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Posts Tagged ‘higher education’

We’re back in the season of lecture fetishism. ‘Workshy’ lecturers are being ‘ordered’ back into the classroom to provide ‘proper’ value-for-money education rather than cut-price online stuff, while apparently the university life of a Times‘ columnist’s offspring would be ruined by having too much online learning. What’s striking is how far their conception of what should be restored is the sort of lecture that went out of fashion, at least outside basic introductory courses in the hard sciences, decades ago: to quote the old joke, the lecture as a means of transferring information from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through the brains of either. And, as I commented last week, some of the defences of the shift to online learning are equally ignorant of what actually happens in lecture rooms these days. It really feels like a debate about the current state of popular music between adherents of 7″ flexidiscs and proponents of cassette singles; not just total indifference to the content (hey, maybe someone should suggest to the Times that it’s easier to promote decolonisation and cultural Marxism in in-person classes where there are no recordings…) but utter ignorance of how technology and techniques have changed, and what the real issues are. (more…)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently preparing next term’s teaching – it’s been one of those weeks when the lingering effects of the plague make me incapable of stringing coherent thoughts together for more than five minutes at a time, and the better prepared I am for the new academic year then the bigger the chance I may be able to get writing done then, if the brain finds its way out of the doldrums. Bibliographies, guidance on assessment tasks, seminar texts, thumbnail pictures for the VLE. And then we come to the description of teaching and learning methods, and summary of how students will be expected to engage with the modules… Hmm. Can I get back to you on that? (more…)

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Near The End

Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser, when we’re just getting old…

There’s a painful scene towards the end of season 1 of Shtisel (and if you don’t already know this series, I recommend it highly: engrossing low-key family drama with a side order of comparative religion and anthropology). Shulem, the Shtisel patriarch, has been puzzled that his monthly pay as a teacher in the local cheder is substantially lower than normal. Initially the principal tells him that there’s a general cash-flow issue, but when he realises that he’s the only one affected the truth comes out: this is actually his pension; he was officially retired at the age of sixty, and since then the money to make up the difference to his old salary has been coming from his mother, as his wife was so worried that stopping work would kill him within a few months. (more…)

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Here we go again… The return of lockdown brings some very familiar feelings: relief that what seemed like pessimism in early December (stocking up on cat food and soya milk in anticipation of possible Brexit disruption, deciding to stick with entirely electronic reading lists although students were asking about hard copies of stuff in the library) has left me in a better position than I might have been, frustration and uncertainty about how to modify teaching plans again. This term should have been easier (and maybe still will be) as we’ve all got better at the different elements of online learning, not least by working out which ones aren’t worth bothering with. However, someone somewhere was obviously feeling optimistic at a critical moment, and so we’re currently scheduled to have less recorded and asynchronous stuff and more face-to-face time in any given module – although the latter will now be online for most if not all the term. A more precautionary approach would have been to assume that we’d be lucky if we could just carry on in the way we have been, but no… (more…)

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The Masterplan

I think it’s only appropriate to round off my blogging year – apart from the usual annual review, and unless something else strikes me in the meantime – with a final reflection on teaching inspired by my jazz composition course, which has been the one unquestionably positive experience in this basically rubbish year. This time it’s not about online learning and teaching, but a more general thought about managing seminars; and it’s inspired not by the tutor, but by conversation with other students on the discussion thread where we posted our homework exercises for comment (stifles deep sigh at total failure to get any sort of online discussion going in any of my modules this past term…). (more…)

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A crucial element of Thucydides’ depiction of the plague in Athens is that it appears as, so to speak, a heuristic crisis: it is an event that no one can make any sense of. It’s not that fifth-century Athenians were unfamiliar with epidemics, in myth, literature and reality, but all of those had an explanation in terms of their inherited concepts and assumptions. In this situation, however, every explanation falls short – belief in the fulfilment of oracular prophecy or other supernatural explanation, rumours of enemy action, even the more recently developed ideas of the doctors. Whatever the actual nature of the disease – and this point holds true even if we follow the idea that there wasn’t actually a single plague, but a multitude of more common diseases, perceived as a single baffling phenomenon – Thucydides shows how its unfathomable and irresistible nature then became the dominant influence on behaviour, sweeping away the traditional institutions of religion, law and social norms by revealing that everything was actually random and unpredictable. Why pray when it doesn’t help? Why deny yourself pleasure when you might die tomorrow? Why obey the law when you probably won’t get caught? Why strive for virtue when it doesn’t bring any reward? Why worry about what the neighbours think when they might be dead tomorrow? (more…)

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My email inbox this morning contained one of the oddest invitations I’ve received in a long time – odd, to the degree that I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to check whether it’s actually an elaborate bit of phishing, or a practical joke on the part of whoever suggested my name. The message offers the opportunity to become a Detailed Assessor for the Australian Research Council – to write extensive peer review reports on, say, 5-20 applications per year, term unspecified. This is of the order of being asked to pay £20 to secure my fabulous First Prize of unscheduled pancreas removal. (more…)

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Stupid Boy

Reasons why the department really should be paying the fees for my online jazz composition course, #47… I’ve commented before that we teachers in higher education have to be very, very careful about extrapolating from our own experience as students; leaving aside the extent to which very many things have changed in the decades since we were undergraduates, most of us were extremely atypical, and what suited us may not be remotely useful for the majority of those we are now teaching. My class yesterday evening emphasised the corollary of this: most of us lack any experience whatsoever of something that is absolutely central to the difficulties experienced by the students who need help and support the most: the feeling of being completely crap and useless. (more…)

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I for one am overjoyed at the announcement of the government’s cunning plan for getting students home for Christmas, as it solves at a stroke the knotty problem of what to do with my Thucydides class in the final week of term. It’s always been the case that student attention tends to be lagging by then, and attendance dropping (especially for classes later in the week, as most of them disappear off home), which then creates the dilemma of whether to plough on with material regardless for the few who do turn up, having then to repeat it all at the beginning of next term, or just have an informal chat and knock off early, which then seems like short-changing the few who do bother to turn up. My solution in recent years has been a session on ‘Thucydidean Games’, not essential for the core elements of the module but containing potential both for serious analysis and for just playing some games, depending on the general mood. (more…)

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I Was Wrong

I was wrong – about so many things (thank you, the anonymous gentleman at the back), but I’m thinking specifically of developments in higher education this autumn. I really thought, after my scheduled face-to-face-in-person seminar was switched online for the first two weeks of term as part of a ‘staggered return to campus’, that I wouldn’t be back in Exeter until 2021. And I certainly imagined, as the case numbers rose (nationally and on campus), that we’d be online by now – officially, I mean, rather than the de facto situation whereby the combination of students isolating and students voting with their feet leaves me talking to one or two masked students in a room and simultaneously trying to engage with the larger numbers on the screen. (more…)

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