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...

Thursday, 6 April 2017

A ONE year degree - for you mate, call it 9 months

Ahhh the freedom from constraints of the "traditional" THREE year undergraduate degree.  Thank goodness "Saint" Jo Johnson is spearheading the encouragement of competition and private provision in the UK Higher Education sector.

A shake up from the market, where HE is joined by those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, plus regulation to highlight the deficiences of those that can only get a bronze.

So, what would a shorter degree look like?

Jo Johnson is very likely to end his life as a peer - and the sooner that elevation comes, the better.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

I'm going to live to be 100

Those born in the 1950's have a better chance of living to receive the Royal telegram that any previous generation.  Our improved health, our finances, our retirement wealth borne of pensions, bequests and home equity and our sheer bloody-mindedness to prove the actuaries wrong (is that just me?) combine to offer the tantilising spectre of scoring a century.

Of course we have to look after our bodies, minds and networks of friends to make such a feat physically possible but if we did reach 100 what would we tell the students of the 2050's about what we had learned in our long life?

What do you mean, the ageing app on the ipad didn't work?
Top of my list would be a lesson my wife repeats often to me:  Nobody's last words are "I wish I'd spent more time in the office" and "When you cannot start your work day with a smile then its time to leave".

And there's always: "Work for yourself and your family - that way the disappointments and stresses that your employer heaps on you are put into perspective.

Actually I'm writing this four decades away from being 100 - I wonder what else there is to learn in the other half of my life?

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Same problem - different solution

There is an apocryphal story about NASAs millions of dollars spent on a pen that would write in a zero gravity environment - and the contrasting story that the Russians took pencils during the 1960's Space Race.  OK, so the USA had millions of dollars to spend and Mother Russia didn't, but that does not hide the fact that there are often effective and better value solutions available for many problems.

"Developed" and "Developing" world solutions
So, rather than engineer a complex solution, possibly costing many millions of pounds, dollars or roubles and label it "innovation", why not ask some of the most innovative people in the world - those who have to "make do" with very scarce resources, low wages, poor buildings and all manner of drawbacks that the developed nations (and their students) take for granted?

"Back to basics" is a common expression but how many of us actually reflect enough to consider what the "basics" are?  In an air conditioned, VLE supported, Lecture Captured, newly upholstered, "state of the art" lecture theatre teachers can often struggle to foster student engagement.  Students are persuaded that they are consumers, that the government is "on their side", that the privilege of education is actually a right and that their "satisfaction" is all that rally matters.  The notion that they must actually participate, i.e. give as well as take, is alien to their thinking.

Contrast with the schools and colleges in less well developed nations where education is fought for, families make sacrifices and engagement comes from the students, themselves, rather than their seeking it entirely from their teachers.

I'm off to Africa.  It's warmer there anyway.

Friday, 17 March 2017

This job could be for you...

Do you really want to change your job for XYZ University?  Do you have any hope of doing so or would it be too disruptive and costly just to have the pleasure of sticking your fingers up at your current employer?  You came into University teaching to make a difference but you find that so many things are set against you - including being a second class citizen in a teaching institution that does not reward teaching.

So, what's the solution?  Simple...say the following phrase out loud and as frequently as possible:

Please excuse the crayon but they don't allow me sharp objects any more.
Working for yourself is not a career choice or a "new economy" solution, it is a state of mind, an attitude - but one with its own Person Specification:

You will not get that promotion, nor that deserved reward - but you will be happier, and that's priceless.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Tadpoles, Boiled Frogs and Bullfrogs

Spring is with us in the UK and with it ponds and lakes teem with mating frogs (climbing on the lady frog to get a better view, as we eplained to our 6 year old grandson).  Soon spawn will.....well, spawn, tadpoles will emerge, sunshine will bring activity and the birds will swoop down to eat the unwary.
The few will survive to sink to the murky bottom of the water over the Winter only to emerge next Spring to re-start the cycle - Ahhhh the glories of nature.

One analogy used in Corporate Failure theory is that of the frog life cycle.  Firstly, the tadpole - the start-up business that never survived.  The Bullfrog - the business that lurched its way to failure, and the "boiled frog" that would jump out of the pan if the water was boliing but often failed to feel the water around it warming up until it was too late...

I re-purpose this analogy in terms of student progression and illustrate it below:
No frogs or students were harmed in the use of this analogy
TADPOLE students never really settle in Higher Education, they may be immature, ill prepared, wrongly advised or simply too hopeful that prior studies have given them the foundation needed for independent study.  Of course, properly guided, protected and supported the TADPOLE could continue on an upward trajectory.

BULLFROG students have a patchy performance at University, the causes can be the same as the TADPOLE but they operate at a level sufficient to survive each lurch of performance.  Good pastoral systems can revive flagging spirits, aid time management and encourage less partying.  Whilst the illustration shows the BULLFROG student at a high level of ultimate success it is equally likely that performance will plateau.

BOLIED FROG students also have a tipping point, they can crash and burn (if you can burn in boliing water that is) or can acclimitise themselves to the warmth and challenge of the hotter water and plough on to the highest performance.

The challenge for Universities, therefore, is to identify the different types of frog, guide, nurture and support them so that all fulfil their potential.  We cannot leave it to Darwin and nature to select the fittest.