Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Talking in somone else's sleep

When I started lecturing 30 years ago my "training" suggested that the lecture was "the art of the effective explanation".

I liked that - even if, as an inexperienced academic, I realy needed someone to effectively explain many of the concepts I was lecturing to me!!

The media I used was the pre-handwritten "acetate", positioned on a lightbox or Overhead Projector (OHP).  Many colleagues still used chalk and blackboards but that appeared to me to be a health hazard.  As I became more accomplished this was augmented by the "acetate roll" which allowed live drawing of charts and diagrams.  In this scenario students developed speed-writing skills as they handwrote lecture notes.  Words on expensive slides were kept to a minimum and the lecturer's own voice was not only heard, but listened to.
Then, about 20 years ago, presentation in lectures became rather more professional.  Into our lives came Microsoft Powerpoint (there had been earlier software solutions such as Lotus Freelance). "Slides" were printed onto "acetates" and copies of the slides made available to students (3 to a page with space for notes). Students had the framework of notes (they thought) and so annotated the slides, hoping that they would be able to decipher them later.

Slowly, lecturers realised:
  • That good feedback scores were given to those who delivered plenty of "stuff" in a lecture;
  • That student passivity was not simply a symptom of disengagement but a control mechanism;
  • That getting the handout was considered by students as being equivalent to going to the lecture....
Today, the rise of the VLE and the move towards paperless lectures means that lectures often open with a chorus of laptops and tablets being switched on, screen covers being raised so that all the lecturer sees is an array of IT company logos and the lecture is accompanied by the clatter of keyboards.

I do feel that technology has played its part in a skewed HE environment and has taken the focus of the lecture away from the student to a focus on the delivery.  The "partnership" of speaker and listener has broken down.  Why listen when I can read it, record it or even look at the lecture captured event later on?

So, how do we re-capture the lecturing high ground?  How do we wean students from a diet of passive consumerism?  Perhaps we should go back to thinking just how we can provide  EFFECTIVE EXPLANATIONS without the need to be supported by technology.  Perhaps we should focus far more on LEARNING than on delivery.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The student hymn

To the tune "Eventide" by William Henry Monk (1823-1889).  

Engage with me;
Fast comes the exam stage.
My worry deepens;
Prof., with me, engage.
When all my time is gone;
and PANIC will not flee.
You, who know the answers;
Prof., engage with me.

It is also pertinent to note that this hymn is a favourite at Christian funerals and also sung at FA Cup finals since 1927 - the hymn of the Sweet F.A.  It is reputed that the band of RMS Titanic struck up with this tune as the great liner slipped beneath the arctic waters in 1912.

So, why wait until desparation sets in or it is too late.....engage with a Prof when the lecture course starts!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Negotiation skills for students

Imagine going to your selected car dealership and finding that ALL of the vehicles are priced at ONE price (let's say £27,750 - payable in 3 annual installments of £9,250).  The price is very high but there are generous credit terms available, even to those with poor credit histories.  Repayment only starts when  (and if) your salary exceeds a certain figure and after 30 years the debt is wiped out!

You are aware that there are some discounts available at shabbier showrooms at the wrong end of town but you do not want to shop there.

So, if you have already committed to pay your £27,750 in three annual installments, to the high quality showroom that your parents have always used, fear not, there is a way to get even more value - complaining, threats and negotiation.
Image by Dr Joseph Valks at
It's hard to negotiate up-front on the quality of the car available for the price, or even on the additional extras such as delivery options, the length of the warranty, quality of materials used and on added luxuries. But once you are driving the car around and clocking up the miles the bargaining power shifts...

  1. You could drive the car for one year, or two, and then apply to give the car back to the dealer and pay your 3rd installment to another dealer, perhaps starting with a brand new car again!  Dealers don't like this as they cannot, easily, get value for partially fulfilled contracts and "returned" cars.  They may offer a discount for the third year if you press hard enough.

    It helps, of course, if you have worked hard to keep the car well maintained, clean and polished so that it maintains its value as a "used" vehicle.
  2. Cars are, typically, divided into constituent parts, many of which can have faults that do not affect the other parts but do detract from the value of the whole vehicle.  For example, a faulty engine will cause the car to be less desirable but will not detract from the rust-free paintwork.  So, you might be able to complain about individual parts of the car and get the dealer to fix them - perhaps within the warranty.

Perhaps it is best not to admit that your own misuse of the car and putting urine in the tank instead of petrol actually caused the malfunction in the first place.  Dealers will readily offer rectification if your threat to complain to the Car Ombudsman is almost credible.
So, as a consumer of a car your ability to negotiate shifts over time.

It's not the same with degrees.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Superiority complex

Many people have every right to feel themselves superior to others, although this can result in problems in life that can over-inflate an individual's sense of their own worth and can lead to unexpected behaviours.

Image courtesy of radnatt at
Students achieving more than 10 GCSEs, more than 3 "A stars" at A Level, entry to a prestigious University and graduating from that University with a "First" or its near neighbour, the "Twun" and successfully avoiding the "Desmond" have every expectation that they will feel themselves superior.  Their sense of superiority will be strengthened by being courted by some of the largest corporate employers in the world, being put on the "fast track" to Management and by absorbing ever higher starting salaries, designed to crowd out the market for "top" talent.

The opportunities to learn a little humility on their stellar journey are often ignored, shunned or avoided.

So, I have designed a compulsory undergraduate module in Food Bank Management.

Intended Learning outcomes are pretty much the same as for Bank Management:

Knowledge and Understanding 
- explain the key drivers for change in Food banking environments;
- discuss the concepts and theories that underpin modern Food banking and financial charitable institutions;
-analyse specific management issues in Food banking institutions.
Subject-specific skills
- interpret accounting information from the perspectives of the Food banker, the management of a Food bank and the regulation of a Food bank;
- apply relevant appraisal techniques to donating propositions.
Key/transferable skills
- work collaboratively
- research individual organisations and markets;
- develop professional report writing skills.

Any takers?

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Herding cats

There have been some truly valiant efforts , by visionaries and well meaning folk, to corral and herd that most independent of animals- the cat.
Many efforts have, however, been in vain as the cat is probably the most independent and unmanageable animal - it is said that cats adopt their "owners", rather than the other way around.

Image courtesy of Ben Schonewille at
And yet we must learn from the rare successes and understand the methods and techniques used to achieve the seemingly impossible.  Good cat managers learn to herd or manage even the most recalcitrant of felines.  There are a few key methods:

Feed with cream and fresh salmon:  This method involves pampering the favourites, tempting them to stay in the home or close by, through rewards, reserving special places close to the warm fire and through a laissez-faire atitude towards expectations of actual work.  If the pampered feline does not feel that the warmth and praise that they think they deserve they could simply take up residence in another "owners" home.

Occasional rewards: This involves rewarding the traditional hard work of felines - ridding the premises of pests such as rats and mice.  These cats are expected to earn their meals and are rewarded with occasional tidbits or treats if they limit their hunting to nasty rats and do not disturb valued garden birds.  Worker cats feel fortunate to be rewarded at all and stay close to the home.  All other homes have their own worker cats and so shun those seeking to decamp.

Shotgun approach: This is reserved for the non-working, feral and nuisance cats.  These cats have earned the ire of "owners" by being as indolent as the papmered "cream and salmon" recipients but without the redeeming qualities of either pedigree or rat "kills".  The method involves pointing a shotgun at the fleine and pulling the trigger.

Of course, those in positions of power and influence also weild the weapon of regulation - measuring the success of the herd through arbitrary measures, such as: Number of rats killed, success of offspring, presumed "happiness" of other creatures that the herd comes into contact with - typically undertaken by survey techniques.  Some call this Feline Efficiency Technique (F.E.T).  Others call it meddling.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

A hermit's life for me!

St. Cuthbert (AD 635 - 687) spent most of his adult life as a hermit, despite being Prior of Lindisfarne Abbey on Holy Island.  He found peace on a small island off Holy Island in Northumbria (cut off by the tide twice daily) and then on Inner Farne - which today he would have shared with National Trust Rangers, Seals and Puffins - oh, and tourists...

St. Cuthbert's Cave, Northumbria.  Picture by Mrs Twitface
Here's a picture of St. Cuthbert's Cave - not one of his hideaways in life but one where his body was hidden to avoid Viking raiders years after his death.  It's a nicer picture than his island.

Anyway, Academics are hermits.

Academics find peace and time for reflection and contemplation in so many ways:
  • Study Leave
  • International Conferences
  • "Working from home"
  • "Sick" leave brought about by stress (typically self-induced)
  • Out of Office messages
  • "Office Hours"
  • Being "very busy and important" - so no time for idle chit chat...
  • Being surly (relates only to some academics)
  • Saying "It's not in my job description"
  • Doing "Research"
Ahhh, the peace and quiet of the truly academic life........

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Deserving and the Undeserving Poor

The human race has an all-consuming need to categorise fellow humans, measuring their "worth" against an agreed set of values and principles.
Unfortunately this human need has been at the root of racism, religious intolerance, snobbery and discrimination of all kinds - ALL of which provides false "value" to those on the "right side" and unnecessary pain to everyone else.
The Model Workhouse at Southwell.  Picture by Greendead
Take, for example, the model workhouse of the 19th Century created by the Southwell Union of parishes and used as a pattern for workhouses throughout the UK.  The principle that the worthy clerics and burghers of Southwell were charged with was simple: Each parish had the duty to provide for its own poor.  Southwell did so by providing a place where punishment for being poor was balanced with sympathy and care for the old and infirm by categorising inmates as follows:

Males / Females / Children: All separated on entry and only mothers could see children on Sundays if both had been "good".
Old and Infirm / Idle and indolent (i.e of healthy body but just having decided to sponge off the Parish rather than earn money).  The old had days of rest but the idle were given boring repetitive tasks as a deterrent to sloth.

Of course, we can see parallels in our psyche and systems today but it is the judgement of the "elders and betters" that I want to focus on - The Mr Bumbles, Clerics and appointed clerks in each Parish.

But there's no time to elaborate here, I've got to go and mark some exams and then prepare for the exam board with my academic colleagues so that we can categorise another generation of students...