Tag: higher education

Ant-Man as a metaphor for the modern professor

In Marvel comics and movies, Ant-Man is a super-hero who can change his size using a special suit and “Pym particles.” When giant, he’s…giant. But when he’s tiny he keeps the same density as a regular human, giving him the ability to lift and move things much bigger than his insect size. The idea of shrinking in size but having to shoulder the same–or greater–burden resonated with me, and in a way feels like a metaphor for the modern professor.

This thought came to me in response to a recent email from my university. We have a hybrid set-up, with some students attending courses remotely (from home or campus) and others in person. Our Student Services office noted which of our advisees were at home, and asked us to take special care to reach out to them. This didn’t really affect me, as I reach out to all advisees before course registration. But the idea of a Student Services office telling professors–already overloaded with difficult online teaching, as well as research and service responsibilities–to devote extra time to engaging with students instead of, you know, doing it themselves, struck me as slightly off.

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When 70% is good enough

When I was a grad student, I had the privilege of student teaching with political theorist Eric MacGilvray. Eric was—and I’m sure still is—a brilliant teacher. He was always in motion, but in a way that felt deliberate. He often perched on an elevated windowsill while listening to students debate amongst themselves. He made even the most archaic and dense texts accessible. (The class was Classics of Social and Political Thought.) He also had a unique approach to grading. Rather than marking on a scale of 100, where 94 is an A, he introduced a seven-point scale. Actually, it was a ten-point scale, but when he introduced it to students, he explained that seven was what they should aim for. A ten on this scale was publishable work. At their level, students weren’t meant to be doing publishable work. They were meant to be learning. Seven was good enough. 

At an elite American university where too many of the students aimed for perfection, the idea that you didn’t have to be perfect was liberating. It allowed students to take up and internalize feedback. Even though we translated the seven-point scale back into US-based grades at the end of the semester, it opened a space for learning. I found Eric’s system brilliant. Only it turns out that it wasn’t Eric’s system.

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The Same but Different: US vs UK Higher Education

Four years ago I accepted a job at a university in the UK. When I took the job I didn’t think a whole lot about how working in the UK might differ from my previous academic posts in the US. I’m an American, and though I have British friends who work at UK universities–one of whom warned me “not to be fooled by the fact that we speak the same language”–I was woefully underprepared for just how distinct the two higher education systems are. Brits and Americans do speak the same language, but there are significant differences in their use of terminology. It’s not just that we use different words to mean the same thing, it’s that we use the same words to mean different things. For instance:

Are you alright? 

Let’s start with the simple stuff. If a Brit greets you and asks, “You a’right?” it is the equivalent of an American saying, “Hey, how are you?” However, I spent my first couple weeks in the UK wondering if there was something wrong with how I looked. I would immediately check to see if I was bleeding or if I had spilled coffee on my shirt.

Dissertation vs Thesis

In the US the dissertation is what you write to earn your PhD. In the UK it’s what an undergraduate or master’s level student writes as a capstone assignment. I learned this fact only after a couple of rather confusing conversations with my advisees. To sum it up: A dissertation is a thesis and a thesis is a dissertation.


In the US what would be called a “course” is called a “module” in the UK. So, for instance, where students select their classes from a course catalogue in the US, they browse a module catalogue in the UK. However, this use of terminology becomes extra confusing because in the UK they use the word course to describe what in the US would be a degree program. In other words, a module is to a course in the UK as a course is to a program in the US.


When I was hired on in the UK, I was hired as a lecturer. I knew it was a “permanent” position. Yet the fact that in the US a lecturer is usually a contingent or adjunct employee caused confusion for my friends back home. In the UK a lecturer is the first rank on the academic promotion scale. In some ways it is equivalent to being hired as an assistant professor in the US, except that in the UK there is no up-or-out tenure system. Once you pass a cursory probation period you are hired on an open-ended contract. Though rare, technically, you could spend your entire career as a lecturer.


In the US the term reader is generally used to describe someone who enjoys reading. In the UK it is also a rank on the academic promotion scale. The rank of reader does not have a US equivalent in the sense that there are three rungs on the US promotion ladder, whereas there are four rungs in the UK. The promotion ladder in the UK is lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. A senior lecturer is generally considered to be equivalent to an associate professor. A reader is equivalent to the junior ranks of what would be a full professor.


Adding to the confusion is that in the UK there are differences in title attached to the differences in rank. In the US all tenure-track and tenured faculty are addressed as “professor.” In the UK, until you reach the rank of professor you are addressed as “doctor” rather than “professor.” My students call me Dr. Harrington, or at least that’s how I ask them to address me. I still get plenty of emails that start out with “Hi” or, more unfortunately, “Miss Harrington.”


In the UK the term staff refers to all academic and administrative employees. In the US “staff” usually refers to administrative support and “faculty” denotes the academic personnel. Moreover, rather than working directly for academic faculty who have taken on administrative positions, as they usually do in the US, administrative staff have a career track and promotion hierarchy that sits parallel to the academic track. This then touches on another, broader point about the extent of UK bureaucracy, but that’s a story for another time.


Marking is what in the US is called grading. This is not a particular source of confusion as marking and grading are more or less synonymous terms in the US as well, but I am including it here because the culture of marking is quite different than it is in the US. It is a much more involved process which includes the practice of moderation in which a colleague reviews a sample of the marked essays and comments on the consistency of the grades and the quality of the feedback.


What in the US would be called a program or plan Brits call a “scheme.” There’s a scheme for almost everything in the UK. There’s a pension scheme, a postgraduate funding scheme, a publication scheme. To an American it manages to make even the most banal plan sound like an underhanded plot. Take for instance the Beacon Scholarship, which my university’s website describes as “a lucrative scheme..open to all undergraduate courses,” or my university’s bicycle scheme. I pictured a bicycle theft ring, but it turned out to be a completely above-board program to purchase a bicycle on a tax-free installment plan.

This catalog is far from exhaustive, and it only scratches the surface of what are much deeper structural and cultural differences. I’m sure that there are many more terms that one could add, but for now, as they say in the UK, I wish you all “Happy Christmas.”


Attempt to Depose University of Texas President

Over the July 4th weekend, UT System Chancellor Cigarroa demanded that UT President Bill Powers resign or be fired by July 10th. Bill Powers refused but offered a timetable to step-down. Supporters of the embattled president have launched a petition drive that now has nearly 8500 signatures. At stake is the future of higher education in the state of Texas and whether or not Texas values tier 1 research institutions.  Continue reading


So Should Policy Schools Have PhD Programs?

So, I teach at a policy school, and though our core pedagogical enterprise is the MA program, we have a small PhD program that is a mix of political science, economics, and maybe a dash of public administration. Though I have not worked closely with that many PhD students, the ones I have worked have been superb. Still, the job market being as it is, it is always tough for graduates of our program, like any other, to land an academic job. The thing I wonder is: Is it harder for PhD graduates of policy schools to get a job compared to those who graduate from disciplinary programs?

Our students have the advantage of being able and indeed interested in jobs in the policy arena. Some have gone on to quite distinguished jobs at think tanks like the Brookings Institution. We also have a fair number of foreign students who go back home to teach at higher education institutions of their home countries. My worry is that those students seeking an academic job are neither fish nor fowl: they aren’t political scientists, economist, historians, etc.  For would-be employers looking at their varied mix of courses, it might be harder for them to understand what our students are and thus putting them at a disadvantage vis a vis more traditionally trained disciplinary programs.It’s not as if public policy is its own academic discipline, really. (Or, is it? I tend to think not, but how do we know when a new discipline has made it and has enough pedigree and coherent intellectual content to be recognized by others as a distinct area of study?)

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Amooc Time

About a month ago I wrote that:

The recent obsession with MOOCs has its roots in three interlocking trends: the application of business-school speak to higher education, technology fetishism, and the quest to push down labor costs. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that these are three faces of late-modern capitalism: the colonization of all modes of life by scripts associated with capitalist exchange relations, the “virtuous cycle” of rent-seeking by advocates of “creative destruction,” and relentless pressure to enhance profit by increasing capital-labor ratios.

I’ve been intending to expand on these claims. But now David Brockington has basically written a better version of that nascent post, so I’m going to outsource to him.

As many expat American professors working in Britain tell me, the UK looks an awful lot like the extrapolation of current trends in US academia. And that future isn’t pretty. Continue reading


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