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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.

 

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Intrepid Explorers: sharing experiences and learning from field research

By Kate Baker, Briony Turner , Faith Taylor (King’s College London, UK)

Last week, Intrepid Explorers participated in the 2015 Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society, contributing to a session sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group, exploring the ‘University in the Anthropocene: Higher Education and Community Engagement in Environmental Management’ chaired by Rebecca Farnum, King’s College London. The session focused on how learning can be transformed by having multi-tiered education and encouraging knowledge exchange between the University and its community. Tim O’Riordan, University of East Anglia, the key note speaker for the session, described these projects as helping to give students a passport for life equipping them with transferable skills beyond the realms of academia. This holistic view of higher education is something that Intrepid Explorers believes in strongly. As a student led educational activity of the Department of Geography, King’s College London (KCL), we believe that by sharing experiences and learning from field research, it is possible to inspire current and future generations to support and advance science.

Intrepid Explorers started in 2012 when PhD students realised that academics and students, within the KCL Department of Geography, travel all over the world to conduct field research but on return disseminate only academic results, with little spoken about the experiences and stories behind the field research. Intrepid Explorers is a platform set up by, and run by, students to create and facilitate a space for the researchers and guests of the department to communicate life as a field researcher in a manner that is accessible to all. Initially set up as a weekly seminar series, it proved to be successful in engaging students and staff from all research groups, along with the general public. The seminar series has now been running for three years and is embedded within the research activities of the department. In 2015, Intrepid Explorers expanded from a lunchtime seminar series, to a student led platform organizing a range of educational activities including documentary film screenings, evening talks and microadventures. The department recognises the contribution these activities make both internally and externally, providing formal recognition as well as financial support for the activities.

Intrepid Explorers creates a space for conversations between researchers, from different groups, and universities. Collaborations and interdisciplinary projects have stemmed from Intrepid Explorers’ seminars and activities. One example, is a discussion that started after an Intrepid Explorers talk which resulted in a collaboration between the Fire research group at KCL and Zoological Society London (ZSL) – which led to a NERC funded PhD project. The PhD student, Jake Simpson also made use of an opportunity to use drones for research, circulated to research staff and students by Intrepid Explorers.

Aside from research, Intrepid Explorers has engaged with the student community, enabling them to gain the necessary skills, through workshops and microadventures (or simply the confidence!), to venture out on fieldwork. This has resulted in a record number of students in the KCL Department of Geography applying for the Royal Geographical Society’s Geological Fieldwork Grants (GFG).

Engagement with the wider community is becoming increasingly important in universities and is something that Intrepid Explorers supports and promotes through running public outreach events. These events are usually attended by ~150 people and include A-level school groups, learned societies, interested individuals and academics from across London and beyond. Educational material related to these events has been used in six schools as case studies for A-level and GCSE Exams and events have even been repeated. A Head of Geography from Wimbledon High School repeated a replica of one event, which included the documentary ‘Chasing Ice’ with a framing talk by Prof. Mike Hulme.

Participating in the workshop on the ‘University in the Anthropocene’ was extremely useful for Intrepid Explorers. It was valuable and stimulating to hear about other projects that link Universities and the wider community including ‘Bright Futures’ presented by Cherish Watton and the ‘Integrating International Volunteerism’ with Oriel Kenny and Susan Robinson from Leeds Becket University. In addition, Marisa Goulden gave a thought provoking talk on transformative learning in Universities which included consideration of the relationship between field based research and its impact upon the health and wellbeing, particularly the emotional response, of academic staff and students. This is something that the team at Intrepid Explorers has long been interested in, particularly due to inspirational past talks by Lloyd Figgins, Wim Nijssen and Dr Frances Cleaver that have incorporated preparation of, and maintenance of, mental health and wellbeing in the field, so potential for future collaboration!

Finally, the Intrepid Explorers conveners were encouraged by the interest demonstrated by a number of participants during the workshop in starting Intrepid Explorers in their respective universities. We’ve developed a wealth of knowledge from our experiences and are happy to share the branding and guides we have developed so that other universities can hit the ground running! Just get in touch intrepidexplorerskcl@gmail.com.

Many thanks to the chair and convenor, Rebecca Farnum, for an excellent session and to the Higher Education Research Group for sponsorship!

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.