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wastage
2003-07-27 - 1:05 a.m.

I just saw "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", it was a truly excellent film and I strongly recommend it to everyone. Well, everyone who likes weird, disturbing movies that remind you that the world is crazy.

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I wrote all this stuff for my thesis, but I'm probably going to have to chuck it. Here it is, anyway - maybe you'll find something to like in it.

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“First Year Experience Action Plan”.

I remember back in school there was a certain class of document that would always end up in a crumpled mess in the bottom of my bag. These were things of the nature of “study plans”, or advice on coping with the difficulties of adolescence, or Effective Learning Habits. They weren’t necessarily bad documents, certainly they were well intentioned, but I find it hard to imagine anyone reading them seriously, taking them seriously. They generally told me things that I already knew I should be doing in a rather patronising way, or they told me things that I didn’t agree with in the same patronising way. I never read much more than a few lines of them before stuffing them into my bag and never looking at them again.

I think what produces documents of this nature is a certain kind of well-intentioned bureaucracy. A group of people are appointed to do something, to make something good happen, and so they prepare action plans and reports and schedules of responsibility and whatnot, but bureaucracy being what it is then the intention is alienated in two very important ways. Firstly, the process is alienated from serious thinking, from the kind of messy, discursive, rambling way in which ideas are translated into reality for individual people. What one gets instead are exercises in shallow thinking, obvious thinking, translated into an arcane language in order to give it some semblance of substance, but fundamentally lacking any very serious consideration of why things are as they are… and the second way in which they are alienated is from implementation. The report or the plan or whatever it is that the committee arrives at is designed to get people to agree to it. Whether or not it can be “done”, or whether or not it should be “done”, is altogether something else. Whether literally or metaphorically, these well-meaning committees produce bits of paper that end up stuffed in the bottom of someone’s bag.

But why? The intention is fundamentally there. This action plan is essentially focussed on looking at the first year experience, seeing what can be done to improve it, and improving it. What could any reasonable person object to in that? Nothing!

But look at this document! Here’s a list of some of the “actions” that have been “planned” in the action plan: “Develop ‘Links’ Student Information Booth”, “Make more and correct information available when students are considering various courses”, “Establish a Faculty Orientation Working Party”, “Encourage a Deep Approach to Learning”, “Establish Intraschool, Interschool, and Cross-Faculty Competitions”, and so on…

Let’s take one of these as an example… “Make more and correct information available when students are considering various courses”. Now who could object to that? Someone who wants students to have very little information about the courses they’re going to do? Someone who wants students to be given incorrect information? But think of how it’s going to translate into reality. There’s already a great big thick book of information about courses, the Student Handbook, and it contains reams of information of the sort that Student Handbooks contain. It’s generic enough to be bland and specific enough to be mystifying. Reading even a few pages of it makes your eyes glaze over… what are we going to do about the student handbook, then? Make it bigger? Supplement it with pamphlets and booklets and leaflets, all of which are written in the same inscrutable way? Well, we could, but there wouldn’t be much point, would there? Well, how about a more radical change – instead of all this unreadable verbiage, let’s replace the course descriptions with short, snappy statements by former students who’ve taken the course speaking in a simple way about what they thought of it. That’ll be readable – and valuable and accessible to new students. But what are the staff going to think? A course you've taught for over a decade, into which you’ve poured much of your dedication, energies, and talents, is described to prospective students with the following pithy phrase: “This course sucked. The lecturer was realy boring.” Impossible! Unacceptable!

But never mind the practical difficulties attendant on providing “more and more accurate information”; what about the philosophy behind it? Do we really believe that life’s problems could be solved if only we all had more and more accurate information before we entered into any situation? Maybe if you’d known more about your girlfriend or boyfriend before you married them, you wouldn’t have married them, right? And maybe then you would have been married to someone else instead, and instead of living the life you’re living, you could be living the correct life, the life that’s best for you, the one where you fulfill your potential, where you don’t have to sit around in stupid committee meetings all day? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But it’s all a ludicrous fantasy based on the idea that we are choosing agents, homo economicus, and if only we knew what we were doing we’d get it right instead of blundering through our lives like drunken livestock! Let’s all be calm and rational and sensible and good, all the time, and never mind the antimonies of our being, the fact that we fail and age and die, betray our potential and our selves and each other, are mad and bad and greedy and nasty. Let’s look at models of best practice in other institutions and adopt the recommendations of the working party on strategic action in proactive redevelopment, and forget about mud and blood and shit and sweat, as though these tactile reminders of our base humanity were an irrelevant afterthought that will soon disappear if we just keep on studiously ignoring it.

So what do I advocate instead? Despair? Not at all! Not at all. But to have faith that effluxions of naďve teleological platitudes will produce some real and useful effect and not just clog the bottom of someone’s bag is blind optimism – and to pretend to believe it is just cynicism and despair in disguise. The first step is, I think, to realise that students are not aliens, are not strange and different to the people who are working to better their experience, and whatever is dull and commonplace and unengaging to those who are working on the behalf of those students, will be just as uninteresting and unexciting to the students themselves. Students who are not engaging in “deep learning practices”, for example, will not be made into “deep learners” by being presented with a series of bullet points explaining the difference between shallow and deep learning and the advantages of the latter over the former. If the alchemical transformation of people were so simple it would be performed far more often.

I’m fulminating. Unless I can present something good that comes from this specific document I should probably discard all this.

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"Just like the grub that wriggles to the top of the mass

I'm the first to get hooked" - Pete Townshend


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