Sign the petition! We Love WOLF (the University of Wolverhampton’s VLE).

I have set up a petition inviting students and staff from the University of Wolverhampton to oppose the projected move from our in-house, self-developed, much-loved VLE, WOLF, to open source Moodle.  Part of my concern is that a decision about this is potentially going to be made very soon (17th September 2012) and that public debate and discussion about this matter has simply not happened for either the student or staff bodies.

If you are a University of Wolverhampton student or member of staff please read the petition statement and consider signing.  Please also circulate it to other student and staff friends and colleagues.  Facebook and Twitter are effective for this.

Many thanks for your support.  Let’s tell the powers that be that we value WOLF’s distinctiveness!

Twitterus Academicus

Ms E-Mentor recently joined Twitter: .  It’s a buzzy, interesting and distracting place, the Twittersphere.  I managed within my first week to join in the Friday afternoon trend that was #popleveson, where thousands of tweeters posted Levenson Enquiry-style tweets using pop lyrics (example: “But you are not a poor boy from a poor family, are you Mr Mercury?” by @moomindroll).  I also started my own very small trend by using the hashtag #GoodLecturer to link to the Guardian Higher Education Network‘s live chat on ‘How to be a Good Lecturer’ on 18/05/12 (see my comments within the live chat thread as well).

There’s no shortage of interesting stuff out there on Twitter and Academia:  Are Twitter/blogging antithetical to ‘deep’, scholarly writing?; AcademHack’s suggestions on Twitter for Academia; Katrina Gulliver’s “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics”; the LSE Impact Blog’s Guide to using Twitter in University Research, Teaching and Impact Activities; Should students ‘do’ social media with their lecturers/tutors?

Until recently I’d not taken much notice of Twitter, thinking it mainly for those with smartphones (hoping Antiques Roadshow will be in town soon so they can value my mobile).  But then I read the Observer’s “Twitter feeds you need” and met one of their mentioned top tweeters, Stella Duffy, at Gladstone’s Library.  I signed up.

As I’m tweeting as Ms E-Mentor I’m inevitably interested in the ways that Twitter can be used within academia, research and (higher education) teaching.  One of my most immediate responses to Twitter is to note its capacity for blurring of boundaries (what other medium offers the seeming proximity to celebs/stars — surely part of Twitter’s popularity?).  While academics on Facebook may well not (rightly, in my view) want their current students as ‘friends’ (and vice versa), Twitter is different.  Any tweet is immediately public and hence potentially there is a tweeting etiquette.  I hope some of my students will follow me, as I may well follow some of them, and some of the blurring of boundaries that Twitter brings seem to me to be good from an academic point of view.  Hopefully academics are rounded people who have lots of different interests and enthusiasms and it is good for our students to see this about us.  This isn’t about being inappropriately personal, it’s about being an authentic person (and lecturer/academic).  Twitter is also potentially a place for wit, wry comment and fun (as exemplified by the tweets of Elizabeth Windsor @Queen_UK).  If you’ve only got 140 characters you’ve got to be to the point; if you go over, edit down until you’re sharper!

But can you teach with Twitter?  Before I actually had a Twitter account I tried…

Learning from (e-learning) failure

My colleague and fellow-blogger Aidan Byrne (aka Plashing Vole) has just forwarded me a post from the Australian academic who blogs as Music for Deckchairs about learning from edtech failure(s)The post begins “The problem with edtech evangelism is that it assumes the most valuable lessons are learned from other people’s success. This is why our lives fill up with stories of exciting tools that have transformed this that or the other thing. Exhausting, really.”

Absolutely true.  Tomorrow I’m off to a Higher Education Academy-sponsored day event at Leeds University English Department to talk about blended learning with a bunch of colleagues there and I’ve reached the dizzying heights of being invited as their keynote speaker.  I guess they aren’t thinking I’ll turn up and say “actually all the e-learning stuff I’ve tried has been a bit rubbish and I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time on any of this with your students”. I’m not, of course, but the principle of being allowed to try things out and it perhaps not working is something that our university structures don’t always accommodate too well.  Any new project proposal these days — whether pedagogic or subject-based research – seems to have to say confidently before its even started what shiny outcomes it is going to have achieved.

Music for Deckchair’s post thus reminds us that what doesn’t work is as important for learning as what does.  So you try out an e-learning activity with your students and it doesn’t go well.  Reflect on it.  Why didn’t it work?  Did you really want it to work?  What would you do differently if you did it again?  Ask your students why it didn’t work (they may well be more likely to know than you).  Write this process down and publish it.  It’s valuable.

One of my potential e-learning failures this past academic year has been this blog.  I’ve neglected it a lot (sorry to my three-and-a-half readers out there — I’ve appreciated your patience).  My excuse — such as I have one — is that I’ve been very focussed on writing a good old-fashioned book and  I don’t seem to have been born with the writing multi-tasking gene.  The part of my brain that  writes literary criticism is also not the same part of my brain that writes poetry, so the development of my MMU MA Portfolio due in later this year has also been taking a bit of a back seat.  But I’ve noted in myself that whilst I’m happy — and indeed enjoy — discussing aspects of my teaching on this blog, I would have been a lot more uncomfortable discussing my book-in-progress.  Maybe as English academics we are still a lot more private about the processes of producing our published work.  This includes failure as well as success.  There are days, weeks, even months when a project may not feel like its ‘going well’ at all.  Other times the writing adrenalin kicks in, connections are made and insights emerge.  Most often it’s just a sustained long, committed slog, where you have to keep on ‘showing up at the page’ when you can. And again. And again.

Lady Gaga attends my class

Yesterday was the end of another teaching year. It was the final session on “Women’s Writing: Reading Gender”, a second-year module that introduces a variety of feminist literary theories and themes concerned with women’s writing. The final session attempts to address what has happened to ‘The F(eminism) Word in the Noughties and Teens’ via a discussion of some of the characteristics of Third-Wave Feminisms.
A few weeks ago I’d been lucky enough to catch queer and gender theorist Judith Jack Halberstam giving a talk in Birmingham on ‘Gaga Feminism: Pregnant Men, Heteroflexible Women, and the End of Normal’, in advance of the publication later this year of her latest book Gaga Feminism (Duke UP, 2012).  The talk was lively and provocative (well done to Birmingham LGBT Forum for getting her to Brum!).  Halberstam argued that Lady Gaga is a ludic figure in relation to the image(s) she presents of gender and sexuality, and that as understandings of gender/sexuality are now changing so fast and so continually, and have in effect ‘gone gaga’, we should ‘go with it’ and do likewise, embracing such unfixed fluidity rather than resisting it.Lady Gaga -- BRIT awards 2010

Well, I’m nothing if not bang-up-to-date, so I passed this on to my class and we watched the full 7 minutes 20 seconds of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video (along with the other nearly 94 million people who have done so across the planet).  Are there people doing PhD analyses of this yet?  It’s certainly a phenomenal piece of pop video, particularly the opening few minutes.  Gaga as ‘Mother Monster’ is certainly an interesting phenomenon: she’s a massive pop icon who positively embraces an image of ‘otherness’.  No doubt there is lots to say as well about the way Lady G ‘performs gender’, although of course ‘Born This Way’ is about as essentialist a title as you can get (although within an American context the title’s essentialism is arguably part of its provocative queerness).

Is Lady Gaga a feminist icon? Opinions differ.  But one of the key tenets of third-wave feminism is that wherever feminism is now being explored it’s in popular culture. The last fictional text that universally seemed to get all feminist literary/cultural theorists going was Bridget Jones’s Diary (1997) — a popular bestseller.  Has there been anything since that has had the same currency in terms of fiction, or is the novel no longer where the most cutting edge, zeitgeist explorations of contemporary gender will take place?

Graduation! Graduation! Graduation!

University of Wolverhampton graduating studentsThe other thing that happened this week was graduation ceremonies.  For reasons better left unexplored I managed to end up attending completely the wrong ceremony (i.e. not the one containing English graduates), so I found myself in with all the lawyers.  Having no individual connection to any of the students at all left me free just to sit back and enjoy the proceedings in general, and in particular the honorary doctorate for Constance Briscoe, one of the UK’s very few black judges.  The brief mention of Briscoe’s difficult childhood makes her ascent to the higher echelons of a notoriously elitist profession certainly notable.  Briscoe has also courted controversy, writing two memoirs — Ugly and Beyond Ugly.  They have been regarded by some as very much feeding the frenzy for ‘misery memoirs’, but had I been one of the legal students graduating last Wednesday, I would have found her presence at my graduation ceremony inspiring.

Wolverhampton-born Kevin Rowland, front-man of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, was due to be the honorary award at the ceremony I managed to miss.  Unfortunately he was apparently ill and therefore wasn’t there.  I had high hopes of a headline such as “Spontaneous 80s Dungaree Disco Breaks Out at Local Graduation” in the Express and Star…  This may now have to wait until next year.  Previous honorary degrees I recall include actress and author Meera Syal, and there is also very funny two-part clip of Frank Skinner receiving his award on Youtube.

To be honest I can’t remember any of my lecturers being at my various degree ceremonies.  Some of them possibly were there for my BA English at Birmingham, but I certainly don’t recall anyone being at my MA or PhD ceremonies.  It is, to perpetuate a cliché, a day for the students and their supporters, but in my experience at Wolverhampton it is also true that academic staff do take pride and pleasure in seeing students they have worked with and seen develop over three years getting their degrees. So I’m sorry I missed the ceremony I was meant to be at, but I still enjoyed the general ambience of happiness and celebration that was around all week.  It is — and always will be — an achievement to gain a degree.