Five phrases to outlaw in…

Reading this blog post by Alison Gow, ‘Exec Editor, digital, for the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post’, had me literally jumping out my chair and punching the air in ecstatic agreement.

Five phrases to outlaw in newsrooms‘ is about the need for newspaper staff to engage with online and social media more wholeheartedly, playfully, routinely and naturally. Go on, read it – here’s another link.

I don’t work in a newspaper so why should I care? Well, my job and those of my team involve having good conversations with a multitide of audiences, and online is where a lot of these conversations can and should happen. Video clips, tweets and blog posts need to be as fluently, frequently and fluidly produced as chats in the corridor, emails and handshakes. So at least four of the five ‘Alison’ phrases should be outlawed in my area too. (Get tweeting, folks! And expect a Flip camera in your in tray.)

Perhaps no surprise that a journalism article should resonate with PR (the Good Witch is after all related to the Wicked ones.) I’m sure the issue of people not ‘getting’ online is important in other areas too – send smoke signals if you agree…

Puritan cold spots

As my weekend walking down the length of the country approached the Edge Hill battleground, I did a little light research on the English Civil War. This included reading The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill, where I found an intriguing mention of plans for an expansion of higher education: ‘During the Revolution a new university was started in Durham, and others were proposed for London, York, Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, Manchester, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man…’

This brought to mind the consideration being given by DiUS to setting up new ‘higher education centres’, ‘to bring the benefits of local higher education provision to bear across the country’, in so-called ‘cold spots‘. Most to the places on the Puritan list are well universitied up already, but there are a few exceptions. The list of modern cold spots includes Shropshire, suggesting that the University mooted by the Puritans is still needed.

Edge Hill has around 500 students on programmes taught in Shrewsbury, so perhaps we are belatedly realising the Puritan vision – like some New Model Army of HE…

Apparently it was also proposed that ‘Undergraduates should work their way through the university, earning their living in some useful calling part of the day or every other day’ (p300, referring to Several Sermons and Discourses by Wiliam Dell). This bit at least has come true, in that most students do paid work while studying. Hopefully this practice achieves Dell’s objectives, that ‘Youth be delivered from that Ease and Idleness, which fills the hearts of University-Students with many Corruptions, and noisome Lusts, whilst they fill their Heads only with empty Knowledge and foolish Notions’ (p646).

The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

In March I’ll be chairing this event:

The Digital Landscape for Student Recruitment in 2009

Thursday 26th March 2009
9.30am-1.00pm (lunch included)
The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, London W1

Interested? Then ponder these things in your heart: “Are you responsible for directing your institution’s student recruitment strategy? Are you looking to make the most of web 2.0 to boost your admissions?”

Have you answered yes? The next step is obvious: “join us in London for this FREE half-day seminar.”

Here’s what will happen if you do:

“Delegates will learn from HEIs and experts on the following topics:

* effective mobile campaigns;
* beyond the banner—examples on how to fully engage with potential students on UGC sites;
* tips on successful SEO;
* the latest 2009 research from The Student Room’s users (including the users’ insights on what sort of online campaigns work!); and
* a Q&A panel including representatives from HEIs, Blyk and The Student Room.”

No doubt you’re sold on it by now and will immediately want to ‘book online here‘.

I look forward to seeing you there.

It sounds great and I would probably have gone even if I wasn’t chairing it. I got quite excited about The Athenaeum as a venue – thinking it was the club in Pall Mall, and that I’d be rubbing shoulders with the shades of Ormskirk statue-man D’Israeli and other luminaries, as well as those of clubland heroes from the works of Sapper, Dornford Yates and John Buchan (assuming that fictional characters can have shades.) However this Athenaeum is a hotel in Piccadilly – which looks perfectly acceptable. (Update – it is in fact in the club – early information was misleading. I’m sure participants will get full instructions but do please niote it ISN’T in the hotel.)

A colleague Twittered that he looked forward to ‘seeing me in action’ – and I’m trying to think how action-packed my chairing can possibly be. Thinking back to my clubland fantasy, John Buchan’s Richard Hannay was certainly a man of action. Perhaps I should model my performance on his improvised political speech in The 39 Steps, depicted here (7’13” onwards).

I’ll buy a tweed suit with a hint of digital about it forthwith.

Under a glamour

Graduates shun teaching as it doesn’t offer enough ‘glamour’, according to a new study, reported in the press today.

But is glamour a good thing? A dictionary defines it as ‘Magic, enchantment; delusive or alluring beauty or charm’ (Concise Oxford). A glamour (as a noun) is a kind of spell, usually bringing dire consequences: a type of bewitchment whereby the victim becomes enamoured of an object of desire to the exclusion of all else, wasting away as they ignore the real world… By these standards, a profession that ‘lacks glamour’ could be a good thing.

A certain amount of delusion is part of the human condition, but however alluring delusion might be, reality is surely better. After all, being under a glamour (or geas or other cantrip) is being under someone else’s control…

I accept that neither the survey authors or respondents were thinking of glamour as it may be deployed by denizens of faerie in the Dark Ages, in the pages of the Morte D’Arthur or even in a Harry Potter book. Presumably they mean glamour as in fame, celebrity, glitz – the type of thing a 13-year-old in the grip of a sugar-rush might be impressed by. Accepting (reluctantly) a modern meaning of glamour as ‘appeal’, one consider other aspects of the appeal of teaching. In a survey of teachers’ status earlier this year it was “rated second – beating city-based jobs such as law and accountancy – in a poll of what was considered the ‘most talented profession'” (TDA).

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.

Marketing Excommunication

An article in today’s (24 Jan 08) THE reopens the ‘are students customers?’ debate with some interesting points:

The notion of students as “customers” has been banned at Liverpool Hope University as it and other church-based institutions lead a fightback in favour of a more rounded approach to higher education.
Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor, said: “Students should not be treated as customers but as part of scholarly communities.”
The phrase “customer service” implied that universities were caring for students for financial reasons rather than out of a moral duty to do so, he added. “We place distinctive emphasis on the individual.”

I admire the brio of the ‘church-based institutions’ in staking a claim to this particular piece of moral high ground, deftly implying that institutions without an explicit Christian basis are less likely to recognise moral duties, value individuals, or endeavour to foster scholarly community. The ‘customer’ argument is a good platform for this as it is such a reliable hackle-raiser. This semantic issue was discussed here at length last year. It’s a debate that does need to be reopened (even in a non-Church-based university.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the view that the primary message should be about students as partners in their learning, and members of an academic community. However it has to be acknowledged that higher education needs to demonstrably meet the needs of students (and their funders), and that these are free agents who can choose not to engage. It is therefore necessary to positively influence the experience they have, in a managed way, including communicating the benefits of participating in the academic community. The relationship resembles the customer role in some limited but important ways, so banning the notion (if indeed notions can be banned) and launching a ‘fightback’ is not useful.

Back to the article. Professor Pillay also makes an interesting point about marketing: “The Christian tradition is something that is part of the fabric of an institution and should be obvious in its graduates. Collective memory is the best form of marketing” (italics mine.) This must be true (though it’s a bit like saying ‘results are the best form of experiment’). It is actually quite exciting to consider the kind of collective memory (or impact, or perception) that is being created by the graduates of the mass higher education system as it has evolved over the past decade or so – as unprecedented as a never-before-dreamed dream. Whatever that emerging memory is, it guess it’s as diverse and fluid as the HE system we now inhabit.

Silence of THE Universities

When I wrote about the relaunched Times Higher last week, I never imagined we’d be on the cover of the next issue, albeit in butterfly form:


Images like this always remind me of ‘the Silence of the Lambs’, not because of Hannibal Lecter’s considerable academic achievements (he could have written an interesting ‘Don’s Diary’ for the THES two or three relaunches ago), but because of the iconic image from the movie poster:


Leaving aside the inherent creepiness of static lepidoptera, it is interesting that Edge Hill forms part of a subset of institutions chosen to represent the diversity of universities.

Back to the publication itself, barely emerged from its own chrysalis, I’m still not sure what to call it when referring to it out loud. Saying ‘The Times Higher Education Supplement’ always sounded somewhat portentous, like referring to ‘The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seven’. ‘The Higher’ was sayable, as was ‘the THES’ (rhymes with Tess) or ‘the tee aitch ee ess’. Somehow I can’t imagine asking in the office if anyone’s see the ‘tee aitch ee’, and if I said ‘the THE’ there would be the danger that Chris would hand me a CD.


The Times Higher Education Supplement has a spiffy new look:


and has become a magazine. It has many plus points, including sharper, colour photography and clear typography and layout. However I think something has been lost in the translation – browsability. One of the nice things about traditional newspaper layouts is the way one’s eye roams the pages, finding stories by serendipity. In the new mag-like Higher (which surely won’t be referred to as ‘the’) most stories fill whole pages or spreads, so that one either reads a story or moves on. It doesn’t invite one to linger or follow links (existent or not) between the various articles and images.

There’s even an index on the back cover, enabling one to zero in on a mention of a particular institution without wasting eye-power on anything else along the way… that will save a few nanoseconds of the working day.

A business-like read.

(PS: I am not Jamie Targett.)

Guardian’s Razor’s edge

Guardian blog posts by Dr Peter Wright, Edge Hill University’s Reader in Speculative Fictions, show up fairly regularly in my Google Reader. (The latest one concerns a movie in the new, critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series, so I daren’t read it as I’ll want to watch it some day.)

I find Guardian blogs interesting – a sort of hybrid, presenting author’s personal opinions (just like regular, self-published blogs) but with the kudos of editorial acceptance by a trusted media brand. Interesting also how many-tentacled ‘newspapers’ are, beyond the physical paper – and how these evolving channels provide academics with new outlets for public dissemination.

I happen to know that Peter has submitted another one that dares to criticise a much loved National Treasure. If the Guardian dares to publish it, I predict not a riot but comments aplenty, followed by deportation or imprisonment in the Tower.

Slow news day

Being A-level results day, I bought a wheelbarrow full of newspapers on the way in to work shortly after dawn. A quick read through of these brought some heart-stopping moments as well as a bit of wry amusement. The Times published what it called a ‘Good University Guide’… this included a list of university profiles, which had been subbed down to 53 out of 113 institutions. The choice is pretty random but we were one of the omitted ones, though the online version isn’t too bad (unjustified table position notwithstanding.) Meanwhile in the Sun, we’re cited as having exceptionally cheap beer – not a bad thing as students do sometimes drink this beverage, and may wish to purchase it economically. (This article also makes Bishop Grosseteste College sound like a latter-day Playboy Mansion.) More locally, the Ormskirk Advertiser is moving into ‘Wired’ territory with its story about a Facebook fan group for the town’s famous roller-skating grandad. After all that, a BBC story about our campus expansion plans seemed like a return to media sanity.