This is a response to Liz Morrish’s article on whether universities “are meaningful to the academics who work within them“. You should read the whole article, but the crux of it is here:
In the McCarthyite era it was the army and Hollywood which were in the front line of political persecution. This time it is scientists who are finding that their notions of working in an objective, apolitical enclosure have been disrupted by Donald Trump’s attacks on their right to report valid climate change research. Scientists are now being drawn into political action committees to face down potential threats to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and, perhaps, to the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools.
While we stand with beleaguered scientists, I hope we can also defend experts in nuclear and apocalyptic literature in austerity Britain, and a new scholarship of authoritarianism because we must all be vigilant to make sure universities continue to be sites of resistance to the rollback of the enlightenment.
This is a quick response, following the engineering practice that good enough today is better than perfect tomorrow.
We are being told that the present state of chassis is #notnormal, and that we should not normalize it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian talks of what is now being accepted as `normal’, whether under Trump or after the Brexit vote, and lays the blame where it belongs:
Normalising is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try: they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.
Democrats try to find the fault within themselves: ask not whether a racist hates; ask what made the racist so angry in the first place. Once we have found the right member of the liberal elite to pin it on, the hate maybe won’t sound so frightening.
The reason things seem `normal’ or `normalized’ is that they have been treated as normal for years, certainly within higher education. For example,
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.
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.
[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.‘
When I had my first academic job, new staff spent a couple of days of induction learning about how to teach. On the afternoon of the last day, which was the Friday before teaching started, the course tutor asked if there was anything he hadn’t covered which we would like to learn about.
A colleague said he had 150 first year engineering students on Monday. I laughed. The course tutor laughed. Nobody else laughed. The tutor explained to the other academics, mainly from the humanities, that engineering students, at least in Ireland, are a notorious shower of animals, liable to throw things at the lecturer, including, on one occasion, a frozen chicken.
“So you want to know how to be a bastard?”
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The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:
It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.
In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.
As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.
The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.
The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.
After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.
In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.
Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?
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’.