Category Archives: education

Keep It Simple Stupid

imagesToday, I’m going to get a little personal. I apologise to everyone in advance, but I write this post as a way to, hopefully, generate a little discussion about the lives of students. Every so often my department tries to “promote a culture of learning” and invites all their postgrads to a seminar in which either a senior postgrad student, or a staff member, talks for an hour and a half about their research. The problem is that it’s usually only the most junior of postgrads who attend (there are reasons for this, but I’m not at liberty to divulge them), and for me, it appears that most don’t want to be there, and honestly, don’t really seem that interested. I’m not sure how true this is, I’m hoping that some will be brave enough to comment on this post and talk about their feelings (I’m like a cool social media therapist in that way).

Perhaps part of the problem is that most of them have just come from a two hour seminar, but I think there’s more to it than that. Yesterday was one of those days, and while I was listening to people talk after the presentation, certain things struck me as to why most students don’t seem that interested in attending these talks. But before I begin, I want to make one thing clear, yesterday’s presentation was interesting, and if you’d read the piece of work the presenter was talking around, it would have made it easier to follow.

Anyway, I think a lot of the problem has to do with the delivery of the whole thing because there’s a definite sense of them and us. Everyone seems oblivious to the fact that most of the people attending these workshops are still starting out in their academic careers and are still learning how all of this works. And that they’re still apprehensive about seeing and talking to their lecturers as people. Some would argue, tough they must grow up, and that this process isn’t meant for them, but to give staff members a chance to understand each other’s research and work. Well then, if that’s the case, why not just set aside a time to do this privately (again, I have theories, but I value my life)? We do this because the little ones must be given a chance to see where research goes, they tell me.  But then why does it seem that everyone is incapable of talking about things in a simple manner, and making it and themselves more accessible? Maybe, it’s just the academic way, but for me (and this is where it gets personal) it appears that most people are just trying to sound smart rather than having the ability to generate real discussion around an issue. I’m sure that if people were less concerned with using four-syllable words and academic jargon (usually incorrectly), they would get more people joining in on a discussion.

It’s no wonder that the ‘real-world’ view academics as living in ivory towers coming up with ideal ideas about things that have no bearing on the realities of the outside world. The sad irony of it all is that there is a lot of value in the research that is done at universities, but because of the way it’s delivered, the general population are excluded from engaging with it.  One of my students recently wrote a post complaining about the way that academic articles are written, and I see her point. So for the next seminar, which I have the misfortune of having to present, I’m going to try something different. Keeping it as simple as possible. It may work, it may fall flat on its pimply pre-pubescent posterior, but I’m going to try. So, no more pedagogical endeavours masquerading as entertainment, mine’s about chilling, chatting, laughing and having fun.  Oh, and there will be wine because the best discussions always have wine.

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The Problem With PSAs

Every so often when flicking from E! the History Channel, I fall victim to some stupid public service announcement. I hate them. Actually, hate is too mild, I loathe them with a burning vengeance that makes me want to never watch TV again. Usually, the remote is too far away to do anything, so I have to suck it up and deal with it. The one that’s driving (haha, pun) me nuts at the moment is that stupid ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ ad. You know the one, where everyone looks like a murderer, even the policeman, and threatens if you drink and drive you could end up being driven home in the back of a police van with a bunch of psychopaths,who incidentally, seem to be allowed to carry knives on their way to prison (I realised later, after watching the full version, that it’s actually a tow truck driver with the knife, but he still looks like a killer).

 The thing that gets me about this ad is that I think it’s missed its mark. It’s all about shock tactics, which most people believe have lost their shock value because we’re confronted with so much of it everyday. In South Africa, there are numerous issues that we’ve been bombarded with so often that most of us tune out, skip the article or change the channel. Unprotected sex, drugs, smoking, drinking and driving. We’re told that all these things can kill us and we’re lectured from primary school to be good people and not to do any of it. We’re shown extreme videos of dead bodies strewn across heroin dens, emaciated babies who’ve contracted HIV from their now dead mothers, and blackened lungs of a cancer victim. And yet, it hasn’t solved any of these problems. HIV infections are going up, smoking is as common as ever, and drinking and driving isn’t going to deteriorate until a safe public transportation system is put in place (and even that may not help).

So how do we get people to take notice? The Topsy Foundation tried an HIV campaign in which they highlighted hope rather than condemnation, but it’s forgettable to say the least. Partly, it’s because the ad is too long and has a documentary feel about it. Humans are, for the most part, pathetic creatures who like to entertained constantly. I like to call it the ‘dancing monkey’ syndrome; unless we behave like a dancing monkey, nobody pays attention for very long.

More importantly, if we want anyone to pay attention we’ve got to get them to share these messages on various social media. Now, I don’t know about you, but there’s no way that I’d share either of these videos on my Facebook page or Twitter feed. Mostly, because they’re boring, preachy and lack a dancing monkey, but also because I know that none of my friends or followers would be interested, and would probably block me if I carried on posting similar things. I can’t stand it when people put public service announcements and ‘like this 1 million times to save the cockroach’ posts on my wall. I want to be entertained, not depressed into being a more moral human being. I’m shallow like the rest of the world. People only put those things on their walls because they’re performing; they want the rest of us openly shallow human beings to know that they’re better than us because they care enough about something to put it on their wall. But I digress.

For a public service announcement to be successful and memorable, people need to watch it (duh!) and the best way to do that is to make it entertaining. The problem is, how do you make something so serious entertaining? I don’t have an answer, but whoever came up with Metro’s train safety video seems to have a good idea.

It’s racked up over 45 million views on YouTube because it’s catchy (the song will be stuck in your head for years) and you want to share it with all your friends. But more importantly, you get the message, you know to be safe around trains because otherwise you’re as dumb as somebody who thinks it’s a good idea to use their private parts to catch piranha.  In fact, this video is so successful that it’s spawned a number of parodies which means that people want to engage with it, add to the conversation and be a part of the message. And isn’t that what public service announcements are all about?

ANC: Stop Short-Term Thinking, Start Long-Term Planning

Last Friday, the Mail and Guardian reported that the ANC has tabled plans to force all tertiary graduates to enter into state internships after completing their studies. This isn’t exactly news. I wrote a post not so long ago about these plans, but I thought I’d spend a little more time explaining why this can’t work, and try to offer a more analytical critique, instead of just passing snide remarks.

One of the first things that I try to tell any student when they first start writing argumentative essays is that they should refrain from making sweeping assumptions.  For example, don’t claim that all South Africans have Blackberries. It might be true that all your friends have Blackberries, or that everyone you know uses a Blackberry, but that doesn’t constitute the entire population, so instead, you should say that many South Africans own Blackberries. This prevents you from being wrong and provides a buffer that acknowledges you understand the actual statistics of the cell phone industry in South Africa. Unfortunately, the ANC appear to making this mistake by assuming that all tertiary education is the same.  By declaring that all gradutes would be required to enter into state internships presumes that all degrees and diplomas offer students a specific type of training that can be translated directly into the workplace. Sadly, this is far from reality, especially when dealing with the humanities.

While doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants could slide quite easily into various internships (they already do to a certain degree), it becomes more of a challenge for those of us who did not study a professional ‘trade’. Personally, I did a degree specialising in Media, English and Ethics – yes, I can hear you all screaming journalist – but none of these subjects actually aimed to teach practical skills, especially English and Ethics. The aim of these subjects, for the most part, was to teach one to think, analyse and comment on various issues. Even Media, which so many assume is orientated around television and print journalism, has closer relations to Cultural Studies and Philosophy than it does to media training. So in reality, I learnt how to discuss the implications (both good and bad) of Lady Gaga’s dress-sense in relation to society’s representations of feminity. Employable, right?

You have to remember that the humanities were designed, hundreds of years ago, as a field for society’s elite. It was for those upperclass aristocrats – usually women – who didn’t have to work and just wanted to help supplement their conversational abilities in the arts and foreign languages. It was never meant as a way to train employees.

Now, ignoring my last point, and assuming that my BA had equipped me for the communications world in a way that the ANC believes it could, there are another two major problems with their plan.  Firstly, there are thousands of university graduates each year, add on another few thousand for diplomas, and even more for correspondence courses. I’m led to believe that UNISA has over 9 000 communications graduates each year. Technically, it’s a flooded field and there are only so many communications jobs out there, especially in state-run communications. Blade Nzimande, however, argues that internships would function as compulsory community service for graduates, and once completed, interns would be ‘absorbed into that service within the public sector’. It’s a noble proposition, if not disturbingly naive, to say the least. Here’s the problem: we currently don’t have enough jobs, so how does the ANC propose to create thousands of internships around the country, that would then result in permenant employment? If they can do this, then why haven’t they been able to solve the current employment problems?

Secondly, it seems unlikely, for the same reasons, that the government would be able to fund such internships. Granted, medical interns and legal article clerks don’t earn enormous salaries, but they don’t work for free either. In addition, medical graduates are also re-located and often live in flats, hostels, or digs, partly, if not wholly, funded by their employers. So again I ask, how does the ANC propose to put this into practice? Where will they get the extra funds, and where will all these displaced graduates live? In essence, how do they propose that these community servants live once assigned a post? It seems to me that this plan has no real foresight, and absolutely no long-term consideration.

All this points to the unfortunate truth, and one which few people wish to acknowledge – an over-priced piece of paper does not ensure a good employee, good, solid experience does. That’s really where all this stems from, I believe. Employers want recruits that know how to function in the business environment, tertiary education does not necessarily do this, and the government sees internships as a way to deal with this issue. Years ago, if you wanted to become a lawyer, you would work as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts, learn on the job, and finally wrote an exam which tested to see if you were equipped to be admitted. Instead of university training, you were guided by a mentor and practising legal instructor.  A University degree was more about highlighting your financial status and still had to be supplemented by practical training before you could be admitted. Today, while a degree is essential, you still have to complete your articles before you can be admitted.

Unfortunately, society has become so concerned with status that many have forgotten that experience is just as, if not more important, than having a tertiary qualification. This is part of the reason, I’m sure, that the ANC believe that this is the solution.  However, the problem doesn’t lie entirely with misconceptions about degrees.  Mostly, it lies in the quality of our high school qualifications.  Overall, they have become redundant and a tertiary certificate/diploma/degree is needed to help  prove that we are literate, then alone trained in a specific field. Perhaps if we raised the quality of our high school education, and didn’t consider 30% a pass, more employers would be open to hiring high school graduates and give them on-the-job training, rather than relying on ill-equipped mediocrity.

Bottom line though, tertiary education should not be seen as a inequitable right. Basic education is. Universities are places that should harness the collective intelligence of the creme-de-la-creme of society’s academically gifted. If we don’t acknowledge this, we will fail to appreciate those who are gifted in other areas, like farming or carpentry. Academics is not meant for everyone, just like playing for the Springboks is not possible for everyone. I can write, so this is perfect for me, but ask me to build a house and I’m a complete imbecile, just like many students appear because this is not meant for them. So instead of trying to fix the problem after the fact, perhaps the ANC should try to add value to apprenticeships, high school education and leave internships to those who will actually benefit society, like doctors, not experts in Lady Gaga.

Growing Excellence to End Poverty

This doesn’t really relate to this post, but it’s funny

It was a little while back (not sure when, I’ve been a little pre-occupied with a little pain) the South African Minister of Higher Education, in his infinite wisdom (I use wisdom loosely here) proposed that all South African university graduates have to undergo community service to complete their degrees, just like doctors are required to do. Now I have two issues with this.

First, most university students (and eventual graduates) can barely spell their name (I’ve actually had students hand in assignments with their names spelt incorrectly), or think that they are some super pop diva, so they only write their first name on everything. Sorry, but I have no clue who Bethany or Apple Pie is (and seriously, you need to sue your parents for stupidity or torture – I actually have a student whose name is Swastika). And our Minister wants to send these geniuses into the community to do God knows what.

This is where my second point comes in. While some degrees do give you a skill, most humanities and social science degrees, don’t actually train you to do anything. You just spent thousands on a piece of paper that doesn’t qualify you to do anything. And if you disagree, maybe our Minister could please tell me what type of community service a person who has a degree in Classics and Philosophy would engage in? I seriously can’t quite picture farming with community members and telling them how everything they are farming doesn’t really exist, but it’s ok because we ourselves are just a mere construction of social representations. Hmmm…. Maybe I under-estimated ol’ Blade. Maybe this is some massive ploy to cull the population. Realising you don’t really exist is rather depressing, and I’m sure with mass poverty there are thousands of suicidal depressants out there. This could finally send them over the edge. Poverty solved, they’ll all kill themselves after two minutes with a bunch of humanities’ ‘experts’. And if they don’t, we could just offer them administrative jobs at my uni.  They’ll kill themselves and everyone around them after a week of dealing with the mass incompetence that abounds these hallowed halls of ‘Premier scholarship’.

Re-inventing the Wheel

It really confuzzles my little brain that the majority of the world has a complete lack of logic. Surely, you can see when something works and when something doesn’t? So then, why is it that I am constantly required to deal with others ‘fixing’ things that work perfectly well. I don’t come into your house and say, well your fridge does a good job keeping your veggies cold, so why not stop using it and electrify my cooler box and use that instead? Apart from being a stupid idea (I’d probably electrocute myself and the carrots), it’s just a waste of time.

So I ask, why create apps and other online tools to do things that we can already do well without, and why do people insist on using them? Take the I-Phone app, ibeer, for example. Why on earth would you invent, or use an app that simulates drinking a beer as you tilt your phone? Some moron wrote that it’s for when you’re driving and can’t drink…I’m sorry, WHAT?! Seriously? Has the world gone insane? And what’s worse, is that you have to buy it; and people do!

Fair enough, you can say it’s all for fun (although I see no point in pretending to drink a beer). But what about ‘educational’ tools that just mimic offline activities for the sake of making them ‘interactive’ and part of the ‘Web 2.0 experience’ (a term so obsolete it should be banned from your vernacular)? Let’s take Wordle, for example. It’s a tool which is coined as helping create beautiful word clouds. Students copy and paste their notes into the program, and instantly the most frequent keywords are highlighted for them. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Well, what about this?
Teacher: “Morning class, today I want you to re-write the entire first chapter from your textbook into Wordle so that you can see what the most important key words are.”
Student: “You want us to re-type an entire chapter?!” (Remember, textbooks are not readily available to be copy and pasted)
Teacher: “Yes, it’ll help you identify the most important terms.”
Student: “But why?”
Teacher: “It’ll help you identify terms so you can create mind-maps around them and then write summaries.”
Student: “But why not just write a summary as I read the chapter?”
Teacher: “Because this highlights the words in pretty colours and fonts.”
Student: “So?” (By this point, the student is wondering if their teacher has heard of a little thing called a highlighter)
Teacher: “So?! You’re interacting in an online environment!”
Student: “Um…” (Student now realises that his education is a farce and drops out to become a crack addict).

Ok, so that’s like a worse case scenario. But the point is, don’t give students more work because you think that because they use Facebook that they want to do everything else online. Writing a normal summary is enough depression for a student, don’t make it worse by telling them they need to re-write an entire chapter/book/manual/study guide in order to make it ultra-pretty to organise their thoughts. I’ll organise their thoughts for you:
1) When will this class end?
That’s it, that’s their entire thought process. So stop trying to re-invent it!

Riots on Campus

I was considering writing about the movie I watched last night and some interesting American logic displayed in it, but I think that that needs to be brushed aside for the time being. This morning I arrived at varsity only to hear from Solomon that some students had decided to strike because of something to do with a residence waiting list.

Now there’s a lot wrong with this.. Firstly, why the hell strike on our campus? No-one here has anything to do with it. If you wanna strike go to Durban and terrorise the vice-chancellor with your nonsense. And secondly, why are these silly people disrupting lectures. I never realised that it was your lecturers or fellow students that decided who, or at times, what got approved to res. But apparently, we breed a logic, at this fine institution, of non-cognitive reasoning.

Any whoo.. Besides this, I do have sympathy for these students, because it seems that this is their only option to be heard. The cause of all this singing (strangely enough they’ve been singing ‘Hallelujah’.. a bit weird for a protest song but who am I to judge) and stomping is that apparently the varsity still has over 400 students on a waiting list to get into res on our campus. Come now it’s almost two weeks into semester and that many students are still waiting for accommodation?? Seriously now, who is that cruel.. oh wait I could use a few words to describe who, but I fear for my life. This place is notorious for not being able to take criticism and making undesirables disappear.

My point though is don’t let a list like that get that long.. Cause I can guarantee you that there is no possible way that over 400 students will drop out within two weeks to make room for all those on a waiting list. But I guess it kinda makes sense that people’s sense of numbers is so pathetic, when you consider that to pass Matric you only need to know a third of what you’ve been taught for 12 years. So in reality, it’s our failing education system that has forced students to strike and not the lack of places in res.. Wow!! Never woulda thunk it would you??

Stupid Poms

Recently the Conservative Party in the UK announced plans to pay couples twenty pounds a week if they get married: http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,91211-1274419,00.html

Their reasoning is that the breakdown occuring in British society is due to children being raised in single parent homes and in order to fix the problem couples should be encouraged to get married and raise their children together. What an absolute load of rubbish!!! Who was the brainchild behind this, seriously? You cannot tell me that a child coming from a household with both parents who are constantly unhappy is going to be better off than a child from a loving single parent home.

Has anyone considered that there are a number of other factors that are much more prevalent which have given rise to societal problems? A big problem that is on the increase worldwide is that of teenage pregnancy. Teenagers fall pregnant and end up living on social welfare for the rest of their lives. The problem here is that more and more families are living below the bread line and in poverty, not that there is only one parent. Because teenagers fall pregnant and have children so young they are generally unable to finish or further their education. They are forced into low wage jobs in order to support their new family without any prospects of promotion due to their lack of education.

So surely, a better option would be to reward young people who finish school or enter into professional training of some sort instead of encouraging couples to marry.

My other main issue with this proposition is that even if you do get couples to marry it does not guarantee that it will make them better parents. One of the biggest problems in low income households is that parents often do not have time for their children because they are continually trying to raise enough money to make ends meet; and therefore children are left to their own devices. This will not be solved if couples are married. The family will still be low income and both parents will still be consumed by trying to stay afloat financially.

There are greater social problems at work here and marriage is not going to solve anything. I recently read that we are the first generation who are not expected to surpass our parents in our relation to our careers and finances. I firmly believe that the best way to rectify the problems facing society is to provide greater rewards for completing education and lowering the costs of tertiary and professional training. I’m not saying that this will solve everything over night, however I do believe it is a step in the right direction.

Rewarding marriage financially is not the answer to a better society, in fact it would lead to an even more dysfunctional one if you consider how many will get married only for the extra cash.

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