Thursday, 30 September 2010

Degrees - what exactly are they for?

Once again, the powers that be have not failed to leave me metaphorically gasping for words.  Given my opinions about degree level education, and the ways in which it has been subverted and devalued over the years, I suppose that I shouldn't have been surprised to read this

I suppose that it was inevitable - there are some professions where it's necessary to get a specific degree (medicine springs to mind), and given the ways in which Higher Education is funded these days, there is no doubt that pretty much every student, save only those from the most affluent part of society, is going to be saddled with an increasingly large debt as time goes by.  Mindyou, if the coalition government bring in a graduate tax, it could be even worse for some people.

So, one school of thought might say that the coalition are trying to bring policing into line with other professions - politics and the media tend to recruit unpaid interns on the pretext of providing work experience - but I think that they're missing the point here.  Policing is different.  It's a vocational profession - I can't think of many other professions where a person is actively reviled by a sector of society, not just disliked, purely because of the function that they perform.  I know that people don't tend to like lawyers, estate agents, journalists and politicians, but they don't actually attack them in the street or spit on them.   You have to want to be a police officer.  So, why put barriers in the way of people who do really want to be a police officer?

Inevitably, there is resistance to this proposal - the comments on Inspector Gadget's blog today are illustrative - and I think that they're absolutely right.  In my opinion, this proposal would limit the number of people who are able to join the police, because they can't afford to fund a degree, or to work for free (volunteer) for a prolonged period of time.

My other problem with this is the issue of the "degree" in policing.  I've had a look at the syllabus for some of these degree courses, and it really smacks to me of occupational training.  Why does it have to be badged as a degree?  Occupational training is an honourable institution, it doesn't need to justify itself as a degree.   I think that the answer's actually about money.  If it's occupational training, then it should only be offered to those accepted to enter the occupation.  If it's a degree, then you can sell it  offer it, to anyone who's interested, whether they're going to be able to join the police or not.  So, at the age of 45, I could apply to do a degree in Policing, pay my academic fees, do my three years, graduate at the age of 48, and be found to be so unfit that I am physically not capable of being a police officer.  I have a degree that is aimed at a specific job, and I'm not capable of doing it.  'Triffic.

Time will tell, and I may well be wrong - after all, that has happened before.  But my gut instinct tells me that going into a period of what is likely to be rising unemployment, with a potential rise in crime levels,  this is not the time to be experimenting with the police service.

It'll be so different when I'm in charge.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Things ain't what they used to be...

I've been reading Inspector Gadget's blog a lot this week (Inspector Gadget) - I enjoy reading the police view of goings on in the news, as well as enjoying the police humour.  The comments are intelligent and witty, pretty much like most of the police officers that I have known over the years (I've just read that last sentence - it sounds bad - but there you are, I stand by it).    One comment last week has made me think about the ways in which university teaching may have changed (or not) over the years.

The complaint was that teaching of undergrads didn't value dialogue or original thought, and that if a student attempted to put forward their thoughts to their teachers, they were told to learn what they were being told and not to question.  I thought back to my own undergrad experience, and had to agree that yeah, but no, but...

My first degree is joint honours, Law and Criminology, each part taught by a separate academic school; the Law School, where I study now, and a School of Social Science for Criminology.  Like most degrees these days, my course of study was divided up into modules, each with a different lecturer and seminar leader, some of whom were more experienced than others.   The quality of our seminars depended very much, not only on the quality of our seminar leader, but also on the way in which each course was run.  My experience was that the teaching from the Law School encouraged us very much to challenge what we were being taught, while the teaching of the School of Social Science was very much of the "learn what you're being told" variety - no matter how experienced the seminar leader (save a couple of notable exceptions).

I know the arguments for a lack of dialogue with students (I had my first training as a seminar leader yesterday), general lack of time, numbers of students (a typical seminar group has at least 20 students), the need to cover the materials on the course in a short timescale, but I think that this is as much about the ethos of the academic school as anything else.  The Law School prides itself on developing 'critical lawyers'.  I'm still not totally clear what the School of Social Sciences aims for. 

But, at the end of the day, does it actually matter?  If I feel that my Law modules were better taught than my Criminology modules, should I care about this?  After all, it didn't affect the outcome of my degree.

Well, I think that it does matter.  When I look back on my undergraduate experience, the modules that meant most to me, and the skills that I use on a daily basis, are those where I was encouraged to 'engage', to question, and to challenge what I was being taught.  Success in Criminology was largely a matter of technique and memory, while Law made me think.  Hard.  It may, or may not, be significant that I decided to do my PhD in the Law School, rather than take up the place that I was offered in Social Science (to read for a PhD in Criminology).

I hope that when I start teaching as a seminar leader next term. that I am able to engage the students' interests, and am able to conduct a meaningful dialogue with them.  I hope that I can make them think as hard as I had to, rather than just make them try to absorb the facts to regurgitate them during the end of year exams.

So, have things changed?  Yes, and no (typical lawyer's/academic's answer).  It's true that more students than ever before are being pushed through Universities, and that in some cases this has necessarily affected the way in which teaching takes place.  It's also true that competition after university is acute, leading today's undergrads to aim for the highest grade at the lowest risk - to be able to identify and reproduce the "right" answer with original thought taking second place.

The days of the cosy tutorial in a supervisor's room are no more for most undergrads, but my experience shows that dialogue, challenge and intellectual stimulus is still possible, and given the right academic ethos, still exist in some schools in some universities.

It's just a shame that it's not a universal ethos.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Men? Give me alligators...

I had dinner last night with my DFL friend.  It had been some time since we'd caught up with each other, so I updated her on my dating progress over the summer.  I knew that it had been entertaining (to say the least),  that I hadn't found the man of my dreams,  and as I told her all about it, I saw her eyes get rounder and rounder.

"Old Girl", she said, "you really should put this on your blog".  So, blame her for this.

I joined a couple of dating sites in order to try and find an ordinary man.  I wasn't looking for anything too special - someone who could string together a couple of sentences, read the odd book, someone who could be my friend and (as they say on the sites), who knows what after that?  Being over 40, not slim or glamorous, my profile didn't attract too much attention - and there are far more women on these dating sites than there are men - so I have to say I didn't get a lot of choice.  But I met up with a few, and these are they...

First, there was The Geek.  He works in IT, in the hardcore techy end of IT, and he was just as interesting as he sounds.  He's only about 52, but my goodness he seemed older than that.  I almost gave up at this point.  The second meeting (I tried to give it a chance) was a disaster - I just wanted to run away...

There was The Scammer - claimed to be in the US Air Force posted in Iraq, and a widower, who after two IM conversations told me that he thought that he was "ready to love again", and that I could be the woman for him.  None of it rang true, but the criminologist in me got interested, and I continued the IM conversations gathering information as I went.  When he finally asked me to "donate money to a charity" that he contributed to, I contacted the police on the grounds that this was an offence under the Fraud Act 2006.   They took it very seriously - which is nice.  I hope that they catch him and that he doesn't get any money from anyone.

Then, there was The Doctor.  Or, at least that's what he says he is.  I met him in a bar in a neighbouring seaside town.  He was charming.  Actually, he was waaaayyyyy too charming.  I'm not used to being told how beautiful I am (I'm not - except in a certain light),  or to being told on a first date what our long term future holds, and he kept stroking my hair.  Weird.  Just weird.  And he scared me a bit.  Also, wouldn't accept that I didn't want to see him again.

I also met a Perfectly Nice Man.  He's older than me, and I didn't fancy him in the slightest, but I enjoyed his company.  I might meet up with him as a friend (he appears to be happy with this), so I may have made another friend, which would be nice.

But, the one that's really put the tin lid on my dating adventure is the Randy Old Goat.  I met up with him once and he's a very attractive man, very nice to talk to - witty, intelligent and good company.  I was hopeful of this one, I really was.  But as our phone conversations developed, his proclivities truly became apparent.  I'd never experienced someone having phone sex on the other end of the phone before, and while the experience was 'interesting', I'm not sure that it's for me.  I have to be honest, I spent most of the phone conversation looking at shoes on eBay while he was doing whatever he was doing on the other end of the line.  At least he was honest - and a purely physical relationship might have been pleasant - but he lives a couple of hours away from me which is too far to drive for what Erica Jong might have described as a 'zipless fuck', and I've got a thesis to write.  I don't have the time.

So, that's it.  My internet dating days are behind me.  As term starts, I'm not going to have the time to expend on this kind of lark.  I'd just like to meet someone normal.  Is that too much to ask?

I'm working on the 'lost key principle' now.  You know what I mean - if you lose your keys, you can never find them while you're looking for them, but when you stop looking, you realise that they've been there all along.  I'm hoping that the principle works on men.

So, as my grandmother used to say, "Men?  Give me alligators...."

Monday, 20 September 2010

They're here, and peace is no more

Freshers have arrived, and the exclusivity that post-graduates enjoyed over the summer vacation is now a thing of fond memory.

Over the weekend, most of the baby students arrived, fresh faced and anxious to be introduced to the joys of living away from home for what is for most of them, the first time.  I worked both Saturday and Sunday on the Library and IT Helpdesk, and thus came into contact with a lot of newbies.  Most of them, I have to say, were charming, and the parents in the most part were fine.  There were the odd one or two who insisted on speaking for their offspring, but so far there has been little unpleasantness.  On the Helpdesk, at least.

On Saturday, Em (who works part time in the housekeeping department) and I availed ourselves of the free food offer that the University gives to its staff who work on arrivals weekend, and repaired to one of the Uni bars.  We enjoyed a decent burger and a couple of pints each, when we got caught up in the Freshers' Bar Crawl.  It was fascinating.  We managed to find ourselves a good vantage point in one of the Uni Bars (there are six on campus, plus the nightclub), and watched as wave after wave of teenagers fought their way to the bar and sought oblivion in alcohol.  We left at about 10.00, when the vibe was still good natured. 

Apparently, though, not everyone had such a good time.  There are reports of pools of vomit on the Sunday morning, of thefts from student rooms, of broken windows and other criminal damage.  I think this is really sad - for many of the teenagers their memories of their first weekend of adulthood is going to be coloured by the actions of a moronic few.  And, much as this may make me sound old, I honestly can't remember such a culture of excess when I was that age. 

Em and I agreed that it's going to be a long time before we want to come into contact with anyone between the ages of 18 and 22...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Busy before the start of term...

As the new term arrives, everything just gets a little busier.  There are more people around on campus, and I can sense the hysteria rising in all the support departments.

Take the Estates Department for instance.  Over the summer vacation there has been a significant amount of construction work taking place on campus.  There's been a lot of work in the library, student accommodation has been upgraded on campus, new paths have been built between buildings, and, significantly, the student carpark has been resurfaced.  This was well overdue - the drainage was so bad that the cars at the far side would occasionally find themselves up to their wheel arches in water - but this does seem to be taking a long time.  I understand that there's a book running as to whether it will be open before arrivals weekend.  If it isn't, it'll be chaos.  I am a mistress of understatement.

I've also moved carrel today - out of the original wing of the library and away from the original beech panelling and view over the double height study area with a glorious view of the city to the later 1970s/80s extension.  The new carrel isn't quite as nice, but it is a lot bigger than the old one, with two tiny windows that don't open, but significantly, it is completely enclosed so it should be a lot quieter, and there's double the desk space.  Oh, and I've got a radiator.  Fantastic.  My old hutch rarely got above freezing.  I think that I should be happy here...

Monday, 13 September 2010

In memoriam Geoffrey

Today we interred Geoffrey's ashes. 

Geoffrey was my stepfather who died at the end of February.  I miss him.  He was a kind man, a clever man, an impatient man - a mass of contradictions.  He would proof read my essays and dissertations for me, and always had insightful comments and suggestions.  I sometimes quaked when I saw the amount of red pen scrawled over my typescript - particularly as Geoffrey's writing was totally impossible to read - but it was worth the time spent deciphering every comment.  When I was clearing his house, I was really touched to find that he'd kept a copy of all my writing. 

As family, we got impatient with him from time to time - he could be infuriating.  I regret not having visited him more, particularly as the MND took a firmer hold over him, but I shall be eternally grateful that I was able to spend as much time with him as I did in his last few weeks. 

At the very essence of Geoffrey's soul was music.  He was an excellent pianist and organist, an accompanist who could make any amateur musician sound good, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, able to identify the composer of most pieces of music on the radio or television.  When we disagreed, it was usually about Beethoven (I can't stand Beethoven), but we agreed on many other things, but in particular our joint love of Bach. 

His ashes are interred in the churchyard of the church where he played the organ.  His memorial stone is placed as close as possible to the organ.  My mother and I spent a lot of time deciding on the wording for the stone, and it is as follows (I paraphrase slightly):

In Memory of Geoffrey, born 1931
sometime organist at this church 
Slipped gently off his organ stool 
28th February in the year of our Lord 2010
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving
into his courts with praise

Friday, 10 September 2010

Close to the new term

You can tell that the university vacation's nearly over - the number of conference bookings has dropped (although I did see Elvis walking out of one of the buildings yesterday evening.  I think that there might be a tribute act in town - but you never can tell), and the sound of building works is increasing as the contractors start staring their contracts in the teeth and have just realised that "penalty clauses" are involved.  In the library, the new "Welcome Desk" is nearly ready, and rotas are being drawn up for arrivals weekend.

My part-time job (at the moment) is working on the IT and Library helpdesk.  It's good money for a student job, and I get to keep my hand in (I used to run helpdesks and IT departments before I came to Uni).  If this year goes to form, the new students won't be any problem at all.  They will be rushing around with wide eyes wondering a) where the bar is, and b) when their bloody parents are going to go home and leave them in peace.

But the parents?  Ahhhh.  The parents.  I love watching the parents.  And, I hate dealing with them.

I'm about the same age as some of the parents, and over arrivals weekend I stick to my usual jeans, t-shirt and converse - I don't exactly blend in with the others - the grey hair and wrinkles don't allow it - but I don't stand out too much.

Some of the mothers of new students, however, have clearly put a lot of thought into what they're going to wear to deliver their offspring to Uni.  I see women who seem to be slightly panicking at the thought of having children old enough to go to Uni, and who dress as though they're expecting/hoping to be mistaken for a sibling.  Some of them look as though they've dressed for a garden party and just look uncomfortable.  The fathers, however, all look as though they've just come out of the rugby/football club - trendy shirts and trendy jeans that just look a little bit wrong.  Particularly when they're paired with work shoes.

Why do I hate dealing with parents?  Part of my job on the helpdesk is to help the new students get their IT equipment working with the network in their study bedrooms.  We provide some good documentation, and if they work through it, then they should be ok and they will get connected.  But, fathers (and it does seem to be fathers) will insist on doing it for them, on the grounds that they use IT at work/build websites as a career/have been to PC World once and therefore are going to be able to do it far better than their offspring ever could.  And, of course, they never read the documentation.  So it all goes crashingly wrong, and they come to see me or one of my colleagues.  And usually patronise us, assuming that we really don't know what we're doing.  Or explain to us that at work they have "someone to do this for them", and then lean over the desk with an avuncular laugh trying to intimate that it's all actually beneath them.

They usually demand to be given their son or daughter's password, and really don't like it when we tell them that we can't give it to them.  One year, I asked the father who was in front of me if he considered his daughter to be an adult.  "Don't be stupid."  He said,  "Of course she's not.  She's my daughter."  Daughter standing behind, rolled her eyes and looked even more embarassed than she had before, if such a thing were possible.

We even heard one year, an apocryphal report that a father had moved in to his daughter's study bedroom, sleeping on her floor, so that he could make sure that she was all right.  He was only evicted when the other residents of that particular student flat reported the situation to the authorities after a couple of weeks.

So, if you're taking one of your offspring to university in the next couple of weeks, please remember the following:

1.  Just be yourself.  Don't worry about what anyone else is thinking about the way that you dress - nobody will notice except people like me.  And, I will notice if you feel uncomfortable in what you're wearing.  Just wear what you normally wear, don't make too much of an effort.
2.  Your job is to drive your child there, unpack the car, go to the supermarket and make sure that there's enough nutrition (and I would suggest painkillers) to see your child through to the end of freshers' week.
3.  When you have done the above, press some more money into their hands, and leave.  There are exciting things for them to do, and they really don't want you around cramping their style.
4.  Your child is now an adult.  They passed their A Levels, and are going to have to sort things out on their own.  They may as well start now.  Universities provide a lot of support for new students, and extra in the first few weeks.
5.  Go and enjoy the new bit of freedom that you've won for yourself!

Of course, if you're a mature student, none of the above applies.  All you have to remember is that for the first four weeks of term you will be mistaken for a member of staff.  And, remember, the young ones are just as nervous as you are.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Time off for good behaviour

I took three hours off today - seems like an awful lot, but I think that I've earned it over the last week or so, what with the work, the state of my flat etc.

I went to meet a man.

Yes.  A man.

Readers of my earlier posts will know that I've been single for some time now, and had braved the world of internet dating with little success.  One of the men that I met was too old in his outlook, while another was just strange.  So, I'd pretty much given up, and consoled myself with the thought that my thesis and I shall be totally wedded for the next three years or so.  But, then I got a communication from another man.  To be honest, I wasn't wildly enthusiastic - he's 14 years older than me - but there was something about his profile, and his emails, and his phone calls, that made me think that it wouldn't be fair not to see what this one was all about.

Well, he's nice.  We spent a couple of hours chatting away, and I felt comfortable in his company.  He doesn't seem to be phased by the fact that I spend all my time thinking about crime in general and murder in particular, and I hope that I hear from him again.  I'll let you know.

What was nice, was talking to another grownup - I love spending time with my PhD colleagues here - but it's nice to talk to someone who actually remembers the 1980s...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

MA or straight to PhD?

A comment from Studentmum (*waves at Studentmum*) started me thinking about the decision that I made to go straight from a BA to PhD, missing out the MA stage, and whether or not it was the right decision.  Well, as I see it, there are pros and cons to any situation, and this is no different.

When it became obvious that I wanted to stay on after my first degree to do a postgraduate qualification, I asked for guidance as to the options available to me.  Simply, there were three.

The first was to do a 'taught masters', or a straight forward MA (or LLM if in Law), which would have meant that I would go to lectures, continue to write essays and dissertations, and possibly have to do exams.  The pros of this were that I would be taken to the next level of study with a lot of guidance from the taught lectures and seminars, but the cons were that I would be limited to studying what was on the syllabus (except for the dissertation), and have to write essays on things that didn't interest me.

The second option was to do a 'research masters', or an MA/LLM where I wouldn't have had to go to lectures,  directing my own research (with my supervisor), and would produce a thesis albeit shorter than a PhD thesis.  I was quite attracted to this option I have to say.

The third option was to do as I have done, and plough straight on with the PhD, with my topic of research sorted, and knuckle down to produce 100,000 words at the end of 3 or 4 years.

As I'd had a good relationship with The Supervisor as an undergraduate (she taught me two modules of my degree), I asked her for advice.  We agreed that a 'taught masters', for me, was possibly superfluous - I had already decided on my research topic - and we both felt that the taught masters wouldn't do much for me.

As for the research masters, all PhD students (at least in our Law School) are first registered for an MPhil (somewhere between an MA and a PhD).  We have to 'upgrade' to a PhD during our second year of study.  We  have a student in our cohort who started on a research masters who is upgrading to a PhD, so in effect she could have registered, as I did, for the MPhil/PhD.  So, The Supervisor and I decided that as my ultimate aim was to do a PhD, I should just crack on and do it.

Was it the right decision?  What I did miss was the interim level of study.  Many of my colleagues who did masters between their first degree and PhD know more than I do, particularly about philosophy, and the philosophy of law.  I spent a large part of my first year feeling that I was playing "catch up", and I found this hard.  But, as the year went on, and I became more comfortable with my topic of study (and that takes a while, believe me), this became less important. Now, I focus more on what is important to my thesis rather than worrying that they know more about Foucault than I do - I know more about my topic than they do!

The other consideration that I took into account was my age.  I'm probably going to be 48 when I finish this, and getting a job will be challenge at that age.  Another year out of the work place may make that more difficult.  Although, I am seriously considering another year's study in a more vocational area when I finish the PhD.

So, yes.  For me it was the right decision.  I pretty much knew what I wanted to research, and I knew that I wanted to do a PhD.  I had found a supervisor who knew me well, and I trust her opinion.  Study at any level is a challenge, if you're going to put your all into it, and I'm glad I made the decision I did.

Monday, 6 September 2010

It's getting serious now...

Still struggling to start writing the next 5,000 or so words that I need to present to The Supervisor before the end of August.  Oops.  Missed that deadline.

This is a complicated chapter - I'm trying to weave a number of concepts together to produce a cohesive whole, and hope that a) it makes sense and b) justifies the methodology I want to use.  I keep coming to a complete standstill - just when I think that I know where I'm going, I open MS Word (other word processing packages are available, and come to think of it are probably better), and sit there looking at the blank bit of screen.  Then, as an illusion of progress, I open RefWorks and make sure that all my references are input correctly.  Then, if the muse has not informed me further, I'll have a quick look at my emails.  Then, the blogs that I follow.  Then, I'll go downstairs to the vending machines and get a drink.

And, then I'll know exactly how serious this is.   My usual tipple on an easy day will be a bottle of ribena light (then I can kid myself that it contributes to my 5-a-day), but more often I will drink diet coke, telling myself that I need the caffeine.  In fact, I think that my thesis will be powered by diet coke.  I don't drink it because I like it, and I know about the implications of drinking an articially sweetened carbonated drink, but it's like a crutch - if I don't have it, I can't concentrate.

But today - things must be serious.  I came away from the vending machine with not one, but two bottles of Lucozade (other disgustingly sweet, calorific, glucose ridden 'energy' drinks are available...).


Saturday, 4 September 2010

Advice for the new year

I'm in my hutch on a Saturday afternoon, working on some pretty interesting stuff I have to say.  The library is very quiet -  the builders have taken the weekend off, and there are very few students around. 

The new academic year is nearly here, and I guess that there are a lot of people out there getting ready to be students.  I know that it's stressful enough if you're 18 - but at least when you get to Uni, you know that the majority of other students are going to have lots in common with you - you'll be of a similar age, have recently done your A Levels, and you'll be able to make friends easily.  But, for the mature student, I think it's a bit more daunting.

Some of us have given up careers to follow a dream, while others may have decided to step out of the world of work until the down-turn is over, while yet others may have realised that in order to get up the career ladder they need to get that damn degree.  So, for us, our first day is pretty different.

I remember my first day, nearly five years ago now, as though it were yesterday.  There seemed to be a lot of waiting around, in total contrast to working in an office where everything is very structured.  All I could see were young girls in skinny jeans and Ugg boots, and young boys with their jeans low slung, and I felt very very old.  But, by the end of the first day, I'd met another mature student - who turned out to be a very good friend then and now, and my nervous feelings started to allay themselves.  I went to every single introductory lecture, and started to find my way around.  And, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself.

Before I came to Uni, the best advice that I was given was by an ex-colleague.  She was in her early 20s, and had graduated the year before. I share this with anyone out there who's going to be a mature student.  "Don't" she said "on any account try and dress like the other undergraduates.  You're too old, and you'll look stupid."

And, you know what?  She was absolutely right.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

September - at last!

I really like September, it's a time of new beginnings, of hope and of promise. I suppose that this is because I've spent so much time in the education system, and that September is the start of the new academic year - whatever, I just like it. The weather this morning is as close to perfect autumn weather as it could possibly be - blue skies with fluffy clouds, and just an edge of chill in the air.

I'm getting back into the swing of things now - back from my holiday - and am keen to get on with this damn chapter. However, my life being what it is, even my return from holiday was full of chaos. While I was away, the kitchen fitters were due to start preparation for the new kitchen, and I had left my mother in charge. Well, they came, they destroyed, and they found major damp. All over the place. I couldn't leave my mother to try and deal with this calamity, so I returned three days early. It's a shame - I was enjoying a week of tree felling and scrub bashing - but it was clear that I needed to be here to support her. Anyway, the builders have a plan, so with a little more time (and a lot more money) the now major project moves forward.

So, my flat is in even more chaos than usual! The kitchen is back to the bare brick (during which exercise the builders discovered that there was absolutely no insulation in there at all, which explains how cold it was...), there is a channel dug round the edge of the concrete floor, and the rest of the flat is covered in dust. There doesn't seem to be a lot of point in moving it, as it'll just come back again. I have one chair that I can use in my sitting room, and there are saucepans under my bed. So, I shall spend as much time as I possibly can in University while the nightmare continues.

Why can't my life be straight forward? Why do these things happen to me?