Monday, 12 October 2020

Rules (and tiers before bedtime)

 Autistic people love rules, right?

It certainly felt like it when I was explaining last week how the Programme Regulations for East Asian Studies didn't permit an optional languages module in the foundation year. Nope; those are the regulations. Yes, I know it's not logical; I know it's not consistent, but that's what was agreed with the department and THOSE ARE THE REGULATIONS. You can try and change them if you like; you can apply for a Special Regulation, but as it stands your student can't do that language module.

At this stage of the academic year, I'm doing a lot of work on getting students to do academic referencing. Not teaching them how to do it perfectly. Yet. Just to understand the principles behind it and not be scared of it. I love referencing. I am a Harvard demon. I used to be very picky with students' referencing - if I can do it perfectly, why can't they? And then I remembered. When I first started as an undergraduate, referencing made me very uncomfortable. Rules. That I didn't understand. And that I might get wrong

I came to understand them, and I grew to love them, with a passion. Just as I do Programme Regulations. Known, understood and unchanging rules are a secure framework; a comfort blanket, something to fall back on when all around is chaos.

But I think, perhaps, that like being supremely well-organised, loving rules may not be an inherent autistic trait. It might be a coping strategy. One that has become so ingrained we lose sight of the fact that it's not our natural default. We gain mastery of the rules because the alternative - the prospect of getting it wrong - is so unbearable. To avoid this, we may even rebel against the rules and refuse to play the game entirely.

When I wrote this post, back in March, I though of myself as a person who didn't like obeying rules (and indeed, obedience - the loss of autonomy - is a bit of an issue). But that same person didn't leave the house for four months in order to avoid being confronted by those rules. Scared to obey; scared not to, and above all, scared of not understanding - the only option then is to avoid them completely.

I love rules.

Rules frighten me.

Unclear rules make me uneasy.

Unclear rules enforceable by the power of the state terrify me.

Irrational rules cause me significant internal conflict.

Unclear and irrational rules enforceable by the power of the state are the reason I don't go out.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Mad world (or, a collective action problem)

 Oops, it's been a while. I thought I'd better not let September go by postless, but what is there for an extremely busy recluse to write about?

Yup, the world is officially, outrageously, barnstormingly bonkers, and if the press is to be believed my beloved profession is at the heart of it. And I have to say there's some truth in that. On Thursday, if I can muster the courage (I have someone standing by to step in if not), I shall be back in the classroom. From having not been near more than one person at a time for six months (and that rarely) I shall be faced with fifteen of them, from all over the country. Then after an hour, another fifteen. Then after lunch, another fifteen. And then another. They will be sat a metre and a half apart and all wearing masks. We can't have any handouts or groupwork. They will get 45 minutes of this and that will be their lot of what we somewhat ironically call 'face to face' teaching for the week.

I have been fearsomely busy these last few weeks turning most of my teaching into online teaching. This has been really exciting and I - along with my colleagues - are doing some really good, engaging, imaginative and innovative stuff. My students will be getting better value this year than ever before, in terms of the thought and structure that we are putting into their learning and the amount of material we are pulling together for them. Online tutorials will be far smaller than conventional classes and each student will get more individual attention. The library is forking out a fortune for new ebook licences so that everyone will be able to access the books I set, rather than wait for someone to bring a copy back to the library. As at the end of the last academic year, the university is making funds available so that everybody has the IT hardware and online connection they need. So do not for a moment believe that online teaching is a cheap option, or that it is not good value. Do not think, either, that it is not good teaching. It is.

That is not, however, to say that students will have as good a learning experience (as the jargon has it). Of course they won't. You cannot reproduce online the buzz of a heated seminar debate, or convey the enthusiasm of a tutor leaping up and down and waving their arms around in front of the class; above all you can't create those tiny unexpected conversations which can open up whole new worlds. It won't be such fun. But we can still prepare our students to start a successful degree programme next year; the foundation year can and will still deliver on its promise. And - as I consoled one student last week - with any luck they get a second chance at the whole freshers' week thing when they start their 'first' year next year. 

But to get back to my earlier point - what I was trying to convey there was that while in many ways online teaching is no substitute for 'normal' face to face, it's probably a lot better than Covid face to face, with all its inevitable limitations. And that's just looking at it from a teaching point of view, without considering the other risks.

So why are we going to such massive lengths to deliver, at some non-trivial risk to students and staff, what is likely (although I must, I know, reserve judgement until after I have seen it) to be a less good learning experience?

The answer is that this is what we doctors* call a collective action problem. It's an absolute classic of the genre.

Back in the spring, students, applicants and potential applicants, when asked, said that they would like face to face teaching when they went to university in the autumn. Back then, we all had the generally vague sense that by now things would be more or less back to normal, if you recall, rather than heading lemming-like for the cliff edge. So why wouldn't they say that?

Many people counselled that it would be sensible to plan for entirely online delivery this autumn, to forestall the biggest internal migration in the UK. Many universities probably wanted to. But there was also a widespread fear that recruitment would drop very sharply across the board, increasing the pressure on each university to attract applicants, and that universities whose student numbers fell would have to close courses and lay of teaching staff - a position that they might never recover from even once student numbers (almost inevitably) picked up again. No one wanted to be that university. 

If some universities were offering face to face, and some online only, given what applicants had told pollsters, it was reasonable to assume that any institution that went online only while others were still offering face to face would be signing its own death warrant. 

Even if all universities wanted to go online only, no-one would dare to. That's the essence of a collective action problem. It's in everybody's interests to do X, but only as long as everybody does it.

But if everybody else does X then it's in any individual's interest not to. If everyone else is going online, then the institution that offers face to face is going to hoover up all the applicants. The usual way of addressing this problem is either for all the parties to come to a binding agreement - with some mechanism in place to ensure that they stick to it - or for it to be imposed by a greater power. 

Universities UK could have done the former; the government could have done the latter. The majority of universities would probably have been mightily relieved to have a level playing field on which to compete on the quality of their online offer. We could have avoided this entire mass migration of students, significant numbers of whom are already doing their courses entirely online but in what is effectively a cell miles away from their families and support networks.

And now, even now that the madness of the situation is staring us in the face and students aren't nearly so gung ho for their face to face experience, we can't back out of it, because the government has effectively told students that they can sue universities under consumer protection legislation if the universities don't deliver what was promised. We promised 'some' face to face teaching, and 'some' is what they're getting - and we're telling them that they have to turn up to it unless they've a good reason not to.

One of my favourite WonkHE bloggers has summarised it in a far more measured way here.

So yes, it is all mad, and yes, it could have been completely avoided, but no, it's not a conspiracy by exploitative money-grabbing universities. It's a collective action problem.

*of Philosophy

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Down to the river

That should be 'up and down' really. I could just go down to a river, to the Don, but that's not a very picturesque route, nor indeed bit of the river. But I have now found a route to the Rivelin which is not as hilly as my previous one, and is only just over a mile and a quarter, so I aim to make this a regular walk. 

When I first set out on Wednesday, it was pretty much the first time I'd left home in four months, total avoidance being my coping strategy of choice. And I wasn't missing people, or shops, or indeed nature, or the great outdoors (as opposed to the small outdoors of my garden), but I really, really felt that I needed the exercise, and that's what drove me out, early in the morning before anyone else was around.

It's impossible to imagine now, but the lower Rivelin Valley was - in terms of the use of water power -  once one of the most heavily industrialised stretches of river in the country, with twenty watermills in a three mile length, the first built in 1581, and the last still operating in the 1950s.

This is (if I have identified it correctly) the remains of the overflow weir at Mousehole Forge, which was still making anvils in the 1930s. The waterwheel was used to drive air into the forge.

Friday, 7 August 2020

And the answer is ...

 ... they were both born in the Black Country.

I said it was surprising.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Evaluating commentating

I wonder whether the BBC has any means of seeking viewers' feedback on snooker commentators - a bit like students give us feedback at the end of each module. Because if they do, how come they still employ John Virgo? Now, a small mercy of the current situation is that John Virgo is stuck in Spain, and is thus unable to make me scream and throw things at the telly, for the first time in living memory.  However, the BBC are trying out a few new names, and there is some close competition for the role.

The maddening thing about Virgo is that he burbles. He thinks we want to be party to his every fleeting thought, and that any silence in the commentary box is there to be filled, preferably by him. I don't know about you, but what I want to hear from a commentator is their considered opinion or insight, not the entire process of arriving at it. Twice. And then burbling inconsequentially away from it afterwards.

Sadly, the BBC seem to have found a worthy successor in this regard in the shape of Joe Perry. Now, I've always liked 'Gentleman Joe' as a person, even if he's never excited me as a player. But my god I wish he would shut up, rather than sharing every thought as he thinks it, with, it has to be said, the added annoyance of a rather irritating intonation. There is, perhaps, some hope for Joe though; he's new to commentary and perhaps it's nerves. Perhaps he could learn to say a little less and make it count a bit more.

Because it is good to have players in the commentary box, even if they're not the greatest commentators. There are two new voices on the BBC this time who aren't players or former players: Dave Farrar (who he indeed) and MC Rob Walker himself. I had never heard of Dave Farrar, but Google tells me he's a football commentator. I find that quite hard to imagine. As a snooker commentator, however, he seems made for the role, in the mould of 'Whispering' Ted Lowe. He's a good commentator who knows when to keep quiet and asks pertinent questions about play of his accompanying pundit, although he's not one to go to great leangths to avoid a cliche.

After seeing Rob Walker doing his MC thing live in 2016, I decided that he wasn't as annoying as he appeared on the TV. I have now reconsidered that and reverted to my former view. He's a decent MC and a good interviewer, but please BBC do not put him back in the commentary box again. Not only does he not shut up, but unlike Joe 'thought process' Perry, he's not even talking about the game he's meant to be commentating on, but telling lengthy anecdotes and not even noticing when something interesting happens on the table.

As for the remaining player/commentators, how would I rank them?

Denis Taylor is annoying; he talks too much, but not to such an extent. Get him and Steve Davis or John Parrott in together and it becomes a bit too pally, a little bit cliquey. Steve Davis - who was my favourite player for decades - is OK, and so is John Parrott when he's not in with one of his mates. I used to like Ken Doherty, but either he's lost his touch, or I've just heard it all before. If he ever opens his commentary with any line but 'I couldn't agree more Denis/John/Steve' it's a shock, and also why do players (and Doherty is not the only offender here) never simply have great cue power; why must they always be blessed with it? Also, there's something slightly sinister about him. While all other snooker players look about 20 years older than their actual age, Ken Docherty looks 20 years younger and is still going backwards.

So who does that leave? My runner up is Alan McManus, mainly because I just love listening to that voice. He's also knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic, but without quite talking too much, mostly. There was a phase where he was always predicting the players' next shots wrongly, which was quite amusing, but he seems not to do that so much lately.  But - slightly surprisingly to me - my top commentator is Stephen Hendry. Very knowledgeable, good at explaining things, and rarely opens his mouth unless he has something interesting to say.  I was also impressed over on ITV4 with the commentating debut of Peter Lines - I thought he was particularly good at explaining what players were doing, and why - perhaps the BBC should snap him up.

Finally a mention for the BBC's new presenter, Radzi Chinyanganya, the Sabbatical Officer for snooker. Or as a fellow snooker fan academic put it, he looks like a media studies student on work experience. He's actually an economics graduate from Loughborough and - who knew - a former Blue Peter presenter. Maybe I'm getting old, but his breathless enthusiasm still smacks to me of children's TV.  But here's an obscure quiz question for you, with a very tangential boating link - what surprising thing do he and Ronnie O'Sullivan have in common? And because not even my even-more-snooker-mad-than-me-friend didn't get it, here's a clue: you wouldn't know it from the way they talk.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Interesting figures

Average age of the male referees at the snooker World Championship: 49*

Average age of the female referees at the snooker World Championship: 31

We must just be quick learners.

Of course Tatiana and Desi will still be refereeing in their fifties and sixties.

*Five out of seven male referees for whom I could find birthdates. Including 31 year-old Marcel Eckhardt pulling the average down. In all cases I have assumed that they have had their birthday this year.

Do you have a favourite snooker referee? Mine's Paul Collier.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The mysterious world of the External Examiner

I thought you might be wondering what I was doing in Edinburgh, at the end of January, making tea with two hotel teabags (they only supplied four; I had to go out and but some more, plus empire biscuits - a delicacy of which I had been previously unaware - for my expatriate Scots colleague).

I was there to undertake that mysterious activity known in academic circles as 'externalling'.

Universities are all technically independent, autonomous institutions, setting their own standards and overseeing their own degree programmes. There's no National Curriculum; no SATs, and no common exams like GCSEs and A Levels. Yet somehow, students and employers need to know that a first class degree from one university is in some important way equivalent to a first class degree from another - possibly very different - institution. (And yes, I know that on one level that is a forlorn hope, because  universities and some degree programmes are so very diverse, but bear with me for now).

Students also need to know that their work has been set and marked fairly, and to standards roughly the same as for students at other universities, and that it's at the same level of difficulty; they want to know that their degree classifications have been worked out correctly, and that all the marking has ben transparent and above board.

The traditional - and indeed thriving - means of achieving all this is through the offices of the External Examiner. An External Examiner ('External' for short, usually honoured with an initial capital) is an academic, in the same field, from another university. Rather than one body overseeing every institution, there is a vast criss-crossing network of Externals who between them, theoretically at least, ensure standards and consistency across the whole sector. 

So every now and then, a request gets circulated (often in our case via the Foundation Year Network) for an External Examiner for this or that subject area - Externals' terms of office generally last three years, and there are rules about not having reciprocal arrangements, or more than one external from any one institution in a department, or anyone holding more than two externalling posts. When we see a call in our subject area, naturally our first thought is 'How can I fulfil this opportunity to serve the academic community?' and not 'Will this look good on my CV?' or 'Will it be a nice place to visit?' I must confess that I have been known to apply the last criterion, hence my current External Examiner posts being at York and Edinburgh.

The other thing you don't ask is 'How much are they paying?'  They are paying, but it's probably not much. It's one of those things academics are expected to - and willingly - do from a combination of status-seeking and good citizenship. We know that the system depends on us all playing our part. There is also of course the opportunity to spend five hours on a train and a night in a hotel with four one-cup teabags at someone else's expense (which as unalluring as it sounds is a damn sight better than trying to do it via Microsoft Teams).

It is quite a lot of work though. For every Exam Board you attend (and Edinburgh has lots, which disappointingly at the moment means lots of Microsoft Teams and not so many opportunities for that long awaited Big Day Out to Ladybank) you have to look through samples of the students' work (which now includes videos), and the marking and moderation, and feedback, and the processes by which marks have been arrived at, and extenuating circumstances determined; you need to be familiar with the particular institution's unique set of arcane regulations (Null sit? Ah, that's what we call NA ...) and (the worst bit, for me) look at spreadsheets. The horror. Then you have to write a report.  On the plus side, you get to meet lovely people doing the same job as you in different places and have a good natter/moan/gossip share best practice.

The real compensation, though, is that as an External Examiner, you are treated like a god. Or at least minor royalty. You are, for some reason I have yet to fathom, an Important Person. Probably because you report direct to the university above the level of the department. Therefore everyone is very nice to you and nothing is too much trouble.
See? Plied with regional delicacies. And terrible tea.

Time was, you got a slap up meal too, though none of my posts has ever offered that and in these days of financial belt-tightening I fear that tradition may be gone for good. So I had to fend for myself in Edinburgh:
It was not the most joyous repast of which I have ever partaken.

At Sheffield we used to have a generous, but stringently regulated budget for entertaining Externals. The rules were that you could buy a meal for one member of staff for each External present. Back in the days when there were a number of us each running our own degree programme, a colleague would annually take her External out for a proper posh dinner. One member of staff; one External - the University happily stumped up eighty quid. I on the other hand took my External and my Programme Administrator who did all the work of preparing for the board, to lunch in the local Wetherspoons (this was when Brexit was still a gleam in Nigel Farage's eye) where - being incorrigably abstemious - we managed to spend fifteen quid in total. I sent the receipt in to the External Examiners office, and received an admonitory email and reimbursement of ten pounds, because they wouldn't pay for the supernumary person.