Good at Teaching or Good at Writing Applications?
Shân Wareing, University of the Arts LondonIn previous issues of Networks we have congratulated and celebrated the work of the three successful 2011-12 National Teaching Fellows working in art, design and media. Here, Shân Wareing, Dean of Learning and Teaching Development at University of the Arts London, tells us about the application process and provides some valuable insights and encouragement for those thinking of taking up the ch...
In previous issues of Networks we have congratulated and celebrated the work of the three successful 2011-12 National Teaching Fellows working in art, design and media. Here, Shân Wareing, Dean of Learning and Teaching Development at University of the Arts London, tells us about the application process and provides some valuable insights and encouragement for those thinking of taking up the challenge. For further details of the scheme, and profiles of the Fellows visit: www.heacademy.ac.uk/news/detail/2011/ntfs_awards
Good at Teaching or Good at Writing Applications?
I was delighted to be awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2011, joining a relatively small number of staff working in art and design to receive this accolade. Teaching is not the only thing which gets me out of bed in the morning; my kids also get me up, both in terms of giving my life a sense of purpose and also in the more concrete sense of jumping on my head. But teaching is the thing I really care about professionally so I was very gratified to be recognised by the national teaching fellowship. But almost immediately I received notification of the award, the doubts set in... Am I really that much better at teaching, or do I just have an edge when it comes to writing applications?
I am not an art and design practitioner. I studied English Literature and then Linguistics at University, which I taught for several years before becoming increasingly interested in the process of developing teaching in higher education. There are few National Teaching Fellows who are active practitioners in art and design, and I am curious about the extent to which the process of completing the paperwork to apply for the NTF is a causal factor in this. Comfort and confidence with text are the legacy of my academic trajectory, but despite my text-based background I found completing the NTF application absurdly difficult and painful. It triggered soul-searching and self-questioning, questions to which I did not always find adequate answers. In case you have thought of applying for an NTF but been put off by one of the emotions I experienced, I describe them below.
Question 1: Can the randomness of my life be made to look like a coherent plan?
I saw a very successful designer explain to final year students how to get the job they wanted. He showed two graphs, one a zigzag line stuttering around the screen, the other graph a single diagonal line running smoothly from the bottom left hand corner to the top right-hand corner. The first scrawly graph represented life as it feels from the inside, which you should not try to express to a prospective employer. The second graph represented the story he thought we should tell about our life to impress someone with our strategic focus and drive. For the purposes of the NTFS application, I girdled up my life to convey an orderly and purposeful existence, a diagonally rising line, suppressing the nagging and persistent sense that in fact everything important in my history had been shaped by chaotic and unguided forces. Strangely though, once I had created a narrative about how I had planned and executed actions to shape my life, the narrative acquired its own power to engender credibility – I began to believe my own story. I suspect there’s a moral in that!
Question 2: Evidence? How the hell do I provide evidence?
The National Teaching Fellowship application asks you to support your claims for excellence with evidence. Only when I was faced with constructing my own narrative supported by ‘evidence’ did I realise how very hard this is. A number of generous friends and colleagues were willing to write about how marvellous I am, but that’s not really evidence, only a second opinion, and not much more objective than if you asked my mum, to be honest. Most of us don’t have files full of impact metrics, and can’t imagine what an impact metric of our teaching excellence would look like. In the end, I cobbled together web page statistics, Amazon reviews, photocopying revenue, student and colleague emails. But I kept feeling this was missing the point – that what can be measured is not the same as what has value, and that the process of collating metrics was rather tawdry, reducing what I cared intensely about to what could be counted and weighed.
Question 3: Why do I have to write this stuff? Isn’t it obvious?
A bit like grief, there were definite emotional phases to my response to writing my NTFS application. A prolonged grumpy phase was the response to my irritation that my intrinsic fabulousness wasn’t readily apparent without my having to explain it to my distant anonymous assessors. It was beyond me why anyone wouldn’t be able to extrapolate my devotion to students and how I get better every day, from a few lines of ill-expressed prose and a quotation or two from my mum and my friend.
Question 4: Why am I shoe-horning my personal values and private emotions into this public document for people I don’t know to pick over and find me wanting?
During a shorter, but even angrier phase, I was furious with the mismatch between my personal values and the stupid headings on the stupid form, and the stupid evaluators who I anticipated would wilfully misunderstand my intentions and my skills.
Question 5: Oh no, none of it makes sense, I’ll have to start all over again. Are they just protecting me out of pity?
And then, with the sense that the bottom had fallen out of my world, I began to suspect that nothing I had written was coherent or constituted any kind of excellence, that my professional life was a sham, that probably everyone knew it but me and they had conspired to protect me from the truth out of pity.
This was a low point, from which I dragged myself back to complete the multiple forms in the correct font and send the whole lot in. A few months later the experience was transformed from dross to gold by an email arriving in a trail of magical sparkles to tell me my application had been successful.
But once the first flush of excitement wore off, I began to suspect that the award was not so much a recognition of my teaching (though I believe I am a good teacher), but of my writing skills. And this made me think about the extent to which the process might be loaded against teachers in Art and Design. My difficulties with the process as described above may be experienced by others, and surely not everyone gets through the worst of the troughs: some excellent teachers must fail to complete and submit their forms. And some excellent teachers must lose the will to live during the process of writing and rewriting, and send in an unfinished or unpolished application, resulting in an email rejecting their efforts with no golden dust sparkles trailing after it.
I would like us to have a system for rewarding the excellence of teachers which is fair, including for dyslexic staff, and does not require outstanding skills of organising and checking prose. I would like the process to be valid, so it tests what it is supposed to test. When I was in the throes of putting the application together, I felt – rightly or wrongly – that every anecdote or piece of evidence was a proxy for what really mattered, for the teaching we do that transforms lives.
We have introduced teaching awards at UAL this year, to a warm reception. People do want great teaching to be recognised and rewarded; they want to believe the system can correctly identify excellence. I want this too. We tried to keep the process straightforward, light on text, and with a basis in evidence. We will have to see how it goes. I believe in every respect the national teaching fellowship scheme has been designed to be fair, transparent, valid and reliable. The difficulties I encountered in preparing my application are very hard to avoid in any similar scheme. It is hard to get away from textual explanations of excellence, unless we rely on other data, like your NSS results or retention and achievement data. But although there is undoubtedly a causal relationship between this kind of data and your teaching, it is hard to isolate the significant variables; i.e. it is hard to say what effect you caused by your teaching.
As well as being pleased and proud of my NTF, I learnt some valuable lessons. In hindsight, I wish I had seen the NTFS preparation as a developmental process of intrinsic value, which helped me question my own values, intentions and actions over the course of my career to date, understand my own distinctive strengths, and my weaknesses. I also wish I had viewed the process of completing the forms dispassionately, like a puzzle, a kind of Sudoku, in which the challenge is to slide all the pieces into the right places even though it looks impossible. If I had seen the process objectively as a complex task, and not a personal justification, my anxiety and my ego would not have been such impediments.
I wish I could have learnt these approaches before writing my application but that’s not how learning works most of the time. I hope excellent teachers in art, design and media who have not yet successfully applied for internal or external awards will find something in this account to spur you on to complete your teaching award form and submit it, to win recognition for your work, and share some of it with the wider community.
BiographyProfessor Shân Wareing is Dean of Learning and Teaching Development at the University of the Arts London, with responsibility for Student Enterprise and Employability (SEE), and the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design.
Listing image: Photo: Jake Abrams, section from photograph of student wearing a pencil crown
Header image: Photo sourced from morgueFile.com