Gary Day

March 26, 2004

'Who can communicate in a language that's the love child of post-structuralism and the Institute for Learning and Teaching? Lots of people, apparently'

I'd do anything to avoid work, except go to meetings. As part of its commitment to staff development, the modern university has devised a whole series of measures designed to help academics from non-business backgrounds to sit together in a room and go round in circles. "Let's introduce anonymous marking." "But we already mark anonymously." "What do you mean?"

"Well, do you know the names of your students?" You can see where this is going. One meeting leads to another. And another. In every corridor, in every room, there's a meeting of some sort going on. And on. And on.

With all this pressure on space, it's no wonder you find yourself teaching Pope in the car park. And if you have to find four walls and a non-leaking roof, preferably all together, because the attendant insists that you must pay and display or be clamped, be very careful. Turn the wrong handle and you could lose several hours of your life discussing "the need to frame a commitment to assessment as a professionally responsible endeavour, integral to teaching, that contributes to higher education's learning about student's learning".

It can happen to anyone. I remember a philosopher stumbling into a room where a meeting was in full swing - that is, people were busy doodling or reading a book while two others ingeniously exploited the issue of whether to use numerical or alphabetical grades to continue a 15-year-old argument about the meaning of a comma in John Donne's The Flea . The sage seated himself, put one hand in his jacket pocket and stared fixedly at the wall for the next 90 minutes. At the end, the chair asked if he had anything to say. "No," he replied, and then added, "I don't think I should be here", and with that he got up and left. If a man who understands Kant is prone to such errors, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Like life, meetings are more to be endured than enjoyed. That's the real reason they're so hard to fix up. As soon as one person says they can do that date, another says they can't. If you're adept at this game, a whole semester can pass without that vital issue being discussed. The result is that, for once, things get done. You're happy, the students are happy, even your publisher is happy.

But we all know happiness doesn't last. And so we must find ways of coping with the fact that, sooner or later, we have to meet. On an internal review, perhaps, which is always an opportunity to close other people's courses and steal their students - well, times are hard. Or perhaps it'll be on a staff development course. You know the sort; the one where the overhead projector usually steals the show. But that's not always the case.

Recently I saw a picture of a man described as "mesmerising his fellow active learners". That is not an easy thing to do when discussing dyslexia in further and higher education.

Despite having attended a number of these sessions, I have made little progress. My heart still refuses to beat any faster at the thought of spending an afternoon considering the purpose of the module handbook. Once we had festivals, the Mayday and the Winter Revels, but now we have the faculty meeting. This can be a very intellectual affair, making it almost unique in the university calendar. The speaker begins: "What if the origin of the commitment to assessing student learning were to come from within the institution (and) what if the origin of that commitment were to come from faculty members themselves?" What indeed? We look at one another and nod. The speaker continues: "Consider why faculty members are drawn to their disciplines." We consider. "Consider why faculty members are drawn to teaching." We are beginning to wonder. "Consider characteristic faculty member behaviour during meetings." We think it is remarkably restrained.

Especially when the speaker solemnly informs us that "what faculty members exhibit they desire to instil in their students". Innuendo soon gives way to malapropism as we are told that it is "perfunctory to vote on proposals until we have had time to consider them in depth". Ah, what bliss when pedantry lands one on pedagogy.

Meetings may give the illusion of democratic participation in the life of the university, but the real decisions are taken elsewhere. Their main aim is to normalise a rhetoric that makes even the worst student essay look as if it were penned by Cicero - in an off moment, admittedly. Who can communicate in a language that's the love child of post-structuralism and the Institute for Learning and Teaching? Lots of people, apparently. And that's the worrying thing. Don't they ever wonder how they can go on meeting like that?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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