Shovel ’em through

January 28, 2010

Saturday I went to Andy T’s Burns Night party. Lots of haggis, singing, and this year he had a piper. Fine evening. Brendan (who turned out to have a splendid singing voice) asked me why the blog entries were slowing down. The answer I gave was that I am swamped with first year teaching at the moment.

Its a big class – a hundred and eighty or so. Sometimes it feels like battery teaching. Crowd all those bodies into one room; force feed ’em a sequence of words, pictures, and numbers; shovel ’em back out; collect degree, start life. University checks balance sheet. Academic revises learning outcomes checklist. Groan.

Other times its a shining joy. Two hundred young things drinking in your words, as you reveal the secrets of the Universe. Beat that for a job. What I really like is the feeling of putting power in their hands. This is not quite astronomy-for-poets. Its mostly for hard science types – chemists, engineers, geologists, as well as physicists – so you can use an equation or two. You show a picture of a distant spiral galaxy. How could you possibly imagine you could know anything about this distant patch of light you can’t touch ? Then you wheel out Newton’s laws, a bit of Doppler effect, and … zap …. mass of galaxy and discovery of dark matter. Look what we did.

This is a lesson for life, and the importance of science. You can master the world. This is why the Government should pay for us.

Gettng ready for the next lecture, I picked up the local student newspaper. There I found an article about that nice Mr Mandelson, and how we wants us to save money by doing degree courses in two years. Academics all over the land are recoiling in horror. Standards forced down even more ! The education-factory wins and the temple of inspiration loses.

Woah there, Captain Jumpy. Is there an opportunity here ? Now that we are teaching 40% of the population rather than the 5% of those long lost elder days, of course standards have to go down. What did you think ? And why is this bad ? Don’t a large fraction of the populace deserve some advanced education ? Isn’t that good for the country ? But how do we do this without losing the truly advanced education needed for working engineers and research scientists ?

In Scotland history has left us an interesting range of degree qualifications – as well as honours degrees, there are ordinary degrees and general degrees. For years they have been seen as compensatory qualifications for the failed. But why should they not be positive intentions, and proud successes when won ? So I have often been tempted by the idea of a designed pyramid. Take in a huge number of students at year-1, and take in gradually fewer each successive year. It shouldn’t be a failure to not go on to the next year; it should be an achievement if you win it competitively; and you are not obliged to try. Year-1, Diploma; Year-2, General degree; Year-3, ordinary degree in named subject; Year-4, honours degree; Year-5, Masters degree; Year-8, PhD.

Every year you exit with a piece of paper. Every one a winner.