Monday, January 07, 2008

Back to student life

I'm off to Brunel shortly to hit the library and also drop off my fourth essay.

Essay writing has been, perhaps, the hardest element of my return to academia - quite surprising really as I've made my living or the last 20 years from stringing words together in one shape or form. But that's part of the problem.

One of my modules last term was on Globalisation - a fascinating and often disturbing issue, since what emerged from 12 weeks of discussion is an impression of continued US hegemony, providing an environment for big business to get bigger at the expense of the developing world. My tutor was a guy called Nafeez Ahmed and while he remained suitably above partisanship in the classes, his extremely well articulated views - found
here make compelling reading.

Anyway, I've had real trouble hitting the right level of academic rigour in my essay writing - for 20 years, I've written journalistically, either telling a story from whatever angle suits the publication, or editorialising where my views mattered. Academic writing is so different. I'm reading for a Masters, so what matters is not my views at all, but my ability to summarise an argument and replay it using the voices of those already recognised in the field. My tendency is to summarise journalistically; to simplify the debate too much without sufficient referencing and too often to polemicise. Only four essays in do I feel I'm even beginning to get the hang of both what and how I should be writing.

Aside from the work, my impression is that students have changed a lot too - and not necessarily in a good way. there's a core of us in each seminar who keep the discussion going - and aren't afraid to throw in opinions even if we're ultimately proved wrong. But more than half the class say nothing - which seems a huge waste of the opportunity for debate offered. Even more strangely, there has been a significant number of students who have hardly shown up for classes at all, despite the fact that they're meant to be compulsory. while in my first life as a student, i wasn't the greatest lecture attender, I never missed a seminar or tutorial . Back in the '80s, I was privileged to attend university. Now I get the impression that students feel they're pretty much owed a degree once they've paid the fees. Somehow, the course has become a transactional arrangement, and that's a bit depressing for me.

Allied to this change in attitude, the other thing I notice on campus is how rude people are. Perhaps it's because I'm old enough to have fathered most other students at Brunel (though I would have had to have a pretty fast bike!), but I'm struck on a daily basis by how 'polite society' seems to have disappeared. if I hold open a door, 10 people push past in either direction; people walk straight at anyone coming in the opposite direction and barge past rather than stepping out of the way. Common courtesy is rarely, if ever, met with any thanks and there's a distinct surliness among too many undergrads and even post grads. Maybe we were all like that 25 years ago too - but I distinctly feel that there's a lack of respect not just for elders, but for each other among my young student contemporaries on campus today.

Anyway, 'old git' rant over.

Finally, I'm enjoying the US race for the White House, and recommend
Justin Webb's blog. It's amazing how the world's one remaining superpower has such a weird and convoluted election process which ensures the current incumbent is a lame dog for at least a year or more of their presidency - who's even vaguely interested in Bush now, when Hilary and Barack, Mike and Mitt and all the others are wheeler-dealering around various cold bits of Uncle Sam's back yard?

I picked up my Hilary 2009 badge in Washington DC last year and I'm still with Hil. Following the disastrous lurch to the right the US has experienced with 'Dubya', I'm really hoping the Democrats get in this time. I think they have the best chance of this with Clinton, since I'm worried about Obama's inexperience and also worried that if he get the Democrat ticket, he'll prove unelectable at a national level where I'm not sure that ultra-conservative middle America is actually ready for a black president. A woman in the White House is a big step: a black man may prove a step too far and let in the Republicans. that would be a travesty.

My 'dream ticket' would be Clinton for President and Obama learning his trade as VP. Trouble is, the only truly statesman-like Democrat at the moment is Al Gore - and he shows no signs of entering the fray.

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