Jock's Backroom Blog

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

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.