21 January 2008

On saying it yet again, but never too often...

This article is an old staple, re-worked every year. It needs to be, particularly for teachers. I know I am violating the rule with this cryptic introduction, but if teachers don't express themselves clearly, how will learners do so?

The article even mentions one of the current education buzz-words, "diversity". Its current counterpart is "inclusivity". They are both used so much that they no longer mean anything. They merely point to a poverty of thought at the heart of an educational system which has lost all confidence in the value of what it teaches.

17 January 2008

On feeling at home

"In Our Time" is one of the most improbable glorious media successes imaginable. Melvyn Bragg discusses one unashamedly intellectual topic with three academics for three-quarters of an hour. Yet more evidence that Radio 4 is the Enlightenment.

Just look at the topics for this series, in reverse order;
It has a mission to bridge Snow's two cultures, but blow that! It simply and unashamedly delights in ideas. I would gladly pay my licence fee for this programme alone. Lord Bragg is (in the best senses only) the Lord Reith de nos jours.

But today's programme topped the lot! As an undergraduate at Sussex in the 60s, I effectively took a term out from the formal course requirements (I went through the motions, as most undergraduates do nowadays [sorry!], but my heart and most of my head was elsewhere) to pursue the grail myth; Eliot was my starting point, through Weston to Frazer and R S Loomis to Malory and de Troyes via .... It was an exhilarating quest; I pestered librarians in the basement of Falmer House before the proper library was completed, to drag obscure stuff out of the stacks for me, and went back day after day in the hope that they might have arrived...

The story has fascinated me ever since but even so, today's discussion--if it did not actually tell me anything new--put a lot of material into perspective. The notion of the grail as an object to be possessed even after the loss of the holy land in the crusades... How the first world war provided a lens to view the Waste Land... Wow!

Next week plate tectonics...

15 January 2008

On learning outcomes and the study of English

The Quality Assurance Agency is an easy target for UK academics. It is incredibly bureaucratic, and preparing for its "reviews" (inspections) soaks up vast amounts of time which could certainly be spent on other things. It has contributed to the development of a compliance culture in teaching in universities which is quite counter-productive, and it is great fun when someone like Thomas Docherty of Warwick swings his trusty broadsword of iconoclasm at it. (It is far from as much fun when Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, contrives to be waspish, patronising and smug in his response, all at the same time.)

But... Docherty is really against the notion that universities exist to get students to reach pre-determined learning outcomes. He teaches English, and I am right behind him on that. For English. I did my first degree in English. It was, I am happy to say, almost totally useless; that is not a criticism. So it did not matter what we actually learned, directly. We learned an enormous amount indirectly, but it was probably different for each of us. That was fine.

One thing I did learn, though, was how almost lethal it is to one's enjoyment of literature to have to read it and write about it every week. A week to compare Richardson's "Clarissa" (well over a thousand pages) and Fielding's "Tom Jones" (500 pages)? Stupid--but, yes, I did actually read them. Immediately after finals I turned to reading science fiction and touched nothing with any literary pretensions for twenty year, to my loss.

Perhaps we ought to specify in advance some non-learning outcomes; what we shall do our utmost to ensure that students do not learn from a course...

However, I digress. I wonder if English is not unique, or at least exceptional, in being a discipline where pre-determined outcomes may indeed be inimical to learning? They certainly make very good sense for any discipline which is in any sense instrumental or professionally focused. English is also largely a divergent discipline; convergent ones take to pre-determined outcomes much more readily. I wonder what fine art academics make of the point?

And of course there is the question of level; I know that knowing what happens in "Vanity Fair" does not really qualify as the study of English Literature, but familiarity with the canon (heresy!) is surely a sine qua non? And that requires pre-determined outcomes. They may not apply to the higher slopes of Bloom's taxonomy but they certainly apply at the lower levels.

However, I should recognise that I am out of touch; the study of English has changed enormously since my day having been colonised by the intellectual flatulence and empirical insouciance of incomprehensible French writers. Not that it matters that they are incomprehensible, or whether there are any learning outcomes associated with teaching about them; it is in the nature of post-modernism that it is impossible to be wrong!

04 January 2008

On improbable research

To brighten up your day; that wonderful institution, "The Annals of Improbable Research" is now online for free. The site's strap-line says it all; "Research that makes people laugh and then think". Unlike other humour sites, though, this one is factual.

03 January 2008

On new posts on sister blog

In preparation for some imminent study events, I am posting a few further thoughts about threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Click on the heading link to catch up over the next few days, and do get back to me even if you are not on that course—it's open to all.

01 January 2008

On the Edge of a New Year

If you only read one website this year (apart from this, of course), you find enough at the Edge to keep you going all year.