Archive for January, 2012

Early in 2011 I set the 1st years a between-tutorials task of keeping some kind of reflective diary or blog about their Geography studies every day until their next tutorial in two weeks time. It sounded like a fun and useful exercise, so I thought I’d join in… partly to show them how you might do it (an example, not a model) and partly because, well, it’s a fun and useful exercise! I asked the students to treat it as an exploration and an adventure. Looking back on it a year later I found it interesting, so I thought I’d post it here, just for the record, in case anybody wondered what kinds of things went through a Geography lecturer’s mind at work, day to day. Here are my (slightly cut down) entries.

Day 1

Just had one formal class today: a 1st-yr tutorial… the one where I video them giving talks for the first time. I’m keeping up the “new style” tutorials – pretty relaxed, and the students seem happy with them. This is a good group: they all did their bit, even though I know it was painful for some of them. I’d have hated it if I was still them. What am I talking about: I am still them – they just don’t recognise me. Getting them to do the reflective diary is new, but it fills a very clear need at this stage. My dog, Gus, means well and when you set him a task (like SIT and STAY) he goes to it with enthusiasm… for about 10 seconds then his mind wanders. He needs to learn some staying power. Doing something every day without fail for a fortnight might turn out to be a challenge for the students, but it’s an important thing for them to get used to. I’m really curious to see whether they take it seriously and see the point of it. I deliberately didn’t give it a big build up. I just offered it and we’ll see whether they see what a great gift it actually is. I can guess a couple that won’t bother, and a couple might miss days and try to cover up. May be I’ll turn out to skip a day! That’s another reason it’s good for the lecturer sometimes to do the work that he sets the students: how can I fairly judge them if I haven’t actually had a go myself? Having said that, most of my life seems to be about writing reflective diaries. In other news: Routledge are asking whether we want to do an update to our bestselling -How to do your dissertations- book (hmmm, may be), the U.S, National Science Foundation want me to referee a grant proposal (sorry guys, too busy just now), Earth Science Reviews want me to referee a paper about permafrost (oh, OK), and a publisher from Romania that I’ve never heard of wants me to write something in a new Geomorphology book they’re producing (er… I’ve never heard of you!). Spent a lot of time over the last couple of days preparing Friday’s Inspirational Landscapes lecture, met with RIW to discuss next week’s practicals… uh oh, this is becoming a list of what I did, not a reflective diary. Poor example for students. Reflection on today: students did good work, and I should give some thought as to whether it was anything I did in course design or strategy that helped them to do so. Perhaps I should ask them?

Day 2

Did “video their talks” tutorial for the second group today, and was pleased again that all the students who turned up had clearly put in some work and made a good effort. Some of them were clearly nervous and I was impressed with their bravery. It’s another example of the kind of problem that anonymous marking throws up: different students deserve credit for different aspects of each task. Obviously these talks aren’t anonymous, of course, so the problem doesn’t arise here, but I do feel with other work that is anonymously marked that we are prevented from giving students all the credit they deserve.

This afternoon’s Inspirational Landscapes lecture was one that I always think should be great, but somehow always disappoints in one way or another. I think some of the students “got” what I was on about, and there were some good in-discussion contributions, but there was a group who didn’t seem to be quite on the same page and didn’t seem to want to explore the ideas I was throwing up for them. They really seemed to struggle with the task of seeing familiar things from a new angle, and reacted to the challenge by becoming dismissive, almost as though they were thinking “Oh, I haven’t thought in that way before, it must be rubbish”. I sometimes wonder whether there should be an entry test for this module, based on open mindedness and curiosity. How would you quantify and test that?

Day 3

At a superficial first thought I might say I haven’t done much academic work today. Sure, I’ve answered a few student queries by e-mail, but so far that’s about it. Superficial first thoughts can be misleading, though.

It’s important to be able to work in the background while doing other things. If you have a problem or a topic sitting just behind your front-of-mind thoughts, something you’ve put back there to be dealt with later, then it tends to pop up quietly through the day whenever you see anything that’s relevant to it, and your ideas can move forward on it without having to actually set aside time to “work” on it. So today I have all those “big projects” just simmering quietly where I can keep half an eye on them and stir them occasionally. I wonder whether students would do much better if they could master that skill. A lot of them seem to think that you are either “working” or “not working” and don’t seem to see that you can work effortlessly in the back of your mind while doing whatever else you want to do. You can actually do a lot of good work while you sleep. That’s why students who don’t sleep enough do badly. I find that if I do that, then when I eventually do sit down to finish off a particular job (like the lecture that I’m deliberately not working on today), it will suddenly seem very simple, because my mind worked it all out while I didn’t think I was looking. So, I may not seem to working today, but the back of my mind is working while I’m not looking!

I was saying to the 3rd-year Inspirational Landscape students yesterday that Geography is a curse: once you have seen how it works you can’t look at anything without “Geography” waving back at you. When you start to notice the geography in everything then you can count almost anything as work!

It’s also nice to have a job (or to be studying for a degree) where work feels like play, so you don’t really notice the work. For example, writing this entry is technically part of my job… it’s a teaching exercise tied to the tutorial. On the other hand, it’s fun and it’s interesting. However, I have a dog to walk and a horse to feed…

Day 4

I started the previous entry saying that it was “today’s entry”. In a reflective diary like this it’s sometimes good to set aside one point in each day to think back over what you’ve done, but it’s sometimes good to keep a running report as the day goes along. I keep notebooks all over the place and am rarely without either a pen and paper or at least some gadget where I can record a thought before it slips away.

When I set this task for students I said they could do it as haiku if they wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.

What do you see when you look out of the window? I see 17 syllables.

I got an e-mail asking me whether I’d be willing to join in a trial of audiotaping my lectures… been there, done that. In fact I recorded GEG30014 on Friday. My lectures don’t seem to do well for being taped… perhaps that says something about my lectures, and I need to think what that is. I’ll pop that in the back of my mind and let it simmer…

Day 5

I started today with a mountain of tasks and now here I am, half way through it (or up it)! And the evening is yet young, hey ho. Unfortunately one of today’s tasks was telling a student that I was disappointed in him. I wonder whether students believe me when I say I really want them to do well or that I am disappointed when they let themselves (and me) down. Do they understand how much lecturers can really want students to make the most of the opportunity that they have here? I wrote a reference for a former student today and was able to say how she had really lived up to the faith we’d put in her: she worked hard, did well, and put her studies to good use. You remember students like that. I’m still in touch with students from when I first started teaching in 1987, and I still remember their strengths (and weaknesses) as students, even though they have now grown well past those and are in their 40s.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about today is how students often ask for things that are actually bad for them. For example, students often say things like “can you tell me which pages I should read?” when the whole point of the exercise is for them to go through the experience of DECIDING which pages to read. Sure, I can tell you, but then you miss the whole point of being here. If you want an intellectually easy life and don’t want to do the work necessary to improve yourself, you might be better advised to consider an alternative path!

Somebody on Twitter last week asked “what makes a geographer?”. A student in their reflective blog this week said how they were increasingly seeing geography all around them. So, I’m thinking that what makes a geographer is seeing the geography around you, and not being able to stop thinking geography!

2nd-yr prac went quite well today… students seemed to be getting something out of it. Must catch one and squeeze feedback from them.

Day 6

One of the best things and the worst things about my job is the flexibility. It’s great that I could take today away from Keele to do some nice not-work stuff, but on the other hand the flexibility means that you never “finish” your day’s work just because the clock reaches a certain point, and if you keep your e-mail running you find yourself getting queries from students while you’re eating your tea. Hmmm. Banana sandwich, anyone? I make a lot of extra work for myself with some of the unusual exercises I set for students. I really enjoy keeping up with WebCT discussions, or with the reflective diaries of the students who are posting them daily online just now, but if you count it as work then it certainly adds in extra time when I’m not getting on with writing the talk I have to give to a group of visitors tomorrow! Time management is crucial, and becomes more important the more you have to do. Perhaps a good way to teach students time management, rather than “explaining” it to them, would be to quadruple their workload and give them two essays a week. That’s what we got when I was a student. When I was a lad… …and look how I turned out: yet again writing a talk the night before it’s due to be presented. D’oh! It’s actually been a longrunning discussion since I started teaching: throw them in at the deep end or let them in gradually. Swinging pendulums, and I’m erring back towards the short sharp sit up and grow up approach. I need some hyphens in there, but I need my banana sandwich even more.

Day 7

One of my jobs today was to give a 1-hour “looking at landscape” session to a visiting group of asylum seekers as part of Keele’s internationalisation program. There were many interesting comparisons between “regular” students and this group, one of which was how polite the visitors were today, and how nicely they all said hello as they arrived and said thank you and good bye as they left. They clearly weren’t taking the session for granted as so many “regular” students seem to. I wonder if students realise how much work goes into some of the sessions we give, that they roll into half asleep, chatter through without making the effort to join in with discussion time, and stroll out of, eyes to the floor, without a word of recognition or appreciation. Not that I’m moaning or anything. I’m just saying. It was nice to have a really polite and interested group of “students” who really seemed to be enjoying what we were doing. Why don’t regular students come across that way?

Day 8

My reflections on today’s time at Keele focus largely on two of my colleagues, so on this occasion I think I’d better not do a public diary! I will wonder publicly, though, what students imagine the Dept is like ‘behind the scenes’…

Day 9

This is the first time I’ve run this particular exercise with students, and while I certainly think it has potential and could be really useful to them it also needs a few tweaks. For example, it’s nice giving students total freedom to do it however they like (web, paper, VLE, etc) but now of course some are being highly visible and public while others are unseen and untrackable. It would be nice to have some degree of common sharing at this stage, so perhaps I should have at least defined a shared venue for postings, such as the VLE. Also, using the VLE would reduce the risk of students making public comments about my colleagues, which would be inappropriate I guess. The posts I’ve seen so far from the “public” students have been great, although they don’t all seem to have understood what is meant by “reflective”. Something to reflect on together in the next tutorial, perhaps.

Day 10

I’ve been very pleased to get diary updates from lots of students today, and have enjoyed seeing their entries. It really gives me (and I hope them, too) an insight into how they are approaching the course. Some seem to be underestimating how much work they need to do to keep up with a degree course, while others are engaging really well. As always it’s a mixed bag, and part of my job is work with each student according to their needs. I’ve also been getting some input from 3rd-years on a different discussion, and it’s interesting to think how students change their views (or not) as they go through the course. Some students really grow and open up their attitudes as they work through the programme. Some don’t, of course, which I think is a real shame. What, after all, is the point of University? I think I put a reasonable weight on that side of the “teaching” but it’s hard to get the right balance. I suspect I focus more on the “big picture” than most of my colleagues do, but that might be because of my particular perspective on Geography, teaching and University. I remember I used to be very pleased sometimes when I remembered all my qualifications and prizes because it reassured me that my approach and opinions must have some merit! That’s one reason it was also nice to get the NTF a few years ago. I suppose I should also take it as a reminder that saying “well done” to a student is as important as saying “change this”.

Day 11

Long day at the open day today. Amongst other things the open day is a good opportunity to speak to a different kind of audience: a bit younger (the applicants) and a lot older (their parents etc) than the usual student groups I mainly talk to. I ran a new “tutorial type” Inspirational Landscapes demo teaching session for them today, and was pleased that both the parents and even some of the applicants were brave enough to speak up in “discussion”. It made me wonder again what it is that happens to many students in that brief window while they are students, to make them so reluctant! Perhaps students should be made to take a 3-year gap between school and university, coming back when they are ready to get the most out of it. On some TV show last night one character complained about having to deal with a teenager: “teenagers are slow witted” she said. Of course my students are not at all slow witted, but certainly younger and older groups seem to get much more visible satisfaction out of my “classes”. It was great today when some bloke about my age came up after the Inspirational Landscapes demo lecture and said that after just half an hour of Geography he really looked at the world differently! We should bottle the stuff and sell it on t’internet.

Day 12

Reflective, perhaps, but less effective today than I hoped to be. Suffering from the typical student problem of distractions and poor focus I have done only part of one of the two big jobs that were on my plate for the day, but have spent a lot longer than I intended dealing with little things that kept cropping up. A student last week commented that lecturers find it easy to lecture, but in fact it’s probably useful for students to realise that we find things as hard as they do. We try to be a good example not by “being good at things” but by “being willing to work at things and try hard” even if they are difficult. I too get distracted by Twitter and Facebook and the cats and dogs and having to wash the car and doing family things and helping the lady next door when she runs out of milk. I, too, want to stop work so I can watch TV instead. We’re not immune. So that means that we do indeed, to some extent (even though some of us are so ancient) have at least some idea of what it’s like being a student. So our advice is informed by an understanding of at least some of your reality. On the other hand, some student realities continue to surprise me. Student: “Are all clouds formed the same way? I don’t know how to find out… help me!” Me: “Yes they are: try looking in a meteorology book.” Student: “A meteorology book? I hadn’t thought of that!!” Me: “…sigh…”.

Day 13

Today I’ve been thinking again about what a varied job I have and about how thoroughly interleaved parts of my job are with parts of my non-work life. That could be seen as a good thing because obviously I’m being paid for doing what I’d do anyway, but also a bad thing because it’s hard to get away from work. For example, I bought an easel today for painting out of doors, which you’d think was pure hobby. But as I’m doing it I’m thinking about how I can use art as an example in Geography teaching, about how observation (data collection) can be enhanced by but is also limited by the established purpose of the experiment (sorry I mean painting): Geography and life are one! Today I’ve updated a lecture to deliver on Friday, reviewed a paper for the editors of the journal Earth Science Reviews, adjudicated five University Appeals cases in my role as Chair of the Appeals Committee, taken delivery of a new video camera for use in teaching, (I’m not going to list the easel here because that was really non-work!), corresponded with colleagues at other Universities about research and writing projects, dealt with a bunch of student queries on assorted topics, read some student work. Of course some bits of the job are more fun than others, but the variety is part of the attraction. Along with the flexibiity: I’ve managed to fit a full workload around also doing me weekly shop, a coffee morning out in the country, getting the van serviced. Even if I often work on-and-off from 7am till 11pm, it’s really nice not to have to work 9-5. Well, I see another appeals case has come in, so I’m going to take a look at that…

And tomorrow we have a tutorial to discuss these reflective diaries.

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