Classically Inclined

November 30, 2011

Guilty Pleasures: The Lure of Silly Television

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:38 pm
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I had a frisson of recognition when reading this feature by Roger Luckhurst from this week’s Times Higher Education on the appeal of boxed sets of television series to academics. The article picks up a number of themes that rang true – a sense of satisfying completeness when you get to the end of a season or whole series, the must-see productions (and thinking about this has just made me add the first season of Mad Men to my Lovefilm queue), the ability of the boxed set to present something that’s worth watching at any point and thus overcoming the tyranny of (wretched) choice offered by multiple television channels. 

Silly television has, for many years, been my guilty pleasure of choice. Being a classicist, there are plenty of television options that I could watch under the guise of research – HBO’s Rome springs to mind, and I got halfway through Spartacus: Blood and Sand before I left the States (all, I hasten to add, in the name of research. There are some benefits to working on classical reception). These series are, in the main, Very Silly, although they have some eminently respectable attempts at Doing Classics in them – the tauroboleum from season one of Rome comes to mind, as does the bruality of the gladiatorial ludus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. However, Luckhurst hits on an important issue with watching this sort of thing – he comments that because his research speciality is the Gothic and science fiction literature and film, he avoids watching things that would fall into this category for pleasure. Why? Simple – “that compulsive academic tendency to turn leisure time back into intellectual labour”. Oh boy, am I familiar with that one. Not least because it’s a good way to justify taking time off from whichever top priority is the top priority of the moment – “I can have some downtime because it’s not really downtime, it’s research!”. Turning your brain off is hard enough even without trying to create an intellectual justification for relaxing.

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October 31, 2011

Changing the university admissions process

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:19 pm
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The big higher ed news in the UK press today is the recommendation by UCAS that universities should only offer places to students once they have their A-level results. For my international readers – UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, whose job it is to centrally process applications from secondary school students and manage the overall university application procedure. In general, they do a very good job of making a complicated system run smoothly – they deal with the early deadline applicants for Oxbridge and then keep on going until the clearing process in the summer after the A-level results come out. So when they say that they have a suggestion about how the system might work better, you can be sure that it’s probably based on experience. (I should note that this plan would have to work out how to incorporate results from other exams like the Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate, but the UCAS suggestions currently focus on A-levels, so I will as well.)

Their suggestion is that instead of putting applications in from about October onward, depending on the early deadlines, students should take their A-levels and then put their applications in, using actual rather than predicted grades. This is because predicted grades are not particularly accurate, with students both under- and over-performing the predictions, meaning that they either didn’t apply to universities their grades would have got them into or that they don’t meet their offers and have to either go for their second choice or, if something’s gone seriously wrong, look for an alternative course in clearing . The UCAS plans would mean moving A-levels a bit earlier, to give time for the interview and application process, so that the universities wouldn’t have to completely rearrange their term dates; when I say a bit earlier, the BBC article is suggesting two weeks earlier. (more…)

October 17, 2011

Creative anachronism: electing the new Cambridge Chancellor

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 1:19 pm
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As some of you may have noticed, on Friday and Saturday Cambridge University held an election for its new Chancellor. The new Chancellor, replacing Prince Phillip who is (frankly) getting on a bit, is Lord Sainsbury. I have Issues with this, mainly connected to what I worry will be an overly business-orientated approach to the higher education model, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. I also know that there’s a strong argument to be made about Lord Sainsbury’s contacts within a network which may yield wealthy donors to the university, and I have some sympathy with that approach in times when it looks like universities are going to have to face up to constrained budgets, never mind how I feel about the policies that create that environment.

Photo licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy of flickr user James Bowe.

I personally felt that while the Brian Blessed camp were going to put up a strong fight, Sainsbury was probably a foregone conclusion (one which Mary Beard is quite glad about). Rather than mull over the results, I wanted to talk about the experience of being part of this election. My time in Cambridge as an undergraduate and an MPhil student was, ultimately, a shockingly unreflective one; coming back as an alumna to be part of something so ancient and ritual-laden as an election of a chancellor after six years in a very different institution gave me some perspective on the whole process.

I’d decided I was definitely going to be in Cambridge to vote because this is a historic occasion; it’s not quite a once in a lifetime thing, but it may be a long time before there’s another election, and I felt I wanted to be part of the process. Because, you see, in order to vote  you had to be present in person. No postal or electronic voting – physical filling-out-the-paper was all that would do. (This creates obvious problems for alumnae with parenting responsibilities or disabilities which restrict their ability to do the commute, for example.)  My friend Jo and I met up in town at 11am on Saturday morning; the poll had opened at 10am and would be open until 8pm, and we figured we would be beating the crowd if we made it early. Our college was also putting on an afternoon for alumnae, and we wanted to be on time for that. When we met up, I was wearing my formal gown – because the university required all alumnae to be wearing their Cambridge academic gowns (not, note, any other university, so even if I’d had my scarlet Rutgers doctoral robes to hand, I would not have been able to vote in them). Thankfully, anything roughly the right length seemed to be getting waved through, so my MPhil gown got me through alright despite not technically being the right gown for the Cambridge degrees I hold. (Wearing my own gown was a deliberate choice – I’m the sort of person who fancies being able to say “I voted for the Chancellor of Cambridge University in this gown!”. For those who are less nostalgically-minded, the University had a pile of rented robes that eligible voters were put into before entering the Senate House and which were retrieved when they left.) (more…)

September 2, 2011

Survival tips for new academics (like me!)

Last week’s Guardian Livechat was on advice for new academics on how they might survive their new roles. (I’m afraid that there seems to be some overall issue with the WordPress code at the moment that won’t let me insert links, so the shortened link for the chat is http://bit.ly/q0bBA9.) As a new academic of sorts, I was taking pretty frantic notes. While I’ve had teaching experience in the States, including a full year’s worth in a faculty-level position, I’ve never had to deal with anything beyond the teaching side of things. Administrative meetings remain a closed book to me (until later this month, when their mysteries will be revealed), as do many of the other practicalities that being a grad student sheltered me from. I thought I’d put together my Top Tips from the livechat – do tell me if you disagree or think I’ve left out something important.

Get to know people. Surprisingly basic, but at the same time there’s a wide range of people to get to know – the subject-area librarian, other library staff, the support staff for your department, colleagues inside and outside the department, senior administrators and deans, research administrators, security guards, catering staff… anyone you see, really.

Use your resources. This includes making sure you’re getting most from your university’s benefits for employees; talking to the library to make sure you know all they can do for you and your students; asking colleagues if you can watch them lecture to get ideas and a sense of the “house style”; reading any minutes of meetings that come your way to get a sense of how things work without actually being involved; going to staff development workshops or training events for new tech;

Get a mentor. Whether official or unofficial, having someone to talk stuff over with and ask for advice is going to be vital.

Be keen. You’d think this would be a no-brainer. After all, you’ve spent mumble years finishing the PhD, you clearly want an academic career, and you’ve made it to the first step on the ladder – you’ll be overflowing with joy and bonhomie, right? Well, I’m doing my best, but I’m also moving my life from one city to another and not getting enough sleep, so I’m going to have to put a bit of effort into sounding as enthusiastic as I actually am about starting a new job, and this new job in particular. Not because the enthusiasm isn’t there, but because the energy to express it is hiding under the sofa.

Learn to say no. Ah, the eternal truth of the time eater. I personally believe this is a small anteater type creature that sits under my desk and snuffles up time when I’m not looking. Learning to politely say ‘no’ to things that I don’t have time to do on top of my teaching and research load is going to be one of my biggest challenges, because I’m an obliging sort of soul who likes taking advantage of opportunities. However, that’s got to be balanced with a firm dose of reality. All the opportunities in the world aren’t going to be any good if you’re too overloaded to take advantage of any of them properly.

…but know when to say yes. Some opportunities will be golden. Learning how to discern which ones I should pick up and which ones I can safely say no to is going to be another key skill to develop. (While I’m at it, I might try to sharpen my mindreading and fortune telling skills as well…)

Think about assessment. The Livechat had a particularly productive thread on how to approach assessment and feedback, which always seems to score low on the National Student Survey. I’ve picked up a number of helpful ideas, and am just going to have to make sure that I follow through with them!

Remember why you’re doing it. You need to build time in for doing the things that made you happy to be an academic in the first place. This means being strict about not letting teaching or admin expand to fill the time available, and leaving space to get on with research (or vice versa). There’s no point in having the job you love if you don’t actually love doing it. That balancing act is going to be tricky – but it’s all part of the learning curve.

If anyone’s got any more Top Tips for surviving the first year of being a full-time academic, please share them in the comments!

August 24, 2011

The trouble with required texts

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:45 am
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I got into a discussion on Twitter last night with @RuthFT and @BoneGirlPhD about required texts and their role in syllabi. Ruth expressed shock that a US student might be expected to shell out $100+ for their required books for each course each semester, Kristina wondered how UK students all kept doing the same thing without a required text, and the conversation went from there.

What is very clear to me, as someone who has worked in both the UK and the US systems, is that there’s a really big culture difference here. The fact that UK students are studying a single subject and US students are studying cross a broad range makes a real difference to the expectations courses have of how students will use textbooks and secondary literature. In the US, for first year courses, you assume your students know nothing. Not a thing. You begin from a base point of nul point and build up from there – and, what do you know, there’s a whole market of textbooks that will help you teach Word Power 101 or World History 101 or Chemistry 101, and will essentially write your syllabus for you, and provide all the information and structure that your course needs, and of course your student needs that textbook (in the current edition, naturally) because that’s what the assignments and the readings are going to come from, and it essentially serves as the liferaft for the whole course.

In the UK, the assumptions are very different. We give students a list of recommended reading – proper secondary literature, journal articles, books and chapters of books – and expect them to bring the quality of their work up to speed. There’s a much smaller market for textbooks written specifically for the university market, because university lecturers here tend to assume that the best way of getting undergrads comfortable with secondary literature is to plunge them in at the deep end and see if they swim. The base-line of the A-level gives us a guarantee that this material won’t be completely unfamiliar, so a university’s job is to move the dialogue beyond that point. We give our students some direction on how to do independent research, point them in the direction of a library, and see how they do. The thing is that in the UK, we can get away with it. The A-level system means there’s a knowledge base we can take for granted. We are also teaching students the norms of reading and writing in a single field – once you have got the hang of the conventions in, for instance, Roman poetry, you’ll probably be more or less alright in Greek prose. The skills you spend building up during that first rather anxious term are going to serve you in good stead for the rest of your undergraduate degree.

Students in the US, however, aren’t building up that kind of a depth in a field. Over their college careers, they will take one course in classics/physics/geology, to fulfill whatever core requirement that needs its box ticked, and then they will never look at the subject again. I know that if I have to navigate secondary literature in different fields, it takes me quite a while to work out the conventions of (for instance) sociological research as I go – and that’s for an article that I want to read, and that should have at least one point of contact with material I’m already familiar with. For US students to be dealing with courses that essentially pull them in three (or four, or five) different disciplinary directions each term would be an absolute intellectual nightmare. When your attention is spread over very diverse fields rather than concentrated in one, suddenly the attraction of a course that’s taught to the textbook becomes very clear indeed.

June 8, 2011

The New College of the Humanities and the Small Liberal Arts College model

Filed under: Meta,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 1:32 pm
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You may have noticed a bit of a flurry over A.C. Grayling’s plans to launch a private university, the New College of the Humanities (previously known to Companies House as Grayling Hall after two of the founders). From the college’s website, it plans to offer degrees in Law, Economics, History, English Literature and Philosophy (although as of yet it doesn’t have its own degree-granting powers, and plans to register students for degrees through the University of London International Programmes). However, the difference is that students will take “three core subjects together with a Professional Skills course“. Which, to me, looks very much like the sort of general core curriculum required by American universities, and specifically those which would be considered Small Liberal Arts Colleges, or SLACs. Indeed, A.C. Grayling has said that the NCH is trying to “make use of an American-style model“.

(Let us leave aside for the moment my obvious outrage that Classics is not included as a central course. Philosophy includes a module of Plato and the Pre-Socratics, and the foundation English Literature course requires students to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone; Virgil’s Aeneid; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and Plato’s Symposium and Republic. It’s not a brilliant introduction to the classical world, but it’s certainly the equivalent of what a graduate of an American SLAC might experience during their studies. Let’s also leave aside the minor issue that at least some of the syllabi on the NCH website seem to have been pilfered from other universities…)

What I wanted to think about for a moment, apart from all the other issues (some of which Mary Beard has already outlined), is this question of transferring a SLAC model to the UK. Of course, NCH isn’t exactly like a SLAC. Most SLACs have excellent science programs as well as humanities programs, plus they pride themselves on the quality of their teaching – not just on their ‘star power’ lecturers. It is perfectly normal for SLACs not to have students at the Masters and PhD level, something that NCH has come under fire for, but this doesn’t stop their academic staff being involved in the wider research culture of their fields. The production of Masters and PhD students tends to fall to universities in the R1 (short for Research 1) category, whose focus is on research rather than teaching; research students therefore fit better into the ‘mission’ of R1s than they do into that of SLACs. The UK, of course, doesn’t have anything like such a clearly defined set of roles for its institutions, and you might make the case that NCH is potentially contributing a useful new model to the UK by pointing out that institutions can, in fact, focus purely on undergrad teaching.

(This point is, alas, underminded by the fact that SLACs may emphasises teaching over research, but still expect their faculty to be doing research – NCH doesn’t seem to be proposing anything like a research culture among its staff. James Ladyman has written about this in the New Statesman far better than I can.) 

But stepping back from the NCH for a moment, there is a serious point here. Can the SLAC model actually be transferred to the UK? Is this a feasible project to begin with, never mind the failings with the NCH’s specific instantiation of that project?

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