Captured in Time

Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back.

Early on in my lecture recording research, I came across a fascinating conflict. Students loved being able to capture something they perceived to be a valuable resource. Staff were worried the act of capture conferred artificial value to the resource. It took us time, but eventually we produced a resource bringing these two camps together, to get them to discuss where the value lay, and we saw a lot of benefits with this approach (this workshop is available for free on the QAA Scotland Focus on Lecture Recording site). 

Recently I’ve been exploring student experiences of the last academic year, to find out what we did well and what we could do better. There’s another conflict in there. Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back. 

Our lecture recording workshop took a lot of work, and I’m very proud of it. As an intellectual exercise, can we do something like this to help our students resolve their disagreements regarding the covid experience?

What should not be a surprise to me is the obvious finding – people are all individuals and experience the world through their own unique lens of wants, needs and desires. We have to start from a position that neither of these experiences are Wrong. People who have suffered have absolutely suffered. And people who have thrived in this time have thrived. Both experiences are valid. 

It would be lovely if we could give both camps (and the myriad of camps in between, but this is a blog post so lets keep it simple) their own unique and tailored learning experience. Unfortunately, at least in the vet school, we don’t have the staff required to deliver that unique experience for each student. We have material which needs to be delivered, and we can’t feasibly deliver it in multi-modal approaches. So what choice do we make? 

This reminds me of the paradox of inclusivity – the idea that an affordance for one group can be a barrier for another. Say you are hosting an event, and one friend uses a seeing-eye dog. Another friend has a very severe dog allergy. Who compromises to attend the event? What’s fair to ask? We make these kinds of choices every day. When I teach I encourage students to step out of their comfort zone, I ask questions, even though I know it is uncomfortable for some students. I take steps to mitigate the discomfort, but ultimately I deliberately choose to push students whenever I teach. It is not always comfortable, because learning is not always comfortable. I take many steps to create an environment where you can recover from feeling uncomfortable, but I know for a fact they don’t work for everyone. With the tools I have right now, I still have students leaving my teaching feeling uncomfortable and stressed by their learning. So who should we make uncomfortable this coming year?

The coming academic year is set against a backdrop of trauma, loneliness, and discovery. Whatever choices we make, we will be upsetting people. I read editorials fretting about a fractured society, the remotes and the in-presences. As a society, we will need to reckon with this oncoming conflict, and we should start now. 

In this time we’ve gained the ability to make life so much more accessible. We have made conferences available regardless of travel cost (and certainly mitigating climate costs). We have made those with chronic illnesses much more capable of managing them as part of their work day. We have freed people. 

We have also locked people in tiny boxes we call “student housing”, and kept them from their families. We have not learned their names, or seen their smiles. We have made them pay extra for the ability to connect. We have badly hurt people. 

 And all of this applies to our staff too. To our families and friends, to the world we are preparing our students for. I don’t believe we can ever go back to what we were, and I worry there may be a mounting sentimentality to the past, conferring a false value to a time that didn’t really exist. If we choose to open up more, to demand face-to-face and international travel, part of that trade-off is going to be more deaths. If we choose to remain cautious, to stay hybrid, we must expect pain for many. 

So who do we make uncomfortable? To me there’s an obvious solution: we prioritise the social lives of our students. We make big outdoor, well-ventilated spaces. We close them last. We give up on in-person lectures (although oh how I miss them) to keep the student unions and societies free. We agree that students can stay near their family homes so they can spend that precious time with their people. I believe we need to make a sacrifice here – but we all need to make that sacrifice. My proposal would be that we don’t go back to offices and lecture halls just yet. But we make sure that no one spends 6 months in a single dorm-room ever again.

If we all take a little bit of the discomfort, maybe we can avoid the cruelty of the last academic year.

Jill Goes Back to the Chalet School

It was my birthday recently, and one of my friends gave me an old copy of The Chalet School. It’s one of the best presents I’ve ever been given. I’ve been hunting for the Chalet School books for years, but they’re very difficult to find and seem to be out of print at the moment.

For the uninitiated, the Chalet School series was written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer in the 1920s. It is probably a trope codifier for the ‘boarding school’ genre in English fiction. There are 58 books in the series and I reckon in my childhood I read a good 50 of them. The books serve as morality tales, preaching obedience and diligence to the girls, while recognising that the most fun girls still have character flaws. Jo, one of the great heroes, frequently is described as dishevelled and romantically dreaming of Napoleon’s conquests.

When I was little, I could devour two or three of these books in a week, so I imagine there was a period of about a year when I was obsessed with them. I remember constructing elaborate fantasies in my head about being sent to the Chalet School where I could somehow become Jo, and my two younger sisters would also be sent to the Chalet School and they would cause trouble and I would have to rescue them, while nearby a handsome Doctor would be waiting for me to turn of legal marriageable age. I also remember going through a period of putting brushes in peoples’ beds and being deeply disappointed by my mum’s utter lack of reaction (an excellent example of negative punishment).

I was aware that the Chalet School existed in another time. After all, it takes ten books to get to the second world war which lasts another five books in itself. But reading the book as an adult, there were a few things that jumped out to me. Firstly, I vividly remembered the odd feeling I had when Simone and Jo interacted and I recognise now that I identified their relationship as romantic long before I identified myself as bi. Secondly, the quality of the German in the book is appalling. Thirdly, the imperialistic tone of the book is really quite troubling at times even if you do try to remind yourself it was written in 1925, the same time as The Great Gatsby and Mein Kampf.

But the fourth thing . . . I think we could learn a little about curriculum design from the Chalet School. Re-reading the book, not just as an adult, but as an educator, was fascinating. I was never one to play ‘teacher’ as a kid (my fantasies were more about letting both my little sisters nearly drown in the ice-covered lakes of the Tyrol before deigning to rescue them in the nick of time so I could be lauded by a much older Doctor), so it’s interesting now to note how often the Chalet’s School’s curriculum is referenced. The girls are very much trained to be good wives, with needlework and mending forming a decent chunk of the timetable. They also must be fluent in three languages and possess good numeracy skills (which many of the heroes struggle with).

I’m not advocating a return to home-making skills in our higher curriculum, but in both the #UoELTConf18 and VetEd18 we had discussions about how much higher education should encourage community spirit and social responsibility. There was considerable debate in fact about to what extent it’s the responsibility of universities to do this. Many of my friends and family work in all stages of teaching and I happen to know that (in Scotland at least) there is a focus on community in early years education, so I’m not trying to pass this responsibility on.

In some ways, I wonder if we come at this from the wrong perspective. Perhaps what we’re really asking for is authentic assessment. In my elaborate self-insert fantasies where a handsome doctor was waiting in the wings for me to turn 18, I was being assessed on how good I’d be as a wife. That assessment is unique to each individual pairing, and has unique criteria. I really like Guliker’s et al (2004) framework for thinking about authentic assessment. They suggest that authenticity comes from:

  • Task
    • i.e. a problem which will occur in practice
  • Physical context
    • i.e. in a space that will be equivalent to the space that you’ll be in in practice
  • Social context
    • i.e. reflecting the social structure you will be in in practice
  • Assessment form
    • i.e. the output of the assessment has a relevance or parallel in the real world
  • Assessment criteria
    • i.e. the things you mark are relevant to how that task will be assessed in the real world.


If we stay with the Chalet School a little longer, the tall Doctor waiting in the wings will presumably want me to remain calm under pressure around patients (i.e. rescue my drowning hypothermic sisters), in an unsupervised environment (The Austrian mountains), while not pointing out any of my working class roots (jolly good), and provide continued life for my sisters while keeping up appearances the whole time.

I think that when we wring our hands over whether our students demonstrate social responsibility and community spirit, we’re actually bemoaning how our programme design and assessment don’t translate to what the real world values. Unlike the Chalet School, we don’t want to produce good spouses in higher education, but we do want to produce good citizens. And therefore we need to make space in our curriculum and our assessments to reflect that importance.

And if anyone spots any other Chalet School books int he charity shops . . . . do let me know.

Hallowed Halls

Saturday the 30th of June was our graduation for the R(D)SVS students! It was a gorgeously sunny day (perhaps a little too sunny to be wandering around town in a black dress, but I’m not going to complain or the British public will lynch me). And by total coincidence, it was also nine years since my graduation in 2009.

In the intervening nine years, the greatest innovation is by far the fact that the hoods now velcro on to the gowns – but apart from that, there was something that really stuck out to me about yesterday’s graduation. And to explain why I need to talk a little more about graduations.

When your staff come to your graduation, we tell the university what our most recent degree qualification was, and we are ushered into a side room with some lovely chaps who help us into our gowns (and explain the principle of the novel velcro to us). We ooh and covet the nicest robes (Napier’s nursing PhD is the winner for me so far), and start the traditional Glasgow vs Edinburgh rivalry (insert your local university rivalry as appropriate). We file into a room, where the senior officiant convenes a meeting of the Senatus Academicus and in all of our robes, we must all say that we agree to allow these students to graduate.

It’s a moment that we tease each other about, that we joke about, but it has to happen before anything goes any further. We walk through the halls in our order, and process into the hall in front of all your family and friends. We look for the people we know, we cannot keep our faces serious because the happiness is infectious. And then we get to watch you all be inducted into our family, for our family to join yours.

This was my first year processing as staff in McEwan Hall after its refurbishment. McEwan Hall’s dome boasts the inscription: Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour. (Proverbs 4:7) There are gilded paintings of all the academic disciplines, and a shrine to Minerva. It truly is a stunningly beautiful building and if you ever have the chance to look inside, you should.

To me, McEwan Hall is sort of sacred. So too is Bute Hall, which I graduated in back in 2009. But I’ve been to graduations in theatres and in modern halls, and they’ve been sacred too. I cry at graduations because if I have a faith, it is in the human ability to pursue knowledge and understanding. I do exalt her.

And in this space yesterday, our veterinary graduates stood up to speak their oath in unison to the Vice President of the RCVS, Amanda Boag. And then Amanda addressed the graduates. In this sacred space, in front of begowned staff, in front of a hundred odd students who she had lead in their oaths, in front of their proud family and friends, in front of one of the people who invented REMLS (that’s a cool thing) . . . Amanda told a story about making a mistake.

Amanda spoke beautifully about failure, and mistakes, and highlighted to the students that they had just swore an oath to try, not an oath to be perfect. The veterinary industry has a lot of problems in the area of resilience, but I think it doesn’t often get enough praise for what it’s trying to do. I think the veterinary industry is having a better conversation about resilience than academia is.

I really hope our students listened to Amanda’s message yesterday, and I hope they remember it. And I want to thank Amanda and the RCVS for that speech. I am not a vet, but I needed to hear about mistakes in that hall, and in that time. It was the perfect place for it, and I am grateful.