What is to be done?

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.

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Meet the new normal, same as the old normal

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,

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How to be a bastard: crowd control in the academy

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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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’.


Paying for education

As seems likely, we in the UK are about to see the price of education hiked by another few grand a year. It turns out that the problem of what to pay for education was solved by William Blake a couple of centuries ago:

What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain

or, if you prefer, fame costs:


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 »