Don’t feel obliged to have a clue

Like many academics, I occasionally see journalistic comment on something I know about, and wonder how such nonsense gets published. In the interests of impact, or informing the public, we sometimes try to set things straight.

So, here is some of what is wrong with Will Hutton’s article blaming Donald Trump for the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, not that I want to be seen as defending Trump. Hutton lays a fair bit of the blame at the door of Boeing, contrasting its approach to that of Airbus, and the approach of the US aviation regulator to that of its European counterpart. Begin here:

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Following lobbying from members of the University of Bath asking that the university provide funded studentships for refugees from Syria, the senior management team has laid out a response under the title `Partnership, not gesture: Jordan commitment‘. The substance of the management plan is outlined below, with a response.

Following our discussions in Amman two weeks ago we now undertake to make a range of brand new commitments in Jordan to build that resilience:

1. Working with a local University in Amman with a focus on STEM we will support the training of faculty to doctoral level in areas such as engineering and mathematical innovation, essential for the development of resilient systems.

Laudable though this contribution to Jordanian Higher Education might be, it is not a proposal to offer any chance of higher education to Syrian, or other, refugees. There is an additional impediment: according to a report on the status of Syrian students who have sought refuge in Jordan, Jordanian universities require Syrian students to produce documentation on their previous studies:

students reported to us that although in some cases documentary requirements have been eased, some Jordanian universities continue to require documentation. Since many Syrian refugee students were forced to leave home without this paper work, failure to waive these requirements creates an effective bar to accessing higher education in Jordan.

For obvious reasons the Syrian embassy in Jordan is not helpful to Syrian refugees looking for copies of their educational qualifications, so in practice Syrian refugees find it almost impossible to enter a Jordanian university.

2. We will commit to partner with the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan to conduct research in areas of national priority.

Again, this is a laudable proposal, although it does require some detail. For example, is this to be funded by the University of Bath, or does it depend on external funding? If the latter, it is simply a strategic internationalization decision, and not an act of generosity or solidarity by the university. In neither case is it an offer of assistance to refugees fleeing war in Syria: it is cooperation on work of national importance to Jordan.

3. We have now launched a Study Centre in partnership with the Amman Baccalaureate School where we will deliver our MA in Education. We will teach the teachers to provide future leadership in education.

This is not a `brand new commitment’: the `new study centre’ was opened at the end of January by Princess Sarvath, an honorary graduate of the University of Bath.

4. We will strengthen our partnership with the British Institute in Amman to develop research which can inform how governments, NGOs and other parties might more effectively respond to the long-term impacts of the crisis.

Neither is this.

5. And we will provide scholarships on our postgraduate MA Education programme in Amman to refugees displaced by the crisis. These scholarships will complement work being undertaken by the British Council, whose EU-funded LASER (Language, Academic skills and E-learning Resources) Project is developing English language skills with refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon.

This is a very limited offer. The MA in Education programme is open to `qualified educators‘. This translates into a requirement that students on the programme be `qualified teachers‘. At best, this is an offer of scholarships (of what value?) to refugees who already hold a teaching qualification: it offers nothing to those who hold a qualification in any other discipline, and nothing to those who have not started or completed a qualification.

These are all new initiatives for the University. Together, they form a multi-layered commitment to Jordan in its vital stabilisation efforts in this deeply troubled region.

On a charitable reading, some of these initiatives are new `for the University’. They are not, however, a response to the humanitarian crisis of refugees fleeing Syria: they were in place long before the issue of aiding people fleeing war was even raised. Indeed, the word `Syrian’ does not appear in the proposals, and there is absolutely no proposal to offer assistance to Syrian refugees in the United Kingdom.

Our community started out with a call for support for refugees. We are going far beyond what was sought.

It is true that `our community started out with a call for support for refugees’. This plan is not a response to that call but the passing off of existing initiatives as aid for refugees. It does not go `far beyond what was sought’; it is not even movement in the same direction.

So now engineers are jihadis too?

[This post is to be treated as a draft rather than a fully-developed position: so I welcome comments, and requests to expand points, and may well change my mind about certain things.]

Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.

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Cockburn on liberals

From The Nation, 24 November 1984, reprinted in Corruptions of Empire:

`Could the officer have aimed to warn or wound rather than to kill? Could the team have used Chemical Mace or tear gas?’ This was in a November 2 New York Times editorial, apropos the N.Y.P.D.’s shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, the 66-year-old Bronx woman who was behind in her rent. I love liberals when they try to think constructively.

What’s wrong with numerical feedback?

In short: the numbers are wrong, and the statistics are worse.

Like other academics in the UK and elsewhere, I am judged as a teacher on the basis of feedback from students taking my courses. In some institutions, not doing well enough on this feedback can lead to dismissal. The problem is that this feedback is largely meaningless.

In my university, as in others, the feedback takes the form of comments (valuable and useful for thinking about teaching practice) and a numerical score between 1 and 5 under a number of headings. These scores are then averaged and, in my department, any score under 3.5 is reason to fill in a form explaining what action will be taken to make sure it does not happen next year.

The first problem with the numerical feedback is that students are not good judges of teaching. Insofar as there is evidence from proper trials, it seems that the numerical scores awarded by students do not reflect how well they have learned from their teachers. In other words, the numbers going in are unreliable, especially since with low return rates the results are dominated by students who are disgruntled or very gruntled.

Secondly, the final score is unreliable. As you will know from following opinion polls before elections, when you take a small sample of a group, there is an inevitable error in the resulting estimate of the average. This is especially true when the sample is biased towards the extremes. In my university, students give scores between 1 and 5: averages are presented to three significant figures 1.00 to 5.00.

To see what is wrong with this, think of the distinction between precision and accuracy, something every first engineering student must learn: precision is the number of decimal places, accuracy is the number of decimal places you can believe.

A typical class size might be 40 students. On a 25% submission rate (typical), ten students put numbers in to be averaged. Doing the sums, if one student changes a mark by one, say from 3 to 4, the average changes by 0.1. The academic is assessed on the basis of a difference of 0.01: 3.5 good, 3.49 is a problem. In other words, decisions are made by believing the noise in the signal. A single anonymous student, cheesed off because he has been set an exam question he has never seen before, can ruin a career.

We have numbers which are probably wrong to start with, in biased samples too small to be statistically valid, forced through an averaging process to give a spurious precision, and a management prepared to use these numbers as an `objective’ measure of teaching `quality’.

War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.
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It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. Read the rest of this entry »