Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Tricky Topic of Collaborating

Kalamata--27 August 2005

I've mentioned the complexities of collaborating before. We idealize teamwork in our society, and we decry those who prefer to be loners. In academia both coexist. Both are necessary. Much work in the laboratory could not be done without teams of faculty, postdocs and assistants working together. We see this in the costs of scientific work.

The humanities and social sciences sometimes use teams on projects, eg, national dictionaries of biography or encyclopaedias of methodology. But I suspect the majority of research is done by individuals. Certainly, the authorship of journal articles would indicate this.

My involvement with the Bremen University Transformations of the State project sees me as collaborator and member of a team while also being a solo researcher for my own project within the general one. After our recent workshop where team members discussed their findings, we wondered how coherent a book these papers would make. They appeared to break into two segments: one on lawyers and another on codes of standards. A single book would not be feasible, two could work. However, when we looked at the lawyer papers, other problems arose.

We had, we surmised, five good papers. This was not a sufficient number for a book. A book would need another four or five papers at least to be attractive to a publisher. To find the contributors and encourage them and give them time top produce the necessary papers would need at least another six months, probably more. Coinciding with this was a feeling of responsibility to the overall Bremen project that we should produce some output soon. The alternative that came to mind was to take the original five papers and collect them as a special issue of a journal. I had done this once before with a set of papers on UK lawyers for the International Journal of the Legal Profession in 1996. It was a successful high-quality issue. Another with our papers also had the potential. The added advantage was that a special issue could be produced relatively quickly, especially compared to a book. Being democratic, we put the alternatives to our original contributors. I guessed they would go for the special issue. With the advantages of speed and wide distribution, it was the natural choice.

Our contributors thought otherwise. All preferred the more extensive longeurs of the book. And to be honest, I don't know why. Is it that we all prefer deadlines to be on the horizon rather than immediately before one's nose?

The choice has been made and now involves the search for additional contributors. We think we know who they will be. Now it is time for the gentle art of persuasion/coercion to ensure the papers come.

But the immediate problem of producing something timely for the Bremen project persists. My fellow contributor, Fabian Sosa, and I, who both research transnational lawyers, think we can write a joint article by selecting from our two workshop papers.

At least Fabian and I have already written our individual papers, unlike the Training Framework Review article where three of us wrote three segments from scratch. Fabian and I write in greatly different styles, so my task is to pick the relevant sections for inclusion and produce a single voice for the joint paper. This can be tricky as it involves those sensitivities that are deeply embedded within us, but not fully understood until they are forced to confront themselves.

As it stands, I look at the papers and think, "Not easy".
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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Masters' Students and the Bizarre English Way of Marking

25 August 2005--Kalamata, Greece

I received a text on my cell phone yesterday from a master's student to say he had finished his dissertation (thesis). I wouldn't have to read the final draft as he'd already submitted it. I was immensely relieved; schlepping down to an internet cafe to scour through his twelve thousand words written in a breathless prose is not something that energetically wrenches me from the beach.

Not that it matters. I am his supervisor and so I grade it. I've always found the British university system of grading and marking to be byzantine in its workings. Let's start with the most simple way: Professor constructs a course; teaches it; creates exam; students write exam; professor grades exams between 0 and 100% and if the class is large enough, uses a curve; finish. This is the way it is done in the US and other places. Now let us look at the British way of exams.

Lecturer thinks of module (there are no courses now, but only "modules"--ugly word but apposite); lecturer composes module outline according to university guidelines for modules which includes learning outcomes and aims and objectives (whatever the difference may be); lecturer seeks approval for module from module approving committee which may ask for aims and objectives to redrafted more rigorously; lecturer seeks re-approval and enlists teaching team for module; team teaches module; team sets exam paper; students write exam; teaching team ponders marking guidelines for class level of students; first lecturer marks papers; second lecturer marks papers; each will be aware that although marking scale is nominally zero to one hundred, any mark over 75% will be frowned on by others and probably reduced, nor do lecturers understand what a curve is; two lecturers meet to discuss differences in marks and arrive at compromise; selection of papers--highest grades, some in middle, fails--are sent to lecturer in another university who has agreed to be external examiner; "external" looks at papers and drafts small report about standards; next exam board meets with external to review marks of students for that year, adjust grades by looking at students' other modules (known, I think, as compensation), and takes several hours to accomplish; exam board reconstitutes itself, external leaves, as conferment board to award passes; grades published.

I must apologise for the tedious length of the British description. There's no doubt it is an unjustifiable, appalling wast of time. Bureaucratic administrators adore it since it makes them feel important and of course they are the keepers of the rules, which are constantly tinkered with to align them with the holy ideal, whatever it actually is. British academics spend hours and more on this tortuous process without ever questioning its efficacy. They are believers. In part, they are trying to make themselves appeal proof from aggrieved students, in others it boosts their self-confidence.

The alternative? Get on with some real work. Do that research that's been waiting for the summer break. Of course, after this obstacle course, there is no summer break. And university administrators, as I have suggested before, are incapable of appreciating the intellectual; they must control and verify everything. Finding ways of consuming time is a bureaucrat's delight. When all is accounted for, there's nothing to worry about. Perhaps what is most worrying is that British academics have incorporated this self-audit function so completely that they are incapable of seeing through the sham.

The process that I have described is a combination of tradition and compliance-based beaucracy. Examination boards and external examiners have long been intrinsic to British academia. They had their heyday when student numbers were small and it was possible to monitor them individually. College meant something. With the advent of mass higher education, tradition was welded to techniques borne of management consultants, the modular, cafeteria approach. Unfortunately, instead of completely rationalising the system, it combined the worst aspects of the two, maintaining a collegial myth. They also contend that the system eliminates differences between universities in so far as a degree from one is equivalent to that of another. Certainly the world outside academia doesn't subscribe to that view. But the perpetuation of myths is extremely important to the British. They give credence to erratic, irrational behaviours by creating a mythic past that evolved for the greater good and must never be interferred with.

Many British institutions are imbued with these ideals: parliament (Will the Right Honourable member for...?), the courts (wigs?), medicine (Who did you play rugby for...?).

Instant traditions are rather like instant classics. Blink and they are before your eyes as though they always were. Academics, who should be the fount of rationality, are as prone to instant mythologising as others. It is a great pity.
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Monday, August 08, 2005

What A Day....Again....

I found I can't link directly to my law school web page as I attempted to do in the blog. The only way someone can get to my page is by going to the main law school web page and then navigating through the menus. Very laborious indeed. What was an asset and a tool is virtually worthless because of some administrative decision that failed to ask what we wanted.

The result is that I am now going to construct my own web page outside the university so that I can run it how I want. I will cross-reference but the law school page will eventually become redundant.
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Friday, August 05, 2005

What A Day.............

I have been teaching a course called "Global Lawyering" for the University of Miami Law School this summer. It's fun because I can put in whatever I like and for the students it is vastly different to what they have experienced in their first year of law school. To help keep it current I ran a webpage from my homepage at the university. (Of course, if you click on this link, it takes you to a log in page instead of my home page. This is indicative of the stupidity of the new system. Inaccessibility rather than accessibility. It now takes 10 to 12 clicks from the university home page to my page. And that's why I now have www.johnflood.com.) It has been very easy to maintain, until today. The university redesigned the law school website, instituted the changes without telling us. Suddenly everything didn't work. My students couldn't find the webpage and what was worse they take their exam tomorrow.

I had to recreate the page on another free website host as best I could. It took two hours of uploading and correcting links. But at least it gave the students enough material for their revision.

I hate bureaucracies!

However, the day was successful. I managed to finish my part of our report on case allocation, and I completed the revisions on our article on legal aid (see earlier blogs). The editor of Civil Justice Quarterly accepted it about five minutes after I emailed it to him. Yes!

I also finally got rid of, ie, sent it in, the wretched job evaluation form (also in earlier blog). I haven't a clue if I filled it correctly or made any sense. Barmy exercise--more bureaucrats!

To complete the day, I pulled out from the stack a review of a research proposal to the AHRC. I can't say what it was about, but it was a good proposal, which I much prefer to write about than poor ones.

It is now about midnight and I'm going to take my dog, Chang (see photo), for a walk around the block and try and forget about wrecked web pages, broken down scanners (yep), and viruses that corrupt your programs (yep again). It's time to throw the computer out of the window.
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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Evaluating Professors Redux or How To Evaluate Intellectuals

Since I wrote the original article, the professors at the University of Westminster have been completing their job evaluation forms. Has it been an easy task? No. The information we received initially made sense to us. Yet the forms we were subsequently provided with don't conform with what we originally learned. These forms are based on prototypical "management speak", the sort that will make any sentient being quiver with embarrassment, especially if caught using it! I have attached the two forms and information that were sent to us. The two are meant to be roughly similar but they seem to convey subtlely different messages. Am I providing too much or too little information?

One key point for us was that professors are by their very nature individual. The job is the professor. Someone could do my job, but there is no role they could imitate and reproduce. Someone else would be a different professor of law and sociology with entirely different research. This is quite distinct from a book keeper or personnel administrator; their functions don't depend on unique qualities. Professors are intellectuals and intellectuals do not conform to stereotypes found within the stultifying ranks of bureaucracies.

University administrators--one can't honestly call them managers as most of them fail to understand the term--like bureaucratic structures because they permit ordering systems to be installed and audited. A clerk knows where she is located in such a system: who her superordinates and subordinates are. A professor by contrast largely does work that is created by him/her, carried at his/her pace and generally controls the process and content from start to finish. Bureaucrats don't enjoy these degrees of freedom.

In a way, the intellectual is the last free individual. Their thoughts can't be controlled and they are practised in the arts of subversion. What appears like conformity is really an ironic undermining of authority, which tends to confound and confuse bureaucrats. I am not saying that intellectuals are not accountable: they are, but their freedom to think has to be recognized and accepted. Without original thought, there is no freedom, no true society. Very few bureaucrats--only the exceptional ones--are able to combine both roles. I have not met any in my institution.

I have deviated from the start, the evaluation process. I have been struggling with the "dimensions" of my job role, my "accountabilities" and so forth. I am plonking down information culled from my CV in the hope it might hit one or two appropriate targets. I doubt it. My confidence is low here.

Ultimately, it comes down to how the university administrators are going to determine our pay. We, the professors, have been trying to understand the process for some months now. We face an opaque screen, where instead we desire transparency. But of course knowledge is power and the ability to wield it doesn't mean it's used wisely. We have insisted that we are engaged in this process every step. The administrators have reluctantly agreed, but you can see it pains them to do so.
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