Archive for January, 2006

Anonymous marking

Monday, January 30th, 2006

The UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) has begun a campaign called ‘Mark My Words, Not My Name’, aimed at ensuring all student work is marked anonymously.

I’m all in favour of this. A few years ago I undertook the marking of around 60 large written pieces, investigations in to the workings of design firms. I asked that students submit their work with only their enrolment numbers for identification on each page and the cover, then took them home for a long Christmas of marking.
When I got the marks back to work in the new year I transferred them from the sheet to the official results form and after verification they were released (oh how I miss modular schemes where students know how they’re doing before the last day of the academic year).

There was quite a fuss. Students who, up until then, had been getting great grades had apparently slipped up, while those who had resigned themselves to Cs and Ds were getting As and Bs. Not everyone was happy, to say the least, especially one or two of my colleagues who leapt in to defend certain individuals: ‘but she always gets good grades’, ‘he’s such a hard worker’ or worse, condemn some: ‘he never shows up’, ‘he’s always late in’, ‘she’s lazy’. (On my first day in the job Iwas given a list of students who staff felt my predecessor should have ‘got rid of’. They were all students deemed to be failures, lazy good for nothings. Deciding to be my own judge I investigated and found that one was caring for a sick mother, another was the primary carer for her sisters, and another was battling a serious illness he didn’t want anyone to know about. Not only were these students models of perseverance, they were also beneficiaries of anonymous marking – their grades shot up the moment no one could put a name or face to the work).
No one seemed to stop and think that this was the first time in these students’ degrees – and this was right at the end of the third year – that they had been marked anonymously. And the results suggested that up until then grades were allocated on less than fair grounds.

In my current job I don’t really get to know my students until the end of the second year so up until then my marking is by default virtually anonymous. There are exceptions – the odd student whose name you get to know, either because they’re always asking intelligent questions, or they shop in the same supermarket, work behind the bar at your local, or are already waiting at the door when you arrive with a ready smile and a friendly greeting. They stick in the mind, not so much ‘favourites’ but more just ‘known’. The submission procedure here means that student work arrives with their name on the front of the feedback sheet so it’s difficult to avoid it. But I try to turn immediately to the work without seeing whose it is I’m marking.

Occasionally I slip up and then I’ll put the piece away to come back to later. The worst issue arises when I’ve looked at the work, compared it to the criteria I’ve set and then, about to write the comments and mark down I spot the name and think ‘oh but they deserve better…’

It’s a natural instinct to be more supportive to people you like – and I mean ‘like’ in a purely professional manner. It was interesting at one institution that my anonymous marking usually meant that female students got lower marks than usual while male students got higher. This seems to be the opposite of other experiences, at Swansea for example where, according to the NUS site, ‘anonymous marking is a sure way of guaranteeing equal opportunities and eliminating discrimination within our Institutions. Swansea University introduced anonymous marking as the case for it is a strong one. Since being introduced into Swansea the percentage of women achieving first’s or 2:1s has increased by 13%.’
According to the NUS’s women’s officer ‘anonymous marking is a perfect example of how we can change women’s lives for the better by ensuring that their grades reflect their ability to study, not an outdated gender prejudice. The main strength of anonymous marking is that it is a system that does not allow an individual’s response to a student’s work to be influenced by a set of pre-conceived assumptions or prejudices. When anonymous marking is implemented, all the research suggests that while men continue to achieve the same grades, women students achieve better grades.’

I wonder if that’s actually true (not having seen this research). My own experience suggests that women students are favoured in art and design at least, especially the ones who smile (I kid you not – if I were to give advice to any student, male or female, it would be to smile. It immediately adds a grade band to your marks). Take the smiles out of the equation and suddenly things look different.

There is of course something particular about these scenarios. The work I mark is largely written work. I may have spoken at length to individual students but I don’t generally see a draft of their work before I see the final piece. Anonymous marking is easier.
But when I’ve marked studio work I’ve been familiar with it, and the person doing it. It would be nigh on impossible to mark this stuff anonymously. And yet I think it should be.

According to Steve Coole, Vice-President of the NUS at the University College of Creative Arts, ‘anonymous marking was considered in 2002 but due to the nature of the teaching and learning process the assessor is often familiar with a student’s work before the final submission for assessment, therefore it was not thought possible to adopt a policy of anonymous marking.’

Personally I think that’s a cop-out but I imagine it’s the response on just about every visually-based course. Every time anyone suggests a way of changing or improving teaching, learning and assessment in art and design the old argument of ‘tradition’ rears its ugly head. ‘We can’t change the way we teach, it’s traditional, it’s how I was taught etc’. It’s boring and it’s not a defence against change that prevents discrimination.

I was invited to an art and design institution once to run a workshop on creative thinking for teachers. I set an exercise in which I put forward a ‘management edict’. Normally the response to such a thing would be for staff to complain and moan and not do anything about it, hoping it will go away. I said ‘imagine you can’t just ignore it. Imagine you’ve got to implement it now. What would you do?’
It took a few minutes for some people to get their head around this, but many were keen (especially the younger members of staff who seemed to relish the opportunity to break a few traditions). The end results were actually rather interesting – for example, one solution to the problem of students not reading enough was to begin a book club. One solution to the issue of car parking (a universal nightmare, it seems) was to see if a pub or café in town had an upstairs room that could be used for sessions that were easier to get to (that one stemmed from the throwaway remark about ‘drive-through teaching sessions’ to which I said ‘make it work’). The most profound came from facing up to the ever-present rumour in art and design that studio space was going to be lost. ‘Imagine it is going. What do you do?’ After half an hour quite a few people had realised that they could deliver most of their courses without the use of studios, which tended to be empty most of the time because they’re not great teaching spaces. It was quite a transformation – people literally left the session with glazed faces as though they’d just found out they were adopted and their whole lives had been a lie.

So if we did the same thing and said ‘you have to implement anonymous marking next year. No ifs, no buts, no harking to tradition. It has to happen. How will you do it?’ I imagine the responses would be to approach teaching differently, to assign one tutor to a tutorial group throughout the course of a project, but have a different teacher (who’d been working with another group) mark the work. I suppose traditions whereby two or three members of staff hold court and bore students with their anecdotes while never really explaining why they think the student should do X, Y and Z to their work, will be abandoned. I believe staff everywhere will suddenly see the value in giving students proper assessment criteria before a project starts, so they know how and why they will be marked. Imagine that. And I strongly suspect that self- and peer-assessment will be embraced – how criminal is it that we send our graduates off to work in the industry with the claim they are ready to do so, but never managed to trust them to make that most important of judgements, an assessment of their own and others’ work?

At the end of the day our job is to help students learn, not to satisfy our daydreams about our own importance, or to make our jobs easy. Fair assessment is a right, not an ideal. There is no postponement of issues like this – we should be intelligent enough to make it work.

The NUS’s campaign should be applauded, but the fact it has to happen at all should be a matter of shame for academics everywhere. We need to accept that anonymous marking is more than justified and adapt our teaching techniques so that fairness is central to all our judgements. You never know, we may be surprised by the results.

Memory Mining

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

One private project I’ve been thinking about recently is related to the idea of mapping and memory, and ways of representing location, time and space. Sounds profound, but it’s not really, and I’m sure it’s been done before – but that doesn’t negate me doing it, does it? (What is it with ‘originality’? If one of my students came up with a theory of relativity unaware of Einstein’s should I criticise him and say ‘it’s been done’ or declare him a genius?)
This project has gone through various forms in my head with its most recent manifestation being a map of the UK with inkblots on specific places, the size of the blot relating to the amount of time I lived or stayed there. That was a bit crap, and I don’t have the technical skill to do what I want to do with Google Earth, so the idea’s on the back-burner along with my great ‘shipping forecast’ idea which very nearly became a radio documentary last year, which was cool while it lasted.

Anyway, I suppose my fascination for this idea came from a few things. One of them was a project I set students in which they had to select a few photos of themselves from age 13 to present and analyse the images in terms of influences, fashion, friends and that sort of thing. They also had to do the same with images of a friend they’d met recently, but didn’t know too much about.
The results, on the whole, were far beyond what I’d expected – a couple of the resulting pieces actually brought tears to my eyes and there was at least one example of a student ‘realising’ something about herself for the first time, making connections about things she hadn’t thought about for quite some time.

Me, I don’t have any photos. I don’t know why but despite having a digital camera, and a Treo phone/PDA with a camera I have nothing except a few ‘cute’ shots of my cat and a few crappy self-portraits I took for a magazine article that required an author’s photo.

I have nothing from my childhood, no family pics, no shots of ex girlfriends and nothing of trips abroad or choir tours to Germany or the Netherlands. And yet I still have my memories.

This thing about photos was quite a conscious decision. I remember going to Amsterdam on my own when I was about 20, and deliberately not looking like a tourist, camera round neck, missing things that were going on around me because I was too busy trying to frame a perfect shot. And so a hobby (and slight talent) I had seemed to fade. I found, after that, that looking at photographs was generally a sad experience – people and places that I missed and regretted losing touch with.

I’m also remarkably undocumented myself, when I think about it. I’m not very photogenic, and only look good in profile (from my left side) and in black and white, so I tend to avoid being photographed at all, volunteering in groups shots to be the person that takes it.

Recently, I’ve begun to regret this lack of physical (or rather, digital) evidence that I’ve been alive. (If I died in a dreadful accident tomorrow the only image they would find to put in the newspaper would look like it was from the post mortem – maybe I should get one taken just in case).

Now I find myself looking at my copy of iPhoto and wishing I could do all the snazzy slideshows and DVD presentations, the cheesy stock music backgrounds, the new RSS feed and the like.

Anyway, a few days ago i stumbled upon a new computer program called Memory Miner which I think a lot of people will want to take a look at. There’s a great demo movie on the site that explains what it can do.

I’d quite like to use it for a project like the one above, scanning in images of students and tutors from their personal collections to see how their lives and influences have overlapped. It ties in with something I’ve been thinking about, the connections that surround a particular institution – like a family tree but in a ‘six degrees of separation’ way. How many photos of people outside Buckingham Palace can we find? How many people were at the anti-war rallies or Reading Festival at the same time but never knew? How many people went to the same school at different times and ended up working together?
There’s got to be something there… The more people get added, the more connections get made. The further back we go, the odder the coincidences. Another one to think about.

The central idea behind MemoryMiner is a belief that the most interesting records of modern society and culture exist in analog form, ‘trapped’ in boxes of old photos, letters and the like.

With this thought in mind, we hope that MemoryMiner will be widely used to bring these materials, and more importantly, the stories that can be told from them, into the networked, digital world. The long-term goal of MemoryMiner is the creation of a many-to-many marketplace for ‘Creative Commons’ digital media that would allow people to exchange media elements in order to fill in gaps that they may have as they set about recording and publishing their personal histories.

The first step to realizing this vision is a better tool for linking digital media in a coherent way. While there are plenty of tools for ‘managing’ digital media, there is a real need to link media in meaningful ways, using an easy to grasp ‘People, Places and Times’ structure. The next step is to network these libraries together, efficiently and securely. The 1.0 release of MemoryMiner is the first step in a long journey, and we invite you to participate.”

I Need A Fag…

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Over Christmas I got into watching re-runs of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ which, if you don’t know it, was a BBC series that was made between 1978 and around 1990 (it was a mainstay of UK Sunday nights and was, judging by all the tourists we got up in Yorkshire, very popular on US PBS). Based on the memoirs of James Herriot, a rural vet, it was – as I have just rediscovered – a very funny and often touching drama series, well worth catching on DVD if possible.

Two things have happened as a result of me watching it: I want to move back to Yorkshire; I can just smell the air when I see the hills on the screen. The life they depict in the series is tough and, despite the technological advances, farming up there is still hard and increasingly without profit. But I can see myself retiring to a cottage in the dales – a broadband wireless network is all I need 😉

The second, and most worrying thing, is that I’ve started wanting to take up smoking. One of the characters keeps pulling out a packet of fags and lighting up and he manages to make it look really rather cool. It’s got me rethinking the whole ‘power of advertising’ thing that something so subtle can get someone like me to actually want to strike up and smoke one. It’s not just the historical accuracy of the drama (it’s set in the 1930s – 1950s) that’s notable, but the historical fact that such casual smoking wouldn’t be allowed if the series were made today.

I’m looking forward to a ban on smoking in public, if it ever happens. But the article below (by Libby Copeland of the Washington Post) raises an important cultural aspect of the death of smoking as part of everyday life, though I suspect this is possibly more of a problem in parts of the US than in the UK where it maybe has less significance as a chat-up line. Personally, I use the tried and tested technique of gazing longingly at someone in the hope that I can develop some sort of telepathic communication and get her to come over to me, just long enough to see them approached by someone else and lost forever – never fails…

Got a Light? A Ritual Gone in a Puff of Smoke: “Sure, we’ll all live longer, but how will this affect the future of flirting?

No smoking in bars, if the city pushes such legislation through, means no excuse to approach a stranger, unless you count You look familiar , which doesn’t count.

Why, just earlier on this night, at Rumors restaurant and bar south of Dupont Circle . . .

‘Girl comes up and she says, ‘Can I bum a smoke?’ and it was obviously a pretext,’ says a guy named Jason Ewart, 29. The girl talked to Ewart awhile after that, one of those classic Washington dialogues about law school.

‘Dude!’ says Ewart’s friend across the table. ‘She had to justify getting a cigarette!’

‘She did stay longer than necessary,’ says a third guy.

Ewart tells the story of a woman he met some while back, when he was single. She came over to bum a smoke, and only later, when they were exchanging cards, did he catch sight of the pack of cigarettes in her bag.

Cigarette etiquette is ancient stuff, stowed in the cultural marrow back when men wore real hats and glam movie stars with impossible cheekbones gave come-hither looks through unfiltered haze. What relics of chivalry still surround this tiny lethal object, the cigarette! What other than a cigarette could a person request of a total stranger? What but splendid pretense prompts a fellow to flick a lighter for a girl who already has a match?

Speaking of which, Ewart has a rule.

‘Why can’t you light another guy’s cigarette?’ asks his friend Nate Tamarin.

‘You just don’t do it,’ Ewart says.

Pinup Betty Grable in a turban, circa 1935, her eyebrows thin as starving commas: She rests a cigarette on her lips, cradled between two dark fingernails. The man beside her stares at the lit match he’s holding out, while she looks intently into his eyes. That look was part of the ritual, you figure; even if she didn’t mean it, that was the polite thing to do. He made her feel like a lady and she made him feel like a man. It seems a whole lot of silliness now, but everyone knew their parts.

These days, Americans flirt feebly, liquor-soaked and anxious. But for lo, these many years we at least have had cigarettes, instruments of seduction. How many love affairs have been started by a man offering a match? Scratch that. How many illicit couplings? How many first names saved in cell phones, responsible for sowing mistrust months later when discovered by significant others? ( But I wasn’t gonna call her !)

Two blondes at a bar: They don’t even consider the nonsmoking guys, who — they have determined from years of study — are no fun at all. The obscene adjective they use to describe these men can be forgiven, as the blondes have been tossing back rum runners. This is their third bar of the night. They’re headed to two more. Smoking, smoking, all the way.

‘That’s how I met my boyfriend,’ one of the blondes says. ‘He bummed a cigarette from me.'” [read more…]

Industorious Clock

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this for ages and was just reminded while going through my bookmarks (what junk we think’s worth keeping, in reality and virtual reality, is beyond me).

Take a look at the Industorious Clock – it’s just one of those really clever pieces that make you think ‘why didn’t I do that?’

Free Poems from the English Romantics

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

The BBC is starting a new series on BBC2 tonight about The Romantics:

World changing events in the late 18th century – from the French Revolution via American Independence – instigated a new movement in the art, literature and thinking of Britain: The Romantics.

Over on the site you can download a selection of MP3s of well-known poems, so if you’re in the mood for a bit of English Romantacism (and if a cold January night isn’t as good a time as any I don’t know when is*) get downloading now!

They’re excellent quality, as you’d expect from the Beeb.

(*If you’re in the southern hemisphere that should read ‘balmy January night’…)

Apple’s foray into distance learning

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

From the Guardian:

Sleeping off a hangover and missing a lecture may no longer be such a problem. The education arm of the Apple computer company in Europe is developing a pilot of a new system of recording and rebroadcasting lectures within an hour of the professor packing away their notes.
The forthcoming QuickTime 2 Really Simple Syndication (RSS) technology, a development program to be launched in Europe in the spring, will allow the lecturer to record their own “performance” – their slides, notes and details of student assignments as they deliver them live to the students in the lecture hall.

Once the lecture is over, the technology behind the system can turn the content into suitable files and automatically upload them to Apple’s iTunes network or connect it to RSS feeds that students, and others, can subscribe to.

From there, the student who couldn’t make the lecture, wanted to revise for exams or those who are engaged in distance learning can access the files, either manually or by subscription to an RSS feed, and play the lecture back on a video-enabled iPod or a home computer.

The software for such a feed will be made available on an open access basis, so the outlay for universities would be in the hardware – a camera and an Apple computer to perform the file conversion. After that, the system will work across the platforms.

The system is similar to that currently piloted by Stanford University in the US which already supplies, through Stanford on iTunes, downloads of faculty lectures, campus events, performances, book readings, music recorded by Stanford students and podcasts of Stanford American football games. Stanford also has a controlled-access website through which students can download course materials. The restricted-access version of the site will enable students to load course lectures and other audio content and, eventually, video content, as the new video version of the iPod is established.

In Europe, where the QuickTime 2 RSS system is to be rolled out to universities first, there are expectation that versions of the technology would be made available to schools in the near future.

Right – I’m up for this. Got my own DV camera and my own laptop… where do I sign up?

Things it takes most of us 50 years to learn

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

From today’s email:

  1. The badness of a movie is directly proportional to the number of helicopters in it.
  2. You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe daylight-saving time.
  3. You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests you think she’s pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.
  4. The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above-average drivers.
  5. There comes a time when you should stop expecting other people to make a big deal about your birthday. That time is: age 11.
  6. There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness.”
  7. People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.
  8. If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be “meetings.”
  9. The main accomplishment of almost all organized protests is to annoy people who are not in them.
  10. If there really is a God who created the entire universe with all of its glories, and he decides to deliver a message to humanity, he will NOT use as his messenger a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle or in some cases, really bad make-up too.
  11. You should not confuse your career with your life.
  12. A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter/janitor, is not a nice person.
  13. No matter what happens, somebody will find a way to take it too seriously.
  14. When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that individual is crazy.
  15. Your true friends love you, anyway.
  16. Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance.

Currant affairs

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

So I’m sitting at work eating some raisins and a conversation has just sprung up between me and Catherine, my colleague, concerning the difference between raisins, sultanas and currants. (Ah the life of an academic – no philosophical problem too weighty).

After much discussion (we had a similar debate over nuts last week, after my claim that most ‘nuts’ are not in fact nuts, proved right thanks to Wikipedia) we concluded by using the built-in dictionary widget on my Mac.

Apparently a raisin is a dried grape (knew that) while a sultana is a seedless raisin (didn’t know that – presumably they mean dried seedless grape and not a raisin they’ve gone to the trouble of taking the seed from) and a currant is a dried seedless grape of a specific variety. (One web site I found says sultanas come from the Sultana grape but I suspect the generic description is the more reflective of reality).

So that settled that. Next question: who first decided that they should try to eat a dried up grape? I mean, if I had some grapes and they dried up and shrivelled, the last thing I’d be tempted to do is pop one in my mouth. I’d go ‘urgh, a dried-up grape!’ and throw it out. Just goes to show, waste not, want not. Heaven knows what new varieties of food are lurking at the back of my fridge – or even under the cooker…

Parrot squawks on woman’s affair

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

From today’s news – you’ve got to laugh

A parrot owner was alerted to his girlfriend’s infidelity when his talkative pet let the cat out of the bag by squawking “I love you Gary”.
Suzy Collins had been meeting ex-work colleague “Gary” for four months in the Leeds flat she shared with her partner Chris Taylor, according to reports.

Mr Taylor apparently became suspicious after Ziggy croaked “Hiya Gary” when Ms Collins answered her mobile phone.

The parrot also made smooching sounds whenever the name Gary was said on TV.

Mr Taylor, 30, a computer programmer, confronted the woman he had lived with for a year who admitted the affair and moved out, several newspapers reported.

He also gave up his eight-year-old African Grey parrot after the bird continued to call out Gary’s name and refused to stop squawking the phrases in his ex-girlfriend’s voice.

“I wasn’t sorry to see the back of Suzy after what she did, but it really broke my heart to let Ziggy go,” he said.

“I love him to bits and I really miss having him around, but it was torture hearing him repeat that name over and over again.”

Ms Collins, 25, said: “I’m not proud of what I did but I’m sure Chris would be the first to admit we were having problems.”

Ziggy – named after David Bowie’s former alter ego Ziggy Stardust – has now found a new home through the offices of a local parrot dealer.

Grammar Check

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

This coming Thursday is the lecture I start with a little puzzle to get students warmed up for the new year. It’s actually related to my pet peeve which is people who say ‘I’ when they should say ‘me’. I notice it a lot on TV – the English teacher in Neighbours, for example (Susan Smith) always gets it wrong which makes me wonder why she’s allowed to teach English at all… (what do you mean it’s not real?)

Anyway, here’s the puzzle:

Two of these phrases are grammatically correct, two are not.

  1. My friend and I bought a newspaper
  2. My friend and me bought a newspaper
  3. The shopkeeper smiled at my friend and I
  4. The shopkeeper smiled at my friend and me

Answers at the bottom of this post…

Anyway, the point about this is actually related to graphic design/illustration in that it’s usually the foreign students who get it right, while the home students don’t. Why? Because we tend only to be taught things like grammar when learning foreign languages.
Sometimes I ask students the same question in French and more people get that right, which is interesting. Knowing the difference between ‘moi’ and ‘je’ but not ‘me’ and ‘I’.
The study of visual culture and the theories that inform it often meets with resistance because it is either ‘obvious’ or goes against common sense, something I’m writing about for my next Speak Up article (which is going far too slowly). But things that are ‘obvious’ actually aren’t – until they’re pointed out.

The best example of this came in the last lecture before Christmas, which was on the techniques supermarkets use to get us to buy things. Everything was so ‘obvious’ yet there seemed to be a sense of shock among the students (or was it hangover from the previous night’s party?) When I asked how the session made them feel, one student said ‘I feel violated’ – and this is from simple things like putting the milk at the back so you end up buying things you don’t want (and forget the milk in the process, if you’re anything like me) to fresh fruit at the front and the smell of bread in the air.

To me, all this stuff is the ‘grammar’ that underpins the visual (and non-visual) language that goes on around us, the syntax that makes things work the way they do. Like really good rhetoric, well-structured visual grammar can have us nodding in agreement with things without us even knowing, which is of course an extension of the whole pizza flyers idea that stuff that stands out is likely to be less effective than something that is anonymous and invisible.

So… the answer? Score full marks if you said 1 and 4, nothing if you got one right, and minus 10 if you got both wrong. I’m in that sort of mood…
If you don’t understand why 1 and 4 are right, look it up!

PS I’ve gone over this post to ensure there are no grammatical faux pas (is ‘faux pas’ plural? ‘Gin and tonics’ is another one I hate – It’s ‘gins and tonic’!).
But in case there are any, can I make the excuse that they are deliberate mistakes intended to catch you out and leave it at that?