Hopes and fears of a new science mum

I was recently asked to speak about my experiences as a woman in STEM for an event at the University of Sheffield called “STEMinism”. The event was held on Tuesday 21 March 2017, but my baby daughter Alice arrived just 12 days earlier on 09 March, so attending was a stretch too far! However, I was keen to share my most recent experiences of becoming a new mum right at the “pinch-point” in my academic career, and the hopes and fears associated with that. So I recorded the following video talk which was screened at the event, and I’ve decided to share it here as well, in case it’s of wider interest. The talk is approximately 12 minutes long, and although it’s basic home video quality with no frills, I hope you will find the content interesting.

 

Valentine Special: five zoological ways to insert your organ

A while ago I discovered that a fairly large proportion of my blog’s search engine traffic comes from people asking “how to insert male organ into female organ”. While I find this somewhat disconcerting, I can’t help but feel I am doing potential readers/learners a disservice. They come to my blog, presumably hoping for some pearls of reproductive wisdom, only to be faced with my self-indulgent ramblings about being a women/post-doc/pregnant scientist/horse-rider/whatever else I fancy myself to be. Crucially, they find no information on “how to insert male organ into female organ”. And I call myself a reproductive biologist.

In an effort to put this right (and as a special treat for the #Valentines crowd), here I provide five examples of the many weird and wonderful ways that nature deals with this complex task. Enjoy.

1. Female playing hard to get? No problem. Bed bugs have to deal with this all the time. Take a tip from them and wait until your chosen female has eaten a large meal. As she lays there like a beached whale, spear your needle-like penis directly into her bloated abdomen. OK, this may not be particularly romantic, and your female might become infected or even die (they don’t call it “traumatic insemination” for nothing). But hey – it’s effective.

2. Worried that another male might have got to your female first? Why not fashion your penis into spoon-like implement, or attach the bristles of a spare toilet brush, to help you scrape out the sperm of your rivals? After all, there is little point inserting your organ if your paternity is not assured. It works for damselflies. And cats.

3. Stuck at work while your female is at home? Try mating barnacle-style. Grow yourself a super-long stretchy penis, forty times your own body length, and allow your organ to roam far and wide. Alternatively, take a tip from the argonaut octopus and simply detach your penis, setting it free to fulfil its ultimate goal. Love knows no boundaries.

4. Want to give your female a memento to commemorate your special moment? Why not literally explode your genitals into her like a honey bee? That way she can keep the end of your penis inside her as a permanent reminder of the time you shared.

5. Last but not least: Are you by any chance getting down and dirty with a Brazilian cave-dweller? If she happens to be of the genus Neotrogla, then you needn’t worry in the slightest about what to do with your organ. Just sit back and enjoy it – because she’s going to be penetrating you.

ECpR: Early career (pregnant) researcher

“The more I learn about the magnitude of this task, the more remarkable it seems that it ever actually happens…”

It’s how I’ve started many a research seminar. I study how sperm make it to – and successfully fertilise – the egg. The feat of fertilisation is nothing short of incredible. It’s the biological equivalent of Mission Impossible.

But of course, it does happen. It happens all the time, across all sexually reproducing organisms. From nettles to narwhals, periwinkles to people.

And as of March 2017, my (or perhaps more accurately, my partner’s) personal feat of fertilisation will result in the production of a brand new, kicking, screaming, real-life human being. Our very own “fitness unit”, as one eminent behavioural ecologist put it.

This is going to be my most self-indulgent post to date. I’m going to write about how baffling, surreal, and terrifying this situation is. I’m going to write about this from the perspective of an academic. I acknowledge that many other careers have similar (or different but equally worrying) pressures. I know I am not special. I know this is a completely ordinary thing that many many people (including academics) do at some point in their lives. But I’m also sure that every parent-to-be will find at least some common ground in the confused ramblings that follow. So here goes. This is my current world-view as the recently outed pregnant scientist:

Last week I did the “big reveal” at work. I felt so nervous telling my Head of Department, I had to practically spit the words out. I’m not sure why I found it so difficult. It wasn’t like I was going to get told off. Yet for some reason I felt like I was revealing some kind of dirty secret, admitting a fundamental character flaw. At one point my voice cracked unexpectedly and I felt overwhelming panic that, right there in the HoD’s office, I was going to cry. Fortunately, talking a bit faster and wringing my hands a little averted the crisis.

Of course, my news was received in celebratory fashion. I was congratulated, smiled at, bolstered up for the adventure ahead. Exactly as you would expect. I must admit, I felt a definite sense of relief to get it out in the open. You spend an awfully long time nurturing your dark secret after you find out you are pregnant. You find yourself avoiding certain topics of conversation (“I assume you’ll be at the conference next Spring?”, “What are your plans for dissertation students next semester?”) and postponing email replies (“Would you like to come and give a seminar here in April?”, “Are you offering any summer placements?”). Sometimes, I even resorted to barefaced lies (“Yes I’ll be teaching the animal behaviour module next year”, “Perhaps we can look into that further next season”).

What else can you do? The first few months of pregnancy are terrifying and exhausting. You daren’t tell anyone the truth because you are convinced something will go wrong. This is particularly true if, like me, you study the causes of reproductive failure and spend your days examining dead embryos. I’m very aware that the chances of something going wrong are remarkably high. You also can’t bring yourself to tell anyone because you still don’t really believe it (I’m not sure that is ever going to change).

On the flip-side, you feel like you have a massive flashing neon sign above your head signalling your ‘condition’. You feel awful. The act of dragging yourself out of bed seems heroic, let alone maintaining a productive balance of stimulating lectures every morning, hours of lab work in the afternoon, regular meetings with project students, and manuscript drafting into the early hours. I tried to take inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg’s proactive mantra, but the only thing I found myself leaning into was the toilet. And all the while, your brain – your oldest, most reliable friend, the one who solves all your problems – shrinks away as your body trades off somatic maintenance against reproductive investment.

Then there’s the problem of how your imminent maternity leave and ongoing life of parenthood will affect that clear career trajectory you had planned. As an early career researcher, I have big plans. These involve grants, collaborations, overseas travel, increasing productivity, an eventual – dare I say it – permanent position. But when it comes down to it, what I’ve actually got is a short-term contract that finishes halfway through my maternity leave, a missed fellowship deadline (I was so ill during the early stages of pregnancy, something had to give), and a teaching load that leaves paper-writing as a rare weekend treat. Add to that only four months to get everything in order before this next massive project is handed to me with no instructions, and it all becomes a little bit daunting. This is where “leaning in” and maintaining full brain capacity would be really useful – how ironic.

The overwhelming nature of the situation should be helped by the rapidly diminishing expectations of others. I jokingly tell my partner that I am no longer “me” in the eyes of others – I am “pregnant me”. It’s not really a joke. When people ask “how’s it going?”, what they mean is “how’s the pregnancy going?” Not “how’s your research going?”, and definitely not “how’s that fellowship application going?” (way too much pressure). People stop asking you to do things and don’t include you in long-term plans. I shouldn’t complain – this makes things easier, right? But it’s incredibly hard not to write yourself off when you can tell other people already have.

I’ll end this self-pitying monologue with my most ridiculous pregnancy side-effect so far: Selfish envy. The things I can’t do that others can. The reason this is so ridiculous is because my main example concerns my own partner’s recent promotion. Two weeks ago he found himself in a position where three different companies were vying to employ him, each offering a senior role, increased pay, and more flexible working hours. Let’s be clear – this is as fantastic for me as it is for him. It means we will have more money and more time together at home. And yet, as he sat there one evening, a couple of weeks ago, pondering out loud the pros and cons of each job and casually dismissing the problem of unpaid paternity leave (we are too close to the due date to qualify for paid leave if we change jobs), I began to feel slightly hard done by. It was all so easy for him. I currently have no negotiating power, no option of changing positions, and quite frankly, I feel vulnerable with respect to my long-term job security. I’m also super competitive, and he’s frog-leaping me. It’s ridiculous, as I said – and of course deep down I’m glad he’s doing so well – but I can’t help feeling like a comparative loser.

I’m afraid this post will end up coming across quite negative. Probably not what you’d expect from a happy mum-to-be. That makes me feel a bit guilty (although I did forewarn about the self-indulgence). On balance, I actually feel quite positive about this situation. I won’t lie – I’m not relishing pregnancy. But I am looking forward to having a baby (as much as one can look forward to something they can’t yet perceive) – I love a new challenge and I’m sure it will be good fun having a little mixed up version of me and my partner around. As I lay awake at night, experiencing the bizarre and slightly gross sensation of being booted in the bladder by another person that is growing inside me, I’m already getting the first pangs of motherly love. I know the sun will shine out of this child’s backside. I do, however, feel overwhelmed by all the uncertainty. I’m used to being in control, but I’m not sure I’ve got a good grip on this one yet. I am reflecting on my many ambitions and wondering which ones remain realistic (I’ve already conceded ‘rock star’ is out, despite a new electric piano remaining on my Christmas list). I don’t want to change my career plans, but I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t throw a huge spanner in the works – even if people try to tell me otherwise. Ultimately, I’ll just have to see how things pan out and try to enjoy the ride, wherever it takes me…

Five steps to science outreach success

Tomorrow I’ll be driving down to London in a van packed with microscopes, giant eggshell models, bird feeding tables, wildlife camera traps and more. Once there, I’ll be meeting a bus-load of children from Rotherham, ready to spend a whole week delivering science to the masses. For the past year, I have been working with Maltby Academy as part of a Royal Society Partnership Grant-funded project, investigating the secret life of birds. This week sees the culmination of all our hard work at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, where we have been invited to present our project alongside the UK’s scientific elite.

I can’t wait to fill you in on how it goes in a future blog post, but for now I want to take the opportunity to reflect on my year of ongoing school-based outreach, and offer five tips for effectively engaging school children in science.

1. Talk to teachers. Before you plan your outreach activity, get in contact with the school and discuss your ideas with the teacher. Forging a strong relationship with teaching staff is crucial for successful school outreach – it will help with organisational logistics, and give you the chance to ask questions to make sure your activity is suitable and relevant.

Try this:

If this is going to be your first time in a classroom environment, ask if you can sit in on a science lesson a couple of weeks beforehand. This will give you the chance to familiarise yourself with the set-up, assess the level of the students, and pick up valuable tips from the teacher on how to maintain attention and engagement.

2. Become familiar with the National Curriculum. It is essential that you pitch your subject matter at the correct level for your target audience. Do your homework. What do students learn at each Key Stage? What basic knowledge will they already have that is relevant to your topic? How can you link your material with the work they are already doing in class, building upon their existing knowledge to broaden their understanding? Never assume knowledge, but also be careful not to under-pitch. Kids get bored easily – you need to challenge them.

Try this:

Ask the class what they already know about your subject, and allow some time for discussion. It is tempting to underestimate a young audience, but they often know a surprising amount! And make sure you leave plenty of time for questions – you will be inundated.

3. Don’t deliver a lecture. I hope this goes without saying, but just in case: The effectiveness of traditional lecturing is debatable even at graduate-level. It certainly doesn’t work for 12-year-olds. You MUST incorporate some degree of interactivity into your outreach. Hands-on practicals or demonstrations with brief introductions and summaries are ideal – they encourage active learning while keeping students continuously engaged. If your work doesn’t lend itself to practical work, be imaginative: How can you involve the children in your subject matter? Can you use them to demonstrate a point? When talking to the students, make sure you ask questions and encourage discussion whenever possible – this is probably the most receptive audience you will ever have.

Try this:

Present a question or problem to the class and ask them to discuss in small groups for five minutes. Give them paper and pencils to jot their ideas down. At the end of the five minutes, ask each group to present their solution to the rest of the class. Encourage the class to critically analyse and challenge each other with questions.

4. Use scientific words (but make sure your audience understands them). Avoid dumbing your language down unnecessarily. A key goal of science outreach should be to introduce children to new ideas and broaden their scientific knowledge outside of the school curriculum. Young children love learning new things! The crucial point is that they must fully understand your terminology. Before using a scientific word in a sentence, ask the class if they know what it means. You will usually get several suggestions. Fine-tune their ideas and ensure everyone understands the meaning before you continue. Use the word(s) repeatedly throughout the session, reinforcing their understanding.

Try this:

When working with young children (e.g. primary level), ask them to repeat new words back to you a few times, to help them learn the pronunciation. For all ages, write scientific terms on the board along with a definition, so everyone can see the spelling and meaning.

5. Don’t be a stranger. Scientists often plan one-off activities, parachuting into a school for an afternoon and then vanishing, never to be seen again. While one-off events can be fun, they miss a trick in terms of long-term widening participation. Children view unfamiliar outsiders with impressive job titles as alien invaders, worlds apart from them and their families/friends. One way to address this is to plan a programme of outreach that allows the class to progress through a longer-term project or investigation, with repeated access to you as a ‘familiar’ scientist. The authentic relationship that develops between you and the students, as a consequence of these ongoing interactions, will go a long way towards breaking down early-forming misconceptions about who scientists are and what they do.

Try this:

Ongoing outreach can be costly. Why not apply for some funding to help cover your time and resources. Lots of funding bodies have money specifically aimed at widening participation and public engagement in science. I managed to get some – so can you:

Royal Society Partnership Grants

https://royalsociety.org/grants-schemes-awards/grants/partnership-grants/

Microbiology Society Education and Outreach Grants

http://www.microbiologysociety.org/grants-prizes/education-outreach-funds.cfm/education-and-outreach-grants

British Ecological Society Outreach Grants

http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/funding/outreach-grants/

Institute of Physics Public Engagement Grant Scheme

http://www.iop.org/about/grants/outreach/page_38843.html

Science & Technology Facilities Council Public Engagement Small Awards Scheme

http://www.stfc.ac.uk/funding/public-engagement-funding/public-engagement-small-awards-scheme/

Royal Academy of Engineering Public Engagement Awards

http://www.raeng.org.uk/grants-and-prizes/ingenious-grant

Universities usually have their own sources of internal funding for outreach activities – ask your Widening Participation and Public Engagement teams to provide you with more information.

Want to learn more about the Maltby Academy and University of Sheffield “Secret Life of Birds” project? Watch our video, follow our #summerscience tweets via @HemmingsNicola1 and @MaltbyBirds, or come visit us at the Royal Society between Monday 04 July – Sunday 10 July 2016!

Being nice in academia

It’s Researcher Wellbeing Week this week at my University, which has prompted me to finally write this post about ‘being nice’. It seems a fitting time to highlight how a little support and camaraderie can make a big difference…

Several weeks ago, a senior colleague (not my supervisor) was really nice to me. To clarify, my working environment is generally very nice. My research group are my friends and most other people across the department are open and good natured. But this was not your standard everyday niceness. It was specific, targeted, and meant a lot. For me, it was extraordinary niceness.

It might not sound much to you: The person in question ‘just’ casually pulled me aside and recommended that I apply for a position they’d heard about. They stressed that I’d have a very good shot. The interaction was brief, but long enough for me to realise it wasn’t just a passing comment – they had made a deliberate effort to mention it, and their motive was sincere. It was a job I wouldn’t have considered applying for – I wouldn’t have dreamed I was a possible candidate.

I left the room literally glowing, the blood in my cheeks creating a warm halo of delight around my head that has stayed with me right up to the point of writing this.

Perhaps this person didn’t realise how nice they were being; how great an impact that thirty second chat might have on my self-perception, confidence, and enthusiasm. I’m not exaggerating – since that conversation, I have felt positive and ambitious about my future career, and have sidelined doubts about applying for independent funding. Perhaps my colleague didn’t think it was much at all – but to me, it was.

That’s the thing about being nice. It’s actually quite easy. You might not even notice you are doing it, but I bet your recipient will notice. Especially if they in a more junior position, maybe struggling a little with confidence, maybe having a crap day/week/year, maybe in need of some support. A little niceness can go a long way. It can bolster people up, spur them on, propel them forward. It can make people glow. Academia could do with a bit more of that.

As I said before, being nice is so easy that you might not notice you’re doing it. I think it would be even better if you did notice. If you made the conscious decision to donate some specific niceness to those who deserve it – to take thirty seconds to mention a job you think they’d be great at, or commend them on their fascinating conference talk, or retweet their cool new study, or tell their supervisor how impressed you are with their work. Why not actively champion your colleagues and their brilliant accomplishments? I’m not suggesting any compromise on honesty: The majority of people I work with are pretty awesome, so it’s really not that hard to find something nice to say. Who knows what it could lead to? Little things can have big effects.

Mistakes I’ve made as an early career researcher

As I come to the end of my current post-doc and tenure as a bona fide early career researcher (at least according to several grant-awarding bodies), I look back on the last 10 years since I started my Masters with wizened (tired?) eyes. Here are some of the mistakes I have made – from the trivial to the fundamental – plus some hand-waving advice on better practice. I don’t have all the answers by a long shot, but I’m still here.

Failing to organise my data adequately (circa 2007).

Prepare your datasets like you would if you were giving them to a stranger who knew nothing about them. Label, annotate and meticulously file your R scripts. Incorporate read-me files into everything and write them for the monkey that will be you in five years, when you return to your data and/or analyses for some unforeseen but vitally important reason. Don’t get this wrong. You will regret it.

Not practicing writing enough (circa 2008).

Fortunately I learned this lesson early, due to a combination of brutally honest criticism and good advice (see below). But it was a very steep learning curve and I should have made the most of all that lovely time I had as an undergraduate and Masters student to refine my writing technique.

Jumping the gun (circa 2009).

It’s great getting exciting, tantalising results. Just remember to be self-critical. Make sure you have sufficient evidence to support your conclusions. Scrutinise your methods. If all the boxes are ticked, then great (see next point). But take the time to ensure they are.

Being slow to publish (circa 2010).

Take heed of the last point. But once you have rigorously evaluated your work, don’t drag your feet. Whatever stage you are at in your academic career, if you’ve done good research, get it out there. Papers matter.

Worrying about what people think of me and my ability as an academic (circa 2011).

This is truly a waste of time and energy. First things first: People probably aren’t even thinking about you. They’re busy worrying about themselves. But regardless, this kind of worry is completely unproductive. Worry about your work instead, let that speak for itself, and the rest will follow.

Ignoring the advice of those who know better (circa 2012)…

In the early stages of your career (and probably late stages too), you will think naïve thoughts, miss crucial information, make mistakes and/or simply let your untempered enthusiasm run away with you. Respect your academic elders – they’ve probably made most of these mistakes several times over, and have advice that could save you the trouble.

…apart from those times when I ignored my intuition and took bad advice! (also circa 2012).

Try to hone your bullshit radar – not everyone has your best interests at heart. A disconcerting proportion of people act completely in their own interests, and are quite happy to use you, abuse you and put you in awkward positions if you are willing. Beware and learn to say “no” if the arrangement is not mutually beneficial.

Crying over spilled milk (circa 2013).

The saying is true – there really is no use. Whether it’s one lost sample or an entire failed experiment, what’s done is done. If you can’t fix it, the most pragmatic and efficient thing to do is salvage what you can, learn from it, and move on. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that bad – trust me. I have extensive experience of getting over it.

Giving work too much priority (circa 2014).

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I find science addictive and my research is important. But life is bigger than academia and it’s really important that academics remember that. Don’t wait for things to be put into perspective for you – make time for the other things in life now. It will probably help you be more productive at work anyway.

Looking back with rose-tinted glasses (circa 2015).

Despite all the mistakes I have made, there are moments when I long for my PhD heydays. But although I loved the academic freedom of my PhD and early post-doctoral work, I now get huge fulfillment from overseeing projects, interacting with external partners, teaching and supervising students, and supporting the work of other excellent scientists. All alongside my own research and scholarship. I’ve learned so much since my PhD and developed as both a researcher and a person. I wouldn’t really want to go back. I’m looking forward to the future.

 

How your bad scientific talk makes me feel

While clearing out the loft over the Christmas period, I found an old wire-bound notepad from my PhD. It had been used to record key points from seminars, conferences and so on. Flicking through, one entry made me smile. Unsurprisingly, I can’t really remember the specific talk I’m referring to in this entry. I do, however, know only too well the feeling of attempted concentration giving way to sheer critique (and eventually, complete indifference) – a frightening number of talks make me feel this way.

I wrote this long before I’d even considered blogging, and it has sat in my loft for several years since. Before it becomes recycled paper, I thought it was worth transcribing so that at least something comes of the lousy conference talk that wasted an hour of my time one January morning:

 

As the speaker chortled to his cronies on the front row, rambling on about how the members of his research team were “rarely in the same time zone” (guffaw, guffaw), all I could think was “I don’t care! You have forty-five minutes to convince me why your work is important and interesting. So far, everything you’ve said is irrelevant and to be honest, it’s making everyone except the two people you know feel pretty uncomfortable. Tell us something fascinating!”

But he didn’t. He showed us what seemed like a thousand plots, skimmed over umpteen equations and talked in obscure, unfathomable abbreviated terms. He works on one of the most beautiful, amazing groups of birds – the hummingbirds – and yet he has managed to drain every shred of curiosity from me.

A few benevolent members of the audience murmured a chuckle as he commented on the unnecessary complexity of his inscrutable phylogenetic tree. I, however, found myself fighting the urge to stand up and bark: “Are you serious? If we really “don’t need to worry about it”, why show it? Have you even thought about us – your audience – for a moment? Do you want us to remember you and your work? Do you want us to leave thinking you actually do something worthwhile?!”

I managed to contain these silent outbursts. My aggression has begun to subside. Slowly, I have become numbed to the core by his seemingly endless sermon. I have spent the last ten minutes writing this to avert the feeling that my face is melting, but now I am imagining myself as a hummingbird, desperate for nectar. I hope there is wine at lunch.

 

Never one to miss the chance for a bit of self-promo, if you would like some tips on how to avoid leaving your audience numbed to the core and desperate for wine, here are ten of mine: Nicola Hemmings’ Top Ten Tips for Giving a Great Talk.

 

 

Lab elf

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the lab,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a post-grad…

 

I haven’t seen a soul in the department today. Over the past week, corridors have emptied and office doors have stood closed. The undergrads left last week and the rest of us have been dropping off like flies ever since.

And now it is Christmas Eve. An eerie hush has descended. Professors are at home, beginning preparations for tomorrow’s festivities. Post-grads and post-docs are traveling across the country or world to be with their loved ones. Technicians are breathing a sigh of relief as they look forward to twelve days free from the demands of academics.

Soon, an email will go round, announcing the closure of the department for 2015 and urging us all to be on our merry way. It will generate a hundred out-of-office replies: We’ve already gone.

Except for me. I am still here, and I will remain here for the majority of the next twelve days. Not because I have to. Not because I have vital experiments on the go or because my workload is so crushingly unmanageable that I must simply forgo Christmas. This is quite simply the best time of year to be in the lab.

Call me Scrooge, shout “Bah-Humbug”, question my character if you like. The fact is, what I love most about Christmas is the sheer peacefulness at work.

Imagine that you could begin each working day without a barrage of emails, demanding to be answered with the utmost urgency. Imagine colleagues didn’t immediately intercept you as you walked through the door, requesting your input on a multitude of tasks. Imagine looking at your Google Calendar and seeing an expanse of free space, without a single meeting scheduled! For me, this is the magic of Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong: I will see my family tomorrow. We will eat, drink and be merry. I will not do – or probably even think about – work. But one full day of complete gluttony is more than enough for me. Frankly, I find the rest of the festive period rather boring. One day, if/when I have kids, I will no doubt feel differently, and relish the chance to spend long days off work playing and laughing with them. But right now, I don’t have kids, and the long days off work feel, well, long.

So instead, I will come here to my desk at the end of the lab, and I will start each day by thinking “What shall I do today?” rather than “How the hell am I going get through all of this?” And since no one else will be around to interfere, I will do exactly what I want: Think, read and write about wonderful science.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

What Students Want: The delicate balance between teaching quality and student satisfaction.

A few recent teaching experiences have led me to reflect on the definition of “teaching quality” in higher education, and on my own role as a “teacher” of undergraduate students. Later in this piece, I describe just one of these experiences, but I am interested to hear about similar and/or contrasting experiences of others, as well as opinions on my own ideas for improving teaching quality.

Of course, this is very topical given the recent publication of the Higher Education Green Paper (Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice), which outlines the Government’s vision for higher education in the future. The looming Teaching Excellence Framework, or “TEF” (see pages 18-33 of the green paper), has UK academics squawking – often with painful pomposity – about what exactly constitutes excellent teaching.

Measuring teaching quality in today’s higher education climate is complicated. In my heart, I agree with many remarks being shouted from the lofty towers of senior academics: Good teaching inspires. It lights fires. It challenges students, stretching their young, talented, creative minds. These components of teaching quality are difficult – maybe impossible – to capture with simple metrics. Worse, they may score negatively in certain assessments. For example, student satisfaction scores will suffer if “intellectually challenging” is interpreted as “too hard” by a subset of students expecting a spoon-fed degree.

And why shouldn’t they expect to be spoon-fed? After all, higher education is becoming little more than a market commodity. With such a high proportion of the school-leaving population now coming to University, the degree has become a £9K ticket to employability – and students expect to get their money’s worth.

We can reminisce about the ‘good old days’, when students came to University passionate about learning for learning’s sake. But it’s time to get real: Nowadays, the motivation of the average student (and their parents) is very different. They want tangible outcomes: Good grades, transferable skills, job prospects, salary potential. Romantic learners still exist – I personally believe we are the group that pursue education beyond our first degree – but they are a relatively small minority among the new higher education generation. Financial pressures are pushing even the most committed students to place greater emphasis on their career than their passions.

So while my heart tells me that teaching excellence lies in inspiration, in a balance between “wow” moments and head-scratching, in generating intellectual dialogue and a genuine passion for a subject, my gut tells me that it also requires a softer foundation. Many students respond to a challenge with fear and resentment, not excitement and curiosity. Most aim to understand a theory well enough to pass an exam, not to identify its flaws and generate ideas to develop it further. Excellent teaching must engage ALL students, from those who care only about the end-point, to those with the potential to be our next great thinkers. How do we support and satisfy the former, without holding back the latter?

A couple of weeks ago I had a particularly rewarding teaching experience. During the lecture, I’d introduced a question that is unresolved and much debated in the literature. I tried to generate discussion among the students, asking them to brainstorm specific examples in small groups and then debate the subject as a class. As the ideas began flowing, I became aware of a division in the group. An encouragingly healthy proportion of the students had taken on the challenge with gusto, keenly picking apart the problem and providing new solutions. But another set of students looked genuinely confused, particularly when they realised that I had no final, overarching answer! I knew exactly what they were thinking: So what’s the take-home message? What do we need to know for the exam? They were unsatisfied. They wanted a simple summary, but of course, there wasn’t one – that was the point.

I decided it wasn’t sufficient to simply expect these students to ‘get it’. That wouldn’t constitute good teaching. This subset needed more support and reassurance regarding what they should take away from the lecture. So I attempted to sum up, presenting the balance of arguments on either side and explaining why it was such a difficult thing to resolve. All the while, a different subset of students interjected, offering their perspective on the balance I’d described and suggesting explicit ways of testing their ideas. This subset not only completely grasped the point of my approach, but they were actively helping me teach! What a wonderful twist to the learning environment. I finished by describing some relevant research underway in my own lab, explaining what we have found so far and what else we need to figure out.

After the lecture, a small group of students approached me with various questions. But they didn’t ask things like “Could you re-explain X?” or “I didn’t quite understand Y”. Instead, I was asked “Would be possible to test X in this way?” and “Have you considering looking at Y from this perspective?” After 15 minutes of further discussion, we were moved out of the lecture theatre, but a couple of students accompanied me as I walked back to the department and we continued to chat about my ongoing research. Two days later, a student requested my feedback on an experiment they had designed to test an idea discussed in the lecture – she hopes to propose it as a research project for her final year.

I am confident that the group I spoke to following the lecture were satisfied with the “teaching quality” they received in that lecture. It is much more difficult to assess the satisfaction levels of those who quickly shuffled their notes together and left as soon as I uttered the words “Thanks for listening”. I hope that by recognising the heterogeneity in the group, and not expecting the same level of aptitude or engagement from everyone, I was able to adopt a flexible approach, providing a sufficiently soft foundation for those who lack confidence or interest, while still challenging others.

On reflection, I’ve realised there are benefits of teaching groups of mixed interest and ability. Given the right learning environment, the boundary-pushers among the group can become your allies, generating a buzz of enthusiasm. They also act as confidence-builders for other students, demonstrating that it is not just ‘safe’, but normal, to question concepts put forward by the lecturer. As they stretch their classmates, they also stretch themselves – and, perhaps most rewarding of all, they stretch you as a teacher.

I have a few ideas on how teaching quality, be it ‘real’ (whatever that is) or ‘perceived’ (by students), might be improved. Firstly, I think academics should be more conscious of how intimidating they can be to students. The best way to engage students is via direct discussion and conversation – this will not be effective if the students are terrified that you will dismiss their ideas as stupid. We should regularly remind ourselves of how undergraduate students perceive the gap between ‘us and them’ – it’s up to us to bridge that gap and make ourselves more accessible.

Secondly, we should have scope to build longer-term relationships with cohorts of students. Modules are often fragmented, with a number of different academics teaching a handful of lectures or practical classes here and there. While this approach can provide greater expertise for specific topics, it can erode continuity and make it more difficult for students to see how everything fits together in the bigger picture. Worse still, if academics fail to communicate with each other effectively about the material they are covering, it can lead to overlap and/or gaps. On top of all of this, building trust, respect and enthusiasm take time, often longer than just one or two lectures. If we are to improve on my first point, sustained student-teacher interaction is crucial.

Finally, I think we need more quality time with students, particularly in one-on-one or small group contexts. We need more opportunity for in-depth conversation and discussion, with scope to tailor this to different individuals with different requirements. This is something that students want too – I know from direct feedback.

I am not naïve: Increasing contact time is virtually impossible and I’m sure you were rolling your eyes as you read my last paragraph. But if we want to succeed, both in ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ teaching excellence, we must find ways to overcome these logistical problems and deliver the exceptional teaching experiences our students want and need. Moving away from the prescribed tutorial format adopted by some institutions is one possible way to allow academics greater teaching freedom. There is also immense potential in harnessing the power of our excellent, inspiring post-graduate community – encouraging PhD students to engage with undergraduates on a semi-formal, teacher/mentor basis is hugely beneficial all parties.

Last but not least: We really must stop tarring all undergraduates with the same brush (as I have heard many colleagues do in recent commentaries on teaching quality). Don’t get me wrong, some students are terrible, and it’s hard to understand why they chose to come to University in the first place. But some are brilliant, with far more potential that you or me. And most lie somewhere in-between, with scope to develop dramatically with our support and guidance.

Learning to go slow

My approach to life is fast. It always has been. The faster I can do things, the more I can get done. I live for efficiency, thrive on multi-tasking. Nothing is ever enough: I’m always setting new benchmarks, always raising the bar.

So it made sense that, right at the beginning of my PhD, while all my peers were focusing on the academic mountain ahead, I was busy focusing on the next challenge. I had decided to buy a horse, and was busy transporting her from London to Sheffield, finding somewhere to keep her despite having not a single horsey friend in a hundred mile radius, book-ending my days with trips to the stables and proceeding to turn her into an elite competition winner. I did all those things. I also completed my PhD within three years. Because, as I said, I go fast.

It also made sense that I chose to buy a Thoroughbred, best known for their use in horse-racing. We didn’t race, but oh did we gallop. And we jumped so high. We won event after event. My new Sheffield-based horsey friends rightly referred to her as the “wonder-horse”.
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More importantly, at the end of any hard day at work, I could always rely on her to dance with excitement as we rode out into the countryside. To make me laugh as she bounced on the spot, begging to run. To fly down the field so fast that the wind whipped the tears right out of my eyes.

But now, nine years later, my wonder-horse is growing old. While she is still happy to take me out at the end of a hard day, to help me clear my mind, no longer does she bounce with excitement. And while she still enjoys a gentle canter down the field, her legs are sometimes stiff, and hills can take their toll. So we must take things more slowly now, give her old body time to warm up and her old lungs time to fill. Our rides take longer, we spend more time walking. Together, we meander through the beautiful Derbyshire countryside and she gives me time to breathe it all in.
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A slow horse can be frustrating for a fast rider. But my horse isn’t slow – she is old. And as she gently succumbs to age, she is teaching me that sometimes it is good to go slow. To have no option but to forget about time. To relax and be patient, and stop worrying about what comes next. To relive precious memories and be thankful for the things you have.