My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Teaching

Elitism is the enemy of merit

OK, this is going to be a knotty one….

Let me tell you a couple of quick tales before starting to provide much needed background:

The second High School I attended was a selective grammar. This was 2003 where such things were so rare as to be considered as legends along with wyvern on maps (“here be dragons”). Current plans may very well soon resurrect this mastodon but without its former social context (the training ground for the white collar work force from bank clerks to solicitors) I’m not sure what, if any, good it can do. But I digress. The point is it was an unusual educational environment (a C grade wasn’t seen as a passing mark so much as barely above failure). It gave you a warped sense of what ‘normal’ actually was let me tell you! or so I thought.

I discovered later that when it came to the pursuit of post-16 career choices my school was ahead of the curve… they believed there was one way to go about it. And that was sixth form followed by University. Out of a year group of 120 (yes I went to high school in a small town surrounded by rural villages, so sue me!) I’d say barely a handful didn’t actually carry on into sixth form (on balance we may have actually gained more students then those who left!) and everyone, and I mean everyone, was expected to get their UCAS applications done. And not just done, done for the Oxbridge deadline despite the fact that only a dozen or so people actually applied to study there. There was no doubt in my school’s mind that their students all went to university. And I’d say that, more or less, that’s how things panned out.

Now I took the road less travelled, I didn’t go straight to university. I worked as a church youth worker for a year and did a distance learning diploma as part of the job. To begin with my teachers all but had a fit. How dare I go against the grain?! Granted, they simmered down when I explained my plan and finally conceded that if I wanted to apply when I actually had my A level grades, well, at least that rid the process of so much uncertainty.

This is in complete and total contrast to others whom I know well who were the only one, or one of a small handful, from an entire year group to go to University. Chalk? Meet cheese.

There are lots of social reasons why university still is seen as a path travelled by “other people”. Just as I was embedded in a school that expected me to apply to university with no other option presented as an alternative, other schools will take the opposite approach (if they offer job and careers advice at all!)

University is seen as expensive, a debt few people earning less than the national average wage could conceive of being able to pay back (debt was a reason I nearly didn’t go to university myself). As a young person grows up they become attune to the worth of money relative to their background. £50 can mean very different amounts to people. For some, that’s a little, for others, that amount is a lot.

University is seen as elitist. Full of aging academics in funny gowns talking in some weird hybrid of English, Latin and Ancient Greek to lecture halls of quietly vegetating students. While for the most part this is very far from the truth the behaviour of certain academics in the public eye don’t break down this stereotype, they reinforce it.

Now I don’t live in a hole. I’m fully aware of the issues of controversial speakers having invites to events withdrawn, the #black-lives-matter movement hopping over the Pond to the UK, the spat between Student Union Officers at other universities and the students they are meant to represent with relation to diversity (or lack their of) and finally, the redefinition of the words sexist, racist, culture and violence.

When said-certain academics speak out against these people who wish to silence discourse their words are not heard by their target audience. They are heard by everyone else.

When Richard Dawkins created the “university is probably not for you” trend on twitter I am sure it began with wanting to tell the hyper-sensitive minority already in universities that reasoned debate and the challenging of ideas are the very point of universities. Alas, instead it will be added to a continuing list of reasons why university will be seen as something for “other people” and not a possibility for everyone.

The odd thing is is that I always thought University was for clever people. People who were smarter than me and for a lot of my schooling it was an unobtainable goal in my mind. But when I got to the applying stage it turned out I was academically good enough to apply. I didn’t think University was for the rich, middle class (of which I was not) but for the bright and hard working. With emphasis on the “hard working”.
To quote Thomas Edison: What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

(Aside: Isaac Newton attended university because he hated being a farmer but had been made to farm by his mother. Lucky for us his old school master convinced him to finish his education and then go on to university.)

Widening university access is vitally important. I’ve expressed this feeling many times before that given equal educational opportunities those with the skills and drive should achieve their fullest potential. We’re still not there yet in this country, let alone globally ,but here’s a few crumbs of food for thought which probably won’t win me any friends.

  1. Full-time university study is not the only path to a degree or even a vocation
    I was heartened to see in the news recently that a fully on the job, apprentice-style nursing course will be soon implemented within the NHS. If we are to admit as true that certain subjects are necessarily less traditionally academic and more hands-on it makes perfect sense to train people with that philosophy in mind. I would rather have a plumber who trained on the job fix my water pipes than someone who did an academic degree focused on computer simulations of fluid dynamics! (Hyperbole for rhetorical effect, don’t get cross with me!)
  2. We must avoid snobbery regarding the possession (or lack thereof) of degrees
    “Gradibus ascendimus” or “ascending by degrees” (the witty motto of Grey College, Durham) is certainly one way to get places. Indeed it should be the great social equaliser. If you have the knack, you’ll get the letters after your name. But in the same way as we shouldn’t measure success as amount of money in the bank we shouldn’t measure it by the acquisition of qualifications. Success can be measured and achieved in so may ways and for many the path of social mobility will be through university education however…
  3. University may not be the right path
    We must make sure that all paths are open to everyone.
    Monty Python says it better than I can…

There should be no disgrace in a student from a private school wanting to be a butcher in the same way as their is no disgrace in a student from a comprehensive school aspiring to be a judge. That is making sure all paths are open to everyone not making it so that university becomes the only path for everyone. To reiterate, the point of widening access and outreach is to give people choice to do what they want to do in accordance with what they are good at.

We have to get away from any notion that a person’s worth is measured by external forces, especially when those measures are informed by the prejudices of others. We must accept that the brightest and best may not actually fit within the mould of universities because we know that people learn and engage in different ways. All paths are equally valid, especially if we have the choice of paths to take.
After all, there was some German bloke called Albert who disliked his schooling, refused the go into the family trade, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher and ended up worked in a patient office… and then discovered the theory of special relativity!

For anyone reading this who still thinks that a career path they’d like to take “isn’t for people like me” I’m here to tell you that because you want to follow that path, it is for people exactly like you.
To speak from the knowledge of but one path: I assist teaching at a university and I would rather be under-resourced and teach only a dozen students who battled their way to be in those classrooms than have the flashiest labs in the world and have to teach a dozen-dozen students who arrived at the university gates by taking the path of least resistance out of social expectation.

The author of this blog once again reminds the reader that the opinions expressed herein are purely her own and do not represent the university she is currently at. However, in preference, please send all hate mail to her lab so she can X-ray it before opening it. 

deihx

Remember, if you do chose to go to university, you too can have the opportunity to have Prof. Stephen Hawking photo-bomb your pictures.

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Unexpected tales from the practical class

This post comes to you, like a football match, in two parts. Part one will be a more reflective, thoughtful piece. The latter will be more of a comedic “the undergrads these days?!” Bit.

Part 1: You are not your work but it still hurts

I’m going to give this part as little context as possible so as to provide few, if any, identifying characteristics for the sake of anonymity.

Personality clashes are always tricky. On the one hand it’s just how people are, on the other, we all have to develop filters so that we can adjust our behaviour to situations. Case in point, you might swear like a sailor most of the time but you won’t do it in front of your gran.

We Brits have a terrible problem with not saying things directly to the point that those of Germanic decent appear blunt and harsh to our ears, when really it’s just because we tip-toe around things and lace our language with subtext and innuendo. Americans will sound friendly to the point of us suspecting that the speaker is disingenuous (when they probably aren’t) while our love of sarcasm makes us difficult to read. My point is, it takes all types to make a world.

But when someone so bluntly, so brazenly and publicly makes a comment about your work it’s hard to rationalise it. The individual in question is a student that myself and several colleagues have had interactions with before. Said student has been opinionated within a classroom setting but not as to contribute to the class but instead to pass judgement on the teaching of the class.

For me, this came to a head when, during an introduction to the topic at hand, (which included me addressing how the students could use the example as a way to improve their work), said student cut in stating that what we (for it wasn’t just me) were talking about was irrelevant and they wanted to get onto the important ‘actual’ stuff. It was cutting and all we could do was respond as diplomatically as possible (had we been blunt and unfiltered we probably would have told them were to go, i.e. Out of the room and not to return until they’d evaluated their behaviour).

In a teacher and student situation the control of what is deemed relevant or irrelevant is firmly in the hands of the one doing to teaching. And I think this applies regardless of the relative ages of the student or teacher. A student may disregard the teaching at a later date and make a value judgement then but in the moment to verbalise a judgement during the class is not appropriate.

The move towards student as consumer is making this kind of thing more prevalent but the fact remains, in the classroom setting those who teach are the ones with the skills and knowledge. Things that may appear to be asides or digressions may actually lead to the student becoming a more rounded individual. If, however, they want prescriptive learning with no flexibility and personal flare to the work, may I recommend just reading text books?

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Actual representation of academic textbooks…

Part 2: Via la phone-less revolution

I’m wondering whether a phone hand-in at the start of university lectures and practicals may be the way forward. Why? Oh boy…

I mentioned in my previous posting on this site my despair at the lack of attention spans of the current crop of students and it came to a head this week.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

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Simultaneous Doctor Who and Listen With Mother reference, mmmm, efficient

A friend who first trained as a lawyer before moving on to a different vocation once told me about his personal experiences of falling asleep in university classes. That is to say he managed what would usually be thought impossible and fell asleep in tutorial seminars. The set up for such classes hasn’t changed all that much and usually consists of a class of about 20 or fewer students sat in the style of King Arthur’s court with a seminar leader, usually a lecturer. The very thought of falling asleep so visibly surprised me, in a semi-dark room with 200 other students yes, but in a small group…! I am, however, fairly sure that falling asleep isn’t the go to solution for the uninterested student today, no, instead they turn to that wonder of technology, the mobile phone.

(Aside: This week a colleague of mine did witness a student fall asleep in a practical class!)

This week’s lab classes are what I would consider “fun ones”. Touring about research labs is always interesting and the students were getting three for the price of one; optics, SEM and X-ray CT. The class was split into groups of about seven students and rotated around. The reason why it was only seven-ish per group is the SEM room is small. By the by, the a fore mentioned sleeping student nodded off in the SEM room. Yeah, I know.

So I was manning the part of the tour covering the CT scanners. A quick presentation on the science, showing them the equipment, mentioning X-ray safety, showing some data, talking about the lab research and finally showing how the scanner works. I had about 40 minutes with each of the 3 groups and that was quite a lot of talking. (Aside number 2: I currently have a cold so teaching for 3 hours solid in a noisy lab didn’t done me much good, so I’ve taken a spot of sick leave this week so I could work and teach later in the week).

You would think, therefore that the attention the students would show would somehow be proportional to the effort I was making. They want to be here, right? They’re paying for it (at its most base, capitalist level). If you think that, regrettably, you are wrong. Less than half made notes, a fair few muttered and smiled between themselves as I was talking and the greatest insult, yep you guessed it, playing on their mobile phones.
Now I cannot demand respect; respect is earned and I am a PhD student most of them have met only once before. What I thought was a given was courtesy. Ha!

hades

I’ve used this one before… but I really like it and it fits, OK.

I fell like a broken record going on about this. In a class where you just get on with things you’re only wasting your own time if you check Facebook or whatever instead of doing the work and asking questions. But in a small group teaching scenario? Here’s my brutally honest feeling on the matter: It’s rude.

The fact is, in the moment when I clapped eyes on this one particular student stood directly in front of me on their phone I was dumbfounded. I just didn’t know what to say so I ignored it. Unfortunately that condones the student’s actions.
Now, there are perfectly good reasons to have a phone handy in a class; maybe to make notes on in lieu of a laptop or notebook, perhaps to look up information (that’s a regular thing in other classes I teach), some students did take pictures of what I showed them or maybe they need to be in contact with a family member or similar because of an emergency. Unfortunately the cynic in me doubts such noble ends for this week’s crop of students that are surgically attached to their phone.

Y’know, the wonderful thing about being taught something is you can fully engage with it and you don’t have to think about other things. Like any other performance medium, a good lecture takes you out of yourself. That’s a luxury these days. But the nano-second attention spans of some mean they are missing out on the joy of focusing completely on something.

One of the reasons I play video games is because I like getting absorbed in a world. When I’m slaying dragons in Skyrim I’m not wondering about videos on YouTube, or the EU, or the hostilities in Kashmir, or the drug war in Mexico, or the US election, or who’s in the singles charts, or what to get someone for Christmas et al because I’m slaying dragons to awesome orchestral music on the side of a snow covered mountain that is crowned with an ancient dwarf ruin! (Why yes, I did get a free download of Skyrim: Special Edition recently, how could you tell?).

Interest, I think, is key because although I can become interested to the level of fixation with trivial stuff (like video games) I also love my job and it interests me. I assume (or maybe I should hope) that that is why the students have chosen to do their degree subject. Because they are interested. Now, like everything there are less fun bits to my work: data mining on excel, editing text, general paperwork, more editing, and yes my mind will wander but I try and fight against it for the sake of the interesting bits so I can be attentive for longer and…

Oh sorry, am I boring you?

 

The author would like to point of that the closing line of this piece was a joke.
She also knows that whoever got to the end of this is probably a member of a choir in the crowd that she’s preaching to.
Futher more, she is well aware of the irony of the fact that most of this post was written on her mobile, but in her defense switching on a desktop is cumbersome when you just want to get an idea down in writing.

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#Relevant to your interests