Stiffies

I have noticed a certain physical trait among some male lecturers. When walking past, or through a group of students, say in a corridor or waiting outside a lecture theatre, they start to walk like Andy Pandy, stiff and puppet like. Any documents they might be carrying levitate to form something like a sergeant major baton. Why is this? My theory is they are jumped up self important weaklings who deprived of any of the disciplinary means they hanker for expulsion, awarding grades of zero or barring students from lectures feel the need to at least try to be firmer, taller and straighter than their cohort, who, I have to admit are often quite bendy.

Fairness and academic freedom for students

A niggling doubt one faces all the time as a lecturer is whether one is being fair when grading a student’s work. After all you do have opinions about students and opinions can mean bias. The methods imposed upon us that supposedly ensure we are being fair to students certainly create the illusion that bias has been piped out of the system like rats. After all they have been invented by clever people approved by a committee of the latter, applied by slightly less clever people (us lot) and will be audited and externally validated by professor blah blah so they must be fair. Surely these prophylactics are better than the old system, where a hoary old lecturer could raise a finger in the air and say – ‘that student looks like they deserve a 2.1.’ The trouble is that now, rather than relying on arbitrary and irrational judgements made by the hoary we have substituted a largely unreadable matrix of educoded gobbledegook which does nothing more than ask the student to squeeze their work into whatever the latest fashion in incredibly complicated jargon filled marking schemes backed up by discipline benchmark statements (whatever those are) applied by an educational establishment with extremely dubious credentials and often very out of touch with the specifics of any particular discipline. In the creative disciplines, sorry by that I mean all disciplines, we should be encouraging the next generation to break the rules, not follow the blind dictates of us folk – and that means giving them academic freedom as well as us.

I like my students

I wonder if that is a bad thing? I treat them as my equals and yes I probably cross the line and treat them like mates sometimes. I try to avoid over mateyness but I suspect I am too honest sometimes. I am unafraid to self deprecate and quite prepared to criticise university systems if they are silly. A long time ago I was foolishly awarded a senior managerial job in a regional theatre. Within seven months I was out. I just could not do the management thing . I could not reprimand, I could not systematise people and I could not be a boss. I haven’t changed.

Trust

An awful lot of energy is expended by all academic bodies creating systems to protect them from deception. We assume students might try to cheat, we talk about untrustworthy sources, lecturers are not trusted to teach in the way they think best, funders don’t trust us to spend grants appropriately. I wonder what proportion of any academic budget is spent ensuring that bad things don’t happen? Has anyone speculated on the notion that the more systems you create to guard against a minority of untrustworthy individuals the more you create an environment in which the trustworthy cease to trust. It strikes me as an obvious descent to the lowest common denominator when we cannot entrust lecturers to spend budgets supporting their own students and teaching. Instead another group of slightly senior lectures who only slightly know the lecturer and the students pass the decision up to a committee of managers and accountants who definitely know neither. All lecturers in collaboration with their students, should be given a budget to spend as they wish.

Evidence for essay length feedback

Just curious. I am by no means an expert on pedagogical theory but I just read an article in the Guardian which suggest that there is no evidence that detailed feedback to students makes any difference to outcomes? Now that we are all encouraged to write essay length feedback to accompany feedback length essays wouldn’t it be a good idea for someone to check whether we might be better off doing something more useful.

Teaching teamwork

I think getting the students to work in teams, particularly in their first term is a good idea – socially. Thereafter I am far from convinced. The worst teams I ever participated in were during my team as a mature masters student. Team marks were to be awarded and, as by far the most mature of the mature students, I took a North Korean approach to team dynamics – basically listen to me, do the work or die. It didn’t work, they didn’t do the work, so I did and we all scored highly. What did I learn? – some young people give a shit a lot less than some old people. Useful life lesson? Nope. When working in teams in the professional world the imperative of a common cause or being paid is the glue that holds the team together. That’s how and why the team comes to be created. In an educational environment, a team is either a group of friends, a random collection of odds and sods, a group constructed around some bogus skills criteria or a subliminal expression of the lecturer’s prejudices, hang ups or fantasies. The result is stressful, off putting, risky and usually  results in wildly inflated marks prompted by the lecturer’s relief  that the group did at least get through the process without needing the services of a psychiatrist. 

Marking design assignments

It’s that time of the year when we lecturers are reminded that our key role is to give students numbers that they can add together to make degrees. Apparently the way we assign numbers is the same throughout disciplines and across sectors because we have quality processes, standards and benchmarks. This is plainly the sort of nonsense only those educationalists who have lost touch with human foibles could have invented. In fact we are swayed by a multiplicity of criteria eg – have we had our morning coffee, what is the weather like, how many similar or near identical papers have we just read, do we need the bathroom or another coffee or both. Then there is the question of interpretation. An open ended design assignment can be interpreted in many different ways, who is to say if one way is better than another. The solution is to spell it out in advance. Tell the student exactly what they have to do in order to do well. Break the marks down into tiny little atoms. Five marks for this and 3 marks for that. That way they can get a perfect score. Oh no – we can not  award 100% that would be absurd – anything above 70% and we are gasping for air. So we need to find some reason why nearly one third of the available  marks remain outside of the students reach by quibbling over quality or originality or professionalism or spelling. Thus the illusion is maintained that marking is somehow fair. It isn’t, it never has been and it never will be and the sooner we come clean with students and tell them to make there own minds up about what mark they should be awarded and give themselves a degree the better. Either that or we start marking subjectively but honestly. Tell them what you think but tell them that they should ask themselves and others what they think. Let them mark each other’s work. Don’t bullshit about some rung out, cynical external examiner taking a sample, bring in an outside professional or someone off the street and ask what they think of the design, would they buy it, use it, love it want it. This is so far removed from the notion of 5 marks for this and 3 marks for that that it reminds me, just for a moment that critiquing an emerging artists work can be a joyful useful experience. If my students tick all the boxes I shall be awarding some 100 percents just to stir up the stats.

 

A bit of history

My own slide into academia came out of desperation. Just as my talent as an artist ran out and my entrepreneurial ambitions lay in tatters I was lucky enough to be misidentified as a good potential university lecturer by my generous institution. I was 43  with no academic experience but a superficially flash CV which looked impressive and industry based (something they said they wanted). At first I was love struck with academia – everyone was so smart, conversation with colleagues was electrifying, students were fun and the hours were blessedly short after freelance work. One thing bugged me, teaching was discussed and taught as if it were foreign language . The language of education was very technical and in meetings I struggled to know what people meant. Marking schemes, assessment matrices, learning outcomes, weighted assessment strategies, benchmarks, standards, quality, peer observation and 2 million different acronyms. Worst of all were these obligatory module handbooks which tied you to a rigid scheme of activities before you had a chance to meet the cohort and assess the best way of getting your stuff across. These were like contracts, that not only told the students what to expect they told them what to do to do well and what they would have to do if they messed up.  In my previous life in theatre the notion of discovery, of surprise of the excitement of watching a director twist and turn manipulating the content to the needs of the cast was not there.  In fact in teaching such flexings of finely tuned  intellect is not considered ‘good practice.’ btw: a term I have come to despise. I was disappointed – everything I had ever learned about how to keep an audience interested – most particularly – not telling them what was going to happen before the show started was to be abandoned. A very bad idea in my view.

HELLO ACADEMIC TEACHING WORLD

I have added a new category of posts to my blog. Anything obnoxious posted in this category is my opinionated opinion, and my opinion alone. It is unlikely to be that of my employers. Academic freedom is a privilege that I intend to enjoy, without slagging anyone off or losing my job.

I have returned to work after cancer treatment and an extended trek through the shadow of death, feeling a great love for life, for my institution, for students, a great love for colleagues and a fresh perspective on some of the nonsense that university lecturers seem to say, do, publish, teach and preach (shame on them). So this will be an alternative outlet for academics, like me, who think some things academics do or are required to do are daft.

In the UK, education is dominated by an oppressive educational establishment often driven by a political agenda. Its influence has spread from primary, through secondary and further education and is now having an impact on higher education. I have no doubt it is sometimes well intentioned, but its products are tables and charts, statistics, measurements, standards and ultimately rules which can reduce the role of the teacher or lecturer to that of an automaton applying an algorithm. In my view, those of us in education, who still have a voice, should speak out against this trend toward bureaucratic bullying. This is my offering. Besides, public venting makes me feel better, fresher and a more enthusiastic teacher.

I cannot guarantee I will write anything original or witty…. and I shall protect those I love by making stuff up sometimes. So don’t believe a word.