Category Archives: Ethics

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)


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.


Fieldwork: always have a plan B.

by Julie Peacock, University of Leeds

I updated the risk assessment for a second year field trip to Middlesmoor, Upper Nidderdale, early in the Academic Year, 2015/2016. I noted the comments, ‘In the event of extreme weather, the trip will not go ahead.’ I’ve seen and even written this on risk assessments many times, but I’d never needed to act on it.

We planned two, one day field trips with 81 second year students, one in early November followed by one in March.  This fieldwork is part of a larger skills module. The students work in groups to plan, then complete a research project focusing on Ecosystem Services. The first field trip, covers key techniques and familiarises students with the site. The second enables students to carry out their projects. In between these trips students work to prepare projects and present proposals to a panel of academic staff who provide feedback.

The second trip was to take place on a Friday. Monday brought a bleak weather forecast.  Students were emailed to remind them to bring suitable clothing and asked to review their field plans to ensure they could work efficiently even in poor weather conditions. On the Thursday, the landowner advised postponing because snow was forecast. We thought it was unlikely the weather would be that bad. Crucially, there was nowhere else in the timetable for the fieldtrip, considering availability of 81 students and six staff, not to mention re-booking the labs for student’s sample analysis.

I considered the options. What if one of the mini-buses got stuck? Would the students bring suitable kit for the weather? Yet, if we didn’t go how could the students complete their projects to meet learning outcomes given timetable inflexibility?

By the time I got into Leeds University at 7am on Friday, both the landowner and local farmer had called to say not to come.  Roads were shut and still it snowed. In some ways I was relieved; the decision was made, but what now for our fieldwork?

The campus at the University of Leeds is urban. Although significant work has been done to improve biodiversity and sustainability on campus, including a sustainability garden, it has no open ‘wild’ space. It is incomparable with Nidderdale! Nevertheless, urban ecosystem services are increasingly important as urban areas continue to expand.

By 7.30am an email had been sent advising students to meet in the department foyer. One lecturer wrote the risk assessment and gained necessary signatures; university estates had granted permission for soil sampling; two large teaching spaces were booked (fortunately, it was reading week); mini buses were cancelled and colleagues who were to meet us at Nidderdale were updated.

At 8am, the planned bus departure time, students were briefed. The trip to Nidderdale was cancelled, but they were to spend the next two to three hours re-planning their work to study ecosystem services on campus.  Inevitably, reactions were mixed, some students were glad (given the weather), others understandably disappointed not to be working on well-planned projects.

Students worked in their groups with academic staff mingling to discuss ideas. The VLE was populated with links to the University’s Biodiversity Action Plan, maps and useful literature. The field stores made a wide range of equipment available and taught students to use kit they hadn’t planned to use previously. Lab technicians made themselves available to talk to students wanting to undertake different analysis.

Changing the assessment brief was probably the hardest part. Students had worked hard on projects and were due to be assessed on a scientific report. Many would have started their literature reviews and methods. It was decided to ask students to review both Upland and Urban ecosystem services, writing up both methods, one where months of planning had taken place and one which had been planned rapidly.  Students found this brief hard given the unchanged word count to meet the advertised assessment. However, no alternative seemed ideal.

Field work was successful, despite the dreadful weather, with laying and falling snow, then heavy rain. Staff circulated to provide advice. A statistics expert stationed in the foyer answered questions.  Our students demonstrated resilience as they planned new projects. They showed they could work effectively under pressure, transferring learning about planning projects to a new situation. They learned in fieldwork too, Burns’ cliché holds that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley.’

This last minute change to fieldwork with such a large group of students couldn’t have worked without university staff’s teamwork and enthusiasm.  Students had a valuable learning experience, and we learned too.  In fieldwork planning is always key.  A contingency plan for extreme weather should occur.  Many HEIs have local areas which could be used.  Permissions for so-called ‘Plan B’ fieldwork could be gained, a risk assessment completed and students advised of the contingency plan including its impact on assessments, so if it is implemented it is not a shock. It’s useful to have a plan B and for the students to know it exists.

What have you done in similar situations? It would be interesting to hear.


With thanks to the following for making the changes work on the day: Karen Bacon, Janet Chapman, Dom Emery, Rachel Gasior, Rachel Homer, Jamie Mullen, Graeme Swindles, Clare Woulds and others who added useful documents to the VLE over subsequent days.


Ethics workshops for BSc students

by Julie Peacock (University of Leeds)

Where to start when teaching ethics to science students? Launch into a contrast of the theories of Bentham and Kant and your students may well think they’ve come to the wrong session; ignore these theories completely and you’re not giving students the tools to fully evaluate an ethical issue be it re-wilding of Scotland, GM crops, alien species, hunting and conservation or another issue.

For the last three years I have run a two hour workshop introducing research and environmental ethics to Foundation Level students. These intense sessions are just long enough to cover the basics and get students enthused about the subject, which they could then cover more fully at a higher level.

I find it’s useful to start to explain why we are looking at ethics – they are scientists not philosophers after all. For this I give several reasons: as scientists they need to understand what is acceptable practice; for their dissertations they will need to include a section on the ethical implications of their work; if they apply for grants in the future they are likely to have to address the ethics of their proposed project; as a science student friends and family may ask their opinion on a controversial environmental subject discussed in the news and it’s important they can give careful consideration to it. In addition to these reasons the QAA benchmark for Geography mentions ethics several times.

As a way into studying ethics I give students a handout based on an activity described in Matthews (2010). This is a philosophical thought experiment where student have to rank entities in order of their perceived value. The task starts with an opening paragraph, ‘Imagine a scenario in which a large container ship is rapidly sinking with only one remaining lifeboat. Nearby, certainly in range of the lifeboat, is a large forested island with a small human settlement. Your task is to decide in which order to place the following on the lifeboat…..’

Students work individually at first, and then discuss their rankings in small groups before a lively class debate follows on whether ‘a collie with a lame leg’ should be saved before ‘ten chickens’. Students discover there are a wide range of opinions in class even if individuals cannot explain fully the reasons for their rankings. With more time this could be extended and philosophical ideas drawn out see Matthews (2010) for ideas. We then look at another, more realistic scenario – ideas for these scenarios were originally taken from Downie (2010). With the scenarios I tell the students whether they are to think about reasons for or against the situation (rather than what their reaction is to it). This is to try and get students to think about ethical issues from another’s point of view.   I then get all the students arguing ‘for’ the issue to form a circle (or several circles depending on the number of students and the space available) facing outwards and all the students arguing ‘against’ the issue to form a circle around them, so each student is facing another ready to debate. Those arguing ‘for’ get 30 seconds to put down their main points and those against get the next 30 seconds to reply with their main points, followed by one minute of dialogue. Another scenario is then introduced and one circle moves to the left so students have a new partner for discussion.

After a few scenario based discussions we pull out some of the arguments for and against, ‘they have a right to..’, ‘we ought to…’ and ‘the outcome will be better if….’ I use these arguments to introduce deontology and consequentialism and their strengths and weaknesses.

The whistle stop tour of ethics usually results in a buzz around the class room and hopefully ensures the students have grounding in ethical thought, are more able to consider ethical issues from a different view point and will have inspired some to study it further.

If you are just beginning to get into teaching ethics to BSc students I would recommend Willmott, C.J.R (2011) Bioethics. In: Adams, D.J. Effective Learning in the Life Sciences. Chichester. Wiley-Blackwell, as a starting point. It’s actually written for bioscience students(!) but it’s ideas are adaptable to Physical Geography. Also, a site which hosts a collection of resources to assist in the teaching of bioethics and for research misconduct see


Downie, R. (2010) Environmental Ethics: a Scenario-Based Approach. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p3

Matthews, I. (2010) Articulating Values in Environmental Ethics. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p2.