The Adventure So Far…

I’m currently the project lead on the Welsh Bacc History Resources project, and have been awarded ESSE [Enhancing Secondary School Engagement] funding of £1500. As an ECR this is great – it’s a small amount, but the maximum the ESSE award for these small scale projects, and it goes on the CV as evidence I can bring grants in.

I was just in the right place at the right time when the project started, so I’m not best placed to explain how to go about landing a project like this. In my case it links up with a University-wide initiative, and I happened to bump into the Coordinator in the PGR office when she was talking to someone else about another project’s online presence. My fellow PGR pointed out I had a blog and had done some tutorials on how to use archives, and it all came out of that conversation. Before I really knew where I was, I’d been put down in the funding bid as a project lead representing my department’s contribution to the University-wide engagement programme, and was filling out the funding application for ESSE funds (which was successful).

The Magic F Word [Funding, Of Course]

I guess if there’s any lesson to take away from that good luck, it’s something to do with the benefits of networking and being embedded in the PGR and wider University community?! If I had had a clue and been inclined to be proactive, I guess I would have gone looking for initiatives like this. But I had so much on that I was unsure whether I could commit or not at the time the project was offered to me.
In the end, I did the mercenary thing and blindly agreed when I heard the magic F word in my all-time favourite sentence – “There’s Funding For This.”

As an ECR/impoverished 20-something, I have three basic rules.

  1. Never turn down a free meal.
  2. Do unto others as you would be done by.
  3. Jump through rotating rings of fire backwards while balancing a tower of sugar lumps on your nose when the F-Word is mentioned.

Not necessarily in that order: 2 and 3 are interchangeable.

Challenge 1: I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING

As project lead, I realised that I literally had no idea what I was doing. I’ve never been a project lead before. I don’t think that there’s any shame in admitting that the first time you do something, it’s pretty daunting. My first step was to approach a PGR I knew, trusted and had worked well with on many occasions to work with/for me on the project, and set up meetings with people in the department who I also knew and trusted to discuss what on earth I was supposed to do.

I need to briefly digress here to put this in context. I don’t like being personal in my blog, but this does have relevance. I am very laid back about not having a clue what I’m doing – it’s the actual work, time commitments, associated juggling of the schedule and sacrificing of my social life that stresses me out. During my final year of my BA the last surviving member of my nuclear family was dead, and I was co-selling the family home and buying another place to live while being miles away at Uni with the usual seminars and lectures to attend and revision to do. I’ll be totally honest: I have never felt more inadequate as a human being. Not because anyone made me feel that way on purpose, or explicitly told me so, but because I was 21 and should be an adult, and I felt like a useless, powerless child. I had no idea what I was doing. I came to the realization that that was ok. It was ok to not be ok. My mantra became: I’ve never been 21 before. How can I know what that’s like? Of course I don’t know what I’m doing. But I did it. And I passed my finals, and I got a 2:1. I was saved by my amazing support network of friends and extended family, Student Counselling Services, and my personal faith. Not to mention the fact that I’m just naturally bloody-minded about a challenge.

Since then, every time I come up against something I don’t know how to do, my response is pretty much the same. No, I don’t know what I’m doing. And no matter how temporarily insecure that may make me, no matter how anxious I feel, I already know that I’ve successfully come through a hell of a lot worse than this.

Solution: I need support. Check. 

The thing is, as ECRs, even if our upbringing has been average and trauma-free, all of us are in the top 2% of the education bracket in the UK. I think it’s actually less – according to the Cheeky Scientist Association, anyway!

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In short, folks – we are where we are because we’re capable. We’ve all got a story, and we’ve all had challenges, and we got there anyway.  Just because you don’t always know what you’re doing doesn’t mean you can’t do it, nor does it mean you shouldn’t be doing it. Something drumming in my head lately – my new mantra, I guess: Imposter Syndrome can bite me.


Challenge 2: FIGURING OUT WHAT I’M DOING

So this one’s a bit trickier. But when I secured the right sort of support, I was better placed to do that. Sue Diment arranged and chaired the central project meetings, so I got to meet and chat with the other project leads across the various disciplines in Humanities and Social Sciences. I had one to ones with Sue, and used her contacts to set up meetings with appropriate representatives from the WJEC, the exam board responsible for the Welsh Bacc. I used my connections with the department’s widening access project, SHARE with Schools, to get in touch with teachers delivering the Welsh Bacc and refreshing the resources in preparation for the new grading system coming into effect 2015/16.

Part of figuring out what I was doing was getting to know what the Welsh Bacc entailed, how it was structured, and what was required of the teachers delivering it as well as of the pupils taking it. It will include literacy and numeracy elements and be graded A-E, in line with other A Levels, but the key part of the course is the Individual Investigation.

Meeting with Sara Davies of the WJEC was greatly beneficial.

The students are required to come up with their own research question on any topic, relating it to current events. They are required to then either produce an artefact + a 1000 word essay explaining the artefact (artwork, a documentary, audio recordings, etc) or a 5000 word essay without an artefact. In both cases, the student must also prepare an oral presentation on their topic as part of the assessment. The students can choose the subject themselves. There are 40 hours of allocated teaching time, but the teacher delivering the Welsh Bacc lessons could be from any subject. This means that a Chemistry teacher could deliver the Welsh Bacc lessons, or a P. E. teacher, or a Religious Studies teacher, and that it will vary from school to school. For those choosing to do a history/heritage topic, then, resources are required to help teachers and students.

We decided that the following areas were key:

1. Forming a research question

2. Analysing sources

3. History research skills

Hannah Buckingham, my project worker, produced draft worksheets and set up a stand at the Welsh Bacc conference in July, where all our drafts were handed out and teachers confirmed that these were the areas they wanted us to pursue.

Now all that remained was to negotiate the murky waters of Finance to access the money from our funding pot, something every project lead will have stories about, and to figure out the best platform for our resources and exercizes. The Funding saga is at present theoretically resolved, but watch this space. It has involved phonecalls, meetings and heavy reliance on the clout and know-how of others. Just because the Magic F Word is used does not mean you don’t have to fight for payout!


Challenge 3: DOING WHAT I’M DOING

I only have £1500 in the budget, so Doing The Project relies heavily on costings. We are talking about education in Wales, so that means including Welsh Language schools and making the website bilingual. It also means either employing someone who knows code and will work for coffee beans and cupcakes, or experimenting myself and learning some new skills. It requires time management and future-proofing.
In the end, because I don’t have the money for a domain name and can’t pay monthly fees, I opted for a free website builder with minimal ads which did not require coding. That way, once completed, I could pass on the baton of maintainance to an established Widening Access project within my department and get them to check on the links etc and keep them updated with minimal fuss. WordPress was an option, but I’m not great with the code and it started to get pretty complex with all the menu manipulation and static pages required. I opted for my comfort zone. I’m a big believer in not making things more difficult than they need to be. It’s all that Medieval pragmatism rubbing off, I think!

I used a template that I could easily manipulate, and chose to duplicate the pages to create English and Welsh language versions. I intend to get a keen undergraduate fluent in Welsh to translate the content, pay them a fixed fee and give them the opportunity to build their CV in the process. I wish I could pay them more fairly, but in terms of translation, professional rates would wipe out my budget. The department also has translation services that I need to look into. This is where the institutional and departmental networks come into play again!

The content itself is not too difficult to put together, using Library Services and other official informative Creative Commons Attribution licenced resources. One of my aims is to connect the dots between Welsh Bacc A Level and Higher Education level work and skills. Therefore, I made sure to include other academics in the department with the project, gaining permission to use their Year One and Year Two resources and adapting them. Many thanks to Dr Jenny Benham and her gobbet worksheets! Hopefully, those who do a history/heritage topic for the Welsh Bacc and then go on to pursue History at degree level will come into the BA already aware of the benefits of studying history and linking it to current affairs (the key part of the Individual Investigation), and also ahead in terms of basic research skills, essay writing and source analysis. The point of the Individual Investigation is that the students begin to learn how to think, not what to think, and that will make a great difference to the quality of their First Year work!



  
All in all, it’s a great project to be involved with, because there’s accountability at every stage. I am answerable to the Coordinator, and fill in the ESSE Project Workbook where I log my issues and outcomes, and the development form which details my action plan, timetable and costings. I have learned how to pay project workers through the various University channels and who to speak to when issues arise. I have developed my computer skills, arranged meetings, used my networks to great effect and taken on a managerial role. As my first experience of being a project lead on a very modest budget, it’s been a great experience so far. I’m trying not to think too much about the actual impact – potentially, every Secondary School in Wales which teaches the Welsh Bacc (not to mention FE institutions) could access this site and be using the resources.

That’s why there will be a Contact form and email address for feedback, and why the established Widening Access project in our department will be taking the reins following the site’s launch. It will be pretty minimal in terms of upkeep, and offer Undergraduate volunteers and PGR Coordinators of the Widening Access project the opportunity for more employability skills development, and increased Impact evidence.

Everyone’s a winner.

Watch this space, folks: it will be going live in November.

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