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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

The Academic Double Helix

Good evening all,


Last week I inadvertently set off a bit of a shitstorm (it's a gift that I have) when I tweeted the tweet below. In my defence it was at least partially tongue in cheek, but the responses I got back were quite an insight.


Now before I continue, I'm going to leap to the defence of the academics who got VERY UPSET with me (no, I'm not going to name them, that's not fair or right). Their reactions very much centered around a defence of their teaching, and of their disciplines. I understand that if someone thinks I'm attacking their life's work, that would be offensive and insulting. But that's not what I'm doing, at least I don't believe so. I make very little comment on teaching, mainly because it's not my wheelhouse. Learning, and more specifically assurance of learning, is very much in my wheelhouse. And stating or implying that because I'm not an academic I have no qualification to comment is pretty insulting too. And I slap back (verbally speaking). And it stings.


I've been banging on almost exclusively about assessment being a weakness in modern higher ed for years, and years, and some more years. And not much has changed. The same weaknesses are mostly still there. In part because of systemic things (time poverty mostly), but also because of an unwillingness to look at our work with fresh eyes, looking for weakness. It also strikes me that so much of the identity of academics appears to be tied up in a helix- both assessment and teaching wrapped up in each other, indivisible. I think by saying what I say, I'm trying (in my inimitable fashion) to decompile these two strands, so they can stand alone, and we can see them clearly without the emotion that is produced when one strand of the academic helix is critiqued.


Following the twitter conversation above I was slightly shocked; not about their upset (when I'm provocative I can't be shocked when people get upset, natch), but rather shocked at what they were upset about. Being accused of setting out to destroy an academic discipline seemed a long bow to draw, given what I said. But when I thought about it, it became clear. Essentially, saying to someone that they can no longer use take home essays as a secure form of assessment- which is absolutely true - was so tied up in their mind with the discipline that it upset them greatly. I didn't intend for that to happen, and certainly didn't foresee it happening. There may have been a certain amount of "HOLY FUCK- if we can't do it that way we're stuffed!" going on, but I'm not a mind reader.


*Artist's impression of academic reaction, not to scale.


If that is the case, it simply cannot be that the problem is left to individual academics. You may be perfect with your teaching and assessment (even the latter according to me), but the person in the office next door probably isn't. And if you want your disciplines to thrive, we don't need perfect individuals. We need a system that minimises people's imperfections and maximises their strengths.


To put it another way, while teaching is more of an individual sport (notwithstanding the contributions of educational technologists and developers) assessment probably needs to be more explicitly a team sport. It seems amateurish and foolhardy to expect any given academic to be able to secure their assessments. Some can do it, sure. But the fact that academia is mostly blind to the gaping holes in assessment security means that we simply can't persist doing things the same way, and also expect disciplines to thrive. And that includes treating instances of misconduct as a "naughty student" problem. Collectively, we have opened the door and invited students through- and sadly some of them will shit on your rug.


To end, I want to say to those two particular academics (I hope you'll both sit down for a libation with me in future), and to all other academics: I'm not trying to hurt or belittle you or diminish your achievements or destroy your discipline. I would argue I'm trying to ensure your disciplines have meaning in future. And sometimes it does take someone like me to provoke a different way of thinking about who we are and what we do. I hope I can buy you a beer to make up for the sting.


Until next time,

KM

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4 Comments


Joseph Thibault
Joseph Thibault
Apr 24

I am also offended in case that gets me a brewski on you, Kane.

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Kane Murdoch
Kane Murdoch
Apr 24
Replying to

I'll be bankrupt!

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Wayne Bradshaw
Wayne Bradshaw
Apr 24

I'm going to have to start charging a trouble-making commission!

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Kane Murdoch
Kane Murdoch
Apr 24
Replying to

It seems I've cornered the market mate!

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