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‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at safalra.com.

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.

 

British values?

July 8, 2014 1 comment

I’m late to this particular party because I’ve been distracted by other commitments and events including a couple of deaths in my wider family. That’s to the good, though, because I’ve had some time to read, reflect and research.

What follows is a commentary on the idea of ‘British values’. It’s prompted by the ‘Trojan horse’ episode a couple of months ago, in which it was alleged that four schools in Birmingham (and ultimately 21 schools in total) that already had substantial proportions of Muslim students had been targeted by radical Muslims who were planning to gain majority representation on the schools’ boards of governors, and put pressure on the schools to adopt a range of Islamic values and practices.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the evidence for this allegation was fabricated; but also that there were other cases in which such plots had occurred. It also concluded that some schools had already and willingly gone down this route – to the point that some schools with a majority of Muslim students had expunged almost all traces of Christian influence; they were for example unable to provide teaching of religious education to Christian students.

All this led to a more widespread debate about ‘extremist’ influence in schools, the extent to which it’s appropriate for any school to be operated on the basis of religious rather than secular values, and other matters I don’t particularly want to comment on here.

However it also prompted the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and then the prime minister, David Cameron, to fulminate about the need to ensure that schools promote ‘British values’. Policy proposals followed quickly – there’s a story on the BBC website about this and one in The Guardian (19 June 2014) that will get you somewhat up to speed on these. I don’t particularly want to to comment on the policy issues either, but they do give me a point of departure for the post.

What exactly do we mean by ‘British values’? Because my instinct says that:

(1) like other terms such as ‘popular culture’, the idea of ‘British values’ only looks coherent from a distance. As soon as you start to investigate it close up, it’s suddenly a lot more messy.

(2) any ‘officially approved’ list of British values is going to be as complete and coherent as the idea of ‘officially approved’ art, or ‘officially approved’ pop songs. In other words the idea of a government telling us what British values are is inherently idiotic.

It’s a long discussion and, unusually for me, hits on quite a few political themes. So if you’re interested hit the ‘read more’ tag.

Read more…

The usefulness of useless degrees

May 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve just been reading some news articles about ‘useless’ degrees. They include a two-year foundation degree in heavy metal (the music, that is) at New College Nottingham, a BA in Comedy Studies (though technically it appears to be listed as a BA in ‘Performance’), Enigmatology (i.e. puzzle setting and solving – however only one person ever graduated from the one course offered, by Indiana University in the 1970s), and assorted qualifications in areas such as puppetry, parapsychology and Viking re-enactment.

The thing I’ve been asking myself is this: in the 1980s, Thatcherite policies demanded that degrees should be ‘relevant’ to career choices and employers’ demands for skills. Various degree courses disappeared, for example language degrees in Farsi and some African languages – ironically enough leading to later problems within the intelligence community when groups speaking some of these languages came to be considered as security threats.

However, the current spread of ‘weird’ degrees isn’t all that strange. We live in a knowledge-based economy and in the UK at least, much of our economic output comprises cultural rather than physical goods. So having a supply of graduates with specific expertise in science fiction, horror, comedy, different genres of music and all the rest is very likely a good and useful thing for the economy as a whole, in addition to the ‘generic’ skills they offer in terms of academic research and practice, and the interests they offer for students. Of course these things don’t need to be learned through degree type studies, there are many other forms of learning. But there’s also no reason why they shouldn’t be degree studies if enough people want to learn in that format.

And if that isn’t a good enough argument, bear in mind that the University of Derby’s MA in Horror and Transgression, which covers diverse forms of film and literature alongside the works of writers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault, Kristeva, and Deleuze, and transgressive writers such as Burroughs, Ballard and Burgess, lists a number of possible post degree careers. Among these is public service administration. Which is as clear a sign as I can think of about what the experience of public service administration will actually be like in the future.

[Edited to add: of course there will always be a need for degrees in traditional subjects - medicine, engineering, maths, history, biology, languages, computing and the rest. But consider the needs of, say, a computer gaming company or a movie production company that needs to find a new and credible way to develop a fantasy, scifi or horror conceptual world. Consider the needs of, in fact, almost any company looking for its 'next big thing'. The people with the design and production skills, etc., are clearly necessary to that process. Some of them may even need to make puppets, re-enact Viking dramas, tell good jokes or write and perform music to get to the point at which a product is made and marketed. But no product does well unless it links with human fantasies. Successful products also need their dreamers. Postmodernity (are we still in a 'postmodern society'?) has sometimes been described as the society in which the old modernist order of narratives has been corrupted, and that's a reasonable if overly general assessment. But that makes the ability to weave old narratives and create new ones all the more significant in contemporary society. Hence the need for studies that appear niche, marginal, or just plain odd.]

Learning, humour and irony

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This last week I’ve been rewriting some material on sociology, which prompted me to investigate what’s available on Youtube. I was intrigued by some of the stuff I found.

Here’s one, 3 minutes or so long, on the sociology of the family for A-level students. Things I liked about it: the flat, emotionally unengaged voice of the character that keeps repeating ‘I feel your pain'; and the punchline at the end. Wonderful.

And here’s another, on homelessness and poverty. Six minutes in total, but the best bit is the cartoon at the beginning. One character argues that homeless people are real people, like you and me. And another asks, with a note of incredulity in his voice: You mean they’ve adapted? Copied our DNA?

Humour and irony as tools for learning. Excellent stuff.

The toading of Mr Bungle and why it’s still relevant

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

It may well be a case of small things amusing small minds. But I’m midstream in the process of updating some criminology teaching materials, and it both amuses and pleases me that in a section discussing the ethics of criminal justice, I’ve legitimately been able to ask students to consider and discuss the following question:

- Do you think Mr Bungle should have been toaded? Why, or why not?

Note for those who don’t get the reference: ‘Mr Bungle’ was the username of an individual in a multi-user chatroom who committed a ‘rape’ of another character there, essentially through a series of textual descriptions of actions. This wasn’t, clearly, a ‘real’ rape of an actual person but nonetheless had a significant impact on the real person whose online identity was the target of the descriptions. It was the first time this online user community had encountered this situation and they had to create rules for how to behave in the virtual environment. And, yes, he was toaded (slang used at that time for being thrown off the site).

More information:  Dibbell, J. (1993) ‘A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society’. First published in The Village Voice, December 23, 1993; available online at Dibbell’s website. And yes, the students were supposed to read that article before answering the question.

A serious point underlies the arcane frivolity. Most of us, these days, lead at least a proportion of our lives online and some of us invest a great deal of our personal identity in our online presence and avatars, in forums and chatrooms, social networking websites, Second Life and so forth. We’re also hooked up to mobile phones, text messaging, emails and other computer-based communications. What happens over the wires and airwaves and in these virtual locations can and does have an impact on our ‘real’ selves. Ask anyone who’s been cyber-bullied, flamed or harassed online.

Of course part of the point of Second Life is that we can do things we wouldn’t necessarily want to do in our first lives, and there are people who actually seek out the role of victim in ‘nonconsensual’ sex scenarios (you can also, incidentally, be impregnated by a devil and spend the next few months being pregnant and then giving birth to demons: I’ll avoid the obvious quips about that…). However, those who don’t want and aren’t expecting online nonconsensual sex can still be distressed by the experience. Quite a lot of effort and technical advice has been expended on SL in particular to ensure users’ avatars aren’t suddenly subject to such things.

On a side note, there are also articles pointing out that a great deal of SL is depressingly like the real world. See more on this at Dangerous Ideas and the architecture blog Archinect.

However, the point underlying all this, I guess, is that humans spend a lot of time imagining things, manipulating symbols, investing them with emotional significance and incorporating them into their own identity. And when that happens, ethical problems emerge that can spill over into real life. There are some old but still interesting discussions on this in Wired and TheFWord, from 2007. And the question I posed to my students about Mr Bungle and whether he should have been toaded? That was one of the first cases where the ethics of online interaction became a widely-discussed issue.

Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

April 9, 2011 6 comments

This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.

In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.

Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.

The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.

What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.

There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.

One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.

Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.

There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.

So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?

Not letting meaning get in the way…

February 19, 2011 6 comments

According to this story on the BBC, ‘A number of made-up words such as “koob” or “zort” are to be included in the government’s planned new reading test for six-year-olds in England. The idea has drawn criticism from literary experts who say the approach will confuse those beginning to read. The UK Literacy Association said the plan was “bonkers” as the purpose of reading was to understand meaning. The government said non-words were being included to check pupils’ ability to decode words using phonics.’

Apparently “The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don’t get in the way.”

Now Urban Dictionary may not be the most authoritative source, since it includes many slang words that are coined and used by small coteries of American teenagers. But that said:

Koob (verb): Happens whilst you are consuming something, when you get an overwhelming feeling that you don’t want to finish what you started, but you do anyway for some reason.

Alternatively, as a noun: ‘A person who is often intelligent but showing a level of intelligence severley [sic] below an average level.’

Zort: four meanings of which one is an acronym (Zombie Outbreak Resistance Tactician); one is ‘Chicago American-Italian slang for money'; one relates to a character in the World of Warcraft game, and one… let’s just say it would appear out of place in a test for six year-olds.

Alternatively, if the real intention is to test whether kids can read without things like meaning getting in the way – is this really a skill we want to encourage? Don’t we already have enough people who can write and talk without meaning getting in the way? What do we call those people? Oh, I remember – koobs. Or politicians.

Maybe the entire plan was thought up by a vindictive civil servant who wanted to find new and interesting ways to embarrass ministers? In many ways that would be the most charitable explanation.

[Edited to add] – koob is also a spelling variant of kubb, a lawn game that originated in Sweden. The rules are here.

The thing is, almost any collection of consonants and vowels that’s vaguely capable of being pronounced will either be a word in some slang or dialect, or will become so as soon as it’s created. Language is dynamic like that. I’d think since ‘koob’ and ‘zort’ have been proposed for a reading test, either can now be defined – indeed in future may be defined in dictionaries – as ‘(noun) a word coined by a government minister, official or advisor that is deliberately intended to be vague or meaningless’. They might then go on to cite the term ‘Big Society’ as an example of a koob.

Oh, and how many mothers would be happy to explain the fourth meaning of ‘zort’ to their six year-old?

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