Dear Albert Jacson, James Anderson et al “Cheap Essays”
Thank you for your complimentary comments on my blog post on educational policy. I am afraid I cannot reciprocate about the Cheap Essay service that you offer. I have not published your comments. I have placed them in the spam box where they belong. (Actually they belong in a box marked “Roast the sender slowly over an open fire”, but I don't have one of those.) I will also place there any subsequent comments I get from you or your colleagues. Perhaps you are in fact all one person, suffering the Grant Shapps illusion that using another name makes you somehow invisible, or perhaps more plausible than you really are. I picture you as a sharp faced individual with a expression that you think displays worldly cunning but which actually looks shifty to everybody else. You make a reasonable income out of connecting the immoral with the unfortunate, enough to enable you to keep drinking premium lager and to fuel your patio heater. You probably want to drive a BMW but you can't afford one yet. I hope you never do. In the educational world you are the worst kind of parasite, making your living out of encouraging students to cheat. There's a line in that piece about Grant Shapps that suits you nicely: “it’s hard to escape the sense of a bloke who has always felt the need for deceit in order to get on”.
You only exist because in most of the world educational policy, like society in general, has become obsessed with measurement rather than development. You already live in the world the neoliberals are trying to create for the rest of us, a world with no soul, with no ethics, with no hint of humanity, a world intended for the 1% with a loaf or two thrown overboard to the technical and managerial classes the owners need to maintain their grip on the entire population's information and production. Their mission ultimately is to destroy creativity, because creativity is the one thing needed for disruption and revolution, and you are the anaesthetic to their scalpel. For them schooling is necessary because skills are needed to run the world, but the problem with schooling for them is that it enables people to think. So they employ two means to prevent people thinking too much. The first is the obsession with measurement that has gripped our political classes for the last thirty years, and has squeezed the soul out of any kind of teaching relationship from kindergarten on. The second is the propensity of neoliberal thinking to remove any hint of ethics from consideration of human behaviour, so that all that matters is the achievement of a position regardless of the means by which you got there. For so many students the destination has become everything, the journey nothing, robbed of substance by the vacuous febrility of a money obsessed world. And it is only because of that that you exist. Otherwise there would be as much use for you as there is for a pimple on a teenager's acned face.
You are the ultimate neoliberal. (In my house that is a term of abuse, in case you didn't quite get it.) You know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. You will have to travel a long way, a long long way, to get from where you are to any point where you might understand that the value of learning is in the effort, the struggle to put one's own thought on paper, something earned with sweat, brain muscle, sometimes actual hurt and disappointment, but ultimately joy in knowing that you achieved something yourself, and are a better person for having figured out yourself where this particular piece of the jigsaw fits. It's not just something bought with the cash value of a cheque or a credit card.
If I ever meet you, I will shove a rhinoceros up your fundament pointy end first. You probably don't know the meaning of the word “fundament” do you. Look it up. Oh, of course. You don't do “looking things up”.
If you are in any way hurt or offended by what I have said, this picture is for you.
Time pressure has always been a problem for OU students (Who am I kidding? All students.) Perhaps it is becoming more prevalent as students try to maximise their investment, juggling work, family and one or more modules. I have known students work full time and do two modules, which is effectively full time study. “Foolhardy” is a word that springs to mind, but they do seem to survive, and even prosper. Inevitably there are times when there is no time, when a book has to be read, a forum digested, an online session devoured, and an assignment produced in the space of three days, or less. So this post is about the best way of approaching an assignment when you have limited time.
Using your time
When you have time available, concentrate. Richard Nixon, famous for Watergate, did have some good qualities. One of them was an ability to focus. Like all managers he rarely got more than a few minutes for any one decision, but he had an immense ability to concentrate. He would be given a problem and he would focus fully on it for the few minutes he had, till he reached a decision. Then he would put that one out of his mind, and focus fully on the next one. This is an admirable trait for an OU student to copy. If you have only half an hour now, don't try to pack too much in to that half hour. Decide what you can do properly in that time, then focus fully on it. You may not cover as much ground, but what you do you will do well.
- go fast and slow. Something being urgent doesn't mean it has to be done as fast as possible. That may sound paradoxical, but let me explain. Some points in the genesis of an assignment are pivotal.
Reading the question
Planning the reading
Planning the assignment
Each of these needs your concentration when you get to it, and you need to think about the thing you are doing rather than thinking about the time you don't have available.
Reading the question
Let's say you have an assignment due in four weeks time, and little study time available. At the beginning of the sequence of work, read the question that you will be answering in four weeks time. Do spend some time with it. Make sure you understand what the question wants. If it is short enough, print it out in very big type and stick it where you can easily see it. For OU students, read the guidance or student notes that come with the question. They usually point you to key parts of the module material. Then you know what you need to read. Don't start reading till you are sure you have grasped what the question is about.
Planning the reading
It still amazes me how many university students fail to read intelligently. They start at page 1 and work their way to the end of the chapter, then go on to the next chapter..... If you're in time trouble you need to decide what to read - the stuff that you need for the assignment. So do some planning. Be realistic about the amount of time you will have available to read, and list the chapters and sections you need in order: essential, important, desirable. Before you start reading the essential stuff, look at the context. Take note of the chapter introduction, and its structure. This is important for understanding, and it will dictate how you read. It is different in different books. One module I teach on has aims at the start of each chapter, so I tell my students to spend some time with the aims so that they are clear about what they will be reading. Then when they have finished the chapter, they go back to the aims and determine how far the aims have been achieved. I recommend writing a reflective paragraph or two about that. On another module the chapters do not have an aims section at the beginning, but each section has an excellent summary at the end. So I recommend reading the book backwards. Read the section summary first, so that you know what the section is about, then read the section, then compare what you have read with what the summary says. Whatever the structure of the chapters is, there will be some natural method of appraising it, then reading it, then reflecting on it.
The point about doing this in a hurry is that you can't hurry learning too much. It is very important not to compromise this process - appraise, read, reflect - just because you have limited time. You will do better to read one section thoroughly and use it well in your assignment, than to read two sections hurriedly and make only shallow use of them. So that is the business about going fast and slow. You have a limited amount of time, so you will feel rushed. But do not rush. Whatever the time is that you have available, slow down when you reach it so that you make best use of it.
Planning the assignment
You have done the reading. You still need to plan the assignment. All the advice about planning still holds. Collect together your theories and your evidence. Figure out what the answer to the question is going to be, and then figure out how your argument gets you there. Like the other parts of the process, this needs time. You may have only half an hour for it, but you should still do it. And in that half hour you should focus utterly on what the question is and how the evidence bears on it. Let it take you off the topic if it will: that way learning occurs which will emerge in the assignment, even if you don't see it there.
Everyone is different. Everyone has their own writing method. Some methods work better than others under time pressure. For what it's worth, if you have been staring at a blank sheet for five minutes, and can only think about the time ticking away, I suggest employing the fifteen minute method. You have done the plan, so you know what you're writing about. If you have a timer, set it for fifteen minutes. Start writing. It doesn't matter if it is not grammatical, logical or even coherent, just write. When the buzzer buzzes, stop writing, and set the timer again for ten minutes. Spend ten minutes editing what you have written.
If you are then part way through the assignment, give yourself a break then do more fifteen minute writing sessions and ten minute edits, until you finish or until you run out of time.
The submission process has its own importance. Submission includes things like spell check, proof read, add the references (in the correct format). Read through the question and make sure you have answered all the bits. On one module I teach, the students have to write around 50 words of reflection on two questions they are given with each assignment. They do not get marks for the quality of the reflection, but they lose five marks if the reflection is not there. It takes two minutes to write 50 words, but so many students forget to do it, and lose five marks. It is not that they don't want to, they do just forget. So, even when you're in a hurry - in fact especially when you're in a hurry - take a few minutes to read right through the question, every paragraph, every word of it, and make sure you have done everything you are required to do, before you press the submit button.
Early in the nineteenth century some more enlightened business owners started funding teaching for their workers. They realised that workers were more productive if they understood what they were doing. This was the beginning of things like the Mechanics' Institutes, and the knowledge that men learned there - maths, physics, engineering - was called "useful knowledge". It had to be "useful" of course or there was no reason to pay for it.
Later in the nineteenth century the workers began to demand a different kind of learning. They wanted to know about why it was that businesses worked the way they did. They wanted to know about their place in the world. They wanted to know about their relations to other peoples and about the human condition. They wanted politics, economics, philosophy. This was the birthplace of organisations like the Workers' Educational Association, which still carries on that philosophy today, both nationally and internationally. And ultimately they were ancestors of the Open University and its open admissions policy.
To distinguish this knowledge from the knowledge they learned on their bosses' behalf, they called it "really useful knowledge".
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They are completely wrong. We all have only a little knowledge. The dangerous thing is being satisfied with that.
I am now retired after teaching online with the OU since 2000. I now have more time for useful things like sorting my stamp collection. I do bits and pieces of work for the Liberal Democrats. I still mourn the loss of Lewes's best ever MP, Norman Baker. I am usually online for about ten hours a day, living in my airing cupboard much of the time. Despite this I have a healthy skin colour and do not lack for company.