Students swear by module of 'obscenely hard' work

Professor who practises what he preaches sees class enrolment soar. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 11, 2010

Studies suggest that UK students tend to put in less hard graft than their European peers, but at least one professor has found a way to get his students to work their socks off.

The official title of module PY114 in the University of Essex's department of philosophy is Critical Reasoning and Logical Argument, but its unofficial name is "Work Obscenely Hard".

Worth 30 credits, the first-year course is voluntary, which Wayne Martin, the professor who runs it, said is crucial in order to avoid it seeming like slavery.

In return for students agreeing to take on a Stakhanovite workload, Professor Martin makes them a promise: if they work obscenely hard, then he will work obscenely hard, too.

When students are asked to write an assignment in the first few days about difficult material they have not yet been taught, he returns their work with detailed comments within 24 hours.

Professor Martin, who previously worked at the University of California, San Diego, has voluntarily added weekly two-on-one tutorials to his workload.

A key aim of the year-long course is to teach students to write first-class essays, and the module demands an assignment from every student every week. The other goal is to teach them to appreciate the joys of pushing themselves to the limit.

Professor Martin said: "I was a student athlete, and one of the things you learn is that if you put in a certain degree of effort, a certain kind of performance comes out of it and there is a pleasure associated with that."

Some classes, according to one former student, include an element of "public humiliation" when - with their permission - Professor Martin reads out passages from students' essays in class and asks the group to improve them.

The professor openly admits that the course is not for everyone.

The first time he taught the course, he said, he "scared away" many students in the first week.

But those who returned, according to Professor Martin, were "incredibly committed" and gave extremely positive feedback.

Pawel Wargan, who is studying for an LLB in law and philosophy and who took PY114 last year, said: "The class did more for me in a month in terms of my writing ability and argumentative skills than all my other classes combined over the past two years."

Now word has spread and enrolment this year is up 80 per cent.

Professor Martin is head of his department, a research director, the editor of a journal and a book series, the director of one major research grant and a supervisor of another.

He said he managed to do all this "by working more or less all the time".

It would not be reasonable to expect this "form of madness" from colleagues, he said, adding: "I will be universally detested if my absurd life gets listed as best practice."

Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Essex, said that while it would not be possible to apply the model elsewhere in the same form, he did want to examine whether the principles behind it could be applied more widely in some way.

He said the module was particularly successful at "building up a sense of trust and confidence between the staff and the students that they have a common goal: for the students to achieve as much as they possibly can and really fulfil their potential."

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