Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day 23 - Predictable incident of the dog in the night-time

Following on from yesterday's post, I wanted to focus a bit on what my workload actually entails in real terms.
But I ran out of time to actually prepare this properly.

But as I started to type this, fireworks went off outside and woke the dogs up, and one of them started whining because she prefers to sleep on my bed rather than her own.
Why mention this at all?

I suppose it's a more general reflection rather than a specifically higher-education related one, but we find ourselves continually at the mercy of other people's timetables and schedules. These other people may not be able to access our schedules, or may not care about our schedules. This will never change.

You will be called into a meeting next week, only to have it cancelled the day before.
Important matters will be discussed without an agenda being issued to give you a heads up.
Your carefully managed schedule with adequate time for every task will be disrupted because someone else forgot to plan anything a day in advance, let alone as far ahead as you do.

A student will get seriously ill, or will suffer a bereavement that means you want to give them an extension that will mess up your plans (or perhaps even your holiday).
A student will not take advantage of any of the support opportunities provided during the term, but call on you at the last minute.
A student will just drop off the map, stop communicating, and basically freak out.

And, yes, a firework will wake your dog up when you really want to sleep the whole night without them pushing you to the side of the bed.

What can we do about this?
Really, nothing.
It will always happen.

So what?
I suppose it's important to factor in workload contingencies.
Some breathing space in the week which can be rescheduled.
I've never actually tried this, but I think it's worth thinking about.

In response to the other observation, about dealing with last minute cancellations,my strategy is to get into the position where you are the one arranging the meeting, assisting the drawing up of the agenda, and working out who is going to be there. Does it work? Let's see.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Day 23 - Towards a manifesto

Tonight, I just wanted to establish the beginnings of a manifesto - what I think I'm aiming for in my job.
I've hinted at it in previous posts, and it's become a theme of my interactions with colleagues recently.

I want to become an integrated academic.
  • This means beginning to smooth over the crises and hiatuses of the academic year and approach something like a consistent even keel;
  • This means carrying on research projects throughout the year concurrently with teaching, to the detriment of neither;
  • This means establishing the groundwork for a sensible work-life balance;
  • This means not being a slave to email;
  • This means fire-proofing my life from the disorganisation of others and from a culture of last-minuteness;
  • This means being in control of my workload.
At the moment, I have no firm idea of how I am going to accomplish these goals, and many of them are going to be trial and error. It may turn out that it isn't possible, but I won't believe that until I fail.

My biggest concern with the amount of pressure that academics are put under is where this pressure really originates. I know colleagues who have been put under intolerable pressure to fulfill bad interpretations of university policy, or just bad university policy, but for the majority of it, we do it to ourselves. And on a larger scale, as academics, we do it to each other.

I have to believe that we have the power to change this, even if it is in small ways.
And when we do, we will be on the road to professionalising a career that is in danger of becoming industralised.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Day 22 - With sinking heart, I read...

It's another short post today, around guilt and fear of failure.

Today, I had a flip through Ruth Herbert's Everyday Music Listening, and although I was quite enjoying what I was reading, and it obviously slots into my Music Psychology module, but, as I was reading, I felt a familiar knot in my stomach.

This is all so useful, but there is so much of it to read.
When am I going to do all of this?

The first chapter is largely a literature review, and I could feel an anxiety building about reading lists and budgets.
This is all so useful, but how can I persuade the library to get any of these books?
Even if I do, are the students going to read it?

I have recently been making a concerted effort to think about the first point (there is so much of it to read) as a positive aspect. I love learning, and I love reading. I love getting excited about new knowledge and new perspectives. From this standpoint, I am never going to run out of stuff to get excited about, and my entire life will be filled with these experiences of never having to stop.

I suppose it's all about goals. If you're aiming at some kind of point where you know everything that you need in order to definitively teach a subject, you're always going to be living in apprehension of the impossible climb. If, instead, you view it as a journey where the journeying is itself the point, there are only short-term goals, and the only long term goal is to keep going, to set new goals, and to spend one's life as an academic wanderer.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Day 21 - The past is a terrible place to live

Today, I have been ritualistically murdering my past.
That's a bit melodramatic.
I've been sorting through and disposing of the final batch of stuff from my loft in my last house (with the help of my parents).
Apart from a few files I've brought back to securely shred because they include student names, addresses, and phone numbers, I've got rid of a lot.
I've got rid of my undergraduate notes, and a lot of my teaching material because I have realised that my undergraduate notes are terrible, and I've got a lot better at teaching since I made those notes. There were a few things that I needed from both those collections, but I extracted them a couple of years ago.

The main thing that it made me think was about how we let the past consume us.
We worry about what we were supposed to have done but didn't.
We worry about the battles that we attempted but failed.
We are eaten up by guilt about people that we have let down, and tasks unachieved.
And, when you think about it, it's all totally pointless.

The past cannot be rewritten.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sat on some steps with a student who was talking about his regrets during that year, and I gave him precisely that advice. You can't change what has happened, and you are where you are now because of where you have been. Yes, you can learn from your mistakes, but you have to stop worrying about what you should have done, and start deciding what you're going to do.
Regret and guilt are only positive if they spur you on to do things differently now. You have to be able to shut the door on them and move on.

Having said that, you can't live too much in the future either. You can't be constantly planning for what is around the corner. That's no way to live (and as Charles Bernstein says in the libretto to Ferneyhough's opera Shadowtime, 'Just around the corner / Is the coroner' [If someone wants to check that for accuracy before I get to my copy of the score tomorrow morning, please be my guest!]).

It's good advice for students, and I think that it's good advice for an academic too. I don't believe in struggling through the teaching term so that I can enjoy the work that I do in the summer. I believe that it should be possible to do my teaching, marking, and support in a more efficient manner that allows me to continue working on research throughout the year.

We have to live in the now.
The past is a terrible place to live.
The future hasn't had toilets installed yet.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Day 20 - And sometimes you have to let yourself fall

I had wanted to post about this really interesting blog-post by judgmental observer that Lauren had posted on Facebook today, but I find that I have no energy.
I am in the middle of moving flat at the moment, and tonight find myself with little energy, so I shall put off a more serious post until I am back to 'normal'!
In the meantime, I thought I would say something very quickly about the importance of allowing yourself to chill out from time to time. Obviously, it connects to what judgemental observer has to say in terms of stopping from time to time.

If you don't stop when your body and/or mind tell you to stop, you're going to make yourself ill.
If you're ill, you won't be able to do your job anyway.
As a friend told me, when I was agonising about what might happen if I didn't sort out a problem that had arisen at work (at 9pm at night), 'you're not exactly the President of the United States' (and I'm pretty sure he takes a sick day here and there).

So sometimes you have to let yourself fall.
It's better to fall when you choose, rather than leaving it until you have no choice.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Day 19 - Pick your battles

A useful life lesson, is that you should always pick your battles.
Pick the battles that you stand a chance of winning.
Save your energy for those.

You could apply this lesson to teaching, and to how you expend energy on the students that you can 'turn around' (if it's possible to detect such potential). Perhaps that's the wrong way of looking at it. It's a matter of creating situations where those students who can see the point, will be given the tools to improve themselves, and of creating the tools by which they can do this.

For me, one of the hardest lessons to learn, has been how to work alongside colleagues and learning how to pick my battles. As the son of a teacher, I've been intensely aware of the humanity and human failings of educators for my whole life, but I wasn't prepared for colleagues to have such different (and entrenched) ideas about how to educate, how to research, priorities within HE, how to conduct meetings, what team work actually means, etc. I have left meetings where I've felt like bursting into tears, had shouting matches with colleagues, been icy and short, and (on one memorable occasion) had a former line manager threaten to send an entire confidential email chain on to a colleague that it concerned, so that they could submit a complaint to HR using the emails as evidence...

I've found the personal (and where the personal becomes the professional) interactions of collegial life to be one of the biggest challenges of the job in many ways. A counsellor I was seeing to help with depression, a few years ago, told me that I couldn't set the terms by which my colleagues lived their lives or taught, and that I couldn't expect them to live according to my standards. This was a hard lesson to learn. I had to accept that my standards weren't necessarily universal and correct. I still have a bit of an issue with that and, to be perfectly honest, I'd have to say that even now I only accept that other people have to be allowed to be wrong, but that's the stubborn emotional side of me; the intellectual side of me understands (at least I think so) and analyses the scenario more objectively.

I have learned that there are battles that can be won, and battles that are never ever going to be won, at least in the current circumstances. There is no point in tilting at the same windmills over and over again, and then being surprised when the result is the same. That raises stress levels, and only ingrains the problem with both parties. With every person you have to deal with, and with every category of topic that must be discussed, there will be the right time and the right environment to raise the subject, if it is a subject about which a meaningful discussion can be had. It is part of your job as a successful colleague and team player to learn to appreciate and anticipate this.

At the end of the day, you will have colleagues that rub you up the wrong way, but remember that you are rubbing them up the wrong way as well. Learn to pick your battles - the ones that are worth winning, and the ones that can be won - as well as learning to pick the battlefield and your allies for that battle.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Day 18 - Research lifecycles

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Actually I don't believe that.
Actually I do, sort of. In that by the time that you've listened to the story, the way that you remember it, irrespective of how it has been told, is as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think it's how our brains are wired up, or how we are culturally programmed to remember our experiences of the world.

So, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Every research project similarly has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
You may feel like you didn't know that the beginning was truly the beginning until you were in the middle of the middle (or the middle of the end), but in retrospect, you can begin to diagnose what happened.

Something that I have noticed happen within my own practice a lot as a creative researcher, is that I tend to view my compositional activities as a block - I am composing, and it doesn't matter what I am composing - rather than as individual projects. This is something which I am beginning to recognise could change, and could change things within what I do for the better.

Just as I have a sort of plan in my head for how my articles and my book proposal pan out over the next few years, I am beginning to scramble together ideas for my compositional projects. So rather than just thinking about writing, I'm thinking about the entire life-cycle of the process. This includes the conception of the piece and the initial research to develop a methodology, contacting performers who may be interested in playing it, or in collaborating, carrying out the methodology, and then editing the notation, and producing a final score (if applicable). Of course, then the interesting stuff begins as you can incorporate the performance into your research process, especially if the performer(s) is/are going to do it more than once. Is the 'new knowledge' that you have 'effectively shared' through the medium of a score artefact and a live performance artefact appropriate for another medium, for example an article?

In this way, I am hoping to transform my experience of plugging away at composition, enlivened by the occasional performance, into something a bit more dynamic. It may sound a little corporate, but I think that it is what I need (and connects to what I was talking about yesterday). I'm also slightly interested in looking at this from the angle of the Research Development Framework which my institution has adopted. I'd be very interested to see any comments from anyone who has experience of this framework.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, or an end, but a story is always a tracing, not a map. It doesn't describe the larger narrative of your compositional/musicological/performative trajectory, with its many interpenetrating variables, but it's a useful way of organising what you do in a way that can fit into a workload allocation, and in a way that is in a language that any academic should be able to recognise, no matter what their discipline.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Day 17 - What I Did On My Holiday

When I was 19, I wanted to be a composer. From a series of childhood ideas (author, pianist, librarian, archaeologist), this one had survived.
I was at the end of the first year of undergraduate study, and had a good idea about what sort of music I wanted to spend my life writing.
I had just finished a string quartet. It was 20 minutes long, written for four performers with click-tracks, each playing part of a texture which expanded out from a central Bb to the extremes of their registers, and rhythmically derived from six possible metrical layers, each related in tempo 2:3 (hence the click tracks). Single-(bloody)-minded, and destined to be unpopular.

I looked at this piece, and I knew that it was probably never going to be considered as entertaining or get me a gig as a film composer. And I didn't care. This was the kind of music I wanted to write for the rest of my life.


So what kind of career could I pursue? I had been reading plenty of interviews with composers that year, and it had taught me one thing about contemporary composition: if you wanted to write unpopular bloody-minded music, one of the safest career choices is academia. And so, that was that.

I did not get into teaching because I loved teaching. I got into teaching because I wanted to write music without worrying about what people thought of it. Luckily, I love teaching and I seem to have a knack for it, and it has taken over my life in ways that I never thought possible. My research now grows out of my teaching, and my research informs my teaching.

So why am I telling this story today?
I'm spending this holiday (apart from moving flat) writing music, and writing a book proposal. In short, I am carrying out the research part of my job. I am doing this because I love it. That is the true reason underneath it all.
I am lucky enough to have a job that I love, that gives me a real sense of fulfillment every day (well... nearly every day), and a job in which, in theory at least, I should be able to write music and teach alongside each other.
Except, that I am not the only person who gets to choose how I spend my time.
I have a line manager, who is supposed to allocate how my work load is divided, and he approves (or not) research time. At present, we are being told that unfunded research will not be approved, and that we have to carry it out in our own time. While this is completely against the current University strategy, I understand why he is saying it, and it's due to a stupid bureaucratic situation regarding research time that the School has got itself in, that is too stupid and boring to talk about.
But it means that I don't really have the allocation of time to find funding for the projects that I want to do.

So how do you follow your own ideas about research when your Institution (or at least the manifestations of the Institution's authority) has other ideas?

The only answer I have to give, is that you invest your own time (and money if necessary) to get projects off the ground. Nobody is going to drop some money in your lap and tell you to get on with it; you're going to have to fight for the right to write (or play, or whatever).
If you can demonstrate that you've got a project that will lead to an output of international standing, or that you have got funding that will make it happen, or whatever criteria will impress within your field, then, generally speaking, unless they are complete douche-canoes, they will get right on board and claim that they have been in your corner all the time.
This is annoying, and will make you want to get violent (Pro tip: Get a voodoo doll. It's more fun).
But you will have got where you wanted to get.

At the end of the day, you're doing this because you love it and you believe in it.
What is pretty awesome about academia, is that if you can demonstrate that people are willing to invest in your idea, you will get paid to do it.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 16 - Loving summer

'So are you on holiday all summer?'
I get asked that when people know that I'm a lecturer.
I explain that although undergraduate teaching stops, there is plenty to be getting on with:
  • You have to organise work for the external examiners to scrutinise, and then go through the exam boards;
    There's a review process of what you've just taught to grapple with; 
  • There's a load of paperwork to catch up with;
  • Do you remember all of those emails that you were going to reply to when you had time? Now is the time;
  • Events for next academic year need to be planned;
  • You have to plan your teaching for next academic year.
There is an idea that academics have no time for research during the teaching term, and then concentrate on it over the summer. To be honest, although I do have more time over the summer, I don't have enough to comprehensively devote myself to research. If I don't try to continually carry out research during teaching term, keeping up momentum during the summer is not a given.

In my experience, no-one really tells you this, and my first summer as an academic was quite a lonely experience as I attempted to work out what I was supposed to be doing. I haven't always made best use of my summers, but I'm getting there.

I suppose I'd offer a few nuggets of advice to new lecturers about the summer:
  • Plan what you want to accomplish, and set yourself targets;
  • Don't leave jobs like module reports or resit marking to the last minute. The fact you have more time means that the management of this time is critical;
  • Take your holiday, and be prepared to really take your holiday - stop emailing, and don't get sucked into 'just popping into the office' because that will turn into hours;
  • Find yourself a mentor who has been teaching for a while and ask them about how they organise their summer.
Actually, I'm a big fan of mentors over all. A good mentor is incredibly valuable.

Lunchtime marked the beginning of my actual holiday for this year, although I am not going to take my own advice. There are a few things that I want to sort out before I can properly shut things down, and there are things I want to accomplish over the holiday that are, strictly speaking, work.
I'll write more about that tomorrow, because it touches on areas that Lauren Redhead asked about the other day, to do with the clash between the 'research imperatives' of the individual, and the research strategy of the subject area/institution.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day 15 - Sometimes you just have to let them fall

I have always found it hard to fail students on their work. Sometimes, when it's late and I'm tired and I've been marking the same harmony exercise for hours and they are still unnecessarily doubling the third, I can get a little gleeful in my approach to criteria, but mostly it is horrible when they don't come up to scratch.
And I really do mean horrible. It fills me with horror. Not ineffable horror or anything, but I don't like it.

I was speaking to some of my colleagues about this today, and it seemed very much like largely we were expressing variations on a theme. There were students on whose work we needed a second opinion, in case we were too generous (because we knew how hard they had worked) or in case we were being too harsh (because we knew that they hadn't worked). But mostly, we hated to fail a student. We knew how much it upset them, but also, it's difficult not to see that as a reflection on oneself as the teacher. If the student does not pass, we have failed to transfer our knowledge.

I have heard colleagues new and old bemoaning the way that students expect to be 'spoon fed', and given everything that they need to pass the assessment in the lecture, despite the fact that most institutions make it very clear that a full-time degree programme should include 40 hours of work per week, and when you aren't in lectures, you should be in the library/practice room/writing. I'm not saying that's untrue, and it takes a great deal of effort to disabuse students of this idea, but the problem runs deeper than that. We have become so haunted by our management's interpretation of student satisfaction scores that we have allowed ourselves to become infected, and to be part of the problem.

If we agree to see seven drafts of a single essay before it is submitted, how much of your time as a lecturer is that going to take up? Now multiply that by every student in your class. I've spoken with colleagues who don't believe in looking at any drafts, arguing that they should be using their peers to review their essays, and I think that there's a certain amount of truth to that, but there are sometimes where a lecturer's intervention can improve a student's writing in ways that impact more than just that essay but continue to reverberate throughout their academic career. What I think is important though is to be clear on what you are prepared to do, and when. Say that you will look at drafts for one essay, as long as it is sent to you by a certain date. Only say this if you have time (and, seriously, make time in your working week for it - don't just spend your weekend doing it). If you don't have time, you might need to adopt alternative approaches:
  • like pairing them up to swap essays at a specific point
  • like giving them a checklist to tick off
  • like giving them a task (e.g. highlight in one colour point a, in another point b, etc.
Approaches that don't mean that you spend your weekend looking through endless versions of the same essay, but instead teach the student to become more of a self-reliant learner. Which is, after all, what we're looking for them to become.

Four 'golden rules':
  1. Only promise what you can achieve;
  2. Plan ahead what these reasonable expectations are as far in advance as possible. Don't improvise them. That will only lead you to making promises that you can't keep, or promises the keeping of which will rob you of time, health and happiness;
  3. The more resources you provide for students to help themselves, the less you should have to work on these issues during the term;
  4. Sometimes you just have to let them fall
If we have provided the support that it is reasonable to provide, and if we have provided them with the tools to help themselves, and they still insist on failing to take advantage of these tools or this support, there comes a point where you have to draw a line. You can't take the assessment for them. You have to let them fail. Otherwise, it's not fair on the other students, and it's not fair on this student in particular. If you let them pass, how is that going to help them in the long run? At best, it makes them someone else's problem next year, and, at worst, you're committing yourself to carrying them long-term.

We don't want to hurt their feelings, but we have to be fair.
Failing a student is not letting them down. It is not our fault.
Sometimes you just have to let them fall.

And why do we fall?

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Day 14 - We are not the Daleks

Universities are, we are told, a business.
As a business, we have customers and competitors.
Our aim is to crush our competition and make our customers very very happy.
I will rant on about the problems with this model another day, but I want, very briefly, to talk about competition today.

Who are our competitors?
We usually look to geographically close institutions against which to measure ourselves.
After the recent University guide 2014 subject tables were published by the Guardian, my institution proudly claimed that it had come top for Music (among a handful of other arts subjects) among all Scottish modern universities. Never mind that we came 41st out of 77 in the UK, or that the only other Scottish modern university in the table for Music is the University of the West of Scotland...
League tables are rubbish, and I think we all know that they're rubbish, but the sector still seems to be setting their clocks by them for the moment.
But I digress. As usual.

Do we want to do better than our competitors, beat them at their own game, or do we want to aim to address other areas of the 'market' and attract consumers that might be looking for something else?
In other words, rather than looking at the sector as a race, or as a battle between (for example) grocers, we should look at the whole high street. Yes, there is an Italian restaurant, but that doesn't mean that there can't be a Korean takeaway. If we begin to look at the sector this way, it isn't so much to do with competition as complementation; working in harmony to provide a varied education sector.
That's an idealist's view, perhaps.
I am a bit more pessimistic about the direction that most universities will continue to take, and I suspect that we will continue to be encouraged to destroy the opposition with our mighty brains and superior teaching powers.

But is that where our competitiveness stops?
In my institution, we have three Faculties, which are further subdivided into Schools, which are further subdivided into Subject Groups (departments to most of us).
There is an undercurrent of competition between Subject Groups, between Schools, and between Faculties. You can probably imagine how this happens, when different areas are invited to 'bid' for money, resources, and space, and I suspect it's the same everywhere.

We talk about healthy competition and unhealthy competition.
Unhealthy interinstitutional competition leads us to conflict and unproductive posturing (among other things). Staff and students suffer the consequences. In a rush for Mother's love, we aim to kill the other chicks in the nest and become the solitary bloated ugly cuckoo in the nest.
Not an attractive prospect.

Don't become too insular. Don't believe the propaganda that you may be fed.
Reach out of your department to other departments.
Today, I met with the programme leader for Psychology about my Music Psychology module. Not just another Subject Group, or another School, but a totally different Faculty... In short, I'm worried that the number of honours year modules we are currently teaching may be cut due to financial considerations, and I'm looking to address this preemptively (before a review). We had a great chat, and we will be (hopefully) trialling a few Psychology students on my module, and (in the future) bringing in some of their expertise into the module as well.
This is precisely the kind of model we should be pursuing. When a module can take on extra students, why do we put up barriers? This module does not require great musical aptitude, just musical engagement and intellectual curiosity. We can tear down the barriers.

In short, a tree that has a wider root system is harder to fell.
We shouldn't turn inwards to ideas of subject purity like the Daleks, hating all others who are not like us, instead we should be making connections and looking for allies.
The darkness is always coming, and there may come a time when you need to warm yourself by another fire.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Day 13 - Learning what really matters

As soon as I read a specific email this morning, I knew what I was going to talk about today.
To be honest, I've been planning to write about this for a while, but this was the last shove.

The question for today is: how much does a style guide matter when you're marking academic essays?

I have been a bit disappointed to see a lot of essays recently with incorrect citations, poor formatting, wrong bibliography, etc. It seems that even though we have incorporated these considerations into criteria, the message does not seem to be getting through.

So how much does this style guide matter? How fussy do we want to be?
I'm tempted to say, it does matter, but that we shouldn't confuse it with content.

How do we enforce this?
I have an idea, but it's possibly against my institution's regulations.

If you get a piece of work submitted that goes against the style guide, the student is informed that they have five working days to submit it with the correct format.
The marker marks the work as it is, on the basis of content.
If the work is not submitted according to the correct style guide, the mark is capped (and you could set a sliding scale based on whether the violation is major or minor, rather like a driving test).

If this seems extreme, it is possibly a bit more like the real world.
If you are asked to follow a style sheet, and then submit work that goes against that, you would probably be asked to correct it.
The current system we have doesn't seem to be working, so perhaps we should try something else.

I'd better look into the regulations...

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Day 12 - An investment of time

I'm writing this late.
I have in front of my a page of chords, and, open on my computer, a spreadsheet of times that these chords come in a piece.
I am trying to make them marry up.
They are not playing ball.
So I'm going to leave them to it and come back tomorrow.

I could have probably sat down at a desk and done all of this manually, with a series of durations (worked out on the spreadsheet and then printed out), and a series of chords, written out manually. Instead, I have chosen to use OpenMusic.
If I had done this manually, I would have probably finished the piece about six months ago.
But then again, I don't think I would. It's a rather boring task, and not a very fulfilling one, and by working with this software, I'm trying to find ways of working that are more efficient, and that keep me interested. A long time ago (2005?), Richard Barrett advised me to be much more pragmatic about how I work, and although, at the time, I didn't know what he was talking about really, it's become more evident to me, now that my composition time is packaged into small chunks when I'm trying to avoid the housework, how relevant and urgent this advice has become.

So I come back to this fact that I'm slaving away spending so much time messing around with the software trying to make it do what I want it to do, and, in effect, I'm not at all being pragmatic with my time.
But here's the thing.
I intend to use OpenMusic a lot in the future, and to use MIDI to input a lot more raw pitch material, and an investment of time now should make things easier in the future.

This is true, I think, of a lot of things.
Sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and get down to really getting under the skin of a new strand of research or teaching, a new piece of software or technology, or whatever, despite the fact that it seems to be a waste of time.
At our recent Faculty Research Conference, one of the nuggets of advice I offered up to soon-to-be-graduating PhD students was that you have to be willing to invest some of your own time and energy (and sometimes money) into your research in order to make the headway that will convince anyone else to believe in it.
This is quite important I think.
I've said before that this is not a job like most others, and the research angle is certainly not.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Day 11: Office Space

Before I start on today's post proper, I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to say nice things about this blog. I really appreciate it, and it means a lot that people find it useful(!) and interesting. I hope it continues to be so.

I spent most of today in the office, sorting through all the paperwork that I had accrued. Last summer, we moved campus, away from a spacious monstrous former mental hospital with glorious views across the city (but lamentably far from the centre, which meant that getting anyone into the place for concerts was a nightmare), to a 1950s/60s concrete campus with no real views to speak of (but with excellent transport links to the centre). I was moving from my own office, in which I had enough space to teach maybe two people at a time, and which I used to store my books, CDs, LPs, and score collection, to a shared office, in which I wouldn't be able to teach anyone, and had one desk and one bookcase. A difficult adjustment.

I threw away a lot of paperwork when we moved, and kept only that which I thought I would need for future teaching etc. Going through a lot of it, and chucking quite a lot of it, I was struck with how my teaching had changed. I have moved away from handing out photocopied chapters of books towards scanning them in to the computer. The subjects I teach, as well, have moved away from those where looking at entire movements of Classical works in sonata form was the order of the day, to where I focus on ideas about music, and which often assume knowledge not just of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, but also of David Bowie and Katy Perry. Another big change that has impacted on what I view as essential to keep in my paperwork has been my increased use of imslp. Now, instead of copying a whole Schumann song for the whole class, I can put a link on Moodle to one (or more) public domain pdfs that they can download. I especially love the inclusion of manuscripts where this is possible.

Most of my books went home (and more of those that I kept at work will be coming back here as well shortly), as did all of my CDs, LPs, and scores. I miss being able to reach over to my shelf mid-supervision and grab a score or book that illustrates a specific point, but it hasn't been too much of an issue so far. I make a note to bring it in to the next session usually. I think in many ways it has encouraged me to work without clutter.

You are probably familiar with working from within clutter. For me, it's a bit like building a nest. If I'm surrounded by those things which feed and support my practice, it's a metaphor for how I work I suppose. But it's not logistically or psychologically necessarily the best place to be starting from. When you can't find room on your desk to work, or you can't balance another thing on your shelves because of all those books, what exactly are you trying to achieve? Working from within clutter is how academic hoarding starts.

Pretty early on in the new office, I relegated my desktop computer to hiding behind my little drawer thing under my desk. I got rid of the monitor and the keyboard, and I only used it as a remote desktop. I take a tiny little laptop into work with me now which is a lot faster, takes up a lot less space, and I can take it home easily with me. My next step, which I took today, was to move my trays from my desk to my cupboard/bookcase. This means that the only things I have on my desk are my printer, and my phone. If I can wire myself up to the network a bit more efficiently, I may even start using the shared office printer and ditch mine altogether. I want to have as clear a desk as possible. Why? I feel like I need space to think and space to work. Also it makes it easier to clear up the mouse poo.

When I was talking about home working, I said that I think it's important to work out which tasks are better achieved at home, and it's important to do the same when working in the office. Have a think about the tasks that you try to achieve in the office. What do you need to get them done? Is that what you have near to hand? If not, what do you have? Why do you have that? I'm working my way down to having a few books (especially those I use a lot, and that aren't in the library here) on the top shelf, my tea/coffee things with my in/pending/out trays (which I promise to myself I will actually use) and my scrap/manuscript paper on the second shelf, folders for documents (like historic external examiners' reports, my copies of signed travel forms, and those photocopies of teaching materials I still want to keep) on the third shelf, and student work to be marked/filed at the bottom. If I use the draws under my desk for stationery, then what can go wrong?

I also have made sure that I've got a few personalised touches. There's nothing that depresses me more than an anonymous desk, as if you're not an academic but you're a hot-desking telephone salesperson. I like to be able to look up from my work on my clear desk and look at a postcard of a painting, or to be able to get a colleague's number quickly, or to connect to another facet of my life.

I have thrown away a lot today, and I expect I will throw away even more on Monday. I've discovered things that I had forgotten about, and recognised connections between what I thought were random ideas that I filed away and some of the things bumbling around my head at the moment. Most of all, it made me think about what the office was for, and what I wanted it to be. So much of university life is a messy compromise, and I feel that making my own existence messier only leads to more logistical compromise. And that's just not necessary.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Day 10: Tapdancing on Shifting Sands

What is my research field? What do I teach?
I get asked these questions by other academics occasionally, and I'm not quite sure what to answer.

During my time teaching in my current post, I've been required to fill in a number of gaps that have needed filling due to staff illness or staff moving to new posts. I have taught on nearly every single module on the programme, and teach a reasonably significant number of students from the Popular Music programme as well. When a module looked like it might be shut down, I have stepped in. Where a replacement lecturer hadn't been found, I have stepped in.

Now this may sound like I'm bragging, and I don't want it to sound like that. I've invited these challenges and I have refused to let myself get pinned down to one job description. While it has been a challenge, I enjoy the challenge and I feel it has expanded my awareness of what it means to be a musician, and to listen to music, and to write music, and to think about music. There have been times where I've felt frustrated that, because of my versatility, I was being moved out of one area to cover another because I could, not to match my own strengths, but, if I'm honest with myself, I always found something to get excited about in the new area.

If I had come into the job and refused to teach anything other than composition or 20th century history or analysis, I wouldn't have been much use. Those subjects, the subjects that I was trained in, and experienced at teaching, were already being covered by other staff. In order to thrive, I learned new skills, and through that, I've grown.

When I started teaching, I was a composer, but I was a composer in crisis (more on that another day) and I'm still trying to find my way back towards seeing myself as a composer again. What has happened in the meantime, is that I have discovered that I have potential as a musicologist. At least, that's maybe what you'd call me. I don't really like the term. My conference papers that I have given, and the articles (and book(s)) I want to write have grown out of my teaching, combined with my knowledge of 20th/21st century music, aesthetics, music psychology, etc. Today, I have been reading about Music & Consciousness to see if my thoughts and plans can fit into this field. I think that most people pick a field and stick to it rather than thrashing around like me. I think that I'm still looking for where I fit, because I suspect that I fit between a lot of these categories.

I suppose my advice to a new lecturer would be to not stand still, and to not be afraid of investigating new fields. But at the same time, keep some stability. Constantly throwing yourself into new areas is disorienting and, to an extent, I'm only just recovering from that instability now. Don't feel like you necessarily have to fit into the structures that have been allotted you. Your line manager may tell you that is the lot of the academic, but I refuse to believe this. This job is not like any other (as I'll bang on about again and again) and we have the power, and (dare I say it) the responsibility to forge our own areas of teaching and research (within a team structure - again, not enough space or time to talk about that today...). As Elton John sings, 'change is gonna do me good'.

Looking back now, I can see that, to some extent, the seeds of my current practice were there in my PhD commentary - the post-structural critical theory, the pseudo-psychology - although I was blind to it at the time. This is what I want to be teaching in the future, and I'm finally happy with this area. At least I think so... Ask me again in a couple of years.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Day 9: Silence in the Library

I had high minded hopes to write something substantial today, tackling one of the topics that I had identified as aiming to address. But instead, I find myself at the end of the day, watching the light disappear with an empty mind.

I was working again in the library. Less productive, although I found some interesting books to look through, and drew up a reading list that might help me draw up some resources for 'critical thinking' in the future. At the moment, it's just a reading list I can disseminate to the students, but, because I know how much the idea of reading about study skills motivates students (I remember it well...), I'm intending to create some videos illustrating the content as much as I can (if they're any good, these may go up on iTunes U or something). Why not run a class? Just remember, that teaching time is at a premium 'in the current economic climate'. You only have so many classes (you only have so much time), so isn't it better to deal with this sort of thing as an online course? Probably more on this topic at a later date.

Why am I looking at critical thinking? Well it seems to be something that students struggle with (as I think I've mentioned at some point over the last week or so in this blog), and I want to give them the confidence to tackle it (and to understand what it means).

I actually think that this is a really good way to accomplish a quick literature review when it's attached to some teaching. I would normally take out a whole load of books, take them home, attempt to read one of them, and see where I went from there. This way, I grabbed three books, skimmed through them to get an idea of content, target audience, and style, made a few notes, and then returned them. When I have time to deal with this issue properly, I'll know where to go and what I'm looking at. At least that's the plan...

I didn't mean to even think about this today, but I was looking for a book on consciousness (trying to find out if I knew what it was - I'm serious about this by the way; it sounds like a joke but it isn't) to work out if I have a topic for this conference in April of next year. In many ways, it seems to touch on a number of areas that interest me, but I don't want to be in the deep end of the pool with my water wings on. Tomorrow, I'll be going to Edinburgh University Library with my Sconul email in my hand like the Oriflamme in order to look at the book which emerged from the previous conference on the same topic, just to confirm I know what I'm talking about.

I think I'll talk more about conferences and flexible research tomorrow, but today, I'll return us to the library.

So, I found the book I was looking for, but my eye was caught by other books on critical thinking. This is where the library is a bit like a Tar-Baby for me. As I've said before, I love books. I like being surrounded by them, and I love reading them. My natural inclination is to read everything that interests me, which, in a university library, is quite a lot. I returned a couple of books today, but walked away from the library with the same number of new books (including The Kristeva Reader).

Obviously, I have a problem.

What I have resolved to do though, to address at least my library problem, is to collect together all the books I have out at the moment, and categorise why I have them. I have books on loan for specific projects, to support specific teaching that I do, and for general reading (in the hopes of discovering new projects and new teaching) but I haven't quite worked out what I have, what I have them for, and when I intend to read them. Time to sort that out.

When that's done, I'll start on the academic books I have in the flat that I've been meaning to tackle for some time.

Supplemented with new books from the library, of course...

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Day 8: Working from home

The problem with working from home is that, well, you're working from home.
In many ways this is brilliant, because it means that you can organise your own day and your own routine. You don't have to pack your own lunch or rely on canteen filter coffee, or that someone hasn't taken your milk from the fridge. You can have music on, talk to yourself, and generally just get on with things.
But (and this is something I don't think you should forget) you are not at work. This is not your office.

I don't want to really lay down the law here because everyone works in a slightly different way, but unless you're going to treat your workspace like it's a sacrosanct workspace, there are going to be distractions, whether that's flatmates, spouses, children, parents, animals, etc. How do you let people with whom you share your living space know, without being tetchy, that this is basically your workspace? How do you let the dogs know that you can't walk them right now because you're in the middle of reading an article by Habermas? Being rigid about these things isn't going to end well. And after all, aren't you working at home to avoid the rigidity of the office? Chill out.

I aim to work from home for two half-days a week now during teaching term. During the third trimester (June-August), I generally now work three days at home and only two days at the office. Since we moved to a communal office, I have had far less space to store my books, scores, and audio so had to invest in a lot of shelving for my flat. Now, if I want to look things up, I have to either be in a library or at home, and home is easiest. I want to talk about the pros and cons of a shared office another day, so I won't get into that now, but there are few things to say about home working.

  1. Determine some tasks that you want to accomplish during your day. Don't just let things drift along. It will be harder to motivate yourself unless you have clear goals and targets.
  2. Some tasks are better suited than others to home working. Make sure that you're doing them when you're working at home. Exactly which tasks these are will depend upon you, so think back to the last time you felt really productive at home. What were you doing? Now do the same for the office. This is a good indicator.
  3. Make space to work at home. As I write this, I am sat at my kitchen table which is covered with pieces of paper, a spare keyboard, a very large pad of graph paper, and a couple of books. There is not very much table space. This is bad. Don't be like me and work in clutter. Aim to work in clear space. This ties into point 1 and will help stop you getting distracted by other tasks.
  4. Try to keep a handle on how long you're working. There's nothing worse than feeling guilty about time spent away from your desk, and you will often punish yourself and spend more time at your desk to compensate. You wouldn't act like that at work, would you? Just keep track of how long your breaks are and aim to work for your scheduled hours every day (mine, excluding lunch of course, is a seven-hour day). At the end of this time, stop.
  5. Don't let work take over home. This addresses almost every one of those points above. I pursued this job because I love it, and I enjoy it, but I do aim to have a life sometime. I'm not saying that you shouldn't compose 'after hours' or read or whatever, but don't flog yourself. Try to make some time and space for life.
  6. Final point: your institution will probably have paperwork to cover them should an accident happen. Fill them in. It saves hassle in the long run, and forces you to address point 3 a bit more directly. I suspect that hardly anyone fills these forms in or knows what to do with them when someone else hands them one, but that's not the point.
There are plenty of other things to talk about today, including a new Universities minister (who has a PhD I note, as well as a lot of other things on his plate), and my own institution in the news regarding advertisements for zero-hours lecturers. I will probably return to these at a later date, but for today, I've mainly been thinking about what I think I can accomplish while working in a mess.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Day 7: Only a matter of time

I've only been doing this daily blog for six days, and I've already missed a day! It was only a matter of time...
I'll do two posts today, one this morning (entitled Day 7), and another tonight (called, surprisingly enough, Day 8).

This morning, I wanted to talk a little bit about time, and the lack of it.
Yesterday was a rare luxury. Our office windows were removed a day earlier than advertised, so I wasn't able to work there, so I ended up in the library (having been in the canteen (too noisy) and the campus cafe (too cold)) working on conference proposals and scanning through books that might be useful for those conferences, and for future work.

I had lunch with a colleague, and we discussed the future of the programme and possibilities of expanding into new taught Master's areas (subject to a review that is looming ever near like a threatening iceberg), and then I was back in the library. Obviously, I have to make more time for this sort of thing.

With this job, it feels so often that we do not have time. I'm becoming more and more aware that I need to make more time, and to organise my time more intelligently. There are certain jobs that come around every year - module reports, updating module descriptors for quality committees, summary of public engagement activities, budget planning - that I deal with when I'm prompted to deal with them. Why don't I make space and time for them in advance? Well, I'm going to.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Day 6: What is the point?

Today, I've been thinking about why we do what we do. 'We' in this instance stands for university lecturers.

I know why I do what I do, and that comes down to a couple of things:
  1. I love this job
  2. I'm (at least all evidence seems to point to this) good at it
But what is it that we're hoping to achieve by teaching an undergraduate programme in a university?
What is the point of an undergraduate programme?

Are we here to train students for specific professions (or for a portfolio career of multiple options)? That seems to be the opinion of many in government, and it's also the opinion of some in the HE sector, particularly in newer universities like my own. I believe that there's a value to education for its own sake, and that, if we do our job properly, students leave a university knowing themselves a bit better: intellectually, socially, and emotionally.

But what do we do when our high-minded idealism clashes with those who manage us and the directions that our programmes take?

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Day 5: Looking ahead

Today, I've been thinking about proposals for conferences and working out how they might fit into my teaching and researching schedule for the next year. I want to talk more about conferences another day, but for the time being I'd like to go on the record as saying that they are a Good Thing.

Conferences get you out of where you are now and into the company of people who are thinking about the same subject areas that you are. Different people (normally). You may have wonderful supportive colleagues, but it does you good to see different people and talk about different things. I often think about how little time there is to reflect on what I teach, and on how I teach, let alone on what I research and how I research, and conferences give you the opportunity, divorced from the usual distractions of office banter and student cries for help, to look at what you're doing and think outside the box.

Right now, I've got a few examples of opportunities for reflection that are related if not similar. At the moment, the windows of our office are being replaced, so for at least some of next week, I won't be allowed in my office and I have cleared my desk (literally) in preparation for this. I would usually be working from home for most of the week during the summer anyway, but I had planned to be in on Monday and Friday. If the office is accessible on Monday, I'm planning to file away a lot of student work so that I have some spare shelf space. I also want to clear my desk. Again, office space is something I want to talk about, particularly the perils of sharing a communal office, but for today, I just want to say that space is valuable, and I have allowed myself to get too cluttered. It's time to change that.

I also have been asked to take all my holiday before September. This is a bit of a new experience for me, as, previously in the summer, I tend to do a little bit less work and don't officially take my holiday (so that I can come in as and when I'm required). This year I have taken as much holiday as I think I can take without causing problems for meetings and marking. I still have nearly two weeks left over. I think I'm going to spend my time writing music and writing a book proposal, and I'm rationing my email checking. Strictly speaking, that's still work, not holiday at all, but it's a holiday from the requirements and necessities of work and focusing on my own work priorities which take second place during term time.

I've been looking over a list of proposed topics for these blogs as well (in no particular order):
  1. Powerpoint slides (good/bad practice)
  2. The National Student Survey (NSS)
  3. Hearts & Minds
  4. University politics
  5. Research (what is)
  6. Disposable practice
  7. Methodology
  8. Essay structure
  9. Discipline/self-discipline
  10. Programmes
  11. University as a Business
  12. Teaching synthesis & induction
  13. How to recognise good teaching in HE
  14. Holidays
  15. Email
  16. Office space
  17. Conferences
  18. Strikes/unions
If anyone has other suggestions, please let me know. I'm not going to methodically work through this, and the subject of my posts will normally depend upon what I've been talking about or thinking about or doing during the day.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Max Horkheimer IS Benjamin Button? Or Doctor Who? Or something?

While writing that last post, I noticed on the back of my Verso edition of Cumming's translation of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, that Horkheimer's brief biography begins:
Max Horkheimer was born in Germany in 1985, where he died in 1973.

Day 4: I Hate Study Skills

Everyone works differently. I take that as pretty much read when it comes to working with any student. I know that my assumptions about how they think about, let alone how they tackle a task like writing an essay or a piece of music is not going to be the same as me. If I have the luxury of working one-to-one with a student on a piece or on a dissertation, then it becomes my task to work out what kind of feedback is useful for them. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. Or, perhaps I'd say, sometimes I don't succeed as well as I would like: I've been very lucky with the standard of a lot of the students I've worked with in these kinds of scenarios, and on the most part, it's been an incredibly fulfilling experience working with them.

So although I said I wanted to talk about 'study skills' today, I really don't. I don't really see it like that. I think that a lot of it comes down to strategies, and down to building your own toolkit. I really don't like those approaches to study skills that just focus on one strategy to the exclusion of all else because I passionately believe that studying at a university is all about discovering yourself - that could be socially, personally, and individually, but should also involve intellectual self-discovery - and Procrustes' bed has never been a really effective tool for self-exploration.

So. What does that leave us with. I suppose we could draw up some generic families of areas to look at: writing skills, research skills, comprehension skills, extrapolation. I just came up with those off the top of my head so let's see how well they pan out.

First off, writing skills:
As I said yesterday, write a little bit every day. That is the golden rule. We expect music students who are specialising in performance to practice their instrument every day. It is this routine that sets the foundation for their achievement at the end of the term. It should come as no surprise then, that if we don't practice writing, that the end result isn't exactly going to be stellar. Practice improves tone, intelligibility, and sophistication.

Spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation use are all really important. If spelling a particular word is a problem for you, sort it out: develop some kind of tool for getting it right. If you don't understand how to use a specific item of punctuation, for example a semicolon, find out how to use it.

Grammar and syntax are a little trickier, because I'm not sure how effective learning the rules really is by this stage (although it should be said that it's always worth giving it a go). You should be picking a lot of it up through reading. As you deal with an increasing level of sophistication through a degree course, the level of grammatical and syntactical sophistication should also increase. Interrogate a sentence and work out how it works. You might not want to write like Adorno (or rather, like John Cumming's Adorno/Horkheimer), but if you understand how those sentence work, you're one step closer to mastering English academic writing in all its complexity.

I have a feeling that at some stage I will need to talk about academic writing as gatekeeping, but this is not that day.

Research skills:
Nobody really ever taught me this and I think that, largely, I made it up, but then I think that most people do. I'm now, thanks to the reflections mentioned on Day 2, thinking about how to make this easier for my students. I don't want to teach them how to do it, just how to begin to construct how to do it. I'm still working on this one so I don't want to pretend I have any real answers, but I guess it comes down to getting them used to finding information from a variety of sources.

I think it's important also that they can critically evaluate those sources. I remember, vividly. the day I questioned a book's authority. I don't remember what the book was now, but it was about 20th century music. As I read it, I became more and more concerned that the music that the author was describing bore no resemblance to the music that I loved. I suddenly realised how much the author's own prejudice had coloured his methodology. Simultaneously, I realised how much my own prejudice had coloured my own methodology. I could disagree with the book, even though it was a Book.

Following on from Day 2, I had a message from Martin Iddon, who made the excellent point that the medium on which students read a book was largely irrelevant (ebook or physical book) but what made the most difference, particularly in the field of aesthetics, was the edition and/or translator.

So, not only is it important for students to become familiar with finding information from books, journals, scores, blogs, interviews, etc., but they also should realise that one source may have multiple incarnations, particularly if it is subject to multiple translators or editors in a number of different publications.

Comprehension skills:
Having found all of these sources, do they understand them? Are they able to explain them in their own words? I'd really like to think so, but there have been occasions where I've found that students have massively missed the point. Often, this can come down to a failure of research skills - they've just not read the context, but have instead picked a bleeding chunk and attempted to create their own context for it. I have taught on a few complex texts in my time, but how can we teach students to understand them?

In part, I aim to teach by example, taking a section and breaking it down, but this is time-consuming in a culture where our teaching time is constrained by economic considerations. Perhaps this is something to develop in online content, where a text can be systematically taken to bits on video. I wish I had the time to do that kind of work though. I say to myself 'in the summer, I'll have the time to do all of these things', like rereading Kant's Critiques to refresh my understanding of them, but it whizzes past so quickly...

The other element, is teaching perseverance. I feel like I've seen a culture develop where 'If at first you don't succeed, give up' becomes an approach to difficult music and difficult texts for students. There's a lot to be gained in attacking a sentence many times. When I first got hold of Ferneyhough's Collected Writings, there were essays that I really struggled with, and that took me days to read. I read a sentence - nothing. I read it again - nothing. I read it again - still nothing. I read the sentence before it, and the one after it, and then tried to make it resolve - again nothing. Pace around a bit and think, then go back to it. Finally, the chinks in the armour begin to show, and you can start to take it to bits. Why would you persist with this time-consuming and frustrating effort? I guess that's what I have to teach to my students.

And here's the really tricky bit. I want my students to read what other people write, and then take another step. I want them to compare what they've read in my Aesthetics module, and the cross-reference this with what they're reading in my Music Psychology module and draw conclusions. If all they ever do is repeat what they've discovered elsewhere, no matter how encyclopaedic their research methodology, I really don't feel like I've succeeded.

This lies at the heart of what we mean when we talk about one aspect of 'research-teaching linkages' - training students to become self-motivated and self-regulated learners; they shouldn't need us to tell them what to think. Again, there is a lot to be said for teaching them by example, but the most critical thing here, I believe, is giving them a bit of self confidence to take a step into the unknown. There's a fine line between encouraging self-confidence, and spawning a monster that believes that everything they think, say, or do is fantastic, and teaching self-criticism is an important component in this (and one which is even harder!), but without believing that they can extrapolate from their research to make their own opinions (a big difference from finding other people's opinions to back up their own, or from making their own opinions before they read anything, and then sticking to them despite anything else they have read), then they never will.

I didn't mention this in my original list, but I won't come in again. Teaching structure is an important part of teaching students to write essays. I don't believe that there's just one structure, and one method, and I will revisit this again another day, but suffice it to say, that I think it's important that students become really critical not just about the structures in which they write, but also about the structures that they read: learn what works, and learn what doesn't work. If you didn't understand an argument, there's a chance that it wasn't constructed very well (while remembering there's also a chance it's because you just didn't understand it). There are articles that are really fun to read, and often this comes down to how well structured they are.

Most students just sit down and write, and then pick at bits and pieces in the hope that it will come together. It rarely does but it's functional. It does what it needs to do. And I think that this is the biggest problem of all: how to teach them that it matters that it does more than the bare minimum, and that writing skills are really important for sophisticated communication of ideas.

It is all about hearts and minds in the end (I enjoy the incongruity of that particular image). So much of teaching comes down to this. We can give them the tools, we can teach them how to use the tools, and we can encourage them to use these tools to construct their own projects, critique their own projects, and improve their own projects, but unless we also convince them that it's worth doing, they aren't going to do it. They will just do the bare minimum.

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Day three: Do as I say, not as I do

In my work as a lecturer, I am always telling students things that I think will improve their working lives: work out the routine that suits you, book practice rooms in advance, work in the library, try to read as much as possible, practice/compose every day, redraft redraft redraft, write ahead of schedule, and try to write a little bit every day.

If only I took my own advice.

For me, this is one of the challenges of life as a lecturer. You have the detachment to see what you, and what your students, need to do to improve your/their academic performance, but you're so busy with everything that you need to fit in, that actually doing it is quite a different matter.

I was exactly the same as an undergraduate, and as a postgraduate. I have always left writing essays, articles, papers until the last minute, and now I leave marking to the last minute as well. I have never 'written a little bit every day' even though I believe 100% in it as a way to improve writing technique. In a way, writing this blog everyday is a way of making sure that I do start following that bit of instruction, even when (like today) I forget and leave it to the last minute before I go to bed.

At the moment (and I think that this has been the case since I started the job), I have worked my own priorities around what I needed to do for the students, and I haven't stopped to reflect (and act upon that reflection) about how to organise myself so that what I do provides a better standard of teaching and support for the students. To adopt such an approach will be healthier for me, and (I believe) make me a better academic - more productive and more flexible.

So why don't I? Why is there this resistance to doing it?

Because it's terrifying.

It's so much easier to know that you can do it, than to jump off the cliff and do it. You might fail. What if this is as good as it gets? Maybe you won't be able to do as good a job if you're not doing it like you've always done it, running around like a headless chicken after deadlines that you've just seen approaching like an oncoming train.

A theme I'll come back to again and again (at least I think I will) throughout this blog is the idea of the integrated academic: where administration, teaching, and research are all part of what you do, and support and reinforce each other rather than competing. It's where I want to be, and it's where I believe I can get to. I'm tired of saying 'do as I say, not as I do'. If my advice is good enough for my students, it's good enough for me.

I'll get back to study skills tomorrow (unless I get sidetracked again). It's time to get a good night's sleep.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Day two: All about e-learning

  • Q: Can you think of an instance when you might use e-learning in your teaching?
  • A: If the library burned down.
This was me, responding to a question posed in a 2003 session for postgraduates who were doing teaching at Durham University. It sounds pretty stupid now (to be fair, it probably sounded pretty stupid then too) but things have changed a lot. My first email address was provided by Durham University in 1996, and that was also the first time I had free access to the internet, which I found quite challenging. I wasn't technologically ignorant - we'd had a computer in the house from at least 1984 and I had word-processed most of my coursework from 1993 onwards.

Everything that I teach now is supported by Moodle, a VLE. The slides from my lectures appear there, copies of handouts, my module descriptors, assessment briefs, dropboxes for online submission, and additional resources. Gone are the days of using overhead projectors and battered handouts. That's pretty standard in HE nowadays.

I miss though, the idea of students taking notes. A lot of mine don't. They rely on a combination of the slides and their memory. I said, deliberately, that I miss 'the idea of students taking notes'. Raking through my own undergraduate notes in the attempt to find something useful for my teaching, and discovered that they were so patchy and banal, they were useless to me. Having said that, I think that there's a lot of research done into how writing things down helps convert them from short-term to long-term memory so perhaps the act of note-taking in and of itself is a valuable learning tool irrespective of whether it produces a useful result (c.f. Derrida). I'll pick up on this later.

Today, I had an email from a student telling me that the 'online book' to which I had sent him a link was, for some reason, unavailable. It is unavailable because it was a link to the library catalogue, identifying a physical resource. This is actually pretty often the case, in my experience, with undergraduates (and you can't really blame them) until they're working on a dissertation or similar. We provide so many resources through online tools like Moodle, and they have access to the whole internet, so why bother reading a book?

I find this a tricky one. I want my students to use physical books and to use online resources. I want them to fall in love with the library (and by 'the library' I suppose I'm really signifying some kind of Platonic Ideal Library). Apart from anything else, some of my happiest memories of undergraduate study are being buried in the outsized scores section of the library marveling at the strange and wonderful notation I was discovering for the first time. I want them to have that experience. But that's the problem with teaching: you can't teach your 18-year-old self; you have teach the students that are there.

Another problem with online resources (and with the much-vaunted celebration of Digital Natives) is a common failure to identify and respect primary sources. A student references a blog; the lecturer looks up this reference and finds that the blog is referencing a published book. A lack of critical engagement as well leads to academic equivocality - a blog written by a 6-year-old is regarded as holding as much authority as a blog by an established academic. This isn't always a bad thing as we lionise our 'prize academics' probably beyond their modesty, but I think it's a matter of being able to recognise good methodology no matter what platform is accessed. I am struck by the naivete of many students who prize the opinions of anyone they can find through a Google search over their own powers of synthesis and logic, but I think I'm getting away from my main intention with this post here. I'll return to academic study skills tomorrow (joy).

 I met the librarian with specific responsibility for the music collection in passing on Monday and we talked a little bit about this. We've agreed that there may be ways to incorporate library skills into performance modules (repertoire hunt, for example), and I will be designing a 'scavenger hunt' for the new 1st year students that will require them to hunt out physical resources as well as online resources.

Perhaps this is the answer: more quizzes, more prizes. Fool them into becoming familiar with these study environments in the guise of light entertainment (as posited by Benjamin I suppose!). But it takes time and energy to design these - it's not just a matter of saying 'ah yes! we will do this'.

From the initial question posed to our class in 2003, I feel now that we are faced with its opposite question:
  • Can you think of an instance when you might rely on students reading a physical book?
At present, my answer is that I would be hard pressed to insist upon this. Even if it is scanned in and made available on Moodle, I find it difficult to get an entire class to read anything. If they have to venture into the library...

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Day one: Where we were and where we are now?

I thought that I'd start off by reflecting a little bit on the differences I perceive between academia when I was an undergraduate (1996-9 in Durham University), and now. Admittedly, back then I'm not sure I was terribly aware of many things behind the scenes, but it seems that students get a very different deal now.

We recently had a series of open discussions with our new Principal (that's Vice-Chancellor to those of you at traditional universities) and one of the objections to the new 'programme-led' focus that the University is pushing (about which there will, inevitably be much much more) from an experienced and respected academic (not from my Faculty) was 'Where is this coming from? I don't think any students are asking for this.'.
My immediate (unspoken and unrefined) response was 'Students are idiots'. By which I mean that when you're in the gears of the machine, you can't often see the workings of the machine in enough detail to critique it. Unless you know that there is an alternative, you, generally speaking, accept what you're given.

I wasn't aware of criteria, and I had very little feedback except for a handful of assessments. The calculation of my degree result was a mystery to me, and I had no support in choosing modules (in fact, the list of modules went up on the board and we had about a week to pick our choices - choices which were substantially diminished from the list in the programme handbook because some staff were on sabbatical). I think that there was probably more support available than I was aware of, but it certainly wasn't made apparent.

And I'm not blaming anyone at Durham. That was how it was done. I remember that when I first started teaching, I found the whole need to keep students informed about specific little details about assessments and class content superfluous and unnecessary. They didn't need this information. Now, looking back, I'm shocked at how little information I had as an undergraduate. Now, looking at where we are, I'm proud to be teaching on a programme that disseminates so much information to the students, that makes their ownership of their own learning a priority, and that enables them as learners.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Surviving the job

It's been occurring to me lately how badly we prepare lecturers (or perhaps that should read 'how badly we lecturers are prepared') for the reality of life in academia. PhD study just doesn't give us any indication of what it is going to be like. I wouldn't even say that the teaching experience I had really prepared me. All I had to do was take one step in to actually being a lecturer and suddenly it was all different. Not Kansas.

After blogging on and off about composition over the last 10 or so years (and there hasn't been that much for quite a while), I haven't really been clear in my own mind why I was writing when I did, which probably goes some way to explaining why I hadn't written much. So when I was thinking recently that I should write some more, it suddenly struck me what I should be writing about and why.

So I aim to write every day for a year about being a university lecturer in the hope that, by the end of it perhaps, I'll have some solid bits of advice to give anyone entering the profession.

On Facebook recently, I shared this link about what not to do in the office. I was thinking, when reading it, about equivalent practices for an academic and, in part at least, that's what I want to write about. I also want to write about what to do, some reflections on what I've experience so far, and on what I want to do next. There will also be the usual smattering of rubbish about composition, sci fi, dogs, and cooking but, trust me (I am, after all, a doctor [of philosophy]) everything is connected.

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