I like to play video games to relax. I always have, ever since I had a Spectrum 48k. I tend to go through phases of what I like to play though. At the moment, it’s third person action-adventures, but often it’s something more strategy-based. One time last year, my wife asked me what I was playing, to which I replied Cities: Skylines. My town was coming along very nicely and I was rightly proud. “So, let me get this straight” she said, “In order to relax from your management job, you play games where you’re a manager?” (as always, she cuts right to the heart of the matter; and then she rolls her eyes. A lot). Although I like to think of myself as my discipline’s Henry Cavill, it turns out that I’m actually my discipline’s Ben Wyatt. This is all a long-winded way of explaining why I was very happy to get Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games for Xmas.
Long-time readers of my blogging (so basically just my wife, who is legally required to read my writing due to a subclause in our marriage licence) will know that when I read books from outside of my discipline, I tend to consider the content from the perspective of my academic and leadership work, and then off-load those thoughts onto this website. Sometimes I worry that all I do is read books that confirm my own views of leadership in HE, rather than stretching my boundaries in new directions. But I’ve literally just today read Michael Schur worrying about that very same issue in his book on moral philosophy and he decided that it’s not a problem if certain writers resonate more than others. And he has 2 Emmys and 19 nominations. Do you? No. In conclusion – I’m fine. Carry on Tim. You’re doing great work. (cue eyeroll)
Back to Sid Meier. Meier is one of the foremost games developers, particularly when it comes to strategy games. It was only when I read through his list of games that I remembered just how many of them I’d actually played – without realising that he had made them. His emphasis on meaningful decisions in his games has transformed the landscape of gaming. So as expected, while I was reading through his autobiography, passages kept leaping out to me and so I have collated them here.
“No subject is universally boring; everything contains a core of fascination somewhere.”
Except chemistry. Ugh. But otherwise I very much believe that this holds true. In fact, you can see that I’ve said something similar in the quote I gave for the promo work of our TU Research Week last month. Our job in the classroom is to get that feeling of fascination across to our students. I was chatting last week to some of our new academic staff here, and we got onto the topic of how to start making lectures when you’re new to it. We discussed the tendency to think back to what we enjoyed ourselves when we were students and then replicate that. And of course, remembering what we didn’t like and not doing that. I don’t remember many lectures from the UG days (give me a break, it was 20 years ago) but the ones I do remember were either brilliant or terrible. Actually, that’s not fair, they weren’t terrible per se, but rather painfully boring because it was clear that the academic at the front was bored. If you don’t find your own subject fascinating, no-one else will. Which is actually the quote I referred to above. It’s not always possible to make a subject interesting (learning the names of the bones of the body is, and will always be, a tedious exercise) but you can still be enthusiastic about it.[Actually, as I read through this while editing the page I feel I should add that this enthusiasm shouldn’t be limited to the classroom. It should also extend to the boardroom. HE leaders should also be excited about what we do and that should be tangible – if you can’t be enthusiastic about transforming lives, then when can you?]
“I’m often asked in interviews when I got interested in games, usually with the implied hope that I’ll identify a prodigiously early moment… some talismanic object of inspiration.”
I never had a single moment of inspiration for getting into forensic anthropology or bioarchaeology. I went to university wanting to be a geography teacher, so I guess I must have had some sort of anti-inspiration in terms of the geography. But let’s stick with the positives – I just found the archaeology component really interesting. I slowly realised that I found people really interesting. That’s probably partly why I wanted to teach, I guess, which is what I’ve ended up doing. I did have a moment of inspiration for my burned bone research though, and that happened in a darkened aisle in the journals section of the University of Bradford library. I presume that if you go there now, there’s some sort of plaque.
We could even expand our definition of ‘talismanic object of inspiration’ to include those academics who have had a big impact on our careers. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some brilliant mentors over the years, and to have had the opportunity to meet all the academics who I was inspired by as my career developed (bad news for you if we’ve not met then…). And of course, I even put a ring on one of them.
“At the time it felt like a fun project, bit not any sort of life-changing decision. The big moments rarely do, I think, and the danger of retroactive mythologizing is that it makes people want to hold out for something dramatic, rather than throwing themselves into every opportunity.”
If we expand this thought, I think it becomes really important. Successful careers are rarely built on a single event, but rather a long process of working hard in a particular area. I often get asked about how to develop a career in academia but it’s tricky for me to answer because the context in which my career developed is different to the one in which colleagues are working now. I do think that I benefited from taking opportunities that were presented to me when I was starting out – you just don’t know what these opportunities will lead to down the line. But this means we need both opportunities and the space/capacity to grab them when they arrive. And bravery. You need to be brave to sign-up to these opportunities when they come.
“It was only a little bit impossible, which is not the same as completely impossible.”
Hands-down my favourite line in the book. Innovation is a risky business. We’ve all had research ideas that went nowhere, or tried something new in the classroom which went completely pear-shaped, but you won’t make something new by doing the same thing over and over. At some point, you’ve just got to give it a whirl. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to do this in an environment that was comfortable with a bit of risk (or, you know, I just didn’t tell anyone…). My job now is to create that environment for others. This is easier said than done, and I’d view it as a constant process rather than arriving at a discrete point in time. Hopefully some of the structures and frameworks we’ve put in place within the School (like our Academic Excellence Framework, our Transformation Board, and our various Working Groups) means that we can minimise the impact of things going wrong, whilst still giving everyone the freedom to experiment.
“The dichotomy between someone else’s talent and your own is a cause for celebration, because the further apart you are, the more you can offer each other. I want to combine other people’s unique expertise with mine, and create something that none of us could have made alone.”
There’s so much talk, with so many examples, on academic Twitter at the moment, of the terrible actions of some professors and supervisors to their students, or between colleagues. Usually with some power imbalance being exploited. It’s entirely depressing and a terrible aspect of academia. To be honest, I’ve experienced that myself when my career was developing, twice, actually, and it’s the sort of experience that can stay with you. But I’ve had many more experiences of colleagues supporting me and my work. I’ll admit that when I was on my road to Prof, I was very much focused on my own career development. I supported others, but I had my sights on Chair. Part of my shift into increasing leadership roles is because I take great pleasure in the success of others. I like to provide an environment for talent to flourish; I really want to see my team do well – even if that means them leaving us for pastures new.
I’m also really pleased to see a shift within the sector from the ‘hero academic’ model of funding and working, to one which recognises the importance of teamwork. All of the best research and teaching innovations I’ve been involved in have been the product of diverse talent coming together. So maybe that would be a piece of advice I’d give for career development – get yourself in a team where you’re surrounded by people smarter than you and hold on tight.
“Interesting decisions are not about the specifics of what you let the player choose between, but whether the investment feels both personal and significant to the outcome.”
What struck me about this line is how it refers to assessments. How often do we feel that we need to include assessments just to encourage course content to be learned?
When I led our review of our Foundation Year when I was Associate Dean (Learning & Teaching) I went out to the US to visit the set-up at Olin College of Engineering in Boston (it was wicked good). The whole trip was fascinating, and I took many initiatives back to Teesside for this review. A key one, which was somewhat controversial at the time, was to remove assessments.
It was clear from our work that the new FY students were struggling with the adjustments to being at University. And of course they would – most of them were (are) first gen with limited experience of HE. We shifted the emphasis of the year from a deficit model (which focused on what they didn’t know) to a preparatory model (giving them the skills needed to thrive in HE). With that in mind, what is the point of grading assessments? So although we kept the assessments in place (because it was important that our students experienced different methods of assessment, especially if they hadn’t been in education for a while), we reduced the number, and made them pass/fail not graded. Student satisfaction and progression improved because we reframed what the FY was trying to do and made the work significant (by which I mean significant as authentic, not significant as summative) to the outcome.
“But with enough reinforcement, players may even find themselves asking the same question in the real world.”
You know already that I’m a big fan of gaming, and consequently the gamification of learning. Play helps us learn, and really that’s all role-play is and we do that all the time with our students. And simulation. Rather excitingly we’ve been investing in kit and staff in this area to facilitate this environment. You don’t learn when things go right, you learn when things go wrong. This comes back to my comments above about working in an environment that is comfortable with a level of risk. There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about whether module assessments really appreciate this, but for now we can hopefully agree that a key point of practical sessions, simulation environments, role-play scenarios, and so on, is that our students will take away the experience and apply it in the real world. Which by the way, is a phrase I hate since it implies that education somehow does not take place in the real world, but is disconnected from it.
Well, there we are. I have taken away some reflections which support my view of HE from just the sort of book I like to read. Nothing biased there, then. I’m sure if you read the book (which you should, because it’s quite good. Or don’t. It’s not my book so I don’t really care) you’d also find passages that resonate with your view. I do think though, and I’ve said this before, that there’s much to be gained from reading about leadership from other disciplines, and plenty of useful advice to take on board. Anyway, I’m off to relax now by pretending to be a god in Civilisation 5.