Grammar Schools and Social Inequality - In Numbers

Grammar Schools are back in the news again, as the Conservatives pledge £50 million in funding to expand established Grammars and build satellite schools. According to Damien Hinds, this money is supposed to help "give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education". But what if funding more Grammar School places will actually just widen social inequality, rather than promote social mobility?

I can speak from experience on this matter: I grew up in Southend on Sea, Essex, one of the last strongholds of the selective Grammar Schools. In fact, I went to a Grammar School aged 11-16, and remember the lengths some of my friends' parents went to in ensuring their child passed the dreaded 11-plus test. Growing up, I had difficulty reconciling the advantage I gained from going to this school with the disadvantage the existence of the Grammar system causes for other pupils in the borough. Studies show that, in areas with Grammar Schools, the students who don't get in are worse off than in areas without Grammars.

As a case study, I've compared some of the statistics for two schools in the area that are less than 0.1 miles away from each other - Southend High School for Girls, an Academy-run Grammar School, and my alma mater; and Southchurch High School, formerly known as Futures Community College, the comprehensive school down the road.

 Source: maps.google.co.uk

Source: maps.google.co.uk

Using data freely available online from the Compare School Performance Service and the Schools Financial Benchmarking Service (which both still record the name of Southchurch High School as Futures Community College), we can compare the difference in pupil attainment and funding.

English and Maths GCSEs - the exams taken at 16 years old in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, similar in remit to the Scottish National Qualifications - are a common minimum requirement for entry level jobs and further education. They also ensure that pupils have the literacy and numeracy they'll need in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, the pass rate makes a good benchmark for comparison: have the schools set their pupils up for life? According to the BBC, 'Grade 5 or above' is a "strong pass", or C+ grade, and a 'Grade 4 or above' is a 'standard pass', or C-. How did pupils in these schools do last year?

In 2016/17, 100% of the Grammar School girls attained at least the standard pass or above. By comparison, in Southchurch High School, one quarter achieved the strong pass, and less than half achieved the standard pass.

The situation worsens when we narrow the data down to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Compare School Performance Service defines disadvantaged pupils as follows:

"Disadvantaged pupils are those who were eligible for free school meals at any time during the last 6 years and children looked after (in the care of the local authority for a day or more or who have been adopted from care)."

We can see from the stats above that there were only 8 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School at Key Stage 4 in the 2016/7 year, compared to the 75 pupils in Southchurch High School - 5% and 54% of the year group, respectively. There goes Damnien Hinds' arguments about Grammar Schools giving children from all backgrounds access to a world-class education: only 5% of pupils from this year group are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their number is a mere 10% of the total of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the same year group at the Comprehensive school 0.1 miles down the road.

In addition to this, let's look at those GCSE pass rates. All 8 of those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School got a strong pass or above in their Maths and English GCSEs. This is compared with a shockingly low 20% getting the strong pass in the Comprehensive, and only 36% getting a standard pass.

Not only are there ten times as many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the comprehensive school, only a fifth of them are getting a strong pass or above in their English and Maths GCSE exams, 30% below the national average.

Let's also compare the grant funding these schools receive:

 Grant funding totals for Southend High School for Girls in 2015/16 and Southchurch High School (Formerly Futures Community College) in 2016/17. Source:  https://schools-financial-benchmarking.service.gov.uk/

Grant funding totals for Southend High School for Girls in 2015/16 and Southchurch High School (Formerly Futures Community College) in 2016/17. Source: https://schools-financial-benchmarking.service.gov.uk/

The Grammar School - the school whose disadvantaged pupils already reach an 100% standard pass rate for English and Maths GCSEs - receives nearly £2 million more in grant funding than the Comprehensive, which has only a 36% standard pass rate for disadvantaged pupils.

What all this means is that the mere 0.1 mile difference between these schools translates to a £2 million difference in funding and a huge difference in the pass rate for the English and Maths GCSEs.

Damien Hinds' £50 million would be better spent funding State Comprehensive schools like Southchurch High School, bringing up attainment at GCSE level for all pupils, including those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who most need the support to succeed. Every school in the UK should provide an education that's fit for purpose, providing pupils with an education that meets their needs and prepares them for further education, the workplace, and the rest of their lives. Funding more Grammar School places instead of investing in State Comprehensive Schools will only widen the pass gap - and, as a result, the social inequality gap - between the two.

NCRS: Philosophy and Literature

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For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.


Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 4: Philosophy and Literature

Speakers:

  • Amadeus Kang-Po Chen: Erotic Love, Poetic Imagination, and Self-annihilation: the Pathological Poetics in John Keats’s Isabella
    • Amadeus Kang-Po Chen obtained his MA degree in English literature at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He joined the university of Edinburgh for his PhD studies in 2015. His doctoral project aims to re-conceptualise the idea of “obscenity” in the Romantic period, and examine the erotic images and motifs as a unique aesthetic phenomenon of self-annihilation in the works of Blake, Shelley, and Keats.
  • Carla Wiggs: An exploration of 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms as a literary device for portraying the three ‘existence spheres’ in his authorship
    • Carla Wiggs is a second year PhD Philosophy candidate, primarily based at the University of Southampton (supervised by Prof Genia Schoenbaumsfeld) and co-supervised by Dr Edward Skidelsky (Exeter). Her intended thesis title is: Kierkegaard's Portrayal of the Existence Spheres: A Challenge to the Tiered Interpretation.
  • Roxanne Gentry: “All is not exactly as I had pictured it”: The Illustrated Editions of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South
    • Roxanne L. Gentry is a third-year PhD student at the University of Connecticut studying the long nineteenth-century novel, women's literature, material culture, and textual afterlives, communities, and mediation. She earned her MSc from the University of Edinburgh in 2014 and her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. 

The next NCRS is on May 31, on the topic of 'Nation Building and Identity'. 

The Part-Time PhD and Me

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Back in September 2017, I changed my engagement with my PhD from full-time to part-time. I've written about that experience for the University of Edinburgh in a blog post entitled "Changing to a Part-Time PhD".

Here's a short extract:

Now I’m part-time, I’m producing the same amount of work as before, but my research output matches my supervisors’ expectations. Most of my income comes from hourly paid tutoring for Classics and Philosophy at the University, and the rest through a small assortment of side-hustles. And, most importantly, I’m in a much better place for my mental health. The stress and worry around missing targets dissolved when my targets became more realistic and achievable. On top of all that, I still have time for my wonderful boyfriend and our kitten. For me, part-time study has made it easier to balance all of my responsibilities: my research, work, and home life.


NCRS: Colonialism and Literature

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For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.


Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 3: Colonialism and Literature

Speakers:

  • Nicola John: Cleopatra and the Colonial Context: Looking Closer at Juan Luna
    • Nicola John is a second year postgraduate research student at the University of St Andrews, where she is working towards a PhD in Art History. Her research concerns the use of pre-colonial material culture, especially costume, in the visual language of modern art in Indonesia and the Philippines. 
  • Elizabeth Chant: Cartography and the Argentine Nation: mapping the mítico sur
    • Elizabeth Chant is a PhD candidate in the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, School of European Languages, Cultures and Society, University College London. Her research focuses on cultural representations of Patagonia, and how said representations vary in different languages and sub-regions, considering the conflict of forces such as time-space compression, indigenous epistemology and neo-colonialism in various media. 
  • Bowen Wang: Mark Twain’s “China Complex”: His Literary Portrayal of the Chinese of the Nineteenth Century
    • Bowen is a postgraduate studying in MSc Literature and Modernity of the University of Edinburgh. He holds a BA in English Language and Literature from Sun Yat-sen University, with an exchange year in English/American Studies from the University of Southern Denmark.

Nicola and Liz's talks both concerned colonialism across the Spanish empire, one through the perspective of history of art, the other through the perspective of cartography.

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Nicola discussed Juan Luna's The Death of Cleopatra from 1881. The historical background to the painting is colonialism and nationalism in the Philippines: they wanted full representation in the Spanish government. Art played an anti-colonial role, and Luna himself had a role in the anti-Spanish movement. In the painting, Cleopatra chooses to die sovereign than live colonised, and the Madrid audience observing the painting take the same role as the roman soldiers entering to discover Cleopatra dead: the third wall is broken to complete the painting.

Liz spoke about representations of Patagonia - in what is now known as Argentina - in 19th century cartography. 'Patagonia' was part of the Spanish empire, and they attempted to colonise it many times. We find a colonising agenda maps of the region. They often lack a representation of people, erasing the provicial and territorial divisons of indigenous cultures. The result is a history of violent geography. Indigenous cultures are sometimes named but their territory isn't indicated, diminishing their claims to Patagonia. 

Bowen offered a different but complementary account about the prejudice and colonial attitudes towards the Chinese immigrants in San Francisco through the writing of Mark Twain. One of the works Bowen examined was Twain's 'Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy', from Galaxy Magazine, May 1870, which is about the stoning of a Chinese man. It is indicative of the anti-Chinese bias in wider american society at this time, intensified by Californian nationalists who thought that the Chinese were competing unfairly with the Americans. Another of Bowen's examples was 'John Chinaman in New York', from the Galaxy Magazine, September 1870, which contains racial stereotypes and colonial descriptions of dress.

The next NCRS is on April 26, on the topic of 'Philosophy and Literature'.

Reading Pedagogical Theory: Fry, Ketteridge, and Marshall

Reading Pedagogy

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. & S. Marshall. 2015. “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”. New York: Routledge.  

Chapter 19: Social sciences (pp 278-292)

When undergraduate students arrive for their first year of undergraduate studies in the social sciences, the challenge is how to support their transition into higher education. In a period that has seen increasing student numbers and levels of indebtedness, greater attention has been paid to their material and welfare needs as they enter university.
— p 279

Recognising that students come into the university classroom from different backgrounds, including different class and financial backgrounds, is an essential part of ensuring equality of opportunity for all learners. This needs to be taken into account when writing the course syllabus and reading-list. A first-generation university student from a working-class background might not be able to afford copies of several key texts across all of their courses. Many courses in my discipline now direct the students towards library resources, or provide PDF copies of key chapters, where copyright law allows. One way I try to handle the challenge of recognising my students’ material needs is by bringing handouts of key chapters of the texts, when I want to focus on something specific in tutorials. When I recommend them additional reading to help with their comprehension of a subject, I try to find materials that are available online for free via the Library website.

The challenge for academics is how to encourage the students to expand their comfort zone and develop both the confidence to take risks, and a healthy scepticism towards the range of concepts and master narratives they may encounter. This is particularly relevant when teaching subjects that are controversial or politically sensitive.
— p 283

The issue of approaching politically sensitive or controversial topics with first year undergraduates is a key challenge in my teaching practice; the study of philosophy is all about the questioning of our presuppositions and beliefs. Furthermore, the first year, first semester course ‘Morality and Value’ opens with discussions on practical ethics – including abortion and prostitution. I’ve used a few different methods to navigate this challenge. Firstly, in the opening tutorial of the semester, I establish my ground rules for the classroom: please do the reading, please turn up, and please respect others. This gives me an opportunity to point out that everyone has come from different backgrounds and will bring different beliefs and perspectives in the classroom. We are here for healthy discussion, and I will not tolerate rudeness or disrespect. Secondly, in tutorials that tackle sensitive subjects, I open with a ‘trigger warning’ of sorts: I tell the students that we’ll be covering sensitive subjects and that it is important to remember the ‘respect others’ rule – you don’t know what personal experiences with these topics people in the classroom may have. These strategies help make the students feel more comfortable in the classroom while we discuss sensitive subjects, empowering them to get involved in the debate.

Preparing for the Final Essay | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


I had to complete the final workshop of the AFHEA course remotely due to the snow. In preparation for the final reflective essay, I had to think about reflective writing, and what kind of teacher I am.

What might be the focus of ‘reflective writing’ about teaching? What could be included in such an account?

We can identify five things that may be the focus of reflective writing:

1.     Course Context

This can refer to the place the teaching activity takes within the course, the type of teaching, as well as the physical setting or space that the teaching takes place in and how appropriate it is for the task. For instance, my tutorials are discussion-based classes that act as an active complement to a taught lecture series. These take place in small seminar rooms with up to 15 participants and one tutor. The best room set up for class is a horseshoe shape table, which allows for large and small group discussions.

2.     Students

Thinking about the background and characteristics of the students, both as individuals and as a group as a whole, is an important possible focus of reflective writing about teaching. Students come into the classroom from all kinds of different backgrounds. For example, many of the courses I teach are first year undergraduate courses, and they are often popular outside options. In the first session of the semester, I always ask my students what their ‘major’ degree subject is so that I can get a feel of what their background is in the subject area. My students range from experienced learners, perhaps with a Higher or A-Level in the subject, to students studying the subject for the very first time.

3.     Teaching Process

This focus concerns what I do in the classroom and why. For instance, I lead discussion-based tutorials. I use PowerPoint presentations to introduce the subject matter and focus the students on the discussion questions at hand. This means that when students are having small-group discussions, the question or topic to be discussed is always present on the board to keep the focused. Small-group discussions are a big part of my teaching process; I believe these make students feel more comfortable contributing their ideas to the class, as they get a smaller arena to break the ice and try out their thoughts first.

4.     How well did it work?

Planning a lesson and delivering it is one thing; reflecting on how well it went is another. It can be difficult to assess the success of one’s own work in the classroom. Reflecting on how it went and writing it down and getting a peer to observe you are both ways to combat this. For instance, last semester, I was observed during a very difficult tutorial session: the students were having trouble understanding the subject material, and I felt like I was failing to help them understand it. However, the observer praised me afterwards, as I had managed to direct the discussion well.

5.     What would you do differently next time?

Feedback from students and colleagues and my own personal reflections on performance can both contribute to the answer to this question. It is especially important to write these reflections down. For instance, I have recently been teaching a course for the second time. Last year, when I taught this course for the first time, I wrote notes on my tutorial handouts about how well the group activities I had designed for the classes worked out. These have helped me consider what I would do differently this time round and incorporate that into my lesson planning.

 

What kind of teacher am I?

Asking this question is another core activity of a reflective teacher. My teaching philosophy is that, in small group tutorial teaching, I am merely guiding my students into discussing their own ideas and views about the subject. They attend the lectures, do the reading, and then tutorials are for them to test out their ideas in active discussion. The ideal tutorial would be the one where I say nothing at all outside of setting the topic and parameters of the discussion. I create discussion questions that help the students explore the topic together, and act as a moderator to steer the debate and keep it on track and on topic. I also see myself as a resource for students; I can tell them how the topic relates to the rest of the course content and subject area as a whole, as well as show them the resources available to answer their own questions.

Reporting from the Coal Face: #USSstrike Continues

As the snow melted, Edinburgh UCU members returned to the picket line this week for the second week of strike action. I cancelled three hours of classes and picketed with my colleagues in History, Classics, and Archaeology on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. It has been amazing to see the solidarity of my colleagues on the picket line, and the support from the student community and wider community of the city of Edinburgh.

 Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

 Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

On Thursday 8 March there was the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament. We were joined by UCU members from universities across Scotland, including Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde, St Andrews, and Heriot-Watt. The best speech by far was definitely the one given by the new Rector of the University of Edinburgh, Ann Henderson.

 With Labour MSP Alex Rowley at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

With Labour MSP Alex Rowley at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

 All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

 An excellent strike dog at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

An excellent strike dog at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

Talks between UCU and UUK have continued this week - farcically organised on Twitter late at night on Monday - but a resolution is yet to be found. The strike action will currently continue as planned into next week, and there is worry that further action will be required during exams season.

One good thing coming out of the current spotlight on university and college teaching is the publicity of the issue of casualisation in the sector. Hope is that the issue of casualisation and early career precarity can be tackled anew after the pensions dispute is won.

Thinking about Assessment and Feedback | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


At 12 noon today, the deadline for the 'Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment' midterm passed. As the relief sets in for the students, the fear and loathing begins for the tutors: here comes 30 essays to mark in the next few weeks - a task that looms mountainous, even without the constraints of not working on strike days. This seemed to me to be the perfect time to read Gibbs' ideas about assessment and feedback.

The first part of his article that stuck out to me was the discussion of what has the most impact on students: feedback or marks?

Experimental studies have provided students with one of three feedback conditions: marks only, marks and feedback, or feedback only. It is the feedback-only condition that produces more learning and more improvement in student marks. Students demand marks, but what do they know? Taking marks off assignments is the cheapest way to improve the impact of feedback. If necessary you can provide marks two weeks later once the feedback has been digested. Students’ extrinsic motivation and mark orientation can make even the most lovingly and professionally crafted feedback metamorphose into an explanation of why they got the mark they did. This does not necessarily help them to learn the subject matter.
— Gibbs, 2015

Students are more open to reading their feedback and taking it on board when it is divorced from the marks. This seems quite common-sense to me. I remember being reticent to read through essay feedback as an undergraduate if the mark wasn't the greatest. It took until quite late in my undergraduate career to build the emotional resilience to be able to thoroughly read and consider the feedback on my essays. Taming the emotional response and taking constructive criticism on board is a skill that takes time to develop. Would I have developed this skill sooner if the mark was withheld, and my only indicator of performance was the feedback - forcing an engagement with it?

We use TurnItIn for essays, and my students receive both their marks and feedback on the platform. However, they can see the mark before they open the feedback studio. How many of them, I wonder, look at their mark and then close the window? How many of them open the full feedback studio and read through what I've written for them?

Reflecting on this issue, I wonder how far some of my practices help ameliorate the problem:

  • I consciously try to write future-oriented feedback - rather than feedback that 'justifies' the mark. This often involves taking a specific example of an area where the student could improve, and generalising it so that they can see how it could apply to future assignments.
  • In my second semester of teaching, I wrote a 'How To Survive Your [Classics / Philosophy] Essays' guide for my students. I had noticed that a lot of essays I marked needed the same advice and feedback, such as: check that your referencing and bibliography is complete and correct according to the referencing style; consult appropriate secondary sources, not Wikipedia - and here's how to find them; state your aims clearly and concisely in an introduction, and summarise your arguments in a conclusion. I put a lot of the common feedback into this survival guide, which I revise and hand out a few weeks before essay submission time. Providing common feedback before the assignment is due has worked well as a preventative strategy - the students seem to be receptive to the advice. 
  • As far as possible according to my contracts, I provide office hours for the students after their essay marks and feedback have been released. Previously, I held regular office hours, advertised at the end of each tutorial session, but never had any takers; now I hold essay-specific office hours, with slots to sign up for via Doodle Poll. This gives us the opportunity for an in-depth discussion of the feedback I wrote for them, and how the student could improve. Formalising the process by doing a Doodle poll sign up has increased the uptake of students coming for office hours, but am I doing enough to make these sessions accessible for the students? Am I approachable enough? Would a student who is reticent to open the full feedback studio online sign up for a one-on-one office hour feedback session?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be thinking about how to make my written feedback more effective, as well as how to increase student engagement with the feedback. I'll also read Gibbs' 'Part 2' on this issue.

 

Edinburgh Joins The UCU Strike

As there was no teaching last week, Edinburgh joins the UCU industrial action against cuts to USS pensions today.

Despite the freezing temperatures and flurries of snow, hundreds gathered in Bristo Square for an opening rally in support of the strike action. We were joined in solidarity by representatives from other UCU branches in Scotland - Glasgow, Stirling, and QMU - as well as by Labour councillors.

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Here are the dates of our branch's strike action:

Monday 26 February
Tuesday 27 February
Wednesday 28 February

Monday 5 March
Tuesday 6 March
Wednesday 7 March
Thursday 8 March

Monday 12 March
Tuesday 13 March
Wednesday 14 March
Thursday 15 March
Friday 16 March

Monday 19 March
Tuesday 20 March

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I'm joining the picket lines for four days' action beginning Monday 5 March.

My statement about my intentions both to strike and take action short of a strike as a teacher and a member of the UCU is available here.

You can read more about the industrial action on the UCU website.

NCRS: Issues in Theology

For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.

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Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 2: Issues in Theology

Speakers:

  • Kyle Lincoln, Edinburgh: Exploring Pulpit Shaming within a Nineteenth Century Scottish Literary Context
  • David Rathel, St Andrews: Ecclesiology and Empire: Surveying Nineteenth Century Evangelical Attitudes to British Expansion in India

The third speaker booked for this seminar had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances. Regardless, we had a great turnout for Kyle Lincoln and David Rathel, who explored topics in theology and religion in the context of the 19th century.  

Thoughts on the talks:

  • Kyle Lincoln
    • Kyle's opening discussion of 'shame' in different contexts was very interesting; he continued to explore the theological issues raised by pulpit shaming - the denouncement of an individual, group, or activity by the minister, speaking from the authority of the pulpit - as presented in Scottish literature by Robert Burns and James Hogg.
    • There were many concepts and feelings connected with the concept of shame, such as hypocrisy, dishonour, and discipline. The individual's privacy is destroyed by the polemical, public nature of the shaming.
  • David Rathel
    • David spoke about Buchanan's sermon 'The Star in the East', and Britain's evangelical-colonial delusion - that God chose Britain in the way that he had once chosen the Israelites, to become his missionaries across the world - in particular, in India. Convictions about the role of divine providence in the rise of Britain's power provided the Church with evangelical - and moral - justifications for colonial activity. The expansion of Christianity and growth of the British Empire in the 19th century are intimately connected.
    • I found David's presentation of the idea of the 'providential view of history' very interesting - that is, the belief that God is guiding history in a certain way or to a certain end. This is one of the ideas that Nietzsche vehemently attacks, in essays such as 'On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life'

The next NCRS is on March 29th. The topic is 'Colonialism and Literature'.

Peer Observation | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


At the end of the last AFHEA seminar, everyone in the class paired up in preparation for the peer observation exercise. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the wonderful new experience of watching a colleague teach, and had her visit my classroom in turn. Here, I reflect on what happened, using Brookfield's reflective lenses to think about my experience during the peer observation process. 

I wanted to step outside of my normal teaching experience in the humanities, so I swapped with a colleague who teaches maths tutorials. We wrote some notes to brief one another on what we wanted to achieve in the tutorials, and what we wanted feedback on from the observation session, and met to discuss these notes before the observation. After the observations were complete, we debriefed one another, and exchanged written notes from the observations.

The peer observation exercise was incredibly productive for me. Observing a colleague deliver a tutorial in another discipline showed me definitively that many of the challenges of teaching are independent of subject-area; that is, they affect the profession as a whole. My colleague’s worries were similar to mine: how do I get all of the students to participate? Am I teaching in a well-paced, understandable way? This perspective is unique to the reflective lens of the ‘colleague’. The other lenses – assessing my own autobiography, asking the students for feedback, and reading scholarship and research on teaching – may point to this conclusion, but the evidence that hits the point home comes from observing another’s teaching.

Another way that the observation was productive for me was because of the excellent feedback my colleague provided on my own tutorial she observed. The autobiographical lens gets caught up in how it felt to deliver that tutorial, and about whether I managed to convey the finer points of the content; similarly, student feedback is always about the classroom experience of individuals. When a colleague observes your teaching, they get a holistic sense of how the classroom works as a whole. They can see your rapport and interaction with the students, and how the students engage with you, because they are free from the burden of inhabiting either perspective.

The experience of having done a peer observation has encouraged me to participate in reciprocal observation as a tool for reviewing my teaching in the future. Whilst I have been observed before, I had never observed a colleague before, and I had never engaged in reciprocal observing. It was very productive to discuss the successes and challenges in our teaching, with the reference to our notes from the observations, and I hope that it benefits both of us in our teaching development. For this reason, I plan to seek out colleagues to do observation exchanges with in the future. I would also like to engage in this kind of activity again as a way of developing my critical feedback skills, for the day in the future when I am a course organiser observing new tutors for the first time.

This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.

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The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.

Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.

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The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher | Road to AFHEA

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This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 


Yesterday, I attended the second workshop of the IntroAP course. In the first session, the discussion focussed in on the first two core Professional Values of the UK Professional Standards Framework:

V1: Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities

V2: Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners 

This time, our focus was on the third Professional Value:

V3: Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development 

This is, essentially, a call to becoming a critically reflective teacher: one who works towards improving their practice by engaging with and incorporating information and advice from different sources, from articles and workshops to conversations with colleagues from all kinds of different disciplines. 

The key reading I enjoyed in this session is the chapter on 'Becoming Critically Reflective' Stephen Brookfield's 'Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher'.¹ There are four lenses through which we can review our teaching practice, he writes (p29-30). These are:

  1. Autobiography: our own experiences as learners and teachers. What formative experiences have shaped our practice today?
  2. Students: attempting to see ourselves through our students' eyes, and taking student feedback on board. How do the students experience my classroom?
  3. Colleagues: having critical conversations with colleagues, or observing each other's practice. What is everyone else struggling with? What are they doing to improve?
  4. Theory: reading about pedagogy. What's happening in the scholarship?

These lenses can help us step outside our own assumptions about our teaching practice and gain new perspectives. Thinking about my history as both a student and a teacher helps me realise why I do certain things in the classroom, and why I feel more comfortable with this activity over that. My students and colleagues are often better placed to identify where I could improve than I am - and it's necessary to be open and receptive to that feedback. Reading theory shows us how common many of our classroom experiences are, and gives evidence-based explanations for different teaching and learning styles. 

Brookfield discusses many of the results of becoming critically reflective. The one I think is most important is, 'We See Ourselves as Being in Continual Formation' (p42):

It is in the nature of the reflective process for us always to be evolving. We never have the luxury of regarding ourselves as fully finished critical products who have reached the zenith of reflective evolution. We see our ideas and practices as needing constant investigation. [...] At no time do we ever consider the possibilities for learning and change to be fully closed.

This passage identifies the the heart of my motivation for taking this course in the first place. Just as I never consider myself as having 'finished' becoming a researcher and philosopher - in fact, I feel like I'm constantly learning new things, new approaches, and new methodology - I certainly haven't 'finished' becoming a teacher. One doesn't 'become' these things, and become a static end-product; one is always 'becoming' them. I am always becoming a philosopher, a teacher, and a researcher. Critical reflection on these processes of 'becoming' is essential.

Between now and the next workshop, we're completing teaching observations of one another. I wanted to observe the teaching practice of someone in a problem-based tutorial subject rather than a discussion-based tutorial subject area, to see what I could learn from the difference in practice, so I paired up with a colleague who teaches mathematics. I'll observe her tutorials, and she'll observe mine, and we'll exchange feedback. As preparation, I'm thinking about some of the following issues:

  • What kind of feedback would I find helpful or like to receive if I were her? 
  • What can I learn from her practice to incorporate into mine?
  • What aspects of my own teaching practice do I want to hear the most feedback on?
  • What can I learn from this exercise for when I conduct tutorial observations in the future?

All in all, I'm quite excited at the prospect of stepping outside of my comfort zone here: both by conducting an observation for the first time, and by exploring teaching practice outside of the humanities. 

1. Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) "Becoming critically reflective" from Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a critically reflective teacher. pp.28-48, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 

NCRS: Travel and Exploration

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For more information on the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series, including forthcoming seminars, check out the Facebook page and website.


Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series

Spring 2018 Seminar 1: Travel and Exploration

Speakers:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi, Edinburgh: The image of Albania in 19th century travel writing
  • Gesa Jessen, Oxford: Germans up on the Mountain and down by the Sea - Heinrich Heine’s Travel Pictures and the Emergence of Nature Tourism
  • Edwina Watson, Oxford: “Headlong perpendicular”: The Elevation of Poetry in Byron’s Manfred and Alpine Journal

Today was the first session of the Nineteenth Century Research Seminar Series. I was very pleased at how well-attended the session was. Though the topic, 'Travel and Exploration', is quite outside of my area of expertise, any broadening my knowledge of the 19th century serves to provide context for my research on Nietzsche and 19th century European philosophy and philology. However, Edwina's paper inspired an investigation that filled in a gap in my knowledge of Nietzsche's development: that is, Nietzsche's engagement with Byron.

Thoughts on the talks:

  • Dr Ilda Erkoçi
    • Ilda discussed how Albania was recorded in 19th century British travel writing. I was interested to hear about how Classics had a role in the British interest in the 'near east': archeology was a motivation for travel, for middle-class travellers educated in classical studies.
    • Travel writing was largely by educated, upper class writers - resulting in colonial or superior tone in their reportage. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, many of the prominent and influential travel writers were actually women. An example is Mary Edith Durham, who wrote about the Balkans; she first introduced anthropological elements in travel writing. 
  • Gessa Jessen
    • Gessa addressed the travel of Germans in Germany in the 19th century. There was a bourgeois infatuation between the German middle classes and the Harz mountains in the 19th century, whilst the seaside emerged as an exclusive travel destination for the upper classes. 
    • In his 1826 work Reisebilder (Travel Pictures), Heinrich Heine evokes Goethe's Faust in his approach to the peak of the Brocken. There is at once a nationalist and romantic nature to this interplay of German Classicism and nature tourism. 
  • Edwina Watson
    • Edwina talked about Byron's excursions into the Alps, as referenced in Manfred and the Alpine Journal, and how they relate to an 'elevation' of poetry and Byron's vertiginous aspirations in the literary sphere. Byron's Manfred is Goethe's Faust reimagined - and this metaphysical, gothic drama is full of allusions to Byron's own experiences in the Alps. 
    • I thought that there seemed to be similarities between Edwina's description of Byron's Manfred and Nietzsche's Zarathustra, from the mountainside setting, image of the eagle, and philosophical themes. It turns out this intuition was spot on: "Ich will das Ganze als eine Art Manfred und ganz persönlich schreiben," Nietzsche writes, in reference to the Zarathustra (NF-1881,12[70]). In Ecce Homo, 'Why I am so wise' §4, he reports having read Manfred at 13 years of age.

The next NCRS is on February 22nd, and the topic is 'Issues in Theology'.