The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) is an annual competition which recognises and celebrates individuals making an outstanding impact on the student learning experience. Each year up to 55 awards of £10,000 are made to recognise individual excellence. The award is intended for National Teaching Fellows’ professional development in teaching and learning or aspects of pedagogy.
Why did you decide the time was right for you to apply?
We’re really lucky at UAL that we’ve got a Centre for Learning and Teaching which cultivates best practice. For a lot of us as practitioners, teachers, course leaders and researchers it’s a busy life, so having somewhere that focuses on excellence in our day jobs and on the quality of our teaching, which should be at the heart of our work here, really helps. It means we have people with a real passion for developing the quality of our teaching, like Professor Shân Wareing, Nancy Turner and Professor Susan Orr, who model a way of approaching the improvement of what we do and recognising where there is good practice. They encouraged me to apply. I saw it as a way to assess how my ambition to integrate teaching and research was working and seek feedback from students, colleagues and mentors.
Did their encouragement come about through an existing relationship you had with them?
Yes, I ran a series of public seminars called ‘The Edges of Television’ with the LCC media school to which we invited some top level practitioners, journalists, filmmakers and writers. I developed a student-centred model, so instead of students coming and watching academics and practitioners talking to each other and being spectators of the conversation, it was the students who structured the events. They looked at the journalistic work of practitioners like Andrew Gilligan, selected clips from their work and questioned them about their practices from different directions. That gave the students an opportunity to engage at a high level with some top practitioners in their field. In teaching terms (this model) is really exciting because what you’re doing is a lot of preparation, support and helping students develop and frame their responses to practitioners and putting them in a position where they can be in the spotlight. It was configured with a pedagogy that meant they were supported through the experience – my role was to chair the event so the students knew I was there to help if needed with supplementary questions. For some it can be quite daunting to question a significant figure who might be important in your practice or the way you think about things. I was very pleased for them that they did so well. Some people from CLTAD attended the event and wrote to me afterwards saying they were interested in developing research studies around this approach, so that helped develop a relationship. CLTAD also run the annual learning and teaching day, and since they started CLTAD has asked me to do events there, which I’m really happy to do. I learn a lot from those days listening to colleagues – it’s a good way to share best practice and give something back.
How did you respond to the criteria (individual excellence, raising the profile of excellence and developing excellence)?
I submitted various examples from my teaching and documentary practice – we’ve talked about the ‘Edges of Television’ seminar series. Another was the MA documentary film course, which I wrote 3 years ago, and which is UAL’s first postgraduate filmmaking course. I thought it was very important to write this course, because although there’s a huge amount of film and video practice at UAL, not just by people who aspire to be filmmakers – by a lot of artists for example, we had very little at a professional postgraduate standard of filmmaking. This means films made at LCC and UAL that can be taken up directly by the film festival circuit, bought by broadcasters, or do well in the awards season. Those three criteria were important benchmarks that I set for myself and my students so that our graduation films are of a standard that can establish careers. We’ve had three graduation cohorts and in two of the years we’ve had people shortlisted for the Grierson Awards, which is one of the top benchmarks in the documentary world. Students have had films screened at the Sheffield international documentary festival, the top documentary festival in this country. Students are getting their films screened not just in student categories, but based on the open submission competition, and that’s a blue-chip benchmark for any documentary filmmaker, not just in this country, but internationally. It says a lot about our students that they can come here and in a relatively short time produce, direct, edit and distribute their own authored films and within a few weeks of graduation we have had films in the Berlin Short Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, among others. That’s hugely encouraging for others. We take the academic study of documentary film very seriously, but that has to be worked through in the individuals’ film practice. What I want is that when students leave here, their graduation film is a ticket to commissions, employment, future creative explorations and work – so they leave with a credible show reel.
Another thing I did when writing the curriculum was to develop its inclusivity through the Making a Difference award that CLTAD runs. I’d applied for that and it gave me a bit of space to run focus groups and road test parts of the curriculum I was developing. I was able to refine it further so that we do feature a broader mix of directors and authors that our diverse student population can relate to. Inclusivity is not just about trying to help people feel comfortable to thrive in this environment, it has to be absolutely embedded in the curricula that we deliver. For me that means making sure there’s a proper mix of practice and people with different backgrounds and experiences. UAL statistics have shown there are problems in differential achievement for BAME students which is obviously a concern for all of us. Looking at the breakdown of achievement at Masters level in my area, and found that there was over achievement by BAME students, so there was a higher proportion of distinctions compared to the proportion of students we have, and I found that really interesting – I think it’s something to do with the range of the cultural capital that we explore on the course, the internationality of the films that we teach from, and the diversity of the approaches we use. That was something the University was keen to highlight, because we don’t have that record in all other areas.
I also included the example of a 3-instituiton film collaboration with fifteen students from UAL (London), Ritsumeikan University (Kyoto, Japan) and Kyoto University of Art and Design (KUAD), which I initiated and delivered in 2008. I raised sponsorship, co-organized student exchange visits (with the arts production agency Cross-Culture) then supervised the co-production and direction of two documentary films, which were premiered at the Ritsumeikan University Festival in Kyoto in November 2008. I mentored diverse cohorts and piloted new translation software for webinars and online production meetings. For the three UK student directors selected in open competition to make a film and go to Japan, it was transformative: “A small gem shot across obvious cultural borders, this coproduction allowed us to experiment and… led to a very successful and long lasting professional relationship amongst its crew members, as well as opening the door to other fascinating broadcast projects” Jose Velazquez 2008.
I really like the emphasis on development in the application, because it’s not about bigging yourself up. For me it involved looking at what’s really inspired me in the Teaching and Learning context and what’s not working. I wrote as honestly as I could about areas I’d like to develop and what can be useful in a community of practitioners, academics and researchers – how can we help each other? I really like the NTFS approach because it says the obvious, which is that teaching is incredibly important and the heart of everything we do.
What were the challenges in submitting a bid?
Most people, myself included, could well be put off or daunted by the prospect of applying this kind of language (the language of ‘excellence’) to themselves. Personally, I think there is a lot of really excellent teaching practice happening in this college, but it’s difficult sometimes for the individual, and there’s something deep in British culture that makes one feel embarrassed if someone is praising you in a particular way, so that’s a hurdle to cross. For me, I put the language of excellence aside and thought ‘that’s a value judgement someone else may or may not make about what I’m doing’. At the heart of the application was the question ‘how do we share best practice and improve student learning?’ I felt that if it was about that I could relate to it, and ask ‘what am I doing that might be useful?’ and ‘what are my colleagues doing that I can learn from?’.
Submitting a bid does involve a lot of work, but it made me clarify for myself what I think I’m doing here. It’s a really good question to ask oneself when there are so many things one could do with one’s life! It’s a very particular thing to practice and attempt to communicate something of that to cultivate new directors and really bring on our students. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that. The process of doing the application, being mentored in the application, thinking it through, trying to describe to myself and then to others what it is we try to achieve here – all of that has had a really beneficial effect because I’m clearer about our strengths and the areas where we could develop more. It’s exciting because you’re starting to think ‘how could we imagine this as an even finer experience?’ I know colleagues’ workload is huge, but if we’re in touch with what inspires us in practice and teaching, students smell that straight away.
How will the award benefit you and how will you use it to improve the student experience?
It’s early days! It’s encouraging. There is also some research funding attached to the award for pedagogic development, so now I’ve got that bit of flexibility to develop a project and improve aspects of the curriculum, which is a really tangible thing. More importantly, I really hope it can be an encouraging focus for all of us to look at further enhancing our teaching practice. What really interests me about this is looking at how we integrate teaching with research, and how we see ourselves as co-creating research with our students. The example I gave of the ‘Edges of Television’ series involved students generating primary research – some of the questioners got material from Andrew Gilligan for example that was discussed in a national newspaper – the Independent sent someone – and they are creating new conversations and questions, coming from student responses – undergraduate as well as postgraduate. That’s a really big benefit to me because it’s inspiring – there’s nothing better in a teaching context than seeing your students excelling, and that doesn’t have to be in terms of high profile award ceremonies, often it’s just the next steps for an individual.
What advice would you give to someone considering an application?
Just do it! Go into it thinking it’s developmental – it’s about asking yourself ‘what am I doing in my teaching, what’s working and how can it develop?’ If you go in like that it’s fantastic because you’re already involved in a conversation and you’ve got support from CLTAD in developing that conversation, which can deepen what you do here. That’s very rewarding. I did it without a particular view that I’d be given the award – some people told me I may have to reapply – if you’re doing it because of the process, because you’re trying to evolve your teaching practice, it’s a great tool and it’s great for the culture. So I never thought it would be for nothing if I didn’t get it.
The deadline for UAL staff draft applications is 4th November 2013. For more information visit our National Teaching Fellowship scheme page. CLTAD also offers workshops to support staff in making applications. For more information visit our Becoming a National Teaching Fellow workshop page.