A guest blog post for #HEblogswap by Dr Emma Kennedy, Lecturer in HE Learning & Teaching at University of Greenwich | @EmmaKDev 

As some reading this may know, I’m coming to the end of four years working at Queen Mary, University of London (leaving to take up a position at the University of Greenwich). This big change has naturally led me to reflect on some of my favourite times at QMUL. One of the highlights of the year in Educational Development at Queen Mary was our annual ‘Summer School’: themed around international higher education, it aimed to bring QMUL teachers (themselves of many nationalities) together with colleagues from one of our partner universities, Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU) in Xi’an, China. The summer school undertook a few evolutions: 

  • In its first year, it was mainly composed of QMUL colleagues, with one external participant who was based in London but has international teaching roles (Sibongi Sibanda – find out more about her work here). Everyone took the module for 15 credits, and it functioned as an optional module for our PGCert in Academic Practice. 
  • In its second and third years, the Summer School welcomed colleagues from NPU, but QMUL colleagues still took it for credit as part of their programme. 
  • In its fourth year (2019) the Summer School ceased to be credit-bearing, as part of our programme overhaul. Instead it became a more relaxed (but still academically rigorous) week of professional development focused on working towards Higher Education Academy Fellowship. 

The Summer School is the opposite of a ‘long, thin’ module. The latter is defined as a module that goes on for a long time but involves minimal weekly contact – e.g. an hour every two weeks for a year vs. two hours every week for a semester. I’ve never heard the opposite phrase used, but that’s exactly what the Summer School is – a short, fat course! It’s an intense week, which comes with both benefits and challenges. In this post, I want to record some of the best things about the Summer School, the challenges we encountered, and the lessons I’ve learned for the future. 

A key benefit is that participants and teachers can really immerse ourselves in the themes for a week. The participants from QMUL and from NPU are all employed either as lecturers or as clinicians (mostly the former), so even when they teach in their day jobs they spend most of their time thinking about other things. An intense week like this one allows them the space to think and reflect on teaching without their other roles getting in the way. They also have time to get to know one another. Most of the teaching I do in Educational Development is weekly, which means that although a few participants eventually learn one another’s names, and I do try to help them with that (and I learn all their names!), it takes a while. This time together helps participants to bond more quickly, and, especially with the international nature of the audience, to get to know one another over time. It’s easier to get to know someone over multiple days than it is over a two-hour session. 

The same intensity that provides headspace and social cohesion can also be its own challenge, however. For participants, it’s a surprisingly intense time. Comments on the evaluation form often mention the punishing 9-5 schedule, and some even blamed us for them getting ill the week after (I suspect that’s down to the poor participant who unknowingly brought chicken pox to the session, mind you)! It’s easy to look at a Monday-Friday, 9.30-5pm schedule and think: this will be easy! It’s just like a working day. Sitting and learning is tiring, however; how much of your working day do you spend ‘on’, learning new things, processing new information and really working your brain? For example, I’m writing this blog post at work, but then I’ll spend a couple of hours on something more mindless, such as clearing out my inbox or tidying up my VLE ready for the start of term. In our normal work environment, we learn to go with the ebb and flow of our energy, resting when we need to (e.g. staring into space, making a cup of tea) and taking advantage of a burst of energy. Participants in a workshop don’t have this: they have to work by the facilitator’s schedule and can’t take a break/stretch their legs until we say they can. As anyone who’s ever had to sit in a classroom for hours will know, this saps energy far more than the equivalent time sitting at work. This is a challenge that we tried to meet with breaks every session as well as between sessions, plentiful tea and coffee, along with some kind of food, at least once per day, and a full hour for lunch. It was still tough for participants, though, and it’s something to bear in mind on any intense CPD course. 

Another challenge was the intensity for staff organising and delivering the course. We had to be at work before the teaching started and couldn’t leave until the participants left, and we had to make sure we were always available: unlike semesterised teaching, the Summer School took up pretty much the entire Educational Development team for its duration. This was particularly clear in the final run – not just because we were short-staffed, but because we offered space for participants to work on their Fellowship application instead of attending structured sessions. This space needed facilitators, and additionally we offered one-to-one mentoring meetings. All great, and largely well-reviewed, but it made for an exhausting week. So much so that it’s become a tradition that almost all the team will be on leave during the week following the Summer School. Not a problem in itself, but something to bear in mind if you’re organising intensive CPD – especially if your team has concurrent, or imminent, obligations. 

Finally, I want to talk about something that was simultaneously a challenge and a huge benefit to me as a teacher. This was having a majority of people in the room using English as an additional language, and being unused to spending long periods listening to spoken English. One of the first pieces of feedback I received was that I speak too quickly – not all the time, but in quick asides. For years I had felt this was a feature of my teaching, rather than a bug – it’s how I break the ice, get laughs and get the students onside. However, when talking with participants who were working in their second or third language, it became apparent that these quick asides completely passed them by – they were faster, often more colloquial, and less clearly-pronounced. They rightly found this frustrating, and kindly let me know about it. So I’ve had to adjust my practice in a way that instinctively feels less comfortable, to me – my voice varies less in tone and pace – but prioritises the needs of my students above my own ego and sense of ‘performance’. 

This kind of issue probably comes up for my students all the time, as I’ve been working at a university where students and staff represent 162 nationalities, but this was the first time it came through in feedback. I think having a substantial number of participants all thinking the same thing gave those who were struggling the confidence to articulate to me what I could do to help (or in my case, stop doing). The summer school has helped me make my teaching style more inclusive, but it also got me thinking about how I might make my evaluation style more inviting to critique by minority groups to improve future inclusivity. Obviously I can’t ensure that I have a substantial number of students who are disabled, Black/Ethnic Minority, international or any other characteristics in my classroom; it would be great, but that’s outside my control. However, there are things I want to do to encourage people to speak up. I’m going to frame my evaluations differently: instead of asking for ‘suggestions for improvement’, I’m going to ask: ‘is there anything I can change or do differently that will help you learn?’. I’m also going to frame evaluations as an opportunity for minority students to assert their needs. It’s not their job to educate me, so I need to keep reading and learning, but I want to explicitly state that it’s more than OK – it’s brilliant, in fact – for them to tell me what they’re struggling with, what they need, even if they don’t think this will be a general view, and even if it’s not explicitly to do with education. 

I’m so glad I got the chance to participate in the Summer School, and I’m especially grateful to colleagues from QMUL and NPU who helped me learn so much about the value and challenge of such an intense teaching and learning experience. I’m writing this in my last week at QMUL, which means I won’t get to take part in the 2020 Summer School at QMUL; best of luck to those who will. I’m hoping I get the chance to take part in something similar in the future, and to carry on learning from colleagues from around the world.