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The Politics of Transgender

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There is anxiety among feminists, both those questioning and those supporting transgender politics. Transgender activists find comments from feminists questioning their identity particularly confusing and upsetting (compared to the expected critique from right wing thinkers), as the struggle for transgender equality is based in the feminist movement and thinking. Feminists feel that a gender identity they have fought hard to establish as strong and positive in the face of continual and ongoing patriarchal violence and backlash is undermined in the rise of ‘queer’.

Here I will explore some of these issues through my personal memories of gender and sexuality in the 1990s London scene, and academic thinking on gender identity. I hope to offer tools and insight about the positions both sides are taking. Using ideas about hetero-patriarchy and an ‘economy’ of sexuality, I hope to clarify what is at stake for each of these sides in a new ‘sex wars’. 

Desk with coffee bowl, piece of pie on a plate and feminist academic books scattered across it.

The 'Sex Wars' and other history.

I was startled and felt kinda old when I read about the ‘sex wars’ in books and realised that this had become history! The ‘sex wars’ could be seen as a fore-runner to the current transgender debate. This was an intense debate in metropolitan lesbian circles in the 1990s, when feminist lesbians turned our backs on standard male/female role models. The classic butch/femme identities in lesbian culture were widely questioned. I and my friends sought to dress in androgynous outfits (we couldn’t afford glamourous new clothes anyway!). One gay guy pal remarked to me: “But why do lesbian women have to dress in such an unattractive way?” and we both laughed as he went on: “I suppose you don’t want to attract men.”

Later I was to realise that my own identity is high femme. I find it affirming and enjoyable to dress in exaggerated feminine style. (I used to say I was a drag queen in the wrong body.) I recently posted a meme from Some Like It Hot on our office internet chat board, saying I was going to practise walking up and down my hallway in heels as I wanted to look more like Tony Curtis coming out of lockdown than Jack Lemon. 

Screenshot of Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis dressed as women from the film Some Like It Hot.

LGBTQ people can now choose from many more diverse ways to express ourselves and are not expected to represent our politics in an Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick, 1990). It seems absurd now that back then we were saying ‘Thou shalt not dress’ in any way at all, but in that time of political repression (I am old enough to remember Section 28 being brought into effect, as well as being repealed) everything was a gesture at attempts in the broader discourse to control us. Insisting that we existed was a political act that brought violence in response. I remember pictures of Adam and Steve on one Australian Pride float in a retort to right wing Christian groups who would hold up posters saying ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’. People like Harvey Milk paid the ultimate price for being publicly out as gay. This activism followed feminist protest in the 1970s, marching in the streets to ‘take back the night’ after being told that if we wanted to be safe from rape and murder, we should stay at home.

On the London scene, I remember ideological debate exploring the way that two women living together were economically disadvantaged, while two men usually had much better household incomes (DINKies – Double Income, No Kids). Lesbian separatists would refuse to talk to bisexual women, as being traitors to the cause. Lesbian women who accidentally fell in love with a gay guy pal were castigated and banned from friendship groups, as if their choice of partner meant they could no longer think clearly about feminism or gay rights. The publication of texts explaining how to artificially inseminate, and campaigns for gay and lesbian marriage rights led to further intense debate about ‘queer’. Were these efforts to be a 'family' just propping up hetero-patriarchy? The HIV/AIDS epidemic, and moral judgements about this from the Christian right wing, made a culture of casual sex built up during centuries of oppression in gay male communities suddenly life-threateningly problematic.

This historical background offers an epistemological tradition of community discussion about sexuality and gender as context to the current debate about transgender. Hopefully lessons can be learnt from the past too, about how to engage in this debate in ways that don’t exclude and hurt those who are in need of our support – on both sides. 

Current debates about transgender. 

For ease of reference, let’s take JK Rowling’s tweets, widely criticised as transphobic not only by general commentators, also by actors and actresses made famous by starring in her films like Daniel Radcliffe and Emily Watson.

In an interesting twist, the media host Jonathan Ross initially posted strongly in support of Rowling, then after discussion with his daughter, retracted his support saying he had re-thought his stance.

Meanwhile, Rowling entered a fresh media storm, blogging to explain that her concern about transgender arose from her history in a relationship where she was abused by her male partner. The Sun newspaper was censured (what a surprise) for interviewing her former husband who made controversial headline-grabbing statements about the violent manner in which he had behaved towards Rowling.

This is a core part of argument about transgender rights. Cases are cited where men have posed as transgender, gained admittance to women’s facilities (eg prison) and perpetrated ongoing abuse. Feminists who have long battled against the violence and exploitation in male supremacy which is so routine and mundane that it often gets accepted without question, are horrified at what appears to be tantamount to opening the door and holding it open for psychopathic rapists to gain access to women whose reasons for being institutionalised are often linked to abuse they have previously suffered, but which the State does not appropriately recognise. 

Academic writing. 

I’m going to put an existential question mark over this argument. Should there not be a distinction between the transgender identity and the psychopathic abuser identity – these two are not essentially the same. In guarding institutional facilities against a manipulative hyper masculinity, should our attention be focussed on transgender people; are manipulative psychopaths actually transgender or posing as transgender to achieve their aims?

  • Are transgender politics part of hetero-patriarchy? Or,
  • Does transgender politics offer further opportunity to dismantle a system which has long exploited binary sex-gender subject positions?

Below this concern about potential abuse, there is the anxiety about binary gender positions, and in particular the identity which many now call ‘cis-woman’. Having fought long and hard for society to recognise ‘the second sex’ (de Beauvoir, 1949a, 1949b) as a strong and positive identity, it is difficult to see it apparently being thrown under the bus in a movement away from binary sex/gender. Questions still remain about how to ‘be’ woman. Should women aim to break the glass ceiling and achieve as brilliantly in the board room as men? leaving their children and domestic responsibilities to others (quite often women who immigrate to earn money they send home to their own families while bringing up others’ children). Should we aim to change society so that men become more feminine as well as feminist, all of us aiming to balance a good home and family life with career ambitions? 

Cup of tea with copies of de Beauvoir's two volume Le Deuxieme Sexe beside it.

Focus on transgender may distract from these essential questions, leading to men quietly continuing to dominate positions of social power.

Is the transgender cause simply about being recognised and supported with appropriate interventions? which could be argued is a distraction from core feminist aims yet to be achieved. There’s also an argument that it is about changing our society beyond the binary sex/gender divide; that it is about undermining artificial male/female distinctions, and therefore is a feminist cause.

Judith Butler wrote that lesbian women and gay men are highly likely to find transgender troubling. Their sense of identity as much as that of heterosexual people’s, depends on a binary gender: if you are attracted to people of the same sex, then there need to be a different and a same sex for you to be clear about who you find attractive.

A good read to start with, in search of a better sense of how we have arrived at an unpicking of the binary sex/gender which seems so biologically fundamental, is Gayle Rubin’s ‘The Traffic in Women’: a Marxist exegetical examination of the work of Freud and Levi-Strauss – originally written as Rubin’s undergraduate student dissertation. Rubin argues for a ‘political economy of sex’ – an understanding of the binary sex/gender system as underwriting our social systems. “The organization of sex and gender once had functions other than itself – it organized society,” Rubin argues. “Now it mainly organizes and reproduces itself.” (p.65). “We are not only oppressed as women; we are oppressed by having to be women – or men” (p.61). In this classic account, we slowly come to see a system in which sexuality does not arise from there being two biological sexes: heterosexual, you are attracted to the opposite sex; homosexual, you are attracted to the same sex. Rather we come to understand that if sexuality is an ‘economy’, it needs the dynamism created between two different sexes (dynamic energy is generated by both attraction to different and to same sex). It is sexuality – as a crucial driver for society, that gives rise to the need to have two biological sexes. (The term ‘hetero-patriarchy’ acknowledges the key influence of sexuality as well as that of sex/gender.)

This leads us to Butler’s argument that gender is performative, which I haven’t room to go into here (except to say this is not at all the same as saying ‘gender is a performance’ – a persistent misinterpretation of her case which led to Butler having to write a whole second book!).

It’s a big ask to throw our sexual economy into the bin, and difficult to imagine erotic feeling without the accoutrements of the binary gender system: stockings and high heels – whether worn by women or men (when there may be the thrill of extra emphasis lent to gender by the cross-dressing); the suited power play of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman; butch/femme or the comfort and pleasure of being with someone of your own sex. It may be hard to imagine sexuality without these. 

Man in black suit stands back to back with woman wearing pink top, short black skirt and black thigh length boots.

At the same time, we have seen how these identity positions repeatedly lead to abuse of power: difference should not necessarily mean inequality instead of diversity, but somehow it nearly always seems to go there. Having a more diverse fluid concept of sex/gender might destabilise masculine dominance: it might not be so easy to be top gun in a range of identities, as when there are just two. Beginning to unpick the binary sex/gender economy through genderfluid and non-binary identity may offer us an even braver new world than Miranda imagined when she first saw (young) men in The Tempest

Woman holds a gold filigree shoe, looking at it quizically.

(In this image from Derek Jarman's The Tempest - from the British Film Institute, Toyah Wilcox looks at the elaborate shoe then she puts it on her head - she doesn't understand how to use this signifier of femininity.) 

References

De Beauvoir, S. (1949a [1979 reprint]). Le deuxième sexe I. Paris : Gallimard.

De Beauvoir, S. (1949b [1979 reprint]). Le deuxième sexe II. Paris : Gallimard.

Rubin, G. (1975) ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’ in Rayna R. Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press. pp. 157--210 (1975).

Sedgwick, E.K. (1990). ‘Epistemology of the Closet’. University of California Press.

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Mourning in the Garden

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 20 May 2019, 11:34

Square garden full of young vegetables and flowering plants, gardening tools to the left.

This post is for Ven, John, Michael and Gill.

Some of my students, fellow students and colleagues have been recently bereaved, and as they go through that experience which we all have to suffer - but for which none of us can prepare, I wanted to offer my sympathy, or more properly - my empathy. 

I lost my mum about a year ago. It was very sudden, although she had been frail for a while. I did not expect the phone call when it came to say she had had a stroke. I wasn't sure what to do, didn't know how serious that was. People do recover from strokes, right?

It was the busiest time of my working year. I emailed vaguely to my managers, not sure what to do about my hefty workload. Fortunately one of them, realising better than I did how serious the situation was, immediately offered to provide cover for my students. I then also asked this of my other managers. I only took two weeks. I realise now I should have taken much longer and done more to get time away during a period when I needed to be with family and friends, and when I found it difficult and painful to focus on work.

In today's world we are often managing ourselves and may feel great responsibility to those we work for and with. Perhaps for the lost person's sake, we want to continue to be a good colleague, a supportive teacher, a diligent student. 

Camus's novel LÉtranger - The Stranger begins with the protagonist asking for the day off to go to his mother's funeral. His boss looks strangely at him and he assumes this is because he wants time off work, but in fact it's because his boss finds it hard to understand how he can be so factual and unemotional in his request. I feel as if nowadays we have all become strangers to emotion in the workplace, so much so that we have to try to provide special resources to support anxiety, stress and depression rather than look to see if these are created by the way in which our normal emotions are not supported at work and in other areas of our lives.

The psychologist Freud suggested that if grief is not appropriately felt and expressed, then mourning becomes melancholia. We can become stuck, start to behave in odd ways in order not to let go the person we have lost. We need time to experience the overwhelming emotions of loss in bereavement, to come to terms with the sudden huge gap where someone once lived alongside us.

It may be that time at work or in study is a welcome opportunity to engage with people who are supportive of our grief. For myself, although I tried to struggle on for a while, I deferred from my own studies. I couldn't sit still and concentrate on abstract ideas. Once I realised that I had not given myself sufficient space at the time I lost my mum, I began taking sporadic time out of work whenever I could. As it comes up to the anniversary of losing mum, I am mindful to look out for time for her and my own feelings. 

Painful and difficult tasks had to be tackled after mum's death: sorting through books and papers, closing her Facebook page so 'birthday' reminders didn't pop up for her grandchildren (the page can be left as a memorial page), listing with my Dad their belongings to agree how these might be eventually shared with my brother and sister, choosing some jewellery and other items for her grandchildren.

As I went through mum's books, I found a familiar set of gardening books by writers whose gardens we had visited together: Vita Sackville-West, Beth Chatto, Margery Fish. I had a patch of boring lawn in front of my house which I had always intended to dig out for a flower garden. I began to do this, on bad days throwing myself into the task in the mud and rain. I bought flowering plants which I put in, along the philosophy of figuring it out as I went along, as 'all plants look pretty'. They didn't. Some flowers I had bought in an access of grief were in colours that clashed with themselves - quite an achievement for a plant.

On a second trip to sort out more of mum's possessions, I found some books about decorative vegetable gardening by Joy Larkcom, a writer whom mum had become close friends with after translating Japanese seed packets for her books on oriental vegetables. I had always wanted to grow vegetables at the front of my house but felt my neighbours might object to ugly rows of cabbages. (They once complained because I hadn't mowed the lawn! OK, I hadn't mowed the lawn for about four months and it was a bit messy). Decorative vegetable gardening seemed perfect. I knew my mum would have loved the idea and even my neighbours might like it. (They say now: "It's messy - but arty.") 

 Herb and vegetable garden with black cat walking down pathway.Partly dug out flower garden.

On the left, the ugly flower garden. On the right, the 'potager' - mixture of vegetables and edible flowers. 



I post pictures on Instagram of my #PotagerProgress, sharing with friends and the world. I'm often reminded of mum, as I feel my chapped hands (mum's hands at the height of her gardening days were also rough with digging), or put in a plant she would have liked to hear about, or find some disgusting pest she would have sympathised about. Sometimes I still burst into tears as I grub about putting in seeds, and that's OK - nobody even knows (my secret is safe with you, right?). Gardening is a forgiving activity. If you get it wrong and the seedlings shrivel up - they are just plants, you learn from your mistake. If you bought plants that even clash with themselves you can throw them out. (No, of course I didn't! I'm still trying to find places in the garden for the awkward ugly plants. There are lots of plants people will throw away after a year, even though they're perennials, but I'm unable to dig out my own violas and throw them away and have surreptitiously picked up plants other people have thrown out.) There can also be happy accidents - that lovely bank of white flowers in my garden are some salad rocket that bolted; the flowers are edible too - they have a delicious sweet yet peppery taste. 

Plant pot with purple violas in a clump and white violas spilling over the side

Two flourishing pelargonium plants with pink flowers and red buds against a background of white flowers

This white viola is 'leggy'  in its second year - seen as a fault if it's meant to be a clump in a flower bed. On the right are two 'rescue pelargoniums' I found thrown out on a path last autumn. 

Sometimes as I garden, I think 'mum would not have done it like this', and feel anxious that I'm not honouring her memory properly. Actually, mum changed her ways as she went on in life. Remembering her is a process that is part of my changeable life, not something which preserves the things she did and loved as if under glass. 

You never get over losing someone so close. However Freud suggested that if we move through mourning appropriately, it's as if the person we lost becomes a part of us. We get that great gift of recognising them in ourselves, and can move on in life celebrating their memory rather than clinging to something material which has gone. Rather than get over it, we recover - lay sympathy, love and acceptance over grief so that it softens and the pain is no longer unbearably sharp. 

For this, though, we need to allow ourselves time and space in which to mourn, to remember, to regret. We mustn't be a Stranger to the intense emotions of rage and sadness which do seem as if they may overwhelm us at times. These too will pass, but not if we try to block them and push them back. Only if we allow them free passage, and ourselves what time we need for recovery. 

(My Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/rhiwbinapotager/?hl=en

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Compare and contrast - literary criticism

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 13 May 2019, 17:41

Some years ago, I was actually employed to deliver an access course in English Literature 😍 Quite frankly, I could not believe I was being paid to talk with students about poetry 😍😍 I do love the teaching I do now, but that does remain my favourite teaching I ever did 😍😍😍 

My daughter is heading for her GCSE English exam, so I'm drafting up a post for her and her fellow pupils based on one of the exercises we used to do in my classes. In this exercise, we looked at two First World War poems: one by Rupert Brooke, the other by Wilfred Owen. Here in this post, I'll consider a number of aspects of the poems. In setting them side by side: "compare (find similarities between them) and contrast (find differences between them)", I'm able to bring out more elements about them than I could do if I just set out to talk about them individually. It's common for literature exams to ask students to do this, because it helps them to think about literature like this, rather than be asked to think about one poem in isolation. 

As well as looking at each of the poems, I consider some historical and biographical background which is pertinent to the poems. I pick out details which tell us something about the poems, and also about the time and circumstances in which they were written. I'm trying to bring out how different our attitude is today to the way the poems were viewed at the time of their writing. I want to develop an appreciation of both poems, although if I prefer one I shall say so and explain why. 

NB I'm writing out what I do here explicitly. However it's better to do what in creative writing is called 'show, don't tell'. Rather than use words up saying: "Now I'm going to look at historical context", it's better to just do so (clearly, so the examiner can see you are doing it). In an exam answer, I would say less about what I'm doing here and talk more specifically about details of the poems - with more examples. 

Sof focus black and white portrait photo of Rupert Brooke(By British Government - This is photograph Q 71073 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3691918

Rupert Brooke was a well-connected and well-educated young man, described by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats as "the handsomest young man in England". He attended Rugby School (where his father was a teacher) and King's College, Cambridge. He wrote a famous poem about The Old Vicarage, Grantchester; the lines 'Stands the church clock at ten to three? and is there honey still for tea?" being much quoted by hungry undergraduates. 

Black and white photo of Wilfred Owen in army uniform(Photo from frontispiece of Owen's collection of poerms https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11769951) 

Wilfred Owen's father was a stationmaster, and he was educated mainly at Shrewsbury Technical School. He worked to support himself in studying English Literature. 

Both enlisted to serve in the First World War, both were officers, both died in the war. Brooke died relatively early, in 1915, of a blood infection just off the Greek Island of Skyros. Owen was killed just a week before the armistice, in 1918, in France. 

Rupert Brooke's poem The Soldier was widely celebrated as soon as it was published - by the Times Literary Supplement in March 1915, a year after the outbreak of war. The poem begins: "If I should die, think only this of me ..." It was read out in St Paul's Cathedral on Easter Sunday: 4th April, ironically just days before Brooke's death. 

There is some evidence that at the time of his death, Brooke was starting to write a different, more realist kind of poem about the war of which he had then had some actual experience. 

Wilfred Owen's poetry is a powerful indictment of the brutality of war, bringing us graphic images from the battle front "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge," (Dulce et Decorum Est). 

Have a read of the two poems now, if you haven't already done so. 

When I used these poems as a comparative exercise, I used to ask my students which poem is 'best'. They would all answer immediately that Owen's was the 'best' poem; they disapproved of the romantic view of warfare and death conveyed in Brooke's The Soldier. We come to the poem after two world wars and with understanding of other wartime atrocities, such as in the Vietnam War, whereas those who heard Brooke's poem read out in St Paul's Cathedral in 1915 had no idea what conditions were like on the battle front. The last 100 years have given us access to increasingly more media to show us what warfare is like: images like Nick Ut's famous photo after a napalm attack, or films like Apocalypse Now and The Deerhunter made evident the costs of war to huge global audiences. In the First World War, it was still relatively easy for government to control what information the public had about war. 

It was partly to address this misinformation that poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (a major influence on Owen's thinking) began to write work that gave a different picture of warfare. 

Although Owen's poem gives a better understanding of what war is like, does that make it a better poem? I used to ask my students to consider the literary aspects of the work. Brooke's takes us as reader smoothly through, using delicate imagery to convey a connection between the person, Nature and the specific countryside of England. Brooke suggests that although he will turn to dust, there will be a richness about that earth which comes from his life experience and connection to his home countryside: "Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home." Sentences and phrases are clear and usually close at the end of the line of poetry. Brooke has used the English sonnet form (as opposed to the Petrachan, which has a different rhyme scheme), although his sestet (the six lines at the end) adapts the rhyme scheme as classically used by Shakespeare, and makes it gentler. Shakespeare's use of a final rhyming couplet gives his sonnets an assertive conclusion, whereas Brooke's rhyme scheme eases us along to the end. 

Wilfred Owen's poem starts off looking like a sonnet. Then another eight lines get attached at the end. It's as if there is too much to be contained in the poetic form, his angry emotions spill over after he has described the effect of the gas attack, into an indictment of people back home who urge young men to go and fight in the kind of patriotic mood that marks out Brooke's poem. The poem starts with neat sentences fitting into the lines, but soon these too start spilling over into the next line: lurching like the exhausted men in the poem. The rhyme scheme of Owen's sonnet is like that of Brooke's, but he splits off the last two lines of his sestet as if they are a final conclusion as in Shakespeare's sonnets, and he repeats the word 'drowning' instead of finding another word which rhymes with it - giving extra emphasis to it. 

This particular poem of Owen's shows that he understood the power of the Classics: the Latin and Greek texts which upper class society would know very well. At the end he quotes the Horace line which many would have been mouthing at this time: It is sweet and proper to die for the nation. Yet Owen had chosen to study English Literature. (Brooke studied the Classics.) The two poets were living at a time of profound change. The World Wars did not cause the social changes which followed them: social class divisions becoming less obvious with increased celebration of working class cultures, women going into paid work; however they accelerated them. Brooke seems like the last spokesman for Romantic literature. British poets afterwards have a twist of cynicism in their writing, it seems as if they can no longer unselfconsciously write of the beauties of life and Nature. There is no hint of Romanticism, though, in Owen's dark imagery. Nature is only there in metaphor: the man dying of gas poisoning is seen through Owen's gas mask 'as under a green sea'. 

Painting of a cornfield by moonlight.(A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star, by Samuel Palmer - image available copyright free from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Palmer._A_Cornfield_by_Moonlight_with_the_Evening_Star._Watercolour_with_bodycolour_and_pen_and_ink_c.1830..jpg.) 

The Romantic movement with its celebration of Nature and high emotion has produced some beautiful works of art. For me, Brooke's poem The Soldier belongs with those. The imagery, the tender humanist philosophy which suggests an intimate connection between the individual person and our natural surroundings, these are themes which the Romantic movement celebrated through its art. In spite of our radical change of opinion about warfare, Brooke's poem has survived to be enjoyed for eternal themes which we go back and back to: What is death? What meaning do our lives have after death? Are we humans not part of Nature, must we be 'social'? 

Yet, that does not mean that Owen's poem is 'worse' than Brooke's. I did a little trick on my students by forcing them to see that although they might not sympathise with the philosophy of Brooke's The Soldier in its wartime context, it is a magnificent poem in technical terms: so coherent, the imagery fitting together like the parts of a body, the lines flowing so easily one into the next. 

Owen's poem is fitful and spilling out of any formal arrangement: a sonnet with an extra octet. The images he conjures are harsh and stark. Yet that too is a great literary achievement, to make us feel as if we are staggering drunkenly from one line to the next like exhausted soldiers; to shock us with the repetition of the word 'drowning', then to drag us through another eight weary lines detailing the agonising death of a man whom we see turning horribly slowly from a suffering fellow human into the corner of a foreign field. 

Both are great poems. They stand at a point when society underwent profound change, very suddenly. A culture of high art, of the Classics and Romantic celebration of Nature was abruptly forced to confront brutal Realist understanding of the conditions of life for many ordinary people. It would take many years for us to grasp what that could mean, and perhaps we are still struggling with these twin perspectives on our lives. Perhaps we still want to celebrate that special connection with the Natural world which we do have, while confronted continuously with images of what human impact on Nature is really like. 

Turtle swimming in clear blue seasTurtle swimming in clear blue seas, eating a plastic bag 

(Image from interview with Blue Planet producer.

Image from Australian conservation site.) 

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Mum

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 22 Feb 2019, 21:06

This is my mum, who passed away suddenly last year. It would have been her birthday last Monday. I took four days off, although this is the busiest time of the academic year for me, with New students just submitting their first assignment and three cohorts of students from the autumn, many catching up after a long winter of illness, house moves, births and bereavement. (Marriages are usually in the summer.) Teaching mature students, I sometimes feel that a pageant of life worthy of the pen of Chaucer moves through the requests for support that come into my email in-box. 

When I say that I took four days off, two of the days were the weekend and one was my normal day off - usually at this time of year I would be working all the way through. In Camus's L'Etranger, the protagonist asks for a day off to go to his mother's funeral and, thinking his boss is looking strangely at him, apologises for the inconvenience. A stranger to normal human sociability, he can't comprehend emotion in his life. Increasingly, though, I notice colleagues and students apologising when the most difficult circumstances interrupt our work and studies. I myself found it very hard to get time off when mum died. So partly I am using this blogpost to appeal to people to be more understanding, to be more vocal in our support to colleagues who need time to come to terms with loss and other difficulties. I'm not surprised at the rise in mental health issues when I see how we are expected to be Strangers to emotion in the workplace. 

Black and white photo of Japanese woman in 1950s western dress

My second reason for writing about mum is to continue my account of racism in Higher Education which I began in my last blogpost. Thinking about mum gives me hope for the future. My own working life has not been at all easy, however I have had a much better time than my mum. Although mum lived a good and interesting life, travelling extensively with my dad and we three children, and her own mother, she never secured an academic job. In 1960s Britain, her qualifications and experience were completely discounted with no legislation to support her if she felt discriminated against. 

My mum was a young child in World War II (subsequently she wrote a book about her experiences). Afterwards, she became a student at Tokyo University. This is a spectacular achievement even today, and for a woman at that time was remarkable. She then won a Fullbright scholarship to go to the States and study with Margaret Mead. The States was an unsympathetic environment at that time for anyone Japanese, and mum made up her mind to go back to Japan, however Margaret Mead suggested she go to Cambridge. In Cambridge, she had tea with E.M. Forster and she was one of the first women to eat in the dining hall at King's College (women previously were allowed to watch men eating from a gallery above the dining hall). Later, I was to become one of the first generation of women to study at King's, and I used to sit and look up at the gallery and think of her. 

Travel then was a much less common experience than now. Mum went to the States from Japan by ship. 

Japanese lady in elegant western dress holding bouquet of flowers and waiting to board a ship Young Japanese woman sitting on floor typing. Above the photo it says 'Jan 58'.

When dad asked mum to marry him, she had to decide to make her life in the UK - although eventually she did travel all round the world accompanying him in his work across Africa and Asia. He tried to get her some work experience, but her intelligence and achievements were not highly regarded. Later on in life, people would continue to talk down to her. I'm sorry to say I was myself dismissive towards her, as I had got used to correcting her pronunciation since the age of three. (I still struggle to say Fullbright properly.) 

Mum was hugely proud of me. As soon as I had successfully got through my PhD viva, I rushed back to the flat I was then living in in London, threw some things in a bag and ran out the door to catch the next train to Bath. I had to tell her in person. I can still see her opening the door to me, with a hopeful smile on her face. It was our joint triumph. 

When I think of how difficult it was for mum, I see there has been some (painfully slow) progress. I hope the workplace will be much better for my daughter, her grand-daughter. 

Only one institution I worked in has ever got my title and name right on my office door. The office staff had not been instructed to put up a door plate for me. A woman professor down the hall noticed, and wrote out my name on a piece of paper; she felt it was wrong I didn't have something to tell students where I was. Oxbridge don't officially recognise doctorates from anywhere else, so I was a bit surprised and touched when I got this letter from my old college, whom I had contacted recently about visiting with my daughter, without saying anything about my title. Mum encouraged me to aim for King's College and for my PhD, and in her Japanese way, she would have liked this envelope which acknowledges my status with respect. 

Envelope with King's College postmark addressed in handwriting to Dr Anita Pilgrim


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Not Much Black in Higher Education

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 15 Feb 2019, 16:27

Lakhi sits by Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack

Black cat sitting beside pile of books on race studies

An Equalities and Human Rights Commission survey into racism in the Higher Education sector will close at the end of this month. Meanwhile the BBC published an article in December showing that ethnic minority staff are often put on lower pay grades and struggle against prejudice and bullying. Many did not want to be identified in speaking up about the poor conditions we work in. 

I decided I would. 

I didn't want to name any institutions. All the many Higher Education institutions I've worked in have been equally poor at rewarding my efforts and recognising my contributions in research, publication, impact in the wider sector and teaching. 

At the worst times, when I did think I would be overwhelmed and just swept under without anyone noticing (except my daughter), I doubted myself. I couldn't believe it was true, that I was being discriminated against in such a blatant way; that the structures of the institutions were so integrally white, masculine and middle class that they could not see how their nobly worded policies were being contravened. 

For 20 years I've worked on casual and short-term contracts in Russell Group, post-92 and distance learning universities. This is a recognised fate for academics who are women and also for academics from ethnic minority backgrounds. Sometimes people do say to me "perhaps you just weren't good enough for the full-time position." Actually, if you are constantly having to be re-interviewed and prove yourself for your job, you have to be much better at it to stay in it for 20 years. 

Very often, I didn't get the job. These were some of the reasons I was given for not being appointed: 

  • I never thought of you! Why not? Of course, you would have been perfect. 
  • You can't teach quantitative methods
    • But I'm already teaching quantitative methods
    • Oh. Well, you can't do research. 
    • But I'm the only person in Wales doing sociological research on race and ethnicity, and you advertised the job saying you'd give special consideration to any applicants in that field.  
  • You can't debate the uses of social science. 
    • (10 years experience teaching postgraduate research methods and writing social policy reports for government.) 
  • You can't demonstrate the relationship between power, inequalities and evidence. 

It was that last one that provided the break-through. I am the author of an Equalities and Human Rights Commission review of evidence on Education and Inequalities, and I was being interviewed by an expert in film and television studies. Evidently he could not know better than me if I were demonstrating the relationship between power, inequalities and evidence. Some other small thing he said in the interview was actually racist. I was able to finally bring a legal case for discrimination, instead of being brushed off by someone from Human Resources saying (never in writing) "it's very unfair, but unfortunately it's not against the rules." 

The Dean of Faculty wrote to assure me that the Faculty treated such cases with great seriousness. They valued the qualifications and experience of staff such as myself. Unfortunately when he did this, he addressed me as Ms. while signing himself Prof. I had to write back and point out that a PhD was part of my application for the job, and a professional qualification in our field of work. After three days he wrote to say: "I note your concern about the use of your title." I knew he had had to go to the lawyers and that I had won. 

When I say 'won', I don't mean we were in court and I got proper recompense for losing that job. I mean that we came to a gentleman's agreement that I was sitting on a heap of embarrassing evidence about the way those in power were instituting inequalities and that I would give anyone who tried it on me again a very bloody nose. We both understood that I would be treated scrupulously fairly in the future in job interviews (not favoured - be treated fairly). Sometimes since then I have not got through in interviews, and I believe these were fair decisions; I understood the reason I was being turned down. I worked incredibly hard, putting in long hours to write up evidence and show how power and inequalities were related in my case. It was worth it, although I am still angry I had to waste such a lot of time and effort just to get fair and equal treatment. 

In this looking glass world, I did often doubt myself. I could not believe that people who would laugh and joke with me at other times, academics in the social sciences who did research and teaching on equalities, would treat my qualifications and expertise with such contempt in the vital context of a job interview. 

There were two kinds of people who made it hard to believe what was happening. Those who discriminated against me, and those who were so lacking in discrimination themselves that they couldn't believe a person like me - whom they respected and loved - could be the target of such irrational and cruel prejudice. They couldn't believe it was happening. They said things like: "Are you sure?" "Maybe he meant …" instead of: "Can I take your daughter for the morning so you can write your case out for the union to look over?" 

I survived because the union had my back. The union recognised what was being done to me, supported me and represented my case. United we stand. 

I've not had a high-flying career, but I have a job. I enjoy my job, but I don't put my photo up on my profile. I would rather people not take my cat profile picture seriously than not take my real photo seriously. 

Black cat sitting up as if in bed, looking indignant

What is to be done? Higher Education cannot become diverse by sticking different kinds of people into itself, colouring up the profile pictures. It must change from within. 

People in Higher Education must listen when women or ethnic minority or disabled or gay staff are concerned about how we are treated, when we say we are made to feel uncomfortable. The knee-jerk response to bring the shutters down and protect reputation must be replaced by genuine open-mindedness and willingness to question: Was it fair? I think I am treating this person as an equal, but perhaps they are actually smarter than me? Too often people in power feel anxious and uncomfortable around ethnic minority staff, and quickly move to thinking the ethnic minority person is a problem rather than the predominantly white working culture. 

It would also help if employers immediately started assuming they under-estimate black and minority ethnic staff, and 'artificially' increased their idea of how well we are doing. Then we might get recognised for some of our achievements instead of constantly over-looked. Then they might find they have much better numbers of black and minority ethnic staff in senior roles. 

Friends worry about me writing this blogpost, in case I experience backlash of some kind. I fear the opposite: that I will be met by a wall of silence, drowned out by white noise. ("We never think of you.") Even my friends will hesitate over the 'share' and 'like' buttons, made anxious and uncomfortable. Although even if one other person reads this (woman, gay, transgender, disabled, ethnic minority - just different), and realises 'it was true! It wasn't me, it was them,' that will be worth my making the effort to write. 

Partly I wrote this blogpost because I wanted to read Why I'm No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race (lent to me by a friend of Cornish/Irish heritage). I wanted to write about my own experience first. I'll make notes about my reading on Instagram and tweet using the hashtag #WINLTTWPAR. It would be a start great if you could check it out and give me some feedback. 

Glass of water beside copy of the book Why I'm No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race


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Hope - the last straw

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 6 Jan 2019, 10:10

Sparkly pink chocolate with unicorn label on a pale blue background

I had a couple of experiences recently that reminded me how horrible hope can be if you suffer depression or anxiety.

This doesn't seem obvious. Surely you would wish to have a ray of light if you are trapped in difficult and unhappy circumstances. However, the access of sudden fortune: the disruption to a life of hardship you have finally accustomed yourself to, the sudden loss of a sense of identity which, however miserable, was your own, can have unexpected effects on your mental stability and therefore happiness.

Although I enjoyed doing research, circumstances led me into a career which is predominantly teaching. I still occasionally do research, writing social policy reports, and I can't help doing research on my teaching too. My research doesn't get much attention, since teaching doesn't have a high profile in universities. However, I enjoy thinking and writing about my teaching. 

I love my teaching particularly, because my students are mostly from non-traditional backgrounds and I enjoy supporting them. They often lack confidence, writing skills and in some cases - apparently - a spellchecker for their word processing software. (Although I think that when they write about two factors in a study having a casual relationship this may be their spellchecker working overtime.) 

Which is which thoughtful Causal relationship? Or casual relationship? 

Two pictures of a chart showing ice cream sales, shark attacks and hot weather - and a half-dressed couple smiling at each other

My students are often thrown when they score a high mark for an assignment (having remembered to check that they are writing about causal relationships - unless the essay is about kinship and family in the 21st century). Bewildered by their sudden elevation from the Thick Person at the back of the class, to Bright Spark with lots of potential, they flounder and may immediately do badly on the next available assignment. It's as if they need to prove that they can go back to the comfortable low level identity in which they have muddled along all these years, if the bright glamorous identity they have suddenly found themselves wearing turns out to not fit properly after all. Like someone who usually sneaks down to the beach wearing an allover swimsuit and wrapped in a big towel, who suddenly finds themself in skimpy beachwear, they may be unsure at first if people are smiling admiringly or laughing at them.

This week, I was offered a couple of (unpaid!) opportunities to showcase stuff I have just been pootling along enjoying myself researching. Then I suddenly had the impression the people changed their mind and didn't want me to write them up after all. I was stricken with panic. My mood plumetted and I began to question where I had gone wrong. Why did they not want my writing? Where had I failed? 

Why had I ever given way to hope?

I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I don't know yet if they have changed their mind - I just suspect it. I need to be patient for a few days to see what they come back with. When I was homeless a long time ago, I got so anxious about a room I had gone to see, that I convinced myself I hated it. I phoned the people to say, "I don't want it any more!" They were very kind and said: "Oh are you sure? because we were just about to call and offer it to you." Luckily I was able to swallow my pride and say: "Actually, yes, I would love to come and live with you." The couple of years living there were tremendous fun, as my housemates were like-minded souls and we used to queue for cheap tickets at the Proms, and go for nights out at Venus Rising in The Fridge in Brixton wink.

I have to remember too it doesn't matter if I get those (unpaid!) writing opportunities. Remember: I am already happy pootling along doing my stuff. Other ALs often ask me to showcase it to them, which is possibly better than being asked to write it up in generic places, because they do teaching like mine so they give good interactive feedback.

It was scary to hope I might get a broader audience and more appreciation of my research. Not least, I might have to work harder if it happens, rather than coast comfortably along below my potential mixed 

If it doesn't happen - I'm still happy. 

big grin

A ladder propped against a tree in misty woodland

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Not quite cuneiform

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Saturday, 12 Jan 2019, 09:31

Cuneiform writing on clay tablet

(From webpage about origins of writing: cuneiform writing on a clay tablet.) 

This blogpost is about how to buy a tablet without having to look down the back of the sofa for spare pennies approve

NB If you are an Open University  student, you may be eligible for a grant to buy new computing equipment or broadband provision - ask your Student Support Team for details approve

I recently gave a presentation on the use of WhatsApp to support students (and lessen the workload for tutors). I was suggesting we could move from using our personal mobile phones to using WhatsApp. For many people, WhatsApp already is on their phone, however I have it on a tablet I acquired about a year ago. I find it helpful that I have a separate number on the tablet which I can use as a 'work' number. This means I can put the tablet away at night, for example, and lessen the risk of being woken up at 2 am by text messages. 

(I don't think students are callously sending me texts at 2 am because they want an instant response, BTW. I think they sometimes don't realise this is my personal number so that I will be picking it up if they send a message. Sometimes, too, the mobile signal in their area is not as strong; they write the message at 4 in the afternoon, but it only wings its way to me in the early hours of the morning.) 

My colleagues at the presentation expressed wistful envy as I described how useful I find my tablet: for checking over my powerpoint on train journeys while travelling to tutorials, for reading electronic versions of academic papers, accessing email and the module forums while on the move - and chatting to my students on WhatsApp, then being able to shut the tablet and put it away so I don't feel obliged to chat with them all night wide eyes It takes nifty photos too wink

Hand holding wildflower seeds

(Wildflower seeds)

You may be surprised to hear this, but unfortunately in our work as Associate Lecturers at the Open University we don't get paid our weight in gold. So my colleagues were puzzled as to how I could splash out money on such a high end product. I explained that I had found a handy affordable route to get my tablet, and this is it:-

I first thought about getting a tablet when the new Apple iPad came out. Boasting an impressive amount of functionality (I think that's the right word mixed), this was about half the price of older iPads which could do a similar amount of stuff. It weighed in @ £399, not quite cheap enough for me to rush at it in the way I do when there are shoes on sale at my favourite shoe shop, but enough for me to linger over it and wonder if I could cut back on vegetables for a couple of months, or even something essential - like kitten heeled slingbacks. 

Bare foot with gold nail polish on sandy beach with shells

It's easier to do without shoes in the summer - in South Wales, anyway. This is the beach at Saundersfoot. 

While I was contemplating the iPad, I went into my mobile phone shop about something completely different. There I saw the Apple iPad, and I realised you could get it for a monthly amount like you can a new phone. I was a bit hesitant, because if I did that I wouldn't be able to use my John Lewis credit card in John Lewis and get double points, but I began to be seriously "seduced" as we call it on DD102, after Bauman (1987) cited in Hetherington and Havard (2014, p.125). 

Then I saw that the mobile phone shop had a Samsung Galaxy - a tablet which also has an impressive amount of functionality wink I was canny. I listened to the salesperson. (I mean, not properly like when people talk to me about shoes, but I nodded my head when he said things.) Then I came back with my daughter. She said: "Oh yes, mum, the Galaxy is for you because it has Microsoft Office on it, and it has a *something-titum-titum* camera, you will like that." There was quite a bit more; I was impressed at how much she knew about my computing habits - she is pretty good at observation research. 

Because I am already a customer of this mobile network, I got a loyalty deal. Instead of £19 per month, I walked out with the tablet @ £17 per month over 2 and a half years- that includes some decent amount of downloadable data each month which is worth quite a bit on its own. £17 per month is even less than I pay for cat food, and a lot less than I pay for shoes if I am in the mood, so I was a happy lady ... I mean, professional woman with a PhD to prove my credentials. 

I did also buy a couple of covers for the tablet from Fintie to protect the screen. One has a Bluetooth-able keyboard in it, and the other is just a cover - they both have a Japanese picture of a cherry tree on them. The one with the keyboard is for when I go away from home for a few days. It's quite heavy so normally I use the other one, and just use the keyboard on the screen (whatever the technical word for that is). 

Samsung Galaxy tablet set up in cover with keyboard, on a desk, with another cover (decorated with Japanese painting of cherry blossom) and a cup of tea.

The tablet fits perfectly in my (Radley) handbag approve 

One of my colleagues described himself as 'technophobe' - which is just like us Associate Lecturers. We can run an Adobe Connect tutorial with polls and breakout rooms to allow 30 students good quality discussion time, but we think our phones are Smarter than we are. If this reassures you so-called 'technophobes': my tablet has a nice size screen and easily understandable icons, and I have never yet had to ask my daughter to help me figure it out. I'm not of that generation called 'digital natives' (see Smith, 2012 for a critique of this concept), but this tablet is of a generation of computers that are human-friendly so I am good with it cool

References

Hetheringon, K. and Havard, C. (2014) ‘Consumer society? Identity and lifestyle’ in Allen, J. and Blakeley, G. (eds) Understanding Social Lives, Part 1, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Smith, E. (2012) ‘The Digital Native Debate in Higher Education: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Literature / Le débat sur les natifs du numérique dans l'enseignement supérieur: une analyse comparative de la littérature récente’. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, [S.l.], v. 38, n. 3, nov. 2012. Available at: http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26327/19509 (Accessed Sept 2018). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.21432/T2F302.


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Books on Women in STEM

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 9 Dec 2018, 21:40

For Christmas this year, my daughter asked for some books on women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I of course turned to Twitter to get some tips, and as there were many good ones, I thought I'd share them. 

I've linked to Hive Books for them, as this is a website which has free P&P however little you spend, and which will give a percentage of your purchase money to an independent bookshop of your choice. I also linked to actual books, as my daughter does still read paper things - and they are better at bedtime than reading off a tablet. In some cases there are special 'gift' editions, it can be worth checking for those. 

First up is a complete freebie! If you haven't yet started opening the virtual doors for The Women in STEM advent calendar, you are in for several treats. Day 1 is Tapputi, parfumier and chemist from the Babylonian royal court 1,200 BCE. 

Black and white photo of Victoria Drummond in naval uniform, smilingVictoria Drummond OBE - Day 2. Check out the link to see the rest. 

Thank you to @FindingAva for creating such a gem smile

My daughter did pick out Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst (a descendent of Emmeline Pankhurst wide eyes). It might be a little young for her (she is 14). @clemherman recommends another illustrated book: Rachel Ignotofsky's Women in Science: 50 Pioneers who fearlessly changed the world

We also already have Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. There are some references to naughty behaviour in that surprise - after all, Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Byron, so you would need to judge how mature your child is if you want to encourage her to find out that the first person to write a theory of computing science was this amazing Lady. (It's a wild funny book, many grownups will enjoy it as well.) 

Cover of book 'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage' set out like a Victorian newspaper, with picture of man in top hat and woman in crinoline running

Thank you to @NotoriousCath for the recommendation of Roma Agrawal's Built, about structures - definitely one that will make the stocking list. Might also get her other book Geek Nation (How Indian Science is taking over the World). 

@nerfgirl recommended some cool-sounding fiction titles: Saci Lloyd's future dystopian Carbon Diaries series; Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity - set in WW2; Marissa Meyer's Cinder, another cool dystopian novel - these seem to be very popular with my daughter and her friends. 

Cover of book with title 'Cinder' over a robotic leg in a red high-heeled shoe

Another series recommended by @clemherman, perhaps for younger readers, was the Rosie Revere books, by Andrea Beaty

A hot sounding manifesto is Inferior, by Angela Saini, recommended by @geekchloe. 

I'm going to give a final shout out to something completely different. If you are buying for teenage nieces/nephews (as I am), they do like a cool t-shirt. You can buy highly priced designer ones, but I recommend these reasonably priced ones on RedBubble designed by my friend's son Aidan Fitzpatrick, under his character's name Obie Faste. You can also get ones with his new character Beau Benguin. I know these are cool because I bought the one with the teddy bear for myself, but it was pinched by Someone Else before I had a chance to wear it big grin


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Ethics and WhatsApp

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Nov 2018, 12:28

In a talk to PhD students I heard him give, the sociologist Chris Jenks argued that all projects required the same level of rigorous ethics, regardless of the nature of the participants. He felt there was no such thing as more risk when handling data. 

At the time I didn't agree with him. Conducting research with lesbian, gay and bisexual British Muslim people, I was talking with people who had sometimes had to separate from families and move across the country. This was not just to protect themselves from physical harm. There was a high level of risk that their family's honour would be compromised if their sexuality became known, and that this would damage siblings' and even cousins' marriage chances. I was extremely scrupulous about protecting participants' identities and about the data I held on them and I felt that I did have to take measures which other researchers in less vulnerable communities might not have to. 

However I find myself more in sympathy with him today. My research now tends to be based in my teaching practice. There is a rigorous code around data protection of student records, particularly following the arrival of General Data Protection Regulation. However although we talk among ourselves about best practice in teaching, we aren't necessarily thought to be doing 'research' on it, so there isn't an automatic go-to framework for gaining permission from students to write about our teaching of them. 

My main aim in setting up WhatsApp groups for my students was to give them additional support so they have a better chance of keeping up with their studies, and getting information about how to manage their studies in a timely way. See this blogpost on setting up WhatsApp groups. However, as I began to write up how this was going, I realised I was also engaged in a research project which I not only intended to write up in the future, I was already publicly disseminating material about it. (This blogpost is an update on how my WhatsApp groups are getting on.) I of course did this in an anonymised way, but is that enough? My students don't appear to be 'at risk' in the same way as my participants in the LGB Muslim study, however I still ought to respect their participation in the project in a similar way. 

Well, I feel the best thing to do is to ask my students. Some of them are doing the M.Ed in Inclusive Practice so will be developing their own ethics frameworks to write about their teaching. They will have good insights to share about how I ought to go about advising them on how I am writing up my work with them smile


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How to ask for an extension

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Open University students usually have lives with many responsibilities, and we recognise that in creating a more flexible assessment system. Our assignments are graduated rather than coming in one lump at the end of a term/year. You can also usually negotiate an extension on assignment deadlines if you experience difficulties which impact on your studies. 

NB - there is NOT usually any extension offered on the final piece of work on a module, often called the End of Module Assessment. Plan your studies to make sure you can work on this in a timely fashion. If you are experiencing difficulties as you come to the end of a module, make sure that you contact your Student Support Team for advice, and put in a claim for Mitigating Circumstances. 

Your tutor will be able to talk to you about extensions on your Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs). We are of course keen to make sure you don't fall behind in your studies, so you should not assume you can just have one for the asking. 

You can contact your tutor via a link on StudentHome, or just drop them an email. Explain why you want the extension and how long you think you may need. Be realistic and reasonable about this. A day or two is very acceptable, a week is fine. If you are going to need more than a week, you will need to have a serious and good reason. (Anxiety about deadlines is a serious and good reason, however you should also make sure you have got good support so this doesn't become an ongoing problem if you suffer anxiety - your Student Support Team can help with this.) 

You won't need supporting documentation for an extension on a TMA, but you will if you apply for Mitigating Circumstances for an EMA. 

Try to let us tutors know in good time. You can ask for an extension just in case, you don't have to use it. 

These are the suggested reasons given when we enter your extension in the system. 

Screenshot of list of reasons for extension on automated system

Here are some examples of how I would input information provided to me with a request for an extension. Depending on your tutor, you may like to translate for them into appropriate terminology. For example, 'Can I have a week's extension as I have to travel to France during the week of the TMA deadline', rather than 'Yippee! my whole extended family and I are going on a WiFi-free trip through the Loire Valley, so my TMA is going to be late.' (Actually if you are going on holiday, your tutor may suggest you try and plan to get the TMA in early thoughtful)

DISABILITY - your additional learning need means that you require a little longer to prepare your assignment (anxiety would fit here). 

FAMILY RELATED - your children had chicken pox, there was a major family event which disrupted your studies, the family guinea pig had to be rushed to the vet and nursed through the night. 

MEDICAL - you had chicken pox, or flu. 

TRAVEL RELATED - your family holiday coincided with the TMA submission date. (And you are going to have to shop, pack and make your partner sort out their passport so you can't plan to do the TMA early.) 

VARIOUS - your favourite aunt had to go into hospital, the children all had chicken pox, you had a job interview, your laptop died on you and it is coming up to Christmas, you have to do the shopping - all at once. And the family guinea pig needs to be taken to the vet. 

WORK RELATED - there is a big project just coming to fruition and your manager has asked everyone to stay on late to help out (offering you double pay to do so of course thoughtful

The main message is - if you are struggling, don't suffer alone. Go on your module Forums and get some emotional support from fellow students, contact your Student Support Team, check the Student Union website - you never know what help may be available to you. Let your tutor know, so we can bear your circumstances in mind and tell you about any tips or support we know of smile

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WhatsApp update

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Screenshot of WhatsApp Group chat explanation with icons

I have now set up WhatsApp groups for two of my three student groups. I have emailed the third group inviting them to join me on WhatsApp. Here are some basic How To things which I found out as I went along. 

1 - Initially, you must email out and invite students to join the group. Ask them to email you their WhatsApp number even if you have their mobile number so you have clear written permissions. I did try to use WhatsApp to just individually message some of my students, but these translated themselves into text messages and cost me £0.82 - not as bad as the bill I ran up on my personal mobile once for £90 when I tried to call all my students at the start of their studies, while simultaneously buying my bijou maisonette sad - but not quite what I wanted. 

I have been able to offer a one-to-one chat on WhatsApp with a student for whom phone calls weren't as suitable a form of communication. This worked pretty well, much better than us emailing back and forth. As I have WhatsApp on my tablet rather than my mobile, it was easy for me to type up the messages. 

2 - Once you have students' permission (for General Data Protection Regulation compliance, and more importantly because it is the ethical thing to do, you must make sure you secure this in writing), you can start entering each student as a contact. 

You can't set up a New Group in WhatsApp, then put the contacts in it. WhatsApp is quite simple and straightforward so there are some functions you might expect to find, which are simply missing. Finding a group appears to be one of them. You can only find a group by spotting the 'chat' you've done with it, so you have to first set up some contacts, then make them into a group and send a message, then you can find the group again in your 'chat' list. 

You can assign each student an 'organisation'. The module code inputted there helps you to distinguish James-the-Student from James-My-Bestie, and avoid embarrassing mis-communications. This also allows you to pick out the whole list in order to set it up as the Group. At the end of the module, when under GDPR I must delete all the contact details from my list, I hope this will help me quickly find them to do so. (I plan to leave the group existing - some of the students may be able to stay in touch and support each other as they continue their studies.) 

3 - You can have an icon for your group, and since my aim in using WhatsApp is to encourage light-hearted chatting and mutual support rather than writing several paragraph messages on the 'real' meaning of 'ontology', I chose some jokey ones. I tried to get the students to choose a name for the group but they weren't forthcoming so I just called the groups by module code names. 

Cartoon owl wearing mortarboard and sitting on books Poster of beach scene saying Keep Calm and Write Your Essay

Progress so far

Of the two groups I've set up, all but two students have joined the one while only four students have joined the other one. 

In the first group, a student already asked a question which one of the other students answered in my absence approve - so the answer was provided in a much more timely way. I saw that after an initial message, another student wasn't chatting much so I phoned and found they weren't well. We were able to talk about how to manage their studies and I could reassure them of my support. Generally students seem more comfortable about chatting and answering each other's messages on WhatsApp than they do on forums. 

I have a tutorial scheduled with the other group in about ten days. When that's closer I'll email them all to remind them, and I will ask again if anyone-else wants to join the WhatsApp chat. That group has progressed quite far in their studies, and are more self-oriented for study, so it doesn't surprise me that they aren't so keen on being in a group. They probably have good study support networks set up already. 

Miro's Dancer - blue background, red heart with supporting lines and dots - and the moon

(Joan Miró's Dancer.) 


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The Long Road to Happiness

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 10 Oct 2018, 07:35

When I say to people that I was in counselling and therapy for ten years, they are often surprised. "You are the last person I would have thought needed therapy!" they exclaim. "That's because I've done it," I reply. 

I was just as surprised myself, though, when I read in her post on Instagram that the talented and lovely Nadiya Hussain - winner of Great British Bake Off 2015 (and a former Open University student), also struggles with difficult days. Depression can strike anyone. 

As a young woman, and particularly as a student, I experienced bouts of unbearable depression and anxiety - so unbearable that I was suicidal. 

By depression I mean a blanket of despair that would fall over my life. I would not know what had brought it on, seemingly out of nowhere I would be precipitated into a state of such extreme anxiety and sadness that I could barely concentrate on getting dressed, never mind my studies. What makes depression so particularly difficult is that you don't know what caused it. If your bike is stolen or you hurt your leg and aren't able to get out and about, you know why you feel upset. If you don't know why you are distressed, you can't figure out any way to make things better. You can't say: "I will get a new bike on my employers' Cycle to Work scheme," or "I will be better in a couple of weeks." You don't know when or how the depression will strike - your life is in thrall to inexplicable and life-threatening mood swings. Since you don't know what the problem is, you can't fix it; you're facing a life that might always be dominated by bleak misery. You sometimes think the only solution is to end it all. 

I was also crippled by a lack of confidence. Everything I did was rubbish because I was rubbish, ergo I could not have done anything cool or smart. By the age of 20 I was studying at Cambridge University, I had written a few novels, I had run some great projects raising money for Oxfam and organised a public display about my home town's unusual local history. I was a beautiful, friendly and kind-hearted young woman. But if anyone tried to tell me how amazing I was, I dismissed them as an idiot. Obviously I was stupid, ugly and unlikeable - that was the basis on which my universe was built. As it was a founding principle in my life, it was extremely difficult to dig it up and put in something sound on which to build happiness. 

Now I am OK. I often feel sad or angry or frustrated - when that happens, I know why. I often also feel happy and good about myself. I even sometimes feel relaxed wide eyes Even at my lowest, I can make a plan and prioritise what to do. 

Practical tips

If you are in a state of mental distress, be gentle and patient with yourself. Just do as much as you can; keep going. 

Keep Calm and Carry On in rainbow letters

(Image from quotesgram.com) 

  • Take care of your physical health: go to the doctor, dentist, opticians if you need to; 
  • Eat well and drink plenty of water; 
  • Cut out caffeine. 

I am on my fourth day now of only one cup of tea in the morning and am fed up of decaff coffee and Rooibos tea dead - but it's nice to have a good night's sleep, not wake up at 4 am panicking in case I forgot to set up a life-saving thread in my Student Forums. (These things can usually wait a couple of days, and sometimes the students do it for themselves which is good for them and me smile)

  • Prioritise your family and 'me' time. 
Since I often work evenings and weekends, I set aside Tuesdays as a day off. Yeah, OK, I am writing this blogpost on my day off tongueout but I enjoy writing my blog. Anyway, my child is off school unwell so it's not a proper day off. OK, yes, I am not very good at taking time off, and will often sacrifice my Tuesdays to talk to desperate students or attend university meetings. But I try! Sometimes I take the whole weekend off and go down to the seaside or dig about in my garden.  

Fingers holding a unicorn cupcake with a beach in the background

(My daughter made this cake)

  • Get into a routine. 

To balance out the highs and lows of emotional life, I find it helps to get into a dull predictable routine about the cleaning. (Also, this keeps my small home reasonably bright which makes me feel better too.) I clean on Mondays and Thursdays, and now I prioritise this above my work (yes, that is the reason you rarely get a reply to your email before 10 am on those days, and sometimes not til 3 in the afternoon). Whatever is going on in life, there is always a pile of washing up by the sink. Restoring some small sense of order to the chaos of my home makes me feel more in control. 

When signed up to a module, I also prioritise my studies above my work. I put in between half an hour to two hours in the morning when my daughter has set off to school, before I switch on my work email. It feels like a small island of 'me' time before I start responding to the slew of email requests to take part in university consultations on alarming new changes to our working patterns. 

Loneliness, good friends and affectionate pets.

See friends regularly. Although my budget is tight, I plan trips out - sometimes to livecast events in the cinema rather than the theatre, which costs more. 

If you are alone most of the time, you might consider taking in a pet. (If you are not yet very good at taking care of other things as well as yourself, the counsellor in the film 28 Days suggests starting with a pot plant.) 

Prof. Martin Weller has written very affectingly about the recent loss of a dog he adopted. His poignant account shows how love and loss are two sides of a coin. He gave a lot of support and kindness to an unwanted rescue dog - Bruno repaid him with unquestioning love and affection during a tough time in his life. 

We have two cats. Because I work alone from home, it's nice that they are around snoozing on armchairs and sometimes coming to ask me for food. They never look down their noses at me (well, unless I buy really inferior cat food) or tell me to fill in forms which are a waste of time and effort. If I go out to hang out the washing they come out with me - the Pride on the move together through the suburban savanna big grin 🦁🐱🐱

Counselling, therapy and medication

Consider getting professional support. If you broke your leg, you would go to a doctor. If your spirit has been wounded, you should go to a counsellor. Depending on your circumstances, medication may help too - talk to your GP about this. You should also talk to your GP if you have other odd symptoms - when I went through a period feeling drained of energy I thought at first it was depression, but it proved to be an undiagnosed fibroid. 

Students may be able to access counselling support from the Student Minds organisation. Your GP, and Student Support Team, might also have details of organisations which could help you. If you are in work, your employer may have confidential support you could draw on. 

Larger employers will have a staff counselling scheme in place. My colleagues may be surprised to hear that we Associate Lecturers are entitled to access the Open University's scheme. This includes not only a telephone service for immediate support, they will set up six free sessions either on the phone or face to face to help you through a difficult time. (These can be extended if you are in great need.) 

For a number of reasons, we ALs are under particular stress and strain at the moment. This time of year is one of high pressure as new modules start teaching out. Our contracts are heavily casualised and over the summer we wait to hear if we still have teaching on some modules, or have gained new teaching on others which we applied to. This year, the ten year negotiations on our permanent contracts seem to be finally reaching a conclusion. Not only are we highly anxious that this may not happen (again), and worried in case if it does happen it will turn out to be a pig in a poke. Sudden good fortune can de-stabilise people's lives. We feel discombobulated by the whole process. 

I am also personally affected by the loss of my mother at the start of the summer, only four months ago. When I found I was getting unreasonably irritated with the cats and my daughter (although I did restrain my temper and not actually shout at any of them sad), I started to phone the Union's counselling support line (they have one too). Then I went to the university to ask for more regular support. I was pleasantly surprised when they offered me six face to face sessions. Working at a distance learning institution, the most I expected was something regular on the phone. They did warn me it might take a few days to find someone in my vicinity, but in fact someone phoned back within the hour to offer me sessions five minutes bike ride from my house . (I live in a city; it may not be so convenient if you are living in a rural location.) 

I find it frees up my mind to know I have got 50 minutes each week in which to off-load my concerns. 

A therapist once said to me, she couldn't give me the answers, only I knew those, but she could come with me on the journey looking for them. That was so comforting - I didn't really want somebody else's answers, just some kindness once a week while I thought things through. 

Financial worries

There are also counsellors who will work with you on your money. I don't mean debt counsellors, although if you are in financial difficulties then why not look for someone with whom to talk through your money worries. I mean people like Alvin Hall, whose books on family and money I found insightful. 

If you just don't have very much money, it can be even more difficult to get loans and credit cards and you may get charged more for the privilege of being 'seduced' in the market economy - as we describe it on the DD102 module. (We use Bauman's concept of the seduced and repressed, among others, to understand inequalities in current society.) 

A possible solution is credit unions. Some employers like local councils will set these up for their employees, or there may be one in your local area. I was going to ask if the university could set one up for us Associate Lecturers, when I discovered that they already have one. This Snowball article (AL newsletter - link is not publicly accessible) explains how ALs can access the OU credit union. 

Expect happiness in unexpected places 

I had a difficult time in my 40s: experiencing persistent discrimination and bullying, and debilitated by the undiagnosed fibroid. When I hit 50, I realised I had not got into a brilliant career and indeed was mostly stuck at home taking care of a child and cleaning floors - work which my PhD had not skilled me up for. I was old, I was 'past it'. 

I also realised I did not have to spend hours writing articles for research journals which hardly anyone would read, as I didn't have a career for which I needed publications. Instead I could focus on my teaching - which I really enjoy. I read Homer's Iliad, as I finally decided I was too old to care if enjoying epic verse is pretentious. I baked cakes. I often run off to the beach with my friends and my child. 

Anita Pilgrim sitting on a pebbly beach in the sunshine, laughing

Life's a Beach at 50 big grin

I wish I could go back and tell the 20 year old me and even the 40 year old me that one day, I would be this happy. I did hope I would be, so I stuck it out through the tough times. I'm glad I did. 


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WhatsApp

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Saturday, 27 Oct 2018, 16:37

Vintage yellow Bugs Bunny badge saying 'What's Up, Doc?'

(Vintage badge for sale on Amazon)

A number of colleagues have been bigging up WhatsApp groups, which I believe are an obligatory part of some Arts module. They say that the opportunity to chat with each other and provide moral support means students are less likely to drop out of their studies. Well, we are all very keen to make sure students have every opportunity to complete on the modules they work so hard to study. Plus, although we are a 'distance learning' institution and so we don't get many chances to meet up, we know that sociable learning is a highly valuable means for students to embed knowledge and develop better skills - so Win Win smile

This year I'm going to be asking my Tutor Groups of students if they'd like to join a WhatsApp group which I'll set up and monitor. I'll also encourage them to set up their own support groups. I'll suggest that they: 

  • Find people on the same degree programme, as well as module; 
  • Look for people who live nearby (not so easy with my postgrad students, some of whom are overseas);
  • Make a group of between four and ten. If there are only two of you, and one drops out - there's no group sad A large number of group members means your WhatsApp is constantly pinging with messages mixed

A student did mention that a module-wide WhatsApp group had just been annoying because there were far too many messages to respond to. I hope that a smaller Tutor Group group will be more manageable. 

What is WhatsApp? thoughtful

WhatsApp is an internet-based messaging service. It allows you to make free phone calls and send free messages anywhere in the world. My sister-in-law and her family in India have pressured me into getting it, as it enables us to chat whether they are in Mumbai, Vienna or the depths of Devon - where my niece was at school under my guardianship last year. 

You can create a WhatsApp group, and some fellow mums and I have done this to make arrangements about sharing lifts for our kids to aerial circus skills class clown (I was tempted to call the group The Bearded Ladies, but it's actually my daughter's dad who does the circus run for us, so he had to be a member and he is clean-shaven.) 

What other social media is there? cool

Get thee behind me Facebooksurprise

There are many unofficial Open University Facebook groups for different modules or pathways of study. There are also groups for OU mums, older students and probably one for students who like sharing cat videos. 

Two cats either side of a catflap staring at each other

Catflap standoff - Eowyn wants to come in, Lakhi wants to go out but neither of them will move big grin

However any material on Facebook belongs to Facebook. This is an issue for the Open University, so we have not been able to set up official support through Facebook. Although I enjoy Facebook, I also feel that the way posts pop up if they are a) popular, b) recent, is not that helpful in supporting study. I think the groups for mums and older students to support each other are a good idea, however students often come back from the module Facebook groups saying they have been given the most strange advice by other students on there mixed I know students who had great support on Facebook, but I always advise my students to check anything they hear on there carefully on the official OU forums. 

OU Forums - home sweet home approve

The university itself provides two or three forums for each module of study, where students are supposed to be encouraged to 'chat'. I personally love these, and think they are a great way to post information and engage in discussion. However students can be very shy of posting opinion in them. Time and again, I hear students say they are worried about looking silly shy One of my colleagues even puts up a thread called 'No such thing as a silly question' for her students. 

I ask my students whether they would be willing to look like a numpty if I gave them 10 marks for it. Is it worth asking something which you realise was a bit silly, if it leads to you understanding your assignment better and getting better marks? When I am studying on my Masters programme, I plaster the forums with posts asking all sorts of nonsense. (I was really astonished at how hard it was to understand the assignment questions when I was reading them as a student, they look so easy when I am the tutor big grin

Queen of Multi-media approve

My plan is to mix 'n match. I hope the WhatsApp group will allow students to chatter, share anxieties and encourage each other in their studies. I hope it will allow them to understand that the other students are not all called Einstein, that they are not the only one who didn't quite get it about secondary referencing. Finding out that the other students are just like me is one of the great gains of face to face tutorials, but many can't make it to these - especially now we do fewer of them. Sometimes I may be able to WhatsApp a link to a forum thread, too, and suggest the discussion continues there. I hope this might engage students who don't read emails - having had a bad experience last year when I emailed several times to remind students there is no extension for their End of Module Assignment (EMA) and still got texts the day before the deadline asking for one dead 

I already email with links to forum threads where I load up information. I know from my own student experience that students rarely read long emails with vital information , and that's it's easier to scan over a set of short posts in a forum thread. 

I'll report back on how it goes approve 


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What a lot of rubbish!

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 30 Apr 2018, 19:09

The Science and Technology people at the Open University are hosting a 2nd Waste and Resource Management Conference, and calling for submissions from anyone who would like to present. Some of our DD102 and DD103 students over here in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences might consider giving it a go, as both modules include ground-breaking material on waste management - as well as supporting study skill development towards academic writing and presentations approve

I planned this blogpost a while back, to coincide with DD102's week of study on 'Throwaway society? Waste and recycling'. I belong to a Litter Action group on Facebook and, partly inspired by DD102 materials, I thought I would write about litter as art.

(Look! wide eyes what I found on the beach. And when walking in the woods one day, I came across a discarded ladder.)

Driftwood, scrunched up orange and blue plastic fishing line and a blue and orange plastic eyeball   Green woodland with a ladder leaning up against a tree

What if famous artists picked up litter and made it into art pieces? What if we all started to make our own art pieces out of litter and rubbish? Would litter become precious? Would we see it differently and no longer throw it away? I thought writing this up might help show how relevant the module materials on our Level 1 Social Science teaching are.

They didn't need any help! In the last couple of weeks, so many things happened that were relevant to DD102 and DD103 that I could hardly keep up.

People often look puzzled and even disbelieving when academics talk about research. It can sound so blue skies that it has gone round the moon and become loony. However, ten years later you can see how the research has mapped out events which have unfolded in the meantime - except that people have usually forgotten we academics were blathering on about it back then, and we are onto something new now.

The modules at the Open University are informed by this kind of research so that during the eight year lifespan in which they teach out, events often unfold which are uncannily relevant to our studies.

A big example has been the sudden upsurge of interest in rubbish and litter. Not only did DD102 start teaching about this back in 2014 when it was first written. DD103 materials had a whole section devoted to the life of David Attenborough, and his contribution to what we call a developing 'environmental imagination'. We have an exclusive interview with him - made three years before Blue Planet came out and we all suddenly started refusing to use plastic straws (warning - this can give you a serious moustache when drinking an iced frappé).

Screenshot of module webpage with exclusive interview with David Attenborough

Another example: as the injustice towards the Windrush Generation unfolds, we are reading on DD103 about the ways in which political campaigns in 2013 created a hostile environment towards immigration, and towards black British people.

Screenshot of module webpage entitled 'Go Home': public communication about immigration.

We are not supposed to admit that we teach Economics on DD103, in case it frightens the horses. However, the horses need not be alarmed. The Economics we teach is not Economics as we know it, Jim wink. A couple of years ago, I saw an article in the FT Weekend describing how Economics students at traditional universities had engineered a revolution. Fed up of being taught Old Guard Economics in a style which the failure to predict the enormous financial crisis in banking had made clear was irrelevant to our daily lives, these students were demanding an Economics about ordinary people. I wondered if any of this new cool Economics might be brought into our teaching to support the bits of Economics we are doing. As I read, I realised we had already started teaching the whole module on this basis. London School of Economics, eat your heart out wink

Open University module design is mobile, light-weight and responsive to intellectual change - even at the level of paradigm shift. It's done by teams who draw on the latest expertise in the field. 'Bricks-and-mortar' university teaching is often designed by individual junior academics. (Senior academics 'buy' themselves out of teaching to undertake funded research projects.) At the Open University, we use material from the internet and online media: TED talks and clips from the BBC to stay in touch with the zeitgeist. This model allows us to stay ahead of the game and deliver the most relevant learning to our students.

I'm not sure the students realise what a good deal they are getting, especially given that they are paying a fraction of the fee that they would pay at a traditional university. That's OK. We want to give them an edge in life, which most of them have never dreamed of having - coming from the back of the educational queue as our students often do. Because our students have been disadvantaged in their previous education, it's good that we can level the playing field by providing them with cutting edge learning later on.


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The Story of a Module - a tutor's part

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018, 08:30

Claire Kotecki has written up how a module is designed and written at the Open University. An OU module gets 'taught' by a whole team, whereas at traditional universities it's in the hands of only one lecturer. I thought I'd write about my role in the team, as an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I rely on many other people to support my teaching, hopefully they can write up their roles too.

I teach at Level 1 Social Sciences, and I therefore induct many students for whom not only online/distance learning - but university learning at all is a new experience. Under my guidance, they discover the precise joys of referencing (no, really! referencing can be fun approve), the excitement of putting concepts and evidence together, the many frustrations at barriers to learning and how to overcome these.

At the Open University we offer blended learning. Students access a diversity of materials, organised via an online Study Calendar. Week by week, students progress through tips on reading a textbook chapter, video and audio material, study skills exercises and academic guidance. These build up to one of five Tutor Marked Assignments and a short online assessment - each of the TMAs supports the student towards the writing of the final End of Module Assessment piece of work.

Screenshot of DD102 study calendar at Week 10

This is a radically different way of teaching to lecturing, where students take notes on dictated academic knowledge and have to develop their own writing skills in order to present only one or two pieces of work. In the Open University the tutor (that's me wide eyes) provides continuous supportive guidance to build students' academic skills as well as knowledge throughout the module. Not only do the TMAs gradually introduce the opportunities to develop new skills, I individually tailor feedback to the student so as to make sure they focus on the areas they need to work on.

Long before the fashion for the 'flipped' classroom, we were providing rich contemporary materials which students could work their way through before they attended workshop-style tutorials to support their intellectual engagement. Ahead of every assignment, my students have the opportunity to come to a face to face or an online tutorial and chat with each other - and me, about their learning. I design some slides and exercises to encourage us to think through topics and study skills issues (always reminding students of the importance of referencing wink).

Powerpoint slide about the use of evidence, with joking picture of the 'credible hulk'.

I prepare the slides and tutorial exercises differently each year, based on generic feedback I want to provide out of the group of assignments I just marked and the study skills needed for the upcoming assignment. My job also involves pulling the tables into a better formation, encouraging small group discussion, tidying up at the end - and I usually bake a cake for us tongueout

This year I've started strongly encouraging students to come to face to face tutorials, as year after year I see the students who do come do better. Meeting fellow students helps them realise that everyone is learning, they are just as smart as the others. Chatting about their studies embeds the knowledge. Last year I only had one student for this tutorial. We did enjoy our chats about social sciences! however it's better this year, with seven or eight for the same tutorial event; they can get good group discussion going with each other.

One woman sitting smiling by a laptop showing tutorial slides Several people sitting round tables chatting

(Student permission to take and publicly use photos given.)

We experience high rates of attrition at the Open University. I personally provide pro-active care to increase my levels of retention. Students can be diffident about getting in touch after a poor experience of education and/or the benefits system, so if it looks like someone might be falling behind I start emailing and phoning them. I might refer them to Student Support advisors who have specialist knowledge about grants and loans, or about what support is available for specific additional learning needs.

Students almost never drop out because they can't cope intellectually with the module materials but their lives are very full, and it's no surprise that many have to defer studies to a less hectic time. I always tell them they have taken the most important step: they have started studying, and the Open University will support them in their studies now for the rest of their learning journey - however long that takes.

One myth being circulated is that the generation of middle aged students for whom the Open University offered a second chance at a degree are being educated out - the expansion of university provision post-1992 means the OU doesn't have a constituency for our kind of distance learning. We should expand into Coursera style digital provision of MOOCs for students from less developed countries.

We increased our recruitment over the last couple of years. My own students come from a range of backgrounds but they all need a more flexible education provider than bricks-and-mortar lecture halls can offer and a more supportive education than MOOCs provide. They need blended learning with a human tutor to guide and advise them. 

While on holiday in Scotland recently, I explained to a young mum how she could still do the degree she wants to study for, with us.

  • Her child is too young for school? She can study from home as and when she can make time.
  • When her child is unwell? She can still study - she doesn't have to continuously attend lectures or tutorials.
  • She left school without any other qualifications? We don't ask for prior qualifications, just willingness to learn.
  • She is on a low income. Grants, loans and a range of financial support (eg to buy a new computer if needed) are widely available. (Phone your local Open University and ask about this - financial support differs in England, N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales but is available in all four nations.)

(Gratuitous holiday pictures)

Brightly coloured cock pheasant Row of plant pots covered in snow

It isn't something we officially record, however I estimate about half my students have young children to care for. This weighs more heavily on women students who are expected to put more time into childcare than on men students. People (including themselves) expect men students to put time into improving their career for their family as well as themselves. (NB Both DD103 and DD102 look at issues of gender and family politics.)

I mediate between the demands of the Study Calendar and the demands of a young family, offering extensions for assignments, advising on catchup strategies and telling women how important their studies are - for their children as well as themselves. When children see their mum or dad getting out their laptop and books to study, they put their own heads down to study harder at school - it's a win/win on social mobility. Mum and Dad get a degree, children achieve in school and can go on to traditional university.

The most important work I do with students is to give them self-confidence. They can sometimes even get a question disastrously wrong because they have become so convinced they are not intelligent. They think if they are finding it easy to answer the question, they must have misunderstood it, so they cleverly give the 'wrong' answer instead of the answer that first comes to their mind. I assure students that they are capable, bright people who have many skills already (if you can figure out whether a 25% off offer in a supermarket is worth it, you can already do statistics - although we do gently teach statistics to make sure you 'get' them).

8/10 cats prefer frisky whiskery biscuits - two cats like steak. (One likes his steak well done, but we should not make any assumptions about him being a lapcat from a gilded background of privilege just because he is a Persian, there is no information about class status in the table thoughtful

Powerpoint slide on statistics showing very simple table

I have taught at Russell Group and post-1992 universities and I was educated myself at King's College, Cambridge so I know the breadth of higher education provision in the UK. Hand on heart, the kind of learning I can offer at the Open University is the best available. Indeed, there is some speculation that frameworks to review and compare teaching were suppressed becauses universities with a more prestigious reputation weren't scoring as well as upstarts like the OU. Yet I sometimes encourage my students to take the 60 credits my courses offer and use those to go to traditional university. It's not just about the fun of the campus lifestyle. An opportunity to be part of a university community offers invaluable resources to young people starting out in life.

Nevertheless, online and distance provision have a key role to play in higher education in the UK. Students don't usually realise what high quality tuition they are getting with the Open University. Some come because they can earn and learn with us. Others need additional support to make learning accessible. 20% of my students are officially registered with additional learning needs. Since I teach new students, more are likely to realise as we progress that they would benefit from an assessment and the considerable support to adjust materials for them which will follow a diagnosis of dyslexia or dyspraxia or other learning needs. Some of my students suffer intense anxiety, others physical mobility issues, some are on the autism spectrum. At the Open University we are constantly working to stay ahead of the curve in supporting their studies. Personalised study support means those who have experienced domestic abuse or who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder can be alerted to materials which may trigger anxiety and block their ability to engage with the learning; I can also talk through with them strategies to make sure they still benefit from skills development which that block of study is designed to support.

As the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us widens, the Open University provides a vital ladder out of poverty. The widening of participation in Higher Education means more people realise they can and should get the opportunity to learn which they hunger for. If there are additional barriers in the way of them getting to a traditional campus university, we at the Open University offer vibrant engaging materials and friendly human guidance to ensure they also get their chance to hone critical thinking for the knowledge economy, and for a richer cultural and social life.

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Why I will vote Yes to suspend industrial action

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After intensive strike action, Universities UK have now come forward with a proposal to staff in universities on the Universities Superannuation Scheme which the union has put to members to be voted on.

There has been intense argument on social media about which way to vote. It is clearly very important that all UCU members vote in order to come to a sound democratic decision on whether the offer about pensions is good enough, and we can suspend (not end) strike action and go back to teaching as normal, or should we reject the offer and continue to strike.

I have been on holiday and will have to come back onto email in order to vote. I have done my best to look at material about the offer while also taking time off with my young daughter. I am going to vote in favour of accepting the offer.

The offer is a substantial move from the employers' original position, which was that they would not negotiate - they have gone with the union to ACAS to do so, and that they were determined to move from a defined benefits scheme because of a massive deficit in the pension budget. They have now agreed to a joint board chosen equally by the employers and the union which will re-valuate the deficit, and they have recognised that the vast majority of those of us who have invested in the pension fund want a secure defined benefits scheme rather than what one speaker at a rally described as the 'chocolate teapot' of a pension which they tried to make us accept.

Why would we not accept this offer? So far as I can see, people against it have no trust in UUK and expect them to renege on their offer. There has been a lot of detailed unpicking of the wording of the offer, suggesting it is full of little loopholes.

I do not trust UUK either, but I trust the process. I trust that ACAS and the union, who have brought us this far, will watch over my interests. Sally Hunt raised her serious concerns about the pension proposals from very early on and the union worked extremely hard to get us to come out on strike at all. I believe they have a good understanding of what is going on.

People also complain that the proposal should not have been put to members, as it is merely a suggested process not a complete cave-in by the employers. I say: Let's be magnanimous. We, the employers and the British media (see articles not only in The Guardian and Times Higher Education Supplement, but even in the Financial Times) know that the employers were caught with their pants down. They were stupid to assume they could put such a poor valuation assessment of our pension fund in front of university staff, who include Emeritus Professors of Economics, Business Studies, Pension experts, Statisticians and many others who took their chocolate teapot apart in blogposts and explained exactly where the beans had come from. Let's allow them to pull their pants back up in private in the joint re-valuation committee.

We had to be allowed to vote on this proposal now, because if we left the vote any longer, we would not have time to vote before having to take strike action during assessment. We must have a democratic mandate if we are to do that.

Those who say Reject the offer, argue that we should not lose momentum. They believe the employers only want to get us through the crucial exam period and then will renege on their words.

I believe that the process will not allow them to do this, and that they are under scrutiny not just from our union and ACAS, also from interested media and therefore the public (including supportive students and their families). Exams are like spring. They come round every year (eventually). We are suspending our action, not ending it. If as the months go forward, UUK do renege on their recognition of the kind of pension we want to invest in, we will be able to strike during exam period next year.

We would be able to do that with continued popular support. I believe that if we drag the strike on this year in the face of an offer from the employers, we will lose the vital support we have had from students and their families, the media and many key politicians. (Perhaps that is what the employers hope will happen.)

But yes - we need to keep up pressure.

We need to do this by moving on from the battle over pensions. Perhaps it is not won yet. However, we need to leave picked personnel to take care of that for us (like union officers and our chosen members of the committee to re-consider the valuation of the pension fund, and lawyers who could oversee the process for us).

We should move on to other aspects of the neoliberalisation of universities. This is where the real deal is. Issues over our pensions arose because of the general trend of universities towards marketisation. There are several other fronts where we need to focus attention in order to win the war.

  1. We at the Open University are dealing with a vote of No Confidence, not just in our Vice Chancellor in person but in the whole Executive who have sought to introduce neoliberal principles to the detriment of our social justice mission. I regard this as a test case in education values: should education be market-driven, or driven by humanism.
  2. Coventry University have had an organisation imposed on them which means they can't stand collectively with the rest of us in the University and Colleges Union. We must defend our collective bargaining position.
  3. Casualisation blights our teaching and research provision.
  4. Our workloads have gone through the roof. Tiredness and stress are leading to health issues which affect most academics - while universities trumpet their support for student mental health initiatives.

I want to shift my efforts now to raising awareness of those problems, with my voice and my political will. (After I have had what's left of my holiday! wide eyes So far I've only had to sort out one poor student in difficulties so it's been a good break smile Oh, and I recruited another student for the Open University in Scotland who was unable to access traditional university and thrilled when she realised that she could study with us - for free, and without having to do a lot of GCSEs first. You owe me one @OUScotland.)

From a short walk in Roslin Glen.

Misty trees on a hillside Green bluebell leaves under the trees

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Casual attitude to workers

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 22 Mar 2018, 12:40

One of the concerns of strikers at traditional universities is that if we lose the battle for secure pensions, the employers will seize the opportunity to break the union and its national pay bargaining power. They will look to employ people on casual contracts instead of offering permanent work with proper benefits like ... pensions. 

As the UCU have been arguing for a long time, universities are already riddled with poor casual work practice. Research in particular is sustained by low paid insecurely contracted staff (see this blogpost). One tweet during the strike mentioned a passer-by's incredulity when it was explained to him that a group of science researchers looking into cures for a range of devastating illnesses were all employed on low paid insecure contracts. 

Teaching is not far behind, with postgraduate students scrabbling for hourly paid work, even though this only pays for the actual hour they are with students, not for any of the substantial preparation time needed. We are supposed to be gearing students up for better jobs - while on immiserating contracts ourselves. 

As so often, the Open University is well ahead of the curve here. Our teaching has historically been delivered on short term contracts, which have only gradually had some working rights attached to them. Our contracts are 'casualised' rather than casual. It looks like things may get better for us, but for the sake of those in traditional universities who wonder what casualised work might mean, I will explain. (NB teaching at the Open University is unlike that in traditional universities. A permanent academic team put together teaching materials with a highly qualified but casualised set of Associate Lecturers supporting student engagement through blended learning.) 

It is very difficult to deliver high quality teaching on a casual contract, and next to impossible to do this if you have to write the lectures as well. I have done that too - staying up til 3 am to write a lecture which I would deliver the next day, unable to give the students reading material until the day of the lecture because I was writing it the night before. Then the following year throwing all those lectures in the bin and writing a fresh set on a completely different subject. I wasn't needed to deliver the first set of lectures any more, but had found yet another short term contract to do something else which I always hoped would turn into a secure job. Every contract ended in praise and congratulations, never in secure work. It took me a long time to realise that for that, I ought to have spent as little time as possible on my teaching (or the public policy research I was also doing) and focussed on polishing abstruse research publications. 

Recently things at the Open University have improved. Previously, I used to get a redundancy notice a few months before teaching was due to start, followed by a surreptitious email from line managers telling me in vague legally restricted phrases not to worry too much. A couple of weeks before the allocation of student groups, I would suddenly get definite confirmation that I had the work.

One year I was hurriedly phoned up and verbally appointed two weeks before the start of a postgraduate module. I had to learn all the materials myself as quickly as I could, keeping just ahead of the students and constantly asking supportive colleagues (who were not paid for the kind help they gave me) 'stupid' questions about the assignments so as to be prepared to explain them to the students. I did not know if I would still be wanted the next year, so it was hard to motivate myself and carry on working on that module once the teaching had finished. 

I have colleagues who take on temporary management contracts in hopes of getting into a more permanent position via that route. They can't let their teaching go in case the management post doesn't become permanent. They are working themselves into the ground, but can hardly be expected to deliver as effectively on the quadruple hours they are having to put in. 

Because our contracts are strictly limited to the teaching period, we can't be asked to contribute to feedback and development of the module to improve it for the next year's teaching until a few days before it goes live. A clause has had to be inserted to say that for the month before the module starts, we should do some work towards it without receiving pay. I have sometimes struggled to find the money to travel to teach, because I haven't yet been paid for the teaching. 

Even as I write this post, I'm thinking I want to do two big loads of marking work I have got in hand, check over my slides for a tutorial I'm giving on Monday - but that maybe I should prioritise applying for a new teaching contract which has just been advertised. It's not in an area I particularly want to teach, but I can't afford not to try for it. 

I am a single working mum. The many disadvantages of casualised work have a big impact on my family life. The hugely variable monthly income (some months my pay is double what I get in other months) makes it difficult to budget and plan. From year to year, I am never quite sure what work I will have in hand. At one point, I feared I would have no work for six months of the year, yet be unable to claim any benefits or tax credits because I would have a potential upcoming contract for six months' time so be deemed to be making myself unavailable for work. When I was looking to buy a home, no bank would give me even the tiny mortgage of £5-10K I was looking for - they all said my contracts were too insecure. 

The National Director of Relate Cymru recently appealed to Welsh Government to review support for children's mental health. He linked rising demand for mental health support from children and young people to difficult family lives. The effect on my own family of my stressful contractual situation has been very severe. We lived for a long time with a sense of impending doom, fearing that at very short notice our means of living could be almost entirely snatched away. Ironically (yes, my teaching is so full of irony that I ought to set up a laundry!), my module materials include a film about people accessing a food bank near my home - which I have sometimes thought I might have to go and get food from myself. 

I did say the Open University is often ahead of the curve. They have been in negotiations for ten years to move Associate Lecturers like myself onto permanent contracts. These negotiations had foundered, and when he arrived at the university our Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks made them a priority. As well as negotiating over pensions, the Open University union branch and the university have continued to work on this as well as other major issues of employment and working conditions. The last announcement was that they still hope we will get our permanent contracts this summer. 

This may be a Pyrrhic victory. Proposals are being put forward to slash our contact hours with students and restrict us to giving them written marking feedback. More on why the union and ourselves feel this would spell the end of the Open University soon. First I want to talk about support staff and the way we in the Open University work as a team to deliver student learning. And before that, I thought I would talk about why this could be the best job in the world. 


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The neo-liberal approach

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Mar 2018, 10:11

Ironically, the strike action I'm taking against neo-liberal management of education impacts on a module I teach that critiques the neo-liberal approach to education (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice.)

A concept which we encourage students to define and use on this module is 'discourse'. I find this helpful in understanding how management can continue to blithely pursue patently absurd neo-liberal policies in spite of the cries of anguish from those of us who have to try to deliver learning across instead of along these lines.

'Discourse' (drawing on Michel Foucault's work) is the idea that society is set up in certain ways (along lines of power), so only some thinking has legitimate expression. We have to speak up within discourse, but at the same time we are always creating it so it does shift. A dramatic example of shift in discourse is #MeToo and #TimesUp. Women have been protesting the way in which men treat us for centuries - famously in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - first published in 1792. We have frequently and infamously been ignored in spite of widespread anger and scorn, vociferously expressed by Second Wave feminist activists highlighting unreasonable excuses blaming women for our own harassment. It's not until a final shift of power in 'discourse' that these protests can get heard and taken seriously. (The earlier work against abusive power in 'discourse' is of course fundamental in building up to that shift.) 

As academics, we devoutly hope that our protest against the pensions proposals put to us can prove such a shift against the neo-liberal approach to education (marketisation). 

Screenshot of letter to The Times from VC of Cambridge University

Screenshot of letter

We all hope that this shift can take place before the final neo-liberal absurdity of the current Minister for Higher Education's proposal to rank degrees according to how much graduates from them earn. (This is all the more stupid because there is an inbuilt ranking measure in degrees already. How many students graduate from the degree with a good pass mark indicates how much they have learnt and therefore how good a degree it is. Res ipsa loquitur, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it. NB, Minister - socio-economic deprivation should be considered as a factor in this measure.) 

Article by Guardian writer Suzanne Moore. 

Screenshot of article by Suzanne Moore 'Only the truly ignorant would rank universities according to graduate earnings' 

On EE814, we draw on the writing of Michael Apple (2006a, 2006b - this one is very short, 1990) and a key article by Olssen and Peters (2007) which looks at neo-liberalism in Higher Education. (My DD102 and DD103 students will be interested to hear that Olssen and Peters use the thinking of Hayek and Stiglitz, among others, in their article - two economics thinkers we explore on those modules as well.) 

Basically, the neo-liberal approach to education treats education like a marketplace. It argues that the customer is always right and that we should tailor our education provision to demand. If the students want modules on postfeminist needlework, then we should supply those. (Warning - that last link goes to a highly satirical site with material some may find offensive.) Academic teaching staff have been vociferous in condemning the considerable recent emphasis put on student satisfaction surveys. These are likely to reward charismatic individuals rather than rigorous teaching design making students work hard to achieve more highly. I have heard of staff chastised for poor results in a student satisfaction survey, while the same student cohort were walking away with many more First degree grades than their peers on comparable courses. 

Secondly, the neo-liberal approach to education assumes that students come to learn in order to move straight into gainful employment. Gainful to the economy that is, not gainful in the sense of being satisfying to them in any spiritual way or contributing to society in other ways than economic. Hence, the assumption by the Minister for Higher Education that measuring degrees by eventual income is a good way to go. I get routinely asked what employability skills students gain on EE814. As this is a postgraduate education module, many of my students are already employed as teachers - the idea that they might want to improve their teaching skills while in post doesn't seem to enter into the neo-liberal equation. (Some of us refuse to answer stupid questions like these about our courses, except by sending back long and dull diatribes about neo-liberalism.) 

Thirdly, the neo-liberal management of education seems to need a lot of form-filling and oversight. In all areas of public sector work (police, schools education, NHS) we hear about spending time accounting for the time we would rather be spending doing our work. There is a complete lack of trust of workers in delivering on basic tasks. Nor is there any interest in supporting us as workers. This vast array of performance indicators is not designed to identify training needs or help build our skillbase. Nor have I ever heard of an academic staff member identified as not delivering appropriately and sacked because of performance indicators. Promotions, too, happen in a structure that appears to be outwith these mundane performance measurements. It's not very clear what use they are being put to. 

One aspect of marketisation of Higher Education seems to be the trend for expensive and beautiful new buildings. Some are saying that the reason Universities UK want the pension scheme set up on different grounds, is that the way it's currently set up is regarded as a liability by banks who would lend them more money if the pension scheme could be accounted for in a different way. (It seems that bankers have a pretty weird 'discourse' going on too.) But why do universities want all these new buildings? many not suitable for teaching or research purposes? Is it just because buildings as 'stock' add to monetary value and this is seen as the best, most business-like way to manage our colleges and universities? 

Although many of Cardiff University's new buildings are for research purposes, they are promoted here in business terms. They include an Innovation Centre: "Providing companies with the resources and support to encourage growth with confidence." Any educational aspect of this project is lost in the account of it. 

Architects' drawing of several new buildings

I could go on, but I will just reproduce this page (p.327) from Olssen and Peters which seems particularly pertinent, and let you read the rest of their article yourselves. 

Screenshot of p.327 of Olssen and Peters article

References

Apple, M. (1990) Ideology and Curriculum, Hove, Psychology Press

Apple, M.W. (2006a) Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality, New York, Routledge.

Apple, M. (2006b) ‘Understanding and Interpreting Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism in Education’, Pedagogies: an International Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 21–5.

Mark Olssen & Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

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Terms and conditions

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 18 Mar 2018, 17:03

In my previous blogpost I began listing some of the problems which face academics - as well as being asked to swap a 24 carat secure pension for a chocolate teapot because a) USS can't do sums properly and only a few years after assuring us it was very secure, have found a huge hole in it, or b) USS can't do sums properly and failed to predict there would be this huge hole only a few years ago.

Here I look at some life-work (im)balance issues in academic work. Next I'll give a quick overview of 'neo-liberalism' in education, before looking at casualisation and how this undermines academic performance. 

Universities risk their reputations by failing to value teaching staff. This FT article pointed to the business case for treating staff properly. It identified poor pay as well as poor working conditions as problems, and expressed no surprise that when our pensions came under attack, we finally walked out on strike. 

Poster with long list of issues: Research Underfunded, Teaching Overstretched ...

(On UCU Facebook page.) 

One estimate shows 40 million hours of public work contributed by UK university staff in 2015/16. 

Ring chart showing different areas of work university staff freely contribute

(From twitter post)

This willingness to contribute freely to society is worth noting, given that academic pay has persistently slipped in real terms over the years. Academics are not in the business for the money. 

The figures here don't include the overtime teaching and research which staff routinely put in. (Support staff too, I bet.) People sometimes ask me, "Why do you do a part-time job, Anita? A part-time job is full time hours on part time pay." I say: "Yes, but a full-time job is time and a half. I can juggle full time hours and being a mum, but not time and a half." Full time teaching and research staff routinely work 60, 70 or 80 hour weeks - stumbling home late and exhausted. 

In this blogpost, an early career researcher talks about the debilitating culture of over-work and the impact she sees it have on herself and her colleagues. This can be particularly damaging in early career contracts of the kind Grace Krause is working on. Typically short-term and aimed at conducting a project as cheaply as possible instead of supporting junior academic staff into a career, these are desperately sought after by PhD students anxious to get onto the jobs ladder in universities. Grace describes how she was brow-beaten into accepting lower pay for work she had already done when the budget on the project she was working on proved not to have been properly costed. 

My first job after my PhD was on a one year research project funded on a small grants scheme by the Economic and Social Research Council - which was aimed at kick-starting research in new fields. I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to conduct interviews with a highly vulnerable community with whom I also had to secure trust and access (in just one year). In order to squeeze my salary out of the tiny budget, I was first put on a six month 'probation' so that I could be paid below the required legal amount. Desperate to get this highly regarded work onto my CV, I ended the project in considerable debt. There was no time to write follow-up applications and continue the work after the project, while also making sure I delivered it effectively and so it has sat on my CV in splendid isolation ever since. 

It seems we are no longer human beings, deserving of quality of life either at work or at home. We are not expected to want time to spend with family, friends - or on the public work we contribute willingly.

I am a School Governor. An expert on education and social inclusion, I want to put myself forward to be a Governor at more schools, in deprived areas which struggle to get people onto the Board. But even though I have a part-time job, I have no time to do this. 

I am really envious of the teachers at my school when the Head reports back on the training and support they get: INSET days to come together and discuss how to teach well, secondments to work with government on developing partnership programmes with other schools to disseminate best practice. If they are ill, a supply teacher is found to take their classes. Does anyone wonder why there are no 'supply' lecturers? If there is a system for colleagues to take over lectures when we are absolutely unable to get in to give them, it's an informal one between colleagues. We are made to feel guilty if we can't stagger in to sneeze and cough germs over our students. I have heard women uneasily boasting that they gave lectures with a sick child in a pushchair alongside them. That is not bad parenting - it's inhumane employer pressure and lack of management. How are they hoist on their own petard, if managers were in the habit of employing hourly paid lecturers to come in when permanent staff were ill - they might have been able to use them in this strike! 

One of the most fiercely protested parts of the proposal which came out of the ACAS talks between UCU and UUK was that, in return for lower paid junior staff not having strike pay deducted, staff might consider re-scheduling lectures which had been missed in the strike - without being paid ourselves. Some respondents were clearly close to breaking point as they wrote demanding how they could be expected to squeeze these into lecture schedules densely packed with contact hour teaching. The inclusion of this suggestion demonstrates how far removed the employers are from the intense overload of work at the teaching coalface. 

Academic staff are like parts in a machine, uneasily made to feel we are replaceable. If we won't work the insane hours which have become normal, our colleague in the next office will overtake us on the fast track. Someone-else can be found - new, eager to show willing - and slotted in to deliver. A neo-liberal system pits us against each other, working us into the ground for short-term outcomes in teaching or research. As academics, we continue to struggle to provide education and research dissemination in many ways outside the classroom. Very few of us ever bought into the neo-liberal approach to education. We know that education - whether developed through lecturing or research - is a 'good' that is more valuable when it's not being sold. 

Striking worker in snowstorm with sign saying 'Academia is for life not just for business'.

(From twitter post: https://twitter.com/DrAdrianBlau/status/968830454563557377)

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The ongoing strike for a pension

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 16 Mar 2018, 09:36

This fourth week of industrial action, we are striking for five days. I outlined in my previous blogpost some of the issues in the pensions dispute. I outline some more here, and list other issues academics are concerned about, which I hope to write further blogposts about. I have wanted to write about some of these issues for a long time, but have only just managed to clear space on my teaching desktop. (As I am supposedly on part-time hours that in itself says something about my workload.) 

During this strike, membership of our union (Universities and Colleges Union, or UCU) has doubled and visible presence on the picket line has grown every day of the strike. 

A recent proposed offer by our employer (Universities UK, or UUK) was rejected in the most emphatic terms by every single branch of the UCU at universities taking part in the strike action. The terms of the offer led to emotional outbursts on Twitter and Facebook, with anger particularly strongly expressed at a suggestion that staff could reschedule missed lectures - without receiving back strike pay. 

The attempt to redefine our pension fund was a blatant and inhumane attack on our rights as workers. It is the last of many straws. During the strike, much was written about the neoliberal approach to education in which degree-level studies have been comprehensively commodified. Academics on strike and mainstream media commented on: 

  • The poor pay, insecure contracts and long hours which degrade the lives of academic staff; 
  • A consequent degrading of teaching provision, and therefore of student learning. 

Here at the Open University, our student learning has always been provided differently to the way learning is supported in traditional universities, and our students tend to be mature students from economically poorer backgrounds. Many of my students are mums of young families, and working as well as studying.

I wasn't very good at striking, I'm afraid! I tried hard to make sure my students weren't too badly affected by my being out on strike. I know how hard they have struggled to get to study. Often lacking in confidence, happening to start studying just when we go on strike is the sort of thing that my students can feel is directed at them personally by a force outside of society. "You have the cheek to think you can study and improve your life? Take that then!" My students are often themselves in insecure work with poor pay and no pension provision. They are studying to get out of this situation, so they are generally sympathetic to our cause. (I had many messages of support from my students, who were very patient when I couldn't fully support them as I would ideally want to.) 

Like other academics, I am worried about more than my pension. I took strike action partly to highlight how riven with problems the whole Higher Education sector has become. 

Many of the issues which staff at other universities fear may affect their ability to teach well are already confronting us at the Open University. At the same time as co-ordinating strike action in support of secure pension provision, our union branch is: 

  • Engaged in negotiations for permanent contracts for thousands of Associate Lecturers (that's me!), which have been ongoing for 10 years and which we still hope to conclude this summer; 
  • Tracking and preparing to protest at large scale cuts which the university says will require the loss of thousands of jobs among support staff; 
  • Tracking rapid and wholescale change in the way learning is supported through digital media - which has left many teaching staff exhausted, in need of a period of reflection and absorption, but instead we are facing more rapid wholescale change; 
  • Tracking and protesting at the introduction of MOOCs instead of blended learning, with a possible radical change in the tutor-student relationship - a relationship that is literally vital to many of our students. 

Pensions and the Phantom Deficit

A pension is not a perk. It's 'deferred salary'. I have paid some of my own salary into a pension fund, and my employer agreed to pay some more so that I could collect this part of my salary when I retire.

A number of economists and statisticians have comprehensively demonstrated that there is no credible evidence of a deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Back in November 2017, Dennis Leach, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Warwick showed that the USS pension scheme is not in crisis and it is not in deficit. There is no justification for massive pension cuts or gambling on defined contributions: https://henrytapper.com/2017/11/25/is-the-uss-really-in-crisis/

So secure was the fund that in the 1990s, it was judged over-funded and employers took a 'contributions holiday' - paying less into the fund. Some argue that this sum alone is more than enough to cover the Phantom Deficit. 

Protestors at a rally, one dressed as Darth Vader, another holiding a sign about 'The Phantom Deficit'.

(Photo from Tweet: https://twitter.com/EdGarethPoole/status/971702270286057472

The valuation of the fund as being in deficit seems to have been partly influenced by the UK government's Pensions Regulator. For this and many other reasons, it looks like the government ought to be taking part in the negotiations - lending support to those of us who may be very badly affected by the changes being proposed. We have had excellent support throughout from the Leader of the Opposition. 

(Link to tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/974213079008514048


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Striking for Pension Rights

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 12 Feb 2018, 17:35

In the upcoming weeks, I and my colleagues in the Universities and Colleges Union will be striking for the right to a fair pension. Proposals are being put forward which ask us to put far more personal contributions into our pensions, and to invest that money in much riskier funds.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the universities as employers and the Union have been unable to come to an agreement and although the Union has offered to go to ACAS to resolve the matter, the other parties are not willing to do this. I believe that the government should intervene. Working in Higher Education, we are public sector workers. We provide the education support for the skilled workforce in the UK today. Many people we depend on in society: lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists, even MPs, have been trained by those of us working in universities. 

I call on my students who are affected, to write to their MPs - and here in Wales, their Assembly Members too - and ask for support in this matter. 

I see that the situation is not easy for any of these parties, but it is grossly unfair for Higher Education staff to have to bear the brunt of decisions about our pensions being made without our consent and against our interests. We have already seen our salaries sink dramatically in real terms as against other professionals, and a secure pension in our old age is not much to ask in return for the dedicated support we provide to our students. 

We are all reluctant to see an impact on our students, and I feel particularly unhappy about any effect my action might have in the Open University, where students are often from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds, lacking self-confidence and anxious about doing degree level studies. However I feel very strongly about pension rights. We have already seen large private pension funds like the ones for Tata Steel Workers run into difficulties, and I am highly concerned that our pension - which until a couple of years ago was regarded as a very desirable pension package to be part of - appears to be in sudden danger of going aground. 

The USS is in such difficulties that it has been hitting the front page of the Financial Times, where writers have pointed to the way that the value of its investments have sunk after these were taken over by an in-house team, instead of out-house fund managers. That we should be asked to continue to trust a team which has already made less successful investment decisions, who are proposing an even riskier investment strategy, is deeply worrying.

I have also heard it said that some of these investment changes were made because of recommendations by the Pensions Regulator. If this is the case, government has a duty to explain to us why this was done. 

The universities as employers say they won't be able to make up contributions for us into the fund. Some of us suspect this strike is also being viewed as an opportunity by hawkish employers to break the union, and get rid of national pay scales. This means of reducing costs of university fees by introducing cheaper, local and perhaps casual contracts for lecturing staff will only end in poor quality degrees in UK universities. There is already a motion in parliament calling attention to the significant problems for academic staff caused by zero hour and casualised contracts in universities. This situation should be looked at to improve our working conditions, and therefore the quality of teaching we can offer, not to worsen them. 

Universities are in a tough place. Brexit has meant not only that we lost access to European research funding, but also to many European students who used to come to study in the UK. The call for lower tuition fees does not take into account that those fees don't even now cover the full costs of delivering a good quality degree. (NB It's having to borrow for maintenance costs that puts student debt up so high, not tuition fees.) Universities have tried to square the circle by supplementing domestic student fees with higher overseas student fees, but crackdowns on immigration have always made this difficult. 

I have a very small pension myself. For the whole of my working life, I have been on fixed term and casualised contracts, and much of my life I have been a mum on part-time work. I am still working on a set of small contracts, with a variable income and a child to support. Losing strike pay will hit me hard, so you can see how seriously I take this issue.

My small pension is vitally important in securing decent provision for me as I get older. However if I am asked to contribute much more into it, I will have to cease paying into a workplace pension. I am already struggling to keep my daughter in decent school shoes, while maintaining and replacing my own computing equipment - absolutely necessary in order to do my job - and keeping up many other necessities of life. Like many women, my pension is going to go down the list of priorities if the price of it rises much further, even though I value the additional contributions made into my pension fund by my employer. 

Employer contributions to a pension will be of no use if the pension fund is invested in something so risky that I never get it in the end. 

If others like myself lose confidence and pull out of the USS, it will fail as a pension fund. 

This will be catastrophic not only for those in Higher Education who depend on that fund, but for confidence in the pensions industry. We all need a pension to support us in our old age and successive governments are increasingly anxious about those of us (many women) who have not been able to take out a private or workplace pension to support ourselves as we get older. 

For that reason too, I would call on the government to look very closely at this situation, and make sure that we in Higher Education get our fair rights to a decent pension, which we work so hard towards. 


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Laptop, a laptop - my kingdom for a laptop

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Several of the modules I teach are Level 1, with students who are new to the Open University. There is a lot to get sorted in signing up to an e-learning course, which I do my best to support my students through. I remind them that once these are done and dusted, they will be set up for the remainder of their studies so not to worry too much.

Easy for me to say! One of the issues which students often face is not having good computer facilities. There is a student grant available to provide students with appropriate resources (ask your relevant Student Support Team for more details). However the grant will only be awarded once you are signed off as having genuinely started your studies - about eight weeks in.

You can understand this from the point of view of the grant funding body, otherwise they might have to claw back money from people whose studies didn't quite get going. For the student, though, it can be tough getting through those first few weeks - not only trying to access the module website but also having to write and submit the first assignment on inadequate or borrowed equipment.

I'm glad I have always been sympathetic to students in this situation, as I was inadvertently plunged into it myself this week sad Some of the high levels of rainfall we've all been experiencing (snowfall in Scotland) got into my laptop and irretrievably shorted out the battery and some other parts dead I have spent the last few days wrestling with a very ancient and slow netbook to keep up with my students' forums (only time I have ever been glad that students are so shy shy about posting big grin), figuring out what is the optimum laptop I can buy for the price that I can afford, and what is the price I can afford - or rather what is the price my bank/credit card will let me afford. 

In my own studies (on e-learning), we are asked to take into account accessibility. People assume this means disabilities, and most of all issues like dyslexia or sight and hearing impairment, which might need us to provide the materials in a different way. However one obvious issue is if you haven't got the equipment or the speedy bandwidth necessary to access online learning. 

Sometimes public libraries will let students have extra time on their machines - maybe the university could approach them to ask if they could provide this at the early stages of our modules, while students are waiting for their computer grants to be signed off. It's not ideal working in a library, and having to run away from a bank of glaring people below the signs saying 'quiet PLEASE' if your kid phones your mobile to ask what's for tea mixed but IMHO it's better than a cronky old netbook dead

It's amazing what we used to do instead of going online. I actually like writing letters, and still send parcels to people and stuff. However I sometimes have to hold onto my letter til payday - seriously, it can cost £3.50 to send a couple of sheets of chat to a friend in the States, then it takes two weeks for the letter to get to him, then it would take two weeks for his reply to get to me if he were as good at going out to cafes and writing letters as me.

Half-written letter decorated with decoupage pictures, a fountain pen and a cup of coffee.

When I started teaching for the OU - back when dinosaurs were just dying out, we did all the coursework by post. I used to get the assignments written and printed on paper (sometimes hand-written sleepy), I would mark them by hand and put them into three or four big bundles in special brown university envelopes, then rush out to take them to the post office and send them to be verified by hand, and then they would be sent back to the students. It has enormously speeded up the process to be able to submit, collect, mark and return assignments electronically.

At least I had actually submitted my own TMA02 slightly early the day before, as I was fed up of it and wanted to get rid of it tongueout I always advise students to put in a draft version of their final assignment (EMA, as it's affectionately known). This can't be picked up early by eager tutors and marked before they have really polished it, so you can get a draft in the bank in case of an eventuality such as I have experienced sad

Now I just have to get used to the new laptop. I am starting to realise that my old laptop had a much higher spec, as well as touchscreen and - an unusual feature - a soundbar instead of tinny speakers.

I hate my new laptop angry It feels like a plodding workhorse, whereas my old one - which I realise now I took dreadfully for granted - was like Pegasus soaring through all my work and studies and fun forums I used to go on in my private life evil But I'm lucky to have this new ... thing. I'm trying to be more careful and not let it get quite so close to the flour-y cooking when I use it to find recipes for teacakes, or take it out in the rain *sigh*.

My old laptop with cat and teacakes *sigh*

Laptop with tabby cat and a rack of teacakes

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The power of power

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 10 Jan 2018, 21:34

In last week's Unit of studies, my postgraduate students (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice) were offered a reading by Bree Picower (2009) which for me is axiomatic in our studies.

Picower's article describes a study undertaken with white student teachers doing an anti-racism course. These students were uncomfortable on the course, constantly defending themselves against its anti-racist thinking. They were unwilling to view themselves as being in a position of power over others, to admit they might sometimes act in a way which asserted their normality as against others' difference. They could not get to grips with what thinkers on identity often refer to as an 'invisible' or 'unmarked' privilege.

T shirt saying Black Lives Matter, with woman's afro hair and a rainbow comb with a peace sign

In line with thinkers on critical race theory like bell hooks and Gloria Ladson-Billings in the States, and David Gillborn in Britain, Picower suggests the teachers relied on 'tools of Whiteness'. She argues that they didn't just passively resist the idea that they may be part of a White supremacy. They actively protected hegemonic social narratives about race identity.

Picower is a tough read for anyone who wants to tackle issues of inequality in education. It's dispiriting to think that it might be that hard for liberal teachers to understand how racism is inbuilt, not only into our systems ('discourse') but into many ways in which we interact with each other - and therefore between teacher and pupil. But Picower rings important bells for me; not on issues of racism, in terms of the struggle I had with the main equality issue on which I am in a position of strength and power: social class.

Drawing on the Hegelian concept of the Master/Slave, standpoint feminists highlight an unfortunate paradox in gender politics. Hegel suggested that the 'Master' has power, so he (everyone in Hegel is 'he') doesn't need to know anything about the 'Slave'. However the Slave needs knowledge not only of his own condition, he must also understand the Master so as to service him.

Standpoint feminists argue that men have power, so they lack knowledge of how gender politics is enacted. Only women have the knowledge with which to set up an egalitarian, non-sexist way of working. (But we have no power to do this.)

Dorothy Smith, seminal standpoint feminist thinker:

Older white woman wearing glasses and smiling

On most issues of identity, I have plenty of 'knowledge' mixedblack eye However I come from an intellectual upper class background. I have an accent that can cut crystal (I try to soften it in tutorials!), I can talk about fine wines, high art and where to get a brace of grouse (pronounced 'grice' wink).

It took me a long time to understand that it is not right nor fair to casually talk about these things in a way which makes people around me feel about two inches tall. (Except young bar tenders who attempt to put ice in my whisky angry) It was hard to face up to the fact that I do it without even thinking about it, and that instead of pretending I can't help it, I must think about it and not do it.

That was my Picower moment. It didn't come in a moment, but slowly and painfully. I didn't want to admit that I had sometimes made shop assistants wince and cry just with a look - but in order to stop doing it, I had to learn to see the invisible 'tools of class prejudice', and realise that I am an unmarked expert at using them to take other people down sad

(NB Thanks to Gill Duncan, for finding a newer and highly relevant article by Picower - 2013.)

Reference

Bree Picower (2009) 'The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies', in Race Ethnicity and Education, 12:2, 197-215, DOI: 10.1080/13613320902995475

Bree Picower (2013) 'You can't change what you don't see: Developing New Teachers’ Political Understanding of Education.' in Journal of Transformative Education. 11(3) 170-189, DOI: 10.1177/1541344613502395


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Money Money Money

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 31 Dec 2017, 08:53

One thing I love about the modules I teach is that stuff we learn on them is always popping up in the news. On DD103: Investigating the Social World, we start off exploring the topic of money and over the holidays I saw some money-related news items so juicy that instead of just sharing them on my Tutor Group Forum, I decided to write a blogpost about them.

In an early module video about the history of money (in 10 minutes), we find out that money is largely based on trust. Early attempts to link money to a gold standard were abandoned in the 1970s when we finally admitted that as long as we believe in it, money works (The Open University, 2017a).

Bitcoin is a recent development which demonstrates this. As long as we believe in it, bitcoin is just as good as any national currency - but there are huge fluctuations in public trust (perhaps manipulated by those who hope to rake in bitcoin while it's at a low point and then cash in when our trust in it rises again?).

Two newspaper articles about bitcoin - one showing a rise in its value, then another two weeks later shows a crash downwards.

In DD103 we also learn about rights, and particularly rights to territory. (In money we may trust, but I think we all feel more secure if we 'own' property.)

DD103 looks at the efforts of indigenous peoples like the Awa (The Open University, 2017b), the Surui (The Open University, 2017c) and the Dongria Kondh (Bhagwat et al, 2015, pp.149-160), to protect their relationship with the land when logging or mining companies seek to exploit local timber and minerals. Our module material shows how Google maps, the armed forces and state laws are all used in support of local groups against multinational commercial agencies over land rights. This article by the anthropologist and economist Gillian Tett describes thinkers about bitcoin looking to tackle inequality and poverty by supporting peoples around the world in online registration of land rights through blockchain databases.

Article in FT Weekend magazine called 'Blockchain, bitcoin and the fight against poverty'

Among the disciplines covered in DD103 is criminology. An article I saw just this morning hints at a murkier side to bitcoin, which has attracted criminal activity in a number of ways. Not only was this bitcoin executive ransomed in bitcoin - presumably harder to trace than used $ bills, but the article here mentions that the e-currency has attracted considerable cyber-crime activity.

Article about kidnapping of a bitcoin executive - whose ransom was paid in bitcoin.

And finally, I saw this video on Facebook. In one minute, Nas Daily explains how, with a 'broken' economy, citizens of Zimbabwe have managed to develop e-money which is faster and more efficient than the systems we use in developed nations.

There are lots of exciting new stories about 'money' in today's world. The combination of philosophy, geography, criminology, economics, sociology, social policy, environmental and international studies which makes up DD103 helps me understand how 'money' is developing in a potentially cashless society.


References

Bhagwat, S., Jones, N. and Mohan, G. (2015). 'Indigenous lands and territories: mapping the commons' in Drake, D.H., Morris, A., Shipman, A. and Wheeler, K. (eds) Investigating the Social World 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

The Open University (2017a). 'The History of money in 10 minutes'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050377&section=6.1 (accessed 30/12/2017)

The Open University (2017b). 'Our World: Saving the Awa tribe'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050399&section=4.1 (accessed 30/12/2017)

The Open University (2017c). 'Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: Carbon and Culture'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050399&section=5 (accessed 30/12/2017)


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Christmas Catchup

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 20 Dec 2017, 17:47

Christmas garland

As the holiday season approaches, students come to one of two realisations - usually one after the other:

  1. Hey, it's the holidays! I can catch up on my studies while relaxing over a plate of mince pies;
  2. OMG! I've only done half my shopping, how will I get my work sorted in time for the holiday - never mind all this reading I'm meant to do for my studies!!!

I know this, because those are the thoughts which went through my mind.

('Tis the season for coughs, colds and flu too - so many students are also having to take time out to recuperate.)

Dreadfully behind on my own studies - as revealed in my previous blogpost - I panicked and began to think I should defer til next year sad However I did the following things and now I am happy to announce that I'm back on track (and have done all my shopping approve)

1 - Get back on the website.

It doesn't matter what you do to get back on. You can post in the Forum to say 'I'm so behind! Anyone-else feeling worried?' You can just watch one of the videos or read one webpage. Don't look at the dates and start worrying about how far behind you are. Get yourself back on your Study Calendar so that you feel like you are back in the saddle again.

2 - Look at the dates

Strong cup of tea in hand, have a cautious look at where you actually are. You may not be as far behind as you fear. (Being one or two weeks behind is very common, BTW.)

Tea in cup with blue chicken and snowy border

3 - Talk

Don't keep your worries to yourself. Have a chat with Student Support Team or your Tutor. Talk to your study buddies on the module Forums, Whatsapp or (if you must!) Facebook groups. Get support and advice. In particular, ask the Tutor if they have an overview of that part of the module - can they give you a steer about the upcoming work. Is there a week where not so much is expected of you? Are there parts you could skim over? Which exercises are essential?

4 - Ask for a one to one support session

If you need help, the university can sometimes pay your tutor (or another tutor, if your tutor can't provide this) to give you an extra support session. If you are feeling worried, ask about this. If you don't ask, you won't get! And it would be far better for you to have a little extra support, than drop out of the module - and perhaps your whole degree dead

5 - Read to write

There is far too much knowledge in the world for anyone to cover all of. Therefore, grownup academics do what we call "read to write". We only read what we need to, in order to write our article or book chapter.

Look at the upcoming assignment question. See if the Student Notes have guidance on essential material you should cover. Focus on reading that, and skim the rest.

You're probably enjoying your studies, and reluctant to skip over parts of it. However remember that you can access your module website for a couple of years after you finish, so you can go back to bits you missed when you have caught up and passed the module.

(If you have to do this, make sure you keep up on any study skills exercises supporting your developing academic skills.)

6 - Remember: If a job's worth doing ...

it's worth doing badly.

Sometimes we just have to take five on part of a task in order to get the whole thing done.

Get something written, submit what you can, ask for an extension or find out if any of the assignments on your module are 'substitutable' (means you can still get a few marks for them). You may not get the Distinction grade of your dreams, but you will have practised writing the assignment as you were meant to, and you will get good feedback to build on for the next piece of work. You may surprise yourself. Don't throw away 'good enough' just because you wanted 'practically perfect in every way'.

7 - have rest, and eat nice things.

When we are tired and stressed we work more slowly and get more anxious, so keep well rested. You don't have to eat chocolate - but I often find it helps tongueout

Picture of text books and different kinds of chocolate. Handwritten text saying 'Things are getting worse. Send chocolate.'


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