Category Archives: academia

Confirmed

No, I haven’t suddenly become a Christian or anything – but I found out today that my PhD was confirmed. It’s been a bit of a nerve-wracking week. I had to give a 25 minute presentation to the department on my topic. Somehow giving a talk to friends and colleagues is a very scary prospect, probably because I really do care what they think – if it was a bunch of strangers, I don’t think I’d care so much. But amazingly enough, it all went fine. Then today, I had to face a committee to talk about my progress to date (I’m about half way through). It was actually tremendously useful to get some different points of view about approaches I could take. Whew! Now I can actually sit back and relax for five seconds – the last three weeks have been crazy.

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Filed under academia, Personal, universities

Teaching by example

A science teacher friend told me that “teaching by real life example” is all the rage these days. People have to run around the room pretending to be electrons, rather than learning about electrical current in the abstract. It’s supposed to make learning more “approachable” and easier. A creditable aim, but I am afraid that I have always despised that kind of teaching. It treats people like idiots, incapable of understanding abstract thought. And personally, I learn far more by learning the abstract concept. (Well, I’m an academic lawyer, of course I love abstract concepts.)

It seems that perhaps I am not alone in learning more readily by being taught an abstract concept.

A recent study suggests concrete examples may actually impede students from learning an abstract mathematical concept. The New York Times article explains:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The researchers said they had experimental evidence showing a similar effect with 11-year-old children. The findings run counter to what Dr. Kaminski said was a “pervasive assumption” among math educators that concrete examples help more children better understand math.

But if the Ohio State findings also apply to more basic math lessons, then teaching fractions with slices of pizza or statistics by pulling marbles out of a bag might prove counterproductive. “There are reasons to think it could affect everyone, including young learners,” Dr. Kaminski said.

As a teacher, I’ve always been a big fan of keeping it simple, and getting across the basic concepts. Seems like maybe I am on the right track. So I won’t be getting my class to pretend to be Torrens land titles or mere equities any time in the future.

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Filed under academia, children, education, psychology

Student evaluations

I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.

First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.

The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.

Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.

On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.

The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…

However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.

The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).

The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.

The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.

The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.

The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.

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Filed under academia, cheating, education, freedom of speech, law, legal education, powerpoint, sexuality, society, tolerance, universities, USA

Sartorial style and the law

I was reading a post at Pete Black’s Freedom to Differ on the dress of law professors. It did make me laugh. Certainly, when I went to teach, I consulted a friend on what she thought I should wear. I was somewhat anxious.

My initial plan had just been to wear the same suits as I had worn in private practice.

“Oh no, no, no!” said my friend. “That’s a bit off-putting and will make you seem older than you are. But it’s important to look less shabby than a student, just to differentiate yourself.”

Anyway, I’ve taken my guide from the advice of my friend – not too formal, but not too shabby either. I wear suit pants, but not a jacket.

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Ideology, law and teaching

As I am a university lecturer, I was interested to read about the Young Liberals’ campaign to “out” left-wing lecturers. That seems to miss the point to me: it’s a bit unpleasantly reminiscent of a McCarthyist witch hunt.

I have to say that in law school I had a variety of lecturers, from open Marxists to known advisers to the Liberal Party. I had no problem with that. One of my best friends at high school was a neo-Marxist, my other best friend was a Tory. They didn’t like one another much, but I liked them both a lot. I’m still friends with both.

The problem is not that a lecturer has a political leaning. The real problem arises in two situations:

  1. When a lecturer is sarcastic and vicious to those who disagree with his or her point of view.
  2. When a lecturer allows his or her particular view to skew what is taught away from the curriculum.

I once had a lecturer who savaged those who didn’t agree with the particular brand of ideology he followed. As it happened, he was very, very left wing, but that’s not the issue: I don’t care whether he was left wing or right wing. The issue is that he silenced and mocked those who disagreed with him. Certainly it had an effect on my own experience in that class. I said barely a thing during class, and I definitely did not enjoy the subject. A lecturer cannot help portraying things from his or her own viewpoint to an extent, but I think he or she should be open-minded to different ideas and viewpoints.

The other issue occurs when a lecturer allows his or her viewpoint to skew classes away from what is set down in the curriculum. This need not be a political point of view – it could also be a particular research bug-bear which interests the lecturer. Particularly with core law subjects, the object should be to give students the ability to deal with problems in practice. My own attitude is that I must focus on getting the law across and not indulge myself in personal enthusiasms too much. Of course my enthusiasm is part of what makes my teaching engaging to students, but not if I just concentrate on those topics which I like to the detriment of other topics. I actually suspect that my students find my own personal biases amusing and somewhat bizarre. (On the one hand I have a deep hatred of the notion of “fusion fallacy”, for example, and a dislike of the narrow-minded Sydney Equity Bar. On the other hand, I love restitution and resulting trusts. Yum, yum!)  When these things come into issue I always try to fairly present the opposing point of view, and I flag my own personal prejudices, with a rider that it is by no means necessary to agree with me to do well in the course, and indeed I welcome and enjoy good argument to the contrary. Of course, I do highlight ways in which I think current laws are unfair or could be reformed, but again, I say that students are welcome to disagree, and that they won’t be marked down for doing so. I also say that I don’t care what line they take, as long as it is well argued and justified. I suspect that scary lecturer who savaged people who disagreed with him has made me very, very conscious about never doing that to my students.

My friend’s brother told me that one of his university lecturers doesn’t teach to the curriculum at all, but rather speaks about things which interest her. As far as I’m concerned, that is appalling. Teaching is not a personal soapbox – she should make her own soapbox blog if that’s what she wants to do. That’s a private affair. Indeed, one of the reasons why I am anonymous on this blog is because I don’t want my students to know my political views and to feel constrained by them in some way.

So perhaps what is needed is not a McCarthyist witchhunt, but a clear policy that students come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse points of view which should be encouraged by teachers, whatever their own personal leanings. After all, part of the way in which we learn is by taking into account opposing views and criticisms, difficult and painful as that may be sometimes.

(I have to repeat that last sentence to myself lately: I suffered a particularly vicious review of my recent attempt to submit an article to a prestigious journal…waaaah! Well, I guess if you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to learn to play rough – they are mostly boys too, by the way.)

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Filed under academia, freedom of speech, law, law reform, legal education, politics, society, tolerance, universities

Plagiarist law students, beware…

A friend sent me this interesting case, Re Legal Profession Act 2004; re OG, a lawyer [2007] VSC 250. It concerns both fitness to practice law and plagiarism at university.

In my first year of teaching, I was shocked to come across what appeared to be plagiarism (material which seemed to have been copied verbatim from the Internet). Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide whether it was plagiarism or not, and I could handball it to the people who deal with that kind of thing. I don’t know what happened in the end. But if plagiarism was established, I had never thought about the implications for the student’s admission to practice. This case provides a salutory warning for any law students who have been found to have colluded or plagiarised in the course of university assessment.

For the non-lawyers out there, when lawyers are admitted to practice, they have to tell the Admissions Board about every matter which may suggest they are not fit to practice (ss 1.2.6 and 2.3.3, Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic)). This includes fines for parking and speeding, and public transport fines. And it seems that it also includes being frank about allegations of plagiarism or collusion during a lawyer’s university career.

The case involved two students, OG and GL, who were studying Business and Law at Victoria University. In the first semester of 2005, both students were studying Strategic Marketing and Planning. The first assignment for that subject was a group assignment, but the second assignment was to be completed individually, building on the material in the first assignment. The lecturers of the subject formed the opinion that OG and GL had colluded in preparing the assignment. Each were awarded zero marks for the assignment. Once they had graduated, the two students went on to complete a Leo Cussens course in order to qualify for practice. Each made disclosures about the incident with the Marketing Assignment, but they differed substantially. In his letter to the Board of Examiners, GL said:

I wish to disclose the following to the Board.

In late July 2005, I was accused of colluding with another student on an assignment for the subject of Marketing Planning and Strategy. I spoke to the Topic Co-ordinator and Head Lecturer and stated that I did not collude with the other student. They did not accept my reasoning for why the assignments were similar.

My reasoning for why the assignments were similar was that it was a mere coincidence. The assignment was based on the findings of a group project completed a few weeks earlier, I was in the same group as the other student. The assignment called for developing a marketing strategy based on the product research in our group subject. There were only two possible strategies that could be used.

They advised that I could go the University Board to defend the matter but based on my reasoning, they were of the opinion that our appeal would be rejected. They also said that if I went to the University Board there would be a mark of [sic] my record. If the matter was dealt with by the Topic Co-ordinator and Head Lecturer, they would not put a mark on my record.

I decided to take the penalty of receiving a zero for the assignment and they said that the matter would not be taken further. …

By contrast, OG’s disclosure letter stated as follows:

On or about 26 July 2005 I received a zero grade for an assessment component in a Marketing subject at University for a misunderstanding that occurred. I had a clash in my Law and Marketing subjects and as a result the Strategic Marketing & Management subject coordinator exempted me from attending tutorials.

I undertook an assessment component that was worth 15% of the total assessment for that subject, which was to be conducted as a group task for both the research component and the writing up of the assignment. However, I misunderstood this as a result of my non attendance at the tutorials, and whilst I conducted the research process in a group I mistakenly wrote up the assignment individually.

As a result of my misunderstanding the topic coordinator awarded me a zero mark for that assessment component. I subsequently still, successfully passed the subject.

No record of the event was recorded and at no time was it suggested to be plagiarism or the like. I did not go before the University Board, nor did I fail the subject for my misunderstanding. It was an internal matter with the subject coordinator.

OG was admitted, as the Board of Examiners accepted this admission.

GL was required to attend hearings before the Board of Examiners before he could be admitted, and in the course of this, the allegations against OG came to light. By this time, OG had already been admitted to practice. In the event, GL was not admitted to practice on the basis of a lack of frankness in his admissions to the Board of Examiners.

The question for the Supreme Court of Victoria was then whether OG should be struck off the roll. In the event, the Court concluded that the most likely possibility was that the students had colluded in the preparation of the assignment, and that they had discussed the matter fully. OG had denied that the university had communicated the allegation of collusion to him, but the Court found the university had done so. They further found that OG knew that GL was disclosing the matter to the Board of Examiners. OG’s admission to practice was revoked.

There are a few lessons to be learned for young players from this case. If you’ve had allegations of plagiarism or collusion against you during your university studies, make sure you disclose it. And make sure your disclosure really is full and frank. Don’t compound one misdeed (plagiarism/collusion) with another (failure to be honest about the circumstances).  GL would probably have been better off being totally frank about the collusion; it seems that he did not want to “rat on” a mate, and tried to protect OG, and that this in part contributed to his own failure to be admitted.

I read an interesting piece by Gino Dal Pont in the Law Institute Journal a few months back about the requirement that a lawyer be of  “good fame and character” ((2007) 81(10) LIJ 76). It outlined the malleable nature of this concept, and showed that the boundaries are always changing. Previously, tax evasion was not a bar to practice, but now it is according to ss 2.4.26 and 2.4.27 of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic). And as the case above indicates, plagiarism and collusion may provide bars to practice, depending on the circumstances: see also Re AJG [2004] QCA 88.

I think the Court made the right decision in regard to OG. In some ways, he was very unlucky that GL was also a law student, and was honest enough to disclose the matter. If GL had written a letter which was similar to OG’s, perhaps they would have gotten away with it. And if GL had not been a law student at all, the matter would never have come to light. It’s a little scary. I don’t like the idea of people like OG practising. Does the disclosure process work? Insofar as it requires good faith on the part of the applicant, there is a problem, highlighted by OG’s case. If a person is dishonest, they will make a dishonest disclosure in an attempt to gain admission. At least by striking this guy off the roll, the Court has given a message that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated.

Another question: does this requirement of good fame and character make people trust lawyers more? Or think that we are ethical? Excuse me while I go into hysterics here. Despite all these requirements, lawyers are distrusted and widely regarded as unethical. (I keep thinking of the line from the Tom Waits song: “Killers, thieves and lawyers, God’s away, God’s away, God’s away on business, business.”) I wonder if it’s a bit like highly religious people. The highly religious proclaim high moral standards for themselves (and sometimes try to impose them on others). It’s quite easy, therefore, to find examples of hypocrisy amongst religious zealots because the standards are so high, and so it is with lawyers too. Perhaps we lawyers would be better off admitting that we are human, and that some of us are not good or ethical people. But then, on the other hand, I think it’s important to keep in mind that as lawyers, we hold a good deal of power and responsibility, and that we purport to uphold and advance the law. And I also think that it’s important to aspire to honesty and to get rid of lawyers who have shown a tendency to be dishonest. What do others think?

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Filed under academia, courts, Guilt, law, legal education, morality, universities

Astro Girl triumphs

I’ve got a job for next year. Phew! It’s still just a contract job, but it’s great to have some security!

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Filed under academia, jobs, Personal