THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

August 30, 2012

For good reason, THE Scholarly Web often features submissions in which academics react to the latest government policy - frequently, although not exclusively, in outrage. Sometimes, however, individuals use a blog to reflect on the different and changing facets of an academic's daily life.

Writing on his eponymous blog, Jeff Ollerton, professor of biodiversity in the department of environmental and geographical sciences at the University of Northampton, recalls the advice of one of his former tutors.

"Scientists Must Write was the title of a book published back in the late 1970s by...Robert Barrass," he writes. "Almost 30 years (30!) later I can clearly remember Robert impressing upon us the importance of good writing skills for scientists-in-training.

"At the time I was as far from being a professional scientist as it's possible to be and so didn't fully grasp this, but nonetheless what he said chimed with my own notions that writing was important, even for a scientist.

"Nowadays I realise that it's not just the writing of standard academic papers, book chapters and books which is essential: writing of all kinds is a necessary facet of the life of a research-active scientist."

Professor Ollerton says that the summer months, with no teaching duties, present an ideal chance to practise writing skills.

"Formal teaching has largely finished for the time being, so in addition to research activities and university administrative work, much of the remainder of the last couple of weeks seems to have been taken up with editorial and peer reviewing duties for journals...This can be time consuming and thankless, but is absolutely vital if the whole system of scientific publishing is not to grind to a halt."

The issue of time allocation in universities is also picked up by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, in a post on A University Blog about contact hours for students.

"For the past few years a big search has been on to find the most useful key performance indicators with which to judge the performance of universities," he writes. "One that is getting much more attention is the concept of 'contact hours'."

He says there are "growing doubts" about the value of large lectures, while small tutorials and seminars are being seen as much more effective tools.

Notwithstanding the merits of the various methods, he says, the debate points to the increasing difficulties that universities and academics face in justifying their existence.

"All this is part of the growing uncertainty as to what universities should actually be doing to allow students to have the best possible educational experience," he concludes. "As all the accumulated assumptions and traditions of higher education crumble, and as the academy faces serious scepticism from its stakeholders, it has become more and more difficult to develop a confident and well-judged pedagogical framework.

"Demands for, or expectations about, contact hours could more usefully be put aside...until we have established much greater clarity as to what works and what doesn't. Otherwise, to quote the truly awful bureaucratic cliche, it's just a box-ticking exercise."

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