I was in Italy this week, taking a view of research ethics for a seminar organised by Pro-Res , a project to develop guidance on ethics for the EU. The seminar was under Chatham House rules, which means I can’t comment on other contributions, but I can share my own, which I ran under the title “Research is not a private matter”. The slides are here.
Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades. Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills. Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve. Part of this has been a change in what marks mean. A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1. A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.
Some standards have genuinely improved. It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago. However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved. When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write. By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12. Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year. Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage. That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past. That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves. This is not the fault of students; it reflects a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.
The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem. When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.
- Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
- Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
- Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
- The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience. The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.
Much of this has gone by the board. Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix. (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.) Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals – that must mean that no progression is expected.
Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts. Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available. Students have limited personal contact with teachers. Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question. This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.
Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase. People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once. I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.
I’m old-fashioned, and I’ve just been upbraided for it. An article by Brian Monteith in the Scotsman made a number of claims which I thought rather far fetched, so I looked at some other evidence. Monteith had written, at some length, that “the Euro currency project has been an economic catastrophe”, that since 1994 the growth of the US economy had far outstripped the Eurozone, and that if only the UK had not been within the EU we would all have been much richer. I checked some basic figures with the World Bank’s data and wrote this:
It’s being reported that Serco, which is responsible for providing accommodation for asylum seekers, has given 300 people in Glasgow warning of immediate eviction. Eviction from residential property without notice used to be illegal, but in 1999 the Labour government amended the Protection from Eviction Act to exempt accommodation provided on these terms. Govan Law Centre has starting legal proceedings based on Scottish common law.
3rd August. I’ve amended the original post because Kim Long has given me permission to include her full comments on her recent work with her constituents.
People get very muddled over ‘free speech’. The primary objection to the case of the ‘Nazi Pug’ is not that someone was saying something which was upsetting or offensive; it is that repeating the phrase ‘Gas the Jews’, whether or not it is presented as a joke, goes beyond the bounds of what is permissible.
Liberty is not licence. It’s generally accepted that the point where one person’s liberty stops is where it limits the freedoms of someone else. The freedom to swing your fist, as the saying has it, ends where my nose begins. Your rights and liberties are not just about the freedom to speak. They may also protect you from having to hear some things directed at you – threats, intimidation, and assaults among them. No-one should have to to listen to other people saying “we’re here to burn your house down” on the basis that those are just words. Words are not empty – they are often the precursors to action. We often accept trivial and silly sentiments from comedians – Monty Python’s design to slice up the public with rotating knives – because we’re not taking them seriously. “Gas the Jews” isn’t silly or trivial. It’s a threat, and a threat with real meaning; repeating it, as my friend Ephraim Borowski argued for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, normalises it.
There is another fundamental objection, too. Free speech, Scanlon argues, does not reside in the rights of the person who is speaking, but in the rights of the person who is listening. You are entitled to hear many views that are objectionable, offensive or unpleasant to some people: for example, you may want to read The Satanic Verses, even though it is offensive to many Muslims. That’s about your rights, not the author’s. However, your rights to hear things are not limitless, and there are things you don’t have the right to hear. In the UK, you’re not at liberty to hear libels (that is, falsehoods which are damaging to individuals), or treason, which is damaging to the security of everyone. You are not entitled to hear incitements to commit crime, threats to minorities, attempts to raise an army for the purposes of civil war.
There’s a tendency to dismiss words, on the basis that they’re harmless; that’s far from being the case. Words can crush people. They can threaten, intimidate, bully, and destroy. (The US laws on hate speech largely fail to deal with this; it’s only chargeable as hate speech after the action has been taken. Most European legislators don’t think that’s good enough.) The central objection to hate speech is not that it is hateful – lots of stereotypes are – or even that it is bad manners, but that it is dangerous. “Let’s kill these people” – there are plenty of examples of that kind of thing on the internet, but I’m not going to link to them – is illegal in most European countries, for a good reason. And “Gas the Jews”, whether or not it is said with a smile, clearly falls into that category.
I’ll shortly be leaving for a semester in the University of Łódź in Poland. It’s an adventure – an opportunity to learn about a country I’ve not been to before, to learn a language I don’t speak, and to get a different perspective on life. It comes at a time and the effect of Brexit on rights to travel and work in the EU may well mean that it would be much more difficult to do anything of the sort in a year’s time.
My other work includes books on collectivism (close to completion) and on poverty, where I’m currently waiting for input from my collaborators. I’ll continue to watch and comment on issues in the UK, such as the development of social security in Scotland.
In September, I commented on the controversy about a paper on The Case for Colonialism. This week, a similar argument has exploded in the University of Oxford. A proposal for a series of seminars on the ‘Ethics of Empire‘ has been established in the University’s McDonald Centre. It states that ’empire’ can mean many different things, that both “apologias and critiques” of empire need to be tested against the historical evidence, and that there are lessons to be drawn for contemporary engagement by the Western Powers. (Note that it refers to “apologias” rather than “defences”; this is not an agenda that puts arguments for and against empire on an equal footing.) The seminars that have taken place to date have considered the Assyrian, Roman and Chinese empires.
In reply, a letter to the Guardian has been sent by a large and assorted collection of 58 academics, mainly historians, who object to the premises of the proposal. They claim that that the project is based in ignorance of current scholarship and proposes a “crude cost/benefit analysis” of empire. (I cannot comment on the first, but if it is true, then a dedicated series of seminars featuring presentations of historical empires by international experts should help to diminish the scope of the organisers’ ignorance. I do know something about cost-benefit analysis, and I think I can say more confidently say that there is nothing in the proposal, either explicitly or implicitly, which does argue for such an approach.) The objectors are on stronger ground when they write: “Developing a ‘Christian ethics of empire’ is not an intellectually sound, let alone an academically robust, endeavour ”. The suggestion that the project will offer “a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire” seems to imply that there can be such an ethic, analogous to the idea of a just war; that is controversial, and it may indeed be “political” in the terms criticised in the letter.
It hasn’t helped that the Daily Mail has now stuck its oar in. The objectors are advocates of an “ugly totalitarianism’, and to prove the point the Mail digs out any mud that it can throw: some of them are opposed to Brexit, five are anti-Israel, and several are (gasp!) supporters of the Labour Party. The Mail‘s article, by Guy Adams, is rambling and ill-focused, but at the core it does have a point. The objectors are basically trying to suppress a dispassionate discussion of issues in an academic context, because it is framed in terms that they disagree with. If we can’t discuss the Assyrian empire without prior political genuflections, we’re in trouble.
The Scottish Law Commission has published a lengthy report on defamation. I raised a couple of points in my blog last year, when I thought I wasn’t going to make a submission; but then I started to feel guilty about my indolence, changed my mind, and dashed off an e-mail to the consultation (complete with typos). As it turns out, I’m cited at length in a paragraph in the report: only 15 submissions picked up the point about academic freedom, on both sides, and that is hardly enough to derail an argument.
5.37 Paul Spicker pointed out that, in terms of material subject to peer review, the net is much wider than journals – books and academic bids for funding tend also to be peer-reviewed. He observed that it is, in any event, questionable to what extent a focus on peer-reviewed material offers protection against defamation. The primary focus of peer review tends to be recognised as being to make judgements about the rigour and validity of a submission. This does not generally include any sort of duty to notify the editor as to whether or not academic comment or criticism might operate to the detriment of a person’s commercial interests. He further commented that it was not clear why safeguards should only be applicable at the point of formal publication of material or submission to other bodies. Academic papers may, for example, be presented at seminars and conferences during the course of their development, before formal publication. It seemed that what was called for
was a general exemption for all bona fide academic discourse. The nature of the discourse should be determined on a case by case basis rather than being treated as occurring only in specified locations or outlets. …
5.41 On the other hand, the Law Society of Scotland took a different angle, namely that the coverage of peer-reviewed statements in scientific or academic journals was practical enough to meet the aim of promoting freedom of expression within the academic and scientific community. On that basis, they did not support any expansion of section 6.
The Commission concludes:
5.42 Having weighed up these competing arguments, we recommend that the scope of section 6 should be left as it stands. It appears that more would be needed to make it fully effective than a simple extension of its application in terms of the types of publication that it covers. Fundamental questions have been asked about whether the focus on peer-reviewed material is sufficient in offering protection against defamation. There may be a need for a wider protection covering academic discourse in general. It seems preferable that any such changes be made at UK level, rather than the same provision applying in a different manner as between Scotland and England and Wales.
I’m not sure whether this amounts to a rejection of the case I made, because it seems to accept the main argument, but regardless the law is not going to protect routine academic discourse in the foreseeable future. Mark it up as another failure.
I’ve been in Israel for the last couple of weeks, and yesterday I gave a presentation on the relational elements of poverty to a delightful group of academics, students and practitioners at the University of Haifa. I’m shamefully incompetent when it comes to managing Hebrew at even the most basic level, but fortunately most of the academics I’ve met in my field don’t share my limitations. They are being driven to publish academic journal articles in English in order to get tenure (15 articles in 5 years is apparently the norm, and book chapters and Hebrew articles don’t count). The problem with that sort of direction in academic writing is that it tends to shape the character of the work that academics can engage in, and it’s not always to the benefit of the subject. Good theoretical work needs time and variation; critical development that might influence policy in practice might tend to be repetitive. Empirical research, by contrast, can often be divided up into meaty chunks and written up quickly, so that’s what people on the treadmill will be forced to do.
I’m a firm believer in a cooperative approach to academic discussion; I have been asked to think about making my work more accessible in Hebrew. My work has previously appeared in Farsi and Arabic, and it’s intriguing that the same elements and approach seem to appeal across such different (and apparently divided) cultures. We can only gain from dialogue and exchange, and it’s regrettable that some of my contemporaries have closed the door on that.
Yesterday I received a circular request to sign a petition to have an academic article taken down. The article in question is “The case for colonialism“, written by Bruce Gilley, and published by Third World Quarterly. For Gilley, anti-colonialism has justified practices that are worse than the colonial systems they replaced; he tries to justify colonialism on the balance of costs and benefits. There’s a forceful rebuttal of the arguments by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs:
“Truly unspeakable harms can simply be “outweighed” and thereby trivialized. … Building power lines and opening a school doesn’t provide one with a license to rob and murder people.”
Being concerned about contemporary policy, I’m less concerned about the historical revisionism than about the mis-characterisation of current issues in development. There have been massive improvements in much of Africa in recent years, and they have not happened by magic. Gilley suggests that
The ‘good governance’ agenda, which contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries, should be replaced with the ‘colonial governance’ agenda.
The agenda he’s criticising makes no such assumption; on the contrary, it’s about creating capacity. The process has encouraged governments to recognise their limitations and to work collaboratively with a range of stakeholders and partners. Just the sort of thing that colonial governments didn’t do and that international organisations have had to learn.
Gilley’s critics have described the argument as “racist” and “white supremacist”; neither of those is justified by its content. The article is provocatively written, somewhat cavalier about evidence and possibly slightly bonkers. Does it follow, though, that it should be withdrawn from circulation? The proper response to anything of this nature is to make the case against it, not to have it expunged from the record. When I’ve taught students about ethics and policy in the past, I’ve sometimes given them extreme positions to consider – arguments for torture and infanticide amongst them. I’ve wanted them to be able to respond cogently and fluently to offensive views, because in real life speechless rage doesn’t win the day. I’d have had no hesitation in getting students to write a critique of this paper. Students tend to be far to deferential to the things they read; a healthy disrespect for the printed word is something to be encouraged.