Gary Day

August 19, 2005

Why the fuss over new guidelines for style and presentation? They just update E.M. Forster's advice to 'only connect'

There are some people in higher education who do nothing but grumble. You should have heard the outburst that greeted a document titled Guidelines for Completing Module Handbooks . As my mother used to say, you don't expect to hear language like that from people with degrees. Goodness me, what a fuss. And all because someone tried to make life a little easier for them. But were they grateful? Not a bit. To hear them complain you'd think that whoever devised the document had done it with the sole purpose of tormenting them. Now, I ask you - are we born knowing how to complete a module handbook? Of course not. What's more, we are busy people. Who has the time to think about whether or not written work should be presented in a plastic folder when you're trying to prove that Wordsworth was a cross-dresser?

So I'm jolly pleased that someone has taken the trouble to tell me what to do. After all, the module handbook is probably the only thing of mine that students are likely to read. And I suspect that's true for a lot of us. It is clear and easy to follow - which is more than can be said for many a research assessment exercise article. There are simple instructions about how to write the date "Thursday 4 May, not Thursday 4th May" and how to refer to your institution - always call it a "university" in case people need reminding that is one.

Those who cite the module handbook as yet another example of the infantilisation of intellectual life have clearly not been paying attention to what their colleagues in cultural studies have been saying for years: that an Argos catalogue is as rich in meaning as a Shakespeare play. Take the stipulation that the handbook should have "wide margins". This affords a space for students to comment and draw little pictures, just like those medieval scribes did when they copied out the Bible - activities that have the additional advantage of keeping them quiet in lectures. And what about the very first recommendation in the guidelines? "Ensure that the information you provide in the handbook is in line with the module template." Isn't that a marvellous updating of E. M. Forster's advice to "only connect"? It is quite a humbling experience to see the guidelines in these terms.

Why, its prescriptive character can be traced all the way back to Geoffrey of Vinsauf, whose Poetria Nova (c.1210) laid out the rules for the composition of verse. Only the module handbook is much better than that ancient treatise. Instead of droning on about how to describe the first flowers of spring, it gives really useful information such as telling students what they will have learnt before they have actually learnt it so they can spend the time they would otherwise have wasted in class gaining valuable work experience enabling them to be more easily exploited when they graduate. And instead of encouraging you to ramble interminably like old Geoffrey does - "do not let your words move straight to the subject but take a long and winding path around what you were going to say" - the module handbook gets to the point, telling students that all marks are provisional. To that extent it belongs to the tradition of the plain style.

In fact, we could almost say the handbook has an Orwellian character.

It is also stylish. Today's students are a fashion-conscious lot and I'm afraid to say Times New Roman just doesn't cut it as a typeface. Something more funky is required. The university couldn't really have gone for Chiller, Jokerman or Snap, because it has to maintain its dignity as an academic institution. So the Aesthetic Committee has come up with a compromise: Arial 12pt. Purists may feel betrayed, but Ithink the balance between gravitas and groovy is a stroke of marketing genius: it attracts students without alienating their parents. The attention given to the type used also shows that administrators have absorbed the poststructuralist doctrine about the materiality of the signifier. But that's going a bit too far. No point in spoiling a good case by overstating it.

So you see, all those who curse the guidelines are quite wrong. They save time and there's far more to them than meets the eye. And they're not as uniform as you might think. Module leaders are perfectly free to choose which colour they would like for the covers.

The situation is a bit like those who criticise politicians for using "spin". But they shouldn't be so hasty. We need to look at the wider picture. Everything in nature rotates, from galaxies to the rides at Alton Towers. Heavens to Betsy, if it weren't for subatomic particles spinning at their different rates we wouldn't be here at all, advancing the cause of education, and by extension, civilisation.

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

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