A Year of Ups but also Downs

It has been an interesting (academic) year at Seery Towers and our fridge has had plenty of bubbly alcohol flowing through it. Some of the many highs of the year include becoming Director of Teaching, becoming Editor of Chemistry Education Research and Practice, running another MICER, publishing the Overton Festschrift, being elected Chair of the 2023 CERP Gordon Research Conference (wut?), and of course finding out in February (May, of course I mean May!) that I was promoted to Professor. Yay!

Schadenfreude

Academia is generally a place where we are used to talking about success. I think this is a good thing – the work involved in new publications and prizes and promotions (P3), sometimes against the odds of university systems they were achieved in, should be celebrated and lauded.

There is much less talk of associated “downs” – I am reluctant to call them failures as I believe they are part of the successes that we are more public about. Certainly we see more openness about grant/paper rejections on social media, and while that is ephemeral, it does help contribute to a more realistic perspective of the full breadth of academic life. In many ways I wonder if we should have a “Not Successful” part of our official websites – wouldn’t that make the successes all the more special? Beckett said to “fail again, fail better!” – isn’t that academia?

Further to that, even failing is bloody hard work, and maybe we should be honest about times when we are just floating a bit. I’m coming around to an idea that academic life isn’t a marathon, but a mountain hike. There are times when you can give your all, creative juices flowing, outputs both good and bad are in overdrive. But also times when you just want to sit and watch the clouds go by while you eat your cheese sandwich. Coming to terms with the fact that there might be times when easing off the accelerator and just being has helped me deal with the near constant concern of burning out, the stress of feeling that I should be writing those papers in the queue or replying to those emails or doing something – anything – above the normal baseline. But perhaps for periods of time, like a kind of academic circadian rhythm, the baseline is just ok.

Recently I had email correspondence with someone who was looking for help with something. It was something I would have loved to have done, but knew that I wouldn’t have time to do properly. I (eventually) replied, full of apology. The response was that the reader had gained solace in reading that I was too busy, and was happy that I was able to say no because it resonated with their own sense of feeling too busy while wanting to do things. If we only project all of our successful things, will others who just see our shiny websites only see that side of us? The knowledge of our “failures” can put the extent of our success into context, including what those successes truly mean to us.

I’ve been battling with my own failures this year. I’ll mention two. I haven’t had any serious writing time and therefore my output has reduced. This is a “not success” for me because the reason I am an academic is that I love reading and writing (and teaching, naturellement!). Not being able to write means I am not doing the part of the job I enjoy most. I don’t intend this to be a statement reflecting how super busy I am – I could find the time but I have not been successful in protecting it, nor using the time I have properly. Knowing that failure helps me redouble efforts to protect time to write, or just to enjoy a cheese sandwich, and therefore being allowed to indulge just a little more when that final “accept” email does come.

To offset the glorious opening, I will conclude with sharing that I did not receive a National Teaching Fellowship this year. I thought I met the standard, but somehow did not convey that in my application. Colleagues have kindly played the Victor Meldrew role for me, but I am ok about it (hearing in Tuscany en route to a glass of prosecco meant I was quickly consoled). But if I ever were to receive it in future, wouldn’t everyone know that it meant more because I didn’t get it first time around? And I guess that is the point.

Building evidence for teaching-focussed promotions

Almost all academic promotion criteria will list teaching activities as one of the core areas where candidates will need to demonstrate evidence, but there is a growing population of teaching-focussed/teaching-only/teaching and scholarship/teaching fellow staff where this criterion will obviously be much more important. Having been on a working group on this matter in my own university, been asked to write quite a lot of references for people in this population, and thinking about my own career, this topic has been close to my heart for the last few years, and I plan here to share some observations that might help others focus their work on generating different types of evidence for promotion.

One major caveat to all of this is that the whole area of teaching focussed promotions is disruptive to the academic norm, and therefore impossible to generalise. Therefore what I say below in no way means to get away from the fact the topic of teaching focussed promotions will likely depend on institutional policy, on particular local circumstances, and on a general unspoken matter of who the local gatekeeper is. A head of school who has notions about what is or isn’t The Path to Promotion will likely be undeterred from The Path by any policy or guidance. All I can say is that I think and hope things are improving generally.

Terminology

When talking about promotions, the terminology becomes complicated, so I have set out the kinds of terms used that I am familiar with and show how these align with standard grades we use here at Edinburgh, which because is out of 10 means it is easy. This alignment isn’t exact, but I can explain my reasoning if anyone wants.

Grade /10 Teaching Fellow Categories Usual UK Categories US-influenced UK Categories
7 Teaching Fellow
8 Senior Teaching Fellow Lecturer Assistant Professor
9 (Senior Teaching Fellow -> Senior Lecturer) Senior Lecturer Associate Professor
Platform 9 ¾ Reader  

Professor

10 Professor

Headlines

Some key things to remember about teaching focussed promotions are:

  1. As you move up the scale, the evidence necessary moves further from the chalkboard. This is a sad reality, but ultimately just being a really great teacher, year in and year out, is unlikely to be enough to make a case beyond grades 7 & 8.
  2. What changes is increasing leadership in teaching, certainly at grades 9 & 10, so that beyond the baseline of doing a really good job in your own teaching, you influence the teaching of others. This aligns well generally with the notion that academic promotions are associated with increasing leadership in the field.
  3. Being a busy bee is less valuable than being a strategically busy bee. Aligning teaching and leadership activities to your school and university strategies, or problems that emerge on an ongoing basis, or demonstrating something new that offers an advantage for your School in your university or compared to other departments in your discipline, means it will more likely get noticed. Doing things because you think they should be done but don’t resonate with anyone else (read: anyone involved in making decisions) will not carry much weight. I’ve a whole cupboard full of stuff that I have done but no one cares about. It’s personally satisfying, but won’t add to a promotion case.
  4. As well as recognising the emerging role of leadership, the second main thing is recognising the importance of evidence of your activity and its impact. Ultimately a case is going to be: (1) here is the sad state of affairs; (2) here is what I did; (3) this is how it is better and this is how I know. I’m going to dwell on the last point below. If you do something, and no-one knows what happened as a result of it, it might as well not have happened for the purposes of promotion.
  5. Finally, get used to saying “I”. It is your promotion case, so the evaluators will look to see what you did beyond anyone else. So make it clear what you did. This means not being humble. “We redeveloped the lab course” – did “we”? Or was it you who stayed on working through everything to get it finished. Similarly with committee work; are you on a university or Society committee? If so what did you do that made a difference on that committee? Many people are on committees so they can say they are on committees, and any decent evaluation would look to see what the individual’s actions were. While things are naturally collaborative, make it clear what it was that you did that made a difference.

Some suggestions follow…

A: Activity within your school

More than just a safe pair of hands

Teaching focussed people are generally busy with teaching, and it can be hard to move beyond just dealing with the freight train of workload each year. One approach is to identify what the hot topics in your School are. What is coming up in NSS? Are students moaning about labs (yes, they always are)? What kinds of issues emerge at Staff Student meetings? What emerged as things that needed some firefighting? These kinds of things tend to get on the radar of heads of school and similar, and they can be useful places to start building a narrative: “Here is something that was not working well” (make sure that is logged in the minutes of any meeting if you intend to approach it). It may be that the teaching work you are doing could, with some tweaks, help to address the issue you identify. If students are moaning about labs, and you are involved in labs, making some change that will likely have some impact. The narrative extends to: “this is what I did”. Then you need some way of capturing impact – and this can be tricky, as students are less vociferous when things are going super. I’ve found that students talking across different year groups helped surface changes (“that was awful”… “no it’s actually ok now” – GET THAT LITTLE BEAUTY MINUTED!). Sometimes if you’re lucky it might emerge in course questionnaires. Or sometimes someone senior in the department might say something about how things have really improved (MINUTE IT!). Keep emails with anything indicating improvement in a special folder. And so the narrative concludes with: “it’s better now, and here is how I know”. The point is that if you do something but don’t think of the narrative, it is hard to retrospectively include that narrative in promotion paperwork.

Introducing change

As well as improving things to address known issues, improving things just to make things better is probably a better form of leadership. If you see that staff are killing themselves all working on some piece of busywork assessment, and you can think of a better way and introduce it, this is likely to make those who are concerned about workload happy. This can be tough, and usually involves a bit of ongoing communication to assuage concerns, but if you can make a case of over-assessment or considering learning outcomes, it helps with your narrative. Or perhaps you developed a new course in response to a particular need identified by external examiners or course review. Again, documenting impact or outcomes is important. Usually this kind of activity can be incorporated with being on the School T&L Committee, as that is where activities beyond your immediate control of your own courses can be surfaced. I think it is worth noting here that this likely extends to changes not directly relating to teaching and learning, but the broader student environment. Have you worked on student connections, departmental culture, career developments, widening participation, and so on…

For higher grades of 9&10, it is likely that this change is going to need to be more widespread. What can you say you have done that impacted teaching approaches in the whole school, or university, or your discipline more broadly.

Teaching innovation

While I do worry about students being experimental laboratories for people thinking about promotions so that they can show they are “innovative”, there is a general sense that someone looking for a teaching focussed promotion should as a baseline be a good teacher themselves. Course evaluation questionnaires can be useful evidence but are known to be flawed; so look to comments from senior colleagues, or classroom observations, or emails/comments from particular students. If you are looking for some innovative ideas, buy this book

There are some other forms of evidence. One way to highlight teaching innovation and excellence is to win an award for it, and so teaching awards have become important career milestones in recent years, which I personally think is a real pity. Another way is to document any invited talks given on teaching approaches, with invitation being more important as you move up the grades. And if you are invited to give one talk, contact some other universities nearby and let them know you are in town. Invited talks are something senior academics understand. Finally, perhaps you can be part of (grades 7 and 8) or lead (grades 9 and 10) applications to teaching grants in your university for teaching developments. Working with or supervising interns or colleagues on these can make for useful narratives.

Reporting what you did

As well as introducing change or doing things well, reporting what you did in an education publication can be a useful piece of evidence. It has the advantage of looking and feeling like something people unfamiliar with this world know about (academic publication), is a formal piece of evidence that you did some good (it is peer reviewed), and is a contribution to the wider community. There is a saying that an education publication is an education publication, and lord knows there are some shockers out there. I think this is probably still true, but I think that evaluation panels will become increasingly a little more savvy about the type of publication it is, and where it is published.

A really sad thing about not publishing is that everyone benefits from your activity apart from you – the students and your school benefit from your work; the publication would be an important piece of evidence for you and your promotion. Reporting what you did can extend to beyond formal publishing – blogging is a way to get your name out there as Someone Who Does Things. I still remember the extreme joy I felt when a former line manager referred to my blog as a potential output. Remembering the word “blog” emit from a chemical physicist still makes me happy.

B: Wider influence

As you move up the grades, it is likely that wider influence will become more important to demonstrate, so that it moves roughly from Grade 8 being influential at school/university, Grade 9 at university/outside university, and Grade 10 at outside university/internationally. Usual caveats apply. Things become much more nebulous here, because it will depend on particular activities, and the same principles apply – look for narratives that include evidence addressing things of strategic importance, or things that senior academics will understand and can relate to.

Accreditation

Accreditation with professional bodies is a way to demonstrate professional recognition in a field. While the RSC’s CChem is not quite understood in academia, Fellowship is much more so. Being an FRSC gives some reassurance that you are “in the club”. I have to say publicly that I really battled to get my own FRSC. I was turned down twice; once many years ago, perhaps unsurprisingly, and once about two years ago, which was a genuine shock. After adding a supplement to my application to show I really was, like super amazing, the imperial thumb turned upwards. I mention this only to highlight that accreditation, much like promotion, is still stifled by the “be in my mould” mindset.

As well as professional society accreditation, there is the Advance HE accreditation. This is becoming more the norm, because many professional development courses in the UK align with it, so you just “get it”, but going for Senior or Principal Fellow would be a good way to demonstrate that there is more widespread recognition of you as an educator. In honesty I am not sure senior people really know what P/S/FHEA really means, but they likely know it is “a thing”.

Professional activities

Just as committee work in university is a way to document influence, committee work on external bodies is also a way to document wider influence. The important thing will be to demonstrate what it is you did, and how that went down in the community of the profession. You need to distinguish yourself from The Committee Careerist, who is just on the committee to say they are on it. This can include organising events, or contributing to community in some way, been seen as a leader or champion for particular activities. Be clear with your narrative – what was the demand/reason for some activity, what did you do, and how did it go. Number of attendees/feedback are useful pieces of evidence. Sometimes very nice people write to you with testimonials. (Be nice: write to people when they have done something that has been valuable to you. It is important evidence and shows impact beyond university.)

I think that’s enough for now. What have I left out? What could be clearer or what is plain wrong…

Board-Game-Snake-and-Ladders-Periodic-Table

A New Role

Such is the pace of life at the moment that major life events (well, major in my life anyway) pass by undocumented. In January I became Editor of the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice, or as I like to call it “Chemistry Education Research and Practice – Free to Access“. CERP is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s education journal.

I love CERP. I’m not just saying this now – here I am writing in 2011 about it. The fact that a learned Society such as the RSC gives its support to the journal speaks volumes about the high value the Society places on education, much more than strategy documents or long monologic committee meetings might do. The RSC through its Education Division supports CERP so that it is free to access. CERP and its predecessor U. Chem. Ed. has given voice to generations of chemists who want to say: education is important – here is why. Many of those chemists are the leading lights of chemistry education past and present.

The first editorial

One of the first tasks in the new role was to consider where we take the journal. I’m very firmly in it for this sense of voice. Work with MICER and elsewhere has demonstrated a swell of interest in CER, and CERP is a natural home for such work. In our first editorial we did a few things. The first is that it is a joint editorial, written by me and the three Associate Editors; Ajda Kahveci, Scott Lewis, and our newest AE, Gwen Lawrie. As CERP grows, so do the layers and range of expertise needed to edit it. I felt a joint editorial would be a useful way to express this, and set out the interests of all editors.

Secondly, we talked through the typical considerations necessary for a journal article in CERP. Many of these are obvious to experts in the area, but if this is unfamiliar, we intended to demystify what actually makes for an education paper, especially to those coming from a scientific background. We included a generic article structure, along with the kinds of things that should be included along the way. A lot of this was drawn from our experience as editors, and we hope that this headline guidance will be useful to authors. The table from the editorial is shown below.

Typical structure for research article in CERP and guidance for what should be included in each section
Typical structure for research article in CERP and guidance for what should be included in each section

Finally, we talked about what actually happens when a manuscript is submitted. Who looks at it; how do we select reviewers; how do we evaluate their commentary? The purpose again here is to make it clearer about the journey a manuscript goes on, and where our processes might differ from other journals. A particular value of the culture at CERP is the role the editors play in offering commentary on the manuscript that draws together main reviewing comments. Authors regularly comment on the value of reviewer and editor commentary and how it can be helpful in improving their work.

CERP will always be evolving and I look forward to conversations and debates about its continuing journey. The editorial team interests covers the full range from research to practice, from university to school. We are of the field, and in the field, and want to hear from contributors and readers about how we can continue to develop and grow this fantastic journal.

 

Timeline entry page on VLE

VLEs are choccaful of information and we are doing a lot of thinking about how to make it as easy as possible to get to the relevant information. Previously our model has mimicked essentially what a computer folder on your desktop might look like – logically arranged but you sort of need to know the structure first before you can find anything. A nice idea I picked up while externing at MMU was a kind of “what’s new this week” timeline that is the entry page for a course. The model we’ve gone with is below.

timeline VLE

As each new week approaches, a new tab is added (scheduled by date release). These link to lecture information, labs and tutorial work etc and relevant text book reading that is the focus of that particular week. The aim is that rather than having to navigate through, the things most necessary for that week are in one place.  Linking to things is a bit clunky because, …Blackboard, but it seems to work ok. The reading links to reading list application which connects to library and has gotten good feedback from elsewhere.

This is fine for week-by-week info, but of course when students come to study, they are likely to want all topic information in one place, so the left hand menu links to topics. A small problem is that this left hand menu doesn’t auto-show when you are on mobile, you need to click it out, but hopefully this isn’t too terrible as the links to course topics shown in the weekly tabs will still bring people to the topic folder.

While scouting around how best to do this, I noticed very little online in terms of structuring VLEs, so welcome any thoughts/links to how other people do it.

Promoting teaching focussed academics

I read with interest this series of blog posts on promotion in academia, discussing external promotions (having to move beyond your institution to get promoted), internal promotions, and using the former to achieve the latter.

image

There is an additional layer of considerations for promotion of teaching focussed academics working in disciplinary departments (as opposed to education departments). The first is whether teaching focussed academics should be promoted on the basis of their work in teaching. The argument against is that if research is the traditional metric, then one who does not do research should not be promoted, and certainly not to professorial rank. This is still a prevalent view, although one that is changing somewhat. In the UK, there are not many Professors of Chemistry Education for example; I can think of a handful. In the last year there has been quite a few examples of people being promoted to Associate Professor (Reader) level. But it is still early days.

One of the difficulties is even if an institution wishes to promote someone to senior level, what criteria do they use? Typical criteria of funding and to a certain extent publication record are more difficult to apply. A general finger in the wind idea is whether the candidate has an international reputation, which seems sensible enough, but then I might say that. In a world of professional social media, a reputation and a reputation online are becoming confused. So instead, institutions might look for candidates to be Senior or Principal Fellow of the HEA, as an externally judged metric of reputation. This requires quite a commitment on the part of the applicant, and reflects back on what is the promotable action – teaching quality itself, or impact of that on others within and beyond the institution. For professorship, my own institution seeks things like external awards, student nominated awards, contribution to university policy, development of a MOOC (what?!), authorship of influential textbook, author of publications, invites to major conferences, or PFHEA. Perhaps I am blinkered, but one feels that if this level of criteria was equivalent across the board for all promotions, we would have very few professors generally.

One of the ironies of teaching focussed promotions is that it somewhat focusses on shiny new things that appear above the baseline of just doing the regular teaching grind. Things have to be excellent and innovative and while in a way that is good to encourage creativity, I do fear a little for students who are exposed to some crazier ideas so that the (ir)responsible academic can write about their snap-bang-whizz in appropriate promotion documentation.

A second concern is that publish-and-be-damned is even more enticing for education focussed academics looking for evidence. Promotion panels are unlikely to know the difference between reputable education publications with some merit in the field and The Secret Diary of Chemistry Education, promising all the latest news in the field. An education publication is an education publication, and to a passing eye, might appear so. One would hope that at least in this instance, an external reviewer might comment on that.

Finally, there is the issue of external reviewers. If someone is going for promotion on the basis of their teaching, and internally the university finds it difficult to judge quality, how can an external person do so? It will come back to perception, and perceptions are going to be influenced by bias. Over the last few years, I have been asked to write review letters for a whole variety of teaching focussed academic promotions from junior to professorial levels. One thing is very common – the difficulty in moving beyond perception and basing references on something tangible – there is often a lack of tangible evidence, often for the reasons above. So while the horizon isn’t clear and the pathway isn’t quite mapped out yet, recording and documenting evidence will be useful to support applications when the clouds clear. I’m open to suggestions as to what that might entail…