which is to oversimplify some awfully complex arguments. I do not wish to suggest that my two suggested rationales for student engagement are in any way in competition with each other; or that there is only one way to realise either of these aims; or that there is no sense of continuity between engagement in the lecture room and broader curriculum planning. But it does seem to me that at the present time we need to have a conversation on what we mean by student engagement as well as how we expect to put it into practice. I am grateful to Cathy for starting it off.

Dr David Carter