This week has seen one of the fastest growing discussions ever to appear on Live!, one which has caused a series of phone calls and emails to be exchanged between just about everyone involved. Posts on poor teaching, neglected students and even unproven allegations of unprofessional conduct have appeared over the past few days. At the same time the students themselves have come under attack by their peers for failing to go to lectures and not being proactive in getting problems addressed earlier.
As Editor, I've also been given a hard time by everyone and I suspect I'll get even more grief after publishing this. Such is life.
What is going on?
At its heart, the problem revolves around people feeling they have got lower grades than they deserve for a number of reasons, which they say include poor teaching, lack of support from academics and suggestions of biased marking. As a result an investigation is underway, one which will have to work hard to dig through the available evidence to see what are valid complaints and what are just sour grapes.
From the uncomfortable position of middle-man, the situation at Wye can only really be described as one thing: a monumental cock-up. College has failed to give enough support to the staff and students at Wye, instead continuing with the attitude that it's a bit of a pain. The students failed to seek redress to their problems during their course and are now left fighting for degrees they feel they deserve. The Union failed to ensure the students knew where they could go in confidence, for which the students of the Wye College Union Society must accept a large helping of blame (and these are the people racing around the countryside in their expensive 4x4s).
Many students at South Kensington feel that a lot of the complaints which appeared in the discussion are without merit, because everyone in London has the same problems: exams bunched together, courseworks bunched together, lecturers who just read from the slides, a lack of sample exam papers for new courses and so on. However, they also have several thousand other people in the same boat and a reasonably functional representation network to solve issues quickly. This network appears to have broken down at Wye.
Wye has suffered from its isolation. As a small campus paranoia seems to have set in, with a belief among some that complaining during their course would result in lower grades. This points to a fundamental breakdown in the trust between staff and students, for at least the small group affected. With such a breakdown, the viciousness of the remarks seen on Live! is unsurprising.
Many of the accusations appears to be quite serious, however would be far less so if the staff/student relationship had not broken down. As an example, many lecturers tell students who attend lectures that they will do better than those who do not, occasionally teaching without handouts to stop people just reading notes off of the web. Most would argue this is a valid teaching method, but unpopular with those who want to sleep in until 2pm. Putting less effort into helping those who don't turn up to lectures is also not uncommon: why put extra effort in to help people who can't be bothered? To someone on the receiving end, this could well seem like biased marking has led to a drop in grades.
With this said, the situation at Wye is clearly not satisfactory. The fact that the trust relationship has totally disintegrated with a group of students is not acceptable, even if the underlying accusations have more rational explanations.
The problems at Wye seem to boil down to the following:
- Imperial College academics who are demotivated and overworked thanks to constant restructuring and change at the campus
- A consequent breakdown in communication with students, with emails going unanswered
- A final breakdown in trust with those who felt they were being ignored due to the breakdown of communication
- Accusations of bias, because some students were still in the trust/communications loop whereas others had fallen out of it
- A further complication with Kent academics who have been brought in without a clear idea of the Imperial course, so not teaching everything required
This is my take on what has happened and I will await the results of the investigation with interest.
Live! has been put into an unfortunate position, with people launching torrents of abuse, usually anonymously, on the discussion board. While this is all good entertainment, it is grossly unfair to allow the reputations of academics to be damaged on the basis of anonymous ranting. If we're going to ruin the career of an academic, we'd like the evidence to back us up in court, preferably with the person making the allegations standing next to us. Consequently on Wednesday evening we modified the posts carrying the serious allegations to disguise the names of the people involved, but allowed the names of those who were accused of not responding to emails or being lousy teachers to remain. The actual allegations remained to ensure that people were aware of the possible issues at the campus.
This was not enough for the people involved, who wanted the most serious allegations removed completely. Despite a bit of a battle, we have agreed to remove them pending a discussion on what should be allowed and what should not be. Live!'s position is that it is not possible to defame someone if they are not readily identifiable.
Is this censorship? We are still in two minds about this, but I would be more bothered had the people making accusations posted with their real names. Removing allegations of professional misconduct causes me a great deal of concern, as that is the most serious charge levelled at the Wye campus. My mind is eased by the fact that there are other explanations for the behaviour seen than serious misconduct.