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Let it be Light

You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it.  It is a quote from the bible!  It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals.  A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards.  The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work.  This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures.  I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content. 

Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy.  What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification.  This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids.  Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.

Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun?  Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests?  Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen.  It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime.  The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort.  It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development.  In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless.  In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.  

In life however, big creations cannot happen by command.  “Let it be Baby!”  I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option.  This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself.  We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option.  In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged.  Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will.  Maybe because this is not parenting.  The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting.  Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity?  Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy.  What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write.  Because this will not be knowledge.  The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight!  After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”!  This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light!  A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge.  It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.  

Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.

I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.

Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.

Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.

Reality and the fairy tale world of policy and procedures

https://pixabay.com/photos/once-upon-a-time-writer-author-719174/

In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).

However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety.  Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.

Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009).  Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way.  The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details.  In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point.  Nothing of course could be further from reality.

Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia.  Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student.  The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes.  Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources.  Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure.  I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.

References

Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Meet the team – Amy Cortvriend, Lecturer in Criminology

I am one of the new members of the criminology team at UoN and have joined from the University of Manchester where I have been a teaching assistant (probably the equivalent of associate lecturer at UoN) for the last couple of years while I’ve been working on my PhD. I’m looking forward to my new role as lecturer in criminology and hopefully at some point meeting students in real life, face to face. It’s a bit strange starting a new job in a new town when I’m still sat in my living room in Manchester, but the rest of the team have made me feel welcome regardless.

My journey into criminology is a funny one. I did life the opposite to many people, having my first child at 16. When my second child went to school I decided to return to education and as I didn’t have A-levels I has to undertake an Access diploma to get into university. I was required to choose three subjects and at first, I opted for English literature because I love(d) reading (I’m sure I still love reading but I’ve not read anything non-work related for a long time). I picked sociology because it sounded interesting and the same with history. At the last minute I swapped history to criminology and never looked back. From my first lesson I knew this was my future, although at that point I wasn’t sure how.

I always had imposter syndrome and never thought my work was good enough (still do today but we’ll save that for another blog post), but my Access tutor believed in me and suggested I apply to the University of Manchester. As I was a mature student, I had to attend an interview with two of the lecturers. I was super nervous, but I got a place and never left. The undergraduate degree was difficult at times because there were only a couple of mature students and they eventually dropped out. I wasn’t in halls and had kids at home, so I didn’t have the same student experience as many of my cohort, however I made some great friends particularly those who stayed to undertake our MRes.

I finished my undergraduate degree with a first and was awarded a scholarship for my research Masters’ then luckily got another studentship for my PhD which is near completion and here I am. Since I’m teaching research methods modules this year my students will be pleased to know that my BA (Hons) and MRes were heavily focussed on research methods and my PhD has given me three years of real-life research experience. My dissertations and thesis have all followed my research interests in the psychology of victimisation and border criminology. My PhD thesis explores the victimisation of refugees and how they cope. That’s all I will say about my research right now, but I will write another blog about it at some point. Probably when I’ve finished writing it and the hard work is a distant memory.

On a personal note, the daughter I had at 16 is now grown up and lives on her own and my youngest is a sassy 14-year-old girl. We have also just got our Pomeranian puppy Prince. In my free time I’m usually doing something active. I’m a Crossfitter and many of my closest friends are gym friends so the gym is both my mental health crutch and my social life. When I do eventually sit down, I love a good box set. I’m currently watching The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Recommendations via email are welcome.

Now you know a little bit about me. I’ll look forward to getting to know all the criminology students soon, either virtually or face to face. Hopefully some of you will put your cameras on at least for a day so that when we eventually meet, I’ll know who you are.

My Criminology Journey: Haley

The start of my criminology journey is not very exciting. I am not fully sure of how or why I ended up studying the subject. I was advised to study hairdressing at school as my predicted grades were not good enough for university, but the idea of trusting myself with a pair of scissors was very unnerving. I had a dilemma at college as I was unable to decide whether I wanted to study healthcare or construction – two courses which bore no similarity. In the end I give up trying to make decisions and studied A Levels because that was what my friends were doing.

University may as well have been on Mars at this point, as it was completely mysterious and unknown to me. Whilst at college, I was asked by my tutor to go to an open day at Oxford University. I saw this as an opportunity to unmask this university ‘thing’ for what it really was, so I agreed to go. I felt completely out of place throughout the day and found myself gobsmacked by the sheer privilege of the place, the culture and the students etc. At the same time, I was fascinated by the available courses, so I decided to continue my studies into higher education.    

My first attempt at university did not go as well as I had intended it to. I had other issues to contend with at the time, so I dropped out after two weeks. However, in 2010 I enrolled at the UoN and never really left. I had a great time studying criminology at UoN as I thought that my course was very interesting and the teaching staff (aka @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou) were spectacular.  

I did not realise this it at the time but I was well prepared for critical criminological discussions because I came from a background where people would be demonized for a whole host of social problems – it was clear to me at the time that this was unfair. Whilst enjoying the course content I did have to make a considered effort to improve on my writing skills, but it was worth the effort as this improvement worked wonders on my grades. As an undergraduate, I used my overdraft and savings from working part-time jobs to go travelling at the end of each academic year, this was beneficial for helping me to understand criminological issues outside of the UK.      

In 2015 I began teaching as an associate lecturer at UoN and I really enjoyed it. I also completed an MA degree in Social Research. To fast-forward to today, I now work as a lecturer in criminology – and this really is, beyond my wildest dreams!

Studying is not always a smooth ride for some, but if you work hard, you never know where you might end up.

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

#amplifymelanatedvoices 2020

Thanks to @treventoursu for the image

Over the past week or so, the Thoughts From the Criminology Team has taken part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices initiative started by @blackandembodied and @jessicawilson.msrd over on Instagram. During that time we have re-shared entries from our regular bloggers @treventoursu and @drkukustr8talk as well as entries from our graduates @franbitalo, @wadzanain7, @sineqd, @sallekmusa, @tgomesx, @jazzie9, @chris13418861 and @ifedamilola. In addition, we have new entries from @treventoursu, @drkukustr8talk and @svr2727. Each of these entries has offered a different perspective and each has provided the starting point for further dialogue.

We recognise that taking part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices is a tiny gesture, and that everyone can and should do better in the fight against white supremacy, racist ideology and individual and institutional violences.

Although this particular initiative has come to an end, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team retains its ethos, which is ‘to provide an inclusive space to explore a diversity of subjects, from a diverse range of standpoints’. We hope all of our bloggers continue to write for us for many years, but there is plenty of room for new voices.

Ask the expert, if you can find one

It was around four years ago I discovered the title of ‘Doctor’ extended beyond medical staff. I’m not sure many people outside of the academic world fully understand or have any reason to know the order in which post nominal letters are awarded or titles are given. Gaining the title of ‘doctor’ at the very beginning of any academic journey, seems so distantly part of any future plan, its barely imaginable. Some career paths seem wildly ambitious. Wanting to be an ‘expert’ in your field for the humble student, feels much like aspiring to become an astronaut midway through a physics degree.

Once you enter the world of academia, the titles people hold seem to determine an awful lot of their credibility. It’s rare to find a university lecturer who isn’t working towards doctoral qualification, most already have one. The papers, books and research journals are filled with the knowledge of individuals who once were nothing more than students. I often wonder though, at what point someone becomes an expert? At what point, (if ever) do the most academically qualified individuals refer to themselves as experts within a narrow area of their field.

The government often talks about relying on ‘expert’ evidence. Watching the experts stand beside the PM discussing the current pandemic, they appear uneasy, particularly when questions are raised about a different expert having a contradicting opinion. One thing I feel quite sure of is that experts seem to rarely agree. As Bertrand Russell (1927/42) states, “even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken” . Maybe that’s because it’s questionable if anyone can ever truly know everything on a given subject area.

The scientific committee seems to be buzzing with accusations that the experts are not quite what they seem. The ‘data scientists’ advising government and sitting on SAGE are not all from a background which comfortably implies they are qualified to discuss virology or immunology. In the background lingers the fact with such a new virus, with so little known about it, expert knowledge in a narrow sense, is undoubtedly in its infancy and will probably require some degree of hindsight later on.

In the past week one of the UK’s leading experts has resigned from his job after breaking his own guidance. Meanwhile the public watched Matt Hancock ‘snap’ at an opposition MP in parliament. A woman who despite being no more of an ‘expert’ than himself, at least has experience as a qualified A&E doctor to base her opinions and views on. It seems last week’s experts and heroes are this week’s victims in the ongoing witch-hunt for someone to blame.

I’ve started to wonder if labelling someone an ‘expert’ is something other people do to install confidence that a piece of research being relied upon is credible, rather than the experts referring to themselves that way. There’s almost an assumption of arrogance for anyone who dares to protest that their knowledge should be recognised with a title, outside of the academic world anyway. Maybe people simply don’t understand what it took to reach that level of knowledge in the first place.

I’ve looked a lot at ‘labelling’ within the criminological context and it seems to me the labels that are attached to us, almost always seem to come from someone else. In an age of self-proclaimed ‘internet experts’ the real experts, it seems are hard to find.

Reference

Russell, Bertrand (1927/1942) cited in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: A Fresh Look at Empiricism, 1927-42, edited by by John Slater and Assisted by Peter Köllner, (London: Routledge)

Teaching, Technology, and reality

I’m not a fan of technology used for communication for the most part, I’d rather do things face to face. But, I have to admit that at this time of enforced lockdown technology has been to a large extent our saviour. It is a case of needs must and if we want to engage with students at all, we have to use technology and if we want to communicate with the outside world, well in the main, its technology.

However, this is forced upon us, it is not a choice.  Why raise this, well let me tell you about my experiences of using technology and being shut at home!  Most, if not all my problems, probably relate to broadband.  It keeps dropping out, sometimes I don’t notice, that is until I go to save my work or try to add the final comment to my marking. I know other colleagues have had the same problem.  Try marking on Turnitin only to find that nearly all of your feedback has just disappeared in a flash.  Try talking to colleagues on Webex and watch some of them disappearing and reappearing. Sometimes you can hear them, sometimes you can’t. And isn’t it funny when there is a time lag, a Two Ronnies moment when the question before the last is answered. ‘You go, no you go’, we say as we all talk over each other because the social cues relied on in face to face meetings just aren’t there. I’ve tried discussion boards with students, it’s not like WhatsApp or Messenger or even text. It is far more staid than that. Some students take part, but most don’t and that in a module where attendance in class before the shutdown was running at over seventy per cent. I’m lucky to get 20% involved in the discussion board.  Colleagues using Collaborate tell me a similar tale, a tale of woe where only a few students, if any appear.  Six hours of emptiness, thumb twiddling and reading, that’s the lecturer, not the students.

Now I don’t know whether my problems with the internet are resultant of the increased usage across the country, or just in my area.  I suspect not because I had problems before the lockdown. I live in a village and whilst my broadband package promises me, and delivers brilliant broadband speed at times, it is inconsistent, frequently inexplicably dropping out for a minute or two. It is frustrating at times, even demoralising.  I have a very good laptop (supplied by the university) and it is hardwired in, so not reliant on Wi-Fi, but it makes little difference.  I suspect the problems could be anywhere in the broadband ether.  It could be at the other end, the university, it could be at Turnitin for instance or maybe its somewhere in a black hole in the middle.  Who knows, and I increasingly think, who cares? When my broadband disappeared for a whole day, a colleague suggested that I could tether my phone.  A brilliant idea I thought as our discussion became distorted and it sounded like he was talking to me from a goldfish bowl. I guess the satellite overhead moved and my signal gradually disappeared. I can tell you now that my mobile phone operator is the only one that provides decent coverage in my area. Tethered to a goldfish bowl, probably not a solution, but thanks anyway.

If I suffer from IT issues, then what about students? We are assured that those that live on campus have brilliant Wi-Fi but does this represent the majority of our student body? Not usually and certainly not now. Do they all have good laptops; do they all have a decent Wi-Fi package? I hazard a guess, probably not. But even if what they have is on par with what I have available to me could they not also be encumbered with the same problems? We push technology as the way forward in education but don’t bother to ask the end user about their experience in using it. I can tell you from student feedback that many don’t like Collaborate, find the discussion boards difficult to engage with and some are completely demotivated if they cannot attend physical classes. That’s not to say that all students feel this way, some like recorded lectures as it gives them the opportunity to watch it at their leisure, but many don’t take that final step of actually watching it. They intend to, but don’t for whatever reason. Some like the fact that they can get books electronically, but many don’t, preferring to read from a hard copy. Even browsing the shelves in the library has for some, a mystical pleasure.

I’ll go back to the beginning, technology has undoubtedly been our saviour at this time of lockdown, but wouldn’t it be a real opportunity to think about teaching and technology after this enforced lockdown? Instead of assuming all students are technology savvy or indeed, want to engage with technology regardless of what it is, should we not ask them what works for them.  Instead of telling staff what they can do with technology, e.g. you can even remotely mark students’ work on a Caribbean island, should we not ask staff what works?  Let’s change the negative narrative, “you’re not engaging with technology”, to the positive what works in teaching our students and how might technology help in that.  Note I say our students, not other students at other universities or some pseudo student in a theoretical vacuum.  We should simply be asking what is best for our students and a starting point might be to ask them and those that actually teach them.

Managerialism, students and the language of failure

cap

Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels.  How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams?  Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case.  However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.

Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League.  If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability.  It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs.  Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally.  This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve.  And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled.  Make sense so far, I hope so?

If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students.  Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades.  We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts.  We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university.  We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades.   The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.

Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’?  These are a ‘1st and 2.1.  At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades.  The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’.  This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade.  Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’.  A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.

Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player.  Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League.  The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.

With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.

It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.

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