Beanbags, postbags and a new perspective

Tara Brabazon offers her students funky furniture and an opportunity to find out what their international peers are up to

October 30, 2008

When something goes wrong in a classroom, I move the furniture. Shifting chairs and tables can transform the intellectual architecture of students, encouraging them to think in different modes and positions. This semester, I have been more proactive than usual in thinking about learning environments.

Currently, my office resembles a youth drop-in centre. I installed beanbags at the start of this academic year, making a decision to teach masters-level courses in my office rather than in a cold and anonymous seminar room. I was trying – nostalgically perhaps – to recreate and recapture some atmosphere from the best educational experiences for our current generation of students.

These moments involved coffee, intelligent conversation and the construction of a relaxed, inquisitive but scholarly environment. I installed a kettle, organised a near-constant supply of milk, sugar and coffee and started to teach in my room again. The students are calm and prepared to take risks with ideas. They settle quickly and are curious, chatty and more confident. My office has become their office.

While this setting and experience is important for masters-level students, it is the behaviour by undergraduates in this new environment that is most surprising. A large group of third-year students now park themselves in the beanbags for two hours a week.

I am not supervising or teaching them, but they come together and talk about research (and “well fit” young men), writing (and the pain of being “dumped by text”), methods (and the orange perils of fake tan) and the quiet personal and professional fears of a post-degree future. Something educational – in an expansive sense – is emerging. The personal dialogues with the political. The social mixes with the scholarly.

These third-year students discovered the beanbags in the orientation week. I left the room for no more than 90 seconds to pick up printing from a communal tray, only to return and see six of our soon-to-be third-years sitting on the beanbags and entertaining themselves with the kettle, cups and coffee. Looking at them – laughing at them trying to manage a too-short skirt while teetering on or in a beanbag – reminded me that universities activate a much larger culture than can be validated, examined or moderated by quality assurance protocols or assessed by student surveys.

•—•—•

During the last week while the drop-in session was in full force – discourse analysis was the focus – a couriered parcel was delivered to the office. Its contents transported an intellectual fragment of the Antipodes to a former colonial power.

The reason for this reverse deportation of data is that I still mark and examine honours, masters and doctoral work from Australia and New Zealand. These “foreign” assessment cycles help me translate between educational systems and ensure that I do not become an apologist for a particular set of “standards” and values that are neither universal nor generalisable.

With all the mock-seriousness levied on “external” examiners in the United Kingdom, there is little public recognition that often these “externals” live within a short train ride of the campus and may be well known to the teaching staff through former professional relationships. The notion that “external” could or should be equated with “international” or even “beyond England” is not considered. Colonialism of the mind survives long after armies have withdrawn from the land.

Because of antipodal distances, and perhaps built on neo-colonial hangovers about the excellence of European scholarship, Australian and New Zealand theses almost always involve assessment by international academics.

At least one of the three PhD examiners is located beyond national borders, and all must work outside the supervising university. Similarly, honours theses must have at least one – and often both – examiners located outside the home institution.

When I moved to the United Kingdom, the notion that the quality of a doctorate – the highest qualification awarded in our institutions – would be determined by (only) two examiners, one of whom worked in the awarding university, was a shocking distinction between the systems. Similarly, the rarity of non-British examiners for British theses never seems to concern awarding bodies.

Although awarding bodies are not motivated to insist on international evaluations, the students were interested in the different standards that the Australian honours dissertation exhibited from their own work. It was longer, nearly double their required length. To their horror, the bibliography spanned 16 pages of references.

To calm them, I explained that Australian and New Zealand honours degrees are distinct from their own, being a fourth-year, stand-alone qualification where only credit or distinction-level students are able to enter the programme. This student was a year ahead of them and that extra research and coursework experience explained the dissimilarity from their own work.

They wanted to know why there was no listed chapter on the contents page titled “literature review” or “methods”. I explained that most humanities dissertations place a methods discussion in the introduction and the literature review is embedded throughout the subject-based chapters. They asked if I could teach them how to do that. We wiped the whiteboard and I showed them how the structure could operate for their – much smaller – theses. This “foreign” thesis became the start of a teaching moment about scholarship, structure, research and difference.

It struck me, as these students finally lifted themselves from the beanbags and left the office to be replaced by a masters seminar, that we rarely share “foreign” theses with students so that they can place their research in a much wider context. With all our attention to “external examiners” and “quality assurance” inside our universities, perhaps our students’ work – and careers – may be improved by reading “external” theses. If we let them see, read and hear about work conducted by their international peers rather than ours, then our students can lead us to a new system where the meaning of “externally moderated” can equate with “international standard”.

The first task I assign all students under my supervision is to read an already completed dissertation submitted at the level they are about to attempt. Like a cooking programme, in seeing “one that was prepared earlier”, students have a better guide to how the end result is constructed. With so many universities making theses available online, this task is easy to accomplish.

While the Daily Mail drips stories that “Universities are dumbing down,” rejoined by the Daily Telegraph’s “University academics told to mark up poor work,’ there is little attention to how the methods of teaching and learning can be – and are – improving.

The goal is not to compare “British standards” for education against past imaginings and inventions of quality, but to assess our students and assignments against their contemporaries in the rest of the world. Only then can we return global consciousness to tabloidised shrieks about national standards in scholarship.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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