Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Déjà Vue – a clashing experience

Posted by Jock Coats on September 4th, 2012

Nearly thirty years ago I left school for summer after my O Levels (yes, I am that old) with a programme of A levels options for my return into the sixth form that I was very happy with.  I had elected to do what some thought was a strange mix: Maths, Physics, English and German, partly because at 16 I resented having to make a choice that would determine at least my academic future for a long time ahead (by going down the streams of arts or sciences subjects exclusively).  I had done well in all of those O levels, with A’s in the first three, a B in the German and a B in the AO maths exam we had done as my set had done the O level in our fourth form (year 10).

Toward the end of the summer holidays the school wrote to me and said they had changed around the option lists and it would no longer be possible for me to do that combination.  They thought it unwise to try for four, or to mix arts and sciences, and had I believe, gone out of their way to make that impossible.  It was to be two full A Level terms before I was eventually settled with a replacement set of subjects, English, Latin and History, the last of which I had not even done to O level and wasn’t terribly interested in, but my housemaster was head of department and had persuaded me, after trying to fit Maths, German and Music variously into a timetable that History would be a good thing to do.  I can’t heap all the blame for my academic failure on this situation, but losing one third of your A levels and ending up doing some of your worst subjects certainly did not help, and when it came to applying to university (I had been an Oxbridge hopeful for years) my choices were restricted.

So last September I finally started an undergraduate degree.  26 years late (and no, I don’t care for platitudes that it’s “never too late” or some such – the people I might have been at Oxford with are now running the country so I don’t believe that – I will never actually catch up, even if that doesn’t matter so much).  In March 2012 we were asked to select a programme of modules for our second and third years, and mine was finalised on time, with one small change I made in May because a reorganisation of modules by the Politics department had meant I could now do one I had wanted to do but couldn’t put in earlier because of a clash.

Over the intervening months I’ve been checking quite regularly on my programme web page, firstly for results of last semester’s modules, then several times to see if I had a timetable for the new year yet so as to organise which days I would not be in the office.  Nothing had changed.  All was well.  And I was starting to prepare for my new semester modules in my choice of summer reading.

Then on 9th August, just three weeks ago now, with five weeks to go before the deadline for changes, and what, 18 or so weeks after we had been told to get our programmes sorted, what do I see, but that there’s now a clash between a compulsory Microeconomics module and what I consider to be the most important of my second year politics modules, Political Thought – the first time on my degree so far I would have to study the philosophy underlying political thought rather than just the various schools of thought of actually existing workaday politics and international relations history.  To say I was appalled is an understatement.  It has truly screwed up my programme and the past few weeks of my summer with the worry of it.  We had no notification, which would have been a simple courtesy for a paying customer I’d have thought (at least my school had had that courtesy 30 years ago).  We had to discover it for ourselves.  And for many that might even have been in the next week or so with very little time to do anything about it.

Of course, I immediately wrote to my fellow students on my programme to alert them (it appears to affect six others, most of whom feel about as strongly as I do about it, it would appear), and fired off emails to both Economics and Politics department tutors, the respective module leaders and my academic advisor.  Only the Politics people have come back, and they, in general, appear to agree that Political Thought is an important module.  Indeed were I doing the Politics and International Relations programme the two Political Thought modules, this semester and next, would have been compulsory.  But because my course involves economics as well, and whilst we are supposed to choose either the Politics and the International Relations modules as if they were separate pathways but which have not been defined with rules in the system, they are not compulsory for us.

So the message we got back from central university administrators was that nothing would be changed as there were other “alternative compulsory” modules we could choose from and that was that.

So far, nobody from Economics has contacted me back, neither programme lead, module leaders nor academic advisor.  And three weeks has passed.  It was the Microeconomics module that has been moved and caused the clash.  I would personally go so far as to say that both Micro II and Political Thought are so important to get under my belt that I would take a year off and go into second year next year if we could get rid of the clash.  But the university has us over a barrel there – first it’s probably not an option for most of the others, and I don’t want to leave them in the lurch, second there’s no guarantee even if we did that the clash would be resolved for next year (there’s another one looming with Political Thought II and Macro II next semester and again nobody has responded to my concerns about that one) and third, if we did that our fees would treble because we’d be counted on the new system starting back next year.

To top it all, we all got an email yesterday from the Faculty of Business exhorting us to ensure there were no clashes in our programmes and to fix any before the end of next week, that it is our responsibility to do so and that we cannot graduate with clashes in our programme.  Clashes created by the university after we had all selected perfectly acceptable, at the time, programmes and gone away (most of us) for summer.

Our responsibility?  To sort out something the university has done TO us?  There are some possibilities for me, such as swapping a year three module already on my programme with one of these two and doing it next year.  But nobody seems to want to allow us to do level six modules in second year because someone somewhere said that programmes should demonstrate “progression” of increasing difficulty through all three years.  And it would probably mean some kind of special dispensation on taking pre-requisites after the modules that are dependent on them.  And again, these solutions for me would not resolve the problem for the other six students.

So, thank you Brookes.  Nearly thirty years after a similar situation screwed up my A levels, I feel the same thing being done to me again.  This time, I for one don’t expect to have another thirty years in which to come back and have another go.

I have one other possible option that I am willing to put on the table both to ensure I can do this combination, and to show how important I regard it that I do do this combination (I feel the entire idea of a programme designed around political economy without political thought is a hollow one).  The new module leader for Microeconomics is someone I know quite well, as a fellow long standing hall warden.  I believe he’s now semi-retired and is back on an hourly paid contract.  So maybe he could do with some extra hours.  Paid for by me, directly.  On top of the fees that are paid anyway that should allow me to do the programme I signed up for.  I suspect though that the ominous tone of today’s email that we cannot graduate with clashes in our timetable will mean that the bureaucracy will not allow this to happen because it would be an informal arrangement and the clash would still technically remain, even if we were able to study at a different time.

It looks like I will have little choice but to institute a formal Student Complaint Procedure.  Hopefully with the others of us affected (but I fully understand if they don’t want to take it that far and would prefer to settle for what will always then be for them a second best set of modules).  I’d rather not.  I work, and live, at the university’s pleasure.  And whilst the Student Complaint Procedure is not meant to affect relationships with the university with my involvement wider and deeper than most other people’s in the entire institution, I suspect it will.

So if anyone reading this (and congratulations if you have got this far through this rant) has any ideas, I’d love to hear from them.  Because it feels like hope is fading as each day goes by.  So far the much praised modular system has proven a nightmare for me.  I’m sure it’s no better for most of the academics that have to deal with the accompanying bureaucracy and administration.  But that’s cold comfort to me whose degree may be trashed by it.

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W(h)ither the Common Room?

Posted by Jock Coats on February 27th, 2012

Those foolhardy few who have read my blogs since inception or thereabouts will know that I have written in the past complaining about the loss of what one might call “Staff Common Room” facilities at Brookes, with the loss of the Lloyd Common Room and then no plans to provide anything similar – a private space reserved for staff meals, events and R&R – in the New Library and Teaching Building.  At the same time the SU fought and lost a not very wholehearted battle to get a “proper SU” social facility in the new building too.  And at the weekend I wrote lamenting the imminent loss of what is be the last remaining student operated social space on the central campuses, Morals Bar.  We also have, as I mentioned in that article, a “social centre” in the PostGraduate hall which could form the basis of a Brookes “Middle Common Room” but is firstly limited solely to residents of the building and second is clinical and pristine so that it looks good for the occasional conference users.

All these occurrences make me wonder what might be the future, and even if there is a future, of the idea of the “Common Room” as an institution in universities.  Do I have rose tinted spectacles about the benefits, perhaps?  Are they the important parts of a scholastic community that bring people of many disciplines and backgrounds together to meet informally, drop in and out of conversations, see what else is going on in the institution and so on?  Or, perhaps, are they fusty old class based, gender biased, institutions with little purpose in modern academic life?

Is the change in demographic of people coming to university, and more still, staying on and doing post graduate and then teaching or research, a cause of its demise?  Might it even be the other way round, and affect the sort of people who want to come and study, or work here? Or have we nearly become a “factory” without much of a night shift, where everyone is kept so busy during the day that there is no time or energy left for out of office experiences?  Or, maybe, are all the soft benefits the Common Room may have provided now being “delivered” as bits of the institutional commodity people buy with their fees, by ever more centralised and maybe with it bureaucratic means that can better be overseen and controlled by university management?

I was interested to see (not pleased, you will understand, but interested) that one of the comments on Facebook about my post about Morals Bar was that similar things have been happening even at older, more august, institutions such as Bristol University.  So I am genuinely glad that this is not only happening at Brookes, though it is of course Brookes that I care about most.  It is easy to look over our shoulder, “down the hill” and marvel, or moan, at the traditional hierarchy of the Common Rooms and even at the wider staff facility that is the University Club and either loathe it for the stuffed tweed and mortar board history it represents or envy it for the opportunities it puts in peoples’ way.  But has it ever been an important part of life in the likes of Brookes, the newer universities.  If not, ought it to have?  If so, should it or has it already disappeared, and at what cost to the institution and individuals?

I’ll readily admit that I am as about as institutionalised as it can get for someone (just) not yet forty-five (yes, it’s tomorrow!).  My upbringing in a family that was often moving around, sometimes ex-patriate, and then off to boarding school which was my longest “settled” home, ensured that.  So I was pretty familiar with the institutions of Junior House Common Room, Sixth Form Bar and Masters’ Common Room by the time I had left school.  Heck, even on holidays in the ex-pat community, at least in Africa, much of life revolves around the various ex-patriate clubs for social activities.  My earlier attempts to get into Oxford, my dalliance with monastic life, and now as well my time as a warden in halls of residence bear this tendency out.  My ambition, sad as it may seem, is to be carried out of here in a box, having had some time to be a decent academic, generating and promulgating new knowledge.

But what ought a good “Common Room” be providing?  Well the way I like to think of it is that if the university were a state, let’s say, management would be the government and its bureaucracy, unions, including the students’ union, would be the lobbyists and representatives and the committees its consultative body, whilst “The Common Room” would be its “civil society”.

As a physical facility it is a hub of life outside the classroom or study bedroom or academic office where people from across an institution can mix and meet (at a leisurely pace, not merely in the refectory queues), but still with a tie to the academy – unlike, say, the commonly heard assertion nowadays that a city’s commercial nightlife can cater for all of this.  For instance many times I’ve been in one or other of the former bars with, say, seminar groups with their tutors celebrating the last crit of the year or whatever over a few pints.  A place where the thousand flowers of informal networking, spontaneous debate and so on can bloom and give rise to new societies, opportunities or strands of academic study.  Somewhere where someone who wants an “immersive” experience for their money (which, if you choose to live on the university estate will next year tot up to the best part of £15,000 for a forty week year) can drop in, find out what’s going on, join in things they would never even consider if they had to look for them themselves.

As an institution it can provide camaraderie, the opportunity to get others involved in a new scheme or social activity, a network that reaches beyond the classroom, hall, rugger pitch and research group.  And it can give mutual aid and comfort when the university feels as if it is whirling about around you leaving you lost in the melee of change and development.  An institution separated from, hopefully above, the day to day “office politics” and deadlines of the university.

Have the newer universities ever had this “civil society”?  Clearly our ancient institutions, initially often monastic, but later not terribly approving of married dons, let alone women members, had jolly good reasons for forming such groups.  But I certainly think that when I came here just sixteen years ago those same institutions were alive and at least functioning, if perhaps already in decline.  Even before I started working here, friends who were studying here would invite me up to a few drinks after the  end of their exams and seminar assessments, so I’d get to meet tutors and lecturers and find out lots about what they were doing and what the university was like.  We used to have great big society events in Morals bar where resident students would mix with, for instance, international students societies and the like.  And I cannot count the number of interesting people I have been introduced to over lunch in Lloyd Common Room sharing those big tables.

It was always more egalitarian than the Common Rooms of the older universities perhaps.  Lacking an SCR cellar, staff, academic and administrative, would mingle with students in their bars, if anything trebling the possibility for chance networking opportunities.  Societies who held events either in the bars or in areas adjacent to them benefitted from passing footfall piquing the interest of someone on a chance encounter – something that will be all but impossible once Morals Bar has gone.

Do we still need this sort of facility?  Well of course I’m going to say yes.  The old reasons, of a student safe social space and so on, still apply.  I simply cannot believe that city night life is either appropriate or sufficient for all of our students, in fact, as a hall warden I positively know that’s not the case.  Even as the university itself aspires to be more “24/7” I cannot imagine that coming out of a society guest lecture at 8pm in a lecture hall on Gipsy Lane is going to be any less windswept and isolated in the new building as it is in the current facilities.  If we have any ambition to be a “scholastic community” and not just a 9-5 college with facilities for late studying then these sort of facilities are just as necessary as shorter queues at campus food outlets during the day or sufficient bus services to get people to Wheatley or Harcourt on time.

In the meantime, well I will be dining at St Cross College for my birthday, because, hey, there’s nowhere here to invite my friends to!

Posted in Brookes, Oxford Brookes Students' Union, Student Experience | Comments Off on W(h)ither the Common Room?

So farewell then, Morals Bar

Posted by Jock Coats on February 26th, 2012

At the beginning of this semester, about a month ago now, the Students’ Union invited us to “celebrate” twenty years’ service to the community of, first, Morrell Hall, and latterly Clive Booth Student Village, by Morals Bar by announcing it was to close permanently at the end of this semester. I decided at the time not to write an outraged post or try to form a campaign myself to persuade them otherwise because I was heartened that within a few days of that announcement a group of students resident in one of the old Morrell Hall blocks had been to the union’s management and had been told that if they got a campaign together there was a chance that it could be saved.

Well, now that SU elections are underway, a further email from the union management in recent days seems to make clear that this has never been a possibility. It simply repeats the news that the bar has about eight weeks left to live with no apparent chance of either reprieve nor discussion about what might happen in there in the future. So I am now ready to be outspokenly outraged about this news. All the more so as it appears that our students were either misinformed or misunderstood that their efforts might achieve some change.

I have been here, and regularly visiting Morals bar, for nearly sixteen years now. The SU probably would not have even realised the place was twenty years old this year had I not mentioned it would be nice to do something to mark it: I didn’t mean to terminate it.  There have been times when I have wondered whether it might save the university money, and me tax, just to transfer a portion of my wages direct to the students union block grant and give me a tab there! I have seen much more than a bunch of bean counters possibly can know about how it has worked, and why it hasn’t. And as I sit here of an evening enjoying a Coke with my evening meal, I hear more about what what other students appear to want from their conversations at tables next to me than any management or representative committee can guess from focus group meetings or surveys.

Morals Bar c. 1995

First, a timeline, because frankly I don’t suppose many in the union, or even the university, know much about the history of the place. When I arrived here Morals Bar had been the Student Union’s largest entertainment/club night venue since it had opened in 1992. On Gipsy Lane, they had had what is now the Galliano/Galaxy Lounge as a club area and other parts of the ground floor of the Sinclair building for its bars. The Gipsy Lane venue had its main late license night on a Saturday and so Morals had a very successful night on the Friday night (which was seen as the more lucrative club night anyway).

The year I arrived, Brookes had taken control of the Headington Hill Hall site and the Pergamon Press print works building, which enabled the Student Union to have a venue of over a thousand in capacity, and with it they applied for and got the lucrative Friday night late license. So Morals main night reverted to the Saturday, in the guise of a hugely successful branded night called “Glam”.

Glam was successful for many years. Every Saturday at half past seven the Entz team would have to kick out half the capacity of the bar in order to count them back in and by the official Glam start time of eight in the evening there wold regularly be a queue that left us immediately one-in-one-out and continued that way right through till last entry at one on the Sunday morning. Throughout this successful period it must be remembered that the hall on which Morals was sited had only 450 residents, compared with today’s nearly 1700.

Not only was Glam on a Saturday extremely successful but a student DJ organised Friday night called Feedback, playing Indie music for those not so keen on the contemporary dance night up at the new Helena Kennedy Center thousand plus capacity venue, was also a very successful evening, with Morals often well over half full (and indeed when the HKSC venue was full many came down to Feedback anyway as an alternative, whatever their taste in music).  At the same time the then new Vice Chancellor, who lived for a short while in the “Steel Framed House” just opposite Morals bar, lent his support to an application for further 2am licences (at the time much to my chagrin indeed as I felt the level of noise we experienced from a full club on a Friday and Saturday would be inappropriate on a student residence site in midweek). When I questioned Graham about this, he stated that we should do everything we could to ensure the commercial success of the union to bolster the block grant.

However, the capricious decision to axe two popular nights – Playground (for which most weeks people queued round the block on a Monday morning to ensure tickets for the following Friday) at the main venue and Glam at Morals and replace them with Peachy and Blitz was puzzling at the time, but for both venues it was, in effect, the beginning of the end.  Numbers attending the main venue declined precipitously and Blitz was never as successful as Glam from the beginning.  In reaction the union decided it was the fault of the fabric of the main venue and spent a lot of capital trying to glitz it up.  But it was the underlying decision to rebrand the main nights that was at fault and no amount of capital expenditure was going to undo that loss of goodwill.  Auditors rightly recognised this after the event and said the expenditure would have to be written off as trade was not sufficient to depreciate it normally, and the decision to end all bar trading was effectively made.  Morals has, if anything, simply had a couple of years of stay of execution, with no attempt to promote it, or return to Glam or even any discussion about how the space might be used differently.  Simply abandoned.

So yes, the licensed trade can be vicious: club nights are fickle and represent a risk, especially if you have people, elected for a short period, who think they know better than the status quo that is successful and exists, and who go on to throw good money after bad decisions.  That is what is unsustainable.  And so it has proven.  But that has fitted in quite nicely with the now prevailing view amongst university management.  Club nights were a reputational risk to the university.  Much local dissatisfaction with the university as a neighbour was focussed on the club nights and much university time and effort put in to try and address the local aftermath of these rather than perhaps more directly relevant university issues.  The bars had to go.

However we now have the strange situation in which the university feels it is worth providing a social space in the new Postgraduate centre (cynics might suggest it’s really only for the summer conference trade rather than truly a space for the “middle common room” to make its own and that is certainly reflected in the management of the place as a pristine and therefore not very welcoming environment), but is closing down the previously successful venue at the heart of what is now a hall of 1700 residents, and neither university nor Student Union management appear to want to talk about what, if anything, should go there in the future.  All the previous arguments about why a university should provide some social facilities onsite swept away: about having safe spaces in which young undergraduates can socialise (not the same thing as social learning spaces) without having to go too far, arrange an entire night out, book specially spaces that require people to kick us out of otherwise grim, empty, evening spaces in the university at a certain time.

And here’s the rub: it is all very well saying that Oxford’s night life offers everything a student could want, but it is qualitatively different.  They separate the social from the university.  It forces people to decide to make an effort to “go out”, rather than be able to pop in for a couple of drinks in the middle of coursework (some even like to do their work sometimes in the bar so they have a change of scene, and a chance to see people passing through rather than be isolated in the study-bedroom.  They force societies to book spaces where no other footfall might attract passing interest: the union may tout the use of the “Lounge” and “Venue” for society events, but they are, frankly, a little like organising a night in an otherwise empty community centre.

To have a “scholastic community” is more than to have a day time, pristine, sterile set of multi-purpose teaching and learning buildings.  Where is the “common room”?  The university has all but done away with the staff common room too of course in which people from different disciplines mix, quite casually, but network, overhear what’s going on in other parts of the university and so on.  I wonder how many academic collaborations have been sparked by casual networking and conversation in the common room or bar?  I doubt it’s a coincidence that college high table, hall and common room chats afterwards are still an important part of life “down the hill”.  Well, some careful thought into what could replace Morals in what was, after all, a purpose built communal facility building (even though designed so that it could be converted into lecture rooms), could show the way.

I take it as a given, though reluctantly as I don’t really believe the stated “competition” reasons, that there is no longer a possibility of filling the 550 capacity venue as a bar alone, trading at a profit.  Part of its problem indeed has been that because it was first and foremost a bar, it has only opened at “drinking times”.  It has never been available, properly, for day time social use.  If the building itself were seen genuinely as the heart of the hall, a place where people could take some work during the day, maybe get a coffee or some food (even out of one of those modern vending machines if necessary, though 1700 residents out to be sufficient to justify a proper, staffed, catering offer along the lines of Eights at Wheatley) and perhaps have a bar opened during the evening for a while in addition, I’ll bet it would get better use, not be taken for granted as simply a single function bar and place to watch the rugby on February weekends.

The space indeed could be divided up, with a smaller area as a bar room, that could be fully secured to allow for more casual day time, in fact 24/7, use of the rest of the spaces, and still have a place to go in the evenings and at weekends without having to arrange a whole night out.  Where societies can have events without worrying about being thrown out at a particular time, and where casual passers’ by might see something going on and look in, maybe changing their lives completely in the process by introducing them to something they’re never even going to look for on a societies notice board or Facebook page.  The ease with which a new group can spring up amongst undergraduates at Oxford must surely partly be down to the ease with which they can simply grab a space in a college and meet up and have a couple of drinks after a guest speaker to continue the conversation.  Organising to hold student arts events in local pubs and clubs is not the same as having a safe space to mess around with in the relative privacy of a university venue.  Not everyone is ready for the big stage, or even the “Backroom at the Bully”, or can compete with more professional offerings in such competitive venues.  It increases the difficulty of arranging such an event, possibly to the point where it simply won’t happen.

One person.  Only one, talks about discussing the future of Morals in their Student Union election manifesto.  A few more seem to want a venue or even return to some form of a union as nightclub.  But for the union to have known about the impending doom of Morals bar for over two years now and not to have taken steps to involve its members in a discussion of what future it might have after its life as a large but increasingly empty club venue is disappointing to say the least.  A university is about more than nice classrooms and nights out in town.  If it is to be a 24/7 scholastic community some consideration needs to go into spaces other than on the main campus where that can happen.  Every hall should have a social/social learning space for when study bedrooms become oppressive or people just want to get out of the flat for a while without organising a night out.  The added value of making casual connections and networking outside of classroom hours is a core part of what a “scholastic community” ought to be encouraging.

The demise of Morals seems to suggest it is not even on the agenda.  And if one takes the view that our future students may well be paying for their experience for half the rest of their lives, for as long as they are paying for their home, it ought to be on the agenda.  We can’t just subcontract everything outside teaching and learning to the Cowley Rd.

Posted in Brookes, Halls of Residence, Morals Bar, Oxford Brookes Students' Union, Student Experience | Comments Off on So farewell then, Morals Bar

Electrifying day in halls

Posted by Jock Coats on February 19th, 2012

After a short power outage on the Morrell Hall part of the Clive Booth site on Friday evening, for an hour, many of us awoke to find the power cut off on Saturday again.  Friday’s had been a short lived affair – just an hour or so.  But it soon became clear that Saturday’s outage was going to be a much more serious affair.  Scottish and Southern had had a major outage well outside Brookes’s campuses as it turned out, and this time it knocked out all of Clive Booth Student Village, all of Headington Hill Hall Campus, and all of the Cheney Student Village site including the Brookes Centre for Sport, and apparently around 1,000 local homes.

Initially, SSEPD had estimated everything would be back on within two to three hours, and, sure enough the N-X and Postgraduate bits of Clive Booth, which are fed from the Marston Rd mains and are separate from the old Morrell site and the rest fed from the Headington Rd mains, came back on at about 13:00 on Saturday.  Then, ominously, we got messages from the power company that there may be some addresses to which power would not be restored until “evening”, then that it might be restored between about 20:00 and midnight.

This would have meant between nine and thirteen hours between losing power and reconnection.  Not, you would think, a total tragedy, but it is amazing just how reliant we are on sound electricity distribution.  We knew we were likely to be without ethernet as most of our site is fed through one of the affected blocks.  So there was very little we could do about that but hope everything rebooted nicely when power was eventually restored.  But who knew that in modern three storey buildings we are no longer operating on mains pressure water, for instance?  That all the water supplies are pumped into the buildings by, yes, electric pumps.  Even potable, drinking, albeit only cold stuff that could, theoretically, come from a three or four bar mains pressure to feed buildings of three storeys.

In institutional buildings, indeed probably anywhere with communal hallways and stairways, it is routine now to find battery backed emergency lighting.  But of course we discovered that that has a finite life (not really a surprise!), so by the time dusk came all of those were also off (it’s clearly not as simple as saying “can’t they only go on when it’s dark” because it *is* dark in windowless corridors and so on all day) and the place was in pitch blackness (thanks to student residents also who did not resort to candles which might have increased the potential risks of incident much further under such conditions).  The internal phone system went too in the affected blocks, whether straight away or after batteries ran out I don’t know – I’m not sure whether the student bedrooms are on IP telephony but previously we also had at least one internal old fashioned phone in each flat we could have used, under battery backup, for several hours, I think.

Fortunately, when SSEPD said 20:00 they meant it.  Our estates people had been on to them during the day quite a lot stressing that we had up to 1300 student residents stuck, many without water and all without light and heat, and they had set themselves a deadline of 20:30 to get everything reconnected or to install a generator backup supply on the most affected sites.  So well done to SSEPD for getting it all back on at about half seven.  And well done to the Brookes estates teams for getting onto site quickly after that to ensure that pumps, boilers and so on had started up again correctly.  I had also taken some steps to escalate knowledge of the outage to the heads of student services and estates, in case we needed to think about contingency plans (though it would indeed have been a very major operation to make alternative arrangements for so many people).

If there’s any big lesson to be learned from this it would have to be, in my opinion, how we get news to so many people to keep them in touch with what’s happening, and to inform them about possible alternative facilities (like drinking water, loos capable of flushing and with lights to see in).  A year or so back I set up a bunch of Twitter accounts for Clive Booth as a whole and for each block individually, but they’ve never been used much.  Maybe this is the spur that we need to start using such technologies.  If they can organise revolutions, then surely they can get information out to at least sufficient numbers of people such that word of mouth can take over from there.  The most depressing (and at times it has to be said irritating) thing yesterday was having to repeat the same message to so many people calling in to try and find out what was going on and what the prognosis was.  We may not have much to tell people, but at least we could keep people in touch with what we do know and what we are planning by way of contingencies if necessary.

Oh, and my iPad with 3G was a saviour.  With few people onsite with network connectivity, and certainly none in the hall office, it was the only way, without constantly pestering people who were no doubt already under a lot of pressure from estates, to keep in contact with news from SSEPD and so on and to fire off emails when we couldn’t contact some people by phone.  Though this would have been of course much more difficult had the entire site been out of power for the whole time – phones, iPads and so on needed charging to keep going.

I very much hesitate to ask “what would they have done without me” but clearly my knowledge of how so many bits of the site work gained over years here was important in being able to explain to people why certain things weren’t working and when they could expect them back and what alternatives we might be able to offer.  I am even able to tell some of the maintenance guys a thing or two about how things work down here, such as the rather bizarre loo flushing system in our newer blocks that was still off this morning.

In OBIS we are striving to ensure that nobody is the fount of all knowledge about a particular service, in case that person is incapacitated or simply not around at the time the knowledge is needed.  Hopefully we can get some kind of knowledge base, accessible to the people who need it (i.e. not just those working to fix problems but those who have to deal with the residents/customers/users while they are not working), when they’re stuck without even the basic systems needed for most such facilities to function, for such a large and diverse site as ours, built over forty years and with several different ways of doing any one thing as the technologies have changed over those years.

But huge thanks and credit must go to Tom, Colin, John, Steve and no doubt others in estates I’m not aware of for ensuring everything was back as soon as possible, to Gary and H for checking it to ensure we were all okay and “back to normal” as well as to “higher ups” like Keith and Richard whom I disturbed on a weekend evening just so they were aware of possible issues, and to the likes of the Networks and Telecoms teams for systems that proved resilient and didn’t need intervention once power was restored.  And of course, down here, to all the wardens and hall assistants who had to deal with the real human issues arising all day.  And to all our residents for (mostly) taking the whole thing in good humour.

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Halls as a scholastic community: carrots or sticks

Posted by Jock Coats on February 2nd, 2012

I’ve just left our hall office where warden colleagues appear to be holding the first of what promises to be several evenings of disciplinary assizes.  I hope they will not be bloody ones!  I will be helping tomorrow night with some relating to another part of our site that I don’t normally look after.  I am always only too aware that I seem to do very few of these, whilst over the years the number that some colleagues do increases all the time.  I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here when I get into trouble with my management for NOT doing disciplinaries, as if there ought to be some quota we each have to fill! (I assure any students reading this that the isn’t)

Over the years I’ve been a warden my site has grown by around 400% and has become, as with the wider university population, much more diverse.  Out of hours support, pastoral and disciplinary, and warden line management, has moved from being handled through student services to hall management as part of estates directorate.  We have recruited a higher and higher proportion of wardens from amongst younger, undergraduate students, perhaps because they are easier for hall managers to manage compared with us obstreperous old curmudgeons who actually have experience, wide connections around the university and opinions as to how social order could and should be maintained.

When I started it was predominently university staff, mostly academic, who were wardens – I was a fortunate (for me) exception – and at the very least, no undergraduate students in any large halls.  The number of issues that have gone on to disciplinary hearings has increased I am sure by a greater proportion than the number of extra residents in the hall.  Resultant penalties have risen inexorably – they now make my eyes water and I’m a well paid full time employee not struggling to live on loans, grants, part time jobs and handouts from mum and dad.  Whilst there are lot of factors here, I can’t help thinking that there is some cause and effect going on.

Most importantly, at least since the transfer of warden and disciplinary functions to halls and estates from student services (where they remain in most other universities I can find information for), we have had very little debate about what we expect and what students, our customers and community backbone, expect out of halls.  Or at least, despite all my experience, none of any discussions that have been had have involved tapping that experience or that of other long serving wardens (at least before being presented with fait accomplis changes for “consultation”).  And I assure you, I think about it all the time…at least as much as I put into my day job or, now, my degree.  Because I believe, very fundamentally, that halls form an integral and crucial part of the now fashionable “Student Experience”. And, as one who calls Morrell Hall “home” I take their success or failure intensely personally.

UNC SWAT team: campus overkill?That debate is now long overdue and urgent as we approach the time when students are going to be asked to pay more than ever before just to study here, never mind around fifty per cent again to stay in halls of residence.  If we’re not careful, out of hours “support” might start looking even more like that now available at the Univesity of North Carolina seen in this photo… We will have failed.

Even now, it feels to me that we are “coping” rather than succeeding.  Those who are punished for what they often feel are relatively trivial infractions and those who suffer disturbances when they are trying to work or sleep are not sure who to complain to or what happens when they do complain are not being well served.  I rather suspect that if some knew quite how much people who are, most of the time, their neighbours, classmates and friends, ended up paying when they enter the disciplinary system they would be even more likely to suffer in silence.

So to my vision for halls and the support we give to residents in halls.

Halls should be an integral part of the scholastic community of the university. If people are paying nine grand just to study here or fourteen grand to study and have a room on the university estate, they should expect the two to be more joined up.  For the Student Experience to extend from lecture room to bedroom if you will, with added value facilities such as social study space and communal leisure areas as part of the package.  If the postgraduate centre, for example, deserves a social facility, then so should all the rest of halls.

Out of hours support should combine the roles of pastoral support, academic adviser, student support coordinator – in short, what other institutions call the student’s “Moral Tutor“.  Junior ranks of support should be more like the Peer Assisted Learning helpers some academic departments use to provide backup support in areas they did well in in earlier years.  We should look to have thriving community associations in each hall.

We need to find more carrots and use the stick less often, but possibly more harshly when we do. Vandalism and violence and abuse could be dealt with by sending down or rustication.  I’ll bet you think that as an anarchist I don’t “do” rules.  Not true at all.  I “do” private law – we, the property owner, can impose whatever reasonable restrictions we like to create the atmosphere we want as a part of the contract residents choose to accept.  But in return we should offer more connection with the rest of the life of the university than the semi-detached hostel status halls currently appear at times to be treated as (by both management and student residents).

To this end we need to find ways of welcoming new residents when they arrive.  Kitchen meetings several weeks into their time here are not “welcome” events.  I was frankly shocked when I discovered that the talks I had campaigned for this year turned out to be “invitations” rather than “expected” attendance.  We need to lay down the boundaries at the point of arrival, not once they get into trouble.

Halls need a social online space where future flat and block mates can meet each other and the support staff before they arrive, just as we are hoping to do for the modules and courses they will be on, from as soon as they know where they will be living and what they will be studying.   And using the same social media platform (such as Moodle) so that they appear to be part of the same institution and the same infrastructure, again, not semi-detached or yet another thing to learn to use to get the most out of the place.

Academics must realise, even now, that most of the work that counts as study outside of contact hours goes on “at home” and for many, especially as first years, that means in halls.  So they should be able to talk about how managing ones time involves also having respect for others in their environs so that everybody gets a fair chance at finding quiet time to get work done, and that they should know that academic support is available out of hours through the Warden/HallPAL teams with whom they meet to discuss issues as they might with their own faculty SSCs and so on.

I would have one warden/dean drawn from relatively senior academic or academic related staff, or at least people with established student support experience in the university, and they can remain as the “ultimate threat” for disciplinary action as the Deans are in university colleges when security officers or HallPALs report issues to them.  And their powers should include rustication or removal from halls with negotiation with accommodation officers and university senior staff.  In fact, wouldn’t it be fantastic if each Faculty could nominate at least one of the HallPAL/junior wardens in each hall whilst Student Support appoints the Dean/Senior Warden in all of them.

In some halls this might mean reconfiguring Warden/Dean accommodation in order to be able to recruit more senior people to the role, with most current warden accommodation more appropriate for early career academics who should be encouraged to be part of halls support teams when they join the institution and perhaps student rooms in shared flats for the HallPAL undergraduate support team members.  Contracts need to give more security of tenure than the year to year system that operates at present (Reading has revolving four year contracts for their Wardens, who are recruited from the senior academic levels).

Southampton found that the ratio of support staff to residents had to be closer to one to fifty for residents to feel they had someone identifiable they could contact, not the one to a hundred proposed a couple of years ago here.  Hull has a relatively senior academic (for which read member of the professoriat) with family accommodation for every block of fifty or so, with additional more junior but still academic based support – I am not proposing we can go that far, just yet, until such a system proves itself at least.  We need to be able to know and recognise students as neighbours, not just occasional policing teams calling in when they’ve done something wrong or got a complaint to make and be recognised by them to gain their respect and for them to know that there is always someone on hand with the time to help them, academically or pastorally.

Line management for these roles needs to be returned to student and academic support departments and away from estates and hall management which isolates them from the rest of the university support structures.

All this need not be costly, certainly no more costly than the changes to the out of hours support service proposed two years ago.  It does require a culture change.  A realisation that halls are an integral part of creating a scholastic community, adding value to the nine grand fees by being more than just a place to live (and a relatively expensive one at that), creating a culture that will enhance our local communities by setting boundaries for students before they move out into private accommodation – as one former governor once suggested to me, the “collegiality” rite of passage between “familiarity” and “community”.  More carrot than stick.  More community than hostel.  More integrated into the rest of the university.

I’ve been saying these things for years without anyone acknowledging them let alone incorporating any of the ideas.  And to me, the result is tonight’s “assizes,” bloody or not.  Such confrontational situations are not good for the university’s reputation or the student experience.  Let’s hope we can find those elusive carrots instead.

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How the other half dine

Posted by Jock Coats on January 13th, 2012

Formal Hall Menu, 17th January 2011:

Christ Church College Dining Hall

Cured Salmon Topped with Beetroot with a Rocket Salad

Pan Fried Sirloin Steak with a Roasted Beef Jus
(v)Parsnip Cranberry and Chestnut Loaf with a Roasted Shallots Sauce
both with
Wasabi Mash, Cabbage and Carrots

Passion Fruit and Lemon Tart with a Passion Fruit Cream

Price: £4.50 (waiter service)

Brookes Lunch Menu, Friday 13th Jan

Lasange, Chips, Garden Peas

Cabinet Pudding & Custard

Price: £6.06 (self service)

Brookes dinner menu:

Dinner?  You do that yourself, mate.

I’ll always remember Sir Clive Booth coming to open the halls that bear his name, and talking about how halls were part of us providing Maslow’s baser needs so our students could devote their energies to the higher pursuits of academia, community and high culture.  But while tinned spaghetti hoops and pot noodle are the dinner menu can we really expect self-actualisation to occur in our students quite as readily as with their well fed fellows less than a mile away?

Maybe it’s time, when the contract comes up for renewal, that we look seriously at a not-for-profit or social enterprise to do our catering, and sell at cost, rather than a contractor having to make an inappropriate mark-up out of cash-strapped students’ most basic needs?

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Exams, exams, why exams?

Posted by Jock Coats on January 12th, 2012

I notice from what information we have available to us that all four of my modules this next semester will have examination based assessment.  In the case of the politics module, the exam is 100% of assessment.

Now I am sure there is a place for exams, but I suspect it is a lot less often than is actually the case.  It may be that my politics module is all about remembering facts, O level style, that can be regurgitated through a series of simple questions and answers, but it doesn’t sound right.  And the thought of inflicting one or more on hour essay type answers in my ageing handwriting on a marker is a little disturbing.

Further, it means we are not producing any assessable work throughout the module.  No essays and such like.

I read in an American academic’s blog a while back about one half-way house solution.  If you don’t want to hand out essay titles and have people read up on them and write a polished, cited, argument over a period of weeks, potentially allowing them to get someone else to do the work, then how about handing out an essay question for return the following day?  It gives minimal time to “cheat” but adequate time to spend on a decent argument, on setting the whole paper out with bibliography, citations and neatly type-written, and it doesn’t have to be done in a sweaty hall with 300 other students having had everything they’ve learned blown out of their heads by the volume and length of our Academic Registrar’s recorded reminder of examination rules.

All my other modules have exams this semester.  One module had an exam last semester (and that was, arguably at least, in Microeconomics, one of those subjects where facts and definitions can be tested in examination conditions).

Some thought needs to go into this.

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Reflections of a Freshman, Part 5: Support, in and out of hours

Posted by Jock Coats on January 12th, 2012

I’ll try and wrap up with this post, and roll the issues of support both on and off campus, in and out of core hours, into one post.  I will probably still do a separate one about the future of halls of residence as well, but cover the basics in this one.

I have to say that whenever I’ve been to see the Student Support Co-ordinators they’ve been very helpful.  I’ve not really seen them about anything terribly complex yet, and I haven’t yet felt the need to visit Upgrade or my Academic Adviser so I can’t comment on them at all.  However I do find that as with other areas those of us whose course modules are delivered by different Faculties sometimes fall between the gaps I think.  The SSCs and Academic Adviser are of course, rightly, the ones in the faculty delivering the whole subject – in my case, Business.  But they are not in a position to answer questions on what amounts to fully half our course, those bits delivered by Humanities and Social Sciences.

A similar situation arises with the course representatives meetings – they are arranged by Department, so the meetings I go to only review their own modules, so we don’t get in on the discussion of modules in Politics and International Relations.  My understanding is that when everyone was simply on one or more fields, they had reps for each field, so if we had built a course simply by adding an economics field and a politics field together we would have been able to be reps on both (or perhaps either) field.  Something needs to change here I think.  One proposal was to have the program leads from Politics and International Relations attend some of our subject rep meetings in Wheatley, but I think that would be wasteful.  We might as well attend the equivalent meetings in both faculties – it needn’t be the same reps at each, so perhaps we could divide up the jobs between the IX course reps.

Halls of Residence

But my main beef on support is less directly concerned with the faculties themselves and more about “student life” – if you will the time outside contact hours and office hours and so on when, let’s face it, most of us end up doing our coursework, revision and so on.  And for me the focus for this is halls of residence.  I’ve been a warden for many years now and I’m a bit fed up of the various changes to the warden service that have diminished the service in my view.  And I’m even more fed up of not having my experience taken much into account when people who run the service make decisions.  It’s not as if I am backward in coming forward!

I am still learning – none more so than this semester when, though not exactly the same as fellow students in halls (in that I am a warden and they are paying residents), I have also found myself doing coursework at home in halls.  My feeling is that when Year 9k comes next year, those forking out another £5k plus for what in reality amounts to 24 or 25 weeks of useful occupancy, they are going to expect much more from halls in terms of support for both academic and social activities.

Our headline rents are around £100-£135 per week, usually for 38 weeks.  But for years now we have steadily increased the amount students are expected to pay for.  When I first started, I think they were on 33 week contracts, where they would pay for each term (week 1 to week 10), were expected to move out over each holiday (Christmas, Easter and the long vacation) so we could use halls for conferences and the like.  They paid, effectively, for the time they needed to be here.  Now thy have to pay throughout the Christmas vacation and for around three weeks after examinations finish in summer.  All in all, if you are in a £135 a week room, you can be paying the best part of £200 per week for the weeks you actually use (and if your lectures etc fit the right pattern, you can easily stay in Oxford two nights a week, with breakfast, for less).

Now of course the business of universities has changed.  We stopped expecting people to move out long before semesters started – when the Christmas and Easter conference trade became negligible.  Greater numbers of international students need accommodation throughout the academic year – though even these are, judging by the number of people actually in halls over the Christmas break, relatively few in number.  Right now, hall rent (indeed any accommodation) is the biggest expense compared with fees of £3k.  But when the choice is between £9k to study from home or £14k to stay away at university, I feel more people are going to want more of a connect between the academic day time activities and support in halls as part of a scholastic community.

As I proposed at the time hall wardens were last under discussion, I think we should be more like what other universities call “Moral Tutors”.  In our case it could be a mixture of the roles of Student Support Coordinators, Academic Advisers, Moral Tutors and Upgrade advisers.  And we should be split off from the Estates department again.  Still it seems from most universities job adverts for positions equivalent to wardens they mostly report into the Student Services and Support type function rather than the Estate management function.  Indeed even where universities, such as Reading, have outsourced the management of all their halls to UPP, they expect their wardens to come from the professoriat and other senior academics.

Since we have been run out of the Estates department, the recruitment has focussed on students, probably more easily managed than us obstreperous old timers with opinions on how to run things based on living there for a long time and experiencing what the students actually experience.

I understand we do not have a project in the Program for the Enhancement of the Student Experience that directly relates to halls.  This is a grave omission and before any further changes are made to the warden service this wide ranging discussion of how halls fit into the student experience and then what sort of support we need to provide in that environment needs to take place.  To kick such a discussion off I offer my scheme for the out of hours service that was submitted and roundly rejected the last time we looked at the out of hours support service, attached, as a Google Document available to people inside of Brookes.

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Reflections of a Freshman, Part 4: Consistency and Convenience Please!

Posted by Jock Coats on January 3rd, 2012

Okay, so now onto some more detailed issues with the course and the organisation I’d like to highlight.

Whilst I am quite sure that neither universities nor the government wants us to think in these terms, I cannot seem to shake the idea that for those students who from next year will be paying the best part of £9,000 a year for their course, that equates, roughly, to a hundred quid per module per week (9k ÷ 8 modules ÷ 11 weeks [we didn’t have real lessons in any of my modules in week 12 this past semester]).  Or, since I have had two contact hours per week on each module so far, half a ton per hour.  Of course, fees cover a whole load more than just contact hours, but these are the core slices of your course, so you can reasonably roll all the other costs into these simple deliverable units of contact time.  So some of my modules with a couple of hundred students on them will be “raking in” £200k a semester.

For that price, no doubt, people will want (and be entitled to expect) things “just so”: well organised, consistent such that the same things are done the same way in each module, such as coursework hand-ins and returns, the use of the Virtual Learning Environment and so on.  And at the moment this is one of my biggest frustrations.  Some of these, of course, will fall to my day job in IT to help resolve anyway, but others involve the way colleagues work rather than the technology, and I think they need to try and harmonise all their administrative procedures where possible.

Firstly, as much administravia as possible should be done electronically.  If we can submit work through Turnitin why should we also spend money printing work out and hand delivering it to different pigeon holes, sometimes with cover sheets, sometimes with our names on, sometimes not.  There are plenty of tools now available to enable markers to annotate a PDF format document for example, then to submit their marking for moderation online and then to return the work with its mark and comments back electronically.  In fact, three of four modules used Turnitin, but even here it was inconsistent, with two of them making me log in to itself and another able to submit via our own VLE.  As a result it seems I can no longer access this latter piece of work via the Turnitin account portfolio I created for the other two.

Since half my modules are in Wheatley and half at Gipsy Lane a round trip of two hours to drop off course work or queue to get it back, often from offices that have specific opening hours, is just a waste of time, lovely though Wheatley Campus is!  All-electronic submission would obviate this and all-electronic marking would get us our results quicker and open up new ways of getting extra feedback as per the “assessment compact” – such as “click here to email the marker with more questions instead of having to find the time to make it to very restricted “office hours”.  Even when it is at Gipsy Lane it can be difficult.  On one module coursework was returned via a faculty resource room which is only open three hours each day – alternating between mornings and early afternoons – so for me, because their opening times were times I was in Wheatley on other modules or at work, it took a week to be able to fetch my marked coursework.  The first time I was able to make it to the resource centre during opening hours I found faculty management had decided to use the room for a meeting and didn’t want us in there collecting coursework!  It’s only open three hours a day, for us students: use another room or another time for meetings please!

Consistency of particularly electronic resources.  All our module handbooks were on the VLE this past semester, which I gather is good – some modules hardly use the VLE at all apparently.  So first, I’m not sure that I would want paper copies – I’ve not used them – and at the start of this semester there was an issue with printing some so we didn’t get them all until the second week.  We should be able to access these from before the start of each module if possible.  They contain reading lists and a preview of each week’s material to be covered.  There’s effectively a six week break between semester one and two – I’d like to use that for preparing for next semester (let alone telling people who might buy me books for Christmas what to get me!).  Ideally as soon as my module selections are made I’d want to see at least module handbooks, and preferably before I choose: the short description of a module is hardly enough to whet an appetite for it!

Module handbooks should have a consistent layout as well where possible.  If it has a weekly breakdown of lecture topics and background reading for them, it ought to be in the same place in each module’s handbook.  Same with coursework and assessment information – I often had to thumb back and forward in different handbooks to find the same sort of information in very different places.

But also they need to be available in a consistent format, ideally multiple formats.  Some (particularly notable for this was the microeconomics lecture slides) seemed to try and open in my browser (and destroyed any graphs in them at the same time!) when I wanted a download, others downloaded when I really just wanted to view them quickly in a browser.  We need to agree on a set of formats to be made available to support different devices and use them consistently.  I’m not clear why module handbooks are in an MS Word format – it’s the least portable and waiting for Word or Powerpoint to open to read them can be a pain – PDFs, maybe even MOBIs and EPUBs would be better.

I know, as an anarchist, you’d probably expect me to want to allow individual modules and their staff to do it how they pleased, but this is about my experience as a student, and inconsistencies are the main annoyance I’ve had this semester.

I’d like lectures at least to be audio, if not video, recorded, so that if I happen to miss one (I had flu one week for instance) or if I want to revisit them for revision I can do so easily from the VLE for that module.  I understand that there is much hand-wringing about intellectual property and recording lectures.  Judging by the wide range of materials and universities publishing a lot of their lectures “raw” on iTunesU however, including some of the global top flight universities, I’m sorry, but we ought to be able to do that as well, even if just for internal consumption accessible via our secure VLE accounts.

I know I mentioned seminars in my previous post, but I want to make a specific suggestion for those modules that feel they cannot have seminars every week: every third or fourth week is not enough and you can get little done in fifty minutes.  Maybe in these cases it might be better to have, say, two hours of lectures every week for half a semester (I confess I thought I would be getting two hours’ lecture AND one of seminar *every* week though to be honest!), then have one week where there’s a sort of symposium for three hours or half a day, in which, perhaps, seminar groups relate to each specific coursework essay option, where there’s a short plenary then break out groups that can spend a couple of hours exploring your preferred essay topic, then another plenary with feedback from each group so people who had initially chosen another topic might hear about the others enough to enable them to switch topics.  A similar thing could happen in the last teaching week (indeed I only had one module actually teach *anything at all* in week eleven even: all the rest were revision sessions – useful in themselves but definitely not to be counted as “teaching” in the sense of introducing new material).  I think such a thing might be a better way of recapping the subjects that have been covered in the previous four or five weeks and give a better springboard from which to embark on one’s chosen coursework option.

If this isn’t possible, I think for fifty nickers an hour I’d want to have a seminar every week, with a cap on the number of people in a seminar group of, say, ten.  Yes, timetabling might be more difficult, but since these seminars are currently next to useless, something has to be done to give value for money next year.

Finally for this post, since it involves resources, I personally would like as much as I can get in electronic form.  Text books in ten point font (apart from breaching RNIB guidelines anyway) on shiny paper, often with hard to read coloured sidebars, I have found a real pain.  At night in artificial light I have had to get a magnifying glass out to read the damned things.  Most of the core text books are only sold to universities and are updated frequently – if we cannot use our collective buying power to demand Kindle or other eBook formats there’s something wrong.

I know I’m getting a bit long in the tooth compared with most of my fellow students, and that I work full time as well as doing my course, but resolving the issue of having to traipse around various parts of Oxfordshire to hand in or fetch coursework and getting most books in a format I can read in different sized fonts depending on how I am feeling at the time would be, I am sure, useful to anyone who is studying on top of other commitments and has different reading needs in terms of access to resources in a format they can use without it being painful.  If we value diversity in the student body, these two are a must in my opinion.

I’d still stress though that overall I’ve really enjoyed the first semester.  The subject matter is fine, the teaching likewise.  I just want, even for what I am now paying let alone for what people will be paying next year for things to work the same.  I think that would be a “great leap forward” in student experience.  I’ve heard few complaints really about the course itself, but many grumbles about these apparently little issues.

In the next post I want to cover some of the support facilities associated with our faculties, and finally do a post on how halls of residence fit into the post-9k world.

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Reflections of a Freshman, Part 3: A student, at last!

Posted by Jock Coats on December 21st, 2011

So, twenty six years after I might have gone to university if I had been a good little boy at school, I was finally, on 20th September 2011, enrolled (matriculated at some universities) as a student!

My “subject” (as I think it is now called – it might be a programme, I can’t remember the different jargon!) is Economics, Politics and International Relations.  This means it is a Faculty of Business course (the economics bit remains compulsory for all three/four years) where half of my modules will be delivered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (the politics or international relations modules, depending on which of the two you drop after year one).  It is a new “subject”: that’s partly why I applied, for it is sort of the first time that Brookes has come close to a “PPE” type course where both economics is compulsory and politics is a major part of it.  Nobody should be allowed to study politics without an economics component in my opinion – it makes for ignorant politicians when they try and play at allocating scarce resources on behalf of millions of their subjects!

We used to have a lot of “single field” subjects where you could combine two fields to put together some pretty eclectic degree combinations (a previous Deputy Vice-Chancellor always used to talk about “Accountancy and Mediaeval Dentistry” as an example – though we don’t, in fact, teach mediaeval dentistry so far as I am aware!).  But they are preferring to guide people into more structured “subjects” nowadays.  But my subject is important in several respects as regards the “Student Experience”:

  • All first year modules are compulsory – most people have some choice over a couple of the eight modules they are expected to do in year one.
  • We are a small “subject” cohort but all our modules are existing, standard modules from either the Economics department or the Social Sciences department.  In most cases the 26 of us are in modules of up to a couple of hundred who are likely to be on one of just two other subjects or fields.
  • We get to see starkly any differences between the different faculties and departments over custom and practice.
  • We are taught on two campuses a bus ride apart.
  • The other “subjects” that fall under the Department of Economics in the Faculty of Business are wholly within the Faculty of Business so their module reviews and so on are carried out by the same group of people for the whole subject – in our case they are carried out by different Faculties for half of the course.

Induction week over then, I had my first module lecture at 9am on the first Monday morning of the semester.  Introduction to International Relations.

Oops – there was no microphone working for the module leader.  So she spent the first ten minutes wandering about campus looking for some IT help (I remained quiet at the back of the sweltering, somewhat smelly and really rather cramped main lecture theatre).  This is the first “complaint” if you will – what you, as lecturers, have to say is, for the most part, much more important than whether we can hear every word on the PA system or not.  The impression, for bright eyed freshers, was somewhat ruined by twiddling thumbs for ten or fifteen minutes in our first experience of academic life.  Technology fails.  Get used to it and learn to cope without it.  We can’t get those fifteen minutes back.  We can, I hope, access your lecture slides or notes to find out if we missed anything by not hearing your correctly.  Of course, it will be better when the technology doesn’t fail, but that, I think, is a way off yet.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to give you a run down of every lecture, but I think this first impression was not ideal so wanted to mention it particularly.

The first thing to notice, possibly, is the teaching hours.  I had thought, having seen the module descriptions in the module handbook, that we got two hours of lecture and one of seminar each week.  Others, who have just finished at Brookes, confirmed they thought this too.  But no – we had four modules and each one was a total of two hours “contact” time a week – either two hours of lectures, two hours of seminars or one hour of each.  Each module was different.  In the Politics and Internaitonal relations ones they had most weeks two hours’ worth of lectures with seminars only every alternate or even every third week.  In Microeconomics we got one hour of each, each week.  And in Skills for Economic Enquiry the whole thing was done in seminar groups of two hours each week.

Some fellow students I know felt that the seminars in Microeconomics were not very useful.  I think they missed the point of them.  There’s probably only so much new stuff you can take on board in a week, and an hour in a technical subject like that is probably enough for lectures.  The module sets exercises based on each week’s lecture content to be done outside of class and then reviewed in the seminar session after the following week’s lecture.  So it might seem a little infantilising apparently simply going over the proper solutions to those homework questions, but actually to me it provided a good time for making sure I had grasped the week’s concepts.  Maybe the mileage you feel you get out of these seminars is determined by whether you have done economics formally previously, such as at A Level, and so know a lot already that is covered in this introductory module.  But whether you have two hours of lectures or an hour each this is not going to change when there are some who have and some who haven’t studied the subject before.

The seminars I found really not worth the time were the ones in the two Social Sciences fields.  With Introduction to Politics we did at least have them alternate weeks, but they amount to 45-50 minutes by the time everyone has decanted from the lecture theatre to whatever cramped classroom has been assigned, they twenty five or so people in the group is too many to have meaningful discussions each time, and they are not frequent enough to get a real rapport going with your seminar leader.  By the time we had had four politics seminars we were down to eight people and then we could get a conversation going for forty minutes or so, but still, they didn’t add much to our knowledge I feel nor give quality contact time to ensure your seminar group was grasping all the concepts introduced in the lectures in between.

International Relations ones were even worse.  These were only every three, or four weeks, so there’s even less of an opportunity to build any rapport with the seminar leader.  In both cases at least one precious seminar hour was used up talking about how to cite sources for our first essay – I have ideas about this practice later to share, but basically I don’t think we need to do this twice or thrice in our case in one semester.

Early on in the semester there were rumblings of discontent over the fourth module, Skills for Economic Enquiry: that it was covering things most people already knew, that the activities were a little patronising and that there was too much “discuss in your groups” type activity.  Actually I quite enjoyed this module (even if I did get what I hope will be my lowest mark, in the first assignment, on this module).  I suspect that for people doing the Economics and Business subject combination it might appear more readily relevant as it’s only one of four economics and business modules you are doing.  For our course it was one of two and I suspect some people thought there were better things we could be learning in economics than all these pretty basic skills.  I reckon it will be more popular when people look back on it from a year’s distance or so when they are doing other and more complex economics modules.

Since this is getting to be almost as long as an Introduction to Politics essay, I think I shall save my main issues for another post.  But I shall just wind up on this one by saying that one thing I miss is a sense of cohort identity with my fellow students on Economics Politics and International Relations.  As I say above, we are a small subject group, and can easily get “lost” in modules with hundreds of others who do share more modules than we do and possibly have a bigger circle of fellow students on their bigger courses to get to know and work with.  From the beginning I asked if we could, for example, have an online area to ourselves as a course, perhaps on the VLE, where we could interact virtually for a bit of course solidarity.  Others’ mileage may vary on this, of course: I just think it’s important that we know who the others on our particular, specialised, course combination are and how to contact each other more easily.

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