Category Archives: university

Maturity Abounds

wallyYou’d think that once you get to a certain age, you’d grow up, act like a responsible adult and other responsible adults would curtly acknowledge your maturity with a slight nod of their head as you passed them on the street. Yeah, this never happens. You will remain that silly little five-year old FOREVER! Except, unlike when you were five, you now have the leeway to drink, drive, vote and make babies (not necessarily all together – though it could make for interesting voter news footage). You’re probably thinking that my story is going to waddle off on yet another rant about students and student life. You’re wrong. This little tale has to do with those who are in charge of moulding the minds of tomorrow’s street cleaners MacDonald’s waiter leaders.

Now, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that from time to time academics are prone to behave somewhat…err… oddly.  I’ve usually been on the receiving end of their antics. Begging for wine money in Ireland comes to mind, as does placarding expletives in foreign languages all over the lecturer’s lounge, but usually it’s all in good fun, and the short burst of immaturity morphs back into absent-minded nodding at strangers.  Unfortunately, there are some ‘grown-ups’ who never got the memo.

200155_9617200561_1372_nI am sorry to say, that today, after a number of good laughs were had while attempting to bring to life our own version of Where’s Wally, the ‘grown-up’ surveillance system decided that in an institution of higher learning and students, there is no room for practical jokes, immaturity and silliness. It’s all rather unprofessional, don’t you know. As you can see from the picture of our ‘clients’ alongside, we’re all about serving humourless, mature adults. 184_24834065561_3971_n

No room for joking here!

Instead, our morning has been filled with emails flying backwards and forwards, requesting permission from management 100kms away if we can go pee-pee. Yup, it sure is fun to be a grown-up.

PS The bathroom break was noted and granted.

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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.

5 Ways to Get Your PhD

student_dreaming_graduation_lg_whtAnybody who told you that getting a PhD was about hard grafting, reading vast volumes of work and writing up your findings in a couple hundred pages was lying. Getting a PhD goes far beyond that. I’ve promised that one day I’ll write an entire book detailing the things that I’ve had to endure while being a grad student. Today, however, is not that day; instead, it’s the best advice I can give anybody who thinks that becoming a grad student is a good idea, and how to get out as quickly as you can.

1. Assing Around 

It may sound absurd, but hear me out.  Being a grad student generally involves taking some time to work as a grad assistant, or grad ass, as I like to say (with the emphasis on ass). You’re at the bottom of the food chain in the academic environment, which means that you are responsible for the ass-end of things, and the general mopping up of any shit that goes down. And I mean that quite literally. I’ve actually been made to dispose of scat left by the building’s feline colony (I have my suspicions that it’s actually students leaving a warning to various lecturers about their teaching styles, but I try not to rock the boat and keep my mouth shut).  Anyway, you should prepare to be treated like an ass.  You’re a necessary evil to make people’s lives easier, but something that most don’t like to deal with. The quicker you learn that, the faster you can impress your supervisor who will speed up the process of reading your work to irrigate the department, so to speak.

2. Learn how to reference

This might seem like an obvious tip, but I don’t mean learn how to reference for your thesis. I mean, learn how to reference using every style that you can lay your hands on. Why? Because referencing is a time-consuming banality of academics.  The chances are when your wise and supremely talented superior submits an article for publication they are far too busy contemplating existentialism and the meaning of life to worry about such menial chores, so you, as the ass, will be entrusted to put their reference lists together.  And God help you if the article is rejected because of bad referencing. You will spend an extra six months waiting for your draft to come back because you cocked up, and your supreme leader has to take time away from your thesis to fix your incompetence.

3. Learn how to use Google

Again, this many seem obvious, but when you are putting together that reference list the chances are, that in their ultimate wisdom, your supreme ruler will have forgotten to include one or two references, page numbers, journal details or the like to test your abilities. It’s up to you, like a super smooth 1920s detective, to work out where the information came from and fill in the blanks. Being able to find missing references is an art, especially when you are looking for a page number of a quote from a book that’s been out of print for the last 50 years. Being able to do this fast, and correctly, will prove to your supervisor that you are worthy of a few extra minutes of their time. Remember, every minute you save your supervisor, is an extra minute they can dedicate to your thesis.

4. Be able to define a ‘thingie’

If you’ve ever watch The Devil Wears Prada, you might remember the scene where Miranda tells Andy to book that restaurant that she likes with the guy whose name was on the piece of paper that she had in her hand last week (or something to that effect at least).  Now combine this vagueness with the more stereotypical vagueness of an academic and you come out with the following conversation:

Supervisor: What did I do with that thingie from two days ago.

Me: It’s on your desk under the book on phenomenology.

Supervisor: No that’s the other thingie. I’m talking about the one with the thing that has the thing on the thing with a thing.

Me: Oh that! Here you go.

I’m that good. And sometimes, if I’ve been really good, I even get a thank you and a whole two minutes to discuss my latest theoretical idea.

5. Be observant

Always pay attention. You will be asked to find lost books, envelopes, passports and of course, thingies. Like a wild game hunter, you need to know your surroundings and be able to notice when something’s amiss. That’s the difference between an average grad ass and a super grade A ass. Your ability to notice and remember where you see things can make it seem like you’re super-human, with awesome psychic powers or x-ray vision, and nobody wants to mess with a superhero. If you are able to locate random missplaced essentials with seemingly no effort, your supervisor will speed up the process. Either because they fear what you may do with your super powers if you turn to the dark side, or because there are only so many times that their egos can be upstaged by a know-it-all grad student. Either way, you’ll get out fast.

And if all else fails, threaten to write a book 🙂

Be Nice

Be-Nice-or-Leave-PosterEvaluations. I hate them. Especially when they come back from quality control and you get a sense of how much a class either liked you or loathed you. Most experienced lecturers will tell you to just ignore the nasty comments because those are usually written by the most difficult students, but if you’re having a marginally bad day, the remarks can make you near-suicidal. Luckily, I haven’t had anything too awful written about me yet; though once an evaluation had clear death-threat connotations attached to it, and another said that I shouldn’t get a salary because I suck. But while perusing the bitchiness and constant nit-picking about whether or not I’m old enough to lecture, or if I’m nice enough to talk to, I began thinking, why don’t we get to write evaluations on students. I know we mark their work, but that’s an assessment on how well they’ve applied themselves to a given task. What would happen if their final mark was assessed by their overall approachability, organisation and conduct during class.

Luckily, I have a blog, so here are a few things that I would like to comment on in my evaluation of individual students over the years:

For in-class behaviour

1. Student hasn’t brought any writing implements with them throughout semester. Concerned that they never learnt to write. Perhaps they should learn, come back next year, and try again.

2. Student on cellphone throughout class, with headphones in. I do like the sound of my own voice A LOT, but I can talk to myself at home… in bed… with coffee. So, if you don’t want to listen, please stay away.

3. Student conducts private lecture at the back of the class. I would really like a break so I suggest that you take the whole lecture (on a side note – wait until someone starts giggling for no reason and see how confident you feel).

For assessments

1. Student cannot form a complete sentence. Please go away and don’t come back until you learn to write.

2. Student writes gibberish. When I ask what they meant, they look confused and reply ‘I don’t know’. Please go away and don’t come back until you realise that I don’t speak idiot.

3. Student wrote beautiful essay on the public sphere. Pity they were required to write on postmodernism. I assume their reading level is up to Twi-hard. Just walk away…

Overall performance

1. Student smells. Disturbing other students. I advise deodorant, or more preferably a bath.

…….. Wait, hang on…..

I’ve always threatened to put up a shame board of ridiculous student answers and antics. That could be a way of getting back at the mean ones (you think we don’t know your handwriting and those evaluations are all anonymous… Ah, bless).

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.

Life of a Grad Student

Ok, so this afternoon I realised that most of my recent ramblings have been somewhat serious and far from the lighthearted nonsense of my older stuff. This has upset me greatly, especially when I read some of the other things floating around my inbox, and realise that people who are far too serious really annoy me. So from now on I’m going to try (very very very hard) to intersperse my brilliant (far too obnoxious) opinions with a little bit (a huge big gigantic slice) of my lost inner demon bunny spawn (I know it’s down there somewhere just past my flailing conscious).

And the first thing that pops into my mind is to regale you with the day-to-day frustrations of being a grad student. As the saying goes, ‘we’re not bad people, we’ve just made terrible life choices’. There’s something masochistic about embarking on a doctoral degree; you’ve been through 3 years of undergrad, followed by 1 year of Honours, then another 2 years for your Masters (emerging with a caffeine addiction and sun-repellent skin), and then think hey, I’ve got no life anymore so let’s spend the next 3-5 few years researching and writing something else that nobody’s going to read (I’m not even convinced that supervisors and examiners care enough to read the whole thing – it’s really long and boring).

But while embarking on the self-torture of churning out 80-odd thousand words, you realise that this is not nearly self-deprecating enough.  You also need to subject yourself to cruel and unusual dogwork just to scrape a bit of extra cash together so that the inflation on the thousands you owe the bank doesn’t kill you once you hit the real world (because being over-qualified for everything and without any real skills makes you entirely unemployable). The sucky part of my story is that at the moment, I will probably die of starvation or worse, demonstrating how to use a blog, before anybody pays me. The excuse is that, unfortunately because we have shifted all operations to a new system, everybody has yet to be trained in the new procedures. Um…. Could you tell my bank manager that when I reneged on my loan repayments, or better yet, could you please use your salary to pay mine since you earn more than the president? No? What can I do to make you? Well nothing really, except maybe get you another slice a pie while I do your undergrad marking.
Ah yes, ain’t grad life grand?!

my view

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