A balancing act

I grew up in a very traditional educational set up, where the student-teacher relationship was extremely formal. I got a real culture shock when I came to the UK for university and my tutors were happy to be addressed by their first names (I still remember feeling extremely awkward when I bumped into one of them at Nando’s). Over the years I’ve developed my own style – I remember a new student once asked how they should address me, and I just said “I don’t really mind, as long as you’re respectful”. So I get Sam, Dr Gooneratne, and everything in between (even the dreaded ‘Miss’, which I do try and discourage).

In terms of my interactions with students, I try to set the expectations at the start and over time they ‘earn the right’ to engage in a bit of banter. I try to be friendly, but I am not their friend. As one student put it:

You’re great until we do something stupid, then you give us that death stare.

I’d like to think it looks something like this

All those lines have got a bit blurred since using Teams. I’m not sure which letter my generation belongs to, but I am reasonably comfortable with internet vernacular and I use it quite a bit when chatting with friends. I’m also partial to the occasional emoji, and you’ve already seen my gif game! The chat feature in Teams is great but now my brain is really confused. Do I maintain proper sentence structure? Do I avoid using emojis for fear of not being taken seriously? Is it OK to type ‘lol’? I try to maintain professional email etiquette at all times but professional chat etiquette is a new one for me. I want my students to feel that I’m approachable but work is work…right?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a very private person, and I like to keep my work and non-work lives separate (lockdown is making that extremely difficult). I also mentioned in a previous post that I was really missing singing. So yesterday, this happened:

I agonised for days (maybe weeks) about whether to record it at all, and if so, what to do with that recording. Once I recorded and uploaded it, I agonised about whether to share the link online, or just leave it there for anyone (or no one) to watch. Once I decided the share the link online, I agonised about what people might say, whether it was inappropriate (are academics allowed to have hobbies?)…yes there was a LOT of agonising.

Producing the video for me was as much about the process as the product – I worked out all the harmonies myself, and I combined the videos using PowerPoint – I know there are fancy apps that’ll do all that for you, but this is partly about teaching myself a skill. So yes it’s not perfect (trimming videos is really hard in PowerPoint!) but it’s all mine…and I’m pretty proud of my first attempt. In the end, I decided to post the link on twitter, as you can see (although I did try to sneak it in late at night when I thought no one I knew would be awake!). Thankfully it seems to have been received well, which is nice!

I think at the end of the day, it’s a balancing act (“ah now the title makes sense!”, I hear you say): between being casual and professional, between having a clear line between work and non-work and being an open book, and between quietly indulging in a hobby and being a fame-hungry YouTube star (ahem). I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Until then, I’ll leave you with…no, not Kacey Musgraves (although you can be amazed by the original ‘Rainbow’ on YouTube). How about some glorious Tom Odell (with Alice Merton) instead? Enjoy.

The kids are alright but are we?

Observation #3: Academics are human too

Yes it’s been almost a month since my last post, and that’s not entirely down to laziness. It’s absolutely right that a number of adjustments have been made to student assessment deadlines etc. to allow for the fact that their lives have been turned upside down but it’s important to recognise that academics’ lives have also been affected in exactly the same way.

Rather than list all the ways in which our lives have been impacted (I’m not feeling sufficiently “woe is me” for that right now), I thought I’d highlight the ways in which we’ve been working together in my department to support colleagues. We’ve primarily been using MS Teams and OneNote and whilst they’re not perfect, they’re pretty close to what we need right now.

Platform: MS Teams

We’re very lucky that MS Teams had been rolled out across the institution long before the issue of COVID-19 arose. We already had a departmental team, and there had been a number of semi-successful attempts to make it a hub for information. That idea has really taken flight now, and as departmental management we’re trying to limit the amount of attachments that are sent via email. We’ve set up channels for topics as well as private channels for subject areas and with time I’m hoping that more colleagues will treat the space as their ‘go-to’ for all things departmental.

Highlight: Social Chat

I’m not 100% sure whose idea this was but it’s worked better than I’d ever imagined. We have a recurring Teams meeting at the end of the traditional working day, a few times a week. It’s an opportunity for colleagues to have a casual chat, share any thoughts or concerns, and see some friendly faces before logging off for the day. When it started, the meeting would be initiated by one of the team leaders and the format was similar to a departmental meeting without an agenda. But now…most days a colleague will start the meeting just a few minutes before the scheduled start time (always makes me smile)! We don’t get everyone on there (which is fine) but there’s a strong core group eager to have some interesting discussions. There’s still a bit of ‘business talk’ (again, absolutely fine) but there’s also a lot of sharing good EdTech practice, as well as a bit of general chat (mostly about the weather and how we’re all missing sport).

And the latest trend (for which I take full responsibility, as indicated in the tweet below) is to use a holiday pic as a custom background and then get the others to guess where it’s from!

It’s just a bit of silliness but anything that helps us connect, right? I’m normally a very private person (strange, given how much I talk) but I’m quite enjoying sharing these (heavily curated) titbits of my life with my colleagues.

Platform: MS OneNote

The departmental Staff Notebook is another resource that we had set up before the lockdown. Hasn’t necessarily grown in the same way that the Team has but I think it’s found its purpose as a repository for ‘how to’ guides. Its strength is in the capability to host different types of sources (weblinks, files, images, my chicken scratch handwriting) on the same page.

Highlight: EdTech Tool Tips

Now this is what I’m really proud of! Soon after lockdown it became apparent that whilst all of us had received training on various EdTech tools, not all of us felt confident enough to use those tools with our students. Rather than force each person to go hunting around the internet for their own solutions, we decided to pool our resources and develop a collaborative database of information for the different EdTech tools being used. I asked around and realised that our collective skill set is actually quite substantial, but no one else knows about it…and so the Collaborative section of the Staff Notebook was born. It’s essentially a wiki but as I said earlier, OneNote has the benefit of supporting a variety of sources so we’ve got links, screenshots and videos with step-by-step instructions for the most used features of different tools, curated by the departmental ‘experts’.

It’s been well received by colleagues (I think/hope) and it’s great to see them experimenting with the different tools and providing their own tips and tricks. Now we just need more students to engage!

I know I sound like a Microsoft advert and like I said I know it’s not perfect…but for the most part we can do what we need to do and that’s the most important thing right now. I’ve switched on the comments for this post so if anyone reading this has any tips of their own, I’d be interested to read about it.

I’ll close with the new UK #1…partly because it’s absolutely lovely, and partly because Paloma Faith looking that glamorous whilst standing at her ironing board just makes me laugh.