Knowing Your History

Know your history.

Given the current running of The Changing University: Inside Nottingham NOOC I thought I would reflect on university histories. Given their nature it’s often struck me as rather surprising that universities and their staff tend not to have a well developed sense of institutional history.

Research matters to universities but they tend not to prioritise maintaining their own records for future researchers. It’s possibly that universities are generally not brilliant at comprehensive record keeping because of their devolved nature and more recently because of the shift from paper to digital but nevertheless there are core records around, for example see Nottingham’s institutional collection. Plus there is enough oral history available from longer established staff to last a lifetime if you ask for it.

Anyway, my contention is that staff at every level of the University need to know more about their institution’s past.

Testing times

To make this point, a while ago I imposed a quiz on some of my colleagues about the University as it was 60 years previously. The questions included the following (and I’ve added the answers here to avoid any distress):

  • In 1950, on 11 July, we had “degree day”. How many ceremonies did we have in July this year in the UK? (Answer – 16 in the summer – but note there were more ceremonies at the Malaysia and China campuses as well as winter ceremonies)
  • How many Senate meetings were there in 1949-50? (There were seven. We now have three per annum.)
  • How many Council meetings? (There were nine. We now have six a year.)
  • In 1949-50, Council had how many members? (37. We now have 25.)
  • Senate membership? (A mere 35 members. We now have over 100.)
  • Fee for a full-time BA? (It was £31,10s, equivalent in 2013 would be £943.06.)
  • Resit fee? (10/6)

Not surprisingly they didn’t do terribly well. Even though these were the easy questions.

A new history

Recently, the University commissioned a new history primarily to cover last the 20 years or so of institutional activity and capture some of the most major changes at Nottingham, including in particular the establishment of the international campuses in Malaysia and China. We were also keen to ensure we recorded a lot of learning and information in a more comprehensive archive than would be publishable (also recognising that the pace of change and move from hard copy to electronic has made record keeping more problematic) but which would be a valuable resource for future historians.

The previous history (in two large volumes) by Dr B H Tolley covered mainly the period 1948, the year the institution received its Royal Charter, through to 1988, with plenty of material too from the earlier period of the operation of University College Nottingham since its inception in 1881.

The last history. Not very portable.

The last history. Not very portable.

Whilst Tolley’s magnum opus offered comprehensiveness it lacked a certain degree of readability. I believe there are still copies available through Amazon (although not at bargain prices).

Beyond this though there are other accounts of the University of Nottingham, its Vice-Chancellors and the estate. A previous post commented on the souvenir brochure from this event which included more details of the Trent Building design.

More books

More books

My favourite is the 1928 book (unnamed) which dates from the opening of Trent Building by King George V. A brief silent film records the event:

Nottingham’s New University

Jesse Boot, in his foreword to this 1928 publication, commented:

At the moment of the opening by His Majesty the King, when the stones of the coming University are still unweathered by time, it is difficult to appreciate the full significance of this educational development. Thousands of students yet unborn will pass along the corridors and learn in the lecture rooms, and wrest the secrets from nature in the laboratories. Their work will link still more closely industry with science, add to the honour of the City and help to increase the well-being of our nation.

The significance of this is that there is a common thread running from Boot’s original vision for the new University College through the Royal Charter to the current strategy of the University.

More landmarks

There are other important milestones in the University’s history. For example, knowing that Gandhi spoke to a packed Great Hall back in 1931 gives additional depth to our international strategy.

A good turnout

A good turnout

The visit of Einstein who, as this video recounts, delivered a spectacularly unsuccessful lecture to a mixed audience of Germanists who understood no physics and physicists who knew no German (but he did leave some interesting formulae on a blackboard):

Remembering that students campaigned very hard to secure Senate representation over a number of years in the late 1960s and that in 1968 John Dunford, President-elect of the Students’ Union (and recently awarded an Honorary Degree by the University), was the first student to address the Senate.

And of course the cultural landmark that was the first public performance by Paul McCartney and Wings back in 1972.

All of these provide context and a reminder that the success any institution enjoys today is built on the hard work, commitment and brilliance of previous generations of academics and professional services staff. It is clear from the 1928 book referring to the very early days of the University College that there were many challenges during its development:

It must not, however, be thought that the road was smooth, for the obstacles were many. Many of the prosperous bourgeois of the city were inclined to scorn the College because it appeared too democratic, while others openly scoffed at spending money on such subjects as Classics or Philosophy. But it met local needs, and students who were not confined to any special class came from the whole district.

…at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Treasury Inspectors, who had to visit the College to see whether it was entitled to a Government grant wrote that: “We think that the College exhibits the nearest approach of all Colleges which we have visited to a People’s University.”

Decisions taken by staff at all levels of our universities today are not context free. We can all learn from what went before so that we build on our history and are not trapped by it. But we do have to know it first.

Legacy

As importantly is the knowledge that part of all our jobs is about stewardship – about ensuring that the generations of students and staff who follow us are able to achieve even more by building on what we leave behind. As Alderman E Huntsman, Mayor of the City of Nottingham and Chair of the Council of Nottingham University College, noted (again in the 1928 book):

We of today owe more than we can express to our forefathers…The Council and Senate of the University College are not unmindful of their responsibilities, and assure all those into whose hands this book may pass, that they are resolved that the great ideals of Sir Jesse for a University with the complete right of self-government, and the power to shape its courses to meet the special needs of local industries and conditions, shall be accomplished to the full. The gifts recorded in this book and offered to the People’s University will assuredly bear fruit for all time.

Anyway, I’m now really excited by the prospect of the publication next year of a new history of the University of Nottingham. It’s being prepared by very wonderful and diligent Professor John Beckett of the School of Humanities and will bring things up to date as well covering some of the earlier history in outline. It will I hope also have the advantage of being highly readable, and including much more material about students and the student experience (largely neglected in previous publications) and, rather marvellously, will have pictures too.

The Trent Building

The Trent Building

But let’s leave the last word to Jesse Boot who in the 1928 book in commenting on the future history of University College Nottingham says that the final chapter is as yet unwritten but

will tell in due season how the University College won its Charter, and thus Nottingham became the seat of a great people’s University, which in each succeeding age will spread the light of learning and knowledge, and will bind science and industry in the unity that is so essential for the prosperity of the nation and the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Powerful stuff.

So, know your history.

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From 007 to Registrar

A distinctive new approach to the campus novel

Unlikely as it may seem this brief book offers the most exciting representation of a Registrar since Lucky Jim. Set in a real university (York) but with fictional (we hope) characters there is plenty to enjoy here:

The present and past lives of James Kerr, university senior manager and former intelligence officer, collide in this campus-based thriller. He is drawn inexorably into the world of international espionage and geo-politics while simultaneously trying to cope with a home-grown crisis. Set in Beirut, York, London and Brussels, the story draws on the spy-writing tradition of Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Charles Cumming.

It’s good fun, it’s short and dead cheap and the proceeds go to student causes (I am advised by the author) so why not give it a go? You can buy it via the Kindle Store.

I have to say I really did like it but then every Registrar likes to imagine themselves in this kind of role sometimes…

Still waiting for a decent new campus novel?

Fertile territory for Higher Ed fiction?

Previous posts on Higher Ed fiction have looked at the end of the campus novel and some flickers in the embers with a few more recent offerings including the Marriage Plot. More recently I also posted on satire in HE which covered, among other things, an unpromising series of British novels which didn’t seem to add greatly to the corpus.

Now Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a professor and a former university president (both in the US) who have both just published new academic novels. The synopses do not inspire confidence. The first, Academic Affairs, seems to hinge on an extraordinary set of circumstances:

As the book opens, Smithfield University graduate student Jim Hagedorn — who identifies as gay, and who is theoretically monogamous with his long-term partner, Kevin — discovers that he has accidentally impregnated his classmate and rival, Sally. Meanwhile, Jim’s thesis adviser, the successful but tormented sociologist Bill Massy, finds himself in the same boat with Smithfield’s provost, Esmeralda Marcos. Marcos has other problems, notably the outrageous request made of her and Smithfield’s president, Roger Turner, by Stanley Egbert, a would-be major donor who is willing to pony up $250 million in exchange if Marcos and Turner will adhere to his conditions. Turner would rather decline the offer, but he’s pressured to accept by Smithfield’s board chair, Peter Hagedorn — Jim’s brother. And that’s just the beginning. (Academic Affairs runs to more than 500 pages, and they’re densely packed.)

The new campus bonkbusters?

The new campus bonkbusters?

The other, Signature Affair, looks like a bit of wish-fulfillment:

Cochran had written a full draft of what would become Signature Affair — the story of Steve Schilling, the charismatic and successful president of Eastern Arkansas University, whose spiraling sex addiction threatens to destroy his marriage and career. Schilling loves his wife, Suzanne, but he can’t seem to stop falling in love with other women as well: an old girlfriend from graduate school; the widow of a major donor; a faculty member; a political contact; even the university’s mailroom supervisor. Indeed, Schilling’s affairs are so numerous that it becomes rather difficult for the reader to keep them straight; Schilling himself manages it only by giving them each a different color of stationary on which to pen him romantic missives, which all five of his paramours are apparently eager to do.

Cochran didn’t set out to write a novel about sex addiction, he said, but as he was in the midst of writing the book, golf superstar Tiger Woods’ now-notorious affairs began to make headlines. As Cochran read news coverage of the scandal, he started to notice parallels between Woods and his protagonist, and he found himself thinking, “This is the guy I wrote about!”

Indeed. It looks like we might have a bit longer to wait for a great new campus novel.

That Higher Ed joke isn’t funny any more

Satire in Higher Education.

I’ve written before about books covering higher education in general and the commented on the end of the campus novel as well as its  possible reinvention.

More recently, there has been a series of books intended to capture the humorous and darker side of British higher education life:
A comic portrayal of modern university life seen through the eyes of a Professor of Christian Ethics. Married to the daughter of a baronet, he is rich, successful and eminent. Yet, as he approaches retirement, he is caught up in a conspiracy involving sexual harassment, victimisation and fraud. As he seeks to escape from the web of deceit that surrounds him, he uncovers the dark side of the modern university.
Written anonymously by a prominent academic this comic novel exposes the petty jealousies, excitement and intrigue of campus life in the twenty-first century.

41gU5WOPw8L._SS500_

I failed to get excited by the extracts of this series I have read. However, others were more enthusiastic:

‘I charged through the opening chapters with a growing sense of horror,
paranoia–and recognition. This is a rattling read, and a chilling expose
of political correctness on campus.’ Boris Johnson, [then] Shadow Minister for Higher Education

And seeking to occupy similar terrain there is the  Wading through treacle blog:

The ‘action’ (used in the sense of the narrative and in no way intended to imply that anything active actually occurs at Burston Central) takes place during the spring and summer terms. Car parking is still important, and the anarchy over kettle ownership rumbles on. And as for the ‘multi-functional devices’ which have replaced personal printers….maybe they’re working better. Or maybe not.

So, apart from this latter splendid effort, there really hasn’t been a lot to get excited about on the satire front. But then this very amusing video emerged which was an informercial for a fake online for-profit university. As the Chronicle reported:

At first blush, it might seem like an ad for another online university you haven’t heard of. But “Let’s Profit Off Each Other” is, in fact, the slogan of the fictional “For Profit Online University”—the subject of an 11-minute parody infomercial that, according to the blogSplitsider, was created by former writers for The Onion, a satirical website, and has been airing at 4 a.m. recently on the cable-television channel Adult Swim.

And it’s quite brutal. Some of the gags: FPOU is “proudly unaccredited,” and its students use proprietary online “thoughtcoins” to download facts, purchase “class points,” and buy sandwiches from Panera Bread. FPOU’s enrollment policy? “Technically, if you have a credit card, you’re already enrolled.” Faculty? “Don’t like your professor? Our instructors are easy to replace because they’re spread across the whole world. And they have no way to contact each other.”

Traditional universities aren’t spared, either. For instance, an FPOU transfer student’s testimonial about his bricks-and-mortar college experience: “There were constant sexual assaults, suicides, and building collapses.” FPOU, in turn, promises to do away with “crumbling campuses, full of corrupt, anti-Israel professors.”

It really is very good indeed. Unfortunately, the video itself seems to have disappeared at time of writing.

And then there was this report in Times Higher Education:

The scandals that sometimes line these pages – from stories about grade inflation to sexual harassment and dodgy overseas dealings – often seem like the plot of a theatrical farce. So it was only a matter of time before a play was written about the current dramas besetting higher education.

Sellout – a “political comedy” by dramatist David Lane – gets its first rehearsed reading at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, University of Exeter on 24 January.

At its heart is Frank, a 48-year-old senior lecturer who has just returned from enforced leave after complaining about the fact that student “Jessica Charter was ushered through to her next year of study despite not just failing but getting one of the lowest marks the department’s ever seen”.

When it comes to students, Frank takes the old-fashioned line that “somewhere in that throng of leggings, ironic flat caps and deck shoes is something we’ve never seen before…We need to push them, it’s what they’re paying for.”

Yet everything the lecturer stands for is under threat, from a head of department who wants him to “closely monitor [his] stakeholder interface” and a younger colleague with an Excel program to “time [her] student allocations to the minute”.

With depression, excessive alcohol, collapsing families and doomed office romances thrown in, it is clear that Mr Lane has an amusingly bleak view of university life that is likely to be familiar to many academics.

Amusingly bleak? Bleak for sure. Anyway, perhaps satire in higher education does have a future.

Zombie University

Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education

Very excited at the news of the publication of Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. Ever since the launch of the zombie course at the University of Baltimore there has clearly been plenty of room for further undead related higher education activity. This is though a very serious text with serious intent:

Zombies in the Academy taps into the current popular fascination with zombies and brings together scholars from a range of fields, including cultural and communication studies, sociology, film studies, and education, to give a critical account of the political, cultural, and pedagogical state of the university through the metaphor of zombiedom. The contributions to this volume argue that the increasing corporatization of the academy—an environment emphasizing publication, narrow research, and the vulnerability of the tenure system— is creating a crisis in higher education best understood through the language of zombie culture—the undead, contagion, and plague, among others. Zombies in the Academy presents essays from a variety of scholars and creative writers who present an engaging and entertaining appeal for serious recognition of the conditions of contemporary humanities teaching, culture, and labor practices.

Zombie university?

Zombie university?

Some of the chapter titles give more information about the thrust of the arguments here:

  • ‘Being’ post-death at Zombie University
  • University life, zombie states and reanimation
  • The living dead and the dead living: contagion and complicity in contemporary universities
  • Zombie processes and undead technologies
  • Virtual learning environments and the zombification of learning and teaching in British universities
  • Mapping zombies: a guide for digital pre-apocalyptic analysis and post-apocalyptic survival
  • Undead universities, the plagiarism ‘plague’, paranoia and hypercitation
  • EAP programmes feeding the living dead of academia: critical thinking as a global antibody
  • Zombies are us: the living dead as a tool for pedagogical reflection
  • Escaping the zombie threat by mathematics
  • Toward a zombie pedagogy: embodied teaching and the student
  • Living-dead man’s shoes? Teaching and researching glossy topics in a harsh social and cultural context

Really looks good and the ideal book for reading on the beach this summer.

The Imperfect University: Know Your History

Know your history.

For my 700th blog post here I thought I would reflect on university histories. Given their nature it’s often struck me as rather surprising that universities and their staff tend not to have a well developed sense of institutional history.

Research matters to universities but they tend not to prioritise maintaining their own records for future researchers. It’s possibly that universities are generally not brilliant at comprehensive record keeping because of their devolved nature and more recently because of the shift from paper to digital but nevertheless there are core records around, for example see Nottingham’s institutional collection. Plus there is enough oral history available from longer established staff to last a lifetime if you ask for it.

Anyway, my contention is that staff at every level of the University need to know more about their institution’s past.

Testing times

To make this point, a while ago I imposed a quiz on some of my colleagues about the University as it was 60 years previously. The questions included the following (and I’ve added the answers here to avoid any distress):

  • In 1950, on 11 July, we had “degree day”. How many ceremonies did we have in July this year in the UK? (Answer – 16 in the summer – but note there were more ceremonies at the Malaysia and China campuses as well as winter ceremonies)
  • How many Senate meetings were there in 1949-50? (There were seven. We now have three per annum.)
  • How many Council meetings? (There were nine. We now have six a year.)
  • In 1949-50, Council had how many members? (37. We now have 25.)
  • Senate membership? (A mere 35 members. We now have over 100.)
  • Fee for a full-time BA? (It was £31,10s, equivalent in 2013 would be £943.06.)
  • Resit fee? (10/6)

Not surprisingly they didn’t do terribly well. Even though these were the easy questions.

A new history

Recently, the University commissioned a new history primarily to cover last the 20 years or so of institutional activity and capture some of the most major changes at Nottingham, including in particular the establishment of the international campuses in Malaysia and China. We were also keen to ensure we recorded a lot of learning and information in a more comprehensive archive than would be publishable (also recognising that the pace of change and move from hard copy to electronic has made record keeping more problematic) but which would be a valuable resource for future historians.

The previous history (in two large volumes) by Dr B H Tolley covered mainly the period 1948, the year the institution received its Royal Charter, through to 1988, with plenty of material too from the earlier period of the operation of University College Nottingham since its inception in 1881.

The last history. Not very portable.

The last history. Not very portable.

Whilst Tolley’s magnum opus offered comprehensiveness it lacked a certain degree of readability. I believe there are still copies available through Amazon (although not at bargain prices).

Beyond this though there are other accounts of the University of Nottingham, its Vice-Chancellors and the estate. A previous post commented on the souvenir brochure from this event which included more details of the Trent Building design.

More books

More books

My favourite is the 1928 book (unnamed) which dates from the opening of Trent Building by King George V. A brief silent film records the event:

Nottingham’s New University

Jesse Boot, in his foreword to this 1928 publication, commented:

At the moment of the opening by His Majesty the King, when the stones of the coming University are still unweathered by time, it is difficult to appreciate the full significance of this educational development. Thousands of students yet unborn will pass along the corridors and learn in the lecture rooms, and wrest the secrets from nature in the laboratories. Their work will link still more closely industry with science, add to the honour of the City and help to increase the well-being of our nation.

The significance of this is that there is a common thread running from Boot’s original vision for the new University College through the Royal Charter to the current strategy of the University.

More landmarks

There are other important milestones in the University’s history. For example, knowing that Gandhi spoke to a packed Great Hall back in 1931 gives additional depth to our international strategy.

A good turnout

A good turnout

The visit of Einstein who, as this video recounts, delivered a spectacularly unsuccessful lecture to a mixed audience of Germanists who understood no physics and physicists who knew no German (but he did leave some interesting formulae on a blackboard):

Remembering that students campaigned very hard to secure Senate representation over a number of years in the late 1960s and that in 1968 John Dunford, President-elect of the Students’ Union (and recently awarded an Honorary Degree by the University), was the first student to address the Senate.

And of course the cultural landmark that was the first public performance by Paul McCartney and Wings back in 1972.

All of these provide context and a reminder that the success any institution enjoys today is built on the hard work, commitment and brilliance of previous generations of academics and professional services staff. It is clear from the 1928 book referring to the very early days of the University College that there were many challenges during its development:

It must not, however, be thought that the road was smooth, for the obstacles were many. Many of the prosperous bourgeois of the city were inclined to scorn the College because it appeared too democratic, while others openly scoffed at spending money on such subjects as Classics or Philosophy. But it met local needs, and students who were not confined to any special class came from the whole district.

…at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Treasury Inspectors, who had to visit the College to see whether it was entitled to a Government grant wrote that: “We think that the College exhibits the nearest approach of all Colleges which we have visited to a People’s University.”

Decisions taken by staff at all levels of our universities today are not context free. We can all learn from what went before so that we build on our history and are not trapped by it. But we do have to know it first.

Legacy

As importantly is the knowledge that part of all our jobs is about stewardship – about ensuring that the generations of students and staff who follow us are able to achieve even more by building on what we leave behind. As Alderman E Huntsman, Mayor of the City of Nottingham and Chair of the Council of Nottingham University College, noted (again in the 1928 book):

We of today owe more than we can express to our forefathers…The Council and Senate of the University College are not unmindful of their responsibilities, and assure all those into whose hands this book may pass, that they are resolved that the great ideals of Sir Jesse for a University with the complete right of self-government, and the power to shape its courses to meet the special needs of local industries and conditions, shall be accomplished to the full. The gifts recorded in this book and offered to the People’s University will assuredly bear fruit for all time.

Anyway, I’m now really excited by the prospect of the publication next year of a new history of the University of Nottingham. It’s being prepared by very wonderful and diligent Professor John Beckett of the School of Humanities and will bring things up to date as well covering some of the earlier history in outline. It will I hope also have the advantage of being highly readable, and including much more material about students and the student experience (largely neglected in previous publications) and, rather marvellously, will have pictures too.

The Trent Building

The Trent Building

But let’s leave the last word to Jesse Boot who in the 1928 book in commenting on the future history of University College Nottingham says that the final chapter is as yet unwritten but

will tell in due season how the University College won its Charter, and thus Nottingham became the seat of a great people’s University, which in each succeeding age will spread the light of learning and knowledge, and will bind science and industry in the unity that is so essential for the prosperity of the nation and the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Powerful stuff.

So, know your history.

Secrets and Interdisciplinarity in 1928: The Combination Room

A reminder of the opening of the Trent Building

The office recently received a copy of this commemorative brochure from the opening of the Trent Building of what was then University College Nottingham.

IMG_1686

IMG_1687

Front plate

The booklet contains a set of line drawings of the Trent Building together with a detailed and somewhat florid commentary by the then Vice-Principal of the College, Frank Granger.

IMG_1688

The Trent Building

It includes some great descriptions of the intended use of the different parts of the building including some nice words on the wonders of the refectory (which is now the Senate Chamber):

IMG_1691

The Refectory

But my favourite piece is this:

The next plaisaunce to the Refectory is the Women’s Common Room. Then there is the Combination Room, which is a suitable name because the staff will meet there in the leisure moments they spend amid their work. There they will discuss the points of contact of their several disciplines. It is expected that the meetings will sometimes be in secret, and continue the College tradition of secret societies.

I like it partly for its references to leisure time and the sadly discontinued secret societies (although if they were still in existence then I guess I wouldn’t know as they would, of course, be secret) but mainly because of the idea that interdisciplinarity should be encouraged was part of the building design. Combination Room may be a slightly odd title but the principle was a thoroughly sound one and still valid today.

The best book ever written about university life?

Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica

A reminder about or introduction to a brief and essential piece of reading for everyone working in higher education.

micro

The almost timeless (well, apart from the fact it only features blokes and has an ever so slightly Oxbridge feel) Microcosmographia Academica is of course the essential text for all those with a keen interest in academic politics and university management.

Read it. Now. You know it makes sense.

The reinvention of the campus novel?

A new direction for the campus novel?

The Chronicle Reviewc has an excellent article on a new campus novel from Jeffrey Eugenides about leaving campus behind. A five year old post on my other blog includes reference to a couple of articles, including one by David Lodge, on the ‘end of the campus novel’. The core of the argument here was that campuses really just aren’t funny places any more. However, things seem to have moved on and this piece reviews the terrain nicely:

Philip Roth, that swallow who likes to alight on familiar territory, can be credited with at least two recent efforts—The Human Stain (2000) and Indignation (2008). Richard Russo, amid his working-class classics, gave us Straight Man (1997). Tom Wolfe, whose Ph.D. in American studies long ago slipped from sight as he became the champion of hard-nosed showy journalism and the “reported” novel, turned his kids into stringers to help him produce I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). David Lodge offered a rollicking trilogy, from Changing Places (1975) to Small World (1984) to Nice Work (1988). J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), one of his most powerful books, showed that a campus novel won’t cost you the Nobel. Younger novelists, from Jane Smiley with Moo (1995) to Zadie Smith with On Beauty (2005), show no sign of letting the form recede.

And looks at what makes a ‘campus novel’:

Yet the more you think about the “campus novel,” the more you realize how it has outgrown its neighborhood, and is more complicated than it seems. Is it any novel that begins on a campus, or must matters peculiar to campus life—the life of the scholar, the privileged atmosphere of the ivory tower, the excessive focus of its older denizens on tenured security, the hierarchically rigid interaction of lifers and young people—form the heart of the story? If a story just “happens” to take place on campus, is that enough? Do novels about scholars, and novels about students, belong in the same category?

20110907-050900.jpg

The new Eugenides book, “The Marriage Plot” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October), is described here as:

the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Entertaining, for sure, but also poignant, insightful, wise, and elegiac.

Sounds great (but still think “I am Charlotte Simmons” is a rather weak effort from the normally brilliant Wolfe) as this quite nicely demonstrates:

“Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Thanks for that Jeffrey. I won’t take it personally. The new novel does sound very good indeed and I certainly do hope that it does serve to breathe new life into the genre. We need it.

Brainy

The Great Brain Race by Ben Wildavsky

20110824-084147.jpg

I read this some months ago but, inexplicably, failed to note the fact. Wildavsky is a clear, cogent and persuasive writer. He provides a good review of the global higher education picture and many of the key issues facing nations and universities.

There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of coverage of league table matters and he helpfully provides a handy, and surprisingly long, list of countries which have league tables. Noting the general biases in international tables he highlights a number of additional models – PISA, OECD, AHELO etc – as well as alternative subject-based approaches.

Further topicality comes from his damning indictment of visa restrictions and their consequences. Wildavsky mounts a welcome and powerful argument for free trade in ideas, scholars and HE and therefore against the constraint of movement of academic staff and students (as sadly we are experiencing in the UK at present). It’s a cogent and compelling line.

So, overall, a thoroughly readable and engaging text. My main criticism would be though that lots of this is rather US-oriented, and the NYU material and Sexton discussion is largely prospective. The author seems too willing to accept as yet unrealised institutional plans for international growth at face value rather than looking in detail at what some institutions, for example the University of Nottingham in China and Malaysia and other UK and Australian universities, have successfully achieved in Asia.

The Strategic Plan: a tool for administrative power?

Questioning the purpose of the strategic plan

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries an extract from a new book by Benjamin Ginsberg on the ‘all-administrative university’ which apparently argues that:

that the explosive growth in administration, the decline in faculty influence, and the institutional corporatization of American universities contributes to a loss of intellectual rigor.

So, doesn’t sound at all polemical then. But the extract on strategic planning is quite interesting:

The strategic plan serves several important purposes for administrators. First, when they organize a planning process and later trumpet their new strategic plan, senior administrators are signaling to the faculty, to the trustees, and to the general community that they are in charge. The plan is an assertion of leadership and a claim to control university resources and priorities. This function of planning helps to explain why new presidents and sometimes new deans usually develop new strategic plans. We would not expect newly elected presidents of the United States simply to affirm their predecessors’ inaugural addresses. In order to demonstrate leadership to the nation, they must present their own bold initiatives and vision for the future. For college leaders, the strategic plan serves this purpose.

A second and related purpose served by planning is co-optation. A good deal of evidence suggests that the opportunity to participate in institutional decision-making processes affords many individuals enormous psychic gratification. For this reason, clever administrators see periodic consultation as a means of inducing employees to be more cooperative and to work harder.

And it goes on. Essentially the argument is that not only is strategic planning a waste of time, it is also a tool for administrators to secure power and control over faculty. There are undoubtedly examples of where strategic planning is done poorly or undertaken insincerely or even cynically. And whilst it is always possible to over elaborate strategic planning, when properly executed it can be a key vehicle for achieving institutional change and improvement.

But this is clearly not the view here:

The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the continuing growth of administrative power.

I’m not sure I’ll be buying the book.

Still the End of the Campus Novel?

Why aren’t there any good campus novels these days?

Inspired by an article in the Guardian by David Lodge about Pnin by Nabokov I wrote a brief piece some five years ago on “The End of the Campus Novel?“. With the possible exception of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, have there been any decent campus novels since then? If not, why not? Isn’t the whole post-Browne fees scenario ripe for comic treatment? Or is it just that universities aren’t funny or interesting enough any more?

Some of the classic and/or recent efforts (mainly Lodge):

Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

The History Man, Bradbury

Changing Places, Lodge

Small World, Lodge

Nice Work, Lodge

Thinks…, Lodge

Porterhouse Blue, Sharpe (but at the Carry on end of the spectrum)

The Human Stain, Roth

Disgrace, Coetzee

A Very Peculiar Practice, Andrew Davies

I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe

So, where is the next great campus novel going to come from?

Replacing Textbooks With iPads

Another interesting experiment

Story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about an interesting experiment at University of Notre Dame where they have tried replacing textbooks with iPads:

It was quieter this past fall in Corey Angst’s project-management course at the University of Notre Dame, but it wasn’t because he and his students were talking less.

Every student was given an iPad to use during the seven-week course, which meant fewer of them brought laptops to class to take notes.

“There was no clicking,” said Mr. Angst, who is an assistant professor of management at the university. Even external keyboards that some students used for their iPads were silent.

Mr. Angst’s class was the first of several at the university to replace traditional textbooks with iPads as part of a yearlong study by the university’s e-publishing working group into the use of e-readers. Many colleges and universities are in the midst of similar experiments, but Notre Dame is one of the first to report results from its effort.

The professor said students were more connected in and out of the classroom because of their use of the tablet device.

Laptop screens can create barriers between professors and students during class, Mr. Angst said: “Students think they can hide behind a laptop.”

Students were surveyed several times throughout the course and said that the iPad made it easier to collaborate and manage group projects.

OK, it’s probably not a panacea but it is interesting that the iPad seemed to promote collaboration rather than isolation. And that it looks like something other than e-reader functionality was the real value of it.

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything? Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

The Chronicle carries an extract from what sounds like an extremely interesting new book. The paper reports that, drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), the authors concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates were failing to develop the expected skills and knowledge.

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Might be sensationalist and playing to the tabloid view of university education but, on the face of it, sounds like a serious and interesting study.

Free books for freshers

Persuading freshers to read

Last year St Andrews gave a novel to all freshers to get them reading, discussing and engaging with each other.

This year, according to theBookseller.com, the scheme seems to have expanded:

Nearly 18,000 freshers across five UK universities have been given copies of a winning or shortlisted Man Booker novel for the autumn term.

First year students enrolling at Imperial College, London, Liverpool University, Newcastle University, St Andrew’s University, and the University of East Anglia received a copy of a Man Booker title to read over the summer, regardless of their area of study. Georgetown University, Washington has also initiated a similar scheme.

Just a really good idea. Would be interested to hear how it went.