Thursday, September 08, 2005

Value for money?

Guardian Unlimited | Columnists | It isn't philistinism to give students value for money
There's a lot I would agree with here. Certainly Polly Toynbee is right to say that many students are treating their degree studies as a part time occupation. Where I would take issue with her is where she suggests that this means they could do their degrees much more quickly if they put in more hours in the classroom. In a subject such as English Literature, a major proportion of a student's time needs to be taken up with reading. Yes, I know, that's a statement of the bleeding obvious. But actually, a surprisingly high number of students don't seem to be able to grasp that simple fact. They have a model of education (and I couldn't possibly comment on where they got it from) in which information is transmitted from a tutor to the student without passing through the student's brain. At its worst, this manifests itself as a kind of weary passivity: I had a student once (on a teacher-training course, no less) who said to me, "Why can't you just tell us what to write and we'll write it?" Thankfully, I don't get many students as intellectually bankrupt as that one. I do, though, get some who ask why is that they have to read lots of books, and how come the books are so long, and, like, old? The requirement to read eats in to their social and working life, but pace Polly, the courses they are on are designed to operate on the basis that they will use their copious non-contact time to read, reflect, write, plan, engage with the material of their study. Cutting down on the amount of time they have outside the classroom won't improve that situation. They need to understand that doing a degree properly (and not as a bit of time-filling between clubbing excursions and stacking shelves at Tesco) involves a lot of commitment, dedication, and, yes, hard work, often self-motivated.
Polly also seems to feel that it's important that "hard" subjects - which always means the sciences - are taken up by lots of students. I wouldn't argue with that, but I would suggest that virtually any subject, studied with sufficient rigour, is worthy of a place in university life. I think we fetishize the work-related aspect of study too much. This is currently manifested in the government's and the funding council's emphasis on work placements as part of all degrees - sensible enough if you are studying architecture, but a bit difficult if your subject is medieval theology. On the one hand, we have, throughout education, an emphasis on the acquisition of "skills" which, we are told, will equip people for the fast-changing working lives they will lead, in a world where no-one's job will be for life, where people will have a portfolio of different work experiences and so on. OK - so why seek to link particular subjects with particular work, often in a ludicrously artificial way? Why not insist instead on high standards of academic rigour in the teaching and learning of subjects, a policy which will deliver transferable skills to equip students for the fast changing work environment of the 21st century? As a big noise from IBM said to a colleague of mine recently -"We're interested in intelligent, lively, communicative graduates. We don't care what subject their degree is - we can teach them all they need to know about computing in the first six months. We need people who can work individually and as a team, who have initiative, who can write literate reports, who can communicate..."
I don't think Polly's image of the tweedy research-based academic has much basis in the reality of modern mass higher education. I expect there are a few of these dinosaurs still about, but the rest of us have had to adapt to a very different landscape than one dominated by ivory towers.

Don't dumb me down

Guardian Unlimited | Life | Don't dumb me down
I love Ben Goldacre's pieces in the Grauniad. Here he summarises what he's been doing in his Bad Science column for the last couple of years. Always entertaining and, curiously, reassuring - as one of the Humanities graduates he mentions in the article, I would otherwise be taken in by the daily more barmy claims of breakthroughs, miracle cures etc which he so effectively rubbishes every week. More power to his elbow, I say!
(and why is it the elbow that we wish more power to?)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Bush family and Hurricane Katrina

Guardian Unlimited | Cartoons | 07.09.05: The Bush family and Hurricane Katrina
As usual, Steve Bell gets to the point. This is after Barbara Bush's brilliant insight that the people evacuated to Texas have actually been lucky: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle)--this is working very well for them." Hat tip - Kat

Sunday, September 04, 2005


I've been tagged, from the film of the same name, to answer these questions. Here goes:
1. Number of books I have owned: I really don't know. In the room where I sit now, I estimate there are about 500 books. In the rest of the house posibly another 2000 or so. In my office, maybe another 1000. Joint ownership with 'er indoors, of course.
2. Last book I bought - Andrew Sinclair, The Breaking of Bumbo. I was keen on Sinclair as a youth, and have rediscovered him recently. I recommend Gog particularly. He has recently written a book dealing with all that da Vinci code (and why wasn't it Leonardo code?) material, aiming at a readership with more than half a brain cell. It's called Rosslyn
3. Last book I completed - I really don't know. I've got several on the go at the moment: A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower, Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick and Monica Ali's Brick Lane.
4. Five books that mean a lot to me - what, only five? Blimey, that's tough. This would be my choice today - probably a different five tomorrow:
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Anthony Burgess, Any Old Iron
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
A.S. Byatt, Possession
Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton
5. Five bloggers to tag - I don't know if I should presume, but if they want, I wouldn't mind knowing about the following bloggers' tastes:
Morning Loves It
The Gray Monk
Guido Fawkes
Francessa of Francessa's Thinking
Englishman in New York

Wimmin Only

On Saturday, I browsed around a Liverpool bookshop. It's a co-op, with a radical ethos, and "alternative" atmosphere. It has a table with a pile of petitions on it, and a very extensive Mind Body and Spirit section. You know the kind of thing. I was looking for a particular book in the fiction section, but rather than a straight A-Z listing, they have organised fiction into particular types, so that the shelves start with Asian fiction, then Black fiction, and so on. To add to the confusion, the lower shelves are organised alphabetically, containing those books which, presumably, don't fit their eccentric system. As I browsed, I got to L, which is Lesbian fiction. Fine, except there's a notice on the shelf saying that this section is for women only. I was tempted to browse furiously there, or even to buy one of the books just to see what would have happened. Would alarms go off? Would burly female bouncers chuck me out?
Imagine if Waterstones had a section which restricted browsers by gender - "this section is for men only..." There would be an outcry, wouldn't there, led by people exactly like those who run this bookshop. They'd probably get up a petition.
I couldn't find a copy of the novel whose title gives the bookshop its name. Maybe I didn't see the White Male Victorian Utopian Vision with Arts and Crafts Overtones section.