Tag Archives: higher education

The first University of Kent “Shut Up And Write!”

Last term I came across this post from Dr Inger Mewburn (aka The Thesis Whisperer), Director of Research Training at the Australian National University.  Inger was, as far as I can work out, the first person to set up an academic Shut Up and Write! group at a University, and it seemed like a fab idea.  The crucial components are: caffeine, other people, and silence – all of which I thought we could gather together in the pursuit of Words.  So, I put together an application to UKC’s Graduate School to start the group.  After a few logistical hiccups (the mysteries of the Timetabling Office are not for us mere mortals to comprehend), here’s how the first one went.  Unedited.

This is interesting.  The timer is currently on 29:10 (and thousandths of milliseconds – it’s immensely precise) and there is a suspiciously quiet room of about 18 peopole*  (dammit, interruption – latecomer!) typing studiously away in an atmosphere of huffs, sighs, and the very large looming timer countdown on the projector screen.

This is the first meeting of the University of Kent’s Shut Up and Write group – something that originated in San Francisco (see the early meeting reports here-link**) – and is spreading across the world.  Originally for novelists, academic SUAW meets have now been set up at several UK universities with many being run by libraries and academic learning support units.  (It’s very odd, esp as I’m sitting at the front and can’t really know what’s going on behind me without turning round and gawping, which would kinda defeat the point, all I can hear is frantic tapping at keyboards and the occasional cough (it’s lurgy season)).

All was going swimmingly planning-wise until my lovely officemate put the frighteners on me – I’d ordered catering for 25, he proceeded to tell me that EVERYONE he knew was coming and was the room big enough?  Duly scared of running out of cookies, I upped the order to 40 and proceeded to panic.  (It’s odd how people start to fill a room from the back)  The timer is now at 22:25.  I want another cookie.

At five to one I had a wibble as I was the only one here, but, miraculously, more arrived and now we’re at around x (how many?).  Am thrilled – esp as most are people I don’t know (I was worried it would just be me and a few friends from the dept) – looks like word has spread.  People poured coffee, passed cookies, introduced themselves.  I wandered round like a numpty saying hello to people (and directing to the loo – having stuck green arrows from the building entrance to the room, didn’t think to include the Facilities).  (It’s also odd how I have to keep glancing at the timer to see how I’m going.  19:58.  Others are doing it too.)

Arrivals are impressed by the cookie provision and ask who has paid for it – a shout out to the Graduate School, who have very kindly awarded a Postgraduate Experience Award allowing for catering provision and printing.  The cookies are homemade and excellent brain food.  If there are any left, I might take a couple down to the Grad School office to say thank you.  (18:09, still typing, very loud bus outside).

The principle of writing in short but uninterruptible bursts is an adaptation of the pomodoro technique (website here:*** )  I’ve been trying to find anything (other than the website) written on its use but have been struggling a bit – I’ve only come up with one or two, and nothing that really tests it as a writing/productivity technique.   The idea, I think, is based on measures of attention span; i.e. you can only concentrate for so long before your brain wanders off, and therefore it makes sense to structure your work around that.  (halfway!)  The other feature is the (ideally) complete lack of distractions – mobile phones switched off and put away, and, crucially and horribly, internet connections switched off.  What if someone retweets one of my tweets?  Or sends me a Facebook message?  Or even an email?  I won’t know within seconds!  The WORLD could end!  That said, the opportunity (or compulsion) to Just Write It (to adapt an advertising slogan) is actually rather nice.  I have nothing else I should be doing.  I put up some quotes at the start of the meeting while people were getting coffee, etc; one of them is by Gertrude Steinem (no idea who she is – must look up once am allowed internet connection back****), who apparently said “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”  I know how she feels.  I have my upgrade paper due in a week and a bit (actually, maybe that is what I should be doing… bummer.) and I feel guilty pretty much whenever I am not writing it.  It’s coming together slooooowly.  But writing, somehow, is always a worthwhile pursuit.  The process of writing itself helps to formulate and xxx thoughts (ref! – under normal circumstances, I would have looked up a reference for that – internet search, quick check of facebook, email etc while I am there – none of that today so that thought will have to go uncited.  I am a Bad Scientist).

Gosh, 08:57 and I’ve somehow written 784 words.  If I’d been this productive over the last year-and-a-bit of my PhD, I reckon I’d have finished by now. 

OK, brain freeze and I’ve run out of things to write.  The interesting thing is, however, that the fact that you’re in a room full of people who are all typing away does actually compel you to join in.  Call it a herd mentality or something, esp as I’m sitting at the front (and I’m technically in charge of the session), I feel guilty if I’m not joining in.    I’m not sure whether this is a good thing.

The idea is to post this post as a blogpost.  I did think about posting its raw, unedited, stream-of-consciousness version; along with a cleaned-up, edited, made-nice-for-public-view version; to see how much revision would go into it (and how much rubbish I talk when given free rein that then has to be wrestled into something coherent), but I’m not sure about that.  Maybe it’ll all go up, stream-of-consciousness and all.  I might have to add a ton of footnotes, though, as I’ve got gaps and contractions and “xxx” (where I know I need a different word there but can’t think of it right now – somehow using Shift+F7 seems like just as much cheating as using Google in this context…) so I probably won’t make much sense.  3:19 to go and I want another cookie.  They’re very good, kudos to Kent Hospitality.

The group in general seems to be from all over – literature MAs, postdoc maths, etc, which is nice (I think I’ve said that already).  I’ve sent round a register to get an idea of who’s who and what they’re writing, so it’ll be interesting to see exactly who’s here.  I haven’t even done a headcount as was too busy setting up the timers etc (from here), and can’t now as everyone is behind me.  1:09 to go, I think I might run out of steam. 1,110 words.  Blimey.

Quite scared about how loud the alarm is going to be when the timer gets to zero*****.  Hmmm…

* Yes, this is the unedited version, so I’ve left in the typos
** The link is in the introduction, it’s worth looking at
*** Pomodoro technique website
**** Gertrude Stein (I did say it was unedited!) – author and art collector, 1874-1946
***** It wasn’t, the sound was switched off

And that was that – just over 1,100 words in 30 minutes.  Rough and unedited, but there.  In the second writing period, I wrote what I had intended to – a section of the paper I’ll be submitting for my PhD upgrade.  The great thing about writing like this is that, because the point is simply to get words down on paper (or screen), with no requirement to start at the beginning, write well or in a particular style, you are provided with a kind of literary get-out clause to bypass the where-do-I-start blank-page panic.  If you’re someone who suffers from procrastinitis as much as I do, it’s hugely helpful.

It was great to meet everyone this week – if anyone would like to join us, we meet at 1pm on the last Wednesday of every month, usually in COLT3 on the Canterbury campus, all PGs and postdocs welcome.  Here’s the flyer, you can also find details on the University of Kent’s events calendar, or tweet using #KentSUAW.  The cookies are excellent, and free.

On MOOCs, and the purpose of going to class

As reported a few weeks ago, in September I began a MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania via the Coursera platform.  This week, I have to admit to failure.  I’d been planning on documenting my progress; writing about how amazing it was for this huge, disparate group of scholars to be learning together from an Ivy League US university; and how much I enjoyed the freedom of watching lectures from the comfort of my sofa (office/kitchen/library/etc)… but it hasn’t worked out quite like that, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

I launched into the project full of enthusiasm.  I thought it was great that the presentation had obviously not been through UPenn’s PR department – there were spelling errors, the slides were basic comic sans and ended up scribbled all over anyway as the lecturer enjoyed underlining as he spoke.  I generally watched the sections at the weekend and did the corresponding test immediately afterwards (the deadline for each section being every Monday).

However, four weeks (of six) in, I’m afraid I’ve given up.  Sitting down to watch the lectures had become a chore, something I needed to do to get the tests done every week, despite the inherent interest in the topic and relevance to the other work I was doing. 

The appeal of MOOCs such as this one is partly selling the prestige of an institution I wouldn’t travel halfway round the world to attend once a week; and in this case, it just wasn’t sold as an aspirational experience.  The presentation didn’t help – I wanted to feel inspired by not only the content, but a polished delivery reflecting the status of the institution (I know, call me shallow…), and getting something out of it that I couldn’t get elsewhere.  The content was generally good and I do genuinely feel like I’ve learnt some useful stuff, but stuff that I will follow up by seeking some “real-life” instruction.

If this had been a six-week physical class, the method of presentation of the material would barely have mattered: the very act of going to a lecture hall, sitting with friends, colleagues, strangers, has value.   If I’d stopped attending, someone would have noticed.  Equally, it would have been rude of me to ask the lecturer if they wouldn’t mind hanging on for a minute while I put the kettle on, answered the phone, sprayed hobnob crumbs all over them; and the ability to do this online does devalue the experience.  The accountability generated from being physically present creates the expectation of participation and engagement that is simply not there when the relationship is mediated by a laptop screen.

It is easy to understand the current MOOC enthusiasm, not only for the university in terms of cost-efficiency (relatively little running cost after initial setup), but also in terms of responding to a need for flexible course provision and delivery across the globe, with interesting implications for the sense of place in a physical collegiate environment, and the nature of the pedagogic relationship between a teacher and student who never physically meet.  It is not just for “doing the work” that students gather in classes at a university.  Extra-curricular activities aside, the importance of social connections in motivating students is well-established and having a “good year” – a cohort of high-achievers – will mean that weaker members of the cohort will do better than they would have with a different peer group.  The type of immediate and frequent feedback gained from a well-directed debate significantly improves learning.  For all the enthusiasm around connecting via discussion forums and social networks, it just doesn’t work online.

Gary King wrote in a working paper earlier this year: “if your ancestors were to walk into a classroom today, they’d know where to sit, what to do, and how to act.”  The delivery modes of university teaching have changed little in centuries and there is arguably a place for the “if it ain’t broke” attitude.  However modern technology is connecting the academic world, it will only ever be a complement to the kind of learning our ancestors would recognise.


I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s had a similar or opposite experience – leave a comment or click on Contact.   Proper references are available if you are interested!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin on Twitter.


Top Ten Tips: Ideas for formats for outreach/schools engagement work

Whether it’s part of a Widening Participation programme, community engagement drive or a partnership with local schools, your University will have some way of either sending its students and staff out to schools and FE colleges, or bringing pupils onto campus. Running these sessions can be a challenge (honestly, I bow to anyone who can engage 30 teenagers in double maths immediately after lunch), but immensely good fun – if a bit boisterous – when they go well. It’s a fine line between making workshops relevant, interesting and engaging; and being downright patronising – and teenagers are extremely able to let you know how deeply, deeply uncool they think you are.

So, if you’re thinking of getting into this kind of work, here’s my Top Ten ideas for session formats to get you started – the idea being that you can fit your content into a suggestion here for the way to deliver it. The aims for these events vary – it could be to serve as a subject taster session for sixth-formers making UCAS choices, it could be to supplement a GCSE or A-Level syllabus, it could be to promote the joys of your particular institution. If you’re asked to run a session as part of on open day, make sure you understand what the class should get out of your workshop and tailor your format accordingly.  All of these can, of course be used in HE seminar classes as well – but bear in mind the differing priorities of undergraduates coming to a seminar class as part of a formal scheme of learning vs a group of school-age pupils visiting.

The exact way you set up your session will depend on the size of the class and how long you have. Some I’ve run over a whole day, some for 45 mins; you should be able to adapt these ideas and go into more detail if you have more time. Another challenge is that usually you will not have met the class before, so be prepared to pitch your session up or down depending on the response – you could have 11-year-olds right up to adults on FE access courses. And as in a previous post, always have a “last five minutes” activity up your sleeve.

1. The Construction. Literally. Split the class into groups and get them to physically build something – out of lego, drinking straws, sheets of paper, loo rolls, anything. Obviously relatable to maths, engineering, architecture… but I’ve seen it work really well in the social sciences and philosophy: building a lego model that serves as an introduction to yourself, your school, your community. How about building a film or theatre set to illustrate a discussion about a book – which scene best represents the main theme? Could you build something that represents a piece of music? Last five minutes activity: who can build the tallest unsupported structure using only paper – i.e. no sticking materials.

2. The Detective. Set up a crime scene (physical or descriptive, but at least have a few props) and have the class solve the crime. The popularity of CSI, etc, means that a good murder mystery works well, or have a pathologist’s report and other clues to establish a cause of death. This is great for biological sciences and chemistry that can set up real lab tests on dummy samples, but how about doing a mathematical one involving a message in code that must be decrypted? A geographer could use maps with witness reports to work out whether a suspect could have committed the crime. Last five minutes activity: what qualities are needed for a good detective? Would anyone in the class qualify?

3. The Front Page.  Split the class into groups if necessary and get each group to assign roles (or just hand them out) – Editor, Sub-Editors, Reporters, Advertising Manager, Picture Editor, Photographer, Graphic Designer, Lawyer, Layout Editor, etc, depending on size.  Get them to produce tomorrow’s front page.  You can either use fictional stories (have a selection of Press Releases, etc, to use) or if you have IT access, the web is your oyster.  Either use a computer layout package or a traditional (literal) cut-and-paste.  The editor should make sure everyone sticks to their roles – reporters find the stories and write the articles, sub-editors edit them, photographers take (or find) the pictures, graphic designers produce charts and diagrams, the lawyer decides what you’ll get in trouble for saying, etc.  It’s good for media-related subjects and languages but you can also do it for particular topics, e.g. “what are the current issues in health?” and produce the front page – what is the headline, what pictures might go with it, who might want to advertise their services?  Last five minutes activity: depending on how mean you are feeling you could allow more time – but towards the end, announce a “breaking news” huge story that will scoop the front page and force them to re-format.

4. The Researcher.  Pick a topic – a news headline, a recent statistic – and get the class (either individually or in small groups) to plan a research project investigating it.  What is the background to the topic?  How will they gather their data?  How will they analyse it?  How will they present their results?  Who will want to know the outcomes?  You can do this with any subject area – present to the rest of the class at the end.  Last five minutes activity: get each group to pitch to a “funding council” (of you, some of their teachers, their peers…) and decide which (one) project should go ahead.

5. The Poster.  Possibly a combination of (3) and (4) above, get out the A1 paper and marker pens and get creative.  For younger classes, producing an educational poster on some aspect of teenage life has been done a zillion times, so how about something for a different demographic – elderly people, perhaps, or a different cultural group?  If you’ve done (4) earlier, explain how research posters at conferences work and see if they can produce one summarising their research plan.  Last five minutes activity:  hold a speed-dating poster view – go round each one and allow a one-minute pitch.  Vote for the best.

6. The Agony Aunt/Uncle.  This can be adapted to fit most fields and you do need to do a bit of prep in preparing the “letters” for the class to answer, either individually or collectively.  Try a historical perspective: “My colleagues don’t take me seriously, Rosalind Franklin”, etc; and look at discoveries made throughout history with a modern perspective.  It’s a good way to discuss the progress of science and technology, and ways to disseminate information.  Try writing a reply in the language of the time (perhaps a poet or playwright has writer’s block and needs some advice), or in a foreign language for ML sessions.  Try answering some letters from contemporary people – perhaps a government minister wants confidential advice on a matter of state, or a producer wants to know how to set his latest film.  Last five minutes activity: Consider the tone and language used and talk about styles of writing for different purposes.

7. The Game Show.  No need to explain!  My University apparently has a set of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire handsets that are borrowable although I haven’t tried yet… A Family-Fortunes-type thing is easy to set up by splitting the class into two “families” and playing against each other.  Do a maths one explaining how you can use probabilities and logic to improve your chances at winning Play Your Cards Right or picking the best option in Deal Or No Deal.  Use the rounds from Only Connect to explore links with literary themes.  Last five minutes activity: have a lightning round of quick-fire, ‘on the buzzer’ questions.

8. The First Impression.  This type of session is easily adaptable and requires fewer props.  Prepare a set of slides – 10-12ish is plenty – with a single thing on each one.  For example, a quotation, a painting, a statistic, a news headline, anything that fits your topic.  Show each slide for 10 seconds each with no commentary, and ask the class to note down anything that strikes them, any responses they have, positive or negative.  Ask who made notes for which slide and group them together if it’s a big class, or discuss as a whole if not – what did they notice?  Why is it interesting?  Do they agree/disagree?  Next give out copies of the slides (or show them again for longer) and ask them to look again – have their views been influenced by further consideration?  By their colleagues’ input?  What has changed?  Would they rather discuss a different slide now?  Why?  Last five minutes activity: this is a more sedate, after-lunch-type format, so end it by asking for their suggestions for what to put on the slides for the next time you do the session.

9. The Committee.  This is a good one for prompting debate so stay in control!  Again, split the class if you need to, then appoint them the Committee For Deciding Something.  This could be a government department, charitable trust, whatever, the main thing is, they have to agree on, say, a finite budget to allocate for a year.  Provide costings for different options, price lists for equipment, salary scales for staff, etc, and at the end of the session, a plan must be produced.  An extension of this is to allocate each person within the committee a particular role or viewpoint to argue – for example, setting a budget for a hospital, you could have the Chief Executive, Chief Medical and Nursing Officers, Financial Officers, patient representatives, etc.  On the Hanging Committee of an art gallery you could have people who prefer sculpture, modernism, old masters… and room for 20 works that form a coherent exhibition.  They can decide however they like but agreement must be reached.  Last five minutes activity: discuss who made the most noise?  Did it mean they got their way? Who were the peacemakers?  How much compromise was involved? How did they find arguing for a position (in the activity) that they may not hold in real life?

10. The Real World.  Great for sixth-formers and relatable for teenagers nearing the end of their school careers.  Give them brief info on either student loans or the national minimum wage (or both).  Collectively produce a list of potential monthly outgoings if living away from home.  Give them a selection of letting agency printouts showing a variety of properties for rent in the local area.  You can tailor this depending on how flexible you want to be but in the end they have to decide on where to live, how much to work, how much to spend on leisure activities, etc to balance a household budget.  Mostly a mathematical exercise, obviously, but can also be used to start a discussion on social science topics, health, life in general… Last five minutes exercise: whenever I’ve done this kind of thing it turns into a discussion on life after school in general – so be prepared to offer some of your own experiences or answer questions on budgeting for university/work life.

One last tip – if you haven’t noticed, schoolchildren are ridiculously competitive. Most of my last-five-minutes things are competitions (as well as several of the main activities) – for some reason, if you challenge them to do something better than their peers (or you!), it’s a real motivator for even the most Kevinish of teenagers.  If you’ve any suggestions to add, please do!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin.