Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

The Reading Room at the British Museum

Some things that are wrong in academia

About this post: This is a summary of posts, articles and other content about Higher Education, language teaching and learning and academic writing, which appeared in the last week of March 2015.

This week’s collection of readings is not thematically linked, as was the case with last week’s stories on oppression and resistance. Rather, I have tried to provide insights into diverse ‘fringes’ of academic life. Today we will look into:

  1. A scandal involving college athletics at the University of North Carolina (USA);
  2. A discussion of plagiarism and malpractice in online education;
  3. Why we need to take more risks in research; and
  4. Some creative ways to spend university funds.

Creatively marking athletes’ papers

Recently, I wrote about the ways in which the University of North Carolina falsified their athletes’ academic records, and about their attempts to silence the whistleblower who revealed that such practices created functionally illiterate graduates. Last week, Jordan Weissman presented more evidence of this scandal in the Slate. Here’s an assignment authored by one of the athletes, in partial fulfilment of an academic writing course, for which he was awarded an A-:

On the evening of December Rosa Parks decided that she was going to sit in the  white people section on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time blacks had to give up there seats to whites when more whites got on the bus. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Her and the bus driver began to talk and the conversation went like this. “Let me have those front seats” said the driver. She didn’t get up and told the driver that she was tired of giving her seat to white people. “I’m going to have you arrested,” said the driver. “You may do that,” Rosa Parks responded. Two white policemen came in and Rosa Parks asked them “why do you all push us around?” The police officer replied and said “I don’t know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.

More to read: Mary Willingham, the whistle-blowing academic, discussed the scandal in an interview which you can watch here. This week, the (US) National Labor Relations Board ruled that college athletes should be considered university employees, rather than students.

Plagiarism at the age of the panopticon

While on the topic of academic cheating, I enjoyed reading Matt Reed’s take on Online Plagiarism. After reviewing academic malpractice before the internet, he discusses safeguards against cheating in online education. Here are some thoughts:

I’ve heard of more intrusive forms of surveillance, like biometrics or webcams, but I’ve got just enough Foucault in me to recoil at the prospect of panopticism as the answer. Part of the appeal of online courses is the ability to do them in your bathrobe, looking like hell.  Recording video of that seems either cruel or creepy. Yes, one could argue that in the era of the NSA, those horses are well out of the barn, but I still sense a difference.

We need more risk-takers

In an essay in Ars Technica, Chris Lee raises some interesting points about the ways in which the structure and procedures of the scientific establishment discourage risk-taking, and thus hold science back. Here’s one of many insightful remarks:

Why don’t we end up with this risky research, then? To an extent, it goes up in a puff of self-inflicted pressure. We all know that not everyone agrees on what is innovative and risky. So, when you are asking for money, you err on the side of caution. The pressure to be conservative is the pressure to survive, since researchers are only as good as their last successful grant application. So most scientists are suppressing their ambitions a bit in order to maximize their chance of occasional funding. Or, perhaps more accurately, they break their ambitions up into tiny digestible nibbles so that they have many rather conservative applications that are headed toward something innovative.

Spending university funds creatively

Other academics appear less inhibited to take risks, as was the case with the re-branding of Trinity College Dublin to Trinity College The University of Dublin. Ferdinand von Prondzynski offers some thoughts on this change, which -we are told- made a marketing agency richer by €100,000.

So what do you get for €100,000? You get told that blue and white is more ‘modern’ and ‘crisp’ than blue, white, yellow and red; and that you should go for a new and globalisation-friendly name, ‘Trinity College, the University of Dublin’. And what do I say? I will suggest that nobody will ever, and I mean ever, use that name in actual speech.

This post was originally published on 31st March 2015 as part of the ‘Recently Read‘ feature of my blog. It was last revised in March 2020 (new title, corrected typos, new layout).






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