Using blogs in teaching

Making use of a teaching blog is something that I have done since I began teaching in 2008, but with the move to online teaching and learning over the last couple of months, I thought it would be a useful opportunity to write down some of my experiences around this as I prepare for reviving the blog for next semester. In this post I’m going to go through how I do and don’t use it, and some guidelines around practicalities.

The context: I currently use a module blog for my research-led module “Geographies of nation and empire: the Victorian novel 1850-90” which runs as a level 6 and 7 module in the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Surrey. The blog was last used in 2018-19 as my module rested while I was on sabbatical last semester. I’ve previously used a blog for level 4 students at the University of Warwick, and am planning to do so again for one of my l4 modules next year.

Firstly, it’s probably helpful to outline what I don’t use the blog for. Anything key to the module – handbooks, assessment guidelines, weekly slides and handouts – are all placed on Surreylearn (our VLE). Nothing essential to the running or assessment of the module features on the blog, preventing confusion about where to look for essential information, and meaning that the blog is not a required component to get through the module.

What I do use it for: supplementary resources, responses, and reading that complements and extends upon the module content. I post about such things as contemporary culture or news items relating to the texts we are studying; reflections  that extend upon discussions we have had in class, particularly those that I can connect up with material on my own research blog; and resources such as digital archives of Victorian studies material. With the latter especially, a blog post can provide illustrative modelling of how to navigate and incorporate digital archives and resources in a way that is more useful than just providing a set of links on the VLE. Throughout the posts, I intend to give students different ways into the material, or modes of linking across several texts through a key theme or topic. I also hope that it will spark interest and inspiration, and support students in developing independent and original approaches to topics.

While the blog is supplementary to the classes, there is a constant dialogue between the two: the blog posts refer back to discussions that we have had in class, and likewise I frequently reference posts or indicate that there will be an upcoming post on a topic during class time. This dialogue is important I think in creating a sense of continuity across the face-to-face and virtual space, something that has become even more essential as we move to hybrid models. I have also, at the request of students, increasingly used it as a space for pre-seminar questions/discussion points that they can prepare in advance.

Some practicalities and parameters: set up clear expectations and guidance on using the blog early on. Communicate clearly with students what the blog will be used for/not (as above), and when content will be posted: I keep to a weekly schedule that follows the structure of the module, and always try to post on the same day/time e.g. directly after class: most of the material is pre-drafted and a few edits can be made if anything has arisen in class. Indeed once you have run a module blog for one year, a lot of the content can be revised for reuse – over the summer I will restrict the settings of current posts so that the module will start again with a blank slate, and then edit and publish posts as we go along. I also make it as easy as possible for students to access content: provide links across the materials e.g. handbooks, VLE; have a “subscribe by email” option to make it easy to be alerted for new material.

As for student input into the blog: comments are open and welcome, although I typically find that students prefer to respond in a face-to-face setting rather than writing on the blog (this may change as we move towards more integrated use of virtual environments and is something I am reflecting upon). Students are also invited to contribute with a 500 word blog post as a formative assessment that can be posted on the blog if they wish (and settings can be altered so that these aren’t publicly viewable beyond the class).

Generally good blogging practice applies here as elsewhere – keeping posts to a manageable length, short paragraphs and sentences, lots of visual images and links, and ensuring that the blog layout (including font, size, colours, and use of media) is in an accessible format. If you are completely new to blogging there are lots of resources online, and I’d recommend Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics (Sage 2020) as an all-round great resource including a chapter on communicating effectively.

I’m sure there’s much more to think about, and I’ll be continuing to do so over coming weeks, but hope that this might be helpful if you are thinking of getting started.

New publication: mobile materiality in Henry Mayhew’s 1851

I’m delighted to have an essay in the edited collection Anticipatory Materialisms in Literature and Philosophy, 1790–193Oedited by Jo Carruthers, Nour Dakkak, and Rebecca Spence, which has just been published with Palgrave Macmillan. My chapter examines the relationship between mobility and materiality in a text of the Great Exhibition year, more on which in the abstract below. I’m very proud to be part of this fantastic collection and grateful to the editors for their work throughout the process.

Mobile materiality: the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the mobile-material relations of Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys

This chapter examines a novel of the mid-nineteenth century that anticipates fundamental questions about the relationship between materiality and mobility, Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. Written in the year of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the novel resonates with contemporary concerns about the materiality of mobility, the mobility of material culture, and the status of the human in a world overrun by objects on the move. In so doing, it provides ways of rethinking the relationship between mobility and materiality in the nineteenth century, and in turn, allows us to reconceptualise the theoretical connections between mobility and materiality today.

 

Some thoughts on precarity

In October I spoke at History UK’s plenary event, which this year focused on mental health, on the early career researcher perspective. Much of what I focused upon was the structural issues that impact upon ECRs, and I decided to write up and expand upon some of what I talked about, as for the last 8 days many colleagues across the UK have been participating in the UCU strikes on issues including pay equality and casualisation. Many have been sharing their precarity stories, and the below draws upon my experience, in the context of the observations I have gained in working with many ECRs in similar positions. I write this now from the privilege and security of a permanent position, of which I am very aware of how fortunate I have been; I offer this in solidarity with those who are currently precarious, in the knowledge that it is important that permanent staff speak about these issues, and in the hope that it might help in a small way towards developing understanding and thinking about effecting change. At the end I have some brief suggestions for what permanent staff can do, as well as links to the resources mentioned throughout.

Last Saturday (30th November) it was 9 years since I submitted my PhD; nearly 6 of those were precarious. For the first 2 years I had something in the region of 12 contracts of employment, including hourly paid teaching, academic writing tuition, separate contracts for marking and invigilating, one-to-one tuition, proofreading, work in the library, and anything else I could find. I then spent a year on a 0.6 FTE contract focusing on public engagement and ECR support, topping up with additional hourly paid teaching; a further 2 years in which the 0.6 contract went to 100% FTE; a relocation across the country for a ten-month teaching fellowship; and then, during that year, I was fortunate to get my current position and moved to Surrey in August 2016.

My experience is not uncommon: longer than some, shorter than others. For those finishing the PhD and going into an academic career, a period of precarity is common and increasingly longer, involving successive fixed-term and/or multiple simultaneous contracts within/across institutions; these are often teaching-heavy; often hourly paid or short fixed-term; and can leave gaps in employment e.g. vacation periods. A report this year by UCU on “Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education” found that 70% of research-only and 37,000 teaching staff are on fixed-term
contracts, many hourly paid, and a further 71,000 employed as “atypical academics” often as “casual workers”. There are no easily available consistent figures on the numbers of permanent jobs available or number of people applying for them, but my sense is, and I think many would agree, that there are fewer permanent jobs available and competition for them increases every year.

But what do we mean when we talk about “precarity”? It is a state of mind; an embodied feeling; a constant, impacting upon and intersecting with every other aspect of one’s life. A non-exhaustive list is as follows:

Structural: lack of job security/proximity of unemployment; lack of payroll continuity; limited or
no access to annual leave/ sick leave/parental leave; employment overlaps and constant start-up
time invested in learning new systems and structures; uncertainty over whether contracts will
be offered/extended/renewed until close to term time; lack of workspace or other infrastructural facilities.

Academic impacts: impact upon research continuity; time spent on securing employment rather
than research; disrupted access to research resources e.g. library Journal access; disruption to
academic networks and continuity of mentors/supportive figures; limited or no resources to
fund research trips/conferences.

Personal impacts: difficulty in making long-term plans for personal life e.g. family plans and
financial commitments; expectation of mobility as practically and financially possible/viable;
financial insecurity and impact upon e.g. housing; disruption to personal networks and
relationships; impact upon existing family and care responsibilities; disruption in accessing continuous healthcare.

And then there is the impact upon mental health: the UCU report on casualisation recorded 71% of respondents stating that mental health had been affected by working on an insecure contract, and 43% reported impact on physical health. Again, a non-exhaustive list of these impacts might include:
◦ Imposter syndrome
◦ Isolation and loneliness
◦ Anxiety, panic attacks
◦ Sleep disruption/deprivation
◦ Depression
◦ Physical health impact
◦ Exacerbation of previous/existing mental health problems
◦ Reduced capacity for dealing with difficult life events – bereavement, supporting and caring for family and friends.

The transition from PhD to ECR can be particularly disruptive in regards to mental health and for my own part, it was the aspect I was least prepared for. I had experienced significant issues with mental ill-health during my PhD, including a period of treatment for an eating disorder. I was fortunate to have professional, personal, and institutional structures in place to support me through this: access to health care, understanding supervisors and departmental systems in place, and personal support networks of friends and family. But as an ECR, these networks can be fractured, disrupted, or fall away completely: the intersection of aforementioned issues can introduce a range of impacts: the issues of disclosing mental health problems while in precarious work; access to mental health services can be difficult when waiting times are longer than precarious job contracts; and personal friendship and family support networks are disrupted by mobility.

As well as the immediate impact of precarity, there is the intersection with other pressures such as the REF. Work by Rosalind Gill and others identifies the impact of audit culture on mental health, and how constant assessment and monitoring creates a system in which metrics are internalised as “privatised anxieties that are understood to reflect on the value and the worth of the individual… A psychic landscape in which not being successful is mis-recognised… in terms of individual (moral) failure” (Gill 2010, 10-12) leading to stress, anxiety, exhaustion; as Maddie Breeze succinctly puts it, “how quickly and easily ‘my research isn’t good enough’ slides into ‘I’m not good enough’”(Breeze, 200). These effects are felt by many at whatever stage of one’s career, and in talking about the REF and ECRs I’ve often been met with responses along the lines of “but the REF is stressful for everyone”. It is: but how much more so when you are precarious; how much more so, when you don’t know if you will be employed in a few weeks time; how much more so, when the feeling of “I’m not good enough” is being reiterated on a weekly, daily, sometimes hourly, basis by repeated rejection emails.

In my report on the impact of REF 2014 on ECRs, it was evident that the REF had a huge impact on ECR mental health and wellbeing. Many respondents experienced high levels of anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty, and mental health problems stemming from REF pressure; people also noted feeling isolated and unable to articulate concerns within highly pressurised and competitive
workplace culture created by the REF; and a lack of/conflicting/mis- information from institutions was also problematic, as is navigating different ways of interpreting or advising on the REF guidelines if you are moving across institutions regularly.

The above is of course only a partial glimpse into many of the issues faced by precarious ECRs, and there is much more to say about the intersection with other factors such as health, caring responsibilities, financial situations. Solutions themselves aren’t easy, requiring sector-wide changes of the kind that UCU are campaigning for with the current industrial action, and so joining and supporting union action is one way to start to address these issues (and if you are able to, consider donating to the fighting fund which will help support precarious colleagues on strike). On a smaller scale, there are actions that can impact upon individuals within your reach: helping new ECRs to navigate institutional systems and provide resources to ease transition e.g. teaching materials, access to clear information about the REF; mentoring to help with things such as long-term strategising, supporting on job applications and interviews, publication proposals, and so on. Listening to ECRs without trying to minimise concerns or offer platitudes can go a long way, as can simply looking out for the well-being of those around you and signposting access to services for further support. Facilitating ECR networks and peer support, including ECRs in department activities and meetings, and looking at the provision and availability of training to those who are in precarious positions, can also be helpful. At the very least, trying to understand the issues involved and taking action that is within your reach, is the responsibility of everyone in permanent positions, and  I hope this may encourage a few thoughts (and action) along these lines; below are some further resources for reading more on the issues involved.

UCU “Counting the Costs of Casualisation” June 2019 report: http://www.ucu.org.uk/stampout

The New Academic by Nadine Muller: personal accounts of mental health in academia: http://nadinemuller.org/category/academia-and-mental-health/

The many-headed monster: a collective blog including Brodie Waddell’s posts discussing the history job market: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/tag/jobbing-historians/

The impact of the REF on early career researchers: summary of my 2015 findings: https://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/a-culture-of-publish-or-perish-the-impact-
of-the-ref-on-ecrs/

Maddie Breeze, “Imposter syndrome as a public feeling” in Yvette Taylor and Kinneret Lahad, Feeling Feminist in the Neoliberal Academy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) .

Rosalind Gill, “Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia” in R.Flood and R.Gill, Secrecy and silence in the research process: feminist reflections (London: Routledge, 2010).

New publication: Mobilities, Literature, Culture

Mobilities, Literature, Culture is published today with Palgrave Macmillan. Edited with Marian Aguiar and Lynne Pearce, my co-editors of the Palgrave Studies in Mobilities, Literature and Culture, the edited collection is the 5th volume in the series.

IMG_5555

The collection came out of a conference of the same name held at Lancaster University in April 2017, which proved to be a really inspiring event in establishing the relationship between mobilities studies and literary and cultural studies, and we’re delighted that the book reflects an exciting range of topics and methodological approaches. The book covers themes of mobility and nation, embodied subjectivities, the geopolitics of migration, and mobility futures. We have also written a substantial introduction with an expansive bibliography which we hope will be a useful resource for scholars, especially those who are new to the field. The book can be purchased as an e-book or hardback on the Palgrave website.

We are always happy to receive expressions of interest and proposals for the series, which thus far has publications on the hotel in modern literature, migration and the body, automobiles in French Indochina, and memory and the life course in 20th-century literature, with more works on topics including aeromobilities and roadside spaces on the way. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss a potential proposal!

 

 

 

History UK Plenary event talk: 19 October 2019

On 19 October 2019 I am speaking at the History UK plenary event on mental health and well-being.  Registration info is here and an outline of my talk below:

Mental Health and Well-Being: the Early Career Researcher Perspective

In this talk, Dr Charlotte Mathieson will address the challenges around mental health and well-being faced by early career researchers. She will look at how the contexts of precarity and casualisation, a competitive job market, and pressures such as the REF, impact upon early career researchers, and identify strategies and suggestions as to how best support ECRs at individual, departmental, and institutional level.

UKSG 2019 conference plenary

Yesterday I was delighted to have the opportunity to give a plenary talk at the UKSG annual conference in Telford. UKSG is an organisation connecting the scholarly communications community, and the annual conference brings together over 900 delegates from sectors including publishing and university libraries.

My talk was in a session titled “Sleepwalking into the future“ and I focused on “How publishers and librarians can support early career researchers in a changing publishing landscape”. I spoke primarily about the changing context of higher education and the pressures that this places on early career researchers, and how this impacts the environment in which they are publishing and researching. I offered some initial suggestions as to how publishers and librarians can – and indeed are already – provide support. Some examples of best practice that I gave included web resources from Wiley, Palgrave MacMillan, and the Royal Historical  Society. My slides from the talk are here.

As a newcomer to this conference I was unsure as to how my talk would be received but was really heartened by the warm and enthusiastic response; it struck me (and, I think, many in the audience) that much more dialogue is needed between researchers and publishers, librarians, and others involved in scholarly communications, and that there is real value in understanding the pressures on all sides. I’ve previously had the opportunity to be part of similar discussions hosted by Wiley and Taylor and Francis, and have similarly found these to be productive forums in which to develop understanding of the broader and intersecting contexts. Many thanks to UKSG for inviting me and I hope this will be the start of more conversations.

Registration open: Generating New Perspectives on ‘Mobility’

Generating New Perspectives on ‘Mobility’: Problems and Paradoxes of Interdisciplinary Practice

10th July 2019

Drysdale building, City University of London

How do concepts and practices of mobility and mobilities ‘travel’ across the disciplines of humanities and social sciences? What language(s) do academics, students, practitioners use when discussing such wide-ranging ideas in their everyday work and social worlds? And to what extent are we discussing the same things when we use the term ‘mobility’?

These questions, and others, are the focus of the symposium, which aims to foster a critically-informed and vigorous cross-fertilization of the dynamic concept of ‘mobility’ as it works within and across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Through discussing what conceptual, practical, and theoretical work ‘mobility’ does within the academy, cultural sector, and policy we will address how the concept is put to work or stretched beyond its usefulness.

Full programme and further details of registration, including bursaries, can be found here: https://www.city.ac.uk/events/2019/july/generating-new-perspectives-on-mobility-problems-and-paradoxes-of-interdisciplinary-practice

Keynote: “Wonders of the deep”; Sea treasures in nineteenth-century literature

I’m delighted to be giving a keynote talk on ‘“Wonders of the deep”; Sea treasures in nineteenth-century literature’, at  Becoming treasures of the sea: Epistemological constructions and marine resource regulation, an interdisciplinary conference  organised by 3ROcean on human-marine interactions, taking place at the University of the Azores next week (12th-14th September).

I will be contributing a paper on the perspectives on ocean ecologies afforded by 19th century literature, examining the literary and cultural “becomings” of the sea in the nineteenth century by way of setting up discussion of the contemporary situation. Building on my work in  Sea Narratives: cultural responses to the sea, 1600-present, in which I argued for a co-productive relationship between the sea and cultural production, I’m interested in not just what was known, but how that knowledge was brought into being through the cultural sphere; that is to say, less with the details of scientific exploration and study of the oceans in the 19th century, and more with the ways in which that knowledge was mediated, constructed, and relayed through the cultural sphere to the common reader. Moreover, I’m interested in the broader conceptual frameworks within which understandings of the sea as a valuable resource, or “treasure”, are situated; a variety of discursive approaches and understandings of the sea, which inform upon, contextualise, and contour this central theme.

My enquiry thus centres upon understanding what was known about the sea, how it was being made known, and crucially, tracing the co-productive relationship between the sea and cultural production/narrative form, as it impacts upon and resonates through the formation of knowledge about the sea. This paper aims not only to historicise human-marine interactions, but also to think about broader discursive frameworks within which marine resources are situated historically and to the present.

Registration open: CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND THE ARTS

CENTENNIAL REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND THE ARTS Local : National : Transnational

An international, multi-disciplinary public conference
University of Surrey, UK, 29–30 June 2018

Keynote Speakers:

  • Irene Cockroft, author of Women in the Arts & Crafts and Suffrage Movements at the Dawn of the 20th Century
  • Elizabeth Crawford, author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland

 

The 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act (6 February 1918), which granted the vote to many women in the UK, yields an ideal opportunity for sustained critical reflection on women’s suffrage. This conference seeks to explore the artistic activities nurtured within the movement, their range and legacy, as well as the relationships between politics and art. In striving for an inclusive, transnational reach, it will at the same time seek to move beyond traditional emphases on white middle-class feminism and explore the intersections between the regional, national, and global contexts for women’s suffrage with specific respect to the arts.

Registration is now open and a provisional program available on the conference website:

https://suffragecentennial.wordpress.com/

A limited number of bursaries for students is available to facilitate attendance at this event – please see the website for details of how to apply.

You can also follow us on Twitter @Surrey_suffrage and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SurreySuffrageCentennial/

 

REF 2021: update for ECRs

This post provides an update to my previous blog post on “REF 2021 and ECRs: the current situation” in which I outlined the key decisions and remaining areas of uncertainty (mostly the latter) surrounding the next Research Excellence Framework.

Today, quite a few of those uncertainties have been clarified by the publication of “Decisions on Staff and Outputs“. I will soon update my earlier post to reflect this latest document (and offer a few more interpretations of the ECR implications), but in the meantime here is a brief summary of the key points of relevance for ECRs that have been announced today:

Staff eligibility: this latest document confirms that the Stern recommendation that “all staff with significant responsibility for research” are returned will be implemented. 6.a of the document outlines the core criteria (which broadly follows that of REF 2014), but there is more detailed guidance this time on what constitutes “significant responsibility” in paras. 11-13: “those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role.”

100% of staff defined in this way are expected to be returned. Meanwhile, teaching-only contracts with no research element won’t count as returnable under these guidelines; neither will RAs employed on project work (see Independent Research, paras. 14-15) nor those without a “substantive connection” to the submitting HEI. This seems to accord with what was suggested previously (see section 3 here); although I’d add that, while the intention here is to offer a more rigorous approach as to who is submitted, there does still seem to be a large amount of flexibility as to how “significant responsibility” will be determined.

Decoupling: the proposed decoupling of staff from submissions (see my previous explanation of decoupling in section 4 here) is going ahead, as described in paras. 25-29, with the numbers of outputs now confirmed: a minimum of one per researcher; a maximum of 5; an average of 2.5 per FTE, across the submitting unit. That means that as an ECR you will need at least one output, and more than that would be beneficial as the submitting unit will be looking for 2-3 per person.

The big change here from REF 2014 (although it is one which we’ve been expecting) is that there is no “ECR discount” that would be deductable per person; instead, the average and min./max. figures account for this across the whole submitting unit (as previously the expectation was 4 per person, so the average is lower). There are guidelines to account for exceptional individual circumstances (paras. 30-32), thus addressing earlier concerns that circumstances such as substantial periods of parental leave/ illness etc would not be acknowledged; deductions for individual circumstances will be applied to the total number of outputs required of the submitting unit as a whole. ECRs without exceptional circumstances, however, need to work to the minimum/average figures.

Portability: (background context in section 5 here). After much talk of the non-portability of research we have clarification as follows (paras. 33-36):

We will implement a transitional approach to the non-portability of outputs in REF 2021, whereby outputs may be submitted by both the institution employing the staff member on the census date and the originating institution where the staff member was previously employed as Category A eligible when the output was demonstrably generated.

*Added note: see para. 34 for the definition of “demonstrably generated”:  “for REF 2021 ‘demonstrably generated’ will be determined by the date when the output was first made publicly available.”

This means that if you publish while at institution A, and you move to institution B, your output can count at both institutions. This has been a big area of concern for many ECRs and I’m relieved to (finally!) see a clear decision on the issue, and one which recognises and prevents the potentially disastrous consequences for ECRs that non-portability may have had.

Open Access: the latest guidance (paras. 37-40) seems to align with what has been suggested for a long time now about Open Access requirements for REF 2021: “The policy will require outputs to be deposited as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, and no later than three months after this date (as given in the acceptance letter or email from the publication to the author) from 1 April 2018.” There are some further exceptions outlined in the next paragraph (39). As I’ve mentioned before, if you’re at all confused about OA requirements then I would suggest that you familiarise yourself with your institution’s OA support and get in touch with the relevant team if you have any queries and concerns about the process.

A couple of final points: the census date is now confirmed as 31st July 2020; and more detailed guidelines on the above are expected mid-2018.

***

That summarises most of what I’ve read so far; I’ll potentially add to / clarify these points in coming days and if helpful, offer further guidance on ECR implications and what to do next; but for the moment, it looks like the outline framework is fairly clearly in place and ECRs can now start planning accordingly.

Website of Dr Charlotte Mathieson

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