Connecting with the Curriculum Framework in student participation at academic conferences

Dr Madeleine Davies and Dr Bethany Layne, School of Literature and Languages
m.k.davies@reading.ac.uk

Overview

This entry offers a model of the way in which the aims embedded in the Curriculum Framework can be articulated via student engagement with research-led activity. Here we discuss the Framework-related teaching and learning benefits of involving our students centrally in the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference, held by the Department of English Literature on 25th March 2017. The term refers to the literary genre where ‘biography’ and ‘fiction’ connect; it is ‘postmodernist’ in its interrogation of the relationship between the two and in its troubling of the fact/fiction distinction.

Objectives

  • To involve University of Reading undergraduate and postgraduate students in professional academic conversations emerging from teaching and learning within the curriculum.
  • To engage with the Curriculum Framework and to produce a coherent narrative in relation to it.
  • To enhance students’ experience and employability.

Context

At the heart of the Curriculum Framework lie emphases on equipping students with a mastery of the discipline, skills in research and enquiry, personal effectiveness/self-awareness, and global engagement/multi-cultural awareness. Connected to these values are the terms that inform and produce them: ‘innovative’, ‘authentic’, ‘challenging’, ‘collaborative’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘coherent’. Finally, identifying the principles informing an engagement with 21st Century society and thought are the terms, ‘diverse and inclusive’, ‘research based’, ‘contextual’, ‘discipline based’, and ‘global’.

In organising and hosting a one-day conference in the Department of English Literature, ‘Postmodernist Biofiction’, Dr Bethany Layne and I made an early decision to connect with, and to articulate, the values of the Curriculum Framework at every level of the project. The conference developed from our work on our research-led Part Three modules and it was initiated in order to include our students in professional academic conversations and thus to extend their discipline-based expertise.

Implementation

To connect with the Curriculum Framework, Dr Layne and I involved our students in the organisation and proceedings of the conference. We recognised that the experience of working with us on event organisation, and participating in professional research activity, would provide valuable material for their CVs in ways that would enhance their employability.

Eight undergraduate students worked with us; they took photographs, managed the digital equipment, publicised the event, and oversaw logistical detail. In terms of the Curriculum Framework, we had confirmed our commitment to student employability, student engagement, and to the development of our students’ research skills and professional skill-sets.

Three of our Part Three students agreed to take part in a student panel at the conference and we were delighted to see that our keynote delegates, including Professor David Lodge, Professor Susan Sellers, and Professor Maggie Gee expressed a keen desire to hear their papers.

The students’ involvement was a tribute to their personal confidence (developed via the ‘double helix’ pedagogic model), and it also demonstrated their critical engagement with the material they had studied with us.

It was clear at the Conference that our undergraduates (some still at Part Two) felt a strong sense of belonging at the University. They were proud of the work of their peer group and proud of their identity as University of Reading students. Even at the end of their second year with us, our students were eager to work with us as colleagues and mentors rather than as ‘teachers’.

Our collaborative values were demonstrated by the Vice-Chancellor’s attendance at the afternoon sessions of the Conference. Sir David Bell chatted with our students and expressed a keen interest in them and their work, and his support of Dr Layne and I, spoke to our leadership’s commitment to collaborative knowledge sharing and to the development of productive, inclusive relationships.

Impact

We received excellent feedback from delegates following the event and there was a lively Twitter feed throughout the day expressing glowing appreciation. Our students were particularly grateful to us for including them in the conference.

The conference proceedings will be published in Postmodernist Biofiction (an edited collection with Cambridge Scholars) and our experience with student engagement in research-led activity will form the basis of a pedagogic publication. We are also expecting our student delegates’ performance in Finals to be significantly enhanced by their participation in the conference.

Delegates from competing universities commented enviously on the collegiate atmosphere between University of Reading staff and students, and also on the sophisticated critical work showcased by our student panellists. The reputation of the University of Reading was enhanced in every respect by the event.

Reflections

The Curriculum Framework expresses our professional values and pedagogic principles. Our commitment as academics to subject expertise and to the development of critically and culturally nuanced students is precisely what informs the Curriculum Framework. Engaging our students in this mission appears to be the difficult task.

However, our experience with the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ conference suggests that our students are eager for us to connect with them. When we reach out, they respond in ways that identify preconceptions about student disengagement as lazy and entirely misplaced.

What is important to understand about the Curriculum Framework is that colleagues around the University are already engaged in precisely the kind of work expressed in the Curriculum Framework’s values. Our challenge lies in moving the aims of the Curriculum Framework to the core of our activity and in expressing its principles in coherent narratives.

In the Department of English Literature, the values of the Curriculum Framework are being articulated through initiatives that not only locate the student experience at the heart of our research-led teaching, but that actively demonstrate it.

Follow up

Our undergraduate and postgraduate students have asked for more research events of the ‘Postmodernist Biofictions’ kind, and more opportunities for event organisation and participation.

We will move forward with the Curriculum Framework in additional projects including Focus Groups convened to involve our students in the diversification of assessment models and in a review of our provision. We will also centrally involve them fully in the organisation of forthcoming events including a visit and talk by Jess Phillips MP in June, and the Virginia Woolf International Conference in June/July.

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