“One thing I cannot recommend highly enough is the HEA Fellowship Writing Retreat. The one-to-one session in particular. Even though I’ve been involved in teaching for 20 years, I came out of that 20 minute session with a far clearer idea of the why things had worked as well as the what. It questioned me and really made me think.” Steve Cook, Professor at Swansea University’s School of Management
Professor Steve Cook is not only an outstanding researcher in the areas of theoretical and applied econometrics but an excellent teacher. Recipient of the HEA Economic Network’s UK Outstanding Teaching Award for Economics in 2011, Steve has placed more emphasis on work in support of teaching innovation and teaching publications in recent years and grasped a rare window of opportunity to gain a Principal Fellowship when a timely gap appeared in his hectic schedule.
For me, academic life has always been about a combination of research and teaching. I’ve been a higher education lecturer for nearly 20 years and from the outset, I’ve always had not only an in-house teaching role but also an external-facing role in terms of engaging with other institutions and organisations regarding the development and delivery of teaching materials.
I have worked as an external examiner and programme reviewer at a range of institutions for 15 years or so in addition to serving as an Associate of the Economics Network. I have also held a number of different roles at my own institution such as head of different departments, head of learning and teaching, and so on. As a result, I have had the opportunity to put things into practice in my own institution to complement what I’ve been doing, more broadly in my discipline, elsewhere.
This year I have had a sabbatical period which has freed me from major administrative duties. I used part of that time to apply for a Principal Fellowship which is actually the only Fellowship I hold. I hadn’t applied for other categories in previous years because I had held a lot of leadership roles concurrently and was really short of time as a result.
I’d been thinking about applying for a Fellowship for a long time but initially I wasn’t sure whether the Senior or Principal Fellowship would be more suitable. I think the delay in applying actually worked in my favour because it allowed me to undertake further work within my own institution and, to a greater extent, externally which made the Principal Fellowship stand out as the appropriate option. The Fellowship process did take a long time – seven or eight months from starting to receipt of the award– but it was certainly worth it as I had a massive sense of achievement on completion. The Fellowship involves evaluation by academics with extensive knowledge and experience of teaching and receipt of the award shows you have been judged by these individuals to have satisfied the required criteria.
When you start working on different teaching projects, it is very easy to get lost in the mechanics and the implementation of your ideas and lose track of why the project was important in the first place. However, applying for Fellowship corrects this by prompting you to focus on why you decided to undertake projects and the impact they have on students. In addition, it gives you renewed confidence that what you’ve been doing has had a real effect.
Looking back over the whole process, two things strike me. When I first looked at the paperwork involved, it appeared quite daunting. Listing a series of items to evidence impact then write the required reports linked to these looked like a lot of work. However, when you get into it, it really isn’t that bad. It’s just thinking about why you undertook various projects and what impact they had – that’s really what it is all about.
The other thing that stood out is the writing retreat which I cannot recommend highly enough - it provided so much more than just information on the process or how to include various projects in the different sections of the application. The retreat turned out to be a real turning point as it provided a lot more than I expected. The one-to-one session was especially useful and made me step back from simply saying I’d done A, B and C and think more about what each activity meant. It was true reflection. The discussion and questioning forced me to think more about why I decided to undertake the activities in the first place and what impact they have had.
The way in which the retreat was run by the HEA was excellent. While it was made clear that gaining Principal Fellowship was quite an achievement and was by no means going to be easy, it also made it explicit that a lot of support and encouragement was available. It also gave me the impression that the Fellowship is a part of an ongoing process rather than a final goal as it something to be built upon.
Since attending the retreat I have used the extra energy and focus it provided to start work on two pedagogical projects. One is very discipline-focused and relates very directly to my own main area of teaching. It concerns revising the delivery and syllabus of a particular topic. The intention is to put this material together in a very accessible manner- a way that is going to allow it to be adopted very broadly within an online platform. The other project stems directly from the reflection the Fellowship entailed as that led me to consider a more general teaching issue. My areas of teaching are all very quantitative in nature and this second project relates to the nature of support offered to students in quantitative disciplines across different institutions.
Both of the above projects are going to be quite demanding in nature. However, I found the writing retreat really recharged my batteries and has both encouraged and inspired me to undertake challenging work of this nature.