Archive for January 2015

Handling dissent: making a meal of body language?

January 27, 2015

Universities are, as we all know, places in which a variety of different opinions can be found, often strongly expressed. At any rate, that is how it should be. Of course there needs to be strategy and direction, but there also needs to be sense of exploration and critique, in an environment that recognises this as helpful.

So what are we to make of the case where a senior academic, Professor Docherty, was suspended a year ago by Warwick University when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, he deployed such tactics as ‘sighing, projecting negative body language and making “ironic” comments when interviewing candidates for a job…’? Indeed according to another report he had even been sarcastic. The university’s contention was that he had thereby undermined the position of his (presumably also present) Head of Department.

It is of course dangerous to comment on such matters without having full inside knowledge of what happened or in what context events took place, but universities need to be sensitive to expressions of dissent, even in the form of body language, without taking dramatic actions in response. Equally, academics (and others) need to be aware of the fact that their actions and their conduct can come across as aggressive and bullying. Because universities are a forum for the exchange of ideas, they must be prepared that this involves transactions that are not always polite; but equally must try to ensure that interactions don’t become oppressive to some participants. It is a hard balance to strike.

Professor Doherty is well known for his views, many of which are highly critical of current trends in the management of universities. The university has emphasised that there is no connection between his views and the actions that were taken; this at any rate is important, because academic freedom is a vital component of university life – and so there should be, as one commentator put it, an academic ‘freedom to sigh’. Therefore it is also good advice to any university to say that where you find an academic to be sighing and projecting negative body language, the best response is probably not to suspend him or her.  Probably. But none of us get it right all of the time.

Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled

January 20, 2015

A former colleague with whom I worked in another institution a good few years ago told me recently that, about half way through a lecture, he had asked his class a question. No one responded. By this I don’t just mean that no answer was offered; there wasn’t even much evidence that the students were aware that a question had been asked of them. In fact, it turned out they were almost all focusing on their phones and tablets, because someone was live-tweeting an event in which they all had an interest. My friend suddenly realised he was talking to himself.

In this case there may have been a particular reason for the student inattention, but even in other circumstances it has become difficult to know how long students will focus on the teaching. A few years ago the BBC reported on a survey that had found that ‘the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes’. A more recent American study had this finding:

‘The researchers observed a pattern in which the first spike in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, likely reflecting the same “settling-in” period of disruption… The next consistent spike in reported attention lapses occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, followed by another spike at 7 to 9 minutes, and then another at 9 to 10 minutes into the lecture. This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.’

If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching. If in addition we factor in the impact of personal technology such as smartphones and the ease with which they provide nearly indetectable access to something other than what is going on in the classroom, we would have to wonder about the possibility of significant learning taking place at all in such settings. Part of the answer is to have as much ‘active learning’ as possible: when students are asked to do something, the evidence is that they pay more attention. Part of it is probably also related to the communication skills of the teacher. But overall we need to accept that traditional teaching may not engage students much these days, and we must ensure that we employ an active assessment of pedagogy that never assumes we must always continue to do what we did before.

Finding relevance

January 13, 2015

In a recent post on this site I raised some questions about the extent to which university places should reflect national economic, social or other needs. But when it come to degree programme choices by students, there is also another dimension, one that I was reminded of when I read the recent publication by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority on the first destination of graduates after they leave higher education (What Do Graduates Do? The Class of 2013). One particular finding is interesting (page 43):

‘Of those employed in Ireland and who responded to this section of the survey, 63% of Honours Bachelor Degree graduates rated the relevance of their qualification as relevant or most relevant to their area of employment. A total of 19% rated their qualification as irrelevant/most irrelevant and 18% were unsure.’

Let us assume here that the question was understood to be about the relevance of their qualification (and not, as the above passage suggests, the relevance of the relevance). Let us assume also that the undefined term ‘relevance’ would have been understood similarly by all respondents. In that case, we are left to conclude that nearly two-thirds of students saw their degree course as being directly tied to their chosen profession, while about 20 per cent thought their studies were not connected with their employment.

This suggests on the one hand that a large number of Irish students see higher education as a vocational process, while a substantial minority do not, apparently, identify the acquisition of transferable skills or other benefits in their university studies. What strikes me here is the apparently binary nature of this assessment: my course is vocationally ‘relevant’, or it is ‘irrelevant’.

I believe in the value of vocational or professional aspects of higher education. But I also believe in the value of university studies more generally, for those who can benefit from them and are suitably qualified to learn. All university studies benefit the learner, or should do.

The value or otherwise of ‘relevance’ in higher education is one of those things we have not yet properly settled. There isn’t a straightforward answer, but there is scope for a good debate, which in turn should have some impact on how students view their studies both before they commence them and after they have entered employment. In the absence of this we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about how students, or for that matter academics, perceive relevance.

Submerged in email?

January 6, 2015

In 2008 the journal Times Higher Education reported on some research commissioned by HEFCE (the English higher education funding council) which suggested that there was an ‘overbearing email culture’ in universities and that this was undermining internal communications. The researchers questioned a number of university heads, as well as directors of communications and directors of human resources, and found that the heads (Vice-Chancellors) were very upbeat about their communication strategies, while the various directors were not. The directors were also apparently of the view that academics were worse communicators than administrators.

The view that university staff of all categories are overwhelmed by the volume of email and are in consequence not able to digest the information they contain may have a grain of truth in it. On the other hand, I remember the pre-email era well enough, and I don’t believe for a moment that communication strategies were more effective back then; whereas it is quite possible that we have information overload now, in past years we often had no real communication at all.

What this tells us, on the whole, is that a university (like most other institutions) needs a proper communications strategy. And it would be foolish to deny that, very often, we don’t get it right. I have myself, during my years as a university head, used email fairly regularly to communicate news or other issues, but I know that this is not always the best way; but it is tempting to use it because it is so easy. But more generally, email exchanges in universities often disregard some basic rules of email use; one department in North Carolina State University has issued some very sensible guidelines on email etiquette.

RGU has been working on its communications strategy, and I hope that we will find a way to allow information to be both accessible and easy to find, and to make it easy for colleagues to ask questions, find answers and make comments, in a safe setting. I must look more at how others have done this, particularly those institutions where staff are satisfied with the strategy. Pointers are welcome!