Totes Emosh

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

I have been crying a lot. Its the end of Week 3 of teaching, and I’ve had at least three big meltdowns and some smaller ones.

I’m one of life’s criers. I cry at graduation, at weddings, at birthdays, I cry at the thought of this advert and at the bridge of this song. Tears are my response to any strong emotion. I’ve cried in meetings. This is who I am. 

This week, I’ve had a lot of questions from my students. They haven’t understood some elements of the course. I haven’t been clear enough. Each time the questions come I feel the tears pricking. I’ve heard from some of them about the shitty year they’ve had, I’ve listened to their worries, and I feel just awful for not being better at this. 

In this swirl of guilt and sadness comes frustration. I’ve said this I’ve written this I knew all this would happen. I want to scream. I want to cry. I do cry. I walk away from my emails a moment and come back. 

I rewrite what I think I’ve said before. I try so hard to be kind. I film another round up video to try and put a face to everything that they’re getting. 

And my god this is taking up my time. Trying, and sometimes failing, to be kind is eating my time. I see the untackled jobs and emails mounting. And I will not answer emails after five. Unless you count the insomnia emails.

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

Here’s what I’d like to be reading:

You’re doing the best you can right now. I know that this sucks, and the fact that you’re doing it at all is the victory. Remember that the students are stressed too, and kindness goes both ways. You have made some mistakes, but you know that you can learn from them. Mistakes don’t mean you’re stupid. What will you do differently next time? Remember, I’m asking what you are going to do differently. You only have control over a limited number of factors, which one of those are you going to change? 

One of the small factors I have control over is a bit of an audience. Someone to share this with. To say “hey, I’m finding this hard. I think you might be finding it hard too.” Maybe I can help us keep staff and keep students if I just remind people that at the other side of a screen is a human who’s hard a hard 7 months.

Most of all, I want to be told I’m doing a good job, and I want a pat on the head for getting this far.

That’s probably how the students feel too.


So you’re pivoting to online teaching.

This is a blog about pivoting face to face university teaching to online – in case that turns out to be useful in the forseeable future.

Some of this may be Edinburgh specific. Its mostly based on my experience, and is meant to be about designing your teaching activities and managing your teaching environment.

Take home messages:

  • Online environments are different ‘spaces’. You will need to make a few adjustments to how you teach
  • You must set expectations at the start about how you expect students (and yourself!) to behave in this space
  • Remember that this will be an agitating experience for many, and you/your students may not be comfortable. A little leeway helps.

There are three broad types of teaching online

Asynchronous discussion

Examples: Learn discussion boards, email chains, Twitter(ish)

Characteristics: Discussion moves at broken pace. Sub-threads/topics can appear easily and the ‘point’ can get lost. Can be difficulty for students to articulate what their ‘question’ is if they don’t understand where they’re going wrong

My experiences: This form of teaching often has issues with clarity, and its probably where I make the most ‘mistakes’.

Consider what ‘tone’ you want to set. I like emojis and GIFs because in person I am quite jokey. Others like to maintain distance. Neither is wrong, but try to aim for consistency. Remember that if you’re pivoting online things will feel unfamiliar, exciting and scary. You need to manage your class. I would encourage you to make full use of the medium to communicate clearly. If GIFs aren’t your thing don’t be afraid to literally type out “I was making a joke there”. Written communication has a myriad of ways of expressing what Face to Face communication would rely on body language for. Make use of them.

To that end – I often make the mistake of responding too quickly in this context because I’m desperate to help. Take the time to think about your response, and accept that your students working from home may be struggling with kids, ill housemates, distractions, and the point of an asynchronous board is that you can take your time. Consider setting a ‘class hour’ where you’ll respond to all comments so students are aware when they might get a response and don’t need to repeatedly check back.

Looks like:

Synchronous discussion

Examples: Instant messaging apps (Slack, Skype chat, WhatsApp), webinars, Zoom, Skype Screen Sharing, Blackboard Collaborate

Characteristics: Often involves (but does not require) a live presentation of slides or screencast of activity. Participants can chat by voice which is often noisy and challenging. Participants can chat in a text box which can be challenging for slow typers.

My experiences: While this feels the most familiar, this is my least favourite way to teach at distance. Moderation is vitally important. You should mute all participants unless you have a small group you know well and you want collaborative working (if so – consider giving them separate asynchronous discussion boards). Not all participants will have the IT literacy/attention span/hearing ability needed to distinguish lots of speakers on a bad connection and interruptions will be distracting

Further, some participants, like me, are chatty by nature. Do not let me bulldoze discussion because I’m loud and clear enough to be heard with a crackly mic and I never learned to think if others wanted to talk. As always, set up the environment that you want to teach in.

It’s tempting to use the text chat function. Again, fast typers like myself thrive here, whereas others will be left behind. Consider your choices carefully here. I like to encourage discussion in the chat when I’m presenting and then keep a note of what questions to come back to, but this takes a huge mental load and is not for everyone. Its easier to do with a moderator.

If you’re uncomfortable moderating (you don’t know the tech, you find it too hard to multitask) ask colleagues to step in. Learning techs might be keen (although overloaded) your academic colleagues might welcome a chance to observe your style. Finally, possibly the best option is to ask students to nominate one of their own as moderator so they are all taking responsibility for the learning environment.

A very quick word on live chats/ back channels in these contexts …  I have only seen students use these respectfully. Staff seem to see text chat as an opportunity to be mean, and staff on live chats have made me cry as a presenter. Again set your expectations at the start.

If you really want a live discussion – I’m a big fan of Google Hangout style pieces and they could be a good drop-in/tutorial replacement. You could run something similar with most e-collaboration resources.

Looks like:

Pre-Recorded Content

Examples: Previous years’ lecture recordings, YouTube videos, Articulate lectures, MediaHopper lectures

Characteristics: Broad range of presentation styles. Can be a bit experimental. Can be very simple. Students don’t have facility to ask questions so needs to be paired with discussion of some type or activity.

My experiences: Paired with asynchronous discussion boards, this is absolutely my favourite way to teach at distance. It gives the learners a lot of control, and you can actually experiment quite a lot with format and message.

Pre-recorded lectures can be super short – want to demonstrate something that you keep getting asked about? Do a short video! They can also be as long as a regular lecture (or longer!) because students can decide how to parcel their time. Although don’t go overboard! Record yourself with a phone camera if you’re trying to demo something more practical, or screencast a program.

If you are screencasting or recording a presentation, do some PC hygiene before recording, especially if you’re going to be demoing anything online. Don’t run unnecessary programmes in the background it will make your laptop chug. Invest in a good usb mic that is YOURS and can sit in your home, especially in these times! Use incognito browsers so people don’t see how much toilet paper the cookies are advertising to you.

Looks like:


There are loads of activities you can build online in your virtual learning environments from quizzes to Jupyter notebooks and polls, etc. I think if you’re pivoting to online learning for Coronavirus you should stay away from this, especially if you’re unfamiliar. Thinking about building interactive activity sessions online is something I would spend a lot of time on in the course design process. Can you really do this quickly halfway through?

Key Advice

Pivoting to online teaching is not the same as designing an online course. This is an exceptional circumstance and we should Keep It Simple (Seriously). You may even wish to consider what your top 3 learning outcomes are and focus on those[1].

Make pre-recorded content available to students wherever possible. If you have pre-recorded lectures from last year, you can upload these to your university’s media manager, virtual learning environment, or YouTube. You can record lectures using PowerPoint’s recording ability. These videos can be edited if necessary prior to upload.

Link to these on your VLE and create (or ask your resident learning technologist) discussion boards for questions.

Consider setting ‘office hours’ for questions – but be aware students may return to non GMT timezones. Try not to disadvantage students who are not in GMT locations.

Advice from JISC

You can view JISCs guidance here:

Some mental health tips

Respect the situation. We are not all suddenly thinking about this because its fun or an opportunity to prove our innovative teaching styles. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and its about minimising the risk of spreading infection to vulnerable folks. Vulnerable folks are therefore most likely to need your support as an educator.

Try to build yourself a good work space. How you work at home may well have changed over the years. I find for some reason I now need a more dedicated work space, as opposed to my PhD years where I was fine working on the sofa.

Finally – let the cat scream for attention, acknowledge the toddler sitting on your lap, forgive the little stressy mistakes people will be making. We’re all in this together.

You Should Record Your Teaching

You should be recording your lectures. I’m salty about this.

I’m about to go on two weeks annual leave so this is an excellent time for me to drop this particular post. Thanks to MichTheMartian on Twitter for reaching out and making me realise I haven’t ever really summarised this.

This post addresses the following concerns:

  • Students will stop showing up!
  • It won’t help students learn!
  • There’s no way to introduce lecture recording ethically in the current HE climate / Policy is hard / The union says no.
  • Its too technically challenging!
  • We just don’t have enough evidence
  • It makes me uncomfortable

Students will stop showing up!

If students stop showing up, there’s a bigger problem than you recording your lectures. 

Attendance at lectures is a complex, emotional and highly individual choice (1, 2, 3). Attending students may not necessarily be engaged in the teaching activity happening in front of them (4), and so anyone who is worried about students not showing up should be asking why their lectures aren’t ‘unmissable’. 

In her presentation here, Emily Nordmann has some practical recommendations for how to make the most of lecture recording, and she makes some excellent points about attendance.

Although it could well be moot as there is plenty of evidence to show lecture recording does not affect attendance (5, 6), and evidence which suggests an effect is mostly students saying they thought they would be likely to stop attending (and not observing actual behaviour, 7, 8), and oft-cited research showing an effect has a lot of flaws, see Susan Rhind’s blog here and Emily Nordmann’s blog here

It won’t help students learn! 

There’s a commonly cited paper showing no evidence for attainment with increased lecture use (8). 

I think that paper’s probably right – for students who are otherwise grand, recordings don’t really help. I wouldn’t have used them when I was at uni. The case for using them is not about making everyone better, but removing barriers. I use the term ‘mainstreaming accessibility’ a lot. Having a recording policy removes some of the pressure from lecture recording (see Sarah Chinnery’s blog). If you have difficulties getting to class for any reason, knowing you can review the materials reliably is helpful, and stops you ‘outing’ yourself to your lecturer or your classmates. We have lots of example of this in our workshop (see below). Emily Nordmann (again!) has a lovely blog on why we need to start talking about the socially progressive case for lecture recording. It is a technology which helps remove one of the barriers to higher education. At Edinburgh, we have evidence suggesting that these positive impacts start in first year (9). 

In addition, I have some current research ongoing which strongly suggests that students who use lecture recordings to facilitate their studies do so in a very active and engaged manner. This work is funded by Echo360 and you can keep an eye on my Twitter feed to see more about it.  

In another project I’m involved with, we’re seeing some excellent secondary uses of lecture recording to help us think about what happens in classrooms and how that can help students learn. Emily has another great paper which we use at Edinburgh to support our students to study with lecture recordings (10) and we have produced open source guidance ourselves (11). 

Related – here’s some UK sector-wide discussion on Widening Participation with Lecture Recording. This project is ongoing and you should keep an eye on it

And follow our Twitter:

There’s no way to introduce lecture recording ethically in the current HE climate / Policy is hard / The union says no.

A good policy is the key here. You need to engage with the policy consultations that come round, and policy makers need to be cognisant of the power a good policy has in helping support the introduction of these technologies.  For me the take home messages are

  • The recording is a supplementary resource and should belong to the class that generated it. 
  • Lecturers should have to opt in to saving that resource in any long term way
  • Each class needs to set its own expectations around lecture recording (I talk about this in the podcast here and also you can see an example of me doing this at the start of our last Collaborative Cluster on Widening Participation with Lecture Recording meeting)
  • Lecturers should be able to opt out of lecture recording whenever they feel the need to (linked to the class expectations – this can also support student learning, e.g. during ethical discussions. I talk about the practicalities in this podcast)

Richard Goodman talks about moving to an opt-out policy at Loughborough

Melissa Highton talks about working with the union to develop good policies at Edinburgh. 

Its too technically challenging!

Aren’t you lucky that the University of Edinburgh has put together a completely free resource talking about Delivering and Evaluating Lecture Recording so you don’t have to start from scratch?

We just don’t have enough evidence

Overview of Edinburgh’s research

Me presenting on Edinburgh’s research

Edinburgh’s TeachingMatters Blog Lecture Recording Miniseries

Our TeachingMatters Podcast on lecture recording

I walked through how you can run your own evaluation and included a bunch of resources with the QAA here:

It makes me uncomfortable

I know it does. Believe me, it makes me kind of uncomfortable too. I’ve been on television, on radio, on stage on the Lyceum, written a book, and I still find it slightly uncomfortable watching myself stumble over words and have a brain blank in front of a class. 

But here’s the thing – students don’t care. They’re here to learn. And they want to learn. They’re not expecting you to be David Attenborough. They’re not expecting you to be perfect. And if you can use your mistakes to model good academic practice (jump to 5 minutes), maybe you can create better learners.

My research shows that lecture recording makes lecturers worry about getting things wrong, or being criticised, while students just view it as a tool (Show and Tool – or the free preprint if you can’t access that journal). This is a conversation you need to have with your students. Making mistakes is how we learn.

One of the big things I’d encourage you to make use of is the open source workshop we made available with the QAA (direct link to resource). Using this workshop we’ve developed new guidance on how to teach with lecture recording that will be getting printed and shared imminently. 

But at the end of the day – you’re the teacher. You’re there to help students. After the conversations I’ve been having lately with certain academics, this feels like a revolutionary thing to say. I am salty. I am salty that I need to defend students’ rights to have access to materials. I am salty that I need to justify writing “students should approach their lecturers for support” in student guidance. I am salty that academics are putting their personal comfort over the needs of their students.

You should be recording your lectures.

Teaching Critical Analysis in Cancel Culture

Content Warning: Discussion of trans exclusion narratives

They say 2020 is the year of the blog (They being two or three people in my Twitter timeline), and I’m full of new year’s resolutions so let’s talk about Cancel Culture. 

Cancel Culture, if you are blissfully naive, is an internet practice where someone who says something controversial or ‘problematic’ is repeatedly attacked and boycotted in an attempt to minimise the dangerous opinion’s platform. You can think of it as a reaction to the Paradox of Tolerance, in that it is most often the political left does to protect those viewed as being less powerful. 

The fabulous YouTuber ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn) started January with a 100 minute long video discussing cancel culture after she herself was ‘cancelled’ for a recent video where she invited Buck Angel to provide a voice over for a quote. ContraPoints has put in a huge amount of effort into this video and it’s really one of her best, so I won’t explain the whole drama here, I’ll just point you toward her video. It’s here. You should really consider watching it.

This video really appealed to me for a lot of reasons. As you may well be aware, the University of Edinburgh has seen a lot of outrage regarding feminism and trans rights. The rest of this post, and indeed all of my content, comes from my perspective as a cis-gendered bisexual woman, and I would encourage you to do your own research on these topics, and to remember that I am no expert here. There are two important concepts here, trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) which many people prefer to call ‘gender critical feminism’, and trans-inclusionary feminism. In a nutshell, the trans-exclusionary feminists are concerned that trans women will endanger female spaces and female safety. Trans inclusive feminism considers that trans women are women, and have the same need for female spaces as cis women. I use the words ‘trans-exclusionary’ and ‘trans-inclusive’ in this blog because at present I see that as the crux of the conflict. Many years ago, I understood gender-critical feminism to be about breaking down imposed boundaries of gender, but that’s not how the term is now used. It is now fairly universally used to mean trans-exclusionary philosophies. Maybe I misunderstood the term at first, or maybe it has changed, but for me it’s clearer to talk in exclusion/inclusion terms.  

The New York Times recently argued that TERFs are a particularly British problem, which I’m not sure I agree with, but there is certainly a type of older British feminist that you almost ‘expect’ to come out with trans-exclusionary views, such as J K Rowling. Recently Rowling tweeted in support of Maya Forstater, a woman who took her employers to tribunal for not renewing her fixed term contract after she repeatedly made trans-exclusionary tweets. Her complaint was not upheld. I was irritated by people defending Forstater, and made this tweet, jumping on the cancel culture bandwagon for JK Rowling. 

The Halo Reach realisation is real, incidentally. I remember being on the Halo fan forums at the time and enthusiastically telling a Bungie developer I’d be happy to have my multiplayer character grunt in a female voice, even if the model was the same. That memory, sparked after seeing some of the Reach remake trailers, struck me as a really clear example of why being correctly gendered in conversation is so important to people, in a way that cis folks like myself might find easier to relate to. On reflection, I wish I hadn’t said ‘fuck TERFs’ in the tweet, because that’s not going to invite any reasonable debate or encourage anyone to listen to my ideas. And this is the issue with cancel culture that ContraPoints’ video discusses. Cancel culture prohibits discussion.

While I was watching ContraPoints’ video, I was uncomfortably reminded of something my dad used to say to me when we were having political debate. My dad frequently calls me a ‘Trotskyite’, who’s too busy feuding with my fellows to pull together for the left as a whole. Much like myself, my dad will also say almost anything in a debate to win, but his observation about the left’s tendency to schism is a pertinent one. In the nineties, around our kitchen table, he was eerily prescient of the left’s challenges in the 2010s.

The Economist recently posted a brilliant article about why the Conservatives are the most successful political party in the world. If it’s behind a paywall for you, the answer is that the Tories are very flexible in morality and policy if it keeps them in power. They will be the party they need to be to get elected. The left, by contrast, will fight within itself about how exactly it should respect all members (see this Atlantic article, this Guardian article which seems to suggest that Labour should have done everything differently in the last GE). 

We live in a world where it is very easy to express an opinion, and where you can be cancelled for that opinion just as quickly. Take Joan Meiners who tweeted about the inaccuracy of peoples’ bee tattoos, not realising that those tattoos were a specific reference to the Manchester Evening News Arena bombing. 

I liked Joan’s original post when I saw it, and then I liked the tweets criticising it. Where do I fall in the outrage league?

How do we teach the academics of the future to critically analyse ideas when they see trusted, powerful, and adored figures like JK Rowling being told to die for what is an opinion? Especially when we say we’ll assess them, and the perceived penalty of getting it wrong is so high? In my first year science course, I tell my students I expect compassionate science from them, but I don’t tell them how I expect them to critique a piece of science compassionately. I tell them their best exposure to critical analysis will be in scientific papers, but we all know how bad peer review is for encouraging this kind of discourse.

Trans rights may seem like a strange road to thinking about how I teach critical analysis, but the concern and trepidation I felt about these issues must be a reflection of how it feels to critique something in a modern classroom. Our classrooms will have students who are aware of these debates, aware of these controversies, and whom we’re asking to critically analyse a piece of work. It is our responsibility to teach with an awareness of this culture. 

So this year I’m going to work on actively teaching compassionate critical analysis. I’m not totally sure how this will go yet, so I started drafting an outline. Have a look through the slides and see what you think, feel free to adapt or hit me up on Twitter to give me any feedback.

Cancel culture is cancelled. 


I have the beginnings of some thoughts about teaching statistical modelling

One of my fabulous colleagues has started a book club on campus where a group of us work through Advanced R by Hadley Wickham. After the day I learned about the tidyverse, this Advanced R book club has been the biggest set of leaps I’ve been making in my R skills, and I’m probably only understanding about a fifth of it.

This week we began the chapter on functional programming – and Ian’s code and examples are on github. I went home and spent the evening doing this:

There was one example that Ian drew up that I can’t stop thinking about from a teaching perspective. Teaching stats is really, really intimidating, because the more you know about it, the more you recognise how subjective it can be. I often see people take refuge in complexity where they refuse to answer a learner’s question in favour of reiterating the memorised textbook response. I’ve done this myself! At the same time, I’ve had a really intriguing stats challenge with a colleague where I’ve gone around the houses trying to make sure I can justify our choices.

This comes down to model selection, which is one of the most Fun(™) conversations you can ever have about statistics. The more I learn about statistics the more I feel that model selection is the personification of this tweet from my colleague:

You see, there really are no ‘right’ answers in model selection, just ‘less wrong’ ones. This is the subject of a lot of interesting blogs. One of them is David Robinson’s excellent ‘Variance Explained’.

Another of @drob’s posts that I’ve linked to before I’m sure is this one: Teach tidyverse to beginners. This idea fascinates me. David (and I feel I can call him David because I once asked him a question at a demo and he said it was a good question and it was honestly one of the highlights of my life) suggests that students should have goals, and they should be doing those goals as soon as possible.

I don’t know how much educational training the Data Camp/RStudio folks have but I’m always really impressed with the way they teach.

(It’s important here to take a moment to acknowledge the problems Data Camp is having at the moment regarding how they addressed a sexual harassment complaint. I have the utmost sympathy for all involved, and at the moment I don’t feel that boycotting Data Camp is the answer, but it’s worth pointing towards blog posts like this one to give a different opinion.)

‘Doing’ as soon as possible is something we struggle with in higher education. I’ve just had to rewrite a portion of a paper to defend why I think authentic assessment is so vital for science. We put ‘doing’ at the top of our assessment pyramids, and talk about how it takes us a long time to get there.

During this week’s bookclub, my colleague Ian had a great example of using the broom and purrr packages in R to fit multiple models to a dataset quickly and easily. And I had to derail the conversation in the room for a bit. Why don’t we teach this to our students straight away? At present, the way I teach model selection is a laborious process of fitting each model one by one, examining the results individually, and then trying to get those results into some kind of comparable format. After some brief discussion, with all the usual sciencey caveats, our Advanced R bookclub was all keen to use this as a way of introducing model selection to students.

I feel as though this is tickling at the edge of something quite important for higher education, especially for the sciences. Something about empowering students, and getting them to ask me about things I don’t know the answer to more quickly. I also feel just a little irate about the fact I can’t formalise this as nicely as I know David Robinson and the RStudio lot can. I kind of feel like some of the most useful stuff I’m doing lately is in the Open Educational Resources range, such as my Media Hopper channels and on my GitHub. There’s a freedom in OERs to push the boat, and to start teaching the complex things first.

And ultimately, my disjointed ramblings might just help someone else connect a few dots. Happy spring, people!

Lessons in Course Design

By some counts (i.e. the number I list on my CV) I’ve led the design of about thirty higher education courses over the last few years. I asked Twitter what would be the most useful format for talking about those lessons . . .

This is that blog.

By some counts (i.e. the number I list on my CV) I’ve led the design of about thirty higher education courses over the last few years. And even I have to have learned something by the end of it. I asked Twitter what would be the most useful format for talking about those lessons, and Twitter was very keen on a personal blog, because they wanted the dirty truths.

This is that blog.

Broadly speaking, I have three takeaways from my work on course design. They overlap, of course, because life is messy, but these are what I’ll be taking forward in future. Respect the need for the course, accept that courses will always be co-creations, and while you must try to innovate, you must also recognise why innovation is so difficult. Respect. Accept co-creation. Acknowledge the hardships of innovation.

Respect the Course

At the risk of turning you off this blog post immediately – this was one of my big lessons that made everything ‘click’ the moment I grasped it. On Edinburgh’s Teaching Matters blog I’ve talked about the course design process that really drove this home for me – but at all stages of course design, from the early planning to the third year review, I have found it very useful to go back to why we want the course in the first place.

There are some corollory lessons to this one. If your reason for the course is ‘we want the money’ or ‘the king on high said make it so’, it becomes much harder to find a single cohesive thread that should tie the course together. One of the earliest courses I designed very much came from an edict on high (so high it was impossible to refuse), so the team and I discussed what was missing from elsewhere in the programme. That course became a place to teach the skills that we didn’t have the time to teach elsewhere, and I was very proud of it.  

Having a reason for what you’re doing helps you make the big decisions. How do you decide on an exercise if you need to compromise on timing? If you have a central motivation that drives you, you’ll find it a lot easier to distinguish between the two.

Accept Co-Creation

This one may be more personal. I hate co-creation. I mean, if anyone is listening I love it and team-work is one of my great strengths, but generally I hate it. I think this is particularly difficult when designing a course.

Have you ever given somebody else’s lecture? It’s difficult. Even giving your own lecture, a year later, can be difficult. Lectures are so much a product of you at that moment.

I am a huge defender, and a huge proponent, of the looser aspects of stagecraft that make a lecture. When you see students aren’t following and you stop and regroup – that’s good. When you get diverted away from the beaten path by a really interesting question – that’s good! Teaching adults should not be about sticking rigidly to a lesson plan that anyone could pick up and run with. It needs to be personal.

But with that, comes the difficulty of accepting the other personals in the room. As someone who prides herself on her communication, I am sometimes amazed at how explicit I must be when describing a teaching activity to another. So vice versa, I try to work hard to understand how someone else plans to teach something. This might be something we all need to work on, or just me, but there needs to be more acceptance of how courses arise out of everyone.

And by this I also mean accept the co-creation of the students. My somewhat looser philosophy of the class-plan has also been informed by the different classes I’ve seen. I am still not sure exactly why the same broad cohort, the same rough course, the same timetable slot, can all sometimes result in a wildly different group of students (there’s a study in this!).

It would churlish to express this as ‘no course plan survives first contact with the enemy’ – but recognise that the course you design in your head will not be the same course you actually teach, because your students create that with you.

What Price Innovation?

This final point may end up a blog in itself. In a QAA event this week we talked briefly about student led teaching awards. There’s often a category of innovative teaching. When recruiting staff, I have pushed away from assessing their teaching in terms of its ‘innovation’. What counts as innovation? Is it if I haven’t seen it before? Or if the whole panel hasn’t seen it before?

This year we ran a brand new teaching exercise at the vet school which I don’t think is particulalry innovative. I’ve been doing stuff like it, in other contexts, for years. But the students hadn’t seen anything like it, and they loved it. We’ll undoubtedly be talking a lot more about it in the next six months as we unpack our evaluation.

However, that evaluation will likely underplay the sick feeling I had that morning, my racing heart and the sheer amount of work it took to get us there. Innovation takes a lot work, and a lot of risk.

We ask for innovation when we teach, even though we greatly penalise those whose teaching ‘doesn’t work’. Therefore innovations must always be a sure thing. I feel very safe in my role, comparative to a lot of early career academics, and even I feel frightened when I see that sea of blank faces. Or worse, read that angry comment that the assessment was confusing, or there was no point to the teaching.

I have tried much more that hasn’t worked than has. I’m thinking particularly of an assessment this year where I tried to play about with how some things were weighted (partly due to the discussions we had in the co-creation phase – see ‘accept co-creation’ above, even when the urge arises to assign blame) and I am reverting back to tradition immediately.

I think there is often a push, particularly when you are in that early excitement of design, to do something eye-catching and startling. Think about yourself before you do this. You are the one who needs to run the course.

Sometimes innovation will be hard and painful but still needs to be done, perhaps because it’s the whole reason your course exists. That’s a battle you will need to have. So make those choices strategically.

And if you are in the position to support innovation, anything you can do to reinforce the idea that failure is not going to mean immediate unemployment would be greatly appreciated by those on short-term contracts who probably sacrificed a paper to try something new.

Respect the course. Accept co-creation. Acknowledge the hardships of innovation.

Under Your Eye

I have always felt there was a pleasing symmetry between the observer effect in quantum physics and the study of behaviour. In both cases, you cannot be sure your observation does not change the thing you are measuring.

I have always felt there was a pleasing symmetry between the observer effect in quantum physics and the study of animal behaviour. In both cases, you cannot be sure your observation does not change the thing you are measuring. When Athena realises I’m watching her, she moves faster towards the plate of toast I had negligently left unguarded. 

But observations also only tell you what’s happening on the surface. I can make an educated inference about why Athena is rushing towards my toast and raking her tongue through the butter, but I can’t know. As I always say, Behaviour X does not always mean Motivation Y. 

I’ve been ‘observed’ a lot this week. I asked one of my academic friends to review my CV. This friend is one of the cleverest and hardest working people I know. I live in fear of my boss ever meeting her, because I’ll be out of a job in a heartbeat. The friend commented “Gosh you do a lot, don’t you? I’m tired just reading this”. 

Well, do I? A CV is written to make me as appealing as possible. Of course I look like I do a lot to that simple observation. Is that a real representation of me?

And then this week I had my first ‘opt out’ lecture recordings as part of our new Agricultural degrees. There was an interesting moment when out of the corner of my eye I saw the light go orange, and I knew I was about to be observed, not just by these students right now, but by other students, maybe other staff, maybe even you (I’m toying with the idea of making those lectures public as I really enjoyed them). 

In a recent Teaching Matters blog I discussed some of the results of our lecture recording project, and the perception that being recorded will change your behaviour. I am really interested by this finding that the act of recording is transformative, and I’m looking forward to exploring it further. And I did change my behaviour when I knew people were watching me. I wrote my slides differently, leaving breadcrumbs for easier navigation, showing them R code so they could return to these lectures after learning R, and using a slightly different method of anonymous polling given the students would be watching it back.

I change when I’m being watched. Athena changes when she’s being watched. Particles may or may not change based on when they’re being watched, I’ve never quite figured out that part of quantum physics. 

But this is not to say the first state, the unobserved state, is fundamentally ‘right’. It’s more an acknowledgement of our innately social states. One last observation (heh). I recently received some paper revisions, and it was on a journal that practiced open review. Someone I like and respect didn’t understand the point I was making in my paper. And because I knew who it was who was ‘observing’ me, I responded to that feedback a lot more positively than I usually do, and I thought “gosh, I wasn’t very clear there, how I can be clearer?” My original state was not better. 

Opinion Piece

If I have a new year’s resolution for 2018, it’s to be more open to feedback. Feedback terrifies me, because it’s an opportunity to be told I wasn’t very good at something. And if I’m not very good at something, I have clearly failed at life. But I’m working on it!

I have to admit I was surprised to find that I get a lot of positive feedback too. It’s strange how trying to protect yourself from bad feedback also keeps the good feedback from sinking in too. Here’s something students say to me:

“I like hearing about your opinion, it’s nice to have the benefit of your experience.”

I get this when I’m talking about ethics, or how my personal ontology affects my research (which is a whole other post I have drafted, but is also talked about in my book – which you can still pre-order on Amazon, Waterstones , Blackwells and at the Publisher) It used to make me uncomfortable. I worried that students might take my opinion as fact, or think they had to follow my opinion to get good grades. So when I give students my opinion, I preface it with lots of wiggle words “it’s only my opinion”, “now this isn’t fact” . .  . why precisely?

I don’t want to create a horde of mini-mes when I teach. I’ve never been able to get that project past the ethics committee. But why do I shy away from my opinion? There might well be a gender bias there, and I try to soften my opinion to protect peoples’ feelings. But I think a lot of it is about the hard science bias. Try as I might, I can’t shake the idea that opinions (and those other icky subjective feelingy things) don’t have a place in real science.

But here’s the thing – students like it. They want to know what I think about these topics that they’ve chosen to study. Their studies are important to them. The people who teach them are also important to students. My research group is writing up a paper at the moment which explores aspects of the student-teacher relationship. Students want to feel respected by their teachers, and I think that (occasional) usage of opinion can be one of the ways to do that. When you share something like that with your students, you’re building trust with them. And it’s important to value their opinion too.

I absolutely love having ethics discussions with my students. I love exploring these concepts and sharing ideas. It shouldn’t be so surprising to me that my students enjoy that too.

And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.


MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here: