Tag Archives: teaching

The best academics

26 Oct

The best academics are the most generous. I have been in this ‘game’ for a long time. I have known a lot of academics types: the fragile (everywhere), the bullies (mainly York), the egotists (everywhere), the shockingly dull and boring (everywhere, but north America is over-blessed with them), the management drones (sadly an increasing bunch), the lazy (everywhere, seriously), and the out-of-their depth.

I am also privileged to know (and to have known) lots of extraordinarily talented academics – those that are effortlessly coherent on a conference panel, those who write with such fluency that I think of great literature (a few even write as clearly as EM Forster), or those that have read so widely that I think they must never sleep. These academics drive us on – they inject our debates with ideas and concepts that make us think. Even those academics whose arguments/interpretations I disagree with do us wonderful service in stimulating debate and causing constructive controversy.

But, by far, the best sorts of academics are the most generous. By generous I mean those who devote time and enthusiasm for others. That is not always easy. We all have our own concerns and think that our own time and our own research agendas are the most important things in the world. The political economy of academia gives no rewards whatsoever in taking an interest in the professional welfare of others.

Looking back over my career (and I hope I have a couple more decades to go!), I can think of many academics who have been encouraging, sympathetic, humane and personable. I can think of very many who have not. I will concentrate on the former category and I will mention names – quite simply because they deserve it, and I hope I do not embarrass anyone.

So, many years ago when I was PhD student (perhaps the loneliest station in life) I remember walking along the Politics Department corridor at Queens in Belfast and Elizabeth Meehan saying ‘hello’ to me. Every time we met she asked how I was and how my work was going. She was not my PhD supervisor, but she took a genuine interest in students. She probably did not realise it, but her interest was invaluable. She made me feel that it was worth it. And then there was David Denver. I was a rookie lecturer at Lancaster (and had the office next to his) and I remember going to a conference with him at Salford University. David – a senior professor – sat directly in front of the podium as a series of grad students gave papers on electoral studies (his specialist subject). It was nerve-wracking for them. But David had words of encouragement for all of them. “Well Done” or “Absolutely” he would say as they gave their papers. I contrast this with the cat torturing mouse dissection of grad student papers that I have seen by other senior academics (who clearly have enormous insecurities that they take out on junior academics). I could names here – many of them are at the top of their game and have no need to be so gratuitous.

And then I remember Andy Williams who came up to York to give a paper when I was a lecturer there. On the morning after his paper I stumbled across him having a bacon sandwich in the college café. There began a friendship and academic partnership. He showed me that it was possible to be an academic and to be (reasonably!) normal. We talked about family histories and how we are a small part of a large machine. The personal is the historical and the political – a really important lesson.

I cannot help but mention John Darby, who gave me my first job. John was a truly inspirational figure (and cannot be discussed in isolation from Marie, his wife). John was a real leader in the field of peace and conflict studies. I was privileged to work with him. One of his many great qualities (apart from his fantastically dry sense of humour – believe me, he cut me down to size every day) was that he did not lavish praise. If you did a good job he would praise it. But if you did a mediocre job he did not. I learned a lot from that.

I also remember an ISA panel in … I forget which city. David Chandler was the chair/discussant on a panel comprised of PhD students. Rather than show off his genius, he took the opportunity to reflect seriously on the papers that had been given. He was genuine in his praise but gave useful critiques of their papers. He could have simply sat back and been a time-keeper, but he chose to be supporter of grad students.

And I remember the very many internal and external examiners I have worked with on PhD vivas. They worked hard to keep students calm and focussed. Vivienne Jabri gave a master-class – a really tough examination but fair and humane. But Roger Zetter, Roberto Belloni and many others showed how to be tough but fair.

We work in an industry in which peer praise is rare (I nearly fell off my chair recently when I received – unsolicited –an email from another academic praising me for a review article I had written). The main currency in contemporary academia is critique: that interpretation is wrong, that conceptualisation is too shallow, that view is a-historical; you have not read enough. Frankly, much of the literature is a whinge “this is wrong, that is wrong”. Obviously we need critique. But I look back and I think we need more encouragement too. We need mentors and encouragers. We need the sage words of wisdom that I was not bright enough to appreciate (Adrian Leftwich, John Darby), we need the inspirational teachers (Frank Wright, Mick Cox), we need the subtle mentors who are too good to give overt advice (Neil Carter, John Anderson), the good chat over the nice pint (or beverage of their choice) (Jim McAuley, Marie Zoelle Zahar, Aaron Edwards, Marie Breen-Smith, Tim Jacoby, Kris Brown, Alp Ozerdem, Landon Hancock, Jon Tonge, Richard English and loads of others), more junior scholars who show us how it is done (Stefanie Kappler, Birte Vogel, Sukanya Podder, Chrissie Steenkamp, Helen Basini, Gezim Vizoka, Laura McLeod and Walt Kilroy (who I hope are not offended by being called “junior”)), the collaborators that really stretch how I think but make allowances for my sloppiness (Oliver Richmond, Pamina Firchow, Alp Ozerdem, Roisin Read, Sandra Pogodda, Madhav Joshi, SungYong Lee, Roddy Brett, Jen Peterson, Birte Vogel), the people I know in person shallowly but are encouraged through their Facebook posts (Kevin Clements, Richard Jackson, Sherrill Stroschein, Lyndsey Harris and many, many more); the huge number of MA students I have taught and are inspired by their work for the UN, INGOs and NGOs; and – of course – those outside of academia that remind me that academics rarely have the answers. Mrs Mac Ginty works very hard to keep me grounded (though ‘floored’ might be a more accurate term). Everyone needs a Mrs Mac Ginty.

I do not claim to be the most encouraging or humane academic out there. I try, but often I am tired, distracted, and (I am sorry to say) not terribly interested. But I do look back and think of all the academics I have met and think: how un-encouraging most (yes, most!) of them have been. I remember at Lancaster as a new lecturer and thinking how spectacularly unfriendly most of my new colleagues were. Surely we can all do better. We do so little to encourage, celebrate, and champion others.


Walking with students

12 Oct

I have been experimenting this semester by holding “walking meetings” with students rather than meetings in my office. I was inspired by listening to a talk given by John Paul Lederach – albeit he has the advantage of the beautiful Notre Dame campus for his perambulations with students. But I also like walking and find it a useful antidote to the sedentary academic work-style.

The “walking meetings” are one-to-one start of year meeting with MA in Peace and Conflict students. It is an opportunity for me to get to know the student a little bit, and an opportunity for them to share any questions or concerns they may have.

So why do it? Well, the primary reason is because I like it. I would rather walk around campus than sit in my office. But there are other reasons too. I want to break down – as far as possible – the student/teacher distinction and to engage in a mutual activity. Many of the students are coming to the UK for the first time, or are studying at a UK institution for the first time. Many come from educational environments where there is a very hierarchical relationship between student and teacher. Some students might find the office environment intimidating: it is “my turf”, a desk sits between us and it is full of books which they might think I have read. I certainly haven’t read them all or anything like them all!

The dynamic of walking with someone is very different to a desk-bound meeting. For a start, we are side-by-side rather than face-to-face. We are both engaged in a shared task – navigating our way through a busy campus and its surrounding streets. We can talk about the weather, squirrels, the campus deck chairs, and other ice-breaking non-academic issues. And there is a park next to the campus which is often filled with weird public art that induces mutual wonderment.

Obviously there are a few pre-conditions. I ask the students if they are comfortable with this approach and it may not work with some students with disabilities. And it depends on Manchester’s weather. But so far, I have only had to have one office-bound meeting because of the rain. The start of term weather has been surprisingly clement.

There is a great literature on walking and its relationship with social, political and religious movements. Whether it is Robert MacFarlane’s work on “old ways” and the folk and social history of walking routes, the persistence of pilgrimage routes, the historical importance of the Ramblers’ Association in challenging the privatisation of the countryside, or political marches by Gandhi or Mao, it is clear that walking is not just putting one foot in front of the other.

But mostly I do it because I like it.

Fieldtripping: The ethics and practicalities of student fieldtrips

2 Feb

Many years ago, when I was a rookie lecturer, I went on an MA fieldtrip to Croatia. There were 29 students, the course leader and myself. I am still embarrassed at the nature of the fieldtrip. All 31 of us loaded onto a bus that toured ruined municipalities. We would stumble off the bus, take pictures of bullet-marked houses, walk around destroyed factories, and speak with town mayors. Then we trooped onto the bus again and went off to the next municipality to repeat the exercise. I have been troubled by the notion of student ‘fieldtrips’ ever since. There is a distinct danger of conflict tourism, of the voyeuristic peering at the misery of others before jetting home.

Over a number of years I worked with the indefatigable Alp Ozerdem to re-organise the fieldtrips that we ran and make them more conflict-sensitive, and place an emphasis on research techniques. In the classroom, Alp made students practice interviews and observation techniques so that the fieldtrips were much more sensitive. We also divided the class into small groups of four that each focused on an issue – such as livelihood or resettlement – and charged them with organizing their own interviews.

At St Andrews, with others, I continued this re-invention of the fieldtrip, away of the legacy of colonial anthropology, and tried to turn it into a site to interrogate the power relations between the researcher and the researched. Now at Manchester, as we are making a fieldtrip a centre piece of our MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, I am still thinking about the ethics and practicalities of bringing students into a conflict-affected area. I posted a few questions about this on Facebook not so long ago and some of the points here draw on the comments that I received.

Reinventing the ‘fieldtrip’
My Manchester colleague Oliver Richmond questioned the term ‘fieldtrip’ because of the colonial and developmental baggage that comes with it. Certainly the term conjures up images of pith helmets, maps and pointing at ‘the natives’. Maria O’Reilly from Goldsmiths at the University of London came up with the very good idea of a fieldtrip in the UK. This has lots of practical advantages (no need to get visas, lower carbon emissions etc.) but also allows us to think about our own positionality and why field research always has to be ‘over there’. It encourages us to think of the power relationships between the researcher and the researched. Oliver Richmond, Anne Hayner (Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame) and Sweta Singh (South Asian University) all mentioned the importance of working with local organisations, teaming up with local universities, and trying to get beyond the ‘parachuting in’ mentality. Walt Kilroy from Dublin City University suggested that ‘the researched’ be asked for their feedback: did the researchers perform their tasks sensitivity and effectively?

All of the above are very good tips but I still hear of university ‘fieldtrips’ of forty or fifty students traipsing around conflict-affected countries. It is important that students and researchers can have access to conflict-affected areas but it seems to me that we have to go much further in making these trips sensitive. We also have to be realistic. While we can have good intentions and use the word ‘ethnographic’ as much as we want, a fieldtrip (or whatever we call it) is still a time-limited exercise: we come in and leave. We also have to realize that many of us are curious about conflict-affected societies and that it is difficult to get beyond the sight-seeing mentality.

But, if we are organising a fieldtrip, there are guidelines that we can set down in the hope of maximising both sensitivity and the pedagogic value of any trip. Let me restrict myself to five points.

1. Any student fieldtrip should be a working trip. Students should be set discrete objectives, linked to an assignment. The working nature of the fieldtrip starts well before departure with study of research techniques and the context. It continues during the trip with students setting up meetings, conducting interviews, being mindful of the ethics of research, and sharing notes within groups. And the working nature of the trip continues after students return with the interrogation and use of research results, reflections on how they were gathered, and writing thank you notes.
2. The process is more important than any research results. A short student fieldtrip will not be an occasion in which to gather huge amounts of data that is robust and comparable. By their nature, student fieldtrips are time limited. The emphasis should be on the research process rather than a data harvesting exercise. It is about road-testing research techniques that have been discussed in class.
3. Practice beforehand. It seems important that we encourage our students to trial research techniques before they embark on a trip. For example, I have often noticed how rude people can be when they accompany a tour guide. They start off enthusiastic, but half way through a walking tour they get bored, wander off, and are obviously not listening to the guide. So I organise a walking tour around Manchester with an amateur historian so that the students can think about active listening, the simple observational art of looking up, and of courtesy towards someone who is taking the time to try to explain a context to them.
4. Work with locals. We cannot expect to ‘go native’ on a short trip, and terms like ‘ethnography’ can be used too freely (much to the annoyance of anthropologists I am sure). But, given limited time and resources, we can make links with local universities or groups, learn a little more about context, and move beyond only staying in the hotel bar and talking with taxi drivers.
5. Small groups. Thirty people on a bus is a tour group. By breaking students into small groups of four (or so) we hand responsibility over to them and encourage them to set up meetings, take charge of interviews, and think about issues of sensitivity. In a large group, people can hide and expect others to take responsibility.

We cannot overcome many of the structural aspects that dominate the relationship between the researched and the researcher. We cannot stop the curiosity of humans to travel and see the condition of others. But if we are going to organise fieldtrips, we can try to be more sensitive.

Details of the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies field trip can be found here: http://www.hcri.manchester.ac.uk/study-with-us/postgraduate-taught/fieldwork/