Saturday, November 12, 2005

Blair's Britain made flesh

Open days. Legions of Daily Mail- reading parents roll onto campus in a motorcade of gleaming German cars. Out they spill, a step or two behind their pride and joy. A sea of white faces with the odd brown one here and there. Blonde ponytails, pink scarves, tummies peeping out into the mid-November chill. One or two boys. Many of the mums and dads wearing that desperate, "just shoot me", staying-together-for-the-kids rictus smile. Concerned about top-up fees, yet unable or unwilling to acknowledge that they've been voting for just this system all their adult lives.

Among the academics - the help - identifiable by their much older, cheaper transportation, a similar air of desperation. Giving up a Saturday to perform like seals, worried about greater competition, falling application rates, the marketisation of education.

As the Soviet factory workers were reputed to say, "You pretend to pay us, we'll pretend to work."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Never give 69 to a student

The recent exam board season has provided a timely reminder of the need to try and avoid ambiguity in the marks allocated to students, and more than one external examiner has pointed out the danger inherent in awarding marks just on the cusp of a higher classification, ie what is known in the jargon as a 'hanging nine' - 49, 59, 69. Of these, perhaps the latter is the most invidious, representing a mark that is achingly close to a First.

I myself had an instance recently of a promising student whose overall average was 69. Although we had all thought carefully before giving her 69, it was always something that could explode in my face, and in the event she did find it hard to swallow. For my part, I was sympathetic, and did wonder how it would feel to have your nose rubbed in it in that way. All in all, I admit that giving her 69 did leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The perfect student within

The role of a board of examiners is now to find the ‘perfect student within’ and therefore universally award perfect marks.

In the bad old days we simply used to mark the work that was submitted, assuming that it was representative of the student’s ability. This was ignorant selfish and lazy. It took no account of the individual student. It made no allowance for the varied and complex psychology and sociology that makes up a student’s life, much of which might reduce their ability to complete academic tasks. And I don’t just mean dyslexia. We must also carefully account for part time work and financial circumstances (students who are working cannot be expected to read as well), illness of the student throughout their study (even a mild cold in the run up to an assignment might reduce the quality of work by a crucial percentage), stress in the student, illness and death of relatives, friends and pets, IT failures, complications with teaching arrangements (a 9 am seminar is bound to reduce a student’s ability to learn a subject), the weather (seasonal affective disorder can serious effect large numbers of students), the menu in the student refectory (a lack of fish has the potential to reduce brain functioning, carbohydrate-rich food reduces attentiveness in afternoon classes), and personality (some students are just not suited to an academic environment). Because of all this we have invested heavily in student support departments (support staff already outnumber lecturers 2:1). Their work is impressive. Every year they exceed their targets for identifying students with special needs and they hope that one day soon we will be able to claim that each and every student has reason to get special support and allowance for assessments. We move ever closer to stripping out and externalising every possible reason why a student did not get top marks. Once identified, each issue can be allowed for and the appropriate marks given back to the student.

It’s a lot of work, but it is worth it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Answer to our quiz

Many thanks to all of you who put your thinking caps on and tried to guess our mystery taboo word. Remember, it's a word that begins with C, ends with NT, and is guaranteed to cause offence if used in the company of today's students.

A special thanks to Bobby Lard for his suggestion, 'content', as in 'this module has some academic content'. Close, Bobby, but no cigar!

In fact, the answer is COHERENT, as in "You might have achieved a pass if you had attempted to make a coherent argument".

Another no-no word in our next quiz soon...

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The C-word

There is a word that will get Simulacra's teaching staff into big trouble if they use it when addressing students. Gasps of shock and red faces are the typical reaction. Can you guess what it is?

Here's a clue. It begins with C, and ends with NT.

Answer tomorrow, post your answers below.

New Prospectus

I’ve just seen the new prospectus and I’m impressed by the marketing effort that has gone into it. The glossy A4 front cover shows 2 students having sex in the student union. One of them is evidently an overseas student and is wearing an academic gown. They seem to be clutching a first class diploma. The other (a mature student) is grasping a handful of job offers. I’m assuming the condoms are a nod to parents. The banner offering a free classification upgrade for ‘early bookers’ seems like a particularly good idea.

BSc Email Management

I’ve just had an email asking if anyone has any ideas for new degree programmes. I’m thinking of suggesting ‘BSc Email Management’.

I am inspired by the success of this process at University of Simulacra. It goes something like this. A highly paid, but under worked middle manager in some central services department (academic quality/international development/marketing) dream up a lunatic idea whilst evacuating their bowels one morning. This might be a way for the university to raise money through the sale of staff intellectual property, or more likely a way to cut cost through the implementation of smart teaching approaches. By the time they reach work this has crystallized into a fully developed policy document. They naturally email ‘all’ with their scheme and wait for the response. After three days all they have got back are three messages of support from ever slightly more junior middle managers from other central service departments. Annoyed at the apparent indifference of the staff group to their world changing proposals, they then send the same messages to heads of schools asking them to promote the scheme. And here is where email management really kicks in. The heads of schools forward the original email to heads of departments with a message indicating that they should discuss the scheme with all staff. The heads of department then forward the email to all their staff with a message indicating that the head of school has asked that all staff consider this message as a matter of importance. A few new and naïve staff make vaguely supportive replies to the head of department. They forward these to the head of school, copying in other heads of department so as to demonstrate their commitment to these important new policies. The head of school then forward these back to the central middle manager, copying in other heads of schools so that all can see their school’s commitment to these important new policies. The email system records several thousand messages relating to this topic. Centrally a conclusion is drawn that the scheme is a massive success. On the basis of this central managers award themselves a 10% pay increase.

The best bit about the new course is that it could be delivered entirely by email.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Another year nearly over!

Goodness me how time flies. Now, as exam boards pore over the carefully-calibrated marks for each student we bid a fond farewell to another flock of finely-honed young minds, and thousands of Simulacra's finest head off to all four corners of the earth for a well-earned break over the summer. Except for the sizeable minority, that is, who failed their exams. Despite coaching, spoon-feeding, advance notice of exam topics, rounding-up, ever more beneficial regulations, some of them still manage to slip under. So to you, those lazy fuckers who thought you'd be spending August on Daddy's yacht, we say the academic's three favourite words: "Told you so!"