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Alan Machin's Blog - October 2009

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Widening Participation, Thinning Resources

19.10.09

Quite rightly, there are many initiatives aimed at getting a broader cross-section of the community well represented in universities. As someone who, 45 years ago, went into higher education from a mill-worker family I am very much in favour. I know how a few years in university changed my life and opened up many new opportunities. I also know what the problems are: joining an academic world with a different vocabulary, strange systems and a confusing bunch of teachers. As I ended my working life with 17 years as a member of one of those sets of teachers I did see the process from both sides. It was also a delight to see how most students not only coped but settled in and got the best they could out of the system. But some failed and withdrew, a few within the first weeks, others on the brink of what had looked like their home straight to a degree or diploma.

The UK government wants to see half the school population go on to higher education. The percentage has increased to around 40% (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills figures for 2007/8) - 37% were on full time courses and 7% part time. In recent years the figures have faltered a little making it difficult to know for sure what the current trends are, but they are very much higher than in 1960 when, according to Vikki Bolivar of the Department of Sociology at Oxford University one in twenty school-leavers went into Higher Education. At that time there were 180,000 undergraduates compared with 1.8 million in 2008. Of course in 1960 there were fewer universities – 21 of them plus a number of other HE institutions, as against 172 today.

There are, of course, many different universities with different courses, situations and resources. It might be misleading to generalise across all of them. I will confine myself to Leeds Metropolitan University and the Tourism Management course on which I taught in order to make a point about quality. It might be quite unrepresentative. I suspect it is not, but I do expect it to represent many universities, especially the ‘new’ institutions converted from being polytechnics in February 1993.

As I commented in a posting introducing this topic (21.09.09) I worked out a few months back that compared with 1992 when I started teaching at Leeds Met, in 2009 just before retirement I had half the time to be available to each student. This reflected changes in most modules where I would deliver only one third or a half the number of lectures per module subject, run one workshop per student group per week instead of two, and have to be available for individual tutorials requested by students far less often – instead of forty or fifty students in a year group in ‘92/’93 there would typically be 120 in ‘08/’09. Assessment exercise per module were being typically reduced because of staff time available to mark them – essays, reports, exam answers, presentations etc – from two to one. Multiple choice test papers were being encouraged as a partial solution: the problem, of course, is that those things deal with simple facts or judgements and do not help at all with the core of undergraduate intellectual life, namely the well written and rigorously developed discussions that professional thinking requires. Web-based systems of on-line quizzes were put forward along with other, similar ideas. Some of them had great merit and potential, but only in support of real teaching. And what do I mean by ‘real teaching’? Well, in a lifetime of experience, not only in teaching but in raising children, managing work teams and developing my own skills, such as they are, I am sure that it takes on average at least three tries before someone gets right some new skill, handles factual knowledge competently or is able to analyse, synthesise and then communicate clearly through writing or speech. Any level of good, effective teaching is based on the one-to-one interaction between the tutor and the student (in which the tutor learns all kinds of relevant things via the same process). Giving a book or handout to read does not do the job of itself. Delivering a lecture does not. Having a PowerPoint or Word document available online is no substitute, even though it might be a good support. So unless the number of teachers – real, live, human ones who are available by knocking on their office doors or chatting after a session – is increased in step with the student numbers, the process is going to be severely compromised.

Widening participation therefore adds a set of problems. Students from backgrounds without the same element of academic education in the family need more help and guidance. They have difficulties understanding and practising what is required. I did when I took on a subject that I had not taken in school beyond around age 15. It was a struggle. I could therefore sympathise with students who found formal academic writing difficult, or were fazed by terms like ‘critically analyse’ in assignments.

Setting government-decreed targets for the numbers of students in university is bound to be destructive unless at every stage the increases that result are met by better resources of every kind in exactly the same ratio – preferably, if quality is to go up as well, at an even better level. Otherwise the numbers game, bringing in more less-well equipped students, is bound to do what I think it has, and erode the whole experience and outcome.

Boliver, V (2008) PowerPoint slides of a lunchtime seminar of 20.10.08 available at:
http://users.ox.ac.uk/~nuff0230/sociologyseminars.htm
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Image: Rudston Church interior

Light Shows

18.10.09

Rudston Church has some attractive stained glass. Here are scenes from village life, especially the church as the harvest so important to the community hereabouts.

Churches were built as visitor attractions. That might sound a cheap, tourism-propaganda point, but it's more than that. Tourism is not only an activity for people taking a holiday. It's also a matter of business, and that means ordinary working lives as well as conferences and big trade fairs. Tourism is also for religion, with the pilgrimage stretching back to - well, the time of the Rudston monolith. In and about 2,000 BC when it was hauled upright as a some kind of landmark, people were already walking tracks across high ground for reasons connected with their own religions, whether or not the Rudston stone had a religious significance or not. It almost certainly did.

The church built on the same hill many centuries later was visited by local folk as well as travellers from great distances. It had to act as a place for formal religious celebrations. It also had to act as a place that could speak to casual visitors from the village, the region and even further afield. Wall paintings and later stained glass were its main methods, using the iconography of Christianity within the context of each age. The language was graphic. It also spoke to people through the language of architecture and design - decoration, beautiful and perhaps valuable objects, wall hangings and clerical garments. Drama such as the mystery plays of the middle ages were developed out of liturgical drama used in rituals. Music - unaccompanied, or supported by early wind and percussion instruments, was added to the spoken word.

It is, in Western Europe at least, here in the ordinary church that modern tourism's origins can be traced. Anyone with a wish to understand the origins and the meaning of early tourism needs to be able to read the messages of churches.
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Image: Rudston Church nr Bridlington

Community Heart

17.10.09

Ancient villages in England had two central points, the church and the manor house. The former represented the spiritual power and the latter the secular. An inn - at least one inn - would have been added and become the focus of daily social life, somewhere to find accommodation for travellers, refreshment for all and local knowledge and information when required. The church would have been the site of a weekly market when a royal charter was granted. As the place of ritual performance and announcement it often made a starting point for drama, first liturgical and later something more secular when entertainers appeared at the weekly market, and especially the twice-yearly hiring and harvest fairs. As the place of commemoration - religious at first, secular later - it began to house memorials in the form of plaques and gravestones when they became fashionable. From early times wall paintings were used to tell biblical stories to the largely illiterate population. Later, if they could afford it, stained glass windows, illuminated by sunlight as if by heavenly command, took over from murals which needed frequent renewing and were usually less attractive.

Rudston Church is near to Boynton. Sited on a hill it could be glimpsed from miles around to attract local people. Within the churchyard is a much earlier landmark. The Rudston monolith, as it is called, is around 4,000 years old as a landmark. No-one knows for sure what its purpose was. The stone - 26 feet above ground and several feet below ground - was hauled some 30 miles from near Whitby and set upright here. Nowadays a lead cap protects its pinnacle.

In the churchyard are more recent memorials, three shown above. One marks several graves belonging to the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles in Scotland but important landowners around here. Another, edged with flowers, marks the resting place of Winifred Holtby who was the celebrated author of 'South Riding' in the early twentieth century, a novel about Yorkshire community life. A third memorial is very poignant for it is to a ten year old schoolboy who died in 1955. His parents lived on until the 1990s and early 2000s respectively and have been buried alongside their long-lost son.

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Image: Boynton Church - turkey symbols

On The Wings Of The Turkey

16.10.09

Within a mile or so of our caravan site in Boynton is the village church. Rebuilt, extended, redesigned, it has to be described as we see it now. And what is visible now is one of the neatest, attractive interiors of a church that I have come across in a long time. The outside is straight-forward, though with changes in building material that hint at a varied story: stone tower at the western end against a brick nave and chancel. Inside is also simple and that is its attractiveness since it has an elegant simplicity. Paint, eighteenth century in style, has been used rather than the usual varnish on the woodwork. The carpenters used straight edges rather than curves or gothicky ornaments.

The proportions are the basis of the elegance and the flat green paintwork provides the complexion. Stone, iron and wood used in the structuring work well together with only occasional flaws or minor clashes. The stone font has a pattern carved around its sides like blind lancet windows, but the stonecutter got the dimensions wrong and had to complete the circuit with two shapes narrower than the rest. It is a very human touch. There is a font cover (replaced by a harvest festival display when we visited) made in 1950 which is a very restrained, yet colourful, reflection of its age.

So what about the turkey that carries the bible on the lectern in place of the usual golden eagle? And why does the bird appear in the stained glass high up on the east window in such a prime position? The answer is that it is thought the bird was introduced to Britain in the sixteenth century by William Strickland who sailed on Sebastian Cabot's expedition of discovery to North America. Strickland bought land in Boynton and Winteringham, also in Yorkshire, and though he lived and was buried in the latter, the house he built in Boynton was lived in by his descendants. He was granted a coat of arms in 1550 showing the turkey and this is what appears in the high window behind the altar. The lectern bird is a twentieth century addition, and unique.

Perhaps most people would drive past a place like Boynton. If they stopped there and walked around the church, tucked to one side of the gates to the Hall, might not attract them in. Perhaps the rule when exploring ought to be to leave no stone unturned - or door unopened.
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Competitive Fragmentation

15.09.10 (2)

Try herding cats, they say ... the little perishers race of in all directions, wherever they want to go.

It’s like that in higher education when a set of academics want to achieve things and the management is weak – sometimes virtually non-existent. The goals that are set at the top are those that universities are desperate for, given government policies: high profiles, income from consultancy and paid research, more and more students and students attracted from sectors without previous HE experience. Individual academics quite rightly want to progress in order to gain increased job satisfaction and pay. So with the policy carrot and the personal stick of ambition every tutor will be looking for their own projects by which they can achieve these things.

From my own experience in both the public sector and commercial firms the level of teamwork approaches is, in HE, comparatively low. I would say extremely low in some departments where management is poor. It has also been my experience that some departments are much better run, either because they have managers with non-HE experience or because they learnt their job at a time when universities had a stronger culture of caring about the people working within them. The rapid expansion of higher education over the last decade and more has meant the appointment of some managers who lack sufficient vision and management skills. Put together the weakness of some management groups and the dynamic of a set of intelligent, ambitious individuals and the result becomes destructive. People pull in all directions until teams fall apart: what I would call ‘competitive disintegration’.


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No Such Thing As ..... A Teaching Vocation?

15.10.09 (1)

In September 1987 the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave an interview to ‘Woman’s Own’ magazine in which she used one of the most controversial phrases of her period in office. She said “There is no such thing as society”. Her critics often say she was responsible for turning everything into matters of profit; profit to be made by individuals. Some say that she knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I am coming to the conclusion that it was the cultural changes of the 1980s – by no means all driven by Margaret Thatcher or, indeed, her political allies – that eroded, perhaps destroyed, the idea of teaching as a vocation. I may be wrong in this idea about teaching in schools, but I don’t think I am wrong to come to this conclusion about teaching in higher education. Yes, there were people in the Sixties when I studied in university who were ambitious for their own careers above all else, but they seemed to be the exception. And I am not confusing the natural desire to get on, to do well, with the hard-edged ambition to climb the ladder not caring whose fingers got trodden on. I referred in an earlier posting to authors who wrote satirically about university life. If they were writing today I suspect they would have even stronger comments to make. As well as Kingsley Amis and Posy Simmons – one a novelist, the other a narrative cartoonist – we can look back on Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’ and Frederick Raphael’s ‘The Glittering Prizes’ for their novelisation of university life and culture up to, and including, the 1970s. All kinds of attitudes were changing, though the kind of self-regarding, sardonic characters found in Amis and Simmons still existed: they always did, they always will, no doubt. Yet it seems as though the feeling of optimism, social inclusion, opportunities-for-all spirit of the Fifties and Sixties was being attacked by the never-had-it-so-good culture of the Sixties and Seventies and by the era of Thatcher there was being added the cult of the individual being encouraged to get rich quick in any way they chose and with official blessing.

What are the symptoms of the malaise that I am ascribing to modern universities? Does it extend throughout them all? Of the second question I can only surmise and suspect, but my suspicions are strong and that it is. On the other hand, thank goodness, by no means everyone in universities is climbing the ladder, the greasy pole, in an attempt to grab advantages at any cost. Altruism, care, vocation – call it what you will, still exists. But the system is no longer built on it, but on the ‘modern’ principles of individual ambition. I would be interested in hearing what other people in higher education think – and would publish suitable emails, with permission and anonymously if required so long as I was given details of where the author is teaching for confirmation. The views of ex-students would be welcome – from any university.

Click here to email me

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Image: Caravan and Motorhome Show 2009 - NEC

Caravan And Motorhome Show 2009

14.10.09

Vehicle-based touring is looking more popular. We were told by the owner of the caravan site in East Yorkshire that bookings for pitches have been higher this year than for some time. The current NEC show certainly looked busy yesterday - the car parks were crowded, the stands busy - but whether that translates into sales of new vehicles is another matter. The really busy areas were around the accessories and extras stands.

There won't have been many purchases of the giant Peterbilt motorhome shown here. Apart from a price tag of 175,000 for what was apparently a secondhand unit, it's hard to imagine it being either practical enough or economic enough for British users. But it did the trick of getting punters onto the Cornish-based dealer's stand, and the eye-catching appearance meant it was being photographed frequently. And it's on this web site.

As usual there might have been more window shoppers than buyers around the dozens of gleaming white 'vans and mobiles. Its a big draw even so, with thousands of devotees enjoying the mix of comfort, independence, outdoor life and economy that touring with a vehicle home brings. This was a weekday so the younger customers were less evident. The smaller sites that we use are perhaps more popular with an older market so I'm not sure just to what extent the demographics span the age ranges. Switching to a caravan or motorhome isn't cheap at first - say 10,000 for a smaller or second-hand 'van and the possible need to buy a car more suited to towing. But after that holidays are less expensive and can taken far more frequently.
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Image: Tree scenes - Beechwood Farm

All In The Mind

13.10.09

Spend a few caravanning days and it becomes clear what the major difference is with house- or hotel-living (apart from the work of setting up, cooking etc). Life is lived in a caravan within a very small compass. Ours, like most, has three rooms – bathroom, bedroom, and living area. The last-named has the ‘kitchen’ zone and the sitting area. We could also add an awning outside which adds around 50% more space but that is quite a different area and we found on our East Coast trip that we didn’t use it. We could put chairs outside the whole thing but that would compare with a back yard or garden which in many houses is much bigger. As it happens we only have a small back yard with raised garden behind a wall so sitting on the edge of a large field feels bigger – but we still wouldn’t be spending our ‘domestic’ time out there.

So, Pat being the culinary creative that she is, the kitchen area is her abode until she sits opposite me at the table. I occupy one bench seat when we eat, read, use our respective notebook computers etc and she the other. Everything happens within a small compass. It’s a relaxed, cosy arrangement, especially as our dog, Mac, will settle on a blanket alongside one or other of us once there is no more chance to importune for food scraps: he will curl up and fall asleep with a gentle sound of snoring. Everything we need at this point is within arm’s reach, at least until coffee is needed. Even that means only a travelling distance of about a metre. When the dog decides it’s time to do what a dog needs to do, the corn-stubble field is only a caravan length away – not the much longer distance to socially and environmentally acceptable places.

And when it’s time to go exploring, the car is at hand: lock the ‘van, all a-board and – go. Physically it’s fun – psychologically, it’s, well, a breath of fresh air.
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Image: Caravan at Boynton

East Yorkshire In Black And White - And Colour

11.10.09

Pat and I made our first 'proper' caravanning trip last week. We had already made two two-night trips getting used to the new style living. This time we spent five days inland of Bridlington at an lovely CL site (up to five caravans or motorhomes only) at Boynton. It's a level site with well mown grass standing and a corn field - already harvested - in front where our dog, Mac, could be exercised. He's over 15 years old now, a Manchester terrier, a lap dog really but one who has taken to the cosy new life immediately.

What a lot there is to learn! I can see why people love hotels - press a switch and the lights go on as soon as you arrive. Turn the tap to get hot water, phone the front desk for help, open the minibar for drinkies. Everything has to be set up in a caravan. Power cable to be laid to the nearest socket when you find it, then switches checked and pressed. Plastic water tank to be filled and rolled into place next to the 'van and pump/hose attached. Waste container connected by two hoses to drain pipes for sinks and shower. Toilet unit filled with water for flushing (with disinfectant) and toilet receptacle cassette charged with powerful 'treatment plant in a bottle' liquid. And that is after manoeuvring the 'van into place (OK, we have power movers), winding down the corner steadies (stays), checking its all level with a spirit level - ah, let the shower corner be slightly higher so the floor pan drains), attaching hitch- and wheel-locks for security, opening side locker for various gizmos and gadgets and removing bungee straps and cargo bars to unload said water barrel and waste water holder etc.

At last (an hour or so down the line for us learners) folding chairs are set out in the late afternoon sunshine, a table set up, a bottle of wine opened. There is no noise bar the wind in the beech trees and a few birds discussing the worm supply situation. Other caravanners have gone past with a cheery wave and a word. The site owwner might pop along tomorrow to see how we are doing (and collect ten quid a night for the site, water and electricity). After an hour and an emptied bottle we might have to find another job to do. Or not, as the case might be. No traffic noise, no phone ringing, no ASBO-ignoring teenagers ....

This, as Toad would have said, is the life. And he had to feed and water a horse. There will be new worlds to explore tomorrow. Poop, poop!

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Image: Aliens Have Landed

Aliens Have Landed

02.10.09

On a lighter note: these from-outer-space shapes are representative of the more unusual sculptures installed in world cities. They're different and they're usually placed for maximum contrast with their surroundings. Some reflect like mirrors, others are transparent or have attractive opaque textures. OK, the middle one isn't really a sculpture, but it is a sculptural form while serving a utilitarian purpose. I guess this can be a quiz: where are they?

Answers at the foot of the September '09 blog page.

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No Rewards

01.10.09

The importance of the ‘student experience’ is stressed heavily in universities. It is the foundation of successful higher education. It makes the relationship between students, tutors and support staff a happy one. And it is a powerful marketing tool. The student experience must revolve around teaching. Lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials form the teaching process backed up by library and computer-based resources serving the student’s reading programme. But it is the delivery of lectures and the running of workshops and seminars by good teachers which makes up by far the biggest part of the educational experience. Whatever reading or other work the student undertakes will be inspired (or pushed) by the tutor’s leadership.

Universities compete for students and resources. They survey and measure the ‘student experience’ very deliberately using the long-established means of counting the number of degrees awarded and at which level. First class degrees are cherished, as are Upper Seconds. Lower Seconds are not so good, but at least respectable. Third class degrees and Unclassified degrees are usually regarded as failures, even though they are degrees and for some of the recipients they might represent the overcoming of difficult times or a personal background lacking in familiarity with the higher levels of education. University managers analyse the marks awarded to every course component, every year of the course and finally the average mark in all his or her modules that the student achieves. Questions are asked of teaching staff whose modules are considered to be below average, whether or not the subject was easy or difficult. Managers tend to consider all marks should be high: levels of complexity, technicality or unfamiliarity, all of which can depress final marks, are considered lamentable because they reduce grades. Many a tutor has been told they should teach better or just reduce the problems. This, course, is known to many as “dumbing down”.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to anyone examining the system that good teaching, on which the final outcome depends, receives little recognition or reward. I say ‘little’ because there are some token rewards given to a few good souls, of which more later. What rewards could be on offer? Sometimes teaching staff can be moved up a point or two on their pay scales. Usually it is a case of encouraging a good tutor to apply for re-grading. A Lecturer could become a Senior Lecturer. A Senior Lecturer could move up to become a Principal Lecturer. The catch is this: each move upwards will bring increased management responsibilities. Becoming a PL brings prestige and enhanced pay – but also takes the position-holder away from teaching to greater or lesser degree. Being seen as a successful PL adds even more management roles with a reduction in teaching commitment. Some PLs have little actual teaching. It’s an old saying and I have referred to it before, quoting Ted Stubbs with whom I taught in secondary school in 1962-1964. Ted retired that year. He had said to me that “the measure of success in teaching is the distance the person puts between himself and the classroom”. I could see even then what he meant and how true it was, as teachers became headmasters or lecturers in training colleges. Some less-than-competent teachers I have known went to training colleges because they were poor teachers. I have seen good teachers pushed up the management ladder and prove to be hopeless at management. They weren’t trained for it and they weren’t, in turn, managed properly by their managers but left to flounder.

There are two other routes out of the classroom for university teachers. One is into research. This is attractive work and carries much prestige, and is usually rewarded if the right kind of research is done by postgraduate degrees including the much admired title of ‘Doctor’ which comes with a PhD (itself a demanding path to follow). Universities need staff with PhDs in order to attract prestige which brings funding and students. So tutors who spend some years working towards a PhD can, towards the end of their tribulations, be given lighter teaching timetables to free up research and writing time. It’s a good thing – except that someone else has to take on extra teaching to support their PhD colleague. In theory they can ask for the same support later on. In practice there is a Catch 22 situation. Getting established as an MA or PhD candidate requires someone to prove they can write research papers, which at first means using their own time almost entirely. If the tutor concerned has shouldered a heavier teaching workload and been successful then they will find it virtually impossible to escape from it. Teaching brings masses of working in the individual’s own time anyway, meaning they struggle to research and write their first papers. It is often done by skating round quality teaching in favour of the bare minimum required.

The other route out is into consultancy. Similar rewards accrue – prestige, time to do more of this kind of work rather than teaching, research positions within the hierarchy – bringing a higher salary – and so on. Again, other colleagues have to take on teaching to free the consultant, who will be bringing in large sums of money to the institution. They will also travel more, often to distant locations, depending on their subject and work in hand. Along with the researchers the consultants will get to more conferences and they will be called upon to speak to the media, increasing their personal, as well as university, profile. It should be added here that the researchers and consultants – often the same people – will also be working on journal papers, books and possibly media productions of various kinds. All of these things are extremely important and valuable to the institution and to the wider professional community – and possibly they will have direct benefit to the man and woman in the street. But there is a high cost in the workload to be shouldered by other people and in the movement of skilled tutors away from teaching – still the core activity of any university.

So what are the ”token rewards” that are given to the good teachers on whom successful tuition depends, if they choose not to follow the management or research-related routes? Perhaps a prize or two, given each year to a dozen people lucky enough to be nominated by their fellows, and judged as ‘successful’ on some sort of criteria by the management. A dozen out of several hundred, once a year. A prize of money to attend a conference, buy some books, or perhaps a nicely printed certificate to go in a frame on the office wall. It’s a cheap gesture, and in the minds of many who work in places that do it, an insult.

[See the September '09 blog page for previous postings on this topic]

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