Thriving as an Academic seminar

“Thriving as an Academic” Seminar
By Professor William H. Starbuck (Visiting Erskine Fellow) and Emeritus Professor Bob Hamilton

Admittedly, I was skeptical about how much value I could obtain from a seminar for doctoral students by academics so far removed from my humanities discipline (Professors Starbuck and Hamilton are from business/management). And it was a large time commitment: eight weeks at three hours a week, plus reading and small group preparation work. However, it turned out to be an incredibly valuable experience learning about how ‘the other side’ thinks and operates, the ins and outs of academic life, and trends in publishing. We also were fortunate to have several guest teachers come in and share their tips on how to be an outstanding teacher with us. That in itself would have been worth the experience because so often you are thrown into teaching with little insight from those who are good at it. In addition to running the seminar itself, Starbuck and Hamilton provided us with a large number of articles on a variety of topics relevant to academia that will be useful references in future. Their writing exercise on introductions and conclusions will likely stay with most of us throughout our careers.

Above all though, the seminar managed to bring together a diverse group of postgraduate students from around the University of Canterbury. As often seems to be the case, it was largely international students who ended up taking advantage of the opportunity to join the seminar, and we will be the ones to benefit from the continuation of the group as a support network in the often isolating postgraduate environment. Starbuck and Hamilton discussed the power of groups that meet regularly to bounce ideas off each other and reiterated the importance of ‘nesting’ and supporting each other (see Schwab & Starbuck’s just-published article “Collegial ‘nests’ can foster critical thinking, innovative ideas, and scientific progress”). It was refreshing to see such prominent academics rejecting the silo mentality that often abounds in academia.

Changing Nature of Universities

Starbuck started off the seminar with an overview of the history of universities and how they have changed and adapted over time. What began as learning with a license from the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages turned into a 19th and 20th century emphasis on engineering, accounting, and economics, which replaced theology. In the post-WWII era, developed countries moved away from agriculture and manufacturing toward services and now the knowledge economy. Expertise has become valuable. The rise of business schools and rankings by various magazines has meant there is considerable pressure for universities to be at the top, because this helps drive money from donors and students who have choices on where to attend. Starbuck noted that despite all of the changes, there is still a lot of lethargy in academia. For example, it is in the best interest of an oboe teacher to keep on doing what they have been doing for another thirty years, even if the demand is reduced. Some of New Zealand’s challenges in regards to higher education are its reliance on agriculture (mining, sheep, etc.) instead of creativity and expertise (like Scandinavia) and its loss of the larger economy of the UK market after the UK joined the EU. I found this overview a helpful summary of some of the main factors in how institutions arrived at the point they are at today. It also made more sense of the obsession with ranking at this university. I had not encountered this phenomena at my previous universities, though I’m sure that has probably changed.

Publication and Promotion

Hamilton discussed the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF), which is a relatively recent scheme in New Zealand to evaluate and grade research faculty in tertiary education. Insight into this aspect of academia was probably one of the most helpful aspects of the seminar, especially since pressure to publish and be evaluated is a worldwide issue in academia. However, it is particularly strenuous in New Zealand because each individual is graded, rather than a larger body like a department. Hamilton went over quality vs. quantity issues and the phenomena of journal rankings as well. Like anything, it comes down to balancing multiple factors.

Starbuck gave us some tips for writing for academic journals. His studies have shown that reviewers tend to be unreliable, so you cannot rely on them to judge (see “Issues and Trends in Publishing Behavioral Science: A Quarrelsome Crew Struggling with a Disintegrating Boat on a Stormy Sea”). One may like it and the other may not at all. One of the most important things is to make sure the introduction and conclusion entice readers and get across the important facts. I have been thinking a lot about this after realizing that we are quickly moving into a skim-culture, where everyone skims articles (newspaper, journal, or other types) or looks up keywords  rather than taking the time for sustained reading of the entire article. I have been relying on intros and conclusions more and more to get a sense of an article and whether or not to invest the time to read the main body. Starbuck advised us to assume the reader hasn’t read the whole paper when you write your conclusion, and ‘test the wrapping’ by giving someone else only the intro and conclusion to see if they can make sense of them. You can also make a slideshow, which will force you to consider the organization and order of the ideas. He touched on ‘to be’ verbs also, which are always a struggle in academic writing! I have been trying to avoid passive voice more consciously now. He gave a Microsoft Word trick that I hadn’t heard of before: set the options to check both Grammar & Style, because the default is Grammar only.

One of the sessions looked at changes in the publishing world. Starbuck sees this area as one of the fastest changing industries. The world is being flooded with citations, as each article has more citations, and Google Scholar is making it easier to find others’ work. There is a question about what will happen to journals with the rise of online databases like ResearchGate and New journals have exploded in number, and some journals have no subscribers, relying on other mechanisms for getting their articles seen. Commercial publishers may shift to pricing based on usage and downloads, and this will mean more effects on the journals and what they publish. E-textbooks are increasing in popularity and some universities’ course fees now include access to online texts. The world of heavy textbooks that many of us grew up in may no longer be a reality soon. However, I have read that the death of print is actually over-hyped, and even young people have expressed a preference for hard-copy versions over electronic for a variety of reasons (see New York Times article “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print is Far From Dead”). This is heartening for those of us who enjoy real books! It will definitely be interesting to see how the struggle plays out in the years ahead.

It was helpful to go over ways to strategically position yourself amidst all of these changes, and remember some of the potential obstacles out there like discrimination and skepticism you will face by taking risks or being innovative. Starbuck reminded us that knowledge is a social construction, that you can create reality in a sense if you have something interesting that can get the attention of others. There is also value in teamwork – even if academics don’t always realize it – and top schools actually coordinate their MBA teaching rather than going at it alone.

Excellent Teaching

Several teachers generously gave their time to help us learn about their strategies for being excellent teachers.

Associate Professor Ekant Veer advised us to know the content as well as how to communicate, and to know our students. Find out what motivates them and communicate why things are the way they are so they understand what you’re trying to teach. He finds it helpful to debrief and reflect in order to always be improving. It is also good to not dwell on whether students like you or try to do everything they want, because they don’t necessarily know what they need to learn. If novelty gadgets won’t improve the learning experience, you don’t have to try to engage with them.

Professor Eric Pawson offered his perspective on teaching and recommended Ronald Barnett’s Being a University which includes the concept of an ECO university that sees itself as a series of relationships: Engage with students and the material, Challenge them to help them to have memorable experiences, Organize beforehand or students will catch you out. He reviewed the learning triangle that moves from ‘passive’ at the bottom to ‘active’ at the top. Lectures would be the most passive, with labs/tutorials more active, and teaching someone else in a group the most active. He then practiced what he preached by breaking us into small groups for a flipped classroom experience, where we had to come up with ideas for how we would teach 400 students at 100-level, 20 students at 200-level, and 40 students at 300-level. We came up with ideas for using Twitter, role-playing, walking around the classroom, sparking debate, running a photo competition, and avoiding common pitfalls of teaching like talking to yourself and interrupting students’ flow.

Dr. Sanna Malinen came in to talk about what works for her in teaching, and said it is okay to treat them like people and let them know you’re nervous if you are. She emphasized that being prepared, organized, and caring are the most important things you can do. She believes in a strength-based approach rather than trying to be something you’re not (like if you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny). A new idea for having a type of open office hour at one of the cafes on campus has turned out to be very successful and makes students feel like teachers care and are approachable. Hamilton and/or Starbuck added that giving out short student evaluations during the semester can give you the opportunity to change, rather than waiting until the course is over, and that you can invite your peers to watch you and point out ticks you may not know you have.

Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw detailed his philosophy on encouraging critical thinking and a passion for self-starter learning among his students. He has found that flexibility in regards to assessment deadlines can mean higher quality work and more engagement from students. Treating them like adults allows them to manage their own schedules and helps them develop time-management skills. He seems to also give more flexibility with their topics so they can choose things that interest them and hopefully be more likely to want to do further reading.

Writing Resource

An easy-to-understand resource that is helpful for brushing up on your writing is “Fussy Professor Starbuck’s Cookbook of Handy-Dandy Prescriptions for Ambitious Academic Authors” (available free online). I am trying to reform my use of ‘while’, but it might be too late for the rest of the world because now I see it used incorrectly everywhere! “The word while means during the time that or at the same time that. While does not mean whereas or even though” (Starbuck).

2 thoughts on “Thriving as an Academic seminar

  1. ymalouise

    Hi Kara, I really enjoyed reading through this piece! Having the insight into what different academics see as effective approaches to teaching resonates in a way that is hopefully communicated in a student’s work too. Also that’s a helpful tip about the word while! A good thing to keep in mind…

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