29 October 2005

On Graduation

Since I have technically retired, Friday may have been my last graduation ceremony. They appear to follow fashion cycles; I was excited by my Bachelor's ceremony, in the presence of the then Prime Minister. Then it became "uncool" to attend, so I didn't bother to attend the ceremonies for my two Master's degrees, but family pressure required me to go to my Ph.D event.

Sitting on the platform is a different experience (I always end up as part of the platform party, principally because my academic robes [red and gold] are so spectacular). It is still a deeply moving experience to process into the hall, filled by graduands, but more important by proud parents and partners. Each graduand's moment of glory is very transient, but the look of nervous pride on their faces as they present themselves is inspiring; in many respects I am a jaded cynic, but graduation, for all its pomposity, remains uplifting.

There has been an interesting change over the past few years, most apparent in the dress code of the men. From being "uncool" to attend, there was a shift to an ironic stance. Graduands would attend, but made a point of wearing academic dress over sweatshirts, jeans and trainers, as if to undermine the significance of the occasion. Currently, there is a swing back to suits and even ties. Impressionistically, more of the women seem to be wearing skirts. I don't know what this fashion shift "means", though.

Many faculty colleagues disappeared immediately after the ceremony to a free lunch at a local hotel; few of us stuck around to congratulate our former students. That's sad; it is their day, a really big day for many of them: I was greeted and thanked by former students I barely remembered as part of a lecture group of 100+ students. They may have merely been polite, but it gives me a real buzz when it happens; I wouldn't trade it for an infinity of rubber chicken lunches. Those colleagues don't know what they are missing.

Perhaps the greatest incentive to the development of teaching in universities would be to require all faculty to attend graduation. It's formal, ritualistic, and the speeches are platitudinous; but it marks enormous effort and achievement, and if we respect our students it is a wonderful collaborative celebration.

There are two things to balance. One student passed across the stage in front of me who should not have done so, in my opinion; I had failed him (or her) on two courses. I wondered then about the academic integrity of our courses. On the other hand was the pride and burgeoning confidence of the graduands, and the parents and partners who were introduced to me afterwards (and were in some cases so embarrassingly deferential—I don't handle that well).

Best wishes to all of them!

24 October 2005

On potential

I'm in Vancouver, and seem to have booked into an hotel in the "backpacker" district; went out for a meal and then sat outside Starbucks for a coffee afterwards. While I was ordering the coffee, a much-pierced girl came in to ask to use the "washroom". Outside, she was with two guys (and a dog); one of the guys clearly affecting the style of a character from Burgess/Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (bowler hat and eye make-up, etc.).

Not having a book to read for once, I reflected on what their experience might be; they were hanging around, bumming cigarettes, but not destitute and still concerned about their style. They seemes to be undergoing an initiation ritual of a kind; a brief flowering of rebellion before they became the corporate lawyers or shelf-stackers or even politicians of the future. Only thing was, it looked as though much of the initiation experience was deadly boring at the time. Perhaps it will acquire a rosy romantic glow in the future.

23 October 2005

On conferences

Conferences are the traditional way for researchers and developers in many disciplines to exchange ideas; and, it has to be admitted, the international conference circuit is one of the perks of the job. I have only recently joined in, never previously having been able to get the funding to attend; so what, as an old-timer not seeking advancement or networking, do I make of conferences on teaching and learning in higher education?

Not a lot. I have left it a week to reflect at leisure on the last one. It was the second annual conference of an outfit I won't name. There were 650 participants and 280 papers in three days. I suspect that many institutions will not fund attendance unless their staff member is presenting, so the organisers must have been under great pressure to accept as many papers as possible. They crammed them into hour-long sessions with three papers each, in many cases; and multiply-authored papers got precedence. OK, my poster session will go on the c.v. for what it's worth, but to be frank many of the papers were not worth inclusion. I generalise, of course. I couldn't attend all of the sessions, and like any self-respecting conference member in an attractice and strange city I skipped some I could have attended; but accustomed as I am to marking work at Master's level, I had to admit that much of what I heard would not pass muster at even that level. Some of it was not worthy of undergraduate levels.

With some conspicuous exceptions, many papers followed the pattern of:
  • This is our background
  • This was our project
  • We did this, we did that
  • We evaluated it and
  • Guess what? It worked really well!
In other words, they were narratives. Each was backed up with references to obscure articles in journals people only read when they need to confer spurious authority on whatever idea they originally had, but almost totally devoid of critical analysis and proper theory. Theory is much maligned in a practically-based discipline, but it is the discourse which enables ideas to develop and be tested; but most presenters I heard ducked out of claiming any theoretical substance to their ideas.

Much of the discussion in the plenary and keynote sessions was about how important the "scholarship of teaching and learning" was and how neglected it is. There was no real debate about positions and ideas about it; there was no deconstruction of its assumptions, just a "motherhood and apple pie" endorsement. Participants wanted to promote it, and were evangelists, advocates and champions for it, but it was never clear what "it" was. The most-cited person was Lee Schulman, who proved to be a witty and engaging speaker, but offering little more than plonking platitudes about the desirability of this "scholarship".

If anyone reads this I'll probably get black-listed from future conferences. So what? But aren't they barking up the wrong tree? The issue is the craftsmanship of teaching (pardon the implicit sexism), not its scholarship. Scholarship is what you exercise on given accomplished facts, like Shakespeare's folios; it's more prestigious than craft (although not as prestigious as "research", of course). Moreover, "craft" is difficult to communicate, particularly in 20 minutes.

Much of my stuff is sloppy, if (I hope) stimulating. I don't pretend otherwise; but then I don't have to ask anyone else, nowadays, if I can spend £1k to travel half-way round the world for a three-day jolly.