Dr Deadpan's bag of tricks

February 26, 1999

The pre-packaged course may be tempting, but beware, when Simon Lilley tried one out neither he nor his students were impressed by the flavour The so-called McDonaldisation of higher education* continues apace and, on the surface at least, seems appetising - just remember when you make it all the same, do make sure you leave the buyer with a nice taste in the mouth.

Thus standardised overhead projector slides and lecture scripts are being served up with increasing frequency. The temptation to save/buy time for other things (research) is difficult to resist.

My own experience, however, left a rather sour taste and may serve as a cautionary tale. Imagine an academic. Let us call her Dr Deadpan. Dr Deadpan makes a substantial part of her income in royalties from a co-written text book. She aims to protect - enhance - this income with the introduction of a new product to accompany her text.

The text itself is not particularly innovative. It contains all the expected, standard, time-validated knowledge (this is no first edition) on those thorny "human" problems of work that is seemingly required for teaching "organisational behaviour" in business schools.

Like many of its competitors, it comes replete with a workbook and a tutor's manual. But with the addition of the new product it becomes a complete package that takes us onto new ground, in the United Kingdom at least.

This product is a package of slides and comprehensive lecture scripts, an off-the-peg course for busy teaching staff.

According to colleagues, these seemingly American-inspired products are increasingly prevalent in the UK. But when I first met Dr Deadpan her scripts and slides were as yet untested. We decided to try them out on a compulsory course on organisational behaviour for engineering students that the doctor and I jointly delivered.

Other young lecturers to whom the doctor had offered her new tools had apparently been less than enamoured with them and, while she was somewhat surprised by this reaction, she claimed to understand it.

She insisted that it was up to me whether I used the products or not. The course, however, was the department's bete noir and I, as the most junior member of staff with an interest in the area, would automatically have been chosen to provide it.

Dr Deadpan was doing me a favour by offering to share it and it seemed churlish to turn her down. So Dr Deadpan and I met and decided to deliver a thick sandwich of material, a deeper consideration of a smaller range of topics, instead of a brief consideration of all the subjects in the comprehensive mother text.

The doctor described this text, and its new scripts and illustrations, in terms of the McDonaldisation thesis, but not with the tone of acerbic critique that informs the original.

Despite the thick preference, we decided to examine students with a long series of short-answer questions. Our programme outlined, we both attended the introductory session, which Dr Deadpan led, and from then on did alternate sessions.

The topic for session two was "Perception". I arrived with my pre-prepared package of 34 overheads and an accompanying script, along with instructions for an exercise in which the class divided into twos and made observations and concomitant character inferences of and on each other.

But as soon as I opened my mouth the extent of my counterfeiture became chillingly self- apparent. It was nigh on impossible to disguise my distaste for the material and the pat answers it provided to what seemed to me to be rather deeper questions.

No amount of humorous illustrations of little people mis-perceiving each other seemed likely to make up for this.

I could feel the students picking up on my distaste and feeding it back to me. As anyone who has listened to a pub band cover version will attest, it is hard convincingly to present someone else's words and ideas as your own.

More worrying still was the deadening effect on the mind. It was incredibly hard to inject critique into the performance as it seemed to ruin the flow, and that was about all it had going for it.

Indeed, even that was lost when, expecting a slide showing the triangulated perceptual tease: "Paris in the the spring time" that the normal observer tends to read as "Paris in the spring time", I found myself showing a slide of: "Pull the the rabbit out of the hat".

This minor perturbation completely bemused me. Obviously a change in the slides had not been recorded in the script.

Perhaps the Paris example has become overused or maybe it is easier to add a nice little clip art picture of a rabbit/hat combination than it is to represent the shifting seasons in the French capital pictorially - who knows?

But at the time, I simply could not grasp this and spent two or three minutes (which felt like an eternity) switching between gibberish and silence as I desperately tried to recover the situation and regain that all-important flow.

In other circumstances I obviously do not and would not teach the sort of stuff that Dr Deadpan peddles. Being a proper post-modern pedagogue, I refuse to give the students answers (except, of course, at exam and assessment time). But our last words must be the good doctor's.

For, as she notes: "Some people like to stand up and say more complicated things that the students don't understand, but they do so to make themselves look clever rather than to help the students." Guilty?

THE POWER OF KITSCH IN MAKING PEOPLE FEEL WHOLE

If I had to choose just one word to describe both the knowledge I gave those poor students and the format of its delivery it would have to be kitsch.

According to my concise Oxford Dictionary, kitsch is "worthless pretentiousness in art", although in its more common usage it seems to refer to those rather tacky products, perhaps best exemplified in British seaside gift shops, that seek to fulfil a desire for ornaments and mementoes in as cheap a way as possible.

Kitsch then is nasty, at least from an aloof elitist perspective, but it seems to satisfy some extremely widespread needs and as such it would certainly not be necessarily limited to seaside gift shops or art.

For example, Steven Linstead wrote a paper in 1966 called Administrative Science as Kitsch. In it he noted: "Kitsch works because it reminds us we are not alone and it is powerful because it capitalises on a fundamental lack: the desire for the other which motivates social structure.

"Kitsch offers quick and easy access to the longed-for world of the other, which becomes our world and which is reassuring no matter how cheap and nasty it may be ... we don't need to be persuaded by it, just to share and participate in it is sufficient - it works without us having to think about it."

Simon Lilley is director of MBA programmes in the department of management, Keele University. An extended version of his article is in The Dilemmas of Mass Higher Education published by Staffordshire University.

* The McDonaldisation of Higher Education by George Ritzer, Thousand Oaks 1996.

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