Tag Archives: universities

Rebooting the seminar

Last week in the Times Higher: My little paean for the seminar, including some notes on I think digital communication might help ‘reboot’ them.

Some background: I used to love seminars. As a PhD student, I’d fill my diary with listings for these little academic get-togethers, full of excitement about what I might learn, what new area of scholarly work might be opened up to me, what new bibliographical trails I might fall into and new shelves in the library I might find myself drawn to. Of course, I’d often get stuck working on something else, and wouldn’t get around to going, but my diary lived in hope at least.

A couple of years ago though, I lost that hope. It wasn’t just that as a lecturer I was simply busier. It was too many seminars had left me digging my nails into the desk with intense boredom. The low point came about a year back when I realized the chap next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I should add) was watching a video of a cat playing the bagpipes. I didn’t blame him. In fact, I passed him a note suggesting he googled “fainting goat kittens”.

I don’t even like cat videos.

It’s not just the distraction of YouTube that threatens the seminar. Increasingly, academics are going online to get the professional interactions that the seminar used to (or should) provide: there is research blogging, for example, and I think the recent development of a twitter journal club is fascinating (and ripe for extension to other professions/ areas of research). However, I still think there is something to be said for events where we meet in person. Moreover, I don’t think we should see this as online vs traditional. Indeed, digital communications may be used to improve the quality of seminars, in particular opening them up (which I think will have the effect of improving them).

So, please do share any tips on improving seminars, digital or otherwise. Maybe you disagree, and think we should dump the idea entirely and just congregate on the blogosphere? Or maybe I’m just going to the wrong seminars. What’s it like in your bit of academia?

Happy Birthday UCL

No entry to the poor

I took this photo in the middle of all the anti-fees protests at the end of last term: a bit of graffiti on the door of the UCL History Department states “no entry to the poor”.

I’m posting it because UCL is 185 years old today.

Walking around the campus earlier, there didn’t seem to be any signs of a birthday celebration. But I think it is worth marking, and not just because it’s where I did my BSc. I may joke that KCL smells of wee, but I’ve never really understood territorial cheer-leading for one’s alma mater. No, I think everyone involved in English Higher Education should celebrate UCL’s birthday, because it many respects it is a birthday for us all.

As a recent Guardian editorial put it, UCL was established to “break the stranglehold of Oxford and Cambridge”. Up until 1826, England was limited to just these two universities. This not only meant a university education was available to the very few, but fostered a certain amount of elitist complacency which meant you effectively had to be a wealthy male Anglican to study for a degree in England. The whole point of UCL was to open up education in England. This is why that bit of graffiti above is quite so poignant. Open up education it did, as other universities sparked off across the country (some more to balance the seeming radicalism of UCL as much as follow it, granted… told you KCL smells of wee).

UCL was the first higher education institution in England to accept students of any race or religious or political belief, and the first to accept women on equal terms with men. It was also the first in England to establish a students’ union. Importantly, breaking the two-university culture of England meant new subjects could flourish too. There was a greater intellectual freedom as well as social freedom breathed into English academia with the birth of UCL, and it was the first university to have professorships in chemical engineering, chemistry, electrical engineering, geography, many major modern European languages (including English), psychology, and zoology. Although it is also worth noting that UCL doesn’t have theology, music or politics departments because these subjects were associated with the forms of social segregation they aimed to avoid. KCL has, something UCL students have long parodied, stealing “this way to the theology department” signs to decorate their union with.

(you can read more in the wikipedia page on UCL’s history).

The drama of the anti-fees protests may have died down a bit since last term, but as the government seem set on privatising our university system and we all start to think more and more about fair access, the birth of UCL is well worth marking.

STS and the Bernalian nightmare

blue corners

Steve Fuller gave a seminar on philosophy of science to our MSc students last week. Always good for a provocative one-liner, at one point Steve described 21st century science and technology studies (STS) as “the poster child for neoliberal knowledge production”.

These words haunted me for the following two days, as I attended an STS conference on “Neurosociety“. It was held at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where much of STS at Oxford is based. Many other STS scholars across Europe similarly work in business schools, or at the very least have some sort of reference to “innovation” in the branding of their degrees, something Fuller made a slight dig about.

Saying STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic. However, there are questions to be asked here, especially about who STS serves, and how. I remembered a seminar I attended last year given by Jane Gregory (linked to this paper) where she argued much of the STS influenced “Public Engagement” movement had ended up being used as a way to sell novel products to the UK public (which wasn’t necessarily its initial aim). There are also ongoing questions about the ways in which STS ideas are used by climate change deniers, alternative medicine advocates or proponents of intelligent design.

One of the most entertaining papers at the Neurosociety conference was from Andy Balmer. His PhD looked at contemporary lie detection technologies. He suggested that in some respects, his work could amount to a form of market research; he wasn’t doing history and sociology as much as checking out competitors. Could he, armed with such knowlege, use STS to build the perfect lie detector? His paper’s joke, for those who are familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, suggested the commodification of the black box, complete with a range of attachments: headphones, a timer and, for the “deluxe model” a webcam and wifi. Everyone chuckled and someone suggested the black box might seem insulting, or at least limiting, to  consumers: why not sell them in a range of colours? Still I don’t think STS scholars should just laugh off the ways in which their ideas might be used. Maybe the commercialisation of STS is a good thing. Perhaps it is an important way in which it can have “impact”, as the people most interested in how technologies succeed or fail to sell are those who want to sell  technology. However, there are other ways STS might make their work meaningful to others (and find new meaning through such interactions) and other ways to funding such work too.

There was also a fair amount of talk at the conference about the ways in which neuroscience serves neoliberalism, with some debate over whether neuroscience itself critiques such a link sufficiently. I found quite a bit of this discussion a bit loose. As Will Davies asked in a question, is it neoliberalism people are talking about here, or just  liberalism, or even simply “that which happens to be around in the west today”. This debate could do with a bit more precision. There was also, I felt, slight smugness (and short-sightedness?) over STS’s ability to provide such a critique and an apparent inability of neuroscience to do such work itself. As Nikolas Rose argued at the end of the conference, the idea that neuroscientists are not critical about their field does not hold true at all.

I still think STS-ers can still provide some service here; I’m not arguing that science is simply “self-correcting”. Indeed, I think precisely because neuroscience is such a self-critical area, they would be interested in any (productive) critiques STS had to offer, and have much to offer STS in return.

One of Fuller’s other lines to our MSc students was the image of contemporary science as a sort of “Bernalian nightmare” (as in a nightmare for JD Bernal) where science had become fragmented to serve the various interests of the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry, etc. In doing so, it has perhaps lost a coherent sense of what it means to be scientific. A Bernalian dream, rather than nightmare, would see scientists working together to develop a sense of global sense of science, to keep it ‘pure’ in some way. We could, perhaps, say similar things of science studies which is increasingly located, or at least funded alongside scientific research, with scholars embedded in large-scale projects (e.g. at the LHC, or in genomics).

As I wrote a couple of months ago, I’m quite happy with the idea of science communication studies having a rather fragmented existence. It doesn’t mean scholars can’t hold an independent position, or that people within science communication studies can’t come together to share and argue about the things they study. I’m just not sure they need a coherent sense of self. Moreover, I think they work best when they work with a diverse set of stakeholders. This is something I’ve said about science for years, and I’m happy to apply it to STS too (indeed, it was studying STS that convinced me of this, along with the importance of reflexivity).

Maybe I read too much Dorothy Nelkin at a formative age, I just prefer the “critical friend” model.

The picture at the top of this p0st, in case you are wondering, is of an administration building at Imperial College, taken from a walkway underneath it, looking up.

The academics are revolting

Crimes against humanities

On Monday, I wrote that it was starting to feel as if a debate on the future of higher education was finally starting to open up. Today, I have a post on Research Fortnight’s blog, Exquisite Life, about the way academics are (in their own way) starting to campaign on this issue.

I bashed out that post at the end of the day yesterday, and then went off to have a 3 hour meeting at UCL with a group of academic-activists (photos taken outside their History department). At the end of the meeting, we saw the news that MPs would vote on the raise tuition fees in England on 9 December. So, my conclusion that campus life seems to be moving little faster than usual at the moment might feel quite true over the next week.

I mention in the piece that I’d seen drafts of further letters to the press. Today, the Times published one from the Campaign for a Public University, signed by 165 academics, stressing  that students are not the only ones angry at the governments plans for education. You can read it here if you have access through the paywall (edit: now liberated). Though I don’t know if this tweet from Brian Cathcart proves my point about academic back-biting (sorry, I mean disagreement, critique and open debate) being a problem in terms of building a united front.

Edit: As well as all this essay writing, they are more and more seminars being organised too. Already spotted one at the LSE and another at Middlesex.

Research and Destroy

Something I didn’t have space for in the piece is the ways in which the students are utalising materials from their studies to better understand,  build and articulate their protests. I visited the UCL occupation on Monday, and spoke to a PhD student there, Aaron Peters:

They’re savvy in terms of conceptualizing the protest, which is a key point. I mean some of the books these kids are reading: Foucault, Derrida, Barthes… You see Lyotard, you see Deleuze, you see Guttari. You see the canon of critical theory and it’s 19 year old people, and they actually practicing it. They want to engage with it politically, in the streets. It’s no longer some sort of intellectual masturbation. It’s being used for something.

I didn’t use this on the Research Fortnight blog, because I thought a focus on academics was most appropriate on that post. However, it is a thread in the story worth bringing out, and I may well go back to it. There’s a lot more to be said about the way students are using their degrees in the protests and, perhaps, augmenting their eduction in the process. Above all, I think the student protests demonstrates quite how much students think, know and care about their degrees. If we do unlock a larger debate on the future of UK universities, it’s going to be very hard to students keep students out (not that I would have wanted to in the first place).

If you are in the area, I can recommended dropping in on the UCL occupation (before they get evicted). David Colquhoun has a post about his visit there, and there is a video on the Guardian. Or read about them directly on their blog.

Bredom is counter revolutionary

Unlocking the future of education

I’m just going to come out and say this: Sally Hunt made me cry.

Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) and the crying incident occurred during her speech at the NUS/ UCU anti-cuts demo a couple of weeks ago.
colourful banners in sunshine
I don’t normally stand in the street in the middle of the day, weeping. In my defense, it was only a few tears. I was also exceedingly tired, having staying up half the night, working. Plus, it had been a reasonably emotional build up to Hunt’s speech, walking from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain with 50,000-ish other people in the blazing, cold November sunshine.

I should probably stress that from what I saw, it really was a peaceful protest. I saw a lot of anger – including the first Millbank window smash – but it wasn’t all destructive or negative anger. The emotion was running high, but this was as much a celebration of what is good about education as anything else. A rabble of people out to declare themselves and their worth. A large and diverse rabble too, which I felt showed a fair degree of altruism as well as the spread of impact of education on peoples lives.

Educate Don't Segregate
These protests feel very different from the ones in the late 1990s when the fees were re-introduced. I was still at school. A friend and I went on the big anti-fees demo in London. I say big, but there were probably only a few thousand there. The general feeling was that schoolkids weren’t organised or connected enough with the NUS to go, and current university students didn’t care because they wouldn’t have to pay. We shouted about education being for all and waved our signs. We didn’t think it would do much, but it made us feel better. Tourists asked us to pose for photos. They thought we were sweet to be out with out placards and balloons. I remember shrugging with a slight feeling of anti-climax as we got on the tube home.

Despite the introduction of fees, I did go on to university. I was lucky. My parents both went to university themselves: there was a cultural acceptance as well as financial support (though my younger brother is another story). I also worked before and throughout my time at university, something I think helped me understand and appreciate my education more, as well as simply pay for it. I got a degree, and another, and another (and another, and another…). All, in some way, studying issues of how academics connect to the rest of society. I also shared what I’d learnt, moving on to work as a lecturer.

So, university education is something I’ve experienced, studied and produced. It’s something I know about and care deeply about.

Protest gets to Parliment

That slightly embarrassing crying moment? It happened during Sally Hunt’s speech. She showed a student video against cuts, breathlessly declaring “this is why education is so important: it helps make people brilliant”. I heard her voice break, she was clearly trying not to cry. I thought about my students, my teachers, and all the other people that make up a university that I’d been lucky to work with. I thought about the p45 sitting on my desk. I noticed my cheeks were wet.

I didn’t just cry because I agreed with Hunt. I cried because she’s wrong too. People do work very hard in the university sector, and do amazing things, but the system as a whole needs to be better. Some argue that a rise in fees will put more power in the hands of the students. I’m all for student power, but I’m not so sure about this as an approach. I think it limits which students might have the chance at such power in the first place. Moreover, I think that this sort of model severely limits the scope of what a university might be able to provide its community.

Hunt’s shouts of “you say Tories, I say scum” also depressed me. It reminded me of a schooltrip to Winsdor when I was 14. We drove through Eton on the way back, and our teacher got us to lean out the windows of the bus to point and laugh at the students’ silly uniforms. The Eton kids probably thought we looked funny too. Our uniform included a bomber jacket and a baseball cap (Really. The running team and steel pan group had school-uniform shellsuits). The cultural gap between my old inner-city comp and Eton College is immense. It is one based on social injustices which make me sick. But getting one group to jeer at the other just makes things worse. And that makes me sicker.

Most of all, I felt like UK universities had wasted the last decade of relative financial comfort. Now crisis hits, we’re suddenly noticing how great we are (or rather great we could/ should be) whilst simultaneously being constrained by a lack of funds. I felt like privatization of the academy has been handed to us as the only way out and, annoyed at this, all we do was shout abuse as those who won’t listen.

So that was why I was standing outside Tate Britain, listening to Sally Hunt. Binded by the sunshine and my students’ brilliance. Chilled by the freezing cold and impending cuts. Crying.

after the demo (Victoria station, 7pm)

To end on a more positive note, in the last week, I’ve felt like the frustration has, at least partially, be unlocked. As David Mitchell put it in the Observer yesterday, the ongoing protests demonstrate a growing political will to reform our higher education system. A Campaign for the Public University has been launched, as was Humanities Matter and I’ve just heard about a similar Campaign for Social Sciences.. Today, the Telegraph has a letter from senior academics calling for a Public Commission of Enquiry, and the student occupations are going strong. More people want to talk about what we can do other than raising fees to improve universities. I’m starting to see the merest glimmer of hope.

Maybe I’m being ridiculously naive. What do you think?

The plagiarism business

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece by a man who makes his living writing ‘bespoke’ essays for university students: The Shadow Scholar.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this business since I was flyered by one ‘Oxbridge Essays’ on campus about five years ago. At the time I was officially a PhD student, so possibly a customer (they’ll do you an 80,000 word PhD thesis in a month for a bit over £10000). I was also a part-time lecturer though. I’d just dealt with my first case of plagiarism, and the dude flyering got rather an earful.

I can recommend spending some time on the Oxbridge Essays website. Their cynicism is an eye-opener if nothing else. UKessays.com is also worth a read. They both stress that the essays are for research purposes only, a way of finding a model answer. They present themselves as a support center for students. Oxbridge Essays has a blog covering issues like the increase in fees. Both also stress their openness. You can see photos of the UK Essays writers, and visit Oxbridge Essays’ offices. According to an interesting piece from the Guardian, they are both owned by Barclay Littlewood who, via a link on his wikipedia page, I learnt had made the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List (see also a piece from 2007 and another from 2006).

If any of those links depress you, you might find the scepticism of this student forum page cheering.

Such ‘bespoke’ essays are unlikely to be caught by plagiarism checks (e.g. turnitin) and more likely to fit the coursework brief than cutting and pasting off the web. I do know a tutor who once caught a student who had bought an essay from such a site. She noticed a sudden rise in a student’s standard of coursework, so pulled him into a meeting to discuss the essay’s topics, at which point he broke down and admitted it. But she only spotted this because she is a good tutor who knows her students, one that thinks about their development as she works through her marking. I think it’s fair to say that tutors like that are less likely to get students cheating in the first place.

When I first caught that undergrad cheating, I was angry with her. I thought she was being phenomenally lazy (it was a real doozy of a cheat) not to mention downright cheeky to think such laziness was ok when other students had bothered to produce original work. But part of me also felt like I’d failed her slightly, that she either felt unable or simply uninspired by the coursework. I don’t think I was just being hard on myself. I think any sign of student failure (and this includes them making ‘stupid mistakes’ as well as dishonesty) should be taken as a signal for the teacher to at the very least check themselves. I think assessment is not just a part of measuring learning, but helping to develop it. I put a lot of effort into setting and marking coursework. I think most (good) lecturers do. Still, it is difficult, and even the best lecturers will set coursework students cannot do well in. This isn’t (just) because we set challening work, it’s because it’s bad coursework: confusingly articulated, uninspiring. As another bespoke essay writer puts it ‘Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel’ (hat-tip Paula Salgado for that link).

I’m not saying we should ‘spoon-feed’ lazy students or set easier work (or let cheaters get away with it), I’m just saying a good coursework assignment is a project students can and want to work on.

So, educators: read up on this bespoke essay business. Keep an eye out for students using it, but take their existence as a challenge to yourself too. As the guy in the Chronicle piece put it ‘I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created’. If you find him disgusting, think about how you can most productively help cut off the food supply.