Archive for February 2017

Spoiling the party

February 28, 2017

Let us say that you are in a chemistry department in a reputable university and you are seeking to appoint a world class biochemist. You are part of an interview panel considering some really excellent academics, each with a global reputation. As you wind up the interview, will you ask them about their party political affiliation, indicating that their answer may affect the decision whether or not to appoint them?

I suspect that most of you reading this would not, definitely not. And yet, that is what State Senator Mark Chelgren from Iowa in the United States would have you do. The Senator has introduced a Bill in the state legislature that would require universities to act as follows:

‘A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of faculty belonging to the other political party.’

There is a fairly venerable tradition of conservative politicians and commentators arguing that universities are overwhelmingly populated by left-leaning liberals, a point recently reiterated by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. It is an issue that I have covered before in this blog. It is in fact far from proven that universities overall are dominated by liberals or socialist types, though sometimes certain departments may be. Almost all of the best known conservative economists, for example, were leading figures in university economics departments.

Senator Chelgren’s proposed Bill is of course unworkable unless we adopt the practice with which I opened this post. Doing so would however undermine any reasonable understanding of political freedom and democracy, and would do so for a cause that has very little evidence to back it. It is a proposal which, sadly, is in tune with the spirit of the times we are in. May it fail; and then, may we have little occasion to hear of the Senator again.

 

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Assessing the faculty mood

February 21, 2017

Surveys and polls of any kind and in any setting need to be read carefully and used appropriately; but they can be useful tools in informing strategy. So the recent Times Higher Education survey of UK university staff provides some interesting insights.

For those who believe that the academy is full of demoralised and cynical people who on the whole regret the career path they have taken, there is a maybe unexpectedly strong rebuttal in the survey: a total of 88 per cent agree or strongly agree that ‘my teaching is a source of satisfaction to me’, and only 1.8 per cent ‘strongly disagree’ with that proposition.

Also, while a significant majority believe that their institution values research more than teaching, about as many academics agree as disagree with the proposition that their teaching is ‘more rewarding’ than their research; and about one-third believe that their institution will promote staff on their teaching performance (a figure that is much higher than I would have expected).

Clearly the academic community is under pressure and worried about some developments and trends, but it also shows continuing signs of enthusiasm and creativity. But what academics do not like is the tendency to subject everything to formal assessment and ranking. On the whole they do not like the National Student Survey (NSS), and they are almost totally dismissive of the planned Teaching Excellence Framework: only 11 per cent think it will improve teaching quality.

But what the survey indicates is that this academic community, while sceptical about many of the changes it is experiencing in their working environment, is still keen to be active participants in the institutional journey; universities should welcome and encourage them in this journey.

Presidential image

February 14, 2017

Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.

 

Living with semesters

February 7, 2017

Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters.  A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.

If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.

But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.

The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.

I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.