When does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

A recent Guardian Higher Education article titled It’s hard being a carer and a PhD student. My university couldn’t care less has inspired me to ask the question; when does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

I love the Guardian Higher Ed articles, they are always thought-provoking. So what compelled me to write about this one in particular? I think it was how torn I felt when reading it. Based on the title I fully expected to sympathise with this student. I thought I would be compelled to vilify the University. That some terrible injustice had occurred. What I actually felt when reading it was not the overwhelming sympathy I expected.

The article

The article is written by a PHD student and parent to a disabled teenage son for whom they are a carer. They describe the incidents at school, the meetings and hospital appointments they have to manage as part of their sons care. However, they do feel that they are successful in their research but they have not been able to secure funding.

I am starting to win awards for my research and I feel like a success story. Almost. There’s just one problem: I can’t get funding.

In particular the student feels that they are being overlooked when applying for funding and that priority is being given to younger students with top grades and traditional academic backgrounds. They also feel under supported by their University and that the alternative funding routes are used as an excuse for universities not to support students in her situation.

This is discrimination and it is self-perpetuating. We only fund those who have already achieved, and we fund them to continue to achieve.

The student feels discriminated against. It’s a bold word to use and it is the accusation of discrimination that I wish to explore in this post.

The importance of inclusive practice

Let me start by clarifying that this post is not questioning the importance of inclusive practice. I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that all students should have an equal opportunity to excel in their studies.

Inclusive learning and teaching recognises all students’ entitlement to a learning experience that respects diversity, enables participation, removes barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences – HEA Academy

What I am questioning is the murky area that exists around inclusive practice. At what point does inclusive practice become preferential treatment. When does ensuring one student isn’t disadvantaged disadvantage the other students? Where is the line?

Support

Clearly the students University is not supporting carers and students in their situation. The student had to explain to every department student advice, student union, graduate school, vice deans and chaplain what a carer was and what that role entails. Rather than helping the student with the issue they were most concerned about, their study and their roles impact on their future, they helped the student with information on benefits. No department was able to help this student with advice on improving their funding applications or academic profile. Instead the student was pointed to the Alternative Funding Guide.

I had to tell them what a carer is. You get the picture. I was invisible

I can completely understand why this student is frustrated. The people who should be able to help are not. I can also see why the student feels being pointed at the Alternative Funding Guide is an easy way for the university to appear to be helping without actually having to help. It reminds me somewhat of the DSA. It’s existence meant we didn’t have to do anything, we had someone else we could fob students off to. The same appears to be the case here. Where can we fob this student off to rather than actually working to introduce the structures and processes that would actually help them.

Academic Achievement and Age

The main points raised were that the funding goes to ‘younger’ students with top grades and ‘traditional’ paths in to academia.

But the funding tends to go to students half my age with straight-A academic results – not to people like me, who have taken an unusual path to academia.

I have to ask what is wrong with that? The student asked why they were turned down for funding and was told it came down to academic results.

“it all comes down to stellar academic results”

This is where I lost sympathy. Funding is provided to support research of significance to its field, given to those who have a proven ability to complete that research to a high standard. Apparently that’s not written on the application forms? Surely someone who has chosen to work in the academic field knows how important academic achievements are?

They don’t say this on the application forms; it’s all about the originality of your project, your research statement, your supervisor’s supporting statement, the panel that considers you, the level of competition.

So even if it came down solely to the criteria listed above originality, research statement, supporting statements etc there is still a huge chance that the students work is not original enough perhaps their statements aren’t as strong as the other students. Perhaps the panel does not feel their area of research is as relevant to their field as another students.

The competition

So why shouldn’t the funding go to the students with the best record of achievement? They too work hard, they too have their own challenges and they deserve to be considered in the same way as all other students. A principle of inclusive practice is that all students should have the opportunity to excel. Yes, this students personal life may make that more difficult but she has the same opportunity to apply for funding as all the other students and should be measured on the same criteria as all other students.

So because this student has a difficult time should the other students miss out on the opportunity, miss out on the fruits of their hard work, because the students personal life and background is unusual. Should we just be giving them funding because they have had a hard time rather than because they actually deserve it?

Positive Discrimination

Would creating funding pools solely for students with diversity and inclusion characteristics be positive discrimination? Would we not be creating a system that favours those students over others. We’re not supposed to discriminate against anyone.

In conclusion

I really found this article divisive. On one hand I felt the student should be getting funding and their circumstances should be considered. But on the other hand, the student is seeking funding alongside students, who for all they know, may have challenges themselves. Sometimes in life you simply have to acknowledge that other people are better than you. Perhaps their circumstances mean they can’t apply themselves in the same way as some of their competition. But that doesn’t mean they should be favoured over the others. We are in academia. Academic skills count.

Funding applications are like job applications. Are you the best person on the day? If you’re not you just have to live with it. That is life.

So what do you think? Where does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

Social Media: You don’t have to be serious

I started this post before reading I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer in the Guardian. I have since adapted this post to reflect some of the points raised by the now infamous ‘Serious Academic’.

My original post began with the following:

Are you an avid user or ardent refuser? Do you see the value in building networks and sharing? Do you worry about balancing your personal and professional life? I was, but I realised you can take advantage of social media without having to give all of yourself away.

From conversations I have had with academics, some are reticent to use social media because they fear misuse, don’t see how they can use it, or they don’t wish to share their personal lives online. However, whilst I disagree with everything said about social media in the article, Serious Academic (SA) raises an issue I had not considered. Perhaps the resistance arises from the behaviour of other users and the negative press social media regularly gets. SA describes academics who use social media as “using social media to impress people that you know – as well as those that you have never met – has now become a professional concern for many academics”.

(I have filled this post with memes because I can imagine it’s the kind of new age, bohemian, hipster-ish nonsense that really annoys Serious Academic.)

“We are in the midst of a selfie epidemic.”

tmi

Here is the one point where I slightly agree with SA. Unfortunately, there are people on the internet who like to ruin it for the rest of us. Through TMI (too much information), over-sharing and endless selfies. Oh right, that’s what you’re having for dinner. Oh, you’ve had a bad day and are fishing for attention. You want to lord your latest achievement (however minor) over everyone. You’ve put some lipstick on and thought everyone would like to see.  Please allow me to assure you that these people are the minority of social media users, not the majority.

Do not let these people mislead you. This is not the behaviour you have to aspire to replicate. Social media is not about telling people what you had for dinner or every minute detail of your lives. There are sooo many benefits to learning and teaching.

(I realise the irony of this statement given this tweet)

Mute is your friend

mute

In my opinion, SAs problem is following the wrong people. If you don’t like what people are sharing mute them or unfollow them. You are in control of what you see. Don’t whine when someone posts something you aren’t interested in. Just switch ’em off. Choose your followers carefully and you won’t have that problem.

Serious academics don’t use social media

serious

The implication of SA’s article is that those academics who use social media are not ‘serious academics’.  Now I think it’s worth noting that this ‘academic’ seems to be a researcher and there is no reference to teaching at all in the article. So it raises the debate what exactly is a serious academic? That’s a debate for many blog posts, I don’t think we have room to analyse teaching vs research and the hierarchy of education. According to SA

the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?

Yes you can. Carry on mate. But using social media to promote your work, share your work and connect with peers is nothing to be ashamed of. It does not make you less serious as an academic. What it makes you is someone who is open to trying new things and exploring new ways to disseminate your work. I liked SA’s caveat early in the article “I am speaking from the perspective of a young PhD student, not some cranky old professor harking back to the Good Old Days”. Regardless of your age SA your close mindedness and the bile and vitriol with which you describe your peers is the real concern.

I am not a serious anything. The day I become a serious anything will be the day hell freezes over.

“I see more and more of them live tweeting and hashtagging their way through events”

hashtag

And? If you weren’t aware a lot of event organisers and speakers actively encourage this behaviour from participants. I always provide my Twitter handle or a hashtag when I speak at events. I really enjoy reading the debate and comments after the event and I don’t have a problem with people using their devices while I speak. Shock horror I have even live blogged from events. I know, I can’t be a serious academic.

But it appears that the majority perform this ritual as proof of their dedication to the profession, as if posting a picture marks them out as more enthusiastic than their peers.

This comment smacks of bitterness if nothing else. I would suggest that their presence at a conference, clear engagement with their peers and community is a sign of their enthusiasm for their profession not that they posted a photo whilst there.

I have had countless opportunities and conversations happen as a direct result of tweeting from events and I’m going to carry on doing it. Sorry SA but the fact that it annoys you only serves to make me want to do it more.

Personal vs. Professional

professional

There is a balance to this and only you can decide how much you are willing to share. It is entirely your decision. There is no magic formula. My colleague shares pictures of his family whilst another colleague says they will never post that detail online. That is their decision and depends on what you feel comfortable with. My only suggestion to you is to share as much or as little as you like but always make sure people can see your personality in your posts. Try not to be too formal. The accounts I most enjoy are those who you feel are using their own voice.

Risk

Is Social media use with students risky? Perhaps. I will talk about some strategies to mitigate that in a moment. Is the risk a good reason to not try? Of course not. There is a lot of scaremongering about social media bullying or trolling as it’s commonly called. It happens for sure but much like bad behaviour in the classroom we simply have to deal with it.

Ground Rules

The social media environment is no different to the physical. In a classroom, we manage behaviour by setting ground rules. These rules give students clear instruction as to the behaviours that will be expected of them. Setting them before the task begins will mean there is no ambiguity and making clear the repercussions of breaking these rules will also help. If a student behaves inappropriately just tell them they need to modify their behaviour.

Do I have to?

DoNotWant

It has got to the point where those of us who wish to keep our social media accounts private, or for personal use only, face being frowned upon for somehow being less enthusiastic about what we do.

No, you don’t. But this is the world we live in. If you don’t want to do it then that is your choice but do not try to make other people feel inferior for doing so.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I need to believe that employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts. I appear to be in the minority, however.

You’re right it’s not. What is based on is your engagement with your peers, your activity in the community and your ability to disseminate your work? Let’s face it, research is as much about prestige for the University as it is for you. Perhaps SA has failed to get a job because someone else is an active social media user, perhaps that is the source of the bitterness? If not they will simply have to get used to the fact that our engagement outside of the ‘lab’ is as important now as the work we do in it. Activities such as social media use can help to set you apart. If you don’t want to that’s your choice, but seriously, don’t insult those who do.

Brilliant Examples

I spoke to a lecturer in Film who told me about his use of Snapchat to share his work with his students. He goes to a lot of film sets and felt they would be interested to see what a real film set looks like and what is involved in working on such a production.

To address the matter of relevance I have included links to some examples of social media use in teaching. My personal favourite is Andrew Westerside’s use of Twitter as a space for performance.

Another Bell Tolls for the Lecture

We have, for a long time, been questioning the role and effectiveness of the lecture in university teaching. The format of the lecture has changed little from its inception in ancient Greece and yet we continue to rely on this as the core teaching method. So, my interest was piqued when I saw an article titled “Is missing lectures harming my studies?” in the Guardian.

Teuta Hoxha, a student from Kings College London, stopped attending his lectures after a few weeks.

 

Student Expectations

 

“The anticipation of passionate words bouncing off and beyond the podium”. Tueta Hoxha 2015

 

I think it’s important to consider what students expect when attending university. Teuta, I fear, had watched The Dead Poets Society (1989) a few too many times. I think all teachers would like to think they are the embodiment of Mr Keating, inspiring students to think differently to have them stood on their tables at the end of every lecture giving us rapturous applause.

That is not the reality. I think students forget that we are not automatons. We are human beings as nervous as they are to stand in front of other people. They forget that in lecturing we are vulnerable, that we are giving away a little piece of ourselves each time.

We don’t all teach interesting subjects and what is interesting to one student will bore the next. If we want to give our students the contextual understanding of their field we have to teach the ‘boring’ stuff. We can’t always be blowing stuff up in the lab, creating the next Turner prize winning submission or solving the unanswered questions of the universe. We can make our subjects interesting by employing activities that keep students active. By asking challenging questions and involving them in discussion. Are these activities easy to do in a lecture theatre? No, they take a lot of careful planning and students who are willing and able to be involved.

 

“I expected enthusiastic speakers whose hunger for Chaucer could be seen in their uncontrollably moving hands. Instead, lecturers read off their notes, blazing through piles of information in the most monotone and disengaging voice.” Tueta Hoxha 2015

 

We are not all great orators. There are courses on confidence, presentation techniques but essentially confidence comes from practice. We are not all teaching subjects that excite us, that is more the fault of the institution than the lecturer. Lack of staff means it’s hard to enthuse on a subject if you’re not fully confident in your knowledge or if you don’t find it that interesting.

Learning Environments, the Timetable, the Curriculum and Cohort Size

We are also bound by a number of things that students don’t see. In the race for student numbers, small flexible learning spaces are becoming a premium. Our timetables mean we often end up getting what we’re given, not what we asked for. Yes there’s an element of interaction that can be injected in to a lecture but we can’t give students the kind of individual attention they desire, especially as cohort sizes reach several hundred.

We are also expected to deliver a curriculum. We have outcomes we must meet. I often wonder what students would prefer, less content but more interactive teaching or, more content but less interaction? I’m not sure. Of course there is a balance, but would students really be happy if the onus was as much on them, to seek learning, as it is on us to deliver it?

Is this the death of the lecture?

Long, long, long term, yes; short term, no.

The University of Northampton has taken the plunge and is building a campus without lecture theatres. I wait with baited breath to hear how well that goes.

Some would argue that the lecture itself is not the problem; it’s the way it’s taught. I can agree with that to some degree. We as teachers have a responsibility to make sure that our teaching methods and activities are effective in supporting students to learn. If part of that is making sure they stay awake; we should be doing what we can.

To bury the lecture everyone, students, staff and the institution, must reach the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. We know lectures are not the best way to learn, they are the best way to provide lots of information. Whether students take that in, or learn anything, has for some reason been seen as inconsequential. Teuta is yet to suffer any ill effects from missing his lectures but perhaps Teuta is in the minority of students who have the discipline to self-direct their learning. Would that approach work for everyone? I’m not convinced.

If we are to give up on the lecture, we must do as Northampton has, and take the plunge.

Let me know what you think tweet @KerryPinny.