Speak your essay feedback: voice recording on Turnitin

The other day on Twitter I got into a discussion about dealing with large quantities of marking. Are there any ways of making it easier?

About this time last year, I started using the voice recording feature on Turnitin. I had moved from a university where marking with pencil on paper (plus a paragraph of typewritten feedback) was the standard way of doing things, to one that was all-electronic, which would inevitably add to an already heavy proportion of time at the computer screen.

So, recording rather than typing essay feedback was initially, for me, a way of reducing the risk of RSI (which I had a long time ago and believe me was unpleasant). But having tried it for a while, I think it helps me give feedback in an informal, accessible style, and initial student response has been positive. I’m hoping to get some proper survey evidence this year of what my students make of it, and how they use it, and I hope others who use the function can feed into this too.

How does it work? Very simply, Turnitin gives you the option of recording up to three minutes of feedback, perhaps 300-400 words, so more than you can easily write. I usually record as much as I can, write a few bullet points summarising it, and add inline comments (those little bubbles that Turnitin does) on specific points in the text. So there’s a mix of written and oral feedback.

You only get one take, which can be frustrating. I hand-write a short list of key points I want to make, then record as I look at specific parts of the essay. Typical feedback might go something like this. ‘Hello. I thought this essay started really nicely. If we look at page one, in your opening paragraph, you’ve got a good sentence setting out what you’re going to argue…’ Then I’d continue a bit on that section, giving some tips for improvement. Then I’d move on to discuss two or three further sections, before wrapping up with a summary of key things to work on for next time.

When I’m recording, I try to imagine that I’m sitting in my office with the student and a copy of the essay, going through what’s gone well and what hasn’t. It’s possible to convey a lot through tone of voice: you can be very pleased with one bit of the essay and rather disappointed about another. You do need to be cautious about this, though. If you’re exhausted or in a foul mood about something else, listen back carefully to make sure you’re not inadvertently conveying that to the student.

Recording feedback won’t be for everyone, and the lack of a pause button is less than ideal. But if you could do with reducing your typing load, it might be a good place to start.

Eight things Henry VIII’s break with Rome can teach us about negotiating #Brexit

It’s almost five hundred years since Henry VIII fundamentally changed English and Welsh relations with Europe’s supranational political institution, the Papacy. Some things haven’t changed much.

  1. They didn’t have a plan in 1527 either. For the first two years of negotiating with the Pope to end Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon everyone just hoped that with enough pressure they’d get a better deal. It didn’t work then and there’s no obvious reason it should work now.
  2. Henry’s fundamental problem was that the largest power in Europe – the Holy Roman Empire, incorporating Spain, the Netherlands, the German States and Austria – wasn’t on his side. (Now known as Angela Merkel not being keen on the whole thing.)
  3. You don’t want to be the Cardinal Wolsey of this situation (as many politicians appear to be realising).
  4. You might think you want to be the Thomas Cromwell of this situation. But a few years later you really really won’t want to be Thomas Cromwell, so enjoy it while it lasts.*
  5. The European lawyers are going to make an absolute fortune. Italian legal advisers in Henry VIII’s divorce case boasted of the ‘lucre’ to be made from it and hoped it could be strung out.
  6. There will be a lot of shouting in the negotiations. Pope Clement VII, according to a diplomatic report, turned the air blue with his blaspheming over Henry’s ‘obstinate desire’, denounced the king’s ‘devilish inspiration’ and declared that the divorce would cause chaos. That was when he was in a good mood.
  7. At the end of the day, the rest of Europe have bigger fish to fry.  As one Spanish cardinal said of Henry’s antics: ‘If for some short while, the Holy See should lose the obedience of one unfruitful isle, it will win it from many other realms of far greater importance.’
  8. Henry’s divorce negotiations lasted six years. And that was just for one divorce. Think #Brexit can be done in two? You’re having a laugh.

* Part III of Wolf Hall just got a whole new metaphorical weight. My commiserations to Hilary Mantel. That must be tough.

Read the tortuous tale of Henry’s exit negotiations in my book The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story (aka Our Man in Rome): vintage | amazon.co.uk | amazon.com | kobo | waterstones


Greece: making a drama out of a crisis

Along with Neville Morley (who’s far more expert in these matters than I am), I’ve been playing a spot of historical bingo over the past few days. The Anglophone press has certainly had a field day with its Greek metaphors as the crisis has unfolded. I don’t want to trivialise the very very serious situation that now faces public services in Greece, and I’d encourage readers to join the protests (there’s one this evening in London) against more austerity and/or to donate to Medical Aid for Greece, which is helping to fill the gaps left by drastic cuts to the Greek health service. In return for which, feel free to entertain yourselves at the expense of global journalism as its practitioners try valiantly to squeeze in yet another classical metaphor to their coverage… This article from the Telegraph manages to get Thermopylae, Homer, Plato, Pericles and Aeschylus into the first three paragraphs. Class. Greece is like Sisyphus, proclaims Larry Elliott in the Guardian. USA Today manages the Battle of Marathon alongside Thermopylae. They’re clever people. Al-Arabiya has Greece sandwiched between Scylla and Charybdis. The Spectator discusses how Solon would have solved the Greek crisis. There are plenty of Pyrrhic victories. Not to mention a spot of Schadenfreude. Thanks, the FT. Got your own top clichés to add? Go ahead in the comments. Did you make that donation yet?

Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD

It’s seven years today since I was awarded my PhD, and it’s also my last official day in the office at my current job. That’ll be the seventh job in seven years, the fifth city and the second country. In Year One I had two part-time teaching jobs (OU, Birkbeck) and a part-time academic-related role for the Kent & Medway Lifelong Learning Network. In Year Two I was a fellow at the British School at Rome; in Year Three I was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI, near Florence. In Year Four I had a temporary lectureship at Durham; since Year Five I’ve been at Sheffield. Later this summer I’m off to a new role as Associate Professor in History & Heritage at Swansea.

In the conventional terms of academic ‘success’ (problematic though those are) I’ve done pretty well. The point is that this career track would have been close to impossible for anyone with caring responsibilities, or whose wellbeing relied on stability and routine. Five cities in seven years? This is not a good way to run things. But you know that. The first years of academic life are more than ever characterised by insecurity.

There are plenty of big political points to be made here, and I might write about them in future. But here, for what it’s worth, is the more personal advice I’d give to anyone who has to navigate the ‘early career’ world.

1. Bad things will happen. They are not your fault. Don’t fall into thinking ‘if only I’d got X on my CV it would all have been different’.

2. Not all the advice you will get is right. Do listen to what people tell you, but remember there is always more than one opinion and make up your own mind. Several people were sceptical about me writing a trade book (i.e., one for a general, not just academic readership), but I did it anyway, and it opened up a whole new set of opportunities for me. In particular, bear in mind that…

3. Times change. What was good advice in 2005 may not be so good any more. It’s worth watching trends in the job market. I managed to make my way into the sub-discipline of public history as universities began to recruit to this specialism, based on a few things I’d done in previous jobs plus that trade book. I know several colleagues who’ve tweaked CVs and shifted from western to global history, or into digital humanities specialisms.

4. Work out your strengths and play to them. There are certain basics that academics need to deliver: research, teaching, willingness to do the necessary admin. But within that try and work out what you do best, and what you enjoy, and make that ‘your thing’. My thing has turned out to be the writing and media stuff. Every so often, someone asks me, ‘should I write a trade book?’ The answer is, I don’t know. But if you enjoy writing, and you’re good at it (good enough that people compliment you on your writing), then it might be worth considering.

5. Join your union and get involved. The vast majority of positive things that have been done for junior staff have been thanks to the efforts of union activists. Warwick UCU helped stop the systematisation of casual employment through TeachHigher. On a more modest but still important note, Sheffield UCU has just secured the introduction of a new redeployment system that should make it easier for colleagues whose contracts are ending to move to new jobs within the institution. If we’re going to make a difference, it will be like this. Your union can also help you assert your full legal employment rights should this become necessary (but don’t leave it to the last minute to join: there’s usually a qualifying period). You can join UCU here.

6. Remember, there is more to life. I started my PhD age 29, having done lots of other things already. I’ve found that outside perspective really helpful (did you know, there are jobs out there where people don’t work ridiculous overtime?!) There are lovely things about academia, and most of the time I enjoy my job. But I also know that the system could work oh, so much better.

City number six, here I come.