Archive for August 2013

The importance of rhetoric

August 26, 2013

As a young boy I had, I believe, a very bad stammer. I don’t really remember this – I was very young at the time – but I understand I received some treatment for it; in any case the problem was overcome and my speech was fine. However, there is a legacy: there are a few words which, if I am at all self-conscious when I am saying them, make me stutter, for example ‘theological’ and ‘logistical’. If I know I am going to say them I become self-aware as the difficult word approaches, and then I have to work to get the word out. It’s not a big deal. I keep my verbal comments about logistics to a minimum. But the other legacy for some years was that I was nervous about public speaking and would avoid it. I had no problem speaking with friends or chatting in a group, but if someone called for silence and all eyes turned to me I would suddenly be mesmerised by the task and would stutter, and so I avoided such occasions.

When I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s, I was on one occasion persuaded to participate in a debate. I was really worried about whether I could do this, and so I assembled what I thought was a clever speech, wrote it out on a typewriter, and when my turn came I read it out from the paper. I must have been dire. I was one of a team of two. We came last. When the judges pointed out that my team mate delivered by far the best speech of the evening, I realised that my speech must have been catastrophic. In my determination not to repeat that, I found the secret of success for me: if I am going to speak, I won’t speak from a prepared script. Think about it in advance by all means, and structure the speech in my head; but no script. And that has worked for me. I am occasionally told that I speak well, if you’ll forgive the arrogance of that statement.

Anyway, the point of all this is that rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – is such an important skill in the academic environment. Few academics are trained in it, and if we’re honest not all of them do it well. Too often we believe that the intellectual cohesion of what we say should be enough, and that our skills in communicating it are of no great importance, or possibly even a sign that the academic pedigree of the content is deficient. I have never bought that: I believe that as lecturers we must be able to inspire, impress and entertain; these rhetorical devices help to engage the student and make the subject-matter memorable.

In other professions rhetorical ability is also important, and is often neglected. For example, we all know of a small handful of politicians who can make us sit up and listen, but most political speeches are a cure for insomnia. This is not helped by the fact that, in our system, parliamentary debates chiefly consist of either handing out wild insults and engaging in boorish behaviour, or when that is done, settling down to wholly tedious (if often worthy) speeches. But as Barack Obama showed when he first campaigned for office, the ability to communicate with skilful rhetoric is a powerful way of ensuring that citizens remain committed to the democratic political process.

In any case, rhetoric was one of the main subjects of study in classical times, sub-divided into invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Greek and Roman orators had a special place in society, and what they did was enlightenment (rather than propaganda). Why should we see this differently today?

In this particular phase of history, good communication is vitally important. When economic and social conditions become complex, the ability to communicate effectively is vital, not only for politicians, but for anyone who has a message to send out that can promote confidence and determination. Effective communication is not a dark art, it is what allows ideas to be disseminated and to grow. We should care more about this, and should ensure that speaking and rhetoric are skills that are valued by society. And we should train more academics to deploy these skills.

Spamming the blog fastidiously

August 20, 2013

As I have mentioned before, this blog receives about a dozen or two spam comments every day, most of them filtered out by the spam service of WordPress. Occasionally I check the quarantine folder to make sure no comments have been caught there that were actually legitimate.

One thing that strikes me in reading the spam comments is that many of them use very curious language. I am not commenting on the quality of their English: some of the spammers come from various overseas countries. But there is a pattern of expression that I find interesting. So for example, most spammers call this a ‘weblog’ rather than a ‘blog’ – which is notionally correct but strange. Less correct is the very frequent use by spammers of the word ‘fastidious’. Just today one urged me to ‘keep up the fastidious work.’ That does have a meaning, but probably not what he thought. And a total of 28 spammers have used ‘fastidious’ in their bogus comments over the past week.

Is there some spammers’ glossary that they use, designed to persuade filter systems that the comment is genuine? But why would it contain ‘fastidious’?

Just wondering.

Own goals

August 20, 2013

Long suffering readers of this blog know that every so often you get a post on Newcastle United FC. It’s one of those days.

If you have absolutely no interest in football (soccer), just bear with me anyway while I explain where I am coming from. In English premiership football, there are two or three clubs almost everyone in the world has heard of: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal – and now maybe Manchester City. Manchester United has been an iconic outfit for some time, for reasons unrelated to this post. The others have become prominent as rich owners privatised the operations and injected truckloads of cash into them, allowing the clubs to buy up players. World class footballers are now one of the most keenly traded commodities in international markets.

While there is plenty of evidence that this kind of cash does not buy instant success, it does get you quite a bit of the way. To cover the distance, you buy a famous brand of manager, say, a José Mourinho.

Last night we were able to watch this kind of corporate operation shred another club with less access to cash. Manchester City, now rolling in money provided by its rich owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, demolished Newcastle United on the pitch in their first game of the season.

Newcastle is also privately owned. And Mike Ashley may be a billionaire, but not one in the same league as the Sheikh, and indeed he doesn’t like spending money unnecessarily. Newcastle has a tendency to be a soap opera that likes to toy with farce, and between this and the more modest cash outlay it’s not really an even contest. Nor can it be. The really really rich billionaires buy the top five or six spots in the league, and the others, no matter how brilliant some of their players or managers, scrap around for the other places.

Football is a community exercise. Anyone visiting Newcastle on a match day can immediately see the impact of the game and of the fortunes of the club on the mood and morale of the city. Largely driven by the revenues offered by television deals, football has become not a sport but a trade. And while I generally think that trading is good, sport is not an area where I would take that view. I really have no idea how this could be achieved, but it is time to re-socialise football, and bid a polite farewell to its current rich owners.

PS. Of course it is possible that this post is based entirely on frustration at last night’s result. So what?

Do keep an eye on students; but there are limits

August 12, 2013

There is little doubt that one of the key tasks for universities these days is to minimise attrition and ensure as few students as possible drop out. Every time a university admits a student, this represents a major investment – either by the students themselves, or by the taxpayer, or by other sponsors. That investment turns into a waste of money when a student does not complete the course.

All universities know that a key support for successful completion is close interaction with the student. The more a student is engaged, observed, assessed, spoken with, listened to, the more likely it is that the student will graduate. Class attendance and interaction with lecturers and tutors have particular benefits, raising the university’s awareness of what issues or problems a student may have.

One university appears to be contemplating another method of getting this kind of awareness: it is reported that Loughborough University is considering monitoring its students’ private emails. Apparently this involves looking for ‘negative comments’ as these could be an indicator of dissatisfaction or difficulty. Other universities are also looking at ways of perfecting their knowledge of at risk students, using and analysing data they have about them.

I suspect, however, that this kind of approach is both ethically questionable and doubtful as regards effectiveness. University studies are about intellectual engagement; on the other hand, the methods being used by Loughborough and others suggest it is about intelligence gathering by the university. Knowing your students is important, but this knowledge is secured through interaction rather than surveillance.

Maybe all this is a product of the checks and controls that universities themselves now face, with education viewed as performance. Some of that is inevitable and probably even right, but it should not crowd out properly understood pedagogy. And universities should avoid becoming their students’ Big Brother.

The view from the top

August 6, 2013

One of the curiosities of the system of higher education in these islands is that we know relatively little about the views of its leaders. Individual university principals, presidents or vice-chancellors go public about this and that, or chair committees on certain topics – but nobody really knows what the group as a whole feels.

We know much more about the views of American university presidents. We know, for example, that they are sceptical about MOOCs,  that they expect to experience budget shortfalls, that they feel government produces problems rather than solutions; and that a significant minority believe that they’ll leave their jobs as a result of pressure from their boards rather than of their own free will.

How do we know all this? Because the Gallup polling organisation (commissioned by Inside Higher Education) conducts an annual survey of College and University Presidents, the latest of which was published recently. Of course universities consist of more than their chief executives, but the views of leaders help to shape policies, and also may reflect wider assumptions within the academy.

What we discover from this US survey is a much greater expectation than might have been expected that traditional teaching methods will continue to drive the system, and that technology-enabled learning will not take over completely. They do however expect much more inter-institutional collaboration. They doubt that the state can continue to fund higher education even to the extent that it currently still does in the US. They worry about government bureaucracy.

With some exceptions, university heads are often a fairly anonymous group of people, not widely known to their students, and sometimes even to their faculty and staff. However, they have a huge influence on the direction taken by their institutions, and collectively on the direction of higher education as a whole. It is therefore right to reveal their thoughts and expectations more widely – an undertaking that might usefully be extended beyond the United States.