Productivity, Connectivity and Personal Development

Although I’m a researcher, and I’ve loosely deemed this an ‘academic’ blog, you may notice that I don’t typically share much actual research here. There are a few reasons for the lack of serious, scholarly material on my blog. The first reason is time. A research-based blog post needs to be backed up by detailed reading and proper referencing; while I do quote from time-to-time, I like to keep my blog posts reflection based, so that I can devote the time for citations and detailed analysis to my research output (which also includes blog posts for the Baudelaire Song Project – those are arguably a little more scholarly than the ones on my own site). The second reason that my blog is not full of detailed research and citations is because, if you like that kind of reading, then I can direct you to my more scholarly writings via my Academia.edu page (don’t hate me – whatever people say about Academia.edu, I like to have my little corner of the internet for sharing papers and networking!). The third and most important reason why I don’t produce properly scholarly output to share on my blog post comes back, once again to time: I write these posts in very short bursts, between 6am and 7am, using The Most Dangerous Writing App.

Lots of academics have their own personal site or blog; many of them are wonderful, showcasing their ideas, exciting research and relevant materials. Plenty of them are opinion-based, rather like mine, combining outlines of research and ideas with thoughts about the internet. Another sub-section of academic blogs are completely abandoned, a testimony to good ideas and time pressures – this was more or less the state that mine was in until the start of 2017, when I read a book called The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod.

This post is not about research, but about personal and professional development. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the self-improvement industry. I was brought up to believe that self-help books were silly, indulgent and founded on a load of rubbish. I realise, here that I’m conflating quite a few different genres, but that reflects the way I thought about these kinds of books – whether they lurked in the psychology section, the self-improvement section, the spirituality section or the business and management section didn’t really matter, my mind was closed to learning about personal development. Then, back in 2011 or 2012, a few things changed.

First of all, I started going out with someone who had family working in the self-development industry (in a relatively high-profile way) and who loved reading those kinds of books. I gave personal development a chance, flicking through favourites such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and suddenly I saw a different side to self-improvement. I should admit, here, that I still have reservations about these kinds of books – many of them are badly written, or expressed in overly positive North-American prose which slightly puts my nose out of joint, but all in all, adding personal development books to my personal reading list has been a really positive step in 2017.

It was my partner who read The Miracle Morning first, as an audiobook. He started getting up at 6am and then at 5am, fuelled by enthusiasm for the book and for the effects of this structured, early start. So I downloaded the Kindle version myself, and had a read. I  hated the prose, and I got irritated with all the excessively drawn out personal stories, which attempt to play on your emotions, but reading between the lines, I could see the benefits. So the next day I set my alarm for 6am, and I’ve not looked back.

The first day of the “Miracle Morning” was easy – I was excited to get out of bed and get on with my day. I vaguely followed the plan of water (Berocca), exercise (a few squats), meditation (getting frustrated because the Headspace app didn’t work for me) and writing (blogging, using The Most Dangerous Writing App). While the exercise I did was minimal, and some weeks later, I still haven’t got behind the meditation, the early start still made me feel more alert and motivated than the usual 45 minutes of snoozing and the subsequent rush which typically characterised my mornings. I never took it any further than 6am as I’m convinced that I need a decent seven hours’ sleep at least. While my partner maintains that you can train yourself to emulate a Margaret Thatcher-style routine, I’m sure that normal human beings require sleep as well as positive habits to succeed!

Why am I explaining all of this on my ‘academic’ blog? Well, first of all, I want to sing the praises of The Miracle Morning – I’ll be honest, I hate the prose (have I already mentioned that?!) and find some of the ideas in it a bit cheesy – “journalling, scribing and positive affirmations” are all a bit too ‘self-help’ for me, but the basic premise of getting up early, starting the day in a healthy, positive way and getting things done – either for work, for personal growth or even for pleasure (!) – is really effective.

In addition to skim-reading The Miracle Morning, I’ve been listening to an audiobook, called Deep Work, on my way into the office. Written by Cal Newport, himself an academic with a background in business, the premise behind Deep Work is that we need a good stretch of time to focus deeply on a piece of work, in order to be productive. This means allowing ourselves space to work without being distracted by appointments, meetings and, of course, social media. I’ve long thought that the internet is damaging the concentration of adults and is potentially having an even more significant effect on the way young people focus and concentrate. Research suggests that it’s more a lack of willpower NOT to touch phones or Google things than an inherent inability to concentrate as a direct product of gadgets and social media, but either way, I know that the “always connected” lifestyle is good for me in some ways, but detrimental to my focus in others. Since listening to Deep Work, I have managed to put some healthier habits in place to enable me to focus more and get more from my work time… so far it seems to be paying off.

I’ve always enjoyed engaging with personal and professional development programmes at work, hence choosing to learn how to be a better teacher and supervisor in HE, but reading some personal development books has been an important first step in making me a better researcher. Although I’m with Cal Newport, in finding disengaging with the internet and with social media very helpful as I seek to develop a more positive, clear focus, I also have to celebrate the internet for all the amazing research, productivity and personal development information and tools it provides (many of them for free), so my task over the past few weeks has been about finding balance – between work and life, between connectivity and disconnectivity, between productivity and procrastination. I’m not there yet, but focussing on personal development has certainly helped kick-start the process. Finally, apologies for the typos – I wrote this blog post in twenty minutes and if I stop typing, The Most Dangerous Writing App will eat my words, and if that’s not motivation to sit down and write, I don’t know what is…

 

Digifest 2017: Lessons in technology-enhanced learning

Earlier this week, I took a bit of time away from research to attend Digifest, a two-day conference run by Jisc, the digital education solutions provider. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event, but when I discovered that it was taking place in my hometown of Birmingham, I decided it was worth investigating.

Although I was only able to stay for the first day, on Tuesday, I had a really positive experience of the event. It was a typical conference-style set-up with stalls and stands run by start-ups and educational providers in the main hall, plenaries and large-scale talks in a lecture theatre, and smaller workshops / breakout sessions in communal spaces or meeting rooms. The variety of sessions on offer was impressive – both in terms of the content and the format they were delivered. There was an inspiring talk by presenters from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Ulster on what teaching excellence looks like in a technological age, a useful workshop session on getting undergraduates engaged with digital archival work, and the day was rounded off with a debate about whether technology was changing the learning process in HE (answer: yes and no, but mainly yes – I’ll discuss this more in a future post!).

The programme for the event looked impressive, but what was really pleasing was the amount that I took away from presentations that I initially wasn’t that interested in, or that I went to by accident. Perhaps one of the most inspiring sessions was led by a team of lecturers and learning practitioners from Forth Valley College, in Falkirk, Scotland. They were talking about some of the tools they had used to get students in FE engaged in learning including smartphone apps such as Aurasma and the online Toolkit Xerte, developed at The University of Nottingham. Although I work with digital methodologies in my research, and have been devoting a lot of my pedagogical reading to exploring technology-enhanced learning in Higher Education, I’d never come across either of these tools. During this session, it really hit home to me how much we, as facilitators in ‘traditional’ universities can take away from the teaching practices of FE colleges.

 

What can HE tutors learn from creative teaching in FE colleges?

At Forth Valley College, one of the tutors on a vocational course in heating engineering had used the app Aurasma to overcome some of the health and safety issues associated with teaching in a space with lots of electrical and mechanical objects, which students might not be trained to use safely. Aurasma allows users to hover their smartphone over certain images or objects in a room; these images and objects are linked to videos or pictures, which appear when scanned in the app. In an FE setting, vocational engineering students could use their phones to scan electrical circuit boxes; a video, created by the tutor or by other students would then appear, showing them what was inside. The app allows students to explore and learn about the wires and components inside the circuit box, without having to open it up and expose themselves to dangerous electrical configurations which they are not yet trained to handle safely.

Of course, such health and safety concerns are not so pressing when you’re teaching Modern Languages in a university context. However, perhaps because it was so far removed from my own teaching experiences, the innovative ways of delivering vocational training I saw at Digifest did push me to think creatively about how we could appropriate the digital tools used in FE in my own environment. I realised that this kind of a tool could revolutionise plenary sessions. What if, instead of rounding off a series of lectures and seminars with a stand-and-deliver plenary session, we used an augmented reality timeline to give an overview of the course. My examples have been with poetry but it would perhaps work even better with social / political topics. So, what if we start with a series of physical pictures displayed along the walls of a lecture theatre, then ask students to record a short video on a particular topic – a poem, a political event – making sure that each individual or group has a different theme?The students could then upload their video by a set deadline: it would then be easy to generate a QR code to attach to the physical pictures, so that each one could be scanned by a smartphone and a video would pop up. I’m not sure whether I see a need for getting to grips with Aurasma, as QR codes work so simply, but, in principle, I see this as a tool which could totally revolutionise my own teaching.

The question of whether to use designated apps such as Aurasma, versus the trusty QR code raises another important question over the implementation of technology in the classroom, particularly when students are being asked to use their own personal devices for educational purposes. After all, my own smartphone doesn’t have enormous amounts of storage, and I’m loath to take up precious space with extraneous apps; I’m sure that your average student (even if they have a better phone than I do!) would rather keep their storage for YouTube, Spotify and Snapchat than clog it up with pedagogical tools. I get that, so we need to make sure that we’re using the apps and programs that they engage with already: this saves everyone time, as students don’t have to install and get to grips with yet another new pedagogical tool.

 

How to cater for everyone’s needs in HE?

One of the major strengths of Jisc’s Digifest for me was the open-minded approach that the facililtators and presenters took to the implementation of digital in the classroom. There was a huge awareness of the pitfalls of excessive or indiscriminate use of technology enhanced learning. It was accepted that using digital tools in the classroom does not automatically help students to learn more, or to learn better. The presenters understood that not all tutors and lecturers want to have more technology in their teaching, and the first day of the conference was so much better for that. Perhaps the most important thing for me was that the event always kept in mind what students want and what students need (as opposed to what curriculum designers, module leads and ed tech companies think they want). I’ve heard a lot of people criticise higher education (along with many other sectors) for being run by old white men. I personally have no problem with old white men in top positions in HE (of course, I want non-white people and definitely women to be running things too, with everyone as equals, but let’s not malign old white men – they can’t help falling into this category!), as long as they’re where they are because they manage HE institutions well, as long as there are other groups represented in the sector and as long as they’re listening to what students want, rather than pushing for what they think students want. Digifest was a good opportunity to remind tutors, lecturers and especially course designers to talk to their students about what they want from their courses.

Regardless of age and level of tech engagement, I think it’s very hard to know what our students do want. I may be a comparatively “young person” to be working in HE, and like the vast majority of Modern Language students, I also happen to be a woman, which might make me more in tune with students’ interests than our poor, maligned old white man. That said, the start of my RA post came exactly a decade after beginning my own undergraduate studies, and a lot has changed, especially where tech is concerned (I find it hard to imagine a student night out without carrying round a huge 5 megapixel digital camera!). In any case, university tutors and lecturers are a strange breed. We love our subject enough to spend years doing postgraduate study (mostly in our early twenties, when our contemporaries were enjoying freedom from study, and their first proper pay packets) – most of our students probably don’t want to follow in our shining example, and that’s just fine – each to their own. But if we don’t know what students want, we definitely need to keep asking them – and not just by getting them to fill in evaluation forms and NSS surveys. We need to find out what they want by talking to them: I’d really like to see students more involved in curriculum design, perhaps with select representatives from the student body serving as digital ambassadors, keeping us – the old men designing and delivering courses, the young women leading and facilitating learning, and all the teachers, lecturers and facilitators in between – up-to-speed with how undergrads want to use tech to enhance their own learning. How would our practice change if we had tech ambassadors from the student body, who could discuss with their peers and enter into a meaningful dialogue with their tutors about how technology could enhance their learning?

Modern Languages: teaching, learning and inspiring in the face of a ‘crisis’ in the humanities

As part of my training in teaching and learning in Higher Education, I had to evaluate a learning theory. Questions of identity as scholars working in Modern Languages are at the forefront of my mind, as I think about my own academic practice, so I decided to look at Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez’s Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. (2004)  Here are my thoughts on the book and the apparent ‘crisis’ in Modern Languages.

Phipps, A. & Gonzalez, M., (2004), Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. London: SAGE.

Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field addresses some of the key issues surrounding the nature of Modern Languages as a discipline, focussing in particular the implications of these issues for teaching and learning in a Higher Education context.

The co-authored volume by Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez was first published in 2004 and reprinted in 2008. Having first appeared some thirteen years ago, around the beginning of my own undergraduate studies in this subject area, the study feels rather outmoded due to a range of factors including shifts in the nature of Higher Education, changes in the discipline of Modern Languages (brought about, at least in part in response to the perceived ‘crisis’ in Modern Languages and in the humanities, which is a central preoccupation in this study). While we could not, realistically, expect such a study to be revised to respond to current socio-political concerns in the West which have rocked Modern Languages departments – in particular Brexit, but also the conditions in Trump’s America – I feel that Phipps and Gonzalez’s consideration of learning and teaching in Modern Languages could take greater account of how social and political shifts and the rise of populist ideas impact upon the transnational and multicultural underpinnings of the subject.

In the first chapter, the authors discuss the crisis facing Modern Languages, which derives both from inherent complexities of the discipline and from the social and political context in which Modern Languages are being taught and studied. I have always argued that one of the major advantages of Modern Languages is that it is more of a mode than a discipline, allowing students and academics access to a range of fields from political and social sciences to literature, art history and music. Phipps and Gonzalez, however, present the open-ended nature of Modern Languages as one of the challenges of the discipline, stating:

It could be argued that it [Modern Languages] is not a discipline at all, or at least that it did not [originally] have cohesion or a set of shared perceptions until the creation of a strategic alliance of individual language disciplines mobilising as a united body in the face of a crisis. (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 4)

The first part of Phipps and Gonzalez’s argument chimes in with my own sense that Modern Languages is not a discipline in the same way as History or Mathematics. However, their reasons for reaching this conclusion diverge from my own in that, while I see the lack of clear boundaries defining Modern Languages as a strength of the field, Phipps and Gonzalez content that the open-ended nature of the subject area is a flaw which has made it particularly susceptible to the effects of a generalised crisis in the humanities.

Throughout the study, Phipps and Gonzalez criticise the increasing sense that Modern Languages are a skill, suggesting that part of the crisis in the field comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of Modern Language degrees and how they differ in form and content from Languages for All programmes. Although they are typically housed within Modern Languages departments, LfA courses are designed to give students and researchers in other disciplines necessary language skills, and add value to their own degrees. But, as Phipps and Gonzalez argue, Modern Languages as a degree programme offers far more than spoken fluency and skills in spoken and written production. I chose to examine Phipps and Gonzalez’s book, as I am particularly interested in the inter-cultural and interdisciplinary aspects of teaching and research in Modern Languages. I am convinced that the open-ended nature of Modern Languages as an academic field invites research which touches on other disciplines, and works in tandem with other wide-ranging academic fields such as the Digital Humanities. In response to Phipps and Gonzalez presentation of the state of Modern Languages teaching in Higher Education in the twenty-first century, I argue that the responsibility falls on us as teachers of Modern Languages to promote wider critical skills and provide methodological tools for approaching high-level research which approaches texts (in the broadest sense of the term), history and other cultural phenomena from a position of linguistic expertise and cultural understanding. The challenge is to reconcile that emphasis on research, cultural understanding and critical thinking with what applicants and students expect from a Modern Languages degree.

In the final chapter Phipps and Gonzalez discuss the lack of clarity over what constitutes a ‘legitimate object of study’ in Modern Languages degrees (Kelly 2001, 82, cited in Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 5). They make the important point that there are many different objects of study at play within the discipline of Modern Languages, but their analysis does not satisfactorily take account of the fact that, within the sphere of Higher Education, different parties – students, researchers, language teachers – have differing ideas as to what constitutes the most ‘legitimate’ object of study. This means that degree programmes may not be weighted in a way which suits students, and the ways in which language and content modules are linked, the balance of these different skills and the interdisciplinary options available will have a profound impact on whether Modern Languages programmes can continue to recruit students and can halt the steady decline in applicants over the past ten years.

Where solutions to the ‘crisis’ are offered, I find them reactionary and based on opinion, rather than focussing on practical ways to address the sorry state of Modern Languages in Higher Education.

As languagers we are people who move in and through words as actions, who develop and change constantly as the experience of languaging evolves and changes us. A languaging student and a languaging teacher are given a unique opportunity to enter the languaging of others, to open up the ways in which the complexity and experience of others may enrich life.  (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 167)

At the crux of the argument in Modern Languages: Teaching and Learning in an Intercultural Field is the fact that languages and, as Phipps and Gonzalez note, ‘language teaching is a dynamic, volatile, changing, messy business.’ (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 169) Rather than try to impose boundaries on the discipline or to rationalise the vast interdisciplinary crossover of Modern Languages, we need to explore the similarities and differences between the needs and desires of our students and our own interests and motivations as teachers. To my mind, the challenge of teaching and learning in Modern Languages lies in reconciling our own research interests and fields of expertise with our students desired outcomes. As academics, we are encouraged to practise research-led teaching, to be innovative in our pedagogical approach and to embrace the interdisciplinarity of our subject; however, in doing so, we risk alienating our students and potential applicants, by offering modules and teaching styles which are at odds with what they want to achieve. Although the issue of research-led teaching and the importance of aligning our own research interests with students’ learning goals is not confined to Modern Languages, it is, perhaps felt more acutely in our discipline where the language forms both the medium by which learning takes place and the content of the learning.

Ultimately, this study offers an important insight into the state of Modern Languages and their place within both the humanities and within the landscape of Higher Education more broadly. However, it reads more like a manifesto for Modern Languages, exploring and asserting their status in the face of the ‘crisis’ in the humanities, without really offering any viable suggestions for addressing the issues raised. The uncertain and, indeed, unfortunate situation of Modern Languages is a key issue, which informs how we approach the design, provision and delivery of teaching in HE. The challenges we face in the discipline also have important implications for the way in which we approach the task of student recruitment in a field where student numbers are diminishing year-on-year. However, I found the study quite repetitious in continually re-iterating the problems faced by Modern Languages as an academic discipline, and I felt that far more needed to be done to link these discipline-wide challenges to the practice of teaching and learning. There were not enough specific examples of innovative pedagogical approaches or student recruitment strategies which might help to mitigate the issues surrounding Modern Languages as a discipline, nor were there any real and tangible suggestions for re-evaluating the identity of Modern Languages. I suggest that the book would have benefitted from ‘taking a step back’ to evaluate the commonalities and the points of divergence between the different perspectives on Modern Languages within society as well as by HE institutions and those who work in them – that is to say by academics, researchers, teachers and students.

 

References

Kelly, M. (2001) ‘”Serrez ma haire avec ma discipline”’ : reconfiguring the structures and concepts’ in R. Di Napoli, L. Polezzi and A. King (eds), Fuzzy Boundaries? Reflections on Modern Languages and the Humanities. London: CILT, pp. 43-56.

Phipps, A. & Gonzalez, M., (2004), Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. London: SAGE.