I probably should have just bought this blog post

Dear readers,

For a good (academic/nerdy) time, check out these websites http://myessaywrite.com/ and http://forensicsinschool.com.

I always knew that there were online companies that would write your academic essay for you, but I guess I thought this would be covert and a little sneaky. But these sites (and tons more, I’m sure) manage to spin it so that suddenly, buying your custom-written academic essay is the right thing to do. These are some of my favourite quotes from the sites:

“Purchasing essays is, essentially, an investment into itself. You are buying the expertise that our company can offer your future, which we hope is spectacular.”

“Professors have known for ages that students will take an ‘easy way out’ where and when applicable, yet to buy essay assignments online, one must actually have some primary directive in mind. For honest students, it’s about passing classes and getting onto their careers.”

“Essay subjects have become increasingly difficult over the years which either causes students to flunk, or even lose their potentially lucrative scholarship. Rather than worrying about completing your essay, simply hire someone online to discreetly write this essay based off any topic you wish and avoid missing out on your teenage years in school because you were cooped up writing essays you don’t understand.”

and perhaps most bewilderingly:

“Case studies and teachers believe that buying essays from online sources becomes a formality of plagiarism; if this was the case, our government would shut thousands of companies down. If you cannot grasp the outline or general idea of essay writing, hiring someone to take care of it for you is no different than writing the material yourself so long as the material wasn’t plagiarised.”

Readers, I kid you not! These companies are framing the purchasing of academic essays online as an investment, as educationally productive and as something you should do because… let’s be honest… you’re worth it. It’s basically like telling someone, “Quickly, grab that lady’s Chanel handbag, because capitalism is an unjust system and private ownership is corrupt”.

I’d never condone this kind of action, but somewhere deep down, I’m hoping that if students do buy essays online, they’re upfront about why they’re doing it: too many deadlines, no grasp of the course material, or they just can’t be arsed. I hope students aren’t buying essays with the belief that it’s really ethically and morally justifiable. They can’t be that stupid… can they?

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Publish or Perish!! (Although you may perish before you figure out how to publish)

Three years of undergrad, one year of Honours, two years of Masters and two years into my PhD, I find myself spending the first days of the new year haphazardly hashing out a journal publication strategy for 2015. I’ve co-authored a couple of papers over the years, but solo work is unchartered land for me and it’s taking ages to figure the whole system out. It occurred to me this morning that after nearly a decade into my tertiary education (eeeeek!), it really shouldn’t be this hard.

Everyone knows that to become an academic, it’s essential to be publishing regularly. There’s also funding and promotion implications. I understand that by the time someone embarks on a PhD, they should understand how the academic game works, but surely in my senior undergraduate and postgraduate years at Africa’s top-rated university, there should have been a workshop on how to write for scholarly journals?

There’s a lot in the literature about the importance of inducting new students into the world of higher education. New students often don’t understand the discourse of the academic world and struggle to succeed. For example, something like referencing, which is so fundamental to academic writing, may be a completely new concept. For this reason, it’s important to make the discourse explicit for students; it’s like making the rules of a new language super clear so that people can go on to learn the language. That’s why this area of study is called academic literacy.

So if there’s a growing focus on developing students’ academic literacy, why is it that the rules of journal writing remained tacit during my studies? A cynic may wonder whether this was academics’ way of keeping the pool of contributing authors down and thereby increasing their own chances of publication. Mine is a call for academic academic literacy: I sure know I could have benefitted from it

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If a PhD student falls in a forest…

I’m reading a book about policy analysis, which should be boring but really isn’t. I am so into it, that at times I find myself shouting “Yes!” out loud or giggling along as I it becomes clear how we human beings are so very shaped by the way official policies (particularly governmental ones) represent society. At moments like this I feel so lucky to be a PhD student, with time and space to expand my mind.

Sounds rad, right? In the midst of enthusiasm, I came across this Foucault (1988: 265) quote. It’s about a particular approach to policy analysis, which encourages us to:

… question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and accepted, to reexamine rules and institutions and on  the basis of this re-problematisation… to participate in the formation of political will.”

“Eureka!”, thought I. That’s exactly what the PhD’s meant to do! How exciting… how empowering… how realistic?!

Because come on, people, realistically what are the chances of my PhD changing the world? (And you don’t have to be kind, oh loyal readers, I can handle the truth). Even if it’s super-duper good, fuelled by insights and enlightened realisations, chances are it’ll only ever be read by my supervisors, examiner(s) and, after subtle coercion, my very kind husband.

Just like the old adage of the tree falling in the empty forrest, If a PhD student writes a magnificent thesis, but there’s no one there to read it, does the knowledge really exist at all? And if the answer to this is no, then really – what’s the point of it all?

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Students say the darndest things (when they think you’re not listening)

A sunny afternoon on upper campus, UCT. On the grass outside the Arts Block, two Commerce-looking male (CLM) students are chatting about nothing in particular. They spot their equally commerce-looking friend approaching them. Right hand in a cast (RHC), he is walking with purpose in the direction of the Leslie.

CLM 1: Hey Bru!

RHC: Boet! How’s it going?

CLM 2: What happened to your hand, man?

RHC: Bru! Attendance at Ethics lectures is compulsory. I got Mike to sign the register for me and we got caught, so I’m on the way to see the lecturer. I borrowed Guy’s cast so I can say I broke my hand and that’s why I couldn’t go.

After a quick “Cheers, Bru” RHC continues on his journey. To the right, a lone eavesdropping lecturer (me, obviously) guffaws at the thought of a student lying to get out of trouble for faking attendance at an ETHICS lecture.

COULD ONE EVEN MAKE THIS STUFF UP? THANKS, RHC, FOR MAKING MY DAY. 

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My response to the proposed motion to the Rhodes University Faculty of Humanities

It has come to my attention that a motion was proposed and passed by Rhodes University’s Faculty of Humanities that calls on  all members of the Rhodes University academic community to support the position that:

“Academics holding Israeli citizenship, as well as official representatives from Israel, in advance of an invitation to visit Rhodes University, be requested to make a statement renouncing the use of lethal military force by the Israeli government against unarmed civilians in Palestine and the Occupied Territories and the forcible displacement of Palestinians from their homes.”

The statement is lengthy and can be found here. My response follows below.


5 August, 2014 To Whom It May Concern: Re: Motion to the Faculty of Humanities concerning the abuse of Human Rights in Palestine and the Occupied Territories This letter concerns the abovementioned motion, which has been adopted by the Humanities Faculty at Rhodes University. The points below outline my objection to the motion:

  • While the authors’ empathy for human suffering is laudable, at no point does the motion refer to the ongoing rocket attacks on Israel or the terrorist tunnels built by Hamas from Gaza to Israel. A university should be a space for critical engagement and debate. The one-sided narrative portrayed in the motion shuts down any space for debating the nuances in the current Middle East conflict.
  • The motion’s reference to the Constitution of South Africa and the “right to freedom of association and freedom of expression” for its citizens is antithetical to its purpose: to withdraw the freedom of Rhodes students and staff to develop their own informed responses to the current situation.
  • The notion of forcing individuals to “make a statement” regarding their views on Israel’s military actions relies on archaic witch-hunt tactics. This idea is short-sighted in several respects. Firstly, Israel is a democracy with an active civil society with wide-ranging political views. Yet, this motion flattens all distinctions by, ostensibly, making the holding of Israeli citizenship a crime to be punished by public purging. Secondly, will all Israeli citizens, including its Arab and Christian academics, be subject to this sweeping proposal, or will the university be selective in who is deemed a “potential enemy” in this regard? Finally, will similar calls be made for Chinese academics, Russian academics, Syrian academics and Iraqi academics in the light of the conflicts in these regions?
  • The authors briefly refer to the “negotiation” that led to a peaceful resolution of the South African conflict. Yet their proposition, which ostracises any academic holding an opinion contrary to their own, cuts off the chance of any real conversation happening between and across different parties in this conflict.

Its website indicates that the Faculty of Humanities at Rhodes University offers a liberal arts education and goes on to explain that:

“A liberal arts education provides students with critical reasoning skills, in particular the ability to analyse and evaluate arguments, to probe for hidden assumptions, to organise complex material in coherent ways; with an ability to understand the views of others; the ability to communicate well; a capacity to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty; and an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance”

(http://www.ru.ac.za/facultyofhumanities/about/)

As a student of Higher Education, I question how supporters of this motion purport to educate students to reason critically, to weigh up different arguments, to understand other views and to navigate an often ambiguous and uncertain world by defining what ideologies are allowed and demonising those who hold different opinions.

Institutions of higher education have an important part to play in society. As such, Rhodes University is uniquely placed to provide a safe space to stimulate debate around the current Middle East crisis. It can do this by providing forums for different stakeholders to share their views, by nurturing critically thinking students, and promoting tolerance and debate. The adoption by Senate of this motion would signal a dangerous turn away from academic freedom.

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Do Marks Matter?

I’ve always been a bit of an academic nerd, so marks have never been a big deal for me. The school and university system of assignments and exams worked for me, which made life pretty easy. I do, however, know that there are tons of students who find the whole system very challenging. Last year, for example, I received a distraught email from a very bright student who had tanked his exam. He’d let the stress get to him, he said.

That’s why I was fascinated to read about the book “Why A students work for C students“. In it, the author Robert Kiyosaki explains that the school system rewards kids who read well, memorise and test well. These are the kids who generally churn out the As and go on to study book-smart subjects like accountancy and law.

The C kids are often those who don’t fit this mould. They are often, however, highly creative, out-of-the-box dreamers, and it is these individuals who go on to innovate, create, and change the world around them. Thus, A students often end up working for C students.

I LOVE this idea, and I bet that in many cases it’s true. However, it doesn’t help my student who failed his exam last year. There are real repercussions for poor performance at school and university, no  matter how limited the system may be.

I came across a related idea in Stefan Collini’s (2012) book What are universities for? Here he’s discussing the idea that one of university’s roles is to enable people to develop their potential:

…  (but) what if the potential that people find they have to develop is to become unsaleable esoteric poets?

Kiyosaki says that parents shouldn’t be obsessed with their kids’ grades; they should rather help them find and follow their special gifts. But, what’s a parent to do if that gift is to be an unsaleable esoteric poet? In a world where people need to fill their cars with petrol and pay for health insurance, how idealistic is it to encourage students who may not be academically-minded to follow their (potentially unprofitable) dreams?

Since I left varsity, I don’t think anyone’s ever looked at my matric results, and job applications seldom ask for academic transcripts. So that leaves me wondering if, whether you’re an A or a C student, marks ultimately matter at all. Is it a case of “Nice work if you can get it, but if you can’t, don’t stress too much because you have other gifts”? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Rating and evaluating lecturers: a perfect 10 or an outright fail?

At the end of each of our courses, students fill out evaluations about the course itself: how it fulfilled their expectations; what they found most useful; what they think needs to change; and, of course, their lecturer.

Years back, when I was still teaching middle school, I’d fantasise about what I would really like to say in a particularly painful student’s report. Instead of “Joey’s energetic nature means he can, on occasion, distract other students”, I’d imagine myself scrawling, “NOBODY LIKES YOUR SON. HE’S IRRITATING ON MULTIPLE LEVELS. (PS. HE’S NOT VERY BRIGHT. SORRY.)”

So when I hand out the course evaluations to my university students, I wonder whether they’ve spent the semester composing their evil responses in their minds. Most of the time though, it’s all good, and when students say I’m “awesome” I feel inordinately  happy, even though there’s no mention of my innovative teaching methodologies or my commitment to critical pedagogy.

Last night on Twitter, I came across THIS STORY about a Professor in the States who is suing a student for defamation after he posted about her on ratemyprofessors.com (which doesn’t operate in SA) , as well as other websites, blogs and YouTube. It made me wonder, should there be spaces online where a ranty student gets to spew bile about a lecturer anonymously? Doesn’t this place the lecturer immediately on the back foot with no recourse for self-defence?

On the other hand, I’m always bemoaning poor teaching and I can understand how powerlessness students must feel experiencing it day after day. Perhaps sites like ratemyprofessors can usher in an “Academic Spring” and an ousting of poor educators from the system. With an ever-increasing emphasis on research in universities, we need nothing short of a teaching revolution. Could online lecturer evaluations hold the key?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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