… about the proposed “reforms” to higher education funding. I’ve started a couple of times to write a blog-post adding my two-pennyworth of comment. But firstly, I get too depressed musing more generally about the awfulness of various education “reforms” over the last forty or so years (at my most charitable, let’s say they are quite spectacular object lessons in the Law of Unintended Consequences). And second, much of what I might say has in fact already been said, and said very well, by others — e.g. by Stefan Collini on ‘Browne’s Gamble’, John Sutherland, writing under the cheery title English degrees for £27k – who’s buying?, and particularly by Iain Pears on ‘How the Humanities’.
Iain Pears’s point about re-centering the business of humanities departments on teaching strikes a real chord with me, as I approach the finishing-line with my job. It is difficult to credit now, but when I started as a lecturer we really had only half a day’s “induction” course — and one element of that was a talk on Arnold, Newman and Leavis on the idea of a university (can you imagine?). Yet that didn’t seem out of place. We did mostly thought of ourselves as university teachers with a commitment to “pass it on” (as Alan Bennett puts it in The History Boys). So we took it for granted that we would spent a lot of time talking with our students. ‘Research’ (as opposed to ‘scholarship’, i.e. keeping up our reading and thinking to inform our teaching) was something to be done in our — admittedly generous — spare time. Certainly, the idea that research in the humanities — yet another article in some minor passing debate, yet another unnecessary book? — should be at the very centre of everything, and teaching something to be avoided as much as possible (by getting research grants) was a long way in the future.
It wouldn’t be such a bad thing — and will be the least we owe to the kids who have to mortgage more of their futures to study with us — if in this one respect at any rate we went forward to the past.
9 thoughts on “Students are right to be pissed off …”
Grey-beards like myself have to try to resist the ever-present temptation to suppose that things are really going to the dogs in so many ways. We are doomed, you know, doomed …
But it is difficult not to be rather gloomy about the future of philosophy in the UK, given the likely way the new funding arrangements will impact on universities.
It has been a pretty puzzling thing, hasn’t it, the rapid growth over the last twenty years in the proportion of students coming to university wanting to do (at least some) philosophy as undergraduates. It was this growth that enabled, for example, my old department in Sheffield very rapidly to more than double in size, even while target staff-student ratios deteriorated. We weren’t untypical. Philosophy applications to Cambridge too have rocketed since I’ve been back here. I’ve never seen a very plausible explanation of this notable shift in student choices. We might well worry that the numbers could begin to melt away again when students perforce become ever more conscious of the great debts they will be taking on, whatever they choose to study, and are having to think hard about the financial consequences of their decisions.
And it isn’t as if the majority of schools can be reliably expected to provide a counterbalance in promoting the values of a liberal humanities education for its own sake and encouraging applicants to philosophy (or history, or french literature, or whatever). When I was still a college fellow I would dutifully turn out to dinners held during two or three day course/workshops for state school teachers involved in giving advice to their university applicants: these events were part of our admirable efforts to widen access and encourage more state school applicants. But I found that they could be deeply depressing occasions, as the level of philistine anti-intellectualism that could be casually shown by some of the teachers was pretty startling. (Well, actually, perhaps not so startling, given the general culture. And, for various reasons, one of the notable things that happened over the seventies and onwards was that the number of one’s best students who went into teaching in the state sector seemed to suddenly plummet to near zero.)
Of course, things aren’t exactly rosy now. Entirely predictably, once modularization is in place, a Gresham’s Law operates: courses perceived to be easy drive out the hard currency. Look round UK university philosophy websites and see how many logic courses beyond the most elementary are still offered. So serious logic, technically informed philosophical logic, and philosophy of maths are not even on the menu now for most undergrads outside the golden triangle. And the pressures are already there to make modules popular and difficult to do badly in (with tightly circumscribed “course aims and objectives”, less exposing examination methods, etc.). The pressures are surely about to get worse.
So how do we respond? (By “we”, I of course mean “you”: I’m going to be cultivating daisies or pushing them up, as the fates decide.) Of course, there is the cynical option, available at least to those in universities like Paul and Tom’s, high enough up the pecking order for the student demand to predictably remain fairly healthy. Carry on much as before, but with added dumbing-down and added entertainment value to ensure that everyone goes away with a gold star so the students don’t fuss, and so that they can report back to their schools that they had a nice three years, that philosophy was quite fun and didn’t interfere too much with the real business of university life for those who can afford it.
But I’m with Tom. We should be standing against the cultural tide. And, as he puts it, we should be giving our students “the feeling that they are part of an academic community, of shared and sometimes collaborative striving (conatus!) for the truth. Give them a love of the subject, a desire to learn and plenty of examples of people who commit their lives to thinking and talking Philosophy.” That is so out of keeping with the tenor of the times that even saying the words sounds pretentiously high-minded. But it isn’t. It is the least we should be doing.
How best to do it, of course, is another question. But again Tom is right that it perhaps involves different forms and styles of interaction (the Socratic coffee bar office hours, the sitting around in the grad common room, etc.). And it perhaps involves too joining in rather more reading around outside your narrow current research interests (more “scholarship” as opposed to “research”, in an older terminology) so you can continue to engage with enthusiasm and some knowledge over a wider front. Time consuming, perhaps, yet in a good way, in keeping with the wide-ranging spirit of enquiry that got us interested in philosophy in the first place. We’ve allowed the drive to “research” to crowd out the pleasures of “scholarship”.
But Paul is right too. Tom’s suggestions are so counter to what students have come to expect and think they want that the danger is that the time will be wasted and the effort go to naught. Or, as bad, the coffee bar office hours etc. will be just treated by students as so many opportunities for special coaching in how to jump hoops, tick boxes, and ace your module — exactly the blankly utilitarian spirit we need to be taking a stand against. So I share Paul’s pessimism. But I still think we — meaning you — should make the effort and go down fighting.
That was short? Anyway, your proposal:
‘I am suggesting that we need to think more carefully about how we explain and display the elements of what we do (that, of course, we all know but may not be obvious to the poor student) and why they are necessary to achieve the benefits that a good undergraduate education can bring’
is basically marketing/PR/spin. To each his own …
Now I will shut up for a while. See you at the PG Work in Progress seminar tomorrow!
So I’m going to try to make this one shorter partly because I suspect some of what we should say to each other is specific and, thus, of even less interest to the general readership and partly because I suspect that the lack of people flocking to join the discussion is not because they are sitting in front of their computers in a kind of hushed awe not wanting to spoil the flow between us.
Regarding the three options, (3) is certainly closer to the approach I would favour. (2) no for the reasons you state. I would have a concern about (1) because looking for people who appreciate what you do already doesn’t strike me as one which, to coin a dreadful phrase, would be social inclusivity neutral.
You say I’m being negative (it’s all I could do to restrain my mum from phoning you up) but I don’t think so. I just don’t think what you identify would do the job and am proposing something different. Here are three quick reasons why I think this.
First, I’ll give you an utterly hard headed one. If the move to increase contact hours and feedback is to improve NSS scores, then trying to get students to feel part of an academic community and love the subject won’t fix it (for roughly the reasons why adding module independent tutorials won’t fix it). Bad NSS scores are usually the result of folk who are some distance from loving the subject and not awfully engaged by the idea of chatting to us either. I struggle with the latter but I have come to the conclusion that it is possible not to find talking to me personally engaging and a natural goal for a section of one’s day to go well.
Second, and following on from the above, people have different personalities and this makes them variously adept at engaging in the kind of activities you propose. Some of us may have had years of experience dealing with the fact they have charisma to burn and a convivial and approachable conversational style. Others of us are (his eyes slowly turning on their pivot) swivel-eyed monsters who are just not considered a natural object for approaches which, a student may characterise, as not even in the ball park of ‘I’m confused about X, couldn’t one say Y instead?’. Good attendance for a one-off lecture series on an engaging topic is not a sign that there is the potential appetite for lots of interpersonal interaction with professional truth lovers which, in virtue of being unactualized, gives rise to the false consciousness of requiring more contact hours and feedback. I might call this the ‘Don’t forget how weird we seem’ point.
Third, if you accept my description of the mechanism which results in the desire for more contact hours/feedback, then you’ve got to do something which puts those feelings in a more appropriate context. The appropriate context will not be valuing us more and seeing how we are committed to finding out the truth. Nor will it just be a desire to learn. Sure we have a desire to learn, they may say, teach us more so we do.
Instead (and here’s the positive bit), I am suggesting that we need to think more carefully about how we explain and display the elements of what we do (that, of course, we all know but may not be obvious to the poor student) and why they are necessary to achieve the benefits that a good undergraduate education can bring, and philosophy in particular, for those coming out the other side.
In a nutshell, those who can desire to feel part of an academic community and want to engage with us are not the difficulty. So seeking to engender more of that is not the solution.
Ha! Keep it short. Next time I might as well say I will babble on until I feel like stopping.
I still think we are talking past each other. I agree with what you describe as the pernicious effect of the modular system and that adding something like tutorials on top is unlikely to work for more than a tiny minority of students. I also agree with your diagnosis of the demand for extra hours and ‘feedback’ (I am still unsure what they think this means despite regularly probing the issue with students). And I think your summary of the generic value of a humanities degree is excellent:
“I can now deal with complex problems and issues – or I know how to get myself into that state and, quite quickly. having developed these skills with a subject I enjoyed (or hoped I would). I know what I needed to do there, and what that feels like, and can take it across.”
So what do we disagree about? Well, we know that there will be external pressure to change what we are doing and we need to make those changes in ways which satisfy our paymasters and do not undermine what we are trying to do. Now the terrifying thing about the Browne Report, as I have argued elsewhere (http://bit.ly/c44VPj) is that it makes 17 year old schoolkids our paymasters, for it creates a market where the decision to ‘buy’ is made by someone who is necessarily unable to appreciate the value of what they are buying. So we need to make sure that we get the equivalent of lots of good ‘customer reviews’ to influence their decisions.
Now, as far as I can see there are three strategies here:
1. Select those who will appreciate what we already do.
2. Invest massive effort in the ‘transition to University’ (i.e. try to manage their demands).
3. Give them something when they are here which may be not what the 17 year old was looking for (being only 17) but is what the 20 year old appreciates – think of this as the ‘free gift’ approach.
All three options are time-consuming. 1. requires, at a minimum, interviewing all applicants and in 2009-10 there were 3400 applicants to degrees at York with a Philosophy element, so that would stymie the ‘2 day a week’ model immediately! However, many Depts at York do still interview and it pays off. 2. is also a route other disciplines have taken, but it works much better when you can do that transition work with online resources. For example, Biology now have whole pre-registration courses on the VLE and it is being proposed that we might role out online materials to all applicants. But it is hard to see how we can do that for a degree where they need to get used to finding things out for themselves!
So what about 3? I think that we can and should do this and the way to do it is by giving the students who are here the feeling that they are part of an academic community, of shared and sometimes collaborative striving (conatus!) for the truth. Give them a love of the subject, a desire to learn and plenty of examples of people who commit their lives to thinking and talking Philosophy.
This is not about meeting existing demands but about creating a demand for what we are good at. For example, no student has said to us that they want us to run extra modules which are unassessed and when we say you can listen in to any lecture, they don’t. But when we put on a series of evening lectures on a theme, each one given by a different member of staff, they turn up in large numbers. And if the numbers trail off, then we need to think a bit harder about the format and the themes to make sure they keep coming.
But while that is an example running counter to what you are saying, and I think it is a very important one, it is not what I was mainly thinking about. You ask how often a student comes up and says ‘I’ve been struggling over this passage and I just don’t get this. Why shouldn’t one say X about this issue’. I agree that this is rare and only happens in direct relation to modules, but we should be asking ourselves what we can change about the way we do our jobs which will make it natural and comfortable for the students to do that. And I think there are ways to do it. One colleague spent his Office Hour in Costa reading a book and tripled the attendance. Students came to ask philosophical questions because it felt comfortable to do so in that context and they could – quite literally – see it was appropriate. Now I am not suggesting we all do that, but I do think it tells us something about how to get our students to engage with us, how to encourage them into behaviours which will help achieve our educational goals and also make them grateful for what we do.
So we agree on the problem and we agree on the values to be preserved. It is just that you are being negative and pessimistic (don’t tell your Mum) and I am suggesting something like a solution. I happen to think it is the only solution which will work for us, but perhaps you have some different ideas?
And Peter, from your Tweet I guess you don’t mind us hi-jacking your blog. But damning us with faint praise: ‘the beginnings of a potentially interesting exchange’! Was that really necessary?
Many thanks for the initial kind words in response to begging emails and, increasingly, threatening texts… and putting aside issues of interpretation which are of no interest to anybody apart from my mother (who I force to take an interest by pouting). I suspect that your experience was exceptionally good rather than mine cause for complaint. That’s no reason why one should not try to recreate the exceptionally good except…
I don’t think I really share your diagnosis. The move towards modularisation with laid down reading lists, directly relevant teaching, resulting in a designated item of assessment which contributes towards the degree, has swamped all other forms of contact in importance and, with other time pressures – social life, part time working for holidays, and so forth – even if there is initial enthusiasm for the kind of interactions you propose, it is ground down and peters out.
I base this on the fact that, in my last job at Nottingham, we tried to run a whole tutorial system independent of modules and it died because students were simply unable/unwilling to put the time and commitment into preparing for it. Their interest sometimes perked up if you discussed something directly module relevant but, even then, there was the background view that it was only likely to be useful if you were the authoritative figure for that particular module (i.e. its convener) because then you would know exactly what was required. Then I tried a voluntary scheme where those of my tutees who wanted to could meet to discuss something. Greeted with a fair amount of enthusiasm but never really got going for similar reasons. Perhaps it is me. I throttle enthusiasm and interest at birth and then go on to bring about despondency as an encore.
You can get a fairly good impression of the desire for informal contact by the extent to which the philosophy society seeks to involve us in their activities. Members of the philosophy society are self-selecting people who are up for some additional informal philosophy related contact. But, and this is something of which in many ways I approve, they are more interested in doing this amongst themselves than having informal contact with us.
The picture changes as we go into the MA. There, students are much more engaged by the prospect of informal meetings and, interestingly, this is when their amount of contact hours are reduced and they have decided that they want to commit to further exploration of philosophy and not just getting a good degree and doing other things one is hoping for during one’s university education.
The desire for more contact hours, and more feedback, I think comes rather more from the following. The current structure of university teaching gives the strong impression that it is going to be more like school than it is or, perhaps, should be. The phrase which was commonplace in our youth, I’m going to university to read Philosophy, where the expectation was that you would be given a large reading list, lecture recommendations or suggestions, and left to your own devices to read and report back, coming to your tutorials with questions which puzzled you and being subject to grilling for what you thought you understood, has little meaning today. And yet there are still parts of our practice which are informed by this original idea, perhaps rather too implicit. When a student comes to university and finds quite a bit of their time unsupervised, they relish the freedom to do other things and not to engage in independent learning and struggling with quite hard tasks (e.g. reading original research papers and trying to come to understand them). These other activities flood the time and then assessment comes in and it feels difficult. When under time pressure, a very natural response is to feel, I should have been prepared more for this. I would be able to complete it more quickly and confidently. And, likewise, when you get your mark back, supposing you don’t have a complaint about it, you will still feel if I got better feedback, perhaps it wouldn’t feel so tough next time, I wouldn’t feel so insecure about whether I’m doing the right thing, and I would get a better mark. I would know what to do. I don’t know about you but as regards feedback I received on my essays, and from those kind folk who read and reject my papers, very often I only *get* the feedback – understand what somebody was driving at – if I do the additional work to improve the piece or my understanding of the issues. Of course on other occasions…. well I won’t go there.
Consider the number of times we get a student come to us and say ‘I’ve been struggling over this passage and I just don’t get this. Why shouldn’t one say X about this issue’. If your experience is very like mine, the answer is exceptionally rarely. This suggests that we still have not successfully conveyed what we need them to do and how demanding it is. But why should we try to do this difficult thing? Why not go down the path of the extra contact hours, the more formalized still teaching material, the assessment for which feedback is much easier to appreciate and so forth? The answer is that if we do give up, then we will give up the particular qualities that a good undergraduate education gives someone namely, I can now deal with complex problems and issues – or I know how to get myself into that state and, quite quickly. having developed these skills with a subject I enjoyed (or hoped I would). I know what I needed to do there, and what that feels like, and can take it across. These skills are valued by employers as well and so they are not something we should give up on producing lightly. We will also chip away at the virtuous connection between research and teaching. There are some things it is hard to teach effectively unless you can do it yourself with some skill and remark on the pitfalls along the way.
So I don’t feel that it is the desire to be part of an academic community which is motivating these other desires for feedback and contact hours. Only weirdos like us have this other desire. It is our failure to express in sufficiently attractive and compelling terms exactly why the poor student has to sit in their room struggling with some difficult stuff for themselves rather than receive a bit more teaching. There are some things you can only manage to do well when you do it for yourself. We will have to sharpen up our act further so it is better understood exactly why this is worthwhile.
Sorry Peter. I won’t post another long one. There is no reason why your lovely blog should have to suffer from lengthy, tub thumping comments from me.
Let’s begin with a clarification – I did not want to suggest that the ‘2 day’ model is inconsistent with being a committed teacher and diligent colleague (like yourself ;-). My point was that if too many members of a given Dept operate like that then something – I was going to say ‘is lost’ but let’s stick with – doesn’t happen, and that the happening of that thing may be essential for a healthy Dept in future. So there needs to be a culture change from where we are now, which is that the 2 day model is the norm (in both senses), to one in which it is the exception.
So what do I think is missing? It is informal, non-assessment-related philosophical contact between academics and students. You talk about your experience in Oxford in the 80s and I think you had a raw deal – I would suggest you asked for your money back, but …. I was at a different College only few years later, and I was taught by a grad student only once in 3 years (and that student was Robin Le Poidevin, so I hardly felt short-changed!). I spoke to my tutors in College – two successful researchers – informally at least once a week: we would meet in the quad or the lodge and I might mention what I had been reading or a lecture I had attended, and the tutor would spend a few minutes discussing it with me before heading on to his next task. That informal but academic interaction was an essential part of the quality of my education, for it involved me in the subject rather than merely left me to complete tasks. The same tutors also ran reading groups and ad hoc speaker meetings for the students.
What was happening there was that academics were happy to spend time talking to students simply because in so doing they were talking about what interested them to someone who wanted to listen, and what could be better than to do that? And as far as I can see, looking around the country, we have developed a culture in which academics see talking to students about the subject as ‘part of their teaching load’ rather than as something they would do even if they weren’t being paid for it. And if we don’t want to turn into over-paid schoolteachers, that is the state to which we must return.
Your point the second seems a simple mis-reading of what I said, understandable given your philosophical interests. Though I may have implicated a counter-factual, I was not talking about causes of home-working. I was merely noting that if the 2 day model takes root and then workloads increase, as they have been doing, there is a preference for the tasks which do not disrupt the 2 day model over the ones which do.
As to point the third, I take that to be evidence in favour of what I am saying rather than against. When you have a culture of on-going, informal conversation, then you will expect that conversations will often be unfinished and other events will intervene. It is the lack of such a culture which creates the lack of conversations in the first place. And I am not saying there is a pent-up demand for this, because it is not something the students are aware of missing. I am saying that the way we will need to change is to produce this, then the students will appreciate it and feel much happier about spending large sums of money on their education. They will also see that our teaching, with its current level of contact hours, serves its purpose very well (in most cases), so they will not confuse the desire to feel part of an academic community with the desire for more timetabled ‘contact hours’.
Enough for now – I have to return to teaching. It is immortality this week and Hume always makes for a delightful seminar.
I think this is quite unnecessarily self-flagellating. Come on, I love you both, but really…!
Let me admit at the outset that I am a typical example of the (ideally) two days in the office model with a commute. Why Tom might almost have been talking about me! However, I don’t think either of you are right. Having benefited from the Oxford tutorial system, my experience was certainly not of tutors hanging around the college/department for a chat. The tutorial system certainly facilliated knowing your students better but with the slide in staff-student ratios as a result of government ‘efficiency’ savings, maintaining such a system would have massively eroded research time which existed quite happily with the old system even during term time. I trust the suggestion is not that we do less research than occurred before to keep a system going. That would not maintain our universities’ reputation – and hence the quality and value of the undergraduate degree in the future. Even then, back in 1983, we were taught largely by postgraduates/post-docs in tutorials for the first couple of years.
Second, it is a bit bizarre to suggest that the long-distance commuters have decided to focus on, amongst other things, administration to support their commuting habit. Indeed the very writing of that word should suggest that something has gone amiss with the reasoning. Instead, the refocus of teaching quality on procedural quality assurance issues, much expanded marking load, and hugely increased admin load make any reasonable person contemplate where best to do these things. Just as there was an emphasis on efficiency savings in research, so there was pressure for increased research productivity and funding to open up new income streams for the university. Academics were made to reflect upon how best to achieve this and developed patterns of work accordingly. Part of the increase in home working stems from the fact that university libraries are under a lot more pressure regarding space, funding, and people chasing after the same books/journals together with the use of the internet and electronically available copies. That alone transforms the structure about where you should conduct your research as a non-lab using academic.
Third, there are very few conversations that I recollect being rushed away from in the way suggested (certainly none that could not be continued later… and this phenomenon would certainly have occurred in the good old days too). One of the striking things about office hours etc. is how underused they are. All of us have on our module booklets here is my office hour, please drop by if you have a problem and/or arrange to make an appointment. There is no pressure of students on office hours/appointments disappointed because of frantic commuters tearing away to get home. I have no doubt that the following is true. There will be an occasion where a student drops into the department hoping to catch their personal tutor with nothing arranged and outside of the office hour (s). It is true that they will be disappointed. However, I doubt whether it is reasonable to hang around one’s office, given the other pressures, on the off-chance, I certainly don’t remember that strategy yielding me my tutor in my undergraduate days, and the students have one delightful advantage which they use effectively that we never had, namely that they can email us and expect a reasonably rapid reply. This constitutes a considerable increase in accessibility to what used to go on before.
Let me end on a note of agreement and optimism. I certainly agree that the formal module structure has undermined the kind of teaching, getting to know the students better, that occurred before. Though students like quite a lot of the new structure and there is little pressure from them to go back to the old (it is worth noting). One aspect of the formal module structure, and emphasis on procedural quality, is assigned amounts of teaching and reading for a module up to a certain quite defined and relatively low number of hours (remember the old tutorial reading list which would contain 15 articles and three books to be digested for next week’s essay? – that’s why, then, the official compulsory contact hours used to be 2). Since the most significant intellectual development comes from having to read, process a large amount of complex information, and come up with something coherent to say about it, it will be very hard to increase significantly the number of contact hours without ‘dumbing down’ that side of the equation, which will then show up in the ‘transferrable skills’ our students come out with at the end of the three years. Very possibly we may do so under consumer pressures but we will soon find that prospective employers criticise our products further and, since it is in the interest of all concerned that this does not happen, we should make sure that the full context in which such decisions should be made is clear to everyone. The new context of fees etc. may force us to be much sharper in explaining what we do – a good thing – but we would be making a big mistake if we changed things radically without reflecting upon all the implications of offering something which might win easy popularity in the short term but erode standards and educational expectations in the long term.
You are right, Tom.
We have allowed staff-student ratios to worsen to a point where it is very difficult to teach properly (we stagger on here but, as in Oxford, college teaching of undergraduates is now heavily subsidized out of endowment in a quite unsustainable way). And yet at the same time we have cut ourselves better and better deals to minimize contact hours, e.g. by allowing the “two days in the office” model, while paying ourselves more too by wangling accelerated promotion for the many rather than the very few.
Painful times of re-adjustment ahead.
I agree that one inevitable consequence of the current round of changes is that academics in the Humanities will have to spend more time talking to their students – just like scientists already do. However, there are two practical constraints:
1. Student:Staff ratios in the Humanities have been allowed to grow to a level where this sort of teaching is simply impractical. Good teaching requires one to get to know the students, preferably by teaching them for several terms and seeing them in small enough groups for their personalities to shine through. To get from out current model to that requires investment in both staff and thinking about curriculum structures (e.g. modularization does not help).
2. It is only easy to have the time and patience to talk to your students properly if you are not continually trying to rush away from the one place where those conversations can happen – your Department. It has become acceptable for academics in the HUmanities to commute vast distances and only appear on campus twice a week for a tightly timetabled series of classes, meetings, seminars etc. Apart from making the campus no more a place of learning and scholarship than Starbucks or a cheap conference centre, it encourages effort in tasks which cam be done remotely (largely research and administration) at the expense of those which need presence on campus.
If we could negotiate the contract from scratch, it would be tempting to go back to the traditional model of short, intensive terms with required residence during which most of one’s time was spent teaching and long vacations when one could read and think and even write. But, as I blogged in 2003, that possibility was lost when we (actually, you since I was too young) accepted money for research.