All posts by specialagentCK

Nature: good for the soul

Even though I moved to Exeter two years ago now, I’m still asked, ‘How do you like Exeter?’ and ‘Don’t you miss Cornwall?’ I think because the latter is such an iconic British holiday destination, people assume that it must be wonderful to live there, and that I must have been crazy to leave. It’s true that Cornwall is ruggedly stunning, and that during my time there I frequently thought, ‘I am so lucky to live in a place like this.’ Unsurprisingly, such sentiments were particularly common when I was walking along the duchy’s (that’s right–it’s not a county!) dramatic coastline.

The Cornish coastline at Tintagel
The coastline at Tintagel — where I first fell in love with Cornwall

Cornwall has always reminded me of West Virginia–my father’s home state and one that I have spent a lot of time visiting, working in, and travelling through. Yes, it’s land-locked, but its slogan ‘Wild, Wonderful West Virginia’ deliberately emphasises and tries to capitalise on the same sort of dramatic landscape that makes Cornwall both appealing and endearing…to visit. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it comes with an edgy undertone. It can be harsh, unforgiving, and supremely inconvenient. If different destinations were like the different stages of a facial, West Virginia and Cornwall would be the invigorating but slightly abrasive scrub phase.

The nourishing moisturising phase–the one that leaves you feeling replenished and pampered–is Devon, which, to continue drawing parallels to the motherland, I think of as Britain’s Ohio. The thing I love about Devon is the trees. Yes, Cornwall has trees, but it isn’t easy to find woodlands and forests –big, unbroken patches of arboreal majesty reaching into vales and hollows, creating little sheltered nooks where there is a noticeable hush that falls as you enter into the shadow of the canopy.

A stand of trees seen from across a green meadow
I took this photo while standing under trees, looking out at more trees. Heaven.

There are so many patches of woodland here in Devon, and such variety of sizes, shapes, ages, and species of tree represented; I also can’t help but notice that the majority of those trees aren’t gnarled and bowed over sideways from the constant whoosh of wind blowing in off the sea. There’s something gentler and warmer (literally, as well as figuratively) about Devon, and it is very soothing. I love Cornwall, and I enjoy visiting there, but Devon does feel more like home–not just my home, where I currently live, but the Ohio home where I grew up and still visit. It is the type of outdoors that I crave more than any other.

My Exeter house may be located in a pretty run-of-the-mill suburb, but that suburb backs onto a woodland that, in turn, backs on to countryside, and I cannot overstate just how relaxing it is to look out and see green every day, and to hear very little besides birdsong. I struggled to find a decent place to rent when I first explored moving to Exeter, and the viewing for my current place was the last one I’d set up. I was feeling pretty despondent about my lack of options when I arrived and saw the scenery. I knew immediately that this was not just the place I wanted, but also the place I needed; required the proximity to the pastoral.

Pink clematis in the garden
I even have my own garden! With plants and birds!

At the time I moved to Exeter, I was dealing with a number of challenges in my life: divorce, cancer, a soul-destroying job. I’m a pretty pragmatic and robust person, but everyone’s fortitude has limits. I was craving the comfort of the countryside–not just to visit for a long weekend or even a two-week holiday, but to have as a consistent presence in my daily life. I could feel an impatient tug, a certain constriction in the vicinity of my heart, pulling me towards greenery. This was assuaged at first by moving in to my new home, spending time in my garden, strolling along the stream at the boundary of my neighbourhood, and visiting the local nature reserve, but I’d become so hollowed out that I could only be filled by exposure to more proper countryside.

That is how I came to discover the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty (AONB); I asked Google to tell me where I could go hiking, and Google delivered. The Blackdown AONB website has a handy selection of PDFs guiding you along circular walks of various length through different types of habitat. I downloaded them all and set out to explore my new territory–and I was not disappointed.

A dignified oak tree stands on a hill
One of the many dignified trees I’ve seen while walking in Blackdown Hills

My reaction to Blackdown is a difficult one to describe because it stems from such a complex tangle of emotions, experiences, and beliefs. The outdoors has always been a profound component of, influence on, and inspiration in my life, and being able to visit the very type of outdoors that I’d been longing for, after having been away from it for too long, was almost a relief; I felt like I’d been holding my breath, and was finally able to release it and draw in fresh air (an especially appropriate analogy since I was also, in fact, literally getting fresh air).

A brief tangent may help explain this sentiment. For almost as long as I can remember, when I feel particularly sad or stressed or generally unhappy, I have felt overwhelmed by the desire to go outside and lie in a ditch. I know how that sounds, but I don’t mean it in a depressing sort of way. If you think of how someone’s arms curl around you when they give you a comforting hug, you can, perhaps, see how lying in a depression in the earth might feel like receiving an embrace from the outdoors. I wish I were an artist so that I could properly translate this mental image I have of a benevolent, flower-covered Gaia-like entity cradling me in the palm of her hand.

Plant-covered earth sculpture shaped like a head rising out of the ground
Flower-covered magical earth creatures: they do exist

This is, of course, a metaphor, but it helps convey the sense of restoration I get from heading outside during life’s rougher moments. I haven’t ever actually laid down in a ditch—they’re generally pretty wet and filled with things I don’t want to touch—but I have, nevertheless, sought consolation and revitalization from the pastoral, and often this has actually included some tactile experience such as stretching out in the grass, running my fingers across leaves or flowers, or, I’ll admit it, even hugging a tree. Of course, touch isn’t the only sense that helps create a firm link to nature—I am particularly affected by the smells of damp earth and growing greenery, and of course the sound of birdsong—but it helps complete and confirm the connection; it helps reassure me that I am home.

As an ecologist, I am well aware that nature is neither benevolent nor a single unified entity, so I realize the potential hazards of oversimplifying and anthropomorphising. However, given that my particular specialism is human-nature interactions, I’m also familiar with the ever-growing body of evidence that spending time in nature is, to put it colloquially, good for the soul. I’m glad that there are sturdy scientific data verifying the psychological benefits of being in nature (and I’ve written about quite a few of these studies on my blog Anthrophysis), but these external sources say nothing that my own heart and mind hadn’t already told me: Being outside is therapeutic.

A statue of Buddha sits on a stone garden wall
One of the Buddha statues in the monastery garden

Interestingly, my very first walk in Blackdown took me through the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, which inspired some reflection on the relative benefits of different types of calming, meditative activities. I have meditated for years–I am particularly fond of active, or dynamic meditation, which dovetails very nicely with the types of rhythmic, repetitive exercise I tend to favour–and, more recently, have taken up both yoga and tai chi. I find all of them extremely pleasant and highly beneficial; when I am feeling low or listless or lacking in energy, they all restore a feeling of groundedness and focus. That said, nothing gives me a boost like spending time in nature.

I have most recently felt the positive effects of the outdoors during the last couple weekends, when I visited the Quantock Hills AONB and Killerton. I’d been feeling claustrophobic after being shut up during so much of this long winter, along with feeling physically unwell from migraines, and stressed from juggling an intense workload at the office. I’ve whisked myself off for hiking, birdwatching, plant identification, and general basking in the fresh air, and what a difference it has made. I feel calmer, happier, clearer, stronger. Better.

Sheep in a pasture in the Quantock Hills
Nothing is more restful than sheep, otherwise we wouldn’t count them while lying in bed at night. Right?

I know that we are all different, and that what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else: Not everyone loves marching up slopes and slogging across muddy fields; not everyone appreciates locations so remote you can’t even get a mobile signal (yes, these places still exist!); not everyone would prefer Devon to Cornwall (or the South West to the South East, and so on). But the evidence shows that nature is good for humans, period, so it’s probably worth it for each person to figure out what their favourite version of nature is. A city park, such as Hyde or Regent’s? More cultivated gardens like Kew or even the Tuileries? A sun-drenched beach or a snow-covered mountainside in a distant country? The rolling hills of Blackdown or the Quantocks? Whatever it is, embrace it. It may not literally embrace you back (I really do know that my Gaia imagery was just an analogy, I promise!), but your health and wellbeing will undoubtedly still benefit, leaving you feeling as though you’ve just received a comforting hug from an old friend.

And what better time of year to reacquaint yourself with nature? Leaves are returning to trees, flowers are emerging, migratory birds are returning. Earth Day is right around the corner and, here in Devon, we’re about to celebrate Naturally Healthy Month. Whether you’re a seasoned nature-lover reaffirming your appreciation of the outdoors or someone who would normally prefer to spend down time in front of the PS4 (no judgment here–I love it, too!), spring is the perfect season to dust off the cobwebs and head out for some fresh air. Your mind and body will both thank you for it.

New leaves bud from a tree branch


Academic Development: GW4 Crucible as a CPD case study

In between teaching, researching, and fulfilling administrative duties, it can be difficult for academics to find time for CPD, yet this is a vital means for ensuring an up-to-date understanding of specific techniques, ways of working, concepts, and the Higher Education landscape in general, as well as providing an opportunity for networking and getting out of the office (not to mention giving academics something concrete to write about when discussing personal development in HEA fellowship applications…)

Thanks to the University of Exeter’s inclusion in the GW4, our academics can apply to take part in the GW4 Crucible, a ‘melting pot for 30 future research leaders from different backgrounds to come together and explore interdisciplinary approaches to research through a series of interactive workshops, talks and activities’. The 2018 Crucible is focused on ‘Resilience, Environment, and Sustainability’, and includes among its attendees experts in flooding, fracking, genomics, and mechanical engineering (among other topics). The first of the four Crucible events focused on Communication and was hosted by the University of Exeter at Padbrook Park.

On the first afternoon, attendees learned more about furthering their research success by working with the media. Luke Salkeld from The Conversation UK talked about news articles; Dr Sam Goodman and Dr Katherine Cooper (AHRC New Generation Thinkers) discussed radio broadcasting; and Dr Caitlin Kight (University of Exeter) considered the relevance of social media.

During the social media workshop, Cruciblees considered the pros and cons of social media
Cruciblees also made a list of the various forms of social media they might consider using for professional purposes

During dinner, former UK National Cruciblee and current researcher and science communicator Dr Jon Copley (University of Southampton) delivered a short talk on his experiences with science communication from the perspective of someone who has been both a journalist and a scientist. In addition to regaling attendees with tales of working on Blue Planet II (he features in the final episode) and consulting on various science-themed TV dramas, Copley provided useful tips for working with journalists in a less stressful and more fruitful way. Among other things, Copley emphasised the importance of each academic’s having an understanding of why he/she wants to engage in communication and outreach.

Dr Jon Copley describes his engagement goals: to enable all people to share in the research done by experts, and to help citizens make more informed choices

The second day of the Crucible focused on engagement associated with policy more than education. Catriona Fleming from Parliament Outreach described how policy is created and enacted and how this process can be informed and influenced by researchers; a panel of experienced academics (Dr Matt Dickson, University of Bath; Prof Neil Adger, University of Exeter; Prof Peter Cox, University of Exeter) then answered practical questions and offered advice on contributing to policy.

For the remainder of the afternoon, Crucible attendees had a chance to put their newly gained knowledge into practice as they created a digital output–their choice of podcast or video–to encourage public engagement with a hypothetical research project they had just been assigned. In addition to having to jump hurdles associated with using certain technologies for the first time, the groups also had to figure out how to bring their diverse interdisciplinary interests together in a meaningful way so that their outputs could be maximally persuasive and impactful. What initially looked like an overly generous three-hour time slot for this activity flew past, but not before the six groups had a chance to produce some impressively innovative outputs.

Crucible facilitator Tracey Stead tells participants how outreach is like a communication, and also an onion

The academics were tired by the end of the intensive two-day training experience, but also enthusiastic about the next three Crucible events, intrigued by new collaborative possibilities, and ready to try out some new communication techniques to support their current work–cumulatively, a reaction similar to what you might expect in the aftermath of a conference. Although many of the participants spent their coffee breaks keeping on top of emails, there was probably still some catch-up required after two days away from the desk. However, the positivity and excitement evidenced by the buzz at the event suggested that CPD activities like these can definitely be worth the time and energy.

Assessing faculty performance: are student ratings the best source of data? (nerdy teaching post)

I wrote something for a blog at work but it was hidden behind a single sign-on so I’m re-publishing it here. It has nothing to do with food or travel or anything lighthearted and fun, but I slogged through a lot of statistics descriptions in the course of producing this and I need to share it far and wide so I feel my pain was worthwhile!

Last autumn, a comprehensive meta-analysis of student evaluation of teaching (SET) ratings received widespread attention after laying bare the many flaws present in previous studies that had sought to relate SET to student learning. Those previous examinations (notably Cohen’s 1981 paper ‘Student ratings of instruction and student achievement: A meta-analysis’ of multisection validity studies’, Feldman’s 1989 ‘The association between student ratings of specific instructional dimensions and student achievement: refining and extending the synthesis of data from multisection validity studies’, and Clayson’s 2009 study ‘Student evaluations of teaching: Are they related to what students learn? A meta-analysis and review of the literature’) suffer from a variety of methodological shortcomings. These include inadequate description of literature search techniques and parameters, small sample size effects, an inappropriate admixture of data with and without corrections for certain factors, and ‘voodoo correlations’ (impossibly high correlations that are merely an artefact rather than a reflection of reality).

The authors of the new work, Bob Uttl (Mount Royal University), Carmela White (University of British Columbia), and Daniela Gonzalez (University of Windsor) discount each of these studies after repeating them from scratch, and then present their own painstakingly performed meta-analyses to support their hypothesis that ‘students do not learn more from professors who receive higher SET ratings’. They end the paper with the following:

…universities and colleges may need to give appropriate weight to SET ratings when evaluating their professors. Universities and colleges focused on student learning may need to give minimal or no weight to SET ratings. In contrast, universities and colleges focused on students’ perceptions or satisfaction rather than learning may way to evaluate their faculty’s teaching using primarily or exclusively SET ratings, emphasize to their faculty members the need to obtain as high SET ratings as possible (i.e., preferably the perfect ratings), and systematically terminate those faculty members who do not meet the standards. For example, they may need to terminate all faculty members who do not exceed the average SET ratings of the department or the university, the standard of satisfactory teaching used in some departments and universities today despite common sense objections that not every faculty member can be above the average.

This statement is, presumably, intended to be deliberately provocative, but nevertheless highlights the intense pressure that SETs place on the modern academic. This theme is also explored in a qualitative analysis performed by Henry Hornstein (University of Hong Kong) in his review paper ‘Student evaluations of teaching are an inadequate assessment tool for evaluating faculty performance‘. Hornstein’s work was published a few months before the paper by Uttl et al., but did not receive similar media attention. This is understandable, since it is a review article, but it’s also a shame because Hornstein’s work acts as an excellent companion piece and provides a more in-depth examination of why we should approach SETs with caution.

As Hornstein points out, SETs were originally used (in the 1970s) in a formative way, to help lecturers understand which aspects of their teaching might require improvement Because the data were so easy to collect, however, SETs became increasingly popular as a method of providing administrators with the sort of snapshot of activities that could prove useful when making decisions about employment. Hornstein writes, ‘…the persistent practice of using student evaluations as summative measures to determine decisions for retention, promotion, and pay for faculty members is improper and depending on circumstances could be argued to be illegal.’

In particular, Hornstein highlights three main problems with the use of SETs:

  1. Measurement. This includes not only the statistical issues described by Uttl et al. above, but also difficulties associated with the fact that SETs typically involve qualitative data (usually collected by offering a range of categories along a Likert scale, e.g., ‘unacceptable’, ‘satisfactory, ‘very good’, etc.) that are then converted into quantitative data (e.g., unacceptable = 1, satisfactory = 3, and very good = 5). There is no real-world numerical difference between ‘unacceptable’ and ‘very good’, for example, so it is difficult to interpret what these selections mean in terms of actual teaching performance. Further, Hornstein writes, ‘it is not possible to interpret average scores of categories [because] the categories are not truly ordinal’, and yet this is the very information being used to make important strategic decisions. Like Uttl et al., Hornstein points out that ‘[administrators’] reasoning seems to be based on the improbable assumption that all of their faculty members should be above average in all categories.’
  2. Validity of student assessment. Hornstein cites a range of studies that provide evidence that students may not be ‘dispassionate evaluators of instructor performance’. For one thing, even the pedagogical literature does not yield an agreement on ‘effective teaching’, so it seems inappropriate to ask relatively untrained undergraduate students to be able to assess it. Rather, he writes, ‘students can reliable speak about their experience in a course, including factors that ostensibly affect teaching effectiveness such as audibility of the instructor, legibility of instructor notes, and availability of the instructor for consultation outside of class’. This is not the same thing as being able to ‘evaluate outside their experience’, e.g. determining whether instructors are truly knowledgeable within their field, or are well versed in, and demonstrative of, accepted good practice in learning and teaching.
  3. Response rates and satisfaction. As pointed out by a number of previous authors, SETs may reflect student satisfaction more than anything else; as a result, ratings are often given only by the students who feel most excited by or upset about their learning experience. Further, students may fixate on particular attributes–a perception of career preparation, relevance, and innovation, as well as factors such as classroom facilities, which are usually out of the instructors’ hands–that do not directly describe lecturers’ abilities. If students are mainly focused on getting good grades and not having to work too hard, as studies suggest many are, then lecturers that ensure the most challenging and educational environments may actually get the lowest SETs. Perhaps worst of all, SETs are known to be biased against particular types of instructor, in particular women. Hornstein writes, ‘…gender biases can be large enough to cause more effective instructors to get lower SET than less effective instructors’.

On the basis of these serious issues, Hornstein states that ‘the conservative and more appropriate approach is to question the validity of SET for all summative purposes’, else we risk alienating good lecturers who have been on the receiving end of SET bias, and also inappropriately encouraging academics to put on a performance just to make students happy rather than to choose the best pedagogical practices for ensuring a stimulating and effective educational environment. He also has an answer for how to assess good teaching in the absence of SET:

If one truly wants to understand how well someone teaches, observation is necessary. In order to know what is going on [in] the classroom, observation is necessary. In order to determine the quality of instructors’ materials, observation is necessary. Most of all, if the actual desire is to see improvement in teaching quality, then attention must be paid to the teaching itself, and not to the average of a list of student-reported numbers that bear at best a troubled and murky relationship to actual teaching performance. University faculty benefits most from visiting each other’s classrooms and looking at others’ teaching materials routinely. Learning can occur from one another, exchanging pedagogical ideas and practices.

Again, the strength of the author’s language evidences the passion that many lecturers feel about evaluation of teaching. Hornstein’s recommendation hopefully resonates with my University of Exeter colleagues who participate in the institution’s Annual Review of Teaching — a practice that many may find onerous to organize beforehand but beneficial to discuss afterwards. Demonstrating and discussing best practice with colleagues is an essential part of a well-rounded reflective teaching practice (and is one of the ‘four lenses’ advocated by Brookfield); as indicated by the work of Hornstein and Uttl et al., student feedback alone may not always tell the full story, and so it can be helpful and encouraging to also hear what colleagues have to say.

Hornstein notes that SETs can be a useful way of helping students feel engaged in their own education; rather than discounting the importance of the student voice, he questions the way in which that voice is recorded. Universities are increasingly exploring ways of empowering students to work side-by-side with academics in shaping their own learning process, as demonstrated in the growing importance of more experiential learning activities such as engagement in research projects and flipped classrooms in which students teach their peers. Work like that by Hornstein and Uttl et al. should encourage institutions to build on these positive advances and find more equitable, accurate, and beneficial tools for measuring the student learning experience–something that is also better for students, as it rewards the best educational practices and encourages the development of staff who are not quite up to snuff. Ideally, these data would then be used alongside colleague observations to produce more comprehensive, constructive evaluations, hopefully leading to ever more effective learning environments.