Teaching Stories

Assessing Celebrity Cultures

Rumour had it that both the teaching and assessment on the third-year English Literature Celebrity Cultures module was pushing boundaries to introduce students to new ways of thinking. Intrigued, I arranged a meeting with its unit leaders, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Andrew Blades, to find out more about what they were up to.

The Celebrity Cultures unit has been running for just one academic year, but already word has got around that this unit is one worth taking. Andrew and Rowena came up for the concept of the course through a desire for students to reflect on course materials in a more “personal, idiosyncratic” way. They recognised a disconnect between the way academics thought and the way students were encouraged to think.

“… as scholars we are deeply involved in the emotional life of our material. And I think we felt that the students here didn’t quite understand kind of their political positions within how to engage with our texts and cultures, and this is set up, I guess, in some ways to think about that.”

The course material covers gender studies, cultural studies, critical race studies and queer studies but it’s also about how students find materials. Andrew and Rowena use celebrities as the central concept, thinking about how we, as an individual and as a society, create icons; how we obsess over certain things, how we look at things, what and how we expect things to be as opposed to how they are. Ideas about the political world that are then interrogated through the idea of celebrity.

In terms of planning the course, Rowena and Andrew sat down and did all the thought about its structure and assignments simultaneously, making the transition between materials and assessment seamless and organic. There are several things that set this unit apart from others on the degree.

Each week, students were tasked with writing a 250-word lecture reflection, considering what had struck them the most about the content. Students could either do this in the time between the lecture and the seminar, or at the beginning of the seminar, where the first 15 minutes of each session was handed over to students to either write this reflection or discuss the lecture with others in their group.

The lecture reflection also had additional benefits – lecture theatres were full; in part this is down to the reflective piece, but also the fact that lectures are delivered by multiple speakers, with a number guest academics from across the Faculty of Arts taking the lectern each week, turning each session into a mini-conference, with lectures being a mix of scripted material, reflection and discussion between academics, film clips, etc. This didn’t come without its organisation difficulties, but the benefits for students were huge – Andrew observed that in his entire career he had not seen lecture theatres so full! Students were not aware of what the lecture each week so they would have to come.

These lecture reflections formed part of a portfolio of work across the unit, in which students chose their best two reflections to make up alongside a traditional essay (75% for the portfolio), with a group presentation too (25%). Students continued to write throughout the course, creating a sense of continual reflection, which removed the emphasis on the ‘final’ assessment. Andrew and Rowena both said how high the quality of work was across the board, and this was undoubtedly because the students were given their own voice to reflect on what they had learnt. As well as the 2 lecture responses and essay, there’s a 500 word piece they call a ‘meditation’ – on a particular celebrity figure or phenomenon. This is a one-off creative-critical piece, and each of the three seminar tutors produced their own and presented it at a lecture at the beginning of term.

“Students will often hide behind a kind of what they think to be a scholarly style and behind certain buzz phrases… which are often ways of clouding the very things that they want to express. Academic, scholarly language is a learned artificial language, none of us speak like that. And in fact, it can often be really inarticulate in what it’s trying to say and deliberately obscure [it]. And I think, in a way, you’re sort of parting the clouds over that, and demystifying that, to some extent, brought out at this time better, better quality of writing, which had fewer of different types of technical terms, and fewer of some of the technical terms that are actually often misused.”

The majority of students on the unit enjoyed this way of learning and being assessed, yet a few found the academic freedom difficult. Rethinking education in this way won’t always feel comfortable for every student, and ‘Celebrity Culture’ definitely addresses some of the problems students currently find with more traditional units – heavy emphasis on a final, summative assessment without much room for practice and difficulty engaging with lectures and course materials are both solved through the design and delivery of this unit. Although the study of celebrity isn’t applicable to all, the educational elements certainly are.

Amy Palmer

An interview with...

An interview with… Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.

What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?

It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.

While there are plenty of publications about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination, reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.

Why do you think this performative culture persists?

Performativity is a term synonymous with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’ performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and ‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas, such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing assignments.

Student performativity has developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group assessment goes largely unchallenged.

What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined in the book?

There are important long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded for simply being compliant.

What is the one message readers will take away from it?

Well, here are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the ‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.

My second message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really means.

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

Our second blog entry is by Shanaz Pottinger, undergraduate student studying Experimental Psychology, at the University of Bristol.

You are invited to leave comments below.

Do we even need traditional lectures?

Succinctly, yes, we do! Lectures are an intrinsic part of the university experience, a rite of passage for all degree holders and an important arena for community building. In many ways Bristol is a traditional institution that draws a student body who are attracted to elements of the traditional educational experience (at least at the undergraduate level). I am in full agreement that the university must innovate and move with the times, however, far-reaching over modernisation at Bristol will lead to a loss of the university’s intrinsic appeal. Moreover, in my view, if courses were to see serious reductions in contact time there would need to be a reduction in tuition fees charged for this type of degree.

I appreciate that an opposing argument may be that traditional lectures favour a ‘one size fits all’ approach whereas an engagement focussed approach allows students to engage with material in a way that works for them. However, human beings are fundamentally social animals and research suggests that the quality of our social networks has an impact on our sense of wellbeing. Thus, I propose that the social benefits of traditional lectures should not be overlooked. These can be simulated in a digital environment but in my view these interactions are not totally comparable. After all Facebook has not replaced the social benefits of actually meeting up for a coffee has it?

In my view, we should be aiming for a model that champions attendance and engagement. As a student I would love the opportunity to experience a little less death by PowerPoint and a little more blended learning and flipped classrooms- just not entirely from the comfort of my own bedroom.