The Pipeline (again) or “Am I really working on Sunday?”

This post will appear on the 15th of January, 04:00am, Adelaide, South Australia daylight saving timezone. Does this mean that I am up at that hour or working on a Sunday morning? Far from it! I’m writing this post on Friday afternoon, as my day winds down.

After I wrote my post on the pipeline, I realised that my commitment to a daily blogging schedule had created a 15-30 minute hole in each of my days and sometimes I don’t have that much time to spare. We’ve all had the days when, after thinking about it for 6 hours, you finally take a well-earned bathroom break. If those 5 minutes are hard to scavenge, where would I get the headspace to write something amusing and amazing on a day like that?

Re-enter the pipeline! I am now working at least a day in advance. This has two advantages, firstly, that I take the pressure off myself and, secondly, that I can adjust my posting times to maximise the chances of being picked up and read from the Education topics page. I’m not writing this for my own benefit (well, not exclusively) – I want this to be read. By having my posts ready a day in advance I can commit them for publication at a time when more potential readers are awake!

Australia is a beautiful place but it’s a long way from anywhere and a large portion of the English-speaking education community are asleep when I’m awake. If you flick on topics/Education at 9:00am every day in San Francisco – I should be in bed because it’s about 3:30am where I am. So I’m experimenting with a 4am posting time to try and catch a sweet spot for the US being awake and the UK not yet being asleep. I wouldn’t be able to do this with live update, or without a pipeline, unless I was wishing to sometimes skip a day’s post to move it into the next hot zone.

I have jumped around a bit in scheduled publication time. I’m reviewing results this weekend* to see which has been the ‘most successful’ viewing time and I’ll start using that as my default publication time. I don’t care how many people ‘follow’ or ‘like’ my posts – but I do care if nobody reads what I’m writing because that means I’m wasting my time.

You can probably tell that I’m not all that keen on wasting my time. Yes, this requires both forethought and discipline but I am finding it incredibly liberating to know that all I have to do between now and Monday is think of one cool thing and put that in the pipeline too. Hmm. I have 5 minutes left…

(*PSST: Measurement is the Key to Everything)


Bang, bang, you’re educated.

I currently have a summer research scholarship who is working on a project called “Bang Bang, you’re educated: Serious games in Computer Science”. For the last week, he’s been reading a number of books I’ve lent him, reading across a number of key websites and thinking, based on his own experiences, how he could build a game that teaches people interesting things about CS or gives them practice in key skills in CS.

The core book was “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, who wonders at length why people spend so much time playing games, given how hard it is to get them to perform similar actions in reality. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything that she suggests but as a unifying introductory document, especially with key vocabulary, it’s very valuable. My poor student has a number of other books, of varying age, that he’s using as references to get more depth in key areas. To his credit, not only is he immersed in these books, he reads to and from Uni as well. [ I thought we’d almost managed to stamp out reading? 🙂 ]

He has six weeks work on this project and he started on Monday the 9th. I’d given him some pre-reading, all web-based, before he showed up but on Monday he got all of the books and instructions to read all of “Reality is Broken” while thinking about the project overview and how he could answer some key questions. Tuesday afternoon we met, discussed what he’d done, and then I told him to come up with 5-6 target student groups, approaches, techniques and (ultimately) games. I gave him a giant desk-based flip pad (3M sticky note topped A2 sheets. Very cool), some sticky notes and told him to throw ideas together – then pick the three best for presentation on Thursday.

Thursday he came in and presented three game ideas of which two blew me away and one of which was (only) pretty good. Clear presentation. Good ideas. But, most importantly, he had also selected his favourite (which happened to be mine as well). It was a great moment and, in the spirit of random reward, he walked out with praise and Lindt chocolates. He also left with instructions to turn the prime candidate into a five week development plan, with risk assessment, weekly project goals and extension possibilities. For presentation today.

Today, he presented the candidate, to me and another academic, and the game sounds great. At this stage, it sounds like it will meet the requirements that I set for him at the start. In outline, they were:

  1. The game must either increase CS knowledge or develop a CS skill.
  2. It will be sufficiently enjoyable that students will want to play it.
  3. The game is generally accessible to people at all levels of knowledge and skill.
  4. Playing the game enhances learning, it doesn’t detract from learning.
  5. The game may be integrated with external reward activities (as part of an alternate reality game link to a class, for example)
  6. The game will be ready for students to play in 5 weeks.

The successful candidate is being play tested, with the paper rules, for the first time on Tuesday. Tune in then to see how we went!

The joy of X (kcd)

xkcd is a fantastic webcomic written and illustrated by a very interesting guy called Randall Munroe. As he puts it, it’s a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” (Note the Oxford comma!) The comics are out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and cover a wide range of topics.

From a teacher’s point of view, they can be quite abstract and cover adult content, but the sheer breadth and delight of the comics are amazing. Take the one that is currently on the site “Game AIs”:

If you can’t find a way to integrate this diagram into a discussion on complexity, computer science, programming, artificial intelligence or games – you may not be trying hard enough. And xkcd is full of this kind of stuff. Giant scale diagrams from the smallest particles to the Universe. Ways of thinking about different amounts of radiation.

Beautiful little stories about flying ferrets who save people lost at sea.

You may have to be a little cautious on occasion, because some of it is quite adult, but choosing some images from this site for teaching, which Randall allows under most circumstances, can bring a lesson to life. If you haven’t seen it before, grab a comfortable chair, sit down and have a good read. There’s something here for most people who teach in or anywhere near the sciences.

Do you have your teaching buddy?

How are you developing and maintaining your learning and teaching support network? Do you have one, formally or informally? Thinking about it right now, can you name at least one person you can turn to, to bounce ideas off, to proof-read things, to discuss research with?

If not, then you need one! With a support network of even one person you’ve got someone else to talk to, to sanity check you, to help you laugh when things aren’t funny and to balance you if you’re going off-kilter.

It doesn’t need to be someone in your own discipline, although that can help, but it does need to be someone who understands what it is like to be an educator. There’s a lot of gallows humour, of joking about the things that are making us despair, and sometimes other people, especially partners, don’t get how we can complain about something so much and still love it so much. That’s where your teaching buddy comes in. With any luck you have more than one, you have a network of these people. These are not just the people whose blogs you read or whose books you have, these are people you can message or mail to ask a question or grab a coffee with or just sit down and have a long “GRAAAAA” chat with – without losing your job.

Sometimes teaching feels like an us-and-them kind of job. Us is always us, but them can be our students, or our administrators, or our bosses. You don’t want to gang up on any of these people but, at the same time, you don’t want to find yourself crawling the walls. Apart from anything else, working on cool projects is always more fun with a friend to help out, to throw ideas around with and to just sit down and talk to.

Do you have a network? Do you know someone who doesn’t? Can you reach out to try and help?

Are you working alone? Is there someone you could ask, anywhere? Have a look around, there are lots of professional networks – conferences and workshops are a great place to meet like-minded people. It’s ok, we’re not talking about marrying these people, you can even, if you’re so inclined, look at it as a very casual speed-dating set-up if you’re nervous. But you’ll be amazed how many people out there are ready to talk, want to talk and, working together, we can probably all achieve that little bit more.




“That” student.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give to anyone starting college, it would be “Don’t be that student”. Despite what many students think, while we pretty much know who you are, depending on class size, we don’t have the time we’d like to be able to track every student in detail. The students we see the most, deal with the most, and talk about the most tend to fall into two categories: the very high-achievers and that student. The high-achievers come to make sure that they’ve dotted all the i’s, that their question on a possible interpretation of something on slide 3 has the answer that they think it does and to talk about honours or PhDs or job references or things like that. When we talk about those students, the high-achievers, it’s generally because they’re moving on, doing interesting things.

The rest of the class? We’ll see them periodically, in lectures, on the forums, around. Even those who are struggling, who we see more, we probably won’t see as often (although we’re probably trying to). We’ll try to learn names, get an idea of who you are, but we’ll probably never see you enough to get much depth.

But that student? That student we deal with a lot. We generally don’t gossip but, sometimes, if someone is expressing exasperation with a student, or can’t get their head around why one of their students is doing something odd, we might, from time to time, lean across and say “Student X?” “Yup, that student.”

Let me be frank. If you’re trying, but you’re struggling, but you stay in touch and do your own work and you come to appointments? You’re not that student. If you don’t show up to class or do any of the work and fail silently, despite all of the e-mail asking you to get in touch? You’re not that student. People who know that they are struggling and are striving to fix it are my bread-and-butter and I’ll try to get you back. People who don’t show up at all and don’t respond? You’re only wasting your own time. It’s a shame (and I’ll keep trying to get to you) but you’ve made a decision, of sorts.

So who is that student? If you:

  • never hand anything in on time, even with extensions, and you have no real reason and you can’t even be bothered to think of one;
  • stick your hand up in lectures frequently, which is good, but only ask irrelevant questions, frustrate your classmates and then, a week later, do the same thing again without a hint of introspection – you’re not dumb but you can’t be bothered listening;
  • show up without having done any of the pre-reading or any of the previous assessment and then complain that you don’t know what we’re talking about;
  • can’t see why your group would care that you only started your section of the group assignment 12 hours before deadline;
  • make an incredibly urgent appointment one afternoon for early the next morning and then don’t show up because you forgot – or just because;
  • can’t understand what’s wrong with the previous entries on this list…

then you might be that student. Sadly, until you actually decide that you want to be in the course, and you devote the effort, and you work out what you have to do in order to pass, then there’s not much that I may be able to do for you. Why are you showing up if you’re not doing anything? I can try and help you to work out how to get ahead but, until you accept that you’re going to need to allocate more time and yourself to this course, there’s not a great deal I can do.

And every lecturer you run across, who doesn’t know you, is going to try and help you as well, because that’s our job. But, you, if you’re that student, you’re making yourself nigh-on impossible to help.

Some come good. That’s always a huge blast when someone genuinely sorts themselves out, gets their courses done and graduates. We’re genuinely happy for your achievement – not because we’ve got rid of you (seriously!) A lot, however, get kicked out after they’ve under performed for too long and that is such a huge waste of potential and time. And that, most of the time, is what happens to that student.

We offer a lot of opportunities for redemption and, honestly, it makes me really sad when someone stays on the path that will ultimately lead to them being kicked out. Half the reason we can even identify that student is because so many people will try and bring them back, get them on the righteous path and bring them up into the general body. Hey, if you can get that student into over-achieving, you’ll really have achieved something good!

Not everyone has to, wants to or needs to go to tertiary study. But if you’re going to do it, why not give it a good shot? I sincerely hope that there is enough good teaching around for everyone to be able to make the best of their shot. (Sometimes that’s not true but I can always hope that we’re all trying to make our teaching better.)

Like always, all joking aside, we have to focus on imparting knowledge (teaching) but that requires that our student be ready to receive knowledge (learning). Seriously, no-one really wants to be that student.

The Zeroth Law of Teaching: “No Negativity?”

I was at a conference recently and I was chatting with the PhD students at their poster session. One of them summarised his life philosophy as ‘no negativity’. I looked at him to see if he was joking and then replied “So, positivity, then?” The student’s eyes lit up as he thought about what I’d said, and his own comment, laughed and agreed.

When I first told this story on one of my other blogs, a number of people responded by saying “Oh, but he could have meant ‘at least neutrality'” and, while I didn’t argue it there, ultimately this was missing both the point of my critique and the student’s response. The first thing I considered when responding to the student was that he was obviously looking for something short, sharp and shiny to contain his world view. The second thing I considered was that I didn’t want to be negative, so my comment had to be chosen carefully. The third was based on my assessment of the student.

The student was a very positive, enthusiastic and creative person. When he said ‘no negativity’, he fairly obviously meant ‘positive, creative energy!’ He wanted a short way to express this but, as we are all prone to do, he focused on the antithesis and then negated it. Now, of course, by doing this he created an automatic contradiction in his own maxim. That’s why I checked to see if he was joking first because, as an ironic statement, it’s wonderful. My belief, based on initial reaction and his reaction to my comment, was that he hadn’t consciously realised that he was rejecting negativity with a negative. Now he has the choice to either be deliberately ironic or to be succinct and clear.

English is a funny beast. If I say “I don’t disagree with you”, it doesn’t always mean that I agree with you, double negatives or not. It’s also confusing for people with English as a second language because it appears very similar to “I’m not disagreeing with you”, when the two have different uses and, depending on your cultural background, very different interpretations. I choose my language, my idioms and my examples very carefully to make sure that I pitch myself to the current audience. This means that my classes in Singapore are run and presented slightly differently from my classes in Australia. Same knowledge. Same standards. Different presentation to maximise my efforts.

If you don’t know your audience, then your humour, your use of language subtleties and, especially, the use of sarcasm and irony can be missed completely and people won’t know if you are being exceedingly clever or if you’ve missed the point. If a student misses a subtlety, then do you think that they’ll always stick a hand up to check? Are they going to learn something incorrectly or miss a key step?

That, for me, is the Zeroth law of teaching: “Know your audience.” If you pitch yourself at the right level, to the right group, at the right time, you will be far more likely to pass on the knowledge in the most effective and useful way possible.

Being a better teacher: 5 things not to do.

Yes, the Zeroth law of teaching should be “Don’t be negative” but that’s another post (as well as a comedy routine). Here are five things that I’ve stopped doing and my students seem to appreciate it.

  1. Confusing attendance with participation.
    Everything that I do with students should give them the opportunity to participate and engage – if I want them just to be exposed to knowledge I can give them readings outside of class and then use my presence and teaching skills to reinforce that in contact time. Taking a roll that demonstrates that they were physically present while I read the text book at them achieves very little. It’s the same for any other activity: a tick represents that they did something, not just that they were there.
  2. Bluffing.
    When I started out, there was always the temptation to have to appear all-knowledgeable at all times. Much as, in the PhD process, I finally learned that knowing a lot about an area also meant knowing what you didn’t know, sometimes teaching is about accepting that you’re wrong, or you weren’t clear, or that you need to take another approach. I didn’t try to bluff my students often, but I did it once or twice and it was dumb. Better to admit your mistakes and fix them than try and bluff. Your students will lose respect for you – and you’ll lose respect for yourself.
  3. Recycling Tired Material
    Some material should get carried forward into new courses because the fundamentals stay the same. However, where possible, every course should be reviewed and refreshed. If you are going to re-use something, update any time or context sensitive references. Putting up a piece on Steve Jobs the week after his death is timely. Three years down the track, unless it’s part of a very specific series of other material, it looks like you’re lazy. In particular, if you inherit slides or material from someone else, check it. Make it yours. Much as you will probably never win the 100m dash in borrowed shoes, you will probably never excel at teaching in someone else’s material and students can and do feel the difference.
  4. Overstating my authority
    “Because I said so”, however you state it, is the argument of last resort of a tired parent, it’s not going to achieve very much at all when you’re attempting to form high-reasoning, professionally competent people. Lecturers usually have very good reasons for almost everything that they do, whether shaped by good practice, current and past research or University policy, but it sometimes takes a lot of time to explain the reasons for something. That means, on occasion, when tired, or in a hurry, or because this is the 30th person this week to ask why they can’t just hand something up late, the temptation to appeal to your own authority can be tempting. Initially, when I first started teaching, my problem was that I expected all of my students to have read every single line of the policies so, when they questioned them, I assumed that I was being challenged. Stepping back, educating people to look at all of the relevant detail in pedagogical and professional terms is just part of my job. We now have course profiles that clearly describe everything a student needs to know. When questioned on things that are supported by course, school, faculty and University practice and policy, I depersonalise what is (most usually) not a personal attack at all and say “Look at the course profile. It will clearly explain everything” and refer all of my discussions to that.
    I am most definitely not saying that we have no authority in our teaching, or that we should abdicate our responsibility, but I am saying “know the limits” and use it when necessary and appropriate.
  5. Expecting students to be me
    What have I done? I have a Bachelors, a Masters and a PhD in Computer Science. I have a Grad Dip in Oenology (that’s wine science). I was a Captain in Royal Australian Armoured Corps. I run marathons up and down mountains for fun. Does this tell you what kind of student I am now? Maybe. You’d expect me to be driven, self-reliant and self-motivated. You’d be pretty right. Does it tell you what kind of student I was when I started? Not at all. My first degree took longer than it should because I was a terrible student, with no self-discipline or understanding of what I was doing or why I was doing it.
    When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that because I could get to where I got, every student in my class had that potential and that the way to realise that potential was the way that I did it. In hindsight, this is laughably stupid because my pathway was based on having an excellent secondary education, which I could draw on once I decided to become a good student, having a good support system, not running out of money, living in a safe city, being part of an un-repressed group (white Australian male) and having a lot of good luck, including meeting my wife, who is the cornerstone of all of my success. Due to Australian polygamy laws, not everyone will be able to marry my wife, so this approach is obviously not generalisable.
    More seriously,  my students have a wide variety of life and educational experiences before they come to me. What affects the way that they learn, participate and grow will vary from student to student. While every student has the potential to pass, assuming we have set up our entrance criteria correctly, it is up to me to be aware of the wide variety of student when I’m teaching and try to hold that delicate balance that meets most people’s needs most of the time.

Learning from mistakes and improving for the future is one of the most important skills my students learn – it makes sense that I value it as well and I practise what I try to teach them.

Five things that made my first-year programming course better.

We’re always looking for ways to make our teaching better – more effective, more engaging and the kind of class that students fight to be in. I recently got the chance to write a new first-year course from scratch and, based on my previous experience, there were five things I did that, from early results, appear to have made a positive difference. Caveats: As always, there’s always the risk that any change will bring about an improvement or that this is cohort variation or many other factors. I’m basing this list on the intersection of things that I did and the things that my students thought made a difference.

  1. Modern, appealing design of all course materials. The course materials had the same look and feel, based on a modern design template that used simple typefaces (Helvetica Neue and Courier New) with a straightforward colour scheme. When the lecture approach changed, as we’ll discuss shortly, there were strong cues in the material to indicate that we were in a different mode. My students are surrounded by good design all day, every day: advertising, games, magazines, TV, films, … If the most boring, listless and dull thing they see all day is my visual aids, there will be an association.
  2. Lectures had two sections of content, one more lecture-y, one more tutorial, with a five minute break in the middle where we discussed topics of interest from outside the classroom. Every lecture hour contained coursework material, the chance t practice it and the opportunity to see how it all fitted into a bigger picture. Students were very positive in their support of the five-minute ‘distraction’ and it also provided an excellent transition point from ‘lecturing with participation’ to ‘student-focused peer-level activity with lecturer overview’.
  3. Giving the students their own ‘interesting things’ space on the electronic forums. We had standard information fora, student questions and a couple of others where students could just chat about things. Participation in the ‘offside’ forums was optional although all students were enrolled at the start. It is some 3 months since the last class and there is still occasional traffic on the interesting things fora. It kept the main lines of communication clear but allowed, in much the same way as the five-minute diversion, space for expansion and thought.
  4. We increased the difficulty of the practical work, once we had confirmed basic skills and provided practice in the skills required to approach the harder programming work. After several weeks of small ‘1 week’ scale C++ programming exercises, we dropped a deliberately loosely-spec’d problem onto the students that required them to carry out a proper design, plan their testing and write their code efficiently, over a two week timeframe. Before this we had rewarded design with a few marks and also had the in-class demonstrators discuss and encourage testing, as well as presenting it in lectures. Student feedback on this prac was very positive – challenging but highly rewarding. The code standard of the class jumped up after this. Also, students who had wondered why had been preaching design for such ‘simple’ problems indicated that they now understood that they had been practising design as a process, at the same time that they were practising coding. This startled some of them because we had apparently been thinking hard about the design of the course itself. (Which we had, but it’s nice when people realise it.)
  5. We encouraged and rewarded student reflection on process with cold, hard marks. Student were required to provide a written reflection on their software development process at two stages, just after the hard prac and at the end of the course. Both times, most marks were awarded for clarity of communication and addressing key points, rather than any definition of a ‘right answer’. As a result, the final reflections were written at a very high level, showing a clear understanding of the requirement for design and testing, as well as having almost no syntax or grammar errors and, for the most parts, clearly showing evidence of thought and editing.

The class in question did very well but, regrettably, they should have anyway because they were all self-selected high achievers in a small class. There is no quantitative strength in a numerical discussion here (I have measurement elements in place but there is no significance in the results, yet). The qualitative approach is far more interesting, because the student feedback clearly shows participating, engaged and self-aware students who can communicate verbally and in writing. The hardest prac in the course was the most popular, because of the challenge, but it was an achievable challenge. We set the bar higher, the students climbed higher. Most, if not all of them, now realise the reason that we talk about design and testing so much, and how you can use one or both to reduce your development time by reducing your bug load in later phases. That’s not bad at all for the end of their first 12 months and only their second computing course after a rapid-fire grounding in OOP in C++ in a previous semester.

I look forward to running this course again next year with 130 students from a broad range. Let’s see what happens.

The Pipeline and How to Swing it

Getting everything done would be easy if we had very little to do or unlimited time in which to do it. Sadly, by the time you stack up what your students need you to be, your school or faculty needs you to do, the parts of you required for your colleagues and your family, it gets hard to get things done. That’s where good pipeline management gives you a bit of help in encouraging you to prioritise in a way that lets you maximise your use of your own time.

Some things cannot be handled in advance. You can’t mark an assignment until the students have returned it, you can’t publish the exam results until all of the marking and any adjustments have been taken into account. Some things have to be dealt with by you being there and dealing with the events as they happen. To be good at learning and teaching requires a lot of your time, there’s no disputing it, but trying to do it all at the same time will crush you. Some of things that we need to do can be reorganised in terms of their importance, amount of preparation time and deadline, and this is where your pipeline comes from. If you currently have a to-do list, but you don’t do any real longer-term forecasting, then this post is probably for you.

If you’re not good at breaking things into manageable tasks, like me, then go and grab one of the many good books that can help you. I have had a lot of great use of a book called “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. You may want to start by looking at a website called 43 Folders. If that appeals then you might want to replace your existing paper to-do list (or e-mail notes, or sticky notes) with some task management software. I use OmniFocus on iPad and Mac for task tracking and Merlin for project management. Whatever you use isn’t important but what you need to be able to do is to work out:

  1. What you want to do
  2. How it breaks into components (and you should know the order of these) – you must be able to identify the FIRST STEP. This will lead to the second.
  3. When it is due (set this wherever you need to in order to finish on time)
  4. How long each component will take
  5. Who else is involved
  6. What other resources you have

Then, armed with a list of all of the projects that you have to achieve, and a list of the first steps in each one, you can work out which has to be be tackled first. Something not due for a month? How long will it take? A month? Start now! A week? Get it to pop up in two weeks time. Maybe you can handle it early and go on to something else.

A to-do list is a great start but it’s only as good as the bigger list of projects that feeds it new to-do items. A good to-do item can be achieved in 15 minutes, maybe an hour. Why so short? Because then you can tick it off and move on to the next task. If you spend a day working and you tick nothing off your list, how much will you feel like you’ve achieved? If your to-do items, for writing an exam say, were “review last year’s exams”,”copy LaTeX template to repository and check security and backups”,”Write question 1 on underwater knitting” you can look at your work at the end of the day and, if you’ve got to Question 2, you can tick off three things. Doing things this way also gives you some checkpointing and rollback if you get interrupted, or distracted, or come down with a cold. Short tasks are also easier to interleave and it may help if you set up your pipeline so that short high-reward jobs get bumped up the queue occasionally to give you some needed endorphins for the longer haul projects such as grant writing or course re-design.

I wrote a 36 lecture course late last year and the pleasure in ticking off 36 individual ‘complete lecture x’ items was much greater than waiting two months to tick off ‘write lectures’. Apart from anything else, a good, concise task description will remind you what you were thinking and get you back into work more quickly – your ability to context switch will improve.

How you refill your list is up to you but, given how busy we all are now, it’s better to have the list showing you what you’ve achieved but listing what you could do next than to let you think that there’s nothing you have to do. If you want to take a breather, schedule it into your calendar or your list and stick to it. Got 15 minutes paper review time? Print the paper, leave your office, sit down somewhere else and read, if you can. One very good suggestion is that you take a break every hour to rest your aching back, get your eyes away from the computer and refresh. That’s harder sometimes than others but always be open to taking a brief , refreshing pause that will let you finish your work, get home, enjoy dinner and sleep.

And, if you actually know all of your deadlines, and what has to happen and when, you will worry less about what you’re missing and, with any luck, the sleep you have will be deeper and better. Sometimes, yes, it’s going to be a mad rush to completion but doing that all the time will burn you out. Use some of the excellent references and technology to do what you have to do and what you want to do in a timeframe that makes everyone happy and keeps you sane.

Happy pipelining!

Surviving and thriving on collaboration.

Juggling all of the things that you’re supposed to do as a University academic can be tricky. The traditional academic is supposed to conduct large amounts of valuable, cited and grant-rewarded research, be an exemplary and inspirational teacher, and also find time to sit on lots of committees, fill out forms and not get in the way, too much, of the central administration process. As a junior academic, you’ll sit on fewer committees but you may, instead, get admin jobs like ‘collecting the software requirements’ or ‘looking after the casual teaching budget’, so there’s always something to do.

The biggest mistake a lot of people make is trying to do it all themselves. Yes, you must be involved with these tasks, you will be responsible for their successful completion, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t consult other people to help, or involve them for collaboration, or bring other people in when the scale of what you’re trying to do might crush you.

The quick summary of this post is that if you get good at collaborating with other people, and you can set up a relationship that is on a roughly equal footing, then everyone benefits. However, you need to work out what each person is bringing and who is the right person to involve.

You can read a lot of self-help books that, effectively, boil down to “making it appear as if there is more than one of you”. When you can set things up so that you put in some vital, required, element, but then the heavy lifting or continued presence is handled elsewhere, then you’ve achieved this because you can then devote yourself elsewhere. Some things require you to be there the whole time: your own wedding, any event where you are supposed to be the speaker (which includes lecturing) and a lot of meetings. Some other things on our long to-do list require us to be involved, but not necessarily to be the sole operator. Let’s start by looking at research.

Research, in terms of finding ideas, pursuing ideas, getting results, writing them up and publishing them, is a time-intensive activity that requires reasonably long stretches of uninterrupted time to get the best results. Unless you have a research-only position, or you’re on sabbatical, that’s very hard to achieve. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t do it and we don’t necessarily have to sacrifice all of our weekends to do it. (Seriously, though, you’re going to lose some leisure time here and there. Academia is not a 9-5 job.)

One of the big advantages of having research collaborators is that your research and its publication, hence visibility and possible grant success, is always moving forward. These collaborators might be colleagues in a research group, research fellows, post docs, research assistants and PhD students (in later stages) and most of these, especially people who are paid to research, can keep the flow going when you’re tied up having to be in another place.

All these staff sound fine but this assumes that you’ve had the success required to employ all of these people! So how do we start down this track?

The answer is collaboration: finding people who are doing similar things so that you have more than one of you working on research, papers and grant applications. Look around inside your own school, or faculty, and work out if you have something that you’ve done that, combined with someone else’s work or input, can give you both some benefit if you work together. Ideally, the effort expended by each of you is approximately 50-70% of the effort required individually but still achieves the outcome. The more you work together, the more synergy that you’re likely to achieve because you start to have small copies of each other in your heads.

The same is true for learning and teaching based research and development. Can you find someone who also wants to do what you’re doing and can you work together so that you achieve the same result with less individual effort? Can you find someone to bounce those early ideas off to get better ideas forming?

We all know that your students learn more when they’re excited and engaged and discussing things with their peers. Research success can be achieved on the same basis. If your research is rewarding and you have someone to bounce it off, someone who can enthuse you or bring it back on track, you will do more and you will achieve more.

Forming a collaboration should be rewarding and all parties should benefit from it. Some collaborations stop after one effort, because one side or the other feels that they have been exploited. Yes, sometimes this happens, but you’ll quickly work out who you can and can’t work with. Forming successful collaborations early on, before you have the money to employ your own continuity providers, makes your job more manageable and allows you to bring more of yourself to other places, including your home life.

Here’s my (not exhaustive) list of things to think about when setting up a collaboration:

  1. What are you going to do? You should know what the task or project is, including every subtask you can think of, so there are no surprises later on.
  2. Who is involved? Work out who you are working with and have them involved from the start.
  3. What is everyone doing? Who is responsible for what?
  4. How much is everyone bringing to the arrangement? Resources, time, people or goodwill – cards on the table up front to avoid disappointment.
  5. When is everything due? Know your internal and external deadlines.
  6. How often will you meet? Will you be minuting things, e-mailing, using wikis or just having chats to keep track?
  7. How will credit be allocated? If it’s a paper, what does the author list look like? How could it change? If it’s a grant, what’s the money division?
  8. Do you have to worry about IP or commercialisation? If so, this gets tricky fast and makes 4 and 7 more complex. Sort this out BEFORE someone runs off with the IP and founds MicroGoogleII.
  9. Evaluation. How will we know that this worked for us and if we should continue? Sounds premature but if you have a rough idea of what you think denotes a successful collaboration, and you discuss it early on, then everyone knows the rough behaviour that’s expected.

Finally, here’s my list of 5 things to look out for as possible warning signs that your collaboration is not as solid as it could be.

  1. The other party has a lot of equipment resources and makes them available to you but does no actual research or writing, they just expect credit. Credit as an acknowledgement on a paper or grant app is one thing, expecting lead authorship or a slice of the funding is another. This isn’t always invalid but it’s almost always cleaner to pay cash money for resources, or resource access, and remove any doubt about credit. (A senior person who demands lead authorship regardless of involvement is much harder to manage here. That’s a political problem I leave to you although I might try and comment on it later.)
  2. Your collaborators have lots of ideas but never seem to produce anything. However, after five meetings, when you present the final work, they will still expect full credit for their ideas, regardless of the quality or usefulness. If you’re a non-producing ideas person, then other people will be just as grumpy with you. There are ideas and then there are ideas.
  3. Your collaborators rewrite everything that you submit, or redo the design, or experimentation, because it’s not up to ‘their standards’ or they just feel like it. I’m not saying that they or you are wrong – but your expectations aren’t aligned and one of you is going to get frustrated quickly.
  4. Deadlines slip or you end up in a deadline-chasing model that doesn’t work for you. Some people like to work in a panic close to the deadline, some don’t. If working up until the minute before hand-in is your thing, but gives your collaborator heartburn, don’t expect the relationship to survive. If you and your group can’t agree upon whether deadlines are really important or not, the stress risks breaking the relationship.
  5. You walk away from most of the meetings wondering why you bothered. If either of you is thinking that, you have to either address it up-front or finish what you’re doing, tie it up and find someone else to work with. Discussing it might be able to save the relationship (some people just don’t realise what they’re doing) but always be ready to close off your project neatly and start again elsewhere.

Collaboration is a fantastic way to get more results for less effort by recognising that people can work well together and, carefully controlled, it is the ultimate tool for junior academics to make it to being more senior (and tenured) academics. Just go into it with open eyes and be frank in your early discussions and it will work for you, rather than becoming a cautionary tale for the future.

Happy collaboration!