July 25, 2013

Counterpoints to the 10 point presentation

Most of Tara Brabazon’s 10 tips for PhD students (11 July) are sound advice, but the headline “10 truths a supervisor will never tell you” is unfair. “10 truths you need to know about supervisors” would have been better. I am sure that the problems Brabazon mentions can occur, and students should be aware of the possibility. But many supervisors provide very similar advice as a matter of routine.

I know I did, and so did most of my colleagues; as far as I know, they do still. Over 40 years I supervised about 70 MSc and 30 PhD students; I also advised many potential postgraduate candidates at open days. I told nearly all of them at least seven of Brabazon’s 10 truths, and much of this was departmental policy. I think it was fairly typical of mathematics departments. A PhD in mathematics is often very personal, whereas in other subjects the student may be part of a team, which can make some issues more troublesome.

Supervisors with a good record are, of course, generally better, but everyone has to start somewhere. That is where an experienced co-supervisor can be beneficial, contrary to the article’s advice. Stars who may neglect you should indeed be avoided; but in an active research department, most potential supervisors are very busy and travel a lot, and in a good department many are stars. Most of them do not neglect their students – many stars go out of their way to make time for their students.

In my experience, most supervisors would agree with much of what Brabazon said, and many of them do tell their students something similar. It is a pity that her own experience was less positive, but tarring all supervisors with the same brush is unjustified.

Ian Stewart
Emeritus professor of mathematics
University of Warwick

While we welcome advice to prospective postgraduates on supervisor selection, we find Tara Brabazon’s attempt to produce a universal list of “truths” both unrealistic and misleading.

As aspiring academics, we understand the importance of assessing potential supervisors, but we are also aware that each supervisor is an individual, with unique qualities that may or may not complement the needs of an individual student.

We worry that Brabazon’s rather bleak outlook on the supervisor-student relationship will confuse and concern prospective PhD students. The truth is that no supervisor will fulfil all her criteria. Even the best supervisor-student relationships require compromise on both sides. We suggest that students employ a more personal framework when choosing a supervisor and avoid simply following a list of unrealistic and inflexible rules.

Emily Glendenning, master’s student
Jamie Thompson, master’s graduate
Rebecca Bastin, first-year PhD student
University of Sheffield

Consistent considerations

We note that the debate about degree classifications and institutional regulations and actions to increase the proportion of first- and upper-second-class degrees is being raised again: “Surrey considered grade targets for staff appraisals”, 18 July, and the “bending of rules” by universities to award more firsts, according to other media reports.

As performance measures in terms of degree outcomes become increasingly important to institutions as well as to graduates, it is perhaps surprising that there is not more informed debate about the variability in assessment regulations between institutions. This has been a long-standing interest of the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group, resulting in a number of publications going back over 15 years. Our most recent research is into the variability in relation to regulatory frameworks for passing assessments and reassessment opportunities in the first year, on which we will present findings later this year.

Given concerns about equity and potential grade inflation in a market-oriented higher education system, the current variability raises the question of whether some degree of convergence in key principles for assessment regulations is something the sector should consider.

Marie Stowell
Chair of the Student Assessment and Classification Working Group
Director of quality and educational development
University of Worcester

Brake for thought

How refreshing to read Thomas Docherty’s plea for a new relationship with time, efficiency and (implicitly) technology in the academy (“Rushing to bad judgement: need for speed kills learning”, 18 July).

It was Karl Marx who insightfully wrote of capitalism’s inherent tendency to “annihilate space by time”, and our sometimes fraught individual and collective relationship with technology is one that all students should have time and space to explore.

Here’s a radical proposal: does any university have the courage to introduce a compulsory first semester for all its degrees that looks at our relationship with time and the breathless momentum of modern technology? Such a module would have the likes of James Gleick’s Faster, Martin Heidegger’s History of the Concept of Time and The Question Concerning Technology, Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics, William Meissner’s Time, Self, and Psychoanalysis and Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow on its core reading list. Then, perhaps, a deep, thoughtful engagement with the postmodern paradoxes that “less is more” and “slower is faster” might generate a new generation of citizens able to bring a critically reflexive perspective to our vexed relationship with time and our hyper-modern “communication” technologies. For as Mahatma Gandhi famously had it, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Richard House
Department of education studies and liberal arts
University of Winchester

IQ and class acts

In his opinion article “Here’s to class act that challenged tyranny of class in admissions” (11 July), Paul Temple stated: “Only an unusual genetic theory could link natural ability to your dad’s job”, and this quote was repeated in that issue’s leading article.

Surely, no one can deny that clever (and hence successful) parents tend to have clever children? It has been known for at least a century that there is a moderate genetic component to intelligence, so it would be extraordinary if parents with cognitively complex jobs did not have brighter children than those working in less intellectually demanding jobs. The relation between social class and child IQ was clearly shown in post-war Warsaw.

For some curious reason, many find such an explanation threatening and prefer to believe that IQ is determined by the environment. But not only does any plausible environmental theory also predict that clever parents will have clever children, it follows that this association will be still stronger, since unlike the genetic theory, it cannot explain why clever parents sometimes produce dull children.

Failure to grasp that middle-class children have somewhat higher basic ability than working-class ones has had a devastating effect on our education system. The much better exam results of children in public schools has been taken as evidence by both the Left and the Right that public schools provide a superior education, when in fact most, if not all, of this effect is because they start off with a higher IQ intake. Middle-class parents have effectively sabotaged the state education system by sending its higher IQ population to private education.

Tony Gordon

In his response to my article, Frederic Stansfield (Letters, 18 July) sets the bar very high for judging the Robbins report by observing that the UK has become a more unequal society in the half-century since the report appeared.

There are a number of reasons why this is so, but including widened participation in higher education among them seems very odd. Stansfield’s view of graduate employment is also odd, as the “graduate premium” has been substantial throughout the period of higher education expansion and largely remains so.

It would be to adopt Communist bloc-style manpower planning to try to determine “economic need” and to provide the supposedly correct number of university places to meet this need. Robbins briskly dismissed this approach as “impracticable” and, as with so many other things, got it right.

Paul Temple
Co-director, Centre for Higher Education Studies
Faculty of Policy and Society
Institute of Education, University of London

Ineffectual institute

The Royal Anthropological Institute’s aborted deal to partner the University of Buckingham in offering a master’s degree in anthropology (“Tribal uprising over Royal Institute-Buckingham anthropology pact”, 11 July) is symptomatic of an institution masquerading as a professional organisation for anthropologists in the UK that does little to promote the interests of either the discipline or UK students.

Decision-making members of the executive are appointed by members of committees and councils, and decisions are made without consultation of the general membership of fellows. These decisions, taken without offering the rank and file any opportunity to vote on them, are presented and ratified as a formality in an annual general meeting.

For more than four decades, I have been a fellow of the RAI and have paid an annual membership fee. During this time, I have never once been offered the opportunity to contribute to any debate or decision-making.

I once raised the issue of the lack of employment opportunities for UK postgraduates, but it was denied and ignored.

The RAI has promoted the terminal decline of anthropology during a time when there has been a corresponding rise in the fortunes of psychology in the UK as advocated and defended by its professional organisation.

The RAI is an oligarchy of professors protecting ever-declining resources in a period when UK students are unlikely to pay extremely high fees for degrees in anthropology given the dire employment prospects. Hence the concern over losing potential MA fees to Buckingham. As it becomes an export-only discipline for funded European Union and international students, it has less relevance and impact in the UK.

Name and address supplied

Women’s stock delisted

I have been thinking about the complexities of the Association of Business Schools’ Academic Journal Quality Guide Version 4. This is the list favoured by the association that ranks (from 0 to 4 stars) journals with research relevance and impact across various disciplines, such as management, geography and sociology.

Whatever you may think of the pros and cons of journal listings, the vagaries of criteria for inclusion or the value of the metrics that go into constructing them, gender is largely neglected by the ABS ranking. It lists only two journals on the subject: Gender in Management: An International Journal (accorded a 0 ranking) and Gender, Work & Organization (a 3-star publication).

Why are only two gender-based journals on the list? It seems that the association believes that gender studies does not merit a separate subject area. This worries me.

One day, I hope there will be better exposure for women’s literature and perspectives on the holy list. I note that a male-only crew edits the ABS ranking (admittedly Version 4 was published in 2010 when two women were among the 14-strong advisory members board). Yes, these are leaders in their fields, but where is a more balanced voice or input of equally professional women, and should there be a place for gender-based outputs?

Perhaps this will change in time for the next research excellence framework cycle. In the meantime, I will continue to reflect and fret.

Mariann Hardey
Lecturer in marketing
Durham University

Credit the cool insight

Alexander Maxwell cites a student as committing an exam howler for confusing Pavlik Morozov, “the Soviet youth murdered by his family after informing on his parents” with “a Russian explorer who discovered the true meaning of Christmas” (“Protectorate was a ‘piranha state’ ”, 18 July).

I would have rewarded the student for ingenuity because G. F. Morozov (1867-1920) was a pioneer Russian expert in forestry, and the surname contains “moroz”, the Russian for “frost”. Ded moroz (Grandfather Frost), the equivalent of our Father Christmas, defines, if not the true, then at least a partial meaning of this festive season.

R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

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