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After a long absence…

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I haven’t done anything on here for quite a while. Two reasons, really – work and trips away.

Work – mainly academic and training. I seem to have written a couple of hundred exam assessments, marked several thousand scripts, and written several novel-length training packages and teaching modules. I say ‘seem to have’ because it certainly feels that way.

Around 20 years ago, a departmental administrator would email and ask for a new exam, and you’d sit down and ask yourself what you actually taught the students and write eight or nine questions. When the scripts came in, you’d scrawl on them and decide on a mark. A second marker would check a sample and maybe you’d end up having brief conversations about some of the scripts.

These days, you get asked for the exam: then you go to the module specification to see what students were supposed to have learned, write the questions, carry out a cross-check to ensure they cover the range of material in the module, check they’re not exactly the same questions you’ve asked in at least the previous two exams, write the indicative answers and check all the supporting documentation that students get, put everything into a word processing template and send it off. It gets signed off by the programme leader and the external examiner. When the scripts come back, there has to be a paper trail than includes comments students are able to see and a more or less transparent and documented process that’s capable of being audited. In principle, of course, the purpose of the paper trail and creation of auditability, along with the cross-checks, probably does make for a system that’s more resiliant to challenges.

Exams, of course, are about assessing students and doing it fairly. They’re not about inspiring them or opening up their imagination, which is really part of what the course materials should be doing – alongside making sure they have the basic principles, paradigms and knowledge. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should go back to how things used to be done. But it does mean writing exams and marking them is around four times as much work as it used to be. Part of me says that’s a good thing – we need to pay more attention to how we assess students and we do want procedures to be fair. But part of me wonders whether, in making procedures more fixed and managerial, we may have lost some contact with what students expect of us.

Writing training courses is interesting, because the people I’ve been doing it for are treating it as an interactive process. They tell me what they want: I write it; they come back to me having seen their ideas shaped up, and with new ideas about how that’s changed their thinking. Yes, it means many revisions, but it’s almost a model for how this kind of work should happen.

Holidays – I’ve been away a couple of times, and each time it’s been something of a ‘workation’ since I’ve had the laptop, a dongle, email and internet access, etc.

As a freelancer, I like the idea that I can work on stuff wherever I am and remain in contact with the people I’m doing work for. I imagine if I’d been in a holiday villa somewhere it would have been a case of doing a couple of hours each day before or after cooking dinner on the barbecue or walking in the countryside or on a beach.

It was a bit more difficult than that, though, because we were travelling around in a campervan and meeting up with friends in different places. Most days, a chunk of each day was taken up driving, while some of the places we went to see, like the Eden Project, really do demand all your attention for the whole day. I got a lot of inspiration, made a lot of notes and took a bunch of pictures. What I wasn’t able to do, of course, was a whole lot of work.

Riots – there seems to have been quite a bit of rioting while we were away, though being in the countryside we didn’t exactly see a lot of it, except for some of the media coverage. When we got home, which is a small market town, it turned out someone had put out a Facebook call for a riot in the town (meet in the town centre an 1pm – the person sending the message clearly didn’t understand the dynamics of formenting riots!) and no one turned up. The really big news of the week was that a cow was reported to the fire brigade because it appeared to be stuck in a canal, but it freed itself and wandered off before the firemen turned up to rescue it.

Fiction – that’s what I haven’t been writing. But I will… once I’ve got the marking and the training materials out of the way. However, it did occur to me, as I was looking at some plants at the Eden Project, that the world turns on narrative: not just the stories we tell each other at night, but the stories businesses and governments try to frame about wealth, power and justifying exploitation, and the stories campaign groups use to counter them. And the same is happening now with the riots. It’s hardly an original thought, and actually it’s one I’ve used many times before both in my fiction and my academic work. But there’s a whole other blog, though, or possibly more than one, in the idea and how to apply it to some of the stuff I see going on at the moment. I’ll see what I can scrawl down in the coming days… when the marking’s done!

 

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