21 May 2012

On handing on...

(19 May 12) The Olympic torch has arrived, and the relay begins...

Chelsea (football/soccer team) have won the European champions' league, in what some commentators have claimed to be the last gasp of an ageing team. I have no idea about that in detail, but the handover to the next generation is a periodic make or break challenge for any long-term organisation.

When Star Trek returned to TV in the 1987, the series was identified as "the Next Generation", and indeed it represented a shift in values, perhaps from the free-wheeling '60s to the more formal and task-oriented '80s.

And at a minor level, the coincidence of minor personnel "churn" and institutional re-organisation in our network of teaching centres means that at unpredictable ("stick and slip") intervals we are faced with the challenge of passing on the torch--or even the "brand"--of the programme to a new generation.

All of which brings to mind the challenge of passing on--or adapting--underlying values, rather than formal structures.

In the case of  the PCE programme, the quality assurance procedures have been mind-boggling. For various reasons (none to do with the programme itself) it has been inspected by Ofsted three times in the past five years as well as reviewed by its validating body (now abolished); it has recently emerged from a routine quinquennial review by the university, and last year a couple of typos in the documentation prompted an intrusive (and, it transpires, unauthorised) review apparently motivated by the personal animosity of a senior figure in the Faculty, who is now no longer with the university...

Stefan Collini (2012:107ff.) points out that the procedures and metrics of "quality assurance" are good at ensuring and indeed enhancing the rigour and comprehensiveness of everything which does not really matter in universities.

But how does one pass on the vision and the distinctiveness of the programme, which cannot be contained by the details of second-marking samples and moderation and module specifications (syllabi)?
    It could of course be argued that possibly they should not be passed on. Perhaps they were misguided to begin with. Perhaps they have been overtaken by social, political, economic--even heaven help us, technological changes. After all, this programme was first validated in 1996.  It's true that it has dropped increasingly out of step with relentless policy initiatives in the sector, but even the hostile unauthorised review of 2011 did not try to make a case on that basis.)
The community of practice which is the teaching team on the programme (around forty people at any one time in ten colleges, and fifteen or so who regularly attend network meetings) is the bearer of the (sorry! Hate to use the term, but it is  the most powerful) of the "brand". Its ultimate origins may be found in a range of philosophers and educational theorists and practitioners but its proximate base rests on the two people who have been with it from the beginning, and both of us have now retired.

For the rest of the community, the characteristics of the programme can seem quirky, because they have only encountered them in their "mature" form, and were never involved in their development. The programme leader who has recently retired--and who has been by far the most significant figure in the development of the course--has frequently commented over the past few years how much time in network meetings has been spent in explaining over again the original rationale behind, for example, the policy of negotiating submissions through learning contracts rather than setting assignments--and occasionally discovering that the policy has been sacrificed to administrative convenience by some (generally peripheral) tutors.

So do we now have to recognise that it is futile to cling to the past out of some misguided delusion that the course is our own creation? Indeed, may we have become so obsessed with its quirks that we are no longer able to evaluate them dispassionately? May they be merely trivial decorative flourishes which mean nothing or may--as some students and probably tutors believe--actually obstruct learning?

Quite possibly. But then it may be the sense of working on something different and distinctive which enthuses and energises colleagues teaching the course, and gives them a sense of belonging to a team... even if that which is distinctive does not instrumentally matter that much. That certainly seems to be the experience of colleagues at one of the colleges in the network, which has changed their validating university, for irrelevant reasons; they have reported a sense of loss. One neglects such an agenda at one's peril.

But spare a thought for those who are taking up the baton, and their challenge of making the course their own--putting their stamp on it--while engaging with issues of loyalty to a prior generation.

And read the Saber-Tooth Curriculum. (There's a note on it, here.)

Collini S (2012) What are Universities For? London; Penguin

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