Archive for April 2013

University studies: how often should you see a lecturer?

April 30, 2013

I have to tell you that I was, at least at the beginning, a very eager student. I had been working for two years in a bank (yes, I know, these days that’s like saying I was a drug pusher), and then decided to go to university. I was accepted for my course in June 1974. The letter confirming my admission gave the name of my tutor. I took this to mean it was time to contact him, and so on 22 June of that year, some three and a half months before the course was due to begin, I knocked on his door. My tutor (actually a wonderful man) was startled and told me that he could not remember any student ever having previously contacted him so early. When the course did begin, I probably startled him a few times because I was in and out of his office constantly. Swot!

Anyway, back to the June 1974 meeting. I asked my tutor-to-be how many classroom hours I could expect once studies began. ‘My word, what an unusual question’ was his response. It turned out that I could expect five hours per week, occasionally six. And so I sailed through my studies. I decided this wasn’t stretching me, so by year 2 I had also enrolled as a student in a completely different subject at another local university, thereby signing up for two degree programmes at two universities at once. But that’s a different story.

Of course university studies are not all about ‘contact hours’. Higher education is not the same as secondary education, and students should read and analyse and assess outside of their formal teaching, and beyond its demands. However, those offering public comment don’t always see it that way. A recent article in the Daily Mail (which is not  newspaper I would refer to often) criticised a number of universities for giving students ‘a very raw deal’ and suggested they were not offering good value for money because of the (in their view) inadequate provision of classes. The University of York, they claimed, offered history students fewer than 100 contact hours per year, less than a third of the hours offered to history students at University College London or Northampton University. If the number of hours spent with a lecturer determines quality, then you must study physics at Imperial College London, where you’ll get 516 hours.

So how much does this matter, and what is the significance? The answer is, we don’t know, because we don’t know what learning methods or other pedagogical tools are in use at any of these institutions; we cannot tell whether we are comparing like with like. But more significantly, we have no real shared understanding of what ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ should really look like today. Students are not the same species today as they were in 1974; many of them are now in what we would classify as full-time employment at the same time as doing their studies. Teaching tools, including technological ones, are very different now, and different use is made of them from course to course and from institution to institution.

But we must be aware that those commenting on universities may not be inclined to weigh up all these complex issues. They want to assess our productivity, and they go for what they can easily understand and measure. This may have the effect of condemning some dedicated academics, who are actually working very hard to provide students with good learning and strong support. However, institutions need to get better at explaining what they do, and how it meets students’ real needs. And perhaps we need to accept that, in some cases, students actually are getting less than they need. Perhaps.


Accountability, compliance and bureaucratisation in higher education

April 22, 2013

I recently attended a workshop in which a government official – not from Scotland – offered some comments on ‘the new world of higher education’. So what do you think we heard about? Pedagogy? Scholarship? Demography? Research? Innovation? Digitisation? For heaven’s sake, maybe even the dreaded ‘learning outcomes’ (one of the most useless educational concepts ever to have been devised)? No, none of that. I actually took a note of what the gentleman said in opening his talk: the new world of higher education, he asserted, is characterised by a much more thorough and ‘deep’ (whatever that means) approach to accountability and risk management.

Really? Well actually, yes. He was probably right. And it dawned on me right then that in the preceding week I had been involved in far more discussions about ‘accountability’ issues than about anything I might consider relevant in the strict sense to education. In fact, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University I once did a quick calculation of what the cost was of maintaining various ‘compliance’ functions made necessary by statutory or administrative requirements; suffice it to say that the cost was significantly higher than we would spend on an average size academic department.

And now, I have just been invited to attend a conference organised by the US-based Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics on ‘higher education compliance’. There are 22 topics the conference organisers intend to discuss, including audit, risk management, abuse of trust, fraud, data protection, ethics, and so forth. It is easy to look at the list and say, sure, these are matters we need to address. And indeed they are. But compliance has become an industry that doesn’t particularly seek out best practice, but rather looks at ways in which potential problems can be contained: the management of risk. It is about protecting the institution. And once you’re on that track, you are talking big time bureaucracy.

Education itself has also been bureaucratised, often for very worthy reasons, but not particularly to good effect; ‘learning outcomes’ are an example of that. But around the educational mission we are now spinning a web of ‘accountability’ that has little to do with explaining or justifying our activities, and much to do with obscuring our responsibility through the creation of elaborate processes. The focus in all of this on risk management leaves us with, as you would expect, a very risk-averse system, in which real innovation will find it hard to flourish because it is too risky.

It’s all part of the spirit of the age, in which innovation is often equated with recklessness and in which regulation is seen as the guarantor of good practice. The onward march of bureaucratisation continues, and nobody is really shouting ‘stop’. It is time to look again at what we think we need to control and contain. We do of course want to show integrity, fairness, inclusiveness and probity; but these are some of the methods, not the aims, of education. We need to wrestle back the scholarly and pedagogical and community leadership agenda from those who think a good higher education system is one that has the most elaborate and fool-proof procedures and the most aggressive methods of ensuring compliance with them.

High value knowledge, and what to do with it

April 16, 2013

Around 830 AD the Benedictine monk and later Abbot Lupus Servatus, then living in Fulda, Germany, wrote the following in a letter to a close and learned friend: ‘Mihi satis apparent propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia.’ There are nuances in the original Latin, but the sentence has generally been translated as ‘It is quite apparent to me that knowledge should be sought for its own sake.’ Based in large part on this letter, Lupus has often been seen as the father of the humanist intellectual tradition, and the statement quoted above has been repeated and endorsed by many others, including Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Many of those arguing for and defending a more traditional outlook on higher education repeat the formula.

In fact, the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy, suggesting a higher commitment to the integrity and independence of learning and scholarship; and often placed in opposition to a more impact-oriented or use-directed application of knowledge. But this affects not just higher education policy, but also the appropriateness and legitimacy of the strategic direction of some universities, and perhaps of certain academic disciplines or projects.

I confess that I don’t find this useful. For me, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is a curiously empty formula, suggesting a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why. I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, but not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because knowledge empowers, civilises and innovates. The value of knowledge is in no way mysterious, it is compelling and clear. The case for learning is a much stronger one if its use can be explained clearly. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.

What some who support a traditional outlook on higher education may not appreciate is that a formula such as this may have been persuasive when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give. High value knowledge is at the root of social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life. Universities need to be willing to associate themselves with such objectives and ideals, rather than arguing a much more opaque case based on a hoped for but not specifically targeted benefit flowing from detached learning and scholarship.

It may be time not just to modernise our higher education system, but also our understanding of why we do it.

The North Korean enigma

April 12, 2013

For those who might want to understand a little more about what drives that almost incomprehensible hereditary dictatorship in Asia, you might want to have a look at what the government describes as its guiding ideology, called ‘Juche’. What does this mean? According to the official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), it’s this:

‘The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything. It is the man-centred world outlook and also a political philosophy to materialize the independence of the popular masses, namely, a philosophy which elucidates the theoretical basis of politics that leads the development of society along the right path.’

If you are like me, you might struggle a little to discern any meaning in that at all (though you might notice the sexist language). In practice it probably means that ‘Juche’ is whatever the ruling family says it is.

The difficulty with North Korea is that it appears to be governed solely by a determination of self-preservation. Trying to understand it beyond that is probably not possible. And that makes it very dangerous.

Mrs Thatcher and me

April 9, 2013

Not unexpectedly, the online world has been all about Margaret Thatcher over the past 24 hours. It is what you would expect because whatever else anyone might want to say about her, she was a force to be reckoned with, and she changed things in the world.

Few would deny that, and certainly I don’t see anyone arguing the case for her irrelevance, but some of the online contributions right now are pretty extreme in their attacks on Mrs Thatcher. Maybe to my surprise – given that when she was Prime Minister of the UK I was pretty strong in my opposition to what she was doing – I am not inclined at all to share in the vitriol of many of those whose opinions I might otherwise respect.

I was only eligible to vote in one of the UK general elections in which she was a candidate: though that election was the one that brought her to power, in May 1979. I was doing research for a PhD in Cambridge at the time, and in fact had gone to an election rally addressed by her (as well as another addressed by Denis Healey of Labour). After that, I watched from the sidelines in Ireland. Those in UK universities with whom I worked closely had, mostly, the same opinion, which was that she was destroying British industry and subverting British society (an entity she famously claimed not to recognise). My then field of industrial relations was particularly affected. By 1981 the collective bargaining-based, non-law regulated system of workplace relations had been torn apart, and as we know, by the mid-1980s the power of the major trade unions had been largely broken. I wrote stuff about this.

But now, in 2013, would I go back to the practices and assumptions of 1979? Would I vote for a restoration of the old state-run industries and their form of industrial management? No, I don’t think so.

It is notoriously difficult to engage in a dispassionate assessment of a controversial figure at the point of their death. The passage of time is still needed to make sense of what happened. Margaret Thatcher’s memory will, I imagine, always have some degree of controversy associated with it. I still doubt I would vote for her. But I can admire her courage and tenacity, her sense of purpose, her unwillingness to be bullied by the political establishment.

And whatever the merits may have been of her views and policies, she presided over an era in which big questions were asked and significant debates conducted. It was a time in which the currents of history could be felt. We are much more impoverished now.

How should culture be studied?

April 5, 2013

This post is by Jessica Reynolds. She is a graduate anthropologist, but now works as a freelance writer with special interests in science, anthropology and archeology. She writes for

As globalization becomes increasingly prominent in our everyday lives, cultural research becomes the cornerstone of social advancement. Many problems between countries and even individuals stem from a misunderstanding of culture and cultural differences. Cultural research aims to create an understanding of the mechanics and implications of various cultures across the globe to help remedy misunderstandings and intolerance.

The biggest obstacle cultural research faces is the question of how it should be observed, recorded, and interpreted.  How do we study culture? First, we must define what culture is. Culture has many definitions, but they all synonymously denote culture as the accumulation of systems of knowledge shared by a group of people. Although the definition of culture is easy enough to understand, how to study culture has created debates among the social sciences.

Emic and Etic views

Culture must not only be observed but be understood to be studied. There are two approaches to understand culture: 1. An inside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in its own terms and 2. An outside view from the point of the ethnographer in which they attempt to explain a culture in terms of general standards. These views are often referred to as emic and etic. Emic views are employed to understand a culture from a native’s point of view while etic views are employed to identify universal truths.

Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the study of a culture from the culture itself which arguably relies on solely emic viewpoints. Cultural Relativism can be broken down into many different categories but there are three major categories that are consistently used in the social sciences: descriptive relativism, normative relativism, and epistemological relativism.

Descriptive relativism is based on the theory of cultural determinism (the theory that human social and psychological characteristic are determined by culture). It thereby assumes that different cultures have different thoughts and ways of understanding the world than other cultures do.

Normative relativism is the idea that there is no way to judge a culture on a scale of merit or worth in terms of good vs. bad because all standards are culturally constituted.

Epistemological relativism is similar to descriptive relativism except for the idea that culture not only dictates what we think about our lives but how we feel about our lives, providing a limitless view of cultural diversity (Spiro 1986).

The three categories of cultural relativism have not been supported by all social scientists, with some supporting one and others supporting the other or a combination of the three. It was with American anthropologists Franz Boas and the rise of the American Historical School that they all began to be used in conjunction with one another. Boas and his followers rejected the idea of cultural progress and cultural evolution because that suggests that one culture is superior over another and is a result of ethnocentric views.

A long term debate has been going on in the field of anthropology over cultural relativism and psychic unity. Are cultures incommensurable and is it impossible to make generalizations about cultures because every person perceives the world differently depending on the culture they are a part of? If this is so, then how can ethnographers even begin to describe a different culture’s kinship systems, rituals, and other cultural aspects?

Cultural Materialism

The cultural materialist perspective was a response to cultural relativism and is really thought to have originated with Karl Marx. Karl Marx explains that societies and culture are systemic and his major interest was how those systems both maintain and destroy themselves. To Marx, this sort of change does not happen because of the ideology and social organization of a culture. It instead happens due to a chance in the surrounding environment (Marx 1970). In this way, ideology and social organization are considered to be adaptations to environmental change making cultures not only predictable but comparable to one another.

Cultural Research as a science

Viewpoints other than relativism and materialism are used when conducting research but they all beg the question of whether or not cultural research can be done scientifically. Science is arguably quantifiable so if cultural research cannot be quantified, it is likely that it cannot be considered a science.  What is quantifiable can be replicated and the very scientific method is focused on replication. Franz Boas and his followers reject the idea of culture being quantifiable because quantification suggests cultural progress and the idea of progress between cultures is a result of ethnocentrism. Thus there are those who have determined that cultural research can in no way, shape, or form be considered a science nor should it be.

Many cultural relativists argue that cultural studies cannot be a science because generalizations cannot be made cross culturally. Therefore researchers should focus their studies on Western Cultures and try to compare them to non-Western cultures. Studying non-Western cultures would not produce results that Westerners would be able to accurately perceive nor discuss.

The idea that relativism doesn’t seem to have a place in the field of anthropology or any other cultural studies is perpetuated by the fact that ethnographers have been able to achieve such understandings of other cultures.  In order for cultural research to be quantifiable, comparisons must be able to be made cross-culturally as a materialist perspective would inevitably allow. This does not mean that all qualitative work or relativist perspectives in the social sciences are meaningless, but that when used in conjunction with a quantifiable materialist perspective, they would be able to produce invaluable information concerning our own culture as well as cross cultural studies. Cultural relativism needs to be seen as a methodological position that explains the practices and ideas of other cultures within the terms of their own cosmologies as opposed to the only way to study and observe culture. When conducted from both a relativist and materialist perspective, cultural research provides the framework by which to understand variation among and across cultures.

Marx, K., Engels, F., In Arthur, C. J., Marx, K., & Marx, K. (1970). The German ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Spiro, M. (1986) ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’ American Anthropological Association No. 3 pp. 259-286

Insulting spam

April 3, 2013

WordPress, the host site for this blog, tells me that its software has removed a total of 150,858 spam comments from the posts here. That means that spam comments account for over 90 per cent of all comments submitted. Mostly these are attempts to get the reader (if it got as far as the reader) to click on various commercial (and sometimes unsavoury) links, obscured by text that typically purports to praise the quality of the blog, often in incomprehensible ways (not helped, I suspect, by computer translation); as in this case:

‘Nice answers in return of this issue with firm arguments and describing all about that.’

Sure. But sometimes you get something different, and today an enterprising spammer decided that insulting me might pay dividends. This was his attempted comment:

‘The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn’t disappoint me just as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually believed you would have something useful to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.’

Ah, who knows, maybe he’s right. He wants you to click on the site of an online therapist, by the way.

The perils of free speech in the academy

April 2, 2013

As I have suggested previously in this blog, universities can have a hard time with the concept of freedom of speech. On the one hand, it is one of the key liberal intellectual values, and therefore something the academy will want to prize. On the other hand, those who exercise it may have less than wholesome messages to share, some of which may seriously offend liberal values. When this happens, the university can get nervous about protecting the rights of the people concerned.

Take the latest example. A graduate of Princeton University, Susan Patton, wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian student newspaper in which she exhorted female students to use their time in the university wisely; by which she meant, get a husband. I’m not going to get into the details of what she said – if you want, you can read it here – but it would be fair to say that her advice, and more particularly the elaboration of that advice, wouldn’t be likely to go down well with anyone who believes in a modern concept of gender equality. Indeed many – myself included – might find it quite offensive.

In fact Ms Patton’s letter has gone viral, and so have the opinions about it, few of them supportive; though amazingly there are exceptions. But the drift of some of the online commentary has been that such views should not find a place in a university publication. For what it’s worth, the Daily Princetonian, finding itself suddenly on the world stage and the subject of attention in the controversy, probably wouldn’t agree, not even (indeed maybe particularly not) with hindsight.

But just while we’re on controversial speech in an academic setting, there have been other very recent examples. Almost certainly the most offensive we’re likely to find in recent contributions in the academy was the suggestion by one Steven Landsburg, professor at the University of Rochester, that if a woman were raped while unconscious she might suffer ‘no direct physical harm’; so he questions whether this would be a proper concern of the law at all. Again, outrage followed the statement, with questions raised about whether the university could in conscience continue to employ him.

These are not easy issues to address. If freedom of speech is an important civilised value – which it undoubtedly is – should it protect those whose intentions are anything but civilised? There are of course statements that the law will never protect, notwithstanding freedom of speech: exhortations to commit crimes, for example, or assertions that are fraudulent. But should it stop short of protecting those that are offensive? And more particularly, should universities give platform space to such opinions?

While I occasionally find myself grappling with this kind of issue, in the end we cannot be censors, because what we find offensive may just offend us, but be obviously correct to others. The academy has to let all this live and should rely on intellectual discourse and analysis to deal with the issues raised. If we compromise on any part of the element of freedom in free speech, we have fatally compromised the integrity of a free society. And we should not do that, however awful the statements we are hearing.