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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

We’re back in the season of lecture fetishism. ‘Workshy’ lecturers are being ‘ordered’ back into the classroom to provide ‘proper’ value-for-money education rather than cut-price online stuff, while apparently the university life of a Times‘ columnist’s offspring would be ruined by having too much online learning. What’s striking is how far their conception of what should be restored is the sort of lecture that went out of fashion, at least outside basic introductory courses in the hard sciences, decades ago: to quote the old joke, the lecture as a means of transferring information from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through the brains of either. And, as I commented last week, some of the defences of the shift to online learning are equally ignorant of what actually happens in lecture rooms these days. It really feels like a debate about the current state of popular music between adherents of 7″ flexidiscs and proponents of cassette singles; not just total indifference to the content (hey, maybe someone should suggest to the Times that it’s easier to promote decolonisation and cultural Marxism in in-person classes where there are no recordings…) but utter ignorance of how technology and techniques have changed, and what the real issues are. (more…)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently preparing next term’s teaching – it’s been one of those weeks when the lingering effects of the plague make me incapable of stringing coherent thoughts together for more than five minutes at a time, and the better prepared I am for the new academic year then the bigger the chance I may be able to get writing done then, if the brain finds its way out of the doldrums. Bibliographies, guidance on assessment tasks, seminar texts, thumbnail pictures for the VLE. And then we come to the description of teaching and learning methods, and summary of how students will be expected to engage with the modules… Hmm. Can I get back to you on that? (more…)

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I am feeling tired and useless and miserable, and my nose hurts. The latter is due to being swiped by Olga, who took exception to being removed from the study windowsill where she was happily watching birds; the rest is seriously over-determined, but at least one contributing factor is the effort of trying to take on board the feedback on my latest bit of jazz composition. All this term we’ve been working on a piece based, however loosely, on rhythm changes [note for non-jazz people: the basic structure of George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, which formed the basis for numerous other compositions, especially in the bebop era, and interminable jam sessions]. I’ve been struggling to develop something that doesn’t just sound like a pastiche of Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington – there simply don’t seem to be many models for more contemporary rhythm changes, apart from Thelonius Monk, and if you follow that you just sound like second-rate Monk – but had written something that I thought was actually interesting and with a strong melody line. So it was a little disheartening – getting close attention from the tutor is always a double-edged sword – to be told that, while the rhythm is interesting and the bass line is good, and the melody has a good rhythm, my note choices are much too nice and safe, and by implication boring. (more…)

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About twenty years ago, I would guess, I started writing Theories, Models and Concepts in Ancient History. I had two main motives – or three, if you count the fact that I was supposed to be writing a book about ancient trade and had absolutely no idea what to say about it. Firstly, I wanted to write it for my students; I’d by now been teaching an ‘Approaches to Ancient History’ course for five years, which I’d stealthily reorientated in directions that suited my interests and intellectual commitments, and I was somewhat conscious of the lack of accessible introductory reading. Writing a suitable book myself seemed preferable to changing the module topics back to the previous version – and it offered the possibility of a kind of primitive flipped classroom, insofar as if everyone read the relevant sections of the book we could focus on debates, issues and freeform discussion, rather than having to devote lots of class time to covering the basics of the topic. (more…)

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Here we go again… The return of lockdown brings some very familiar feelings: relief that what seemed like pessimism in early December (stocking up on cat food and soya milk in anticipation of possible Brexit disruption, deciding to stick with entirely electronic reading lists although students were asking about hard copies of stuff in the library) has left me in a better position than I might have been, frustration and uncertainty about how to modify teaching plans again. This term should have been easier (and maybe still will be) as we’ve all got better at the different elements of online learning, not least by working out which ones aren’t worth bothering with. However, someone somewhere was obviously feeling optimistic at a critical moment, and so we’re currently scheduled to have less recorded and asynchronous stuff and more face-to-face time in any given module – although the latter will now be online for most if not all the term. A more precautionary approach would have been to assume that we’d be lucky if we could just carry on in the way we have been, but no… (more…)

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The Masterplan

I think it’s only appropriate to round off my blogging year – apart from the usual annual review, and unless something else strikes me in the meantime – with a final reflection on teaching inspired by my jazz composition course, which has been the one unquestionably positive experience in this basically rubbish year. This time it’s not about online learning and teaching, but a more general thought about managing seminars; and it’s inspired not by the tutor, but by conversation with other students on the discussion thread where we posted our homework exercises for comment (stifles deep sigh at total failure to get any sort of online discussion going in any of my modules this past term…). (more…)

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One of the things I always do in the Christmas vacation is catch up on the year’s music that I’ve missed. Partly it’s a matter of having a little bit more leisure to try out the unfamiliar, that might throw me off my stride or drive me up the wall, rather than sticking to things that I know will relax me or offer a suitable background for lecture prep or marking. Partly, though, it’s because of the End of Year lists – not so much those of the mainstream press, but something like The Spill, for its random eclecticism and the fact that I know that if contributor X likes something then it is at least worth a listen. It’s how the Spotify algorithm ought to work: a selection of people from across the globe with very different tastes, just presenting what they thought was great. Especially this year, when my involvement in composition classes means I’ve been listening to much more jazz and much less of anything else, this is invaluable in giving me a sense of what else is out there. (And I now have some new marking music – strong recommendation for the latest album from Ulrike Haage, not to mention her soundtrack to the recent Berlin 1945 series).)

And that is what I aim to do with this post every year: (more…)

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Stupid Boy

Reasons why the department really should be paying the fees for my online jazz composition course, #47… I’ve commented before that we teachers in higher education have to be very, very careful about extrapolating from our own experience as students; leaving aside the extent to which very many things have changed in the decades since we were undergraduates, most of us were extremely atypical, and what suited us may not be remotely useful for the majority of those we are now teaching. My class yesterday evening emphasised the corollary of this: most of us lack any experience whatsoever of something that is absolutely central to the difficulties experienced by the students who need help and support the most: the feeling of being completely crap and useless. (more…)

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I for one am overjoyed at the announcement of the government’s cunning plan for getting students home for Christmas, as it solves at a stroke the knotty problem of what to do with my Thucydides class in the final week of term. It’s always been the case that student attention tends to be lagging by then, and attendance dropping (especially for classes later in the week, as most of them disappear off home), which then creates the dilemma of whether to plough on with material regardless for the few who do turn up, having then to repeat it all at the beginning of next term, or just have an informal chat and knock off early, which then seems like short-changing the few who do bother to turn up. My solution in recent years has been a session on ‘Thucydidean Games’, not essential for the core elements of the module but containing potential both for serious analysis and for just playing some games, depending on the general mood. (more…)

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I Was Wrong

I was wrong – about so many things (thank you, the anonymous gentleman at the back), but I’m thinking specifically of developments in higher education this autumn. I really thought, after my scheduled face-to-face-in-person seminar was switched online for the first two weeks of term as part of a ‘staggered return to campus’, that I wouldn’t be back in Exeter until 2021. And I certainly imagined, as the case numbers rose (nationally and on campus), that we’d be online by now – officially, I mean, rather than the de facto situation whereby the combination of students isolating and students voting with their feet leaves me talking to one or two masked students in a room and simultaneously trying to engage with the larger numbers on the screen. (more…)

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