Monday, December 03, 2012

Foucauldian-style resistance

Foucault, that popular French theorist wrote of resistance in 1982:

"I would like to suggest another way to go further toward a new economy of power relations, a way which is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and which implies more relations between theory and practice. It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, and find out their point of application and the methods used."

More recently a journalist in the Scotsman newspaper wrote about her daughter trying to choose the best university to get her degree. In Scotland, she would not be charged fees but in England she would have to pay thousands of pounds in fees and finish with a large debt. However, the daughter thinks it might be better to go for a "top" university and pay the fees as it would get her a better job and there are more "top" universities in England than in Scotland to choose from. My friend and colleague Drennan Watson, in the spirit of resistance, wrote the following letter to the Scotsman paper in response to this issue:

Research no guide to educational standards
Published on Sunday 21 October 2012 19:17

Christine Jardine rightly focuses on the question for her daughter of “which university will provide the best springboard for her future” (Perspective, 17 October). But, mistakenly, she then focuses on the Times Higher Educational World Reputation Rankings as a guide.

This claims to assess universities on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook by drawing on the assessments by “senior, published academics”. Valid assessors of the quality of training of their graduates are their employers in government and industry and the graduates themselves. According to supporters of the Times’ system, the only graduates assessed are postgraduate students in the universities. Assessing educational performance on this small, non-random sector is statistically laughable.

 As Ms Jardine says: “Universities are judged across the world on their research record.” That is the problem. The idea that research output of a university is a measure of quality education and degree offered by it is bogus. Many a “distinguished” academic whose lectures appear baffling because he is brilliant is simply an incompetent communicator.

 Before gaining a university post in which research is a key activity, a candidate must gain a good, honours first degree then a PhD as a three-year training in research. The appointee is then unleashed to lecture and teach undergraduates with little or no training in education. The results are inevitable.

As an undergraduate, I ranked my lecturers competent if they could be heard beyond about the fourth row and then found intelligible by students when heard. One-third failed.

I taught in a range of universities and institutes of higher education in UK. The problem remains. Accounts from current students strongly indicate matters are worsening. Government, by scoring university performance basically on research output is making matters worse. I co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Nature. That would merit points. I co-authored a 350-page, well-reviewed textbook for undergraduates, but that would merit none.

Ms Jardine is rightly concerned at the need to properly fund education in universities, particularly in the face of the rise in student numbers. Equally important is to introduce proper training in educational skills among those paid to teach our undergraduates. Government should insist on it as a condition of funding. Research and education are equally difficult and complex activities requiring, to a considerable extent, different skills and personal qualities – frequently not found in the same person, particularly in academics. What other profession would be permitted to exercise such a critically important, skilled, social function without proper training and proof of performance?

We do not trust the education of children in primary and secondary school years to untrained, unassessed staff. Why do we do it to them in vital years of adult education?

R Drennan Watson
Forbes Alford, Aberdeenshire

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