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Kate Blackham

I think I'll go eat worms

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I emailed the Samaritans last night, it's been a while since I did that.

I wasn't expecting to feel this way on this project or I'd have done something different.

Basically the unexpected, unintended effect is that doing this project has dredged up all my insecurities about being a friendless loser and a burden and a waste of oxygen and disposable.

I wish I'd never started.

I then I sit here and think, perhaps I shouldn't type this. Who am I talking to? When I started this blog I was talking to the void and making it public just in case it was relevant to someone else somewhere else. But for all I know you're bullies from my past who are sniggering about me on WhatsApp groups.

The truth is I fear the essay I am supposed to write will never see the light of day as I simply don't have enough data or interviewees.

Anyway, I have had some respondents so thank you if you have filled my survey in. I am eternally grateful.


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Kate Blackham

Research Journal

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Saturday, 13 Apr 2024, 10:30

I've been told that it's good practice to keep a research diary. I'm going to put all those thoughts here. Initially I will keep these thoughts to be private only to me. 

In the light of yesterday's post (on April 12) I'm releasing this so you can see how I got to where I am.  I'd be really grateful to hear from others who have struggled with a social sciences module about now. Thank you.

5/4/24 I am struggling a lot with anxiety today. I released my survey to a large group where I know everyone really well and got just three responses. None of which are willing to be interviewed. I'm really scared that I won't have enough material to make a proper essay. I have given participants the option to ignore any questions and to enter free-form answers but there has not been much engagement with anything but the closed-answer questions. My supervisor says there is little more disappointing than reading an essay which is just bar charts and pie charts, but if I don't get people who want to be interviewed or who give more in-depth answers I don't see how I can do any qualitative research. To make matters worse, I know that I was rejected from a fully-funded PhD because they were concerned that I wouldn't be able to find the time to do a part-time PhD at the same time as this course. But if I fail this module I'm not going to be doing the dissertation anyway - I may not even get a postgraduate diploma. I feel sick.

6/4/24 Updated the Google Form - I had a response of "yes" where I needed to see an email address - clearly it was not as obvious as I intended. Sadly an opportunity to interview someone has been lost, but I'm hoping to get some positive responses soon. I'm thinking so much of research is a blinking head game. One which, given my background and experiences, easily descends into self-flagellation. Today I've been working (again) on my journal paper - I think I've finally got a handle on what needs doing and actually it's not as scary as I thought. I remember it being that way with my first academic paper too - I get sent a long list of amends and at first it looks straightforward but I get further down and just become overwhelmed with words and ideas that I don't (initially) understand. So instead of knuckling down I revert to being 18 and just say, "I'm an idiot, I don't understand, how dare I have ideas above my station that I'm capable of doing this." And my teachers put me up to this, they told me to submit this paper. If I didn't have their encouragement to even attempt this I'd just bury my head under the duvet and never come out. Well it's similar with this project. Only this time I'm more worried that I'm just inherently massively unlikeable (thanks, autism) and that no one is filling in my questionnaire because I'm that annoying person that they only tolerate and really they wish I would just go away and leave them alone. There has been much crying in the past few days.

7/4/24 What a difference a day makes. I now have an email address for an interviewee. Yay! 

11/4/24 No new people since 7 April. I still have time for data collection and we're all not allowed to begin interviewing yet. But I am disappointed to be in this place with less than half the numbers I needed. Truthfully, I'm taking it hardest from my friends. But I also know I can't pressure them. I'm just venting here. 


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Kate Blackham

Christian cosmologies questionnaire live

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Thursday, 11 Apr 2024, 10:58

Hello lurkers!

My pilot study was successful so I'm now unleashing my UWTSD questionnaire on the world. You can find it at: https://forms.gle/oqe9t2WnubZunLHf8

I just want to reiterate that all your responses are anonymous to me (unless you leave your email in the final question), so they will be anonymous in the final essay too - my pilot study only included people I personally know and I don't know who's answered. Anybody who does agree to be interviewed will be anonymous in the essay too. I will give you a pseuduonym or a letter or a number. But I will ensure you won't be identifiable.

I also want to encourage you to take part. I hadn't realised due to an essay experience in GCSE Statistics, but response rates are notoriously low.  So despite putting out a call to people who I know and who I believe like me, I have had around a 10-15% response rate for my pilot study. I need a mere 20-or-so people for my quantitative analysis and a further 4-5 people to interview. That means that unless I can reach out to around 200 people I'm going to struggle to get the numbers I need - that exceeds the congregation of my church by some factor.

I also am not allowed to strong arm relatives for ethical reasons and I am not allowed to offer financial incentive. Which is a downer as both would really help.

Anyway I see I now have up at around 970 views (the number is at the bottom of the page), which is around 100 up on before Easter so clearly someone/some people are watching. If you are Christian and over 18 I would be so grateful if you could help me out.

To thank everyone for taking part I think I will probably upload a version (still anonymous obviously) to my Academia.edu profile so you can all see what everyone else said.

Many, many thanks in advance

**Just to reiterate this project has nothing to do with my employer the OU and is being run with ethics approval from UWTSD.**

**I've not noticed any problems with the pilot study but just in case there are any problems with the questionnaire I'll enabled non-logged-in comments.**

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Kate Blackham

Fire fighting

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I've been told that it's OK to go ahead with the quantitative part of my cosmologies research project. I'm currently running a small pilot study just to check that Google Forms is actually working as intended, that it's really anonymous even with my small pilot group and that all the data is in fact being collected as expected and feeding through to the right Google Sheet. I'm hoping to go LIVE live really soon.

I've still got to get my journal paper revisions done - and that's getting quite urgent now - so a task to be done before next Wednesday (when I have to return some TMAs to students who requested extensions).

And I've promised I'll present a paper at the forthcoming STEM ALs journal club - basically we get togther and talk about research papers we've come across that are interesting and relevant to our work. I've told them I'll do it on a recent paper about how face-to-face institutions adapted to online teaching during the Covid pandemic. So I need to put together some slides about it to send over to the team who organise journal club asap.

Oh yeah and I'm currently half-way through forum moderation duty. I always do this time of the year so I can moderate the forum threads on the Space part of Physics and Space content. If I'm going to have to do something it might as well be what I enjoy doing.

Personally though I find all this juggling quite difficult. In a former life, when I was a book editor I would copy-edit or proofread one book at a time exclusively, only starting the next when the previous one was finished. When I was a teacher I discovered that I couldn't cope with the constant attention switching that was needed. It took all my 'spoons' (a metaphor from disability studies) to cope with my workload and then I would come home and forget to pay my credit card bill or buy food or adult. There's a theory that autism, at its core, can be explained by monotropism - where its core feature is extreme focus on a few areas in excess of that seen in neurotypical people, so autistic people struggle with change and switching attention and tend to have restricted interests. 
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Kate Blackham

I'm sad

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I just turned down the tuition-only PhD.

My husband is adamant it's for the best and that PhDs are unrelentingly grim (he had a thoroughly miserable time during his doctorate at Oxford). And logically, I know he's right - not about the grimness, but that it's for the best. I know so many people who have PhDs but haven't managed to get a permanent job in academia despite several postdocs/fellowships. Weirdly I'm in a better position than many of the people I know who do have PhDs, at least I have a permanent contract at the OU. It sucks though. It really sucks.

I'm going to have a sad day today while I feel sorry for myself and then knuckle down and get my paper and the rest of my marking done over the Easter break.

The E1 form is in really good shape, just needed a few tweaks. My supervisor is confident it will pass with no problem, so I'm hopeful I can release the questionnaire over the Easter break too.

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Kate Blackham

More thoughts on horses and water

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Been thinking about this issue overnight and I want to get my thoughts down before I forget them.

I don't think this is a 'me' problem. I have two tutor groups in SM123. To save work I do a lot of copy and pasting. Therefore all the mass communications and generic forum postings are identical between the two groups. I do indeed have one tutor group that I am struggling to get to interact both with me and each other. But I have another tutor group that is far more interactive - where for the groupwork tutorial I had 4-5 attendees and then a similar number of video watchers.

In some respects I don't really care what students do. They're all adults, they make their own decisions about how best to use their time. I do think a lot of students, especially those who aren't actively seeking social interaction (and hence, I have to say, are more likely to be found in SM123) feel that they have enough to get through just going through the core material - which is excellent by the way. I remember being told as a third year student at Imperial that if I came across secondhand OU textbooks they were well worth buying as they were excellent. The OU actually works hard at constantly improving their teaching materials. If they were very good in the 90s you can rest assured they are now (or should be) award-winning. But I do think that physics and maths students think that tutorials are therefore not important, or at least, less important.

I'm thinking therefore that I really need to get them early. I'm going to rewrite my introductory emails and put up a bunch of stuff on the forums before the year begins about "How to best succeed in SM123". Then totally pivot the first tutorial to the first TMA. All the other (admitedly really important material) can be shoved into a pre-recorded video that can be shared with both groups - a lot of the current material is about 'Welcome newbies to the OU' and not all my students are newbies - at least most of them aren't - and a huge number are studying full-time now so they are probably getting three 'Welcome newbies to the OU' tutorials.

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Kate Blackham

You can lead a horse to water...

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I'm snowed under with TMA marking right now and truthfully, it's massively demoralising.

I tried to really sell the importance of attending the 'Group Work and Practical' tutor group tutorial this year - by the way, the title was not decided by me - I suspect it puts off the socially anxious students. I tried to tell them it was a succeeding at TMA3 tutorial.

I had one student (out of 20) show up from one of my tutor groups. And it shows now in the TMAs.

The number of huge mistakes that they wouldn't have made if they'd at least watched the recording is really frustrating.

My students are having the same issue with the electron orbitals question. I ran a module-wide tutorial on it the week before the TMA was due, I told all my tutees that many, many students come so unstuck they end up with zero marks. That attending/watching the tutorial would be really helpful. The same massive errors.

I know I'm not alone in this. We ALs in the OU talk about poor attendance regularly. And like, I realise these people have complex lives and disabilities and all sorts of issues - that's why they've come to us. So attending a tutorial may not always be possible. And it's easy to fall behind. And you don't have to look very far to realise that this is an industry-wide problem. Lots of students don't bother to attend tutorials or lectures, young or old, face-to-face or distance learning.

It's concerning to me that a significant proportion of students are clearly not trying to engage with the materials we provide as tutorials (let alone the feedback I spend hours producing). But it's also massively concerning because what's the point in employing me to run tutorials if no one is going to show up. When I was an undergraduate I had very few tutorials - just one a week for the whole of physics. I went religiously, so did everyone else in my tutor groups. I took Politics from Imperial's Humanities department in the final year, which was by the way, a complete blast. I really, really enjoyed it. We had one lecture and one tutorial every week in the Politics class. For the first week 20 people showed up for the tutorial. Come the second week there were 5 or 6 of us. And it was like that for the rest of the year.

So I realise that lots of people (probably most) aren't like me - feeling that they have to engage and always attend and do all the reading. I've seen it first hand. But I am shocked that there is so much less interaction with me than I saw in those Politics tutorials. 

Lots of universities are struggling right now. Many are making teaching staff redundant and closing courses. Am I safe? On a course where in all liklihood I will one day have no attendees for a tutorial. Where it's not just me but all my peers are struggling to get their students to just engage. I shouldn't think so. 

I don't know what to do.

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Kate Blackham

Ethics approval process

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Coming from a physical science background I obviously don't have much experience of the social sciences. Last time I did a questionnaire I was 16/17 and studying GCSE Statistics and for the coursework component I needed to make a questionnaire that I handed out around the sixth form - all of us Statistics people did the same - I filled in soooo many questionnaires during my sixth form. We never sought ethics approval for any of it or had to worry about the implications of GDPR.

It turns out that filing for ethics approval in 2024 requires a tonne of work. I spent much of the weekend stressing over it. The ethics approval form itself runs to 18 pages, then there's the questionnaire itself, the sample interview questions and the participant information form. I finally got my draft versions of all of these finished and sent them to my supervisor very late Sunday evening. He'll get back to me with amendments I need to make relatively quickly and then I shall revise and submit to the university committee for their approval some time in early April.

The unexpected benefit to all this is that funnily enough I can take what I'm learning here and hawk myself out to researchers. Within the OU, we fairly regularly see calls for (paid) assistance running focus groups, transcribing interviews, doing questionnaires, etc. for staff who are running Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) projects. Their projects tend to be quite small and they're running them alongside their regular teaching commitments as a way to improve their own teaching practice and to improve the OU's courses; now the central academics are too busy with their own research to be getting involved in much SoTL so the call tends to go out to available ALs.

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Kate Blackham

An autistic writing style?

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Tuesday, 19 Mar 2024, 09:34

I'm within sight of the end of my current essay and I need a brain break so I'm going to write a blog post instead 😆

I write weirdly.

You'd never know because you're looking at the end product, but I don't write 'like other people do'.

I basically form entire sections in my head and then put them down on paper wholesale, complete and with very few revisions. I don't do drafts and revisions. I wouldn't know how to...

I don't know if that's an autistic thing, but I certainly get the impression that it's not what you're 'supposed' to do. 

In other news I've been approved to apply for Fellowship of AdvanceHE. 😁

That is all, back to the brain grindstone.

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Kate Blackham

So near ...

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... and yet so far.

They really liked me. But someone else is getting the full funding. Would I mind tuition-only?

If I was younger maybe. But I'm in an age-gap marriage with a husband who wants to retire and has started claiming some of his pension and with two kids to put through university.

Money means I don't have to starve or not heat the house.

I've got a few weeks to consider my options, but I'm thinking it's going to have to be a no, sorry.

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Kate Blackham

Thoughts on disability (again)

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Tuesday, 12 Mar 2024, 15:08

I was listening to the WonkHE podcast about the University of Bristol appeal case a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over in my head ever since.

Then yesterday a connection of mine on LinkedIn shared a Times opinion piece about ADHD and autism being 'over-diagnosed'. (Not sharing that one, because obviously I not only disagree, I actually find it deeply unhelpful and frankly trollish.) 

I think what I find most annoying is the inertia in higher education as a whole.

When I was working as a schoolteacher we learned a lot about scaffolding learning. You don't just ask a kid a question, get the wrong answer and move on to someone who gives you the right answer. You stay with that child and backtrack to something they do know, then step-by-step build them up so that child is able to answer your question. Kids like being able to answer tough questions, they dislike feeling stupid.

My students are currently preparing presentations for SM123 (Physics and Space). They've had a recorded tutorial in which I gave them heaps of helpful pointers, a template presentation for them to fill in and expand as needed, and a guidance document. Their instructions are to produce a Powerpoint presentation and a Word document giving the entire script word-for-word. Because we are entirely online and distance learning there is no live presentation component to their work. I mark only the two files as submitted to me. All the students do this exercise, whether outgoing and extraverted or shy, anxious and autistic. Seemingly many of them enjoy it thoroughly and find it to be confidence boosting. I think the way the OU do this in my module is a great leveller. I like to think that should they ever be asked to do a presentation again in the future, the positive experience on SM123 will have encouraged them as to the steps necessary so that it is less intimidating. Isn't that what good university education is about? Don't we want to leave our students better than they were when they came to us? 

The SM123 presentations are a great example of Universal Design for Learning - everyone does the same thing but it was designed from the outset to be accessible.

The end of the WonkHE podcast the contributors were discussing that HE has to change, because whatever the Times opinion piece may say, disabilities exist and are inherently disabling. But not everyone who has a disability will know that, especially if it's not physical and immediately obvious to all around. So we must expect undiagnosed disabled people to be in HE as students (and I would also add staff, but whatever). And it isn't good enough to just do things the way that 'we' had to do them. Those academics are on average about my age. When we had much fewer numbers of ethnic minorities, people from working-class backgrounds, people whose parents hadn't also been to university. When we were students most universities were far from enablers of equality. University in the 1990s was rubbish to be frank. I'm told Oxford and Cambridge were OK because of their tutorial system. But the rest of the instittutions herded us into enormous lecture theatres to be talked at for hours on end. It was not conducive to learning then and it's not conducive to learning now. 

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Kate Blackham

Still waiting...

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Wednesday, 6 Mar 2024, 19:41

I seem to have had a big bump in my traffic lately.  👋

If you're here about taking part in my Christian cosmologies project you'll need to wait until after Easter. I have my questionnaire fairly well developed now, but don't have ethics approval to launch it yet. And truth be told, getting ethics approval isn't a priority this week or next as I have an essay deadline.

If you've gotten all excited about my PhD application process, well that's nice, thank you. But who knows how long that will take. I think I was given a date for when the decision would be made but I turned into a human beetroot and it went in one ear and out of the other. They wrote to my referees last week, so clearly the interview did go well. But it still very much depends on who I'm up against.

I got my EOI in for applying for FHEA on Monday. It's another competitive process with only 80 places per cohort. Which sounds like a lot, but when you have literally thousands of ALs like me teaching the modules, and then all the central academic staff who wrote the materials, well there's often oversubscription (which was precisely why they brought in the EOI process - it's new for this cohort). I talked about my postgraduate certificate in online teaching (via the OU's H880) and about how I support students, using fancy terminology I'd picked up from the PGCert OT. So that's another waiting game as well.

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Kate Blackham

Well I survived...

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I had my PhD interview on Wednesday. I don't think I embarrassed myself. I was able to answer all their questions except for - Do you have any questions for us? Which I confessed that my mind had gone blank, I had actually prepared some, but nevermind. At least by that point of the interview my cheeks had flushed beetroot and I was obviously overwhelmed - and I warned them that I am autistic in my application.

Now I just have to wait. And I have to wait quite a while. The project is fully funded. But it's not externally funded. I believe it's similar to other internally funded projects in the physics department. So they have funding for some PhDs (say 3-5), but there are a dozen or so projects for potential students to apply for. So the funding isn't tied to just this project, but to a pool of 12-15 possible projects across the whole of mathematics. So not only do I have to be the best applicant for the project I applied for, but I have to be among the best in the whole intake. And mathematicians are notoriously brilliant. They're the type of people who weeped over getting less than 90% in a module during their undergrad. 

So there's little point in sitting around hoping that I'll be selected as my chances very much depend on who I'm up against. Besides I have plenty to work on; along with finishing that ever-present journal article, working on my research project and the appropriate ethics approval form, writing an essay and supporting my own students, I also decided that the most convenient time to try for the FHEA is this summer, so I need to work on my Expression of Interest to actually take part in the process next week.

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Kate Blackham

Learning Better From People We Like

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I read an interesting article last week Why We Learn Better From People We Like - Neuroscience News based on the Nature paper: Ingroup sources enhance associative inference | Communications Psychology (nature.com)

The idea being that people are open to influence and learn better from those they like. The paper (and the popular write-up) are concerned with undue influence from polarising groups (e.g. terrorist organisations). But of course, as an educator they are also applicable to me and other tutors. Not that I have much power over whether any particular individual perceives me as likeable - as the saying goes: you can't please all of the people all of the time. Still, I think it's helpful to be reminded to 'not be a jerk', because it turns out the performance of your students depends upon it.

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Kate Blackham

Christian cosmologies project update + other news

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Wednesday, 14 Feb 2024, 11:14

I've been posting about a research project I'm involved with at UWTSD and I finally have a timeline for when I should be kicking it off. My deadline for submission of the final version of my ethics request form to UWTSD's ethics committee is the first week of April - suggesting I should be able to be kicking off the questionnaire/potential interviews in late March/early April of this year if I can get it in early.

I'm in the final push phase (hopefully) of getting my archaeoastronomy paper finished. I submitted it in the autumn of last year and it was accepted (subject to amendments) in late autumn - well then Christmas hit. Anyway the journal are still keen to publish it and I am aiming for Easter at the very latest for me to do my bit. It's nice that I am sole author, I mean there's no chance of anyone assuming that someone else did all the work, but goodness, it's tough doing it all on your own. Especially when you're as much as a newbie at this as I am. I've been trying to do a little every day, eating the elephant style.

On the PhD front I've been invited to an interview. Which is exciting. But also terrifying. 

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Kate Blackham

Relaxed Tutorials

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Thursday, 8 Feb 2024, 13:51

I was emailed a fascinating internal news article yesterday about the value of running Relaxed Tutorials. The idea comes about as a follow-on from Relaxed Events in arts and culture events in theatres and cinemas. 

https://www5.open.ac.uk/scholarship-and-innovation/fasstest/blog/relaxed-tutorial-project-new-way-looking-accessibility-distance-learning?nocache=65c4d609264a4

The trial was run by Classics tutors as part of their faculty's Scholarship of Teaching and Innovation group and was aimed at increasing participation of autistic students, with of course the added benefit that Universal Design has advantages for all students.

(Anecdotally here I'm going to mention that of all the subjects in the Humanities it is fitting that Classics have decided to try this approach. My neurodivergent son is a second year Classics student at Royal Holloway and swears blind that while autistic men are drawn to Physics and Computer Science, their autistic sisters can be found in equally large numbers in Classics.)

The list of steps taken is reassuringly close to what I make a point of doing in my tutorials: not calling upon any particular students, allowing the use of chatbox or microphone, not expecting the use of their webcams even in tiny groups. The only difference is that all my tutorials have to be recorded for the benefit of those unable to attend.

I like also that they mentioned the providing of slides beforehand. I always do that. My own tutorgroup are used to me doing that and also are very aware that my own autism diagnosis impacts on my willingness to accommodate for their needs and make things as accessible as possible. However, when I was preparing for a module-wide tutorial before Christmas and sent my usual group email mentioning the availability of my slides several of the students became concerned that this was because the tutorial was not going ahead after all - it would seem I am unusual. I think that the next time (i.e. next week) I will mention my autism and my intention to provide as accessible as possible resources and that hence my slides are available early as part of my Relaxed As Possible Tutorial approach.

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Kate Blackham

Mental Health Webinar (or not in my case)

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Monday, 5 Feb 2024, 14:25

There are multiple different groups within the OU that seek to provide professional development opportunities to other staff. Last year I put together a workshop on autism for the STEM AL group. There is also a group that help ALs use our web conferencing software. There's a group that runs sessions on supporting student mental health and they have just put out a call for presenters. That's what I've been mulling over for the past week.

I don't have enough for a talk - certainly not one that's useful to other people. All I have is my lived experience. That list in my bio, the laundry list, as I refer to it, aside from autism, I didn't have any of that at 15. That's the natural consequence of poorly handled adolescent mental ill health. That's why the NHS has CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

I now, post autism diagnosis, realise that I suffered from autistic burnout in the first term of my lower sixth. I was going to bed, exhausted, at 7pm, only to wake up, exhausted, at 7am every day. Along with studying A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry I was studying GCSE Statistics, volunteering with my local Red Cross branch and training multiple times a week at my local karate dojo - I had the belt below a brown belt and can still give you a swift roundhouse kick to the head if I want - do not mess with me 😉 I had a part-time job I hated at a supermarket called Food Giant (the budget end of Somerfield). It was a bit like Kwik Save but we were charging for carrier bags before it was eco-friendly. Our customers were invariably angry at us checkout operators for our charging them 4p a bag and delighted in telling us that they were better than us. But the customer was always right.

In summary, my candle was being burnt at both ends and melted in the middle. I spent much of the year I was 17 feeling depressed (but fortunately only mildly so). I obviously had no idea I was suffering from an autistic burnout, but cut back on everything that wasn't essential and eventually got better.

When, like many autistic university students, I became mentally ill I had already learned the hard way that there was little point in bothering my GP and that 'friends' were prone to distance themselves from anyone perceived to be a Debbie Downer lest they catch the depression too. It doesn't help that one of the symptoms for depression is withdrawal from others and that autistics are less able to engage in what psychologists call 'help-seeking' behaviour. I was on my own and I was going to get better on my own just as I had at 17. Except of course I didn't. I got worse. Much, much worse. And there is a very real sense in which I'm still not recovered yet. I have agoraphobia because I have panic disorder. I have panic disorder because I have suffered from panic attacks since I was 22. I developed panic attacks due to the trauma of my university experience - an experience I very nearly didn't survive.

So what do I possibly have to offer my fellow ALs? What helped me? 

Time, patience and a massively supportive network of family and friends.

Those aren't things that ALs can provide honestly.

I do my best. I don't tell my students my laundry list. I don't want to scare them off. But I allude to it. I'm completely honest that my first experience of university was so bad that it took me 20 years to come back and get the master's I had always intended to graduate with. I know that the students of mine that are struggling appreciate that. They know that I will have sympathy for them. They admit that they confide in me precisely because I am open about my past experience. But I don't know how to help them. I can't wave a magic wand and make their homelives happier, their housing less precarious, their friends and family more supportive. And I don't know what to tell other ALS to help their students. Because they almost invariably don't have an experience anywhere like mine. Very few people who have been left broken by higher education will come back and try again.

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Kate Blackham

John Couch Adams

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Monday, 29 Jan 2024, 11:35

Sent off my application for the mathematics PhD yesterday. Not expecting anything to come of it but I don't want to get to 70 and look back and wonder if I could have earned a PhD. I've been thinking about my old A level mathematics teacher who was, let's say, difficult. She used to make her further maths students cry during her lessons. The other students called her a dragon. With the benefit of hindsight I think she was bitter and was disappointed not to have done better for herself and sad that she ended up having to teach mathematics to children that weren't as able as her. We were beneath her and wasting her time.

I don't want to end up like my maths teacher. My husband says I'm silly and will absolutely not end up like her. That she was different. But I don't know. Surely bitter people don't start out bitter, bitter comes from disappointment and frustration. Who was she before she turned herself into a dragon?

I don't want to be an angry, resentful teacher taking it out on my own students.

I also think it's really, really important to have multiple irons in the fire. To not get obsessed with one thing (I'm autistic that comes naturally) that I'm blind to alternatives that are even better.

My copy of A&G arrived today (the members magazine for Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society) with a fascinating and potentially really useful article about mathematical astronomer John Couch Adams.

NOTE TO SELF: Follow up the relevent references if I get invited to interview.

I was also thinking to myself how useful A&G and PhysicsWorld (the IOP magazine) are to me. Often the articles are not at all relevant to what I'm doing, but every now and then I read one which I can refer students to in a tutorial especially about the real-world applications of science in one of the areas I do a tutorial on. And A&G helps me keep up-to-date with content when I'm moderating the SM123 students' Space topic forums. All good stuff to mention in any FHEA application (which I guess - along with my cosmological beliefs of Christians project - is the next thing to focus on so that a PhD rejection is less hard-hitting).


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Kate Blackham

Postgraduate Certificate in Online Teaching

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My official certificate for my Postgraduate Certificate in Online Teaching arrived this morning, which is very nice especially since half-way through I decided to keep my options open and asked to be upgraded to the master's. This way I get an official piece of paper even if I don't complete that master's. 

My line manager wants me to go for Fellowship of AdvanceHE (he first mentioned it two years ago - which is quite early but I think it's because I came here from school teaching). I attended a session this lunchtime on applying for the OU's Applaud programme that takes you through the process. The first step is to go to the AdvanceHE website and do the Categorization tool. I don't know if it's my autism (but am assuming it is) but often there will be two options that say the same things but using different words, to me they may as well say the exact same thing but I can only select one. Hence the categorization tool is impenetrable to me and then I think, well if I can't even work out how am I supposed to use this tool, maybe I'm not ready for it. But ALs aren't allowed to apply for Associate Fellowship, so I just end up putting it off again. Besides it's not like I'm going to go elsewhere.

Anyway I can't just apply for Applaud. I have to send an expression of interest and then be invited to apply. The opening date for expressions of interest is end of February so we'll see how I feel then.

In other news I've found a history of mathematics PhD that I've managed to get myself encouraged to apply for. PhDs are incredibly competitive, so am not expecting to be interviewed let alone awarded a place. But I figure it's good practice to try. Besides rejection is character building.

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Kate Blackham

Behind the Curve

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Friday, 19 Jan 2024, 14:49

Y'all are not helping me out here! Lurking and not posting...

I'm taking a break from marking and half-watching the documentary Behind the Curve about flat earthers and I've realised I've not included another cosmology in my list. Flat Earth.

There's a gentleman in the documentary describing how he subscribes to a flat Earth belief system because it's "biblical cosmology".

And I have indeed, not often, but occasionally, come across Christians who believe in a flat Earth. A former member of my church believes that the Earth is flat and the Moon landings were faked (he moved away hence the past tense). He is an intelligent man who can hold sensible conversations on all sorts of matters, so it was an oddity and often remarked upon.

I don't know how big the demographic is of flat Earthers among Christians but it would be worth investigating. I have a hunch that some of the more prominent science outreach types (you know, the ones who repeatedly go on TV) who are overly vocal about their atheism being a consequence of their scientific thinking and their greater intelligence have alienated Christians who don't have the benefit of a scientific education like me. When told their religious beliefs are incompatible with scientific theories (that's not true by the way), they feel they cannot put their trust in what the scientific world tells them. 

By the way, I am studiously trying to avoid telling you what I believe. This is deliberate. I don't want people to be dishonest or feel like they can't take part because of any judgement on my part.

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Kate Blackham

Ethnographic Research

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Monday, 15 Jan 2024, 13:31

I've mentioned before that I'm starting a module on conducting ethnographic research into contemporary cosmologies this February. To make this easy for me I'm going to be investigating the cosmological beliefs of fellow Christians, because they are a pool of people I have extremely easy access to (the whole insider versus outsider perspective thing).

I have a couple of things to think about then. The first is that I want to make sure I know what the potential belief systems are (there are multiple). Using my copy of Millard J. Erickson's Christian Theology (a systematic thelogy of a broadly Baptist, conservative approach), I've got five broad cosmological belief systems:

  • Gap theory: a six-day creation took place billions of years ago, sometimes known as Old Earth Creationism
  • Flood theory: a Young Earth Creationism belief system whereby the waves of the global flood produced layers as identified by geologists. This would be the position held by Answers in Genesis.
  • Ideal-time theory: a Young Earth Creationism system whereby although God created the cosmos very recently (same timescale as the Flood theory), God decided to make it look old
  • Age-day theory: this view hinges on the fact that although yom usually means a 24-hour day, it can mean an epoch or other long period of time. This is the belief that can most easily align with the Big Bang theory and modern cosmology, albeit from a Christian perspective. This is the view held by Erickson.
  • Pictorial day or literary framework. This view subscribes to the view that Moses (or other purported writer of Genesis) wrote the creation story as it is for literary effect. This would be the view held by non-Christians and some liberal Christians.

Erickson is a very reputable academic theologian so I expect that's broadly the lot. I'm going to make this post commentable to the wider world, in case anybody reading this knows something he's left out (although I don't know who you are, there appears to be more than just me reading this blog - Hi, Mum and Dad!), but I suspect that's a full list. There's an interesting article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Cosmology and Theology, but that's more about ideas at the cutting edge of science and their impacts on theology.

Of course, this doesn't include additional beliefs such as the gospel in the zodiac stars theories and this view can be held by holders of any of the five broad systems. It will be interesting to write an appropriate questionnaire and tease out any relationships.

The second part is that I have three required textbooks to work through before the module begins in February. One of which is an Open University Press textbook: Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-Time Researchers by Judith Bell and Stephen Waters. Wading my way through that is my task for this week.

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Kate Blackham

Christmas Thoughts

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Today is the first proper day back, so the title isn't so much about thoughts about Christmas as thoughts over Christmas.

As part of the postgradute certificate in online teaching we learnt about networks and communities of practice. We were told that through our interactions online they were hoping to mould us into a community of practice of educators. I don't know how successful that was for my tutor group - I'm autistic. 'Struggles to make friends' is my elevator pitch - for all I know the rest of my group got along famously, formed a WhatsApp group and invited each other around for Christmas dinner. Or perhaps I'm just catastrophising (see my previous post).

There was one image that really stood out for me though in the learning networks diagram. It was about the connections that students build with each other, in and out of class through studying together, working together (through those much dreaded group projects). There were students with lots of connections who were tightly bundled into their classes and had many peers who could encourage, support and help them. Research tells us that those students do well.

Then there were the 'me's - the students who at best had only one connection in the class. Research suggests that, like me, they are likely to underperform in their studies. Without a support network or peers to turn to when tough situations arise they are more likely to fail modules, they are more like to become discouraged and give up hope, they are more likely to drop out.

Now I'm guessing the average NT educator would look at that and think, well of course we've got to get those mini-Kates into groups. Well groups are OK, but the best ones are supportive and encouraging and have an almost militaristic persepective of 'leave no man behind'. That is not a culture of academia, which strikes me as largely dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, you suck losers. (There's a reason PhDs suck for most students and then employed academics are on an endless treadmill of post-docing and then even when they get a permanent position must continue to bring in enormous grant funds or be fired - looking directly at my alma mater.)

The best groups I was ever in were in the workplace - a rather toxic one at that. Where we were desperate, underachieving graduates, wanting to prove that we weren't wastes of oxygen for crummy pay for 100+ hours a week. We hated the situation. But there was something about being forced into close proximity for such long stretches of time. My husband (who worked in a variety of places both before and after) says he has never known an esprit de corps like it. The business went bankrupt 20 years ago, but we still have it as a group. It's remarkable. There's something about that pressure cooker experience.

So, as far as I'm aware, merely putting people into groups doesn't particularly help - witness my group projects. They're not making lifelong friends in those groups.

Creating a toxic work culture of excessive workloads to force students into bonding is against the law. So that's a no go too.

The answer, according to the course notes, was that it is the role of the educator to step into the breach for the solitary online students. We need to step up and be their support networks. Where other students can crowdsource knowledge from their groups, we are their point of contact - we are the ones they crowdsource knowledge from. Of course it's one thing to know that that's where we are most needed, it's another thing to get the students to seek help from us. And since autistic students are by their very nature most likely to be the solitary students, and given that autistic students are known to have reduced help-seeking behaviour compared to NTs, how to get the solitary students that most need us to come to us is a thorny problem. I can reach out all I like, but I can't read their minds and know what they're struggling with unless they tell me.

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Kate Blackham

The perils of groupwork

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It's been a rough couple of weeks for me for the dumbest of reasons, but hey I'm an autistic human so that's par for the course.

In October I finally got my feedback for a paper I submitted over the summer. It's been accepted subject to some changes and I read through the comments and promptly burst into tears. The reviewer suggested the authors should do X. Authors plural. And I lost it. The automatic assumption that I would have a colleague to help me with editing the task hurt me. It was like I was back at school being last to be picked for anything all over again. I wish I could say it got better at university, but of course it got worse. I was always the leftover student. The billy-no-mates who had to be assigned by the lecturer because no one who knew me wanted to be paired with me.

So I have endless sympathy with the students who hate group projects because of painful prior experience. And I try really, really hard to try to make the SM123 group project work for everyone. There is more I can do, there was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about socialization being a key to student success and I have some thoughts I'm mulling over that. I'll write them up another day.

But damn it. It's been a rough day in a rough month. I know I shouldn't but when students vent and take it out on me when they have a difficult experience it hurts me. I don't have a thick skin. Realistically I guess I should be unsurprised that 100 students in I finally have one that is grouchy with me. I can't expect to be everyone's cup of tea. So I'm taking tomorrow off to get some perspective and do something else completely.

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Kate Blackham

HESA and #ActuallyAutistic

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Edited by Kate Blackham, Tuesday, 7 Nov 2023, 11:29

I looked at the HESA statistics for disabilities in 2021/2022 today. There are just 305 autistic academics. This is up from the 175 autistic academics reported in the previous HESA report. There are 233,930 academics in the UK. That means autistics make up just 0.13% of academics. The WHO reports that 1% of the population is autistic. That is not proportional representation by any means. 

I had a discussion with an individual on LinkedIn recently - they applauded my 'impressive' bravery at being open about my diagnosis (I put #ActuallyAutistic in my LinkedIn headline), since they didn't feel comfortable to do so. Working as I do at the university of second chances and having learned about tutor presence and transparency I kind of feel like it's my duty to be that honest. While the percentage of autistic academics doesn't even remotely reflect either the proportion of autistic students or the ideals of equality, diversity and inclusion for disabled people I feel obligated to own up and say 'I don't know where the rest of us went, but I'm here'. While we exclude autistics from academia, we send autistic students the message that 'you don't belong here, we don't want you.' And I refuse to accept that.

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Kate Blackham

Tutor disability disclosure and group work

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So I recently finished H880 Technology-enhanced learning and one of the things we talked about was teacher presence and being open and honest with our students.

I post my introduction thread before term starts on the tutor-group forums and while I don't share my laundry list of issues I am honest about my autism diagnosis and the issues that created for succeeding at university the first time around. To 'celebrate' World Mental Health Day on 10 October I always share some mental health resources for students and mention that I have personal experience of poor mental health derailing my studies.

There's always a danger that being that open is going to cause students to be dismissive of me as a teacher ("those who can't, teach", right?). But to be honest, those sort of students generally have the benefit of an unhindered education and they probably don't need me much except as someone to mark their TMAs. Certainly some students don't seem to want to interact with me much, and that's fine.

What is interesting is some of the conversations I am having in private. I noticed at the beginning of the term that for the first time since starting at the OU I had no autistic students.

I now know that to not be the case. I have a number of students who are diagnosed with autism or waiting for an autism diagnosis. But they hadn't disclosed it to the university. Some of them have disclosed a disability but haven't said what that is, others haven't mentioned that they even have a disability (you can disclose having a disability without mentioning what it is or having DSA).

And I don't know, but I wonder if this doesn't feed into some of the group work issues that we tutors find on SM123. I know that lots of my AL peers have issues with getting groups going. In my emails and my introductory tutorial I always mention that there is group work in week 3. And here's where I diverge a little from the 'suggested plan' provided by the module team in-house. The suggested format is that I assign students to group from before the course, so they have time to get to know each other. It makes perfect sense. For a neurotypical.

I openly discuss my late diagnosis. And I tell them that because of my own experience I now treat every student as a potential undiagnosed autistic.

There is actually an alternative activity for students with anxiety or autism, etc. But it's not made clear on the module materials. So I tell them that there is alternative available. Most students want to do the group project, but there are always a few with perfectly valid reasons who don't. 

I think ideally the students would be brave enough to declare their disabilities, especially since I suspect that the average AL is not autistic themselves (or at least they all seemed to be extremely loud and sociable at the STEM AL development day I attended) and hence not able to coax a private confession out of them as I can. I don't know what the answer to that is.

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