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Director's cut — September 2006

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September 1, 2006 by Tara Brabazon

Greetings to members and lurkers.

Maybe it was the vision of Jamie Oliver trudging through commercials in a fat suit. Perhaps it was breakfast television's fixation with supermarket packaging. Possibly, it was the decline of Brand Beckham. But there are few spaces in the media for informed dialogues about the role, function, expectations and hopes of higher education.

Since arriving in Britain a couple of months ago, I have read a range of British journalists offering their views on universities. This journey through Newman-lite has not been pleasant reading. Nostalgic Baby Boomers have summoned an era when they drank warm beer and vomited cold chips for most of the term, only to pull an all-nighter before an exam and gain a first.

These journalistic memories were offered to critique the implementation of university contracts confirming lecture attendance and full participation in the educational process. I am quite comfortable with these contracts. When we start a new job, a contract is a statement of expectations. When we marry, the vows are meant to cut through the banality of dresses, cakes and floral arrangements to confirm the seriousness of pledging a life to another person.

University, like employment or marriage, signals a new stage in our lives. It must challenge truths and expectations. It is not a continuation of school. It is a much more difficult, ruthless and aggressive environment than students have experienced through overstuffed timetables and caring councillors at high school. The reading is harder, the scholarly matrix is challenged through the newest findings in the field, and the writing must be evocative and well referenced. Googlers and wiki editors need not apply. Contracts are one way to remind students that they are entering a new environment with expectations that must be met.

Such contracts were not necessary when these journalists disembarked off the ark, two by two, into the University pub. Entering higher education before the late 1980s was an experience of the elite or the fortunate. Most had the support of parents who had attended university and school friends who shared the excitement of this new environment.

Our current students are often the first members of their family to attempt higher education. They come from homes without books. So while our confident critics can chortle at contracts and laugh at those who pull themselves away from the bar to attend lectures, for a large group of students in our current system, a statement of expectations is incredibly useful. Contracts are one way to enact this process. There are others that may be more appropriate.

The problem is that the disrespect of teaching, learning and academics through the last two months leaves few options for university managers. For example, Marcel Berlins in his Guardian column in mid September asked, "what about those clever students who believe that they can do better by going to the library than by attending second-rate lectures?" Actually, 'clever' students need to attend the library and lectures. Through his words, he summons — flippantly — a damaging and inaccurate presentation of academic life.

Academics not only teach but also conduct original research. While respecting all segments of our educational sector and the many teachers in our PCC, these dual functions render our occupation distinct from our colleagues in primary and secondary colleagues. What students hear in lectures is not available in library books because academics have not only read a suite of scholarship but have written their own, offering dynamic interpretations of knowledge. Reading high quality monographs and refereed articles is crucial to learning, but it is the starting point of the educational journey, not the end.

University academics do not simply disseminate knowledge: we create it. I am certain there are still a few scholars that write a few headings on the back of a fag packet and head into the auditorium. I have never met one. The staff I see in our contemporary universities spend long stretches of their professional lives improving teaching materials, discussing learning strategies with colleagues and independently buying new monographs that libraries cannot afford to purchase. Therefore it is necessary to find a mechanism — through contracts or compassion — to show students that university education is a gift to be respected. Once a lecture is missed, there is no way to recapture that session. They may download some PowerPoint slides or even hear a recording, but the energy and excitement of a group of scholars experiencing a new idea and challenging conventional thought cannot be found through a digital download. It is revelatory and rare.

We in the Popular Culture Collective know how precious learning can be. Our organisation is built by educators, writers, film makers, designers and musicians. We learn from each other, and have the benefit of the kindness and support of the Collective. It is a special experience. In a time of individuals and consumers, a community of learners is not only special, but important.

See you in October.