UCL News


Spotlight on... Rachel Morley

27 November 2019

Rachel Morley, Associate Professor of Russian Cinema and Culture at UCL SSEES, on a team-based UCL ChangeMaker project which focused on improving assessment with undergraduate students.

Rachel Morley

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m Associate Professor of Russian Cinema and Culture at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES). My role has three main strands – research, teaching and administration – which each come to the fore at different points of the year. My teaching covers Russian and Soviet cinema from 1896 to the present. I also teach Russian to English translation.

My research focuses on early Russian cinema (pre-1919) and in particular on gender and experimentation with cinematic language and form. I also work on Soviet silent cinema, the representation of abortion in Soviet cinema and contemporary women filmmakers working in Russian. I don’t currently hold a major admin role, but was the SSEES Study Abroad Tutor from 2014-2018. In this role I organised year-abroad placements for our undergraduates at SSEES’s partner universities in Russia, Central, Eastern and South-East Europe and the Baltics. I also welcomed students from our partner universities to UCL, as affiliate students.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I’ve been at UCL in my current role since September 2013. However, my connection with UCL and SSEES dates back much further. Having completed a BA in French Language and Literature at the University of Oxford in 1992, I was working as a French teacher when I came to SSEES as a part-time student in 1995, intending to spend a year learning Russian for fun. But I got hooked on the language, and on Russian culture, and went on to complete here a BA, an MA and my PhD. I was a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant (PGTA) at SSEES from 1999-2009. I’ve also held teaching posts at the University of Cambridge, in the Department of Slavonic Studies.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

The initiative that I’m most proud of was a team effort, so I can’t claim all the credit for it. Last academic year, four SSEES undergraduates – Layla Guest, Esme Miller, Katya Brodie, Edie Selsdon Games – and I ran a project funded by UCL ChangeMakers, UCL's student engagement initiative. The project aimed to enable students and staff to work together to design a new formative and summative assessment format for my first-year BA module Russian Cinema: History, Ideology, Society, which was assessed by a two-hour unseen exam. We wanted to design an assessment format that would be more inclusive, more intellectually challenging and more inspiring.

We organised a series of consultation events for current and past students of my cinema modules (informal social events, post-it note sessions, an online survey, targeted emails and focus groups). Around 50 students contributed their ideas and opinions. We also consulted with staff in SSEES, other UCL departments and UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education.

Based on the responses, we designed a format that, among other things, offers students a choice of summative assessment modes. Our hope is that this will promote inclusivity for those with different assessment preferences, learning styles and/or specific learning disabilities. The new format is also more closely aligned with key dimensions of the UCL Connected Curriculum, so it will also help to differentiate university-level education from school-level education (which is increasingly dominated by exam-based assessment) and enable first-year students to acquire new academic and transferable skills.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

At the moment, I’m focussing on implementing the outcomes of the ChangeMakers project and preparing the first-year students who are taking the module this year for the new assessment format. It’s very exciting to see all the work that we put in last year now coming to fruition.

I’m also consolidating work that I undertook last term as part of the UCL Peer Dialogue scheme: Option C – Reflection and Dialogue with Student Reviewers. I collaborated with two Student Reviewers (a first-year and a final-year student from different UCL departments), who were assigned to me by UCL Arena.

The main focus of our dialogue was my use of student presentations as a teaching strategy, as formative work (with feedback) and as a means to increase student engagement in class discussions and enhance class dynamics. I chose to focus on this as I felt it was an area of my teaching practice that had not always gone well. I found it really interesting that the Student Reviewers agreed that they, as students, had not always found student presentations beneficial.

Altogether, the Student Reviewers observed four classes and we held hour-long discussion sessions after each observation. In the third and fourth classes, I tried out some of the strategies that we had discussed. I found it a really productive experience. The student reviewers were both excellent – insightful, thoughtful, hugely enthusiastic and totally committed to working in partnership with me to improve teaching and learning.

Having a student perspective on my use of student presentations helped me to see this aspect of my teaching from the students’ point of view and enabled me to make positive changes. In the end of module questionnaire, several students identified the use of student presentations as one of the best aspects of the module.

I’d recommend this scheme to all colleagues who want to enhance a specific aspect of their teaching practice. I’d also encourage students to sign up as Student Reviewers – it’s a fantastic opportunity to get involved in improving the student learning experience at UCL (and you receive a £150 stipend). There’s more information here.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

This is an impossible question!

Favourite album – anything by REM. Favourite film – whichever one I’m preparing to teach. Favourite novel – can’t say, but novels I’ve read recently that have stuck in my mind, for different reasons, are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Two cats are swimming across a river. One is called One Two Three. The other is called Un Deux Trois. Only one cat makes it to the riverbank. Which one and why? (The One Two Three cat, because the Un Deux Trois cat sank.)

I also know a great joke about a wide-mouthed frog, but it has to be performed and so wouldn’t work in this context!

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I’d love to have dinner (in a Moscow tango club in early 1914) with Evgenii Bauer, a spectacularly talented and innovative filmmaker who worked in Russian cinema from 1912 until his death from pneumonia in June 1917. Bauer wrote nothing about his approach to cinema, so we have to rely on the memoir accounts of people who worked with him for written evidence of his approach to his creative practice.

There are so many questions I’d like to ask him, such as how he and his camera operator Boris Zavelev managed to film the amazing track-in shot in the 1914 film Child of the Big City (Ditia bol´shogo goroda). I’d ask him to bring along Vera Karalli, a prima ballerina who moved into cinema acting in 1914 and who starred in many of Bauer’s films. She was allegedly involved in the plot to kill Rasputin, and I’d like to hear about what happened that night.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Not everything has to be ‘perfect’.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Given my research and teaching interests, people might be surprised to know that I don’t like going to the cinema. Also, according to the Gradient app, I look like Mikhail Gorbachev.

What is your favourite place?

Selçuk, a small town near the ancient city of Ephesus in the Aegean region of Turkey. I love everything about it: its history, culture, beautiful countryside, welcoming people, delicious food and the glorious weather.