Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Monday, April 11, 2011

Exactly so

Some more of my work for University Reform back in the 70s, part whatever of a continuing series:

Farrago, Friday April 29 1977
Banging your head against a Brick Wall

I was giving a talk in O-Week to a very very small audience on what made the university tick. At the end somebody said "But you make everything sound so pessimistic, so hard to change. Surely if you can show the people at the top that something's not working properly they'll be willing to change it?" It was a difficult question because the short answer – “No, they probably won't" - makes the people at the top sound stupid or evil, and the long answer - that they have rather different ideas on what constitutes “working properly" - brings in rather too many complications for a snap answer. Either way, though, you end up' with the changes not getting made, and it is difficult to make this sound other than pessimistic.

A lot of us around this place started out, with the same illusion; that a well-written report with a set of logical proposals will convince people to alter their habits. A number of such reports were produced. It was quite a while after that that we began to notice that while the reports themselves were fine, models of cogent reasoning and closely argued recommendation, they had about as much effect on the university as a sparrow trying to fight its way out of a house through a picture window. The phrase "They just didn't want to know about it" has never been more to the point; and the point is that there is simply no way that you can convince someone that a problem exists if they choose not to believe it.

You say that some indisputable fact is a fact - that honours gradings are capricious and unfair to students, for example - and the heavies say it isn't. You go away and do a survey and bring it back to them; this takes a year, so they say that those are last year's figures and out of date, things have changed. And they're not being particularly devious, they just have a different view of the world and the university's place in it and the student's place in the university, which is, in their eyes, to become 1/26 scale professors as soon as possible with the minimum of unnecessary fuss. Under this system of thought there is no way student discontent, or student grievances, or student boredom can indicate anything other than faults in the student. Anything else would be like saying a yard is the wrong length, a meaningless concept.

Well, what's the alternative? Apart from sitting back and taking it, which can lead to permanent brain damage. It helps to observe that while top university people are usually fairly shoulder-to-shoulder in theory and attitude there are differences in their material interests, and one can work on these. Such theories and attitudes didn't come just from the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge. To a large extent academic discourse serves to give an alternative argument, a moral argument, when the rights and privileges of professors and lecturers come under attack.

On admissions policy, for example, the rationale for the HSC is that it picks out those best able to benefit from the university; but let us not forget that it also selects, if it works as it should, those who know most, are the easiest to teach, and give the least work to the teaching staff. That's a general interest, but there are also particular ones - the Professorial Board, for example, while deaf to any complaints that honours grading is unfair to students, can be aroused by suggestions that it's unfair as between departments (and professors) - that some departments give higher marks and thus get more postgraduate scholarships and more students and more research money and more power and status. It's having another look into that now.

That's a complicated way to win, all politics and wheeling and dealing and knowing your enemy and not looking too closely at your allies. The other way is more scenic but less feasible, and that's the way of alternative power. Power, simply defined, is being able to make people - in this case academics - do things they don't want to do, and gets round all these difficulties of not being able to convince them. The difficulty is that students don't have very much of this power unless they are really worked up on a mass basis in a way that doesn't happen very often.

That still sounds pretty pessimistic. But you can't begin any real fight for change around this university unless you register two things. One, convincing the heavies is about as hard as selling a gold brick to Ralph Nader. Two, if you front up to the heavies thinking you have power behind you and you haven't they'll mulch the concrete lawns with you. Despise the enemy strategically, yes, but respect him tactically.

Chris Borthwick, Assembly

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