Posts Tagged ‘higher education’

One of the basic principles of our society is that success and failure are individualised: you are naturally talented and worked hard, YOU are just not good enough, or should have tried harder. This is fair, isn’t it? Places at the Best Universities should go to the Best Students, Important Jobs should go to the Right People, it should all be sorted out on merit rather than attempts at social engineering or quotas or positive discrimination. Just think how awful it would be for someone to know they didn’t get on that course through their own merit, or if they got a job that was better suited to someone else. Clearly unfair. Not everyone can have prizes.

But fairness is not evenly distributed. (more…)

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Yesterday I marked some essays, did more work on preparing next term’s teaching, produced supporting materials for an ongoing political literacy schools project and had a productive online meeting with a postgrad about his dissertation. I followed a new recipe for green coconut rice, and made some red pepper and tomato sauce from garden produce; I had a cup of espresso by the pond, watching water boatmen, dragonfly nymphs and water snails; I detected six different species of bat. And this is all good, and helps keep me grounded, and helps fend off the VAST BLACK ABYSS FULL OF TOXIC FUMES AND ENDLESS SCREAMING THAT IS EVERYTHING ELSE. (more…)

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It’s a very long time since I had any direct contact with UCAS forms or the whole process of undergraduate admissions. At that time, a vital part of the knowledge handed down by more experienced colleagues was how to recognise examples of what one might call Lake Wobegon School of Reference-Writing: Where all the students are above average, and one of the best I have ever taught, and uniquely well suited to the degree programme in question. We could have filled our admissions quotas many times over with such applicants, which would be fine for the bottom line, but a slightly depressing teaching prospect, especially thinking of the better students we might miss because their teachers were more honest and/or less practised in talking up their charges. Oddly enough, such boosterism was wholly associated with fee-paying schools.* (more…)

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Wicked Game

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time over the last week or so in conversations with colleagues about how we’re going to manage teaching next year. One takeaway from this is a reminder of how dedicated, imaginative and insightful the aforementioned colleagues are. It’s fair to say that we’ve got a spectrum from those who see this as an exciting opportunity to try out new approaches and radically change some of our traditional teaching styles, and those who are focused on ways to maintain more conventional teaching approaches in dramatically new and uncertain circumstances. But there’s nobody who is insisting on privileging their convenience over flexibility, or unwilling to countenance radical change if that’s what best suits student needs. (more…)

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Shock Tactics

Every crisis is an opportunity, and the idea of creative disruption – shaking up the system to create space for innovation and profit – is so much easier if something else has already done the shaking up for you. This is as true for universities as for everything else at the moment. The immediate and understandable response of most has been to wonder how to restore the pre-plague status quo as quickly as possible, or to worry about how far some things may already be broken beyond repair (a business model based on ever-increasing numbers of overseas students, and devil take the disciplines that can’t recruit them, for example). Some – like me – have quietly welcomed the sudden acceptance that take-home papers and other ‘alternative’ forms of assessment are actually fine and dandy. But it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the hand-rubbing and gleeful cackling of people whom we should generally prefer to be subdued and miserable; just think of the most cynical approach to higher education you can, and almost certainly someone is already planning it… (more…)

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Further musings on what next year’s teaching might look like… Yes, I know that there are already highly successful distance-learning models out there, above all from the Open University, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I suspect that what we end up doing will be rather different: we don’t have the time to develop all the material and supporting framework for full-blown online courses by September (especially with the likelihood, given recruitment freezes due to enormous financial black hole, that we’ll all need to take on more courses than planned), and most of us lack the experience (and probably skills) to make that work – better to produce a hybrid that plays as far as possible to our existing strengths – and finally universities are likely to want to distinguish their offerings from what’s already available from the OU. (more…)

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It’s the first day of the new term! Interesting to see how far the countryside along the line from Castle Cary to Exeter has changed in just a month, especially with all the warm weather we’ve had in recent weeks. An excuse to drop into The Exploding Bakery next to Exeter Central station, as it’s over a month since I last indulged in one of their cakes. Lovely to meet up with colleagues again. Above all, however, it’s the culmination of my final-year Thucydides module, the student conference on Thucydides’ Contemporary Relevance, in which they all offer their different perspectives on the text that they’ve been slogging through all year, culminating in a guest lecture and general debate. Well, that was the plan… (more…)

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So, ‘cancel culture’ has been monetised: just pay Toby Young’s new Free Speech Union a load of money, and then tweet about eugenics, the glories of the British Empire and the size of women’s breasts to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you will not have to stand alone in the face of a howling Twitter mob demanding to know whether this is entirely appropriate.

I’m not totally convinced by some aspects of the business model here – surely the sort of person who knows in advance they’re going to be wilfully offensive, so would pay for the assurance that Spiked! will write an outraged column about people objecting to this, will already be part of this crowd? And are they actually going to ignore a good controversy and opportunity to denounce excessively woke students, just because the target hasn’t coughed up their protection money?

But it also raises the question of whether there are any further business opportunities in this area… Academics! Are you worried that your research is too obscure, nuanced or sensible to attract the sort of attention and media gigs you nevertheless feel you deserve? But you’re still unwilling to strip out the ambiguity and pull out a dog whistle? We’re here to solve your problem: for a very reasonable fee we will weaponise your findings and make them the new front in the culture wars. You retain deniability and the possibility of claiming to have been misinterpreted, if you decide not to commit fully to our truth-telling mission – and if you do, Toby Young has an offer you may not be wise to refuse…

Addendum: did briefly think about also offering the opportunity to be convincingly denounced to the Turning Point UK Inquisition, but unaccountably people seem to be taking them even less seriously than the Free Speech Avengers.

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Them Too?

So you like to party with the students. Ain’t that kinda skanky?

Now, I’m not saying that watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be a compulsory training element for all new university teachers – but it would certainly have been better than the training I received when I started, namely none at all. This isn’t about the series’ depiction of teaching styles (copious material there, especially with regard to different Watcher philosophies) but the handling of student-teacher relationships and the negotiation of appropriate boundaries. Basic Buffy message: ick. Or worse.


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No Failure, No Try

“Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Yoda’s philosophy really is rubbish; terrible pedagogy (as discussed here, the Sith are much better teachers) and terrible advice in general. Manifestly, his power is not infinite (there’s a great calculation of Yoda’s energy output by Randall Munroe of xkcd), so – for all his “that is why you fail” smugness – it’s clear that his approach amounts to attempting only things he already knows are within his capacity, and avoiding anything else. It’s the Force equivalent of research funding applications that define all their intended outcomes in advance, confining them to things that are definitely doable (if not already done and ready to be reported) – which is to say, the majority of research funding applications. Yes, research funding bodies are probably all run by Jedi: tradition-bound, results- rather than process-orientated, and smugly opaque and mysterious. (more…)

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