Against entanglement

I’ve been ‘against’ a few things in my time. In 1978, I was one of 80,000 people marching from Trafalgar Square to a park in East London for a Rock Against Racism carnival. Apparently this was the largest protest of its kind since the 1930s, and a new generation of people are keeping the momentum going in things like Love Music, Hate Racism. By comparison, the ‘Students Against Crap Teaching’ (SACT) group on Facebook is a minor affair – 21 members, and no posts for nearly a year. Nevertheless, the THE found the fact that we are mentioned on it momentous enough to ask for a comment, which appears in the current THE (Threads that twist and tangle, THE, 28 February 2008.) I get to say some brainy things about social networking (hooray for me), but my disparagement of the SACT itself (pointless and dormant) was omitted.
This goes to show how the permanent, searchable nature of social networks differentiate them from word of mouth. If someone had made a mild comment about teaching at Edge Hill a year ago in a pub somewhere, it’s unlikely that a national journalist would be emailing us for a response twelve months later. But the words (and pictures) that populate the Web 2.0 sphere are always there to be examined, like the fossil record or those layers of broken pottery they find on Time Team (‘So, what kind of household would have lived on this site, Phil?’ ‘Well Tony, these pots were imported from the Mediterranean, so they would have been quite a high status family…’)

But does it matter? In the SACT example, one person expressed a negative opinion on one occasion – big deal. Obviously, sustained attacks suck as ‘**** UEL’ or ‘[a named individual at another university] is ****’ (check out the THE for the full potty-mouthed version) are more worrying, but generally speaking positive comments outweigh the negative and it’s all part of the free exchange of opinion that makes a healthy society.

The THE point out that ‘Edge Hill University already monitors web activity relating to the university’, which could imply that we have a room full of gimlet-eyed analysts monitoring screens all day, perhaps in a darkened room like the headquarters in ’24’, or the curiously-understaffed MI5 in ‘Spooks’. In fact it’s a much more low-key affair, involving judicious use of RSS feeds, common sense, and little time. We are following the threads, but not becoming entangled in them.

Klown Grotesk

I’ve never been to standup comedy at the Rose before, despite the great value (a fiver for several acts.) It was quite an experience. Craig Deeley, Chris Ramsey, and compere Elliot J Huntley offered varying levels of amusement and/or offensiveness. I felt I had my fivers-worth about halfway through Mr Deeley’s act, partly from the pleasure of hearing a West Brom accent. But the main reason I went was curiosity to see what Chris Lynam would get up to in the (to my mind) tame environment of the Rose. I first saw Mr Lynam, over 20 years ago when I worked at the Zap Club, a venue in Brighton. There was some sort of comedy competition on an outdoor stage, which I think Chris won… I remember him wrestling the dignatory who announced the prize to the ground in an absurdly uncalled-for snog… and at some point being lured down from a lamp-post by the police… I thought then he looked and performed like Jerry Lewis half-transformed into a werewolf – and it occurred to me last week that he could play the Joker without needing makeup…


His Rose show was… many things, and certainly hard to ignore. Grotesque, confrontational, scary clowning, like some shaman channeling the Trickster archetype into the standup format… funny, but also appalling and compelling like a performance-art carcrash. His banjo-accompanied songs were disturbing on an almost cellular level, and the finale was a combination of nudity and pyrotechnics I had hoped never to witness… to sum up, I liked it a lot.

Four American students who sat in the front row should have had equal billing with the acts, as three out of four performers zeroed in on them relentlessly – Chelsea should get extra credit for her piano playing alone.

Chunks, hours, mirrors

Day Two of the HE Summit. Some moments of good dialogue, amidst periods when we seemed to be witnesses to a platform for posturing and platitudes. Not really a problem with the speakers, more the rather general topics and reliance on questions from the floor.

An afternoon on ‘Students as Aggressive Consumers’ provided some interest. Lots of focus on students as co-creators of knowledge, rather than consumers of the core HE experience, but an acknowledgement that they are increasingly demanding customers of services such as 24/7 libraries and IT, childcare and accommodation. I was particularly impressed with a point made by a V-C from Washington U, to the effect that any debate about the quantity of contact hours (as in, I’ve paid x for this course so why did I only get y hours in class) misses the point, as what university provides is opportunities to learn – which come from many activities, including for instance work with other students and engagement with the SU… so if we start dickering over ‘how many hours’ we’ve already lost the real argument.

Guardian online
picked up on some points made by Shadow Universities Secretary David Willetts, who seemed unaware that Unistats is offering much of the information he feels people need. Information clarity is obviously a good thing, though people’s selection processes may not be as rational as we think.

I ran a session with Philip Pothen from JISC, which seemed to go well (though as Iggy Pop once said, ‘It’s difficult to judge yourself in a mirror made of people.’) Philip gave an excellent overview of young people’s online behaviour, based on research which I’ll try and link to when I get home. I explored marketing aspects of digital technologies, in a presentation I can provide if anyone’s interested. One point I’d like to explore with colleagues at Edge Hill concerned the convergence of course delivery and marketing that will occur if the expansion of smaller-chunked lifelong learning develops as desired by the Government. In a scenario where we have large learner populations enrolled on modules, distributed across linked HE, FE and employer settings, ‘marketing’ will become as much a matter of encouraging progression as of recruitment to the start of a programme. Data and digital comms will become even more central to marketing in this scenario.

HE sector or HE system?

The first day of the Guardian HE Summit had its moments. There have been some interesting insights, and some lengthy periods that have led me to wonder if modern manners would allow me to get away with listening to an iPod as well as discreetly answering emails and texts (or else whether I could slip next door and join ‘Fire Retardants 2008’, to see what their burning issues are.)

One thing that happens at conferences is the subtle evolution of the language used in a particular professional group. I can see this happening here, in the cavernous air-conditioned spaces of the QEII Conference Centre, as the overcaffeinated hours tick by. Does ‘knowledge development’ sound less patronising than ‘knowledge transfer’? What should we call ‘widening participation’? Does ‘persistence’ locate the agency of people staying on courses better than ‘retention’? How many meanings does ‘research’ have in different universities?

And then there’s the C word.Those uncomfortable with the idea of students as customers would have been heartened to hear Bill Rammell (Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) saying that he ‘rejects the view that the student is just a consumer’, as education is a two-way process, placing demands on learners as well as those teaching them. Although I’ve never heard anyone suggest that students are ‘just’ consumers, it’s good to hear this reinforced.

A reported opinion from an official in Rammell’s own department might be less popular. Apparently this un-named individual insisted, in conversation with a Vice-Chancellor, that the UK needs a higher education system, as opposed to a sector. This may sound like a minor semantic issue, but there are crucial differences in the concepts. A sector comprises autonomous organisations working in the same field – for instance, in the tourism sector there are all sorts of businesses and organisations competing and collaborating. A system comprises mutually linked functions in an overarching managed structure. (In the tourism example, this would be a nationalised tourism system such as the Soviet Union used to have. An HE example would be the state systems that operate in the US.) I can’t see the idea being embraced with enthusiasm outside Government circles…

Valentine (highly qualified)

Ah, Valentines Day – a marketer’s dream – a season when people will by anything as long as it’s pink and padded – another mass feeding frenzy co-opting most of the population.

However one online retailer is obviously aiming for a more restricted market, judging by this email:

‘If your loved one enjoys exquisite luxury, has a passion for historical and artistic beauty and appreciates true quality, we have the perfect Valentines gifts for you’

So many qualifiers! This is a hard ad to live up to. Presumably if your significant other doesn’t live up to all of these characteristics you may as well go to Kwik Save.

Your personal message from George Bush

It’s Friday and a bit of inspiration wouldn’t go amiss.
So what could be better than a pep talk from the leader of the free world?
And wouldn’t it be even better if he would say just what you want him too, perhaps with music and gestures precisely timed to your requirements?
Thanks to some clever people at Idyacy Solutions, this service is now available on demand!
Just follow the link, type in what you want George W Bush to say to you, and away you go! Yee ha!

(The voice synthesis software that does this is pretty neat. I’ve made him say ‘Where would we be without the hermeneutics of suspicion’ and he says it better than I could…)