Meeting the Minds – Dr. John Dron, Part II

This Time, it’s Personal.

Back in February, The Voice Magazine interviewed Dr. Jon Dron about his approach to teaching. Marie Well has since conducted a follow-up interview that looks more at exactly who Dr. Dron is beyond just the academic work. If You’re curious about what type of person becomes a course designer and wins a National Teaching Fellowship from the UK, you may want to read the first part of the interview first.

Marie: What is your strategy for tackling a writing assignment?
Dr. Dron: Writing is in part a continuous process for me. I make copious notes all the time, and quite often share those as blog posts and so on, so I never really stop writing. However, once I have a serious paper, chapter, book, report or course to write, I tend to run at it very hard and try to get rid of all distractions. In the past, I’ve gone so far as to escape to a hotel room for a few days, though, nowadays, it mostly works fine just to sit in my boat and do it. I can generally churn out a paper or a chapter in a day because by the time I get started I usually have flocks of ideas flying round in my head bursting to get out and lots of references and notes to fall back on. The hard work really starts after that though. I usually spend far longer unwriting than I do writing. I can easily write 10,000 words in a day, but it can often take days or sometimes weeks to put those words in the right order and to get rid of the ones that shouldn’t be there. I love doing it though. Writing for me is a means of discovery, not just a way of writing down what I think.

Marie: What is your favorite possession?
Dr. Dron: Probably my battered old Hofner President guitar. It is older than I am and has been with me for about 35 years. It is, and always has been, a complete pig to play, and it has suffered greatly over a decade or two of serious gigging, children climbing on it, and general wear and tear, but it still gives me immense joy. It almost feels a part of me when I play it. Similarly, I also love my much-repaired folding Brompton bike. That’s been with me for nearly 20 years and we have travelled a long way together. I am growing quite attached to my little old ramshackle leaky sailboat on which I’m sitting now too, for similar reasons, though I’ve not had it for long. There’s a theme here. I tend to grow attached to quirky, awkward, unusual, history-rich objects that demand as much of me as I do of them.

Marie: If you could take one holiday and spend in anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Dr. Dron: Here. I set my heart on living here the first day I set foot in Vancouver. It’s a wonderful place, full of a great diversity of caring, thoughtful, creative people, and diverse, beautiful spaces, both natural and man-made. It is a city built by people that care, right down to the tiniest detail. So many cities and towns, especially here in North America where they have not had enough centuries to learn to live with their environment, seem to me like they are raping the land. In the case of Vancouver, it is more like consensual sex. And that is reflected in the attitudes of the people. I have never been in any other city where so many people will fix things that are broken, tidy away other people’s garbage, or go out of their way to help other people. There was a great story in the news a while back of an undercover cop that, in a sting operation, pretended to be disabled and made a point of trying to have his wallet stolen down in East Hastings, an area known for its many street dwellers, drug addicts and those with mental afflictions. But those street-dwellers would have none of it: they kept picking his wallet up for him, helping him across the road, and looking after him. It is not perfect. Sometimes I slightly miss the old country (I come from the UK) with its cantankerous population, its ribald dark humour, its endemic pessimism, its aggressive but competent drivers who know how to park in tight spaces, and its blatant rebellion against almost all rules except queuing but, on the whole, Vancouver is pretty wonderful. I travel more than is good for me, or the planet, but I never feel happier than when I return.

Marie: You just won a prestigious teaching award that you humbly accepted. What do you feel is the value of a humble attitude in light of all of your accolades?
Dr. Dron: I am not at all humble: I am a very arrogant person. But pretty much all the awards I have ever received have only been possible thanks to a vastly greater contribution by other people, so I don’t see them as personal accolades and none of them mean I am a better person as a result. I do like getting awards, but I try never to fool myself that It’s a result of me being particularly special, apart from that I am lucky enough to have wonderful people around me and we get to do some good things together.

Marie: If you could scrap grading student work altogether, what kind of system would you have in its place?
Dr. Dron: On the whole, I would prefer to ignore the whole issue of accreditation altogether but there are ways to handle it that work pretty well, even within our existing system, without messing with the learning process. Certification can either be left to an entirely separate process or one in which learners (in consultation with tutors) determine what they wish to learn and what constitutes evidence of success. Either approach works. We already have a means to separate the learning from the accreditation at Athabasca (It’s called PLAR) where candidates can provide portfolios of evidence that they are competent in whatever field they seek credits, drawing that evidence from their workplace, their hobbies, their publications, their social networks or whatever, as well as from academic work, perhaps taking parts of it from many courses. We don’t take it far enough by accrediting whole degrees that way, but It’s a good start. We also have challenge assessments for many courses where, if they are already competent, students can just do the assessment to gain the credit. That’s not too bad at all, though I am not a fan of the over-common use of exams for it, which are extraordinarily bad ways to assess learning in almost every way – unreliable, inauthentic, unfair, indiscriminate and inefficient. For some courses ? projects, theses, dissertations, essays, etc ? we largely let learners identify what they wish to learn and how they wish to measure that, which is good. A few academic centres have open-ended courses that work in roughly the same way. At my former institution we had a whole MSc/MA by Learning Objectives, in which students worked with a supervisory team to come up with a set of outcomes and a plan of work to achieve them, and carved their own paths, usually to fit with projects or roles in the workplace. Similarly, the traditional Ph.D. process in the UK has no courses and nothing like grades at all. It is just a team of supervisors and a student working together for a few years, with a flexible, lightweight but rigorous process for ensuring progress is being made and to allow peer review (including an oral defence) at the end. There is no notion of grades ? you either get the Ph.D. or you don’t. An even more open process is used for Ph.Ds. by publication, where you just gather up your published work, write a few thousand words to bind it together(much like a portfolio) and defend it in an oral defence. The trouble with most of these methods is that they are not cheap and they are hard to scale. But it is worth trying to do so, as the cost to benefit ratio is very high.

Marie: If you won the Lotto Max, what would you spend it on?
Dr. Dron: Covering up the fact that I have never bought a ticket, so it would clearly have been fraudulently obtained.

Marie: If you could instantly learn one thing in its entirety with no obstacles and no time constraints, what would that one thing be?
Dr. Dron: To dance like Fred Astaire. I am a hopeless dancer ? can’t do it at all.