Defending the university library

Posted February 10, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Whatever challenges we may face in this part of the world, we are unlikely – or so we hope – to experience the destruction of our libraries through book burnings. However, not everyone in the world can be see confident: throughout the second half of 2014 the jihadists of Islamic State, who had captured the Northern Iraq city of Mosul, have been burning all non-Islamic books in the local university libraries. And before we get to feel superior, we must of course remember that in the 20th century this happened in Europe also. And even more recently in America, though admittedly for different reasons: in Missouri a university librarian destroyed 188,000 books because he felt they were moldy and damp.

Libraries face all sorts of challenges: they can be the first to feel the impact of budget cuts, they can experience the uncertainty some university leaders feel about whether traditional library materials are still needed or a good investment, or they can get into the news for the wrong reasons, as some students are found doing things there they shouldn’t be.

In a world in which learning methods and indeed learning habits are changing rapidly, in which demographic trends are changing many of our former assumptions, in which electronic materials are replacing hard copies, it may be difficult to develop and promote sustainable library models. But it seems clear to me that we must do so, because in the end the library is, more than anything else, the key symbol of the academy – where the source of knowledge is contained and its analysis facilitated. No matter what happens to the technology, libraries will become neither less relevant nor, it has to be said, less expensive. Universities need to ensure that they survive and prosper, not just on electronic servers, but as places in which scholars can be scholars.

How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

Posted February 3, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society, university

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The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists':

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.

Handling dissent: making a meal of body language?

Posted January 27, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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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

Posted January 20, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students

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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

Posted January 13, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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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?

Posted January 6, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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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!

This blog’s commentariat

Posted December 24, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: blogging

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WordPress tells me that exactly 15,000 comments have now been posted on this site in response to the blog posts themselves. That means, dear readers, that you have written some 750,000 words on these pages, amounting to nearly 10 decent-sized books.

Thank you, and congratulations, and happy Christmas!


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