Saturday, 25 August 2012

Reading Lists – how they grow

We have a delightful system at the University of Salford, called LaSu, where we can add books to our reading lists as we find them. This makes a great deal of sense – as proactive researchers we should always be on the lookout for suitable material for our students. These, though, should be books mainly for background reading and not what we would expect students to buy. We need to establish which books students must have and read towards the end of the academic year before. We can’t expect them suddenly to purchase the one we read yesterday.  Or can we? Perhaps we can if it’s absolutely brilliant? I’ll come back to that.
A student contacted me recently because she could only find the 2011-212 lists. Technically, we are still in 2011-2012. Semester 3 is not yet finished. Naturally, though, she wanted to know what she was expected to read in 2012-2013. We had been asked not to add any new books into our essential lists after March 2012, as that was when the students were presented with module options. However, they weren’t aware of this.  
The books and other materials on our lists are divided into “essential”, “core” and “further reading”. Essential are the ones that students are expected to buy. Core works are stocked in multiple copies in the library and are referred to in our courses. Further reading texts are for those students who have a deep interest in the course and some spare time. The library will stock fewer copies of these.       
I’m teaching a course on the young adult novel in Semester 2 next academic year. I’ve just finished reading a novel that gets the balance of fast pace and emotional closeness exactly right. These are two qualities required in young adult novels but it’s often difficult to do both at once. Later today I’m going to blog about it, do a review on Amazon, add it to my reading list and put a mention of it into the week where I tackle the tension between pace and emotional closeness. I don’t think I dare ask my student to buy it though now. Maybe it can be promoted to essential for 2013-2014.
However I have to remember my own MA days. Okay, we were all mature students and probably had better cash flow than the 18-22-year-old undergraduate. Robert McKee’s Story came out just a few days before the second year started. It was the must-have, must-read book for anyone involved with stories. There is now quite a lot of ambivalence about McKee. Story was written for the film world. Expensive seminars are now delivered and some in the film world are cynical about their content let alone their cost; they are not cheap. Yet McKee has a lot to tell us about how stories work and he certainly appears on a few of my reading lists. I’m really quite glad our course convenor got us to buy it.
So, our reading lists grow. They reflect the proactive research of the teachers who offer their wisdom to their students. I’d actually be rather worried about a reading list that didn’t change for several years.   

Friday, 10 August 2012

While the students are away their teachers play. Really?

Usually around early June someone will say “I expect you’ve got a lot of time on your hands now that the students have gone home.” At his point I have to bite my tongue. The activity at the end of the semester actually steps up: that’s when we do all the marking, moderating, sending work to external examiners and attending exam boards to ratify coursework and exam marks and to decide which students may progress to the next year or graduate.
This is not a light load – in one semester next year I’ll have to mark 118 scripts. They take about an hour a time. We have to turn them round in three weeks and the earliest ones come in while we’re still teaching. There is also a perception amongst our non-teaching colleagues – I don’t mean the office staff – they really do understand – that we now have plenty of time so all sorts of meetings and training courses take place. 118 hours is about 3.4 working weeks. Fine. Almost. But the other work doesn’t go away – emails from students and colleagues need to be answered – plus there are all those meetings and training courses.
At this time also we are doing some end-of-module administration. Students fill in Module Evaluation Questionnaires. We have to summarise them and respond to both positive and negative points. It’s a good idea at this point to have a good look at the module, while it’s fresh in the mind, and think how you’d like to improve it next time round.
Then, once the exam boards are over, we need to chase up students who have failed a module or even the whole year, whether it be for personal mitigating circumstances, poor performance or lack of organisation, and make sure they know what to do to catch up. We tend to repeat this activity around the beginning of August when the resubmissions are due in. Just before that there is often a flurry of panic emails and phone calls as students worry about what they are submitting or what they need to learn for an exam.
I personally like to make point also of attending graduation. The hat makes me uncomfortable, you sit with the speaker’s back to you throughout the ceremony and you are under some hot lights. But it seems important and it’s all a bit of good old British pomp and circumstance. It’s good to see the students, anyway, and meeting them before or after the ceremony is a great joy.  
The MA dissertation students and Ph.D students are with us all through the summer, requiring detailed feedback on their work and one-to-one meetings. The Masters students also bring us a new pot of marking just as the new academic year begins.     
Naturally, we are also expected to attend conferences, write research papers, conduct research, apply for funding and write books.
Round about now we are preparing for next year and although we can recycle material from other years a little, we constantly have to change how we present it as the university improves its systems. For instance, this year we have new-style programme handbooks and we must populate a new version of our Virtual Leaning Environment is a specific way. We also have new modules to design, extra teaching hours to fill and new lectures to write.
Towards the end of August we have clearing. It’s mainly the territory of the admissions’ tutors, but it’s useful for others to be around. Anyway, you want to know how admissions are going.    
It can actually be difficult to take the 32 days to which we’re entitled. At Christmas there is marking around and then you may not be able to get anywhere because of the weather. Easter might be better, but it’s already conference season and there may be some early marking. Graduation is in July and in August there are resits and clearing. This year, I took most of mine in late June early July so that my husband could centre his around Independence Day, I could be back for graduation, resits and clearing and could avoid the school holidays. Sadly it meant I missed the Manchester Children’s Literature Festival. And whilst away, I wrote several blog posts, edited two books, wrote a couple of chapters of a text book and read twenty books to do with my work. It was still relaxing because of the sunshine and at least I got away from the email in-box for a while. You still come back, though, feeling that you have missed something vital.
This isn’t a rant. I love everything I do – even the admin in small doses.  And yes I often work from home or somewhere other than the office and yes I can be very flexible with my time. But one of the main points of working from home is that I get up to two hours’ more work done.  As I tend to work until about 9.00 p.m. most days and usually do at least four hours on the weekend I see no problem in occasionally leaving the office early –to catch a train to a conference or similar event, attend a community event or go to a book reading.
So, no, while the students are away we don’t play. We work very hard. We are very lucky, though, because for the main part we enjoy our work.