Posts Tagged ‘tutorials’

NB: This post is published both here and (in due course) on Keele University’s Learning and Professional Development Centre “Solutions” blog: http://lpdcsolutions.blogspot.co.uk/ 

It seems appropriate that my first blog entry for Solutions, which I intended to submit for the start of the academic year and which was supposed to be about teaching time management to newly arrived students, should have been delayed by two months because I have been overwhelmed by – amongst other things – teaching time management to newly arrived students.

Most academics think about the start of October in the way that other people think about the start of January: a new year, big hopes, good resolutions, a fresh start. The new academic year brings with it a fresh crop of the bright young intellects that, changing every year, help to keep our own ideas fresh and constantly renewed. It is an exciting, promising time. I have had nearly forty new years now as a university lecturer or student: enough academic fresh starts to fill two of the lifetimes of my average undergraduate. I’ve done this before, and for me it is not scary. But for you, dear student, this is the first time. We see this academic induction, this welcome week, this fresh start, from very different perspectives. And I need to remember that.

We can try to serve as good examples to our students, but we don’t always have to be models of perfection. The fact that I have time-management problems of my own does not undermine my position in teaching time-management skills to students. It strengthens it. I am teaching from the front line of right now, not from long-remembered experiences of “when I was in your position”. I can face a problem on Monday, figure out a workaround on Tuesday, and teach it to my tutorial group on Wednesday. In my mid fifties I can’t pretend to put myself in my new students’ teenage shoes or claim to be facing the same struggles that they are facing as they settle into University. But I can share with them my equivalent struggles, and show them that fighting battles, finding coping strategies, and dealing with everyday academic problems are normal things that we are all learning to do. If a student sees that I am still learning, and still struggling, perhaps the student will feel less inadequate about their own struggles and their own early setbacks. It’s OK to find University difficult. These challenges are supposed to be here.

And here, for me, is the challenge of induction week. We want to be positive, supportive, and encouraging, but we also have to be honest, realistic and pragmatic. We want to say well done for scoring those A-level grades, but we also have to point out that much of what was covered at A-level was fundamentally flawed. Many of my students begin their degrees hoping for clear answers and reliable certainties. I have to tell them that there are no clear answers and that study at University will introduce them to a whole new set of uncertainties. Welcome on board, but hold on tight.

One of my Welcome-week activities that seems to help students feel at home is the start-of-course diagnostic assessment. Students seem accustomed  to having lots of tests and quizzes at school, so having a 15-minute short-answer test included alongside the many unfamiliar experiences of induction week seems to steady the ship for some of them. I tell them that the idea of the test is to help me work out the correct level to pitch material in the early sections of the course, and that it will also give them a broad indication of how far their pre-University work has prepared them for this new stage in their academic journey. They do the test, I let them mark their own or their neighbour’s paper straight away while I talk them through the answers, and as I take in their marked papers I give them a handout with all the questions and all the correct answers on it for them to take away. A couple of days later I see the students again, and tell them that in fact the first test was just a rehearsal, and the real diagnostic assessment is today. I tell them to put away any notes or devices, and I hand out the new, real diagnostic assessment. It is, to their surprise, identical to the one they did before. And here I deliver the first big lesson of the week. I was never interested in whether they knew the answers to the questions on the test. It doesn’t matter: they are only at the start of their learning journey. What I am interested in, and what I want to bring into the students’ line of sight, is what they did when they were presented with a body of information – answers – to take away. Usually, none of the students, or certainly very few, have done anything with the handout from the first test or followed up topics that they were unsure about. The marks for the second test are usually no better than the marks for the first.  And here is the teachable moment: the students can see that they totally blew their opportunity to do well on the second test by not following up the feedback on the first test; and they see that what I care about is not their factual knowledge but their approach to learning and their engagement with course materials. If there is a “mark” for the diagnostic assessment, it is the difference in scores between test one and test two. Most important of all is what you chose to do after test one. Or perhaps it is what you will do after test two. Welcome to the programme. Welcome to university.

Generally, this two-stage diagnostic assessment works well, but one potential downside is that I am in a small way tricking or misleading the students, and I don’t like to mess with their trust too much early on. It is important that the students see the key lesson from that exercise (why I had to trick them with that first test), and it is important to (re)establish trust quickly through other activities. One small way that I try to do that is by joining in with the students on further in-class exercises that they do. If I ask a tutorial group to take 60 seconds out and try to write a one-sentence answer to a sample question, I take that same 60 seconds and try to come up with a sentence of my own. Not one that I prepared earlier, but one made in the same time that the students are making theirs. I can then be much more believable if I agree (or disagree) with their argument that 60 seconds was not long enough, and they can even sympathise with me a little if, when I read out my own attempt, there is some comical error in it. If the students can then suggest improvements to my attempt, just as I suggest improvements to theirs, then we are (as a happy by product) well on the way towards addressing issues that surround the new NSS question about whether students feel part of a learning community. Of course they do – they are teaching me at the same time that I am trying to teach them. We are all in this together, even if we are looking at it from different perspectives of experience. And that is one of the most important lessons to incorporate into induction week. Even if it means that the time management exercise has to wait until next time!

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I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

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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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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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I often say that one of the great things about my job is the way I get a new bunch of students each year and a new opportunity to try out different ways of exploring Geography with them. Sometimes I find an approach that seems to work well and I use it year after year, tweaking it a little each year as I learn from the experiences of each group of students that try it out. And so it has come round to October again and here I am trying new versions of a couple of my old favourites: the “through the window” exercise and the “If Geography were music…” exercise.

Part of the reason that it’s so handy getting a new bunch of students each year is that it enables me to do the exercises again myself. People talk about “lifelong learning” a lot nowadays, and I encourage students to carry on doing these sorts of exercises after they finish the course, but I must be an extreme example, doing these Geography-stretching exercises for myself again and again year after year and finding that they turn out a little differently each time. I have been reading Peter Franklin’s (1997) description of Theodor Adorno’s work on Mahler, in which he writes that “Adorno’s dialectical method relied on what he called a “constellation” technique, where ideas and images spiral around their subject matter, creating almost three-dimensional intellectual structures that are best grasped as totalities. Readers impatient for signposts and clearly stated goals may understandably find his writing cryptic…”  Increasingly I find that my private approach to Geography, out of sight of the easily-frightened 1st-year students,  is a little like that: things build up year after year into an increasingly multi-layered three-dimensional cloud or constellation of ideas, and I start to understand what I must have meant many years ago when I wrote “reality is a bundle, not a list”. And so the repeated playing of these same exercises with different students and different versions of myself creates a thick impasto palimpsest in which I can take different paths each year and look across at earlier versions of myself taking sometimes a path now less well travelled! In fact (and you will see now why I referred to the Franklin / Adorno / Mahler reading) my early steps along this year’s path into the “If Geography were music” exercise are diverging very little from those of last year. Perhaps my constellation of ideas is starting to succumb to its own gravity. Last year I used Mahler’s 2nd Symphony as my example of a piece of music that could serve as a theme tune for Physical Geography, and I gave the students a YouTube clip of Bernstein conducting Mahler 2 to help explain where I was coming from. Last night I was looking back on an online discussion that I had with the students last year, and reading one of my posts again it makes so much sense to me that I think I’ll say it again, here!

The question we are discussing is: If Physical Geography were music, what music would it be? Here’s what I wrote last year: “You’ve demonstrated that you do indeed have some interesting things to say, and a couple of you have strung together some good threads. Most of you have focused on music that has characteristics (particularly in structure) that remind you of the characteristics of Phys Geog. That’s great, but you haven’t given me many alternative ways of looking at the question. One very simple alternative approach would be to focus on music that has a geographical topic to it or has been specifically inspired by a geographical feature or landscape. For example I like this little song “Geodes” from “The Geography of Light”, or you might like Elgar’s Worcestershire compositions. Always try to see a question from several different points of view. A couple of you have asked me about my own answer to this topic. Well, I agree with most of the ideas you’ve all put forward and I don’t want to offer anything too concrete to limit the discussion, but I do lean towards the classical symphony in this context. As I said in my show-and-tell, landscape is like a symphony and a symphony is like the world. Here are some reminders about that. If you want my “choose just one” offering for this year it’s the following (YouTubeClip) (it takes a few seconds to warm up so give it a chance). In the video, watch the conductor’s face: that’s the “physical geography” face – the face of somebody who really sees and really feels the world. See him at about 2.50mins. This is the closing of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. It’s a massive symphony, about 2 hours long, finally reaching this point with a huge orchestra and a massive choir. Try to hear all the instruments that are going into this: there are even cow bells in there. (In another symphony Mahler calls for a sledge hammer in the percussion section!) A symphony should be the world, and the conductor here has it running through him. Watch this. Turn up the volume. For me, this is the music that Physical Geography would be (this year, at least). “

Well, it’s early in the exercise so far this year, as I give the students a few weeks to think about it, so we’ll see what the students can teach me and what new ideas (and music) they can introduce me to, but for now I’m still with Mahler 2, this year as last. Another year, another symphony, but it’s Mahler 2 again!

PS – If you want to join in with the discussion there’s a Twitter competition for suggestions @KeelePhysGeog.

PPS – Reference: Franklin, P. (1977) “‘His fractures are the script of truth.’ – Adorno’s Mahler.” in Hefling, S.E. (ed) Mahler Studies (Cambridge).

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Predictably upon my return to this blog after a bit of a gap it’s to talk about Geography again. We have a new professor, and whatever else one might say about her she’s doing one thing that I would expect of a professor: she’s saying things I disagree with so strongly that it gives me pause to reflect. Well, of course, you say: it’s all a matter of opinion. She has her opinion; you have yours. Indeed, and that brings me to what I’ve been doing with my students in the last few tutorials. As I usually do in the first couple of weeks of the new year I ask the new 1st-years to try out the online discussion system by posting a message about themselves and trying to get an interesting discussion started amongst themselves.  They are only 1st-years, just starting out, so typically the discussion amounts to “I like football” “yeah, me too.” In the follow-up tutorial I wind them up a bit by giving them a hard time over their use of the apostrophe and assorted other failings, and I feign surprised disappointment at having to explain the meaning of the word egregious.  Having got them stirred up I make it clear that their idea of an interesting discussion fell somewhat short of what I’d expected of university undergraduates reading for an honours degree, and one of them takes the bait: “Well, just because you don’t think it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s not! It’s a matter of opinion.” I let it go. I might give them a condescending smile, but I let it go, having arranged for the conversation to reach this point just as we run out of time for the session. They’ve taken the bait, and now they’re ready for  the Points of View tutorials… Perhaps I’ll invite the new professor to come along.

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Something I tried in a tutorial this week went down quite well with the students. It was part of my series of tutorials geared towards helping students to see the world differently, to realise that there are different ways of looking at the world, and to appreciate that what you see depends on how you look. In previous sessions I had them look out of the window and tell me what they saw, and I got them to read “The Little Prince” and think about what St Exupery would see when he looked out of a window, and I talked to them about how the observations that we make when we look at the world depend on  our expectations of what the world should look like. For example, I get them to think about how we start by looking at things (making observations, collecting data, noticing the world around us), then move on to interpreting those things we’ve seen, and finally arrive at conclusions or answers or what we might call a ‘view of the world’. So ‘data plus interpretation leads to conclusion’. Or ‘looking plus thinking leads to opinion’. Then I get them to consider, looking back to the left hand end of that sequence, how we decide what to measure, what data to collect, what to look at, what to notice. They agree that it will in fact depend on what I had put at the right hand end of the sequence: our view of the world. So then they realise it’s not a line but a cycle. We then consider whether it is a closed loop where our views will never change because we only notice things that our viewpoint leads us to consider relevant, or a spiral where noticing new things causes us to develop our view enabling us to notice more new things. We end up agreeing that we need to open our minds to new viewpoints to enable us to notice new things and break out of our closed loop of myopic ignorance. This can then lead on to discussions about how we acquire “new views” and I introduce the outrageous idea that the students might do some reading. So, anyway, what was it that went down well this week? It was when I tried to illustrate my point using a camera. I asked the students in little groups to plan a photograph of the tutorial. They all came up with sketches of people sitting round the table in front of the whiteboard under the windows. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘so now take the photo’ and I handed them a camera. But the camera I passed round had a 300mm telephoto lens attached. Looking through that camera the best they could see was a corner of somebody’s head, or a fraction of a chair. It was fun (for me and for them) as they realised that  their vision of the tutorial had been based entirely on their “usual” perspective, and seeing it through this new lens they saw a whole different set of things. They couldn’t photograph the whole group or the whole room, so they started noticing much smaller things, noticing little details of things. They started looking at the room in a whole different way because I forced them to a different viewpoint.

So, next week perhaps the wide-angle lens? No, that’s exactly what they’ll be expecting.

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