Archive for September 2012

These castle walls

September 30, 2012

I recently took two days off and spent them driving around the west of Scotland. On the coast, and near the island of Skye, is the castle of Eilean Donan. It is sometimes described as Scotland’s most photographed building, and it features in recent TV advertisements for Scottish tourism. Although it looks rather ancient, it is in fact a reconstruction carried out in the early 20th century; before that it had been in ruins for some considerable time, and not much of the original building had remained. You can read more about it here.

Since it has been photographed so much, I thought I might add one more picture. Here it is.

Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan

So how important are spelling and grammar?

September 27, 2012

Earlier this week I took part in a brief conversation between some secondary schoolteachers and academics. The question arose whether the claims sometimes made by employers that too many university graduates are bad at spelling and grammar are justified; and if they are, whether it actually matters. One of the teachers suggested that students leaving secondary education are much more literate and numerate these days than they were some ten or 20 years ago, but that in any case too much importance was being attached to this. I expressed the view that the quality of communication did at least to some extent depend on a person’s ability to master the basic rules of spelling and grammar.

Nearly ten years ago the Guardian carried a report that suggested that student spelling and grammar had reached a ‘crisis point’. Since then, the school curriculum in some countries has again placed more emphasis on these particular skills; so has the situation improved? And how much does this matter?

Oh dear oh dear, here we go again: Irish university merger chatter

September 25, 2012

So, I leave Ireland, and off they go and start this kind of talk again. So let’s cut to the chase first. There’s been another (as yet unpublished) review of Irish higher education (I know, I know: another? Really?), and guess what it allegedly recommends: Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. And so should DCU and various others. And why? In order to ensure ‘that institutes will be sufficiently large to be serious players in the global higher education community’. Oh, gee!

Anyway, I must allow for the possibility that the report on this will not turn out to be correct. But it is based on an article in the Irish Times by Sean Flynn, and in my experience his sources are always spot on. So I’m assuming it’s as we’re being told it is. But if that is so, then this is one almighty weird story. Apparently the Higher Education Authority commissioned a group of four eminent international folks to do a report on Irish higher education. So the first question has to be, in the name of all that’s precious, why? We’ve had three reviews of Irish higher education in the space of ten years, and we already know everything that can be known, and every variety of opinion has been canvassed. That somebody should think that another one is needed is extraordinary, indeed zany. But there’s more. The report, we are told, was written ‘without consultation with the colleges themselves’, and ‘the panel worked solely on the basis of a portfolio of information and statistics about Irish higher education’. And fortified with this – well, we can’t call it information – they have recommended that everybody should jolly well get on and merge.

So let’s be frank. First, whatever else the Irish system needs, it is not another review. Truly. And if it did (which it doesn’t), such a review should not be conducted in the absence of inputs from those, I mean all those, working in the system. And even if it should do that (which it shouldn’t), it really needs to avoid focusing on re-structuring as the answer to everything. And even if new structures were the answer (which they aren’t), a TCD/UCD merger should be avoided like the plague, because even a discussion about it will unhinge rational debate about Irish higher education. And even if a TCD/UCD (or any other) merger were the best way forward (which it isn’t), then the reason given should not be that a larger university is more competitive internationally. The top 10 global universities are mostly smaller than UCD. Quality, not size, is what makes you competitive. The whole thing is just bizarre beyond words.

If I were still in Ireland I would now have to lie down in a darkened room. From my current vantage point I can only watch with amazement. There are so many things to do to secure Ireland’s higher education sector and allow it to thrive. This really really isn’t one of them.

The key problem at the heart of every university

September 25, 2012

In his book The Uses of the University the former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Clark Kerr, suggested that a university President has three key tasks which his or her main stakeholders will expect to see achieved: ‘sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.’ Only the last of these, he suggested, presented a problem.

Another related bon mot also attributed to him is that a university consists of ‘a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking.’

All of this is wholly true. In my time as President of Dublin City University, some of the most intractable problems concerned car parking. DCU has a small campus in a residential area, and so we had to make whatever use we could of parking space, which involved two surface car parks and one multi-story car park. It was made clear to us that the local authority, Dublin City Council, would not give permission for the construction of any more parking spaces, as it was pursuing a policy of persuading people to use public transport. In any case, times being what they are, I am not sure we could have raised the money for any further construction of car parks.

My current university, RGU, will also soon find car parking a difficult issue, as the population using the new Garthdee campus grows.

Car parking problems in universities are now often compounded by the fact that many students own cars and drive them to their classes, so that staff are no longer able to be sure that they will have a parking space. And while it may seem amazing to many of us that so many students now drive their own cars – not something that would have been common when I was a student – it is hard to argue that academics should have priority.

I do not know how this problem will be resolved, except that it won’t be soon. I suspect that the pressures will continue to be applied to universities to add to the available parking spaces; or else we shall need to organise transport to locations where people live or where they could park their cars. I suspect some universities have managed to deal with the issue in imaginative ways – I would love to hear about them.

Digital ephemera?

September 18, 2012

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.

Photo: the summer of 2012

September 12, 2012

This photograph, which I took last month in Grafton Street, Dublin, summarises for me the summer of 2012. There had just been a terrible downpour of rain, and there were still some raindrops in the air. But now the sun had come through, and so you see people with umbrellas, and others in shirtsleeves.

On the whole, I suspect not many will remember this summer with any great degree of fondness. And we always manage to hope that the next one will be better.

Educational integration: religion and society

September 10, 2012

Fifty years ago this year, just after my family had settled in Ireland, my parents were looking around for a school to which they could send me. In Mullingar, Co Westmeath, there were a few choices, but they all had one thing in common: whichever school I might attend, each one was part of a religious denomination. Most were Roman Catholic, one was Anglican; not a single one was secular or non-denominational, or even interdenominational. I ended up in a boarding school some 30 miles away, in which I was able to thrive. But back in Mullingar, every young person was growing up in a system in which, other than very casually, they were never likely to meet someone who did not share their inherited religious affiliation.

Actually in Mullingar that didn’t matter too much; it was and is a fairly open-minded place, and may even have been the first town in Ireland in which ecumenical partnerships began to emerge. But move up northwards towards Ulster, and this state of affairs mattered very much; indeed it matters still. In a society in which religious affiliations too often define political ones, the absence of informal interaction between people of different religious backgrounds from a very early age onwards has made the task of community reconciliation very difficult indeed. Young Protestants grow up not knowing a single Catholic, and vice versa. And because they often inherit all sorts of silly suspicions of those with other religious beliefs from their parents, these suspicions are protected and nurtured, so that they can ensure that one more generation is launched into society powered by the fuel of hatred and prejudice.

Education more generally should open a young person’s mind to understand the dignity and integrity of people from all backgrounds, and the best way to avoid the ghettoisation of certain groups is to ensure that they learn to live with and share society with people from other backgrounds and outlooks. In Northern Ireland more than almost anywhere else, this is imperative in order to avoid inter-community strife becoming a permanent and poisonous feature. For that reason, the arguments by the Catholic Church in favour of denomination education should be resisted much more emphatically – while of course recognising the right of the Church (and any religious group) from pursuing religious instruction for children outside the school gate.

It is indeed the same elsewhere and in other contexts: should there be Muslim, Jewish, indeed humanist schools? Is it not time to ensure that young people grow up recognising and valuing their friends from other traditions, while also maintaining their right to be recognised for theirs? Is it not time to have properly integrated communities?

Political communication

September 6, 2012

Long term – that should probably be ‘long-suffering’ – readers of this blog may recall that, back in 2009 when I was still working in Ireland, I bemoaned the apparent inability of the then Irish government to make a case to the people for the steps it was taking to repair the economic damage that had afflicted the country. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen in particular was politically tongue-tied, and the lack of any coherent narrative eventually persuaded the people, for better or for worse, that the government did not know what it was doing and had to be removed; and they voted accordingly in early 2011.

Political communication matters, because politics is in part about the discussion and analysis of ideas. It is also about people and personalities, but these become most effective when what they are communicating engages the electorate.

One of the reasons, I would argue, why current economic problems have been so intractable across the developed world is because those who have the levers of power seem to be so bad at explaining what they are doing with them, and why. Even Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 by the American people on a wave of enthusiasm for his message, appeared to lose the ability to engage the people once in power and, no doubt, worn down by the sheer awfulness of the problems that needed to be solved.

But such communication can be done. And if President Obama has been less than perfect at being the national (and global) narrator, his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, las night showed in his Democratic Convention speech (which you can watch here) that he is the master politician. He may have taken Obama a step closer to re-election; and perhaps to finding his own voice.

The progression of learning

September 4, 2012

Some weeks ago I was attending a workshop on secondary education, in the course of which I expressed my concerns that the learning methods encouraged and used in order to prepare students for final school examinations (‘A’ Levels, Leaving Certificate, Highers) were wholly at odds with the higher education approach to scholarship: that schools were teaching students to behave in ways that were pedagogically suspect and would harm them when at university. One of my complaints was that students were encouraged to adopt rote learning methods.

In the course of the same workshop during an open discussion session it became necessary, for reasons I won’t bother you with here, to multiply 7 by 9. As various hands reached for calculators or calculator apps on mobile phones, I expressed astonishment that everyone could not just say immediately from memory that the answer was 63. ‘Ah’, said one bright spark, ‘but you just told us that rote learning was bad.’ Well, I replied, I never suggested that it was unnecessary for people to learn and memorise certain key facts; it is just that as education progresses you need to move from basic knowledge accumulation to analysis and intellectual creativity. But if you know nothing, you won’t be much good at analysing anything. Now what we appear to have far too often is that the basic building blocks of knowledge are not implanted in young minds, while later in the education cycle far more arguable propositions are presented as ‘facts’ to be memorised for subsequent regurgitation in exams. And that is the wrong way round.

Far too often now I come across people educated in the period, say, between 1975 and 2000 who know very little or even nothing of what I would regard as elementary aspects of history, geography, mathematics or science; or whose knowledge of language is amazingly insecure. Often these people leave higher education and enter employment, where their employers then blame universities (mostly unfairly) for failing to educate them satisfactorily.

All of this has become a matter of discussion and dispute in the wider educational debate. In England the Schools Minister has recently suggested that there should be some return to rote learning to ensure that students acquire and retain basic mathematical skills in particular. In other contexts I am not, as I have expressed here before, a fan of the English government’s education policy, but here the Minister may be right. He has been criticised by the National Union of Teachers, but he should stand firm. It is time to re-establish a much better understanding of pedagogy and learning.


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