Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Lisbon Thing

I’ve held back from writing / commenting on the upcoming Lisbon referendum up to now. It seems to stir up lots of strong emotion in people. Many of the Yes voters seem to be very intolerant of the No voters, and vice versa.  Seemingly perfectly good friends are falling out over their differing views on the treaty.

To bring a lighter touch to the event, I refer you to this – a view of what life might be like 25 years into the future if we chose to reject the Lisbon treaty again.  This is from TCD’s student newspaper Trinity News. A summary is as follows –

  • The twenties were a boom period – Celtic Tiger part 2.
  • We Irish folks need a work permit to work in Europe, given that our double rejection of the treaty caused us to be booted out of Europe.
  • The EF (that’s the European Federation) is embracing third world war activities with Iran. Barroso and Ahmadineejad are at the forefront.  Paris has been bombed. The implication is that we are thankfully not part of this warfare having been turfed out because of the double Lisbon.
  • The Labour Gov of 2018 abolished corporation tax (implication being that they could not have done this if we remained in Europe).
  • Britain continue to be our most prominent trading partner, having also turned her back on Europe.
  • When we got our Europe marching orders, we reacted by asking our foreign immigrants to leave. Result – Starbucks are now staffed by Deirdres
  • We’re very open to all things American, given that France and Spain etc are off limits
  • The Irish language is to the fore and a bilingual system is more real. Even the tourists are making the effort to speak it, the Americans, Japanese and Indians, that is. The continental Europeans don’t come here much anymore.
  • College Green is pedestrianised and doubles as a fish-market. Fish is back on the market now that we dont have to obey European fishing quotas.  This has had a positive impact on the west coast as fishing villages are revitalised.
  • Padraig Harrington has a street named after him (I’m not sure of the European angle on this one).
  • Dame Street has multimedia billboards telling (literally) us all about commercial bits and bobs.
  • TCD front arch has a metal detector. (Maybe this is a TCD thing, not a European one)
  • Students are charged a 1£N (note that we dropped the Euro) in late fees each time they are late to class. (Do we have to wait 25 years to implement this one?)
  • There’s a statue of Bertie Ahearn on Merrion Square.
  • The authors first class of the morning – “What would life be like if Ireland had accepted the Lisbon Treaty that time back in 2009”.

The piece is imaginative and well-written. In fact, the entire newspaper has a professionalism that its student staff can be proud of. I might not agree with all the viewpoints expressed but all seem to be thoughtful and well-researched. There’s a reason this newspaper has won top student newspaper for 2 years running.

Here’s to 2 more!

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Priorities

The Sunday Times have produced their annual University Guide with todays edition of the paper. It makes for interesting reading.

The ranking order of Universities and Institute of Technology in the country is given. NUI Galway are top. As usual, people are likely to quibble about the components of this ranking and how they are measured. For example, one element concerns the number of first and 2:1 honours given to graduates.  The idea being that the more of these there are, the better. The dumbing-down argument is never far away. I have a previous post related to this so I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say, that I consider the rankings to be an indicator only and recognise that an open mind needs to be kept.

What really grabbed my attention was the profiles of the various universities / colleges. Each institution profile asks a student therein to suggest a “Worst Feature” and a “Deal Clincher” for their institution. The student comments for each institution can be found in the file box on the right (I knew that box would be useful sooner or later).

 Did you notice what I noticed? 

Very very few of the comments concern academia. With only a small number of exceptions, practicalities like parking and social life dominate the list.  I’m reminded of the episode of Friends where Rachel says she switched her major from psychology because “there was never any parking beside the psychology building”. Cue audience laughter based on Rachel not being a serious college student.

Should we as lecturers be worried?  Are learning, skills acquisition or knowledge enhancement not as important to our students as we think they are?   Or are these things simply not at the top or bottom of the list for most of the student representatives here?   

Whatever the answer, it’s a cause of worry.  If student and lecturer priorities have drifted so far apart we have a problem.  We have to fundamentally question what is the purpose of a third level education and we need to do so with our students.

Students across the spectrum

This is the time of year when teachers and lecturers are faced with hundreds (more or less, depending on a whole range of factors) of new faces and names to acquaint themselves with. We wonder how best to engage our young and not so young changes, how to present material in an interesting way, how to get the brain cogs oiled and ready for new thoughts, ideas, facts, options, views, perspectives, terms and theories.  Hours spent on preparation are finally realised in the classroom.

Nothing kills this more than the half hearted “missed class the other day, but ah sure I didn’t miss anything” from the absent student.

Tom Weyman from Utoronto has put this cringing attitude to absenteeism into poetry:

Did I Miss Anything?

Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

Ok, this takes both ends of the spectrum to extremes. Every class isn’t going to provide a sackful of inspired nuggets of heavenly proportions.  Similarly a class that is devoid of an meaning or usefulness at all is highly unlikely.

It’s a case of degree, more or less.

I look after 3 masters levels programs. As part of the taught element of the course progresses over the year I constantly remind and encourage students to be on the lookout for that spark, that interesting little idea or fact that will point them in the direction of a dissertation topic that they can base their masters qualification on.

This  spark will be different for different students. For example, student A who is attracted by the psychology of human online behaviour might not be taken by the finer points of financial accounting. Similarly, student B who is attracted by inter-cultural differences in managing new product launches might be bored to tears by the manufacturing logistics in the development of that new product.

But what if student A misses the classes on online buyer behaviour, and student B misses the classes on international differences on launching new products – because they figured ah but sure nothing interesting’ll happen in that class today so I might as well not bother going in.

The more classes missed, the more opportunities that are missed to query and examine and ponder. Why do students (or their parents) pay good money only to not bother taking up these opportunities that are being offered to them on a plate?

Of course, not all students fit this bracket. Some (thankfully) lap up every opportunity that comes their way.

I never cease to query and ponder why some students in a class are so divergent – some answering “everything” to the question while others answer “nothing”.

A new year

Happy new year to all working in education, and that includes the students.

Yes, it’s that time of the year when students and pupils return from various parts of the globe (or backgardens, bedrooms, summer schools, etc.) to begin or resume their studies.  There is the usual mix of trepidation and excitement as all involved face into the unknown.

Typically it is up to the teachers and lecturers to nurture the excitement and quell the trepidation. There are ways and means of doing this. It’s a case of finding the right technique for the right situation. Sounds easy, but it’s not.

US President Obama recently gave a back-to-school speech to primary school children. Given that Obama is an excellent speech giver and has inspired much of mass America purely by the power of speech, I figured I should listen to / read it. As I expected it is positive, upbeat, and inspiring. It gives a “you’re special, now go work hard and thereby show the world how special you are – your future is in your hands”. But there are always detractors – apparently, the speech was strongly criticised in some quarters as an excuse for pushing Obama political ideologies on young minds. Oh dear!

Teachers themselves are feeling the pressure too. We read in the newspapers about our large class sizes. As I have said before (and will undoubtedly say again), the larger the class the fewer teaching / learning opportunities that are available and the higher the workload for all involved. I would even suggest that this is the case at all levels; primary, secondary and third level education. My niece is in a primary school class of 37 pupils. Her teacher is now 4 days in to term. I can only wonder how her energy levels will survive.

Keeping the enthusiasm alive can be challenging even for the best of us. I have been advised that right from the outset I should let my students know that I want them to be open-minded, thinking-outside-the-box, questioning, thinking, analysing, etc. Is this a sure-fire way of terrifying those ingrained in the rote school of “learning”?  Should I ease them in more gradually?  In a semesterised 12-week program (with all the content delivered before the Christmas break) is there sufficient time for a gradual ease-in?

Students coming from the other side of the world to study here most certainly need this easing in space. Many have never been to this corner of the globe before. They need time to settle into our customs and habits and to figure out how to manage daily living here.  I imagine that I would feel more than a little trepidation if I got off a plane in China, India or elsewhere to spend a year of my life there. How long would I need to settle in?   It’s a regret I have from my own undergraduate days. Why, oh why, did I not get involved in one or other of the exchange programs with partner universities on offer?

Last thought goes to parents. Spare a thought for the many anxious parents wondering how their little one will enjoy their first day in primary / secondary / third level education. Sometimes the parents are more anxious than their offspring.