Jill of all trades, mistress of none

And just like that, the teaching year is over. I don’t have any MSc projects to supervise so once I get my marking done, I’ll be putting the lecture material aside for a couple of months and focus on all the other aspects of the job.

Speaking of which, my mother asked me the other day…

How many work pies do you have your fingers in?

So I started counting. And when I got to 10, I stopped. What I noticed about these ten items is that all but one of them (teaching) are almost entirely collaborative…no wonder I’m so exhausted all the time! Also, about four of them are EDI- / mentoring-related. And it got me thinking…why me? I mean yes I’m passionate about these things and I like the notion that doing them helps make my workplace better for all, but why only me?

It got me thinking about the extra pressure placed on academics with protected characteristics to ensure that an institution isn’t placing extra pressure on academics with protected characteristics (yes, exactly). This THE article from February last year highlighted pretty much the same thing, lamenting that engaging with EDI initiatives was merely seen as ‘good citizenship’ (so where’s that ‘good citizenship’ expectation of academics without protected characteristics, huh?). And if you’re still not convinced, this BBC Workplace article from September last year suggested that it’s an issue even beyond academia, and beyond the UK. And if you need even more proof from within academia, this 2017 report to HEFCE by the Equality Challenge Unit on “Sector-leading and innovative practice in advancing equality and diversity” stated:

“…initiatives to ensure Black and minority ethnic (BME) representation on recruitment panels are likely to be viable in institutions that have an existing pool of BME staff. In institutions with few BME staff, such an initiative is likely to overburden existing BME staff.”

Include gender in your focus and the added burden on female academics from minority ethnic backgrounds is clear. Or maybe it isn’t? I mean that report is from 2017, and it’s 2021 now with no visible change.

Most of the articles I’ve linked to champion remuneration and workload recognition for staff involved in EDI initiatives. Whilst yes that would solve the immediate issue of the cost of such initiatives going unnoticed, I don’t think it does anything to change the status quo. And it definitely doesn’t enable affected colleagues to achieve their career aspirations at the same rate as those without such responsibilities.

So what would be a better approach? Well to make sure that EDI isn’t only a concern for poorly represented groups, all staff need to be expected to engage with EDI initiatives. Now most institutions employ mandatory training as a means of achieving this, but to me this is just another box ticking exercise that looks good on the surface but doesn’t translate into anything meaningful. So here’s what I’d like to see in addition:

    • Academics are given proper practical training on how to support staff (and students) with protected characteristics (so no more of this “I don’t know how to mentor female students” nonsense).
    • Academics are required to reflect on their working habits and identify something they can do to foster a healthy working environment (so no more of this “it’s a societal problem, there’s nothing I can do to fix it” nonsense).
    • Engagement with the above is made an expectation of all academics (so no more of this “I’m far too busy to do things that don’t result in research output” nonsense).

I’m not saying this is a quick fix that’ll solve all our problems, but as I see it the only way to have a more inclusive workplace is to include everyone in making it a reality. Otherwise it’ll just fall on those of us who tick the minority boxes to do all the heavy lifting because it’s the right thing to do, while everyone else just quietly gets ahead in their careers.

Anyway, back to the ten pies. Number 11 isn’t actually work-related, but it’s something that’s been neglected because of work. Last weekend was the first in a long time that I didn’t spend preparing lecture material, so I decided to revisit it. And so, I leave you with my third youtube cover (or you can watch the original). Hopefully it won’t take me another 5 months to do the next one!

You lecturer types are all free during the summer, yeah?

Er…no. 😒

It’s been over six weeks since my last post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Fortunately (I hope) that’s not the case; I’m alive and well, and I have been busy (sort of), honest! I’ve spent a lot of time supporting students, supporting colleagues and preparing for next semester’s hybrid delivery. However, everyone on the internet is talking about the hybrid delivery so I won’t bore you with my inconsequential 2 cents. Instead, here’s the highlights package of everything else I’ve been doing…

Sharing is caring Pt. 1

Every year I really look forward to Teesside University’s Learning & Teaching Enhancement Conference. It’s a chance for me to share what I’ve been doing, and an opportunity for me to pick up some tips from colleagues in other subject areas. Thanks to you-know-who (is a virus a who or a what?), this year’s conference couldn’t go ahead. However, all was not lost as our School decided to hold a Teams-based mini L&T conference instead.

I decided to share what I’d been doing on formative feedback in OneNote Class Notebooks (a big shout out to Helen Carney – @SciKnit – for introducing me to its wonders in that staff CPD session a year and bit ago!). Colleagues from across the School, from Graduate Tutors to Heads of Departments, shared their own good practice using Teams, Office Lens and even bespoke applications to support students. It was great to see the innovative practice in the different departments and to be able to share our work with so many colleagues in the School.

Staycation time!

If you follow me on twitter, you may have seen this from a few weeks back:

I’m normally a huge fan of the staycation – at Christmas, I love crawling out of bed and onto the sofa and watching far too many mediocre Christmas movies. But when all I’d been doing for the past three months was crawling out of bed and onto the laptop and responding to far too many emails, the idea of ‘more of the same-ish’ really wasn’t that appealing.

Unfortunately, I had no other option. Well I did, thanks to some kind invitations from nearby colleagues to get some exercise…but physical exertion and I have something of a love-hate relationship. I love to walk; I hate to start walking. “The inertia is strong with this one!” I hear you say. Indeed.

I don’t like cricket…I love it!

Whilst I may not be a fan of physical exertion myself, observing others being all sporty is a past time I enjoy immensely (cue all the jokes about cricket not requiring physical exertion). When I was writing up my PhD thesis during the UK’s coldest December on record, one thing that kept me going was the gentle chat on BBC’s Test Match Special’s Ashes coverage. I’ve been a loyal TMS follower since then, so it was only natural that I tuned in for the post-covid return to cricket in the form of the West Indies tour. It was really impressive to see how all the various bio-bubbles had been established and maintained, with a view to keeping everyone safe and making sure the game could proceed.

Sharing is Caring Pt. 2

Aside from the OneNote Class Notebook, I’ve also done a fair bit of work using Teams this year (some of which I’ve mentioned elsewhere). Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to present this work alongside Esther Ventura-Medina (@evm_SkIL) and Daniel Beneroso (@DanielBeneroso) as part of an IChemE webinar: Online collaborative learning – working with teams remotely. It was my first time presenting outside the Teesside audience, and I think it went really well, if I do say so myself!

Please pick M(IE-)E!

Last, but definitely not least, I submitted an application to maintain my Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert status for the coming year. Now the nervous waiting begins!

So yes, that’s it. Not inundated I guess but definitely not ‘free’! I’ve got some other projects in the pipeline so I’ll try to post more regularly from now on.

In the midst of all this, I almost forgot that last week marked 9 years since my PhD graduation. Sadly that happy day coincided with the untimely passing of the musical gem that was Amy Winehouse. And so I’ll leave you with one of my favourites of her’s. Until next time.

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 Internet is for everyone

Remember back in the day (i.e. last year) when everyone was sharing photos like this and feeling oh so smug?

[Photo by Hold my ARK from Pexels]
I never did like those signs. Especially since most of my wifi use is to speak to my mother! As I posted on Twitter last week:

Anyway now we’re treating the internet as a basic human right, and the naysayers of old are starting to realise what a powerful tool it can be. There’s no better example of this than the Zoom meeting I’ve just come out of. A little background…

My parents (who have become quite spiritual post-retirement) normally attend a weekly meditation class at their local meditation centre in Sri Lanka. I don’t have the same opportunity here (or more likely I’m just too lazy to seek one out) but whenever I visit them, I tag along. Whilst the classes attract practitioners from various backgrounds, it’s probably safe to say that a significant proportion are in their golden years and very much in the “kids these days with their phones and their internet…are you also on The Facebook?” camp.

In an effort to maintain some sense of normalcy and support his patrons’ mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19, the meditation centre’s chief incumbent monk has started using Zoom to run his meditation classes online. This week’s session had ~30 participants – mostly from Sri Lanka but also from Indonesia, Russia and the UK. It was great for me personally to be able to engage in some directed mindfulness meditation to manage my own wellbeing (highly recommended by pretty much everyone!), but it was also great to see people who normally wouldn’t engage with technology embracing it so readily.

And I’ve noticed that at work as well. Colleagues have been trying out different platforms and really getting into the spirit of using EdTech tools to collaborate with staff and students alike. For all the complaining we like to do about the difficulty in getting people to engage with advances in L&T, it’s been extremely encouraging to see everyone getting on board. I hope this mood continues beyond COVID-19.

Anyway I hope your ‘non-work’ day is going well. I’ll close with a shout-out to all those people who feel that the good weather is an excuse to ignore social distancing rules. Please please please do the next right thing and stay at home.

In the words of the Dowager Countess…

What is a weekend?

There is daylight (a lot of it now), and there is darkness…everything else is a blur of Blackboard, Outlook, Teams and WhatsApp. When I decide to stop working and try and think of something else to do, the laptop sits on the dining table, judging me for not being productive enough. When I do try to get some work done, my eyes scream at me, begging to focus on something other than a computer screen (Er…how about a phone screen? Or a TV screen?).

Yesterday (Wednesday, if you believe the internet) I realised it had been a week since I had seen another human being in the flesh…I’ve been so ‘hyper-connected’ with everyone online that I hadn’t even noticed. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing! What I have noticed is that I’m missing choir. There is something magical about singing together – and it’s well documented – that really lifts me up. And it’s the one thing that you can’t really do in isolation – yes I know there are all these videos on YouTube and TikTok (btw what IS that?!) of choirs singing via Zoom but dodgy internet connections will always ruin the best laid plans.

So then I think, maybe I should open Audacity and create my own choir. Upload a few videos…like EVERYONE. ELSE. ON. THE. INTERNET. I used to, back in my student days…but I’m far less self-indulgent now (she says, on her blog that’s all about her). Actually scrap that – I’m far too lazy now.

And so you will only hear my voice on Panopto screencasts extolling the virtues of Excel as part of my ‘general coursework feedback’…for now at least. Who knows what will happen as time goes on (and I get more restless).

Since signing off with a song appears to be a ‘thing’ on this blog now, here’s one for today. It was the last song on this morning’s BBC Radio UK Singalong, courtesy the Asian Network, and it had me bouncing all over the house!