Category Archives: BA

Geographical Heroes – A teaching tool?

Dr Alexandra Gormally, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.

One afternoon I was sat trying to think of something useful and engaging to do during an upcoming first year geography tutorial. The tutorial programme itself is designed to support one of our core first year modules ‘Geographical Skills in a Changing World’ and runs alongside a series of lectures and practical workshops, as well as supporting other core modules covering geographical concepts. The tutorial programme has a range of activities that the students engage with throughout the year, such as developing critical thinking, essay writing, presentation skills, debating etc. However, the upcoming slot didn’t have a specific activity assign to it, leaving me to ponder the best course of action. Should I come up with a debating topic? A reading and discussion task linked to a core reference?  A speed-revision task (which is popular FYI and I pinched this idea from another tutor – but that’s for discussion on another day)? Being over half way through the academic year the students were tired and bogged down with upcoming deadlines and I began thinking how nice it would be to do something useful  that’s also fun and relatively stress free for all involved…

…At this point my brain started to wander and I found myself thinking back to when I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree. At that point, I would never have imagined that I would have a career in academia.  I then started to think about all the things that had led me on this path since then, and the things that had inspired and motivated me to get to that point (I was in the 3rd year of my PhD while I was contemplating this). A key turning point for me when was I became interested in the life and work of Gordon Manley.  He is a famous British climatologist and also the founder of our weather station and Environmental Science and Geography department (now the Lancaster Environment Centre), here at Lancaster. I won’t go into the details of my Manley ‘crush’ but I became fascinated by his life’s work and through his approach and contribution to our understandings of climate – what a hero! A geographical hero no less! Not only was I inspired but with engagement and learning through his work (and of others), I gained confidence in my own approach and abilities as a researcher. As I was thinking about this I got excited and started discussing and asking my colleagues in the office – who’s your geographical hero?! Suddenly we were all enthusiastically discussing and debating who our heroes were and why.  ‘Doreen Massey you say!’ ‘how about Gill Valentine!’ ‘Andrew Sayer!’ ‘Colin Pooley!’ ’Tim O’Riordan!’ There were so many! From academics, to influential and popular commentators, such as David Attenbourgh and Simon Reeve. And as we discussed and debated I was reminded of the work of people that I’d forgotten, or heard about new ones I didn’t know. What an awesome way to spend some procrastination time during the afternoon!

Eventually, I gained focus again on the task at hand – what to do in my upcoming tutorial session. One of the really nice things about running tutorials is that it gives you a chance to get to know the students on a more personal level. I usual start off the year by finding out where they are from, why they chose to study Geography, and why at Lancaster. Often I throw in something cringe-worthy like a fun fact too. It’s always insightful. That’s it – I want to know who their geographical heroes are! A brilliant tutorial task for a sluggish stage in the year. Now, I’m aware that if I’d have been asked that at a similar stage I wouldn’t have had a clue. So I gave a number of pointers or rules:

  • Find a geographical hero (if you don’t already have one), someone who’s work or career has inspired you (preferably academic – they can be dead or alive).
  • For the next tutorial I want you to:
  1. Bring a photo/picture of that person
  2. Tell the group about them and why they inspire you
  3. Think about their career path
  4. Discuss how their work relates to your Part 1 geography degree (Talk 5 mins max).

Although initially met with reticence from some students, these tutorials ran remarkably well (I’ve ran this a number of times and has been used by other tutors now too). I think this works for a number of reasons  (1) It makes them actively think about what inspires them within geography – and brings back some focus at quite a tiring and draining point in term (2) most students don’t have an obvious ‘hero’ at this point and so reflect on the work of those they have come across so far in the year, and on what they’ve found most interesting (3)  they get to learn from each other, sharing perspectives on who and what is of interest across the multi-faceted discipline of geography (4) career wise, it emphasises how many of those ‘heroes’ didn’t necessarily know at the age of 18/19 where their career would take them. Although it’s helpful to have focus and direction, it’s important to stay open to opportunities and not be too hindered by obstacles they may come across in the future.

It would be nice to highlight all the geographical heroes that students discussed but there are too many to name here.  Examples include historical figures such as James Croll, Mary Kinsley & Richard Francis Burton, to the more contemporary like Philippe Le Billion and Iain Stewart. Some students even choose academics in our department who have been teaching (and obviously inspiring) them throughout the year.  It’s hard to tell whether geographical heroes is something that has stayed with the students throughout their time at Lancaster but I know for me, I am continually inspired by Geography, and the heroes that populate it. This is something that I carry with me during my research and teaching, and I hope others do too.

So anyway, Geographical Heroes – who’s yours?

Teaching Spatial Thinking with Abductive Reasoning

By Joseph J. Kerski, University of Denver and Esri.

 

Abductive reasoning (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference that goes from an observation to a hypothesis that accounts for the observation. It ideally seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.  The fields of law, computer science, and artificial intelligence research have renewed interest in the subject of abduction.

 

Abductive reasoning can be effectively taught through spatial thinking and analysis with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology and methods.  Through the overlaying, swiping, and display of maps and imagery in a GIS, students are encouraged to make observations about the patterns, relationships, and trends, or lack of pattern.  They can then form a hypothesis about why the pattern exists and how it came to be.  They can then test that hypothesis against the data, by running a set of spatial statistical techniques, by testing different models, by symbolizing and classifying the data in different ways, and by examining different regions of the world at different scales, testing whether the relationship holds in all regions and scales, or just some.

All of this is what I find most valuable about teaching with GIS–it is one of those few tools that allow for inquiry, investigation, hypothesis testing, changing the variable(s) analyzed, all in one environment.  In fact, GIS was created to be that very thing—a toolset that would allow problem solving and investigation.  I like to think of GIS as a means of enabling students to investigate the “whys of where”.  These investigations can occur at the local level, where hypotheses could include “Food stores in my community will be geographically dispersed, while antique shops will be more geographically clustered, “ or, “There is a positive correlation between median age and median income in my community.”   But the questions can be in an optimal location style, such as, “Where is the best location for an urban greenway in my community?” These questions can occur at the regional scale, such as “How have the land use patterns changed in the past 25 years, where have they changed, and why?” and at the global scale, such as “What is the pattern of earthquake depth and magnitude in close proximity to plate boundaries?  What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy, by country, and what is reason for the patterns that I see?”

As we begin examining the data, I find that it is best if the students give a hypothesis. In one of the examples above, I ask students to state what they hypothesize the pattern of global earthquake magnitude related to the major types of plate boundaries to be, and then do the same thing with global earthquake depth. I also ask them to state why they stated their hypothesis that way. What components of past geographic knowledge are they bringing to bear on their hypothesis, or are they truly “in the dark” about this specific type of spatial relationship without prior knowledge?

With today’s web-based GIS tools, students can visualize and analyze real-world phenomena in 2D and 3D, and increasingly in real time.  They can collect their own data with smartphone apps with their own equipment and then map and analyze that data.  They can communicate their results with web mapping tools such as multimedia story maps and share these maps with others.  I find that students think holistically about problem solving through the use of these tools.  Through these web based GIS investigations, students also must deal with issues such as data quality, data volume, scale, location privacy, crowdsourcing, and the proper use and citation of web images and data.  They must also think about which maps that they should share with the public, which maps they should share with a smaller group such as their own research colleagues or classmates, and which maps they should not share at all.

Consider this example that I have taught with many times from secondary school to university level.  After examining the types of crops grown in the USA, and after conducting research on the type of climate and the amount of precipitation that is required for cotton, students hypothesize about where cotton will be grown.  They then observe the pattern of cotton production on an interactive web map.  They note that their hypothesis was confirmed, at least in part:  Cotton exhibits a southerly pattern:  Thus, latitude does matter.  But although some of these southerly areas receive enough precipitation, others are semiarid.  How can cotton be grown in these semiarid regions?  After further investigation, students discover that irrigation from river diversion makes cotton production possible in southern Arizona and irrigation from deep groundwater extraction makes cotton production possible in west Texas.   Students then begin to ask, “Should cotton be grown in these semiarid areas?  Is this the best use of natural resources?”  At this point, the students, not me, are driving the inquiry. In the best spirit of geographic inquiry, student investigations lead to additional questions, and the investigation continues using the web maps as one of the tools of study.  Thus, the map layers and the GIS tools are means by which the students investigate the issues.  The maps are not used merely to find “where” but help students understand the “whys of where.”  And they help move students forward in their thinking from “what are past and current patterns” on to “what would be the best plan in the future for this community, region, country, or global phenomena.”  Thus they use the tools to envision a better and more sustainable future.

Consider another example below from a GIS-based investigation:  Say after observing the map of ecoregions and population density that I created online, that the student’s hypothesis is that the savanna regime division is generally characterized by higher population densities in the region of East Africa.  Then, students investigate such questions as:  “Does the savanna suffer from biodiversity loss to a greater degree than less populous ecoregions?  What are other factors that can help explain the pattern of population density in this area? Is it topography, water availability, proximity to roads, agricultural production, or some other reason?  If I zoom in to a larger scale, does the population density remain higher in the savanna than other ecoregions at that larger scale?  Why or why not?  What are the long term implications for the ecoregions in this area?  How do these patterns compare to those in other regions, including the region in which I live?  How can I use what I have learned to make wiser decisions about land use and ecoregions in the future?”

How have you used hypothesis testing and abductive reasoning in your own teaching or your own research?

kerski

 

“Bring in the Graduates” – alumni contributions to HE T&L

By James Derounian (University of Gloucestershire)

As the Times Higher Education put it (2016 online) the “teaching excellence framework will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities.”  Good. It is high time that teaching and research excellence were given parity of scrutiny, importance and reward.

And the UK Government’s Department for Education (2016 online: 19) – in its Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification argues for Student Outcomes and Learning Gain that are focused on the “acquisition of attributes such as lifelong learning skills and others that allow a graduate to make a strong contribution to society, economy and the environment”.

But how will our undergraduates (and then postgrads) magically gain such skills, capabilities and propensities? Why…….from their forebears! What we need is graduate re-cycling in terms of (recent) Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences graduates from particular HE institutions being encouraged to return to their alma mater, in order to offer specialist guest lectures, live projects for assignments, work shadowing; internships; input on how to make the progression from study and university into the world of work. It’s not rocket science, and costs little – but usually just requires a bit of care & time.

In my experience, graduates are flattered and only too pleased to be asked to return to the scene of their earlier escapades! And, of course, (recent) graduates can empathise, since they remember what it was like to be an undergraduate, but they can also provide insight, distance and practical wisdom as to how students may amplify their chances of getting into work (linked to their discipline), and to – hopefully – lead fulfilling lives. Those who have gone before can also connect across from the head knowledge of the classroom to what this means in practice.

So, for example, I have built up medium term relationships with graduates who are also employers close to the campus. In this way the Cheltenham West End Regeneration Partnership (a limited community-based company) has taken tens of my internship students over time, who have each completed 80 hours research and activity towards a discreet project. So geographers have completed door-knocking and research in order to gauge resident concerns and possible remedial actions; others have assisted with bringing fund-raising events to fruition; produced a sustainability appraisal for a microbrewery, indicating ways in which the business can operate more profitably and sustainably. The list goes on.

So how do you increase the likelihood that your graduates’ contributions back into teaching and learning are purposeful – to them and the students on the receiving end?

Here are my suggested ‘top ten tips’:

  1. Select your graduates carefully! Can they communicate (with students?)
  2. Brief them so that they know exactly what you want them to do, for how long, to whom (e.g. level 5 human geographers); how many, where and when?
  3. Make clear the ‘deal’ e.g. will you pay their travel expenses? A fee? Or informally get them a book token as thanks; and/ or buy them lunch?
  4. (As a courtesy) and to ensure smooth-running, be sure to attend the session, and be prepared to steer / prompt questions from the class etc……don’t just abandon them to the ravening wolves!
  5. Ensure that the graduate session fits into the academic coherence and running order of your module and contact sessions.
  6. Prepare the students by ‘flagging’ – several weeks in advance – that on a particular date/ class a graduate will be contributing, and how this will benefit students (and their assignment preparation!); twist their arms to attend! It is excruciating if a grad turns up and only half the class is there; most embarrassing all round
  7. Give plenty of notice to a would-be graduate contributor…..e.g. at least 2 or 3 months, so they can prepare, clear attendance with their boss, book time off etc.
  8. DO ask for their PowerPoint etc materials to ‘capture’ and make available on your VLE (Moodle, Blackboard etc.)
  9. DO thank them verbally & by e-mail….in fact line up a student to do this. Get them to ‘own’ and take responsibility – if they have to make a vote of thanks then at least they will listen carefully!
  10. Offer something in return to the graduate – job references? Comment on an application etc: Something for something.

It’s also delightful to network with graduates – discovering where their careers and lives have led them since they too were in your classroom. It’s such a simple, cheap, effective, empathetic means of benefitting your teaching and learning, your students and graduates. What’s not to like?

References

Derounian, J. (2015) Why does the devil have all the good tunes? How researchers continue to put one over teachers in the HE promotion stakes; British Educational Research Association, May 5 online. Available at https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/why-does-the-devil-have-all-the-good-tunes-how-researchers-continue-to-put-one-over-teachers-in-the-he-promotion-stakes  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Policy paper: TEF Factsheet; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550232/Teaching-excellence-framework-factsheet.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556355/TEF_Year_2_specification.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (2016) The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education; Available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmbis/572/572.pdf [Accessed 7.10.2016]

McGhee, P. (2016) Will the Teaching Excellence Framework be a licence for universities to raise fees, Independent 22.8.2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/22/teaching-excellence-framework-universities-tuition-fees-tef  [Accessed 10.10.2016]

Oakeshott, M. (1950) The idea of a university, The Listener magazine, 23-30; Available at https://www.msudenver.edu/media/content/facultyevaltaskforce/sources/oakeshotttheideaofauniversity.pdf [Accessed 8.10.2016]

 

Take it home and do it: open-book exams

By Dr Lynda Yorke, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University and Dr M. Jane Bunting, Geography and Geology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull.

Context and rationale:

Traditional exams (e.g. write 2 unseen essays in 2 hours) are not popular with students, often described as irrelevant by pedagogues, and don’t reflect the realities of the working world.  As a result, exams are being displaced across the HE sector by a variety of coursework based assessments, where students have several weeks or months to produce demonstrations of their competence.  However, report production on deadlines of a few days is commonly required in a range of jobs, and requires particularly efficient research and synthesis skills.  Since assessment drives learning for the majority of students, giving them an incentive to develop these skills and an opportunity to demonstrate them is in their best interests.  Independently, we both addressed this situation by developing ‘take home exams’, with a 48 hour turn-around, for the final year modules Rivers and Environment (Lynda) and Quaternary Geoscience (Jane).  We both wanted to encourage students to read widely and develop a sound understanding of a complex and evolving literature; being able to interpret and synthesise reports produced by specialists is an important skill for GEES graduates.

 Format:

We have employed two different approaches: an essay and a report.  Both had a length limit of 2000 words.  For Lynda’s essay-based exam, students are given a choice of two broad questions that require them to draw on the module content and other resources, presenting evidence and critically evaluating paradigms in fluvial science. The format was chosen to complement the mid-semester, report-based assignment.  For Jane’s report-based exam, students are presented with a selection of data from a simulated Quaternary section and tasked with producing a report which identifies and describes stratigraphy units, proposes an interpretation of the environment present when each formed, and assigns stratigraphic ages.  The report format is familiar to students, through previous coursework reports on their own datasets from field and lab work, and the option to write a report on a different dataset for formative feedback was offered as preparation.

 Effects on learning:

Some students told us that the take-home exam format changed the way they studied throughout the module; they focused on collecting and organising relevant resources across the subject rather than reading a small number of selected items in detail, since they had less scope for ‘question spotting’ and knew the assessment would require them to use a range of ideas from the module.  This led naturally to them looking at more articles, as they sought to fill in gaps in their collections, and to creating their own ‘map’ of the subject matter as they worked out how to organise and label their notes, books, web links and electronic files for easy relocation during the 48 hour period.  The quality and range of references cited was at least as good as in a normal coursework essay, where students have up to twelve weeks to write about a single topic.

 Skills, employability and challenges:

Embedding employability and transferrable skills is increasingly important, and students want to be able to recognise that this is happening.  The take home exam format seems to ‘make sense’ to students in both the academic content and employability contexts, and clearly addresses some of their anxieties around the artificial but ‘high stakes’ nature of exams (“In the real world I’d just look that up!” is a common complaint).  The format requires students to draw on their knowledge from the module, and their skill in locating, understanding and synthesising information and key sources of literature. It does not rely on cramming knowledge for a 2 or 3-hour exam, but on students being able to use a range of resources efficiently to help them work through a problem.  One student commented to me (Lynda) that they “… learned about lateral thinking, applying skills and knowledge in new and different ways”.

A few students over the years have not liked the approach. One of Lynda’s students observed that “… even if you were asked to write a report in 2 days in the workplace you would not be asked to read, research and cite academic papers …”. Of course, this is exactly what you could be asked to do, and reflects some naivety on the students’ part, but also a lack of clarity on ours.  We have addressed this via pre-assessment review and preparation seminars.

Our advice:

  • Give clear instructions. For example, students are often concerned that those students that are able/happy to ‘pull all night-ers’ would be at an advantage; Lynda emphasised that students should aim to work standard graduate working hours* (9 – 12 hrs/day) on the task.
  • Timetabling the exam. Concerns about clashes with other assessment at the end of semester and during the exam period have to be clearly addressed.  We were allowed to tell the students which week the exam would be in, then wait until all the other assessment deadlines were out to identify the specific 48 hour period, avoiding clashes.
  • Alternate assessment arrangements. Since the take-home exam gives students control over their environment, it reduces the need for alternate arrangements.  One challenge we both encountered was the issue of students who would, under normal exam circumstances, be entitled to additional time based on their personal learning needs; university protocol required that a 48-hour exam be treated the same as a 2 hour exam in this case, and students were given individual deadlines with the appropriate percentage of added time.  Our experience is that most students submit within the 48-hour period even if they are entitled to extra time.

Overall, we find that this kind of assessment is popular with and makes sense to students, creates desirable learning behaviours, directly addresses employability concerns as an embedded part of the module rather than an add-on or a checklist, and is rewarding to mark, since we have both seen very high levels of performance as students rise to the challenge of the task.  We strongly recommend it as part of the designer’s tool kit for GEES curricula, and would be happy to discuss our experience with any interested colleagues.

*http://www.thejobcrowd.com/employer/pwc/working-hours

Level Up: Writing Strategies for New Undergraduates

By Desiree Fields (University of Sheffield), Matt Finn (University of Exeter), and Yvonne Oates (Cornwall College)

As an undergraduate just starting out at university, you already have loads of writing experience, but university requires some new and different writing skills. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that your task will often be to use your writing not only to demonstrate that you can find relevant information and report it back, but that you can use the information you find to offer new insights and raise critical questions. In other words, you will be producing knowledge yourself by drawing on existing research. At university you will likely write more, and more often, than at school, and you will have to work more independently. This entails developing the ability to self-direct your writing, from breaking down the essay question to searching the academic literature, planning your essay, and organizing your time to write (and edit, proofread, and polish, plus prepare a reference list or bibliography).

 

Here, we offer some strategies to ‘level up’ your writing for university. Becoming a stronger writer is important for practical reasons: employers desire workers who can communicate effectively and think critically, and postgraduate opportunities will hinge to a large extent on the same skill set. But strengthening your writing will also help you become a more articulate person, one who knows what they think and how to say it effectively.

 

Developing your ideas

Whereas lecturers want students to develop original arguments based on academic literature, in their essays students often rely too heavily on reporting what the literature says, with little of their own voice coming across. It can be tempting to try and sound ‘academic’ but it is often better to write in a straightforward way, using short sentences and aiming to be as clear as possible. To develop your ideas and write essays that show more independent thought, we recommend taking some time to try to answer the essay question in one sentence before you even start reading, reviewing your notes, or researching it further. This can be the kernel of your argument and help you identify where there are gaps in your knowledge or understanding (and therefore where you need to read more). Starting with what you already know (or think you know), rather than going straight to what other people have said can support you in finding your own voice. Once you have written a sentence in response to the essay question and developed a plan for what you need to read to build up your argument, come back to your sentence after each text you read: what do you need to add or change? We should caution that ‘confirmation bias’ is a potential limitation of this strategy; that is you run the risk of only reading texts that support or confirm your initial thinking. However reading should change how you think. If your argument does not change after reading, you probably want to seek out some texts that explicitly challenge your argument. After all, acknowledging alternative views is a crucial way of strengthening our own arguments.

 

Understanding plagiarism

Plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work—not only their words, but also their ideas—without properly attributing it to them. Most undergraduates are fearful of committing plagiarism, yet many of them will in fact do so, often inadvertently rather than as an act of deliberate deception. The consequences of plagiarism can be severe both in terms of official penalties that affect your marks and in terms of the respect lecturers accord your future work. A recent study at the University of Otago found that while university policies frame plagiarism in moral and legal terms of dishonesty and intellectual property, students were often confused about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. The skills needed to avoid plagiarism include proper referencing and the ability to paraphrase the work of others, both of which take practice and will grow stronger as you become more familiar with your discipline and with reading academic texts and preparing academic writing. In other words, avoiding plagiarism is not simply about what happens (or does not happen) on the pages you submit, it is bound up in the broader process of becoming a geographer. Academic writing is about producing knowledge, and knowledge is not created ‘from scratch’. Instead, it is about how you combine the ideas of others to raise new questions or create insights of your own. As an author, you should therefore be able to trace the lineage of your work back to the ideas and authors that inspired your own thinking.

 

Conclusion

 

Writing can be a challenge and, given the other priorities you will have at university, it is easy to think, ‘just get it done’. However, writing, and writing well, can be very rewarding and many students find their understanding of an issue increases not just through listening to lectures or their own reading but as they write. To write clearly you need to think clearly so allow yourself the time to work through the challenges of how to order your thoughts and how things fit together. Everyone, including academics, can learn how to write more effectively and there are a wealth of underused books and resources available to you about how to improve your writing. The promise of writing is that over time and with practice it will allow you to know yourself and the world around you better as your thinking develops but also to know how to communicate in an engaged, informed and persuasive way.

 

Whose voice is it anyway: Delivery and Development, what’s the difference and why does it matter?

by Rachel Hunt, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and Victoria Smillie, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow

This blog post came about as a result of a postgraduate teaching session at RGS 2015. There, and now here, we have sought to share our views about the importance of the role of the GTA within courses which they help to run.

Those academics engaging with the problem of the GTA recognize that from the GTA perspective there are many positives to our awkward role within the department. Not only does this work boost our wages, communication skills and employability’s (so they tell us), but more importantly provides a much needed break from the solitude that the PHD can bring.

However, Despite advances in the appreciation of postgraduate efforts, and the acknowledgement that GTA’s make up a significant part of the undergraduate teaching team in most universities, the picture is not of universal progress and Linehan’s (1996:107) comments regarding the ‘low grumbling murmur’ of postgraduates continue today. Indeed we can see papers by Linehan (1996), Muzaka (2009), and Park and Ramos (2002), among many others who lament the underpaid, undervalued and under recognised work that many GTA’s undertake.

Many authors report on the specific role of the GTA in shaping courses arguing that we GTA’s should have a role to play in course construction. Yet we are left wondering where to find the time to continually provide and update the courses on top of our phd work, our requirements to publish, to do out reach work, to attend, organize and speak at conferences. The pulls on a researchers time are endless.  As such it is not only diligence above and beyond the call of duty (or scope of payment) which is often expected in terms of GTA involvement, but we would argue that ‘we’ as a cohort are not given the full experience of this ‘apprenticeship’ to use Beesley’s (1979) term.

Despite this, very few authors provide an insight into the messy, in-between status of the GTA, nor really provide any helpful guidance as to how we might redress the balance between wanting to impact upon the courses upon which we tutor, demonstrate or lead, and keeping to our 3 (erm, 4 in our case) year deadline.

Therefore, our aim at RGS and within this blog is not only to voice some opinions from those GTA’s working within the university of Glasgow but also to discuss our own experience of creating a new level one introductory lab. In doing so we aim to make the argument for, and present one example of, the way in which PhD teaching assistants can be given a voice through involvement in the development of teaching materials. Through this we aim to ask questions of delivery and development, focusing on those questions voiced in our title, what’s the difference and why does it matter.

Now, lets hear from 5 of our fellow GTA’s at the university of Glasgow. (available here)

The views expressed here corroborate those within the literature recognizing both the positives and the negatives. Unlike many other departments however we often do have input into our courses. Working as part of the level 1/2 team we receive detailed outlines for each tutorial but these outlines also give points at which we can depart from the written word should our own experiences as researchers be more relevant.

Further to this a team of three GTAs (of which we are two), were given the opportunity to redesign course material for the level 1 introductory lab class, paid of course, giving us an undeniably invaluable opportunity for our voices to be heard. The offer for this opportunity was put out to all of the GTA’s in our department to work in groups to change any one part of the level 1 or 2 course. This amounted to any lab, tutorial or lecture. We were lucky enough to be chosen with our proposal to change a slow and dreary lab which had existed since many of the group were undergraduates.

And with this we created Disaster Island and a two hour task to save the lives and economy of those living on this hazardous place. The lab takes the form of a real time game where students are put in teams, and set to complete a number of hazard based choices. They are given money, people counters, press examples, and maps to aid these decisions.

Glasgow a

This lab aims to encourage students to get to know to each other, get used to the lab environment and appreciate the unique qualities of geography in it’s ability to incorporate human and physical elements.

The process of creating this lab was an enjoyable one. As the images below show, the process started with blue sky thinking, and was gradually narrowed down to include reality or at least a more realistic approach to creating lab materials. We learnt about the practicalities of creating teaching materials, the timescales involved and how to incorporate such work into an existing course, complimenting what was already involved in the level one course while also bringing in brand new material  and with that adding our voice. This was about a new tactile experience, which deviated from the traditional academic process of knowledge exchange, in our department at least.

Glasgow b

We would therefore encourage other university teachers to provide these opportunities within their own institutions, not only for the students, but for the GTA’s themselves. Opportunities such as the one described remain few and far between. It simply would not be economical for universities to offer these opportunities to all willing GTA’s within the department, nor practical to fully redesign courses each year in order to provide these chances.  But this represents an important way to recognize and respect the knowledge, enthusiasm and skills held within the GTA cohort. It is key for us to stress that our immediate, and award winning, teaching team do make us feel like we have a voice, and are not just a face of the department.  However, it is still fair to say that department wide recognition of the teaching team as a whole sadly appears to be generally undervalued. In order to establish a significant role for the GTA within departments it is important to provide opportunities and support for the development of those courses on which we are trusted to teach, a trust we do not take lightly.

What we are talking about with regards to our experience in the development of materials is not the finished article, not by any means, the involvement of the GTA voice could, for sure, be taken further.  Rather our suggestion is a movement towards increased appreciation, rising satisfaction, improved deployment and ultimately better departments which properly equip us for the profession in which we have made our first steps. We worry that failing to do so will continue to allow dissatisfaction to roam like monsters on maps of old. (Linehan 1996:107)

References:

Linehan D., (1996) ‘Arena symposium: teaching assistants’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 20. pp. 107-117.

Mazaka V., (2009) ‘The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GRAs): perceptions and reflections’, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 14, pp.1-12.

Park C., Ramos M., (2002) ‘The Donkey in the Department? Insights into the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) experience in the UK’, Journal of Graduate Education, Vol. 3, pp. 47-53.

 

A tale of two cities: urban regeneration in Reading and Luton.

By Alina Congreve (University of Hertfordshire)

When I started work at Reading University, I took over the urban regeneration module that urgently needed refreshing. Coursework involved students writing essays to answer questions such as ‘Shall we build the channel tunnel rail link?’. The course was run twice with quite small numbers, in one term for third-year undergraduate students and in the other for MSc students. Most of the students who selected the option did so because it had a reputation for being easy. I took a decisions to run the module once and run it well, combining the third-year and MSc groups.

In trying to design new, engaging coursework I set up a meeting with the head of regeneration at the Borough Council. After a very shaky start to our meeting he mentioned two projects that he was thinking of paying commercial consultants to do with a budget of about £30,000. I offered to do them both for £7,000 with my students. The projects involved students working in two low-income neighbourhoods, collecting information and ideas from local residents to support neighbourhood plans. Once someone is paying you for work you have to do it, so I used the money to pay a regeneration practitioner to mentor the students. They were expected to complete stages of work by set milestones and the regeneration practitioner met with them several times as they reported back on progress.

Community facilities at Amersham Road

The students worked in teams and when in the community they were always in groups of two or more. Within their teams they had their own specific brief, to minimize the risk of a student free riding on others efforts. Students liked the combination of team-work and individual effort being rewarded. They learnt a lot about young people in those neighbourhoods who had very different experiences from them, including those who had turned down training and apprenticeship because their family needed them to earn money. They ran focus groups, talking to older people who travelled into the city centre to get groceries because they were intimidated at their local shopping parade with fears about their safety.

TwoCities image

The students identified the way youth provision did not cater for 8-12 year olds, leading to them being drawn into trouble at an early age. They also provided innovative solutions and came up with fresh ideas to draw in private sector support. They approached large Reading based employers based in the town and suggested schemes where staff working in IT could volunteer one day a month to help older residents improve their skills. They also suggested improved timings to local bus services so residents were not so cut off from employment. These were were taken up by the bus operator. Students presented their findings at the end of the module to the Council and community representatives.

Starting at Hertfordshire with a new MSc planning course, only a small number of students signed up to the regeneration optional module. Concerned the group was too small for the students to have a good learning experience, I approached a colleague who ran the Tourism and Hospitality Management MSc After some discussion she allowed the regeneration module as an option on her programme. It took time to build up contacts and networks that I had developed at Reading. Hatfield has been subject to an excessive number of student projects that have added little value to the problems of the town. Looking a bit further afield I heard about the work of Luton Culture, a third sector organization that runs that arts, museums and community facilities. In the town centre an arts venue, the library theatre, had been almost unused for 18 months. There were ambitious plans to re-open the venue with a lively programme of theatre, comedy and music. There were a number of ideas Luton Culture staff would like to explore, but were stretched for time. These included: creating links between users of the library and the theatre; introducing a loyalty card; working with schools; and creating a volunteering programme for young people. The students carried out desk research and contacted other arts venues by phone and email. Whilst half the lecture content was delivered by a regeneration practitioner and half by me, there was no budget this time for practitioner mentoring. With the smaller group (15 students) this was feasible but it would be much more challenging with two or three times that number.

A key feature to the success of both projects was the commitment and support of staff at Reading Borough Council and Luton Culture. They were able to provide information, contacts and other practical support, such as local venues for meetings, that meant the students could get off to a quick start. They also provided an enthusiastic audience for the students work, ensuring that their first experience of delivering work to a client was a positive one.

So, was is the benefit for the University? Or to put it another way, how can you persuade your head of department you should be spending time on this? A key hook is positive local press coverage. In many university towns there is a lot of negative publicity about students, often focused on rowdy behavior and untidy front gardens. To have a story in the local media about students making a positive contribution to the town can start to change that. Some universities have community awards for students who make a significant contribution to the community, and winning or being shortlisted for awards is good for the department. Professional bodies are keen for both staff and students to be engaged with real world problems and this type of project can provide evidence of that engagement. From a personal point of view it can also help your own career development, engaging with senior figures in local government and giving interviews to the media.

So what are the challenges? Surprisingly, few come from the students. A few students are initially skeptical, but this can be largely overcome if you open the module in the right way. This is going to be challenging but it is going to be interesting and it will look great on your CV. One challenge is time pressure, and while English universities have professional staff whose role includes engagement or work placements, the scope varies widely. You will get very different levels of practical assistance depending on where you are. Local authority budget cuts have put pressure on funds and getting even small amounts of money to pay for additional support is more challenging than five years ago. The biggest barrier I currently face is the university ethics procedures. This can take 6-8 weeks for even a simple questionnaire or focus group with residents to be approved. As a result I have had to adapt so that the projects are carried out without the need for ethics approval. We still have quite a bit to learn in making these kind of projects a regular part of students learning rather than the exception.