On assesments and feedback

Today (3.12.2018), the whole morning was spent on assessment and feedback – tricky topics indeed. The pre-given instruction seemed rather complex at first. To be honest, the two articles we were required to read, both coming from a discipline I am not at all familiar with, were filled with weird concepts and thought patterns that initially seemed almost incomprehensible and, for a second, made me think that they had to be some kind of a demonstration of what academic English can seem from an outsiders perspective.

The articles were about assessing written tasks and on offering feedback. This, and especially the assessment has always been quite hard for me. I am aware of Bloom’s taxonomy and such aids but my own field, political science, often seems much more like a form of art to me. It is not an exact ”science” in any way, and for me, even the academic theories and philosophies of politics are much more about the rhetorical and argumentative quality. The theories and their arguments can be seen as forms of politics in themselves. As a teacher and a pseudo-thinker of politics then, I tend to accept (almost) all kinds of differing views as valid as long as they are argued well.

Again, the group discussion was very fruitful and my group members had developed various innovative and interesting written assessments for their courses. Me, coming from the traditional, amphitheatre style of lecturing of the humanities, felt like an ancient relic with my lecture diary. But, being bombarded with these new methods during the whole TACE has been and eye opening experience. It has made me think again and again how I could develop my own courses.

On assessments we touched on the subject of the grades. I argued against the pass/fail -style of assessments for two reasons. First, I think it is unjust, since the ones who ”bust their asses” and the ones who are there simply for the credits may get the same result. This is especially complicated if a course is heavily based on group work and the lazy members of a group can pass the course with the help of the others. From this it follows that the grades have an important incentivizing effect: they will encourage everybody (whether individually or as a group) for working hard and for maximizing their learning. Taking an analogy from political sciences: The Soviet Union failed exactly because work was not incentivized, and both the free-riders and the hard-workers of the society ended up having the same, lousy benefits.

A member of my group argued that perhaps the feedback from the teacher could work as an incentive for the student. Well, maybe in a really small and intimate setting, but in a mass lecture type of a course, with one hundred attendees, a truly deep and instructive feedback would hardly be possible.

On our teaching activity and on technology in general

Today (12.11.2018), we presented our teaching activity, which hopefully demonstrated the myriad possibilities of digital platforms for collaborative academic projects. The activity went quite well and all the groups were able to create collective libraries (in Mendeley) and comment each others’ articles. Planning and executing this activity made me think more generally of the possibilities and limits of similar kinds of platforms for teaching purposes. Many teachers already use message boards and even chat-applications (such as Slack) in their teaching, and it makes me wonder if I too should update my devices for the 21th century..

Yet it is interesting how these platforms can, in no way, compete with actual human to human interaction, for example, small group discussions or other, rather analog technologies. I’ve taken part in many courses which have used message boards but the disussions have always felt rather forced and bored. They’ve never really taken off, so to speak and I’ve never gotten almost anything from them. Using message boards or chats is somewhat easy for the teachers however as posts and comments are easy to quantify…

The same comparison goes to lecturing with fancy, flashy and colourful powerpoints and other multimedias, which are nowadays tought to be an obligatory part of all teaching. Yes, they can help, but at the same time I can clearly remember the legendary lectures of professor Taneli Kukkonen, who simply walked into the classroom with a coffee cup in his hand and started to talk about the history of ideas in the Islamic world without any notes or what so ever. Sometimes he would write something on the chalkboard, maybe some crucial years or names, but that was it. Without a structural aide such as a powerpoint, he also occasionally drifted away from the core topic, but at all times he was sharp, captivating and conversational with his students. His method and his devices were not that much differen, I can imagine, from the good teachers through all ages of history.

I remember him and his wildly running arabic script on the chalkboard but I have no such memories of any powerpoint presentations.

And I am not a luddite by the way.

On my EMI teaching

The task of this blog post is hard for me as I haven’t really done any EMI teaching. I am about to teach my first course in English only next spring, which is also the reason why I wanted to take this course. I have presented a lot of papers in conferences and seminars in English, but that is not quite the same thing. In conferences, it seems to me, the presenters are often not that interested of any pedagocial aspects of their presentations, which is also understandable as its not really a teaching situation. The language dimension is also easily forgotten; it is seen as a mere vehicle for getting your ideas out, not something to be that conscious or interested of.

When planning my spring course, I hadn’t really given much thouht to the language question. The last TACE session (22.10.) however offered many important points that I should take into consideration and so, instead of outlining examples of the methods that I commonly use (haven’t) I could discuss what I thought were the most interesting and important parts of the session.

I consider myself a pretty old school teacher. The kind of lecturer who is standing in front of the amphitheatre (as in one of Fergal’s slides), talking for an hour and then exiting the scene without much discussion. For this reason, this course has not only helped me to rethink the EMI aspects of my teaching, but has also offered a lot of new ideas for my teaching in general.

First of all, I now see the use of small group work as very effective. Being exactly the kind of introverted guy who will always just listen silently in the back row of the classroom, I can relate to the idea of them as “safe learning environments”. In small groups the students (also introverted ones) will get to discuss new ideas and reflect them from different angles. TACE has also applied small group discussions a lot, and I always feel like I’m almost getting the most out of them. However the group dynamic is very important: if the discussion is reserved or very forced, it can also be simply a waste of good 10 minutes of lecturing time. Anyhow, I will definitely have some sort of group work in my next teaching.

I also thought that the advice on pronounciation and intonation was very important. First of all, as I don’t speak English that often nowadays, I sometimes encounter trouble when I have to pronounce some terms for the first time or after a long pause. So now that I’m planning the slides for my lecture series I should remember to practice the pronounciations of the key terms and not leave it until the very day of the lecturing. For example: “strategy”! I read and write the word all the time, but when I have to actually say the word: stratzzizzy, strätzizi… Mumbling like that comes out.

Intonation is also important. Maybe it is also one of the reasons for why the native English speakers are usually rather easy to listen and sound interesting. Their language lives and flows almost like music and it keeps your attention up. It is true that Finnish speak can be rather monotonous and the worst cases of monotonous lecturers will almost make you sleep. I never thought about this before but I think I should really improve my intonation too…

On language and power

Today we had the first group teaching session, organized by Bhavani, Kirsi, Bhavesh and Yusuf. The idea was to experiment with teamwork in small groups. Task: to build as high a tower as possible using spaghetti and duct tape, AND to make it strong enough for holding a marshmellow on the top of it. Its the legenary ”spaghetti-marshmellow -challenge” that has been studied with various different groups from architects, business leaders to kindergarden kids around the age of five.

As our group started to work on the problem, it was indeed very interesting to observe the dynamics that begin to emerge in the group: someone throws in an idea and it gets developed a bit further. And at at some point, maybe someone just takes action on his own. The question we were supposed to explore with the experiment was (if I remeber correctly) what are the possibilities, benefits and challenges of teamwork. The discussions we had on this topic after the experiment were also very interesting. An important reminder was that groupwork and especially involvement of people with varying backgrounds in it is not always helpful. For instance, if there is one architect in the group building a tower out of spaghetti, the rest of the group will really not bring much, might evern harm the process.

After this task we studied language and social interaction. The focus was on the academic setting but the basic ideas apply almost everywhere. English is the global language and I would argue it will also remain so long into the future, no matter how global politics evolve (rise of China and such). Competence in English thus opens a lot of doors, but incompetence in it (or even an appearance of incomptence) can easily close them…

Language can be seen as an instrument of power. Networks and carreer opportunities are based on competence in languages, which today means more or less, in English. In the academic setting this is often seen in scenarios such as, that if one is not fluent with English, he/she can be then thought to be a bad teacher or incompetent in his field of research. (Well, sometimes this shouldn’t be denied too; if a teacher’s English is really bad or his pronounciation is almost uncomprehensible, well, maybe he is not a bad teacher, but at least I don’t feel like learning much.)

Yet fluency or the correct accent shouldn’t be that important as English is a global language. It is no more owned by the people with anglo-saxon background, but spoken everywhere. The native language of Jamaicans, for example is English, and India and Nigeria have English as an official language – in the latter it is even spoken by the majority of the people. Academic English is even less owned by anyone.

As for me, I’ve always felt rather comfortable with my Finnish accent. Yet I cannot deny, that when I see someone, coming from the Unites States for example, giving an academic presentation with excellent and clear pronounciation, plus having the relaxed yet compelling presentation skills that are typical to American presenters (I know, I know, some brute cultural essentialization here), they just feel more competent and persuasive. This is perhaps partly because they come from a culture which appreciates and also reinforces such extrovert traits, but also because they feel very natural with the language they are using.

The first post

This is the first blog post of my TACE program. I am a rather experienced blogger, but using a blog in a context like this is a fresh, new experience for me. I’ve no idea how it will work out yet, but already it has made me think about all the myriad possibilities that the technology of today can offer for both learning and teaching. Yet at the same time, and following the theme of today’s session, I keep wondering the other side of the coin, since in our zeal we might not always be fully conscious of all the effects the technology has for us.

Technology often forces our brains to operate in certain modes which may or may not be for the better. During today’s session I kept thinking of the old, mechanical typewriters, which nobody (including me, of course) would ever want to use again, yet the “mode of thinking” when working with a typewriter was very different from that of a computer. With an old school typewriter one could not erase nor move back and forth within the text, but instead she would have to focus and nail down clearly formulated sentences, one after another.

Now this is difficult and laborious but it is how the old school authors did all their writing. I tend to think that it was much easier for them to just force the text out when they got past the beginning, since they couldn’t stop and search for a perfect synonym, while working other parts of the text – pretty much the way I do my writing.

This is to simply to point out that technology – in teaching and in any other activity – affects us in many ways. Some are for the better, some are for the worse. And when we get some benefits from the technology, we might also lose something.

Coming back to the session, we had some really intersting discussions today on these subjects. Both within the small groups but also with the whole group including the teachers. I have a feeling that these interactive discussions will be a major elements during this program for getting new interesting ideas for my own teaching and course planning…