Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Fail to plan, plan to fail...

...or not, in my case.

My last post talked of the pressure that I was feeling - having to finish the first draft of my upgrading chapter and face a mountain of undergraduate essays.  I'm delighted to say that I've finished the chapter and the marking - two days ahead of schedule.

How?  Well, I've worked my backside off, that is true, but my early completion is due to some good project management.  This underlines my belief that we should be teaching project management to all our undergraduates.

I spent a lot of my career before I came to university working on projects - in some cases as a manager, and in others as a project resource or even as project sponsor.  When I first started, I found the discipline of planning every step a bit of a bore, let alone working out which was the 'critical path' - I was much more about "let's get it all done NOW!"  which rarely works in practice.  As I became more experienced, I started being able to see, almost instinctively, which was the critical path, and learnt how to break each project down into manageable chunks, and how to portion out resources and time.  Now, I find the discipline that I learnt is essential to my life, and in particular to juggling the needs of home, thesis and teaching.  Still don't have a life tho'.

The thing is, I'll bet you that most mature students have this 'project management' discipline ingrained in our souls.  Because we've worked, or have raised a family, have juggled our time between home life/work/children/spouses we do this automatically.  So, when we're faced with a deadline or two, we may panic momentarily, but we get our heads down and manage to do everything that we need.  In my experience, mature students rarely need extensions on their essays - I always used to hand mine in early - and when we go into the exam hall we may be nervous, but we'll be the students who have read the module outlines, will know what we're likely to be tested on, and will have revised according to a structure based on the published module outcomes.

So, for those of you working to revise, to finish essays or dissertations - good luck.  You have experience on your side, and that will help.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Oh my word.  I'm feeling stressed.  There really aren't enough hours in the day, and the sun is shining and I want to be outside.

Half way through next week I'm heading off to Holland to go and stay with Em, and to avoid the Royal Wedding.  Before then I need to have marked 62 undergraduate essays and finished the draft of the chapter that I have to write for my upgrading and have sent it to The Supervisor.

I am feeling the strain.  The chapter isn't going too badly, I suppose, I'm about half way through the first write, in which I'm just blatting everything down onto paper, and will cut out the superfluous stuff later, but I can't shake off the feeling that it's not well enough researched.  Well, it's not - I know that it isn't - but pragmatically, there's nothing I can do about that at this stage, but I think that I can work with what I've got.  The chapter deals with the case histories of two Baby Farmers of the late 19th Century, with the bare facts of the cases and the trials, and the responses to them.  The problem is, that because they're case histories, the temptation is there to tell the stories - that's no good!  Hence my strategy of writing everything and editing ruthlessly.  But, what is interesting is the way that this chapter is starting to shape the rest of my thesis - where analysis of the specific responses would be too in-depth for this particular chapter and warrants space of its own, and how the issues in this chapter inform the rest of what I want to research.

The marking, however, well - that's just going to be a nightmare.  It's my first experience of marking, and I am very nervous about it.  One of my colleagues on the teaching team has very generously shared with me the notes that she has made as to what issues should be covered in each essay question, and I think that's going to help.  I know that I just need to get on with it.

I don't expect to get much sleep for the next week, or to see my flat very often!  I am  looking forward to it all being over, but when it is, then there's invigilation to do, and then I need to steel myself to mark exam scripts.  Will this ever end?

No sleep until July...

Friday, 15 April 2011

It's nice to be home

Got back from the SLSA conference yesterday - held at the University of Sussex.  It was good, went to plenty of sessions that don't have anything to do with my area of research, but that interest me, and I had a ball.   Fascinating stuff in the main.  It also made me quite keen to do a paper on my research in the next year or so.

Sussex is a similar age to this Uni, and I was fascinated by the similarities - and differences - between the two campuses.  Both have a number of redbrick buildings, both are fairly green, and both are pretty large campuses.  But, for me, this campus wins - hands down. 

When this university was founded, it was intended that it should work on a collegiate basis - with students living in college, in the same building as the lecture theatres and seminar rooms.  Each college had its own dining room (two of them long since closed) and bar, and there was an attempt to create a way of life revolving around the college.  That has pretty much gone now - for sure the lecture theatres and seminar rooms remain in the colleges, and my office is a converted study bedroom, but times have changed.

What this has left us with is some pretty distinctive architecture.  Three of the colleges are fine examples of what you can do with concrete - and I'm being serious - I love the way that they look.  Two have impressive dining halls at the centre of the building, one of which is still in use. Another of the colleges has a very fine spiral staircase - wide and impressive - while another college is brick, extended in the 1980s with a plate glass entrance hall.  Over the years, like all universities, more building has taken place, and what I really like about this university, is that every new building has reflected the best of the architecture of the time.  So, I sit in an undeniably 1960s building, not far away from an amazing glass and zinc arts block completed last year - both of their time, and both beautiful in their own way. The library - a huge four story building - sits at the centre of the campus, and gives focus to what it is that we do here.  I've blogged before about the beauty of that building - my old carrel had the original cedar panelling - and while the building doesn't work very well (leaky windows, and heating that is too hot on one side of the building, and too cold on the other), I'm very fond of it.

Whoever plans the expansion does it carefully - we retain the green spaces between the colleges, and the amazing views over Unitown.  This gives us a feeling of space and grandeur that I just didn't get from Sussex, their campus seems more crowded, and very few of their buildings make a "statement" in the ways that ours do. 

I'm lucky to be here, and to love it as much as I do. 

Monday, 11 April 2011

So quiet - sshhhh...

I cannot believe the difference on campus today - the air on Friday was filled with the sound of jubilant/despairing students, the grass was covered with reclining bodies, barbecues and picnics.

Today, the only people on campus were post-grads, UCAS visitors (and not too many of them), and a conference.


Friday, 8 April 2011

I knew I shouldn't have started looking at the essays without a stiff drink...

At first glance, some of them are good.  Very good.  Which is gratifying.  At least some of them have been listening to what I've been saying.

But, I have been left almost speechless by the student who used Wikipedia in order to write an essay on Law.  I suppose that I should be grateful that they included it in their bibliography.


Thursday, 7 April 2011

Time to relax?

The sun is out in Unitown, and it's the penultimate day of term.  End of term essays are due to be handed in tomorrow, and in some cases already have been.

It's a lovely day, no question about it, and not surprisingly it has brought hoards of undergrads outdoors to bask in the sunshine, to drink beer, flirt, listen to music, and play tuneless guitars.  I even saw a hookah being enjoyed near one of the other colleges, which is kind of exotic.

So, the only people left inside are the postgrads and, I think, the Law Students.  Judging from the state of my email box and the electronic submission software, they're still working on their essays.  I almost feel sorry for them, although I suspect that feeling will dissipate when I see the standard of their essays.

We ask a lot from our Undergrads - my students tell me that they have five essays due in this week - and I know for a fact that some of them hadn't started at least one of their essays until the beginning of this week.  That knowledge takes away some of my fond feelings towards them.  When I was an undergrad, I never handed anything in less than a week early.  This was partly because I was a mature student (and had no life), but it was also because I managed my time - a skill that I had learnt as a means of self-defence during my life.

Today's undergrads seem to have no idea about managing the demands on their time.  One of my keener students came to see me this week about his essay, and told me that he's expecting to work through the night at least two nights this week.  Personally, I think that the modular nature of our courses and the way that we carve their degrees up into discrete parcels doesn't help.  They have no single point of contact to support them with any problems that they may have over and above the subject matter of their modules. 

Our Law School does provide some support - in essay writing, research skills, and this week in revision - and the University does have a specialised Unit that supports those who have specific problems - such as language difficulties or learning disabilities.  But, these things aren't available routinely to all undergrads, and certainly the University can't afford to provide this for each and every student.  In addition, the student needs to recognise the need in themself, and have the confidence to ask for assistance.  Clearly, given the state of funding of education, we can't afford to provide the kind of tutorial system experienced in the Oxbridge colleges in the past, nor can we afford the kind of support that I enjoyed when I was at teacher training college in the 1980s, but can we afford not to address this very basic problem?  Not if we're going to turn out young people who are truly ready for the next stage in their career, in my opinion.

The work they do in the first year at this Uni is graded, but so long as you pass your modules and proceed to the next stage, the marks that students attain do not affect the class of their degree.  So, if you're imaginative, you can use that time, as I did, to test yourself, and see how you need to work within the atmosphere of Higher Education.   However, I'm pretty sure that the majority of 19 year olds see this more as an opportunity to find out how much they can drink, and stay up late, and test the ways in which they can now live as young adults, and that the class of their degree is the last thing on their minds!

I think that the first year is the obvious time to load some very basic skills into these young people.  They don't have that much contact time, so it would seem sensible to teach them some project management, some essay writing skills, how to reference their essays, and how to use the spell check in MS Word.    We need to teach them some formal methods of dealing with the stresses that they're going to encounter in their university career (that doesn't involve the application of alcohol or other mood changing substances), but most of all, we need to teach them how to plan their time.  We might even see a higher standard of written work if we were to do that.

But, I doubt it'll happen until I'm in charge.

I'm feeling smug and relieved.  I've finished the draft plan for the next chapter.  Huzzah.   Just have to write the damn thing now...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Good grief - whatever next? Night follows day, perhaps?

I think I should file this particular story under 'stating the bleeding obvious'.

Yes, I'm sitting in my office at Uni on a sunny Saturday afternoon trying to concentrate on planning a revision session due to take place on Monday.  My displacement activity thus far consists of trawling the net for anything that might conceivably be described as 'research'.  So far I've bought a t-shirt, placed a sniping bid on a handbag on eBay, have read 10 blogs, all the newspaper web sites, and the BBC. 

I'm also being distracted by a couple of undergraduates outside my office window playing with one of those balls that screams when you throw it.  I'm entertaining homicidal thoughts.

I think that it would be fair to say that it's not going swimmingly well...

Friday, 1 April 2011

My leg still hurts....

It's been more than four weeks now, and I'm still suffering from that damn quad strain.  This is not good. 

It's partly my own fault, I know - I'm desperate to get back into the gym and onto the treadmill because I can feel my fitness levels dropping, and I'm concerned not to put back on the weight that I'd lost.  So, each time I go to the physio, I have a discussion whether or not I can exercise, and each time I try a session too much, too soon.  He's reasonably happy for me to do box-fit as that mostly works on the upper body and core - which is something - at least I still get to throw punches at Em - but I've been pushing my luck by trying to run before I can walk without a limp.

I feel like such a wimp - I know that there are people whose pain is far worse and far more long-lasting than mine.  But, I'm finding this really wearing.  Every morning at about 02:00, the muscles in my leg go into spasm and wake me up.  There are times during the day when I think  "ooh, the pain's gone", and then I trip over something or twist my leg or do something as daft as walk downstairs and the bloody daggers are back again.

But, as always, there's a silver lining to this cloud.  Yesterday evening on the way home from Unitown, I dropped into the local supermarket to stock up on salad (and, that's another thing - salad's really boring to eat....), and on the way out of the shop I was enjoying the fact that my leg didn't hurt.  A smile was playing on my face, until I tripped over the kerb and twisted the leg again.  The pain must have showed on my face, as a passing man stopped in concern and asked "you alright babes?" 

This actually cheered me up.  We spend so much time despairing about the state of the world in which we live, and we focus on the negative in our lives.  But this random passer-by took the trouble to ask after my welfare.  That's wonderful.  And, in our part of the south east in Seasidetown and the surrounding area, it's not that unusual.  One of the reasons that I like living down here is the fact that the people are so nice.  But, it doesn't do any harm to remember it.

Oh well.  Back to the freeze spray and the exercises from the physio.  I'm going to try to be grown-up and actually stay off the injured limb until it's properly better now.