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[personal profile] liv
It's a requirement of my job that I had to take a course in higher education teaching. In principle I approve of this, because I think people who are good at academic research shouldn't just be assumed to be capable of teaching undergrads without any training or QA. In reality, the course I had to take was... let's say seriously flawed. I don't want to bitch about everything that was wrong with it because that doesn't make for an interesting post. The thing is that I have learned a whole lot, more in spite of the official content of the course than because of it.

Somebody mentioned in one of the introductory sessions that whatever else the course achieved, it would turn you into a bad student. That turned out to be absolutely prophetic. I skipped the reading and turned up to class unprepared, I gossipped or daydreamed instead of working on group exercises, I whooped and punched the air when class was cancelled. The assessment was a 10,000 word mini "dissertation" plus a portfolio of evidence of teaching and reflective practice. I procrastinated on it like nothing else, finding any desperate excuse to ask for extensions, eventually taking three years over what was supposed to be a 9-month course. And in spite of that I ended up writing most of it in the last 48 hours before the absolute final no really we mean it this time deadline. This is a piece of work that was realistically not that challenging, and one with major implications for my career progress both at my current institution and in any future jobs I may apply for. Yet, I couldn't make myself do it even halfway properly.

I am very embarrassed to write this bit, because it's going to sound like a humblebrag. The fact is, I got an email this week congratulating me on passing the course. My reaction was great relief, but also incredulity; this was without a doubt the worst piece of academic work I've ever done in my life, how on earth did I manage to scrape a pass in what is supposed to be equivalent to the first third of a Masters level course? Then I went to fetch my markers' comments and find out how I had possibly managed to squeeze past the minimum requirements. In fact: 4 passes in the compulsory, ungraded sections, 4 As and 2 Bs in the graded sections. (In keeping with the university's traditions, an A means beyond what's expected at this level; in theory it's not enough to complete an assessment perfectly, you have to be working beyond the standard being assessed). The marker's comments are positively effusive, with the only criticism being a little under-theorized. I mean, the hell it's under-theorized, I have barely done even a quarter of the absolute basic minimum required reading, and most of what I have read didn't really even make it into the diss because I didn't leave myself even close to enough time to collate my references and incorporate them into the text. And my reward for omitting the actual getting to grips with the field part of the course: The very real strengths of this portfolio substantially outweigh this partial omission... I really enjoyed reading this portfolio.

That, my friends, is a mixture of big-time bullshitting, and really carefully tailoring my work to the exact criteria in the markscheme in the most literal way imaginable. At some point when I was drowning in awful procrastination, [personal profile] khalinche gave me the excellent suggestion of treating it like writing blog posts. That really helped, because I could easily write 10K words here in a week and think nothing of it. And the style I've developed over a decade of blogging is fairly close to what's expected in "reflective writing": this thing happened, here's some background to help people understand what went on, here's how I feel about it, and here's some links to articles other people have written about this kind of issue. What I did was slightly increase the formality of my usual writing style (which comes naturally enough to me since I write nearly as many formal academic texts as I do blog posts), and at the same time massively dial up the pathos. For example, I told a story about how I froze when confronted with homophobic bullying among the students, because the situation made me flash back to being a closeted teenager when my peers were making homophobic remarks. Both the bullying and the flashbacks actually happened, but I made much more of a big emotional deal of it than I needed to. Which won me: This well-written commentary contains a fabulously 'real' and deeply analytical account... And the second half, the box-ticking, is my good student skills shining through even when I've regressed to pulling an all-nighter levels of bad student.

I should note here my deepest gratitude to [personal profile] jack, who pointed out to me that I had left things far too late to do this piece of work well, so my only option was to bite the bullet and do it badly, because not doing it at all would be far worse. One of my personality flaws is that I have a fear of doing things badly, and this often gets in the way of learning anything new, because doing things badly is an unavoidable phase one has to go through in order to do them well. I'm also grateful to [livejournal.com profile] rysmiel who kept me company when I was up in the middle of the night desperately trying to sort out the formatting and similar to get the piece into a state that looked superficially finished when I handed it in in time for the noon deadline a few hours later. As it is what I handed in wasn't even proofread, I hadn't quite removed all the square bracketed notes to self like "[insert theory waffle here]". I apparently got away with it.

In lots of ways, turning into a bad student was extremely educational for me. It's a really important issue that most people who become professional academics have only ever experienced excelling at their subjects, and I'm no exception. I've always professed sympathy for people who don't do well at academic things, but until I became a bad student myself I think part of me always half-suspected that less successful students are simply not as clever as me. You know, reading the requirements carefully and tailoring your work to that is such an obvious thing, why would anyone ever not do it? And time-management, that's easy-peasy, right, you know how long it takes to accomplish a given piece of work, so why would you ever not set aside that amount of time plus a bit of extra slack?

Thing is, I was a bad student partly because for the first time in my academic career I genuinely had more important things to do than get high marks in a particular course. I mean, I've always thought I was busy, I've always combined academic work with community volunteering and putting time and effort into relationships (friendships as well as romantic ones), I've always had to balance study time with both hobbies and commitments. But until now, I never really had absolutely essential, unmoveable things I had to prioritize ahead of completing the preparation for class or finishing the write-up. I was also a bad student because I wasn't motivated by the course material for its own sake. I could bitch about the really poor level of teaching and the crappy course design (basically trying to be all things to all people), but goodness knows I've endured bad teaching in the past, most of my undergrad for example, and I've just taken that to mean I'll have to self-teach, rather than a reason to blow off participating properly.

Another reason I was a bad student was because I actually struggled with the academic material. Lots of people look at someone like me who typically achieves high marks in everything and imagine it's completely effortless. Which is always really annoying to me, because I've never coasted on my innate ability, I've always worked really hard in every academic setting (until this course). But there's a difference between putting in lots of time and effort, and as a result fully understanding the material and being able to do well at it, and putting in lots of time and effort and still not really getting it. [personal profile] kaberett is absolutely right to point out that social science isn't any more jargon-heavy than any other field of study. But my problem was not that I didn't know the definitions of words, as that I didn't really understand the concepts the terms (very often words with common English meanings entirely unrelated to their technical ones) were referring to. I'm afraid that if this Higher Ed teaching course had been my only exposure, it would have confirmed my prejudices that social sciences are mostly wishy-washy and people making stuff up without any evidence and using lots of long words to make their opinions sound respectable. Fortunately, at the same time I was struggling through the course, I was being exposed to really high quality medical sociology and medical education research via my department, which very sensibly regards the study of human beings and societies as an important part of medical training just as much as physiology.

For one thing, that helped me to overcome my prejudices; the "problem" with social science is nothing more than Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. 90% of natural science is crap too, it's using long words to justify existing opinions and prejudices, it's based on experiments which assume their conclusions rather than properly falsifying hypotheses with rigorous controls. But because I am completely embedded in the biological science world, I can filter out all the mediocre stuff and I basically only notice the really well-supported models. I still do find it difficult to connect to "theory" as opposed to what I think of as empirical work, but I am much more aware now of good research going on in social sciences and I'm starting to get the hang of where some of the theory comes from.

So although I haven't done the course reading anything like systematically, I've read enough and had enough discussions that I am starting to use the tools and concepts of academic education to actually be a better teacher and understand better how this mysterious thing called "education" actually works. The title of the post comes from a discussion with [personal profile] hatam_soferet; she was asking me about formulating a syllabus for some classes she was running, and I found myself citing a couple of competing theories within education and discussing the evidence for and against... just like a baby educationalist. That was something of a revelation: I actually have something like a pedagogy. I don't only have decades of practical coal-face experience; part of the problem with I had with this HE course was that it assumes most academics in their first faculty post have basically no teaching experience, maybe a bit of demonstrating or TAing here and there, but nothing substantial, and therefore the course spent a lot of time painstakingly explaining concepts that have been second-nature to me since my early teens. But I also have the beginnings of an underlying theory for how good teaching works, partly based on actual research into the psychology of learning, partly based on picking and choosing bits from other theorists who have interpreted the data according to their various philosophies. It's a minor thing in a way, but I have terminology that would be recognizable to professional educationalists for discussing things that happen in the university environment.

The second part of this revelation was that [personal profile] kaberett mentioned in IRC something that was confusing them from the materials in their induction for new lab demonstrators. And before I realized it I'd talked for an hour (sorry, #dreamwidth) about the underlying educational concepts behind the advice that [personal profile] kaberett was given, including some discussion about the elements of it I don't completely accept and my sound, grounded in alternative academic theories of education rather than just made up off the top of my head, reasons for my critiques. So, it turns out that in retrospect, I have learned something from this fairly low-level introduction to the academic field of education, something of the actual material as well as a hard lesson in humility. In fact, part of the reason I found writing up the final diss really frustrating was that I know just enough to be able to see all the ways that my dissertation is deficient.

Anyway, over the past few years I've become far less intimidated by the aspects of my job that require me to be able to engage with social sciences as well as natural sciences. And I've just about got to what I used to think of as the starting point of learning a new subject: I have the tools and the structures and the basic concepts to be able to go on learning. And I'm proud of getting there, even if I'm not at all proud of the underhand methods I used to get myself an undeservedly high mark for a really shoddy piece of work.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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