Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A "desperately unfunny play"

We all enjoy a really bad theatre review every now and then. This one, from Timeout London, of the new comedy "The Murder Game," (coincidentally playing right up the street from us) includes the following phrases in the short, 167-word review:

  • "desperately unfunny play"
  • "A farce for all the wrong reasons"
  • "stunted by a clunky script"
  • "outdated cultural stereotypes"
  • and my all-time favorite: "some of the worst use of video projection in theatrical history"

Here's a link to the rest of the words.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The case of the environmentally-friendly campus police officer censors

From the Boston Globe, 3/28/09:
Two MIT police officers, apparently unhappy with the student newspaper's coverage of a fellow officer's recent arrest for drug trafficking, did the only thing they could think of to block the bad news: They trashed it.

The officers were nice enough to put the newspapers in the recycling bins, not the trash, however -- a fact that the lead is somewhat ambiguous about. Here's a link to the full story in the Globe, along with a link to the original story in The Tech, MIT's student newspaper.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How NOT to conduct an election

I'm no longer an AERA (American Educational Research Association, for the uninitiated) member, so a friend passed this along to me. This went out to the AERA-J listserv (names removed to minimize further embarrassment ):

Dear Division J Members,

A week or so ago I wrote to you announcing XXX XXXX as the winner of the Division J Council Member-at-Large election. This week I have both the awkward task of telling you that there was an error in one stage of the ballot counting and the pleasant task of announcing that the ensuing recount revealed ZZZ ZZZZ as the winner of the election.

We congratulate ZZZ and look forward to her joining the Division J Council.

In the interest of transparency, let me explain what happened. AERA and Division J bylaws require that a form of the Hare system be used for counting ballots when there are more than two candidates for a position--even if there is only one position. We had four candidates. As implemented by AERA, the Hare system works like this: Voters rank candidates and the candidate with the fewest votes (fewest #1 rankings) in round 1 is eliminated. The votes of those who ranked the eliminated candidate number 1 are then given to the candidate they ranked number 2 and so on. The assumption is that if a voter's first ranked candidate is no longer available, he or she would want their vote to go to the person they ranked second.

For our election, this meant that we couldn't simply declare the person who got the most first place votes the winner. We had to go through the rounds, eliminating candidates and assigning votes, until all but two candidates remained.

The system is fairly simple once you see an example of how it is actually done. The description AERA uses is very confusing and appears to be for a situation that did not fit an election like our; if one is not familiar with the process, it can make your head spin. The members of our election committee (AAA AAAA, BBB BBBB and CCC CCCC), none of whom had previous experience with this system, were not entirely clear how to figure out who won and were unsure of their calculations. So we asked the AERA Central Office for assistance. They analyzed the data and declared XXX the winner. They sent us their calculations, but we weren't looking for errors. They told us they had done the analysis a couple of times and had a couple of people verify the results. We had no reason to question their numbers; they're the experts with this system. We also declared XXX the winner.

Then one of the candidates asked for the election results, which according to AERA policy a candidate has the right to do as long he or she agrees to keep the results confidential. In the process of preparing a report for the candidate, I noticed that an error had been made in allocating the votes of the first candidate eliminated. In a close election, correcting that error made a difference in the final outcome. The new results were obtained independently by me, two members of the election committee and by a staff member at AERA.

We are happy for ZZZ but feel very badly for making an error that casts doubts on the division's election process and puts Scott in a very awkward situation. It is hard enough to lose an election, let alone find out you lost after 1800 division members have been told you won. I accept full responsibility for the error. I should have checked and double checked the figures we got from AERA and I should have insisted that members of the election committee do so as well.

In the future, all Division J elections will be conducted by the independent firm that runs all AERA elections. As an organization of well-meaning volunteers, we are just not equipped to set up and run secure elections much less bear the responsibility of determining the outcome in situations like this one.

If you have any questions, I will be happy to try and answer them.



Saturday, March 21, 2009

Australian drag queens come to the West End

For Rosie's birthday, we went with our friends Joe and Dana to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical, which is still in previews here in London. Our family is a huge fan of the movie, which was a cult classic, and we listen to the soundtrack frequently. So we were very excited when we found out they had turned it into a musical and it was coming to London (it's been playing in Sydney for the last two years).

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, the story is about three lip-syncing drag queens who go on a road trip from Syndey to Alice Springs. As one would imagine, they run into all kinds of adventures in small towns on the way, all accompanied by their lip-syncing performances to such songs as I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor), Go West (The Village People), and Shake Your Groove Thing (Peaches and Herb).

The musical was written by Stephan Elliott, who wrote and directed the movie, and it has the same costume designers as the movie -- and the costumes are as much a part of the show as anything. It's fair to say that the musical is very similar to the movie; the characters and plot are very much the same. So while we were looking forward to seeing it, we also were a bit wary of being disappointed by the lack of innovation.

Suffice it to say we were not disappointed one bit. The show uses many of the same songs from the movie, and adds some new ones, such as Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It manages to out-camp the original, both in the sets, costumes, and the performances. It really was fun seeing the movie come to life. There were some nice additions to the story and the performances were all solid.

We suspect that when the show opens (next Monday), that it will likely get lukewarm reviews from the critics. Most don't seem to go for musicals adapted from movies, and I doubt this will be much different. But I believe it will also do very well with audiences, similar to how Mamma Mia was received when it opened.

My recommendation is to definitely see this show, whether you've seen (and liked) the movie or not. Assuming it is at least moderately successful here, I imagine it will be brought to Broadway within a couple of years.

There's a short clip from the Australian production on YouTube.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A potential plan to raise student fees in the UK

Daily Mail, 3/18/09: New threat to the middle classes: Universities' plan to double student fees could leave millions in debt into their 50s

A Universities UK report released yesterday suggested a number of alternatives for increasing revenues available to universities.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stratford-upon-Avon, home of . . . . John Harvard's mother?

Desperately Seeking Joe

A friend of ours attended a performance of Joe Orton's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," which is playing in the West End. When we saw her the next day, she came over to us all excited, and had brought the programme with her. She whipped it out of her handbag, and quickly started flipping through the pages. She stopped when she came upon an article about Joe Orton, and stabbed her finger at the accompanying picture, saying, "Look!"

There on the page was a picture of Joe Orton taken in 1964, with the caption saying he was photographed outside his flat on our road. There was no house number visible in the picture, so we weren't sure where on our road he lived. But that sent us off on a quest to find out. As the author of the article noted,
As a young girl growing up in Islington his death at the hands of his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, was the stuff of legend. The infamous flat on XXXX Street was a five-minute walk from my primary school and I would often make a detour on the way home in the hope I might catch a glimpse of the 'ghosts of the queer fellas looking through the window'!

Anne and I hadn't noticed any heritage plaques anywhere on the street, so we asked around a little, and sure enough we found out where he had lived.

We had just spent the weekend in Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of one of England's other famous playwrights. So we thought it fitting that after seeing that 16th/17th century house, we ought to look for the home of one of the country's most famous 20th century playwrights.

As we got closer, we could see a very small plaque under the bell. We were pleased to see his presence there had been noted, and stepped up to read the plaque. Much to our disappointment, all it said was "Managed by XXXX Realty Associates." We found it hard to believe that Joe Orton had lived there yet nobody had bothered to memorialize his presence.

Disappointed, we trudged on to Upper Street to do our errands (shopping at Sainsbury's for Anne, a badly-overdue haircut for me). On my way back home, I was walking across the street, and as I passed Joe's house, I looked over at it again. And that's when I noticed it -- there, high up on the outside wall of the top floor, was a round plaque. I was too far away to read it, so I crossed the street and looked up, craning my neck. Sure enough, it memorialized Joe Orton's presence there from 1960 to 1967, when he died "at the hands of his lover."

(You can click the picture to see a larger image and read the plaque)

I'm off to see "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" on Thursday, feeling much better knowing that Joe's life - and death - was properly memorialized on our street. It's also prompted me to rent "Prick up your Ears," the film biography of his life, which was released over 20 years ago.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A discussion of higher education access (part 2)

In my earlier post, I described the setting of the seminar on access, along with who the presenters were. Here I'll summarize what they had to say (each was given 15 minutes), and reactions from the audience.

Before getting into the discussion, one of the interesting things to note about these seminars is that Members of Parliament actually participate in them. This is in contrast to the United States, where it would be quite unusual to see a member of the House, or even more so, a Senator, attending a policy seminar of this type. I described earlier another of the HEPI seminars, where I had a chance to chat with Baronness Margaret Sharp of Guildford, a member of the House of Lords. One of the members of the House of Commons acts as the host for the seminar, but this is not just in name only. In this seminar, the host MP, Evan Harris, actively participated in the Q&A session with the panel, as did Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP from Harrogate and Knaresborough (and chair of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, of which Harris is also a member).

The seminar was opened by Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access (more information about and links to each of these organizations can be found in the previous post). He gave a brief overview of the re-introduction of tuition fees in the UK as mandated in the Higher Education Act of 2004, along with the scheme of government-funded, means-tested grants and bursaries (aka institutionally-funded grants) introduced in consort. In his view, there is no evidence that students are being priced out of attending college, because the combination of government grants, institutional bursaries, and government loans guarantee that the neediest students will have the resources necessary to attend university.

Harris addressed the question that has been raised regarding why there are so few working class students in the most selective British universities. He reiterated that finances have little or nothing to do with it, but that the decisions students make are related academic and social issues, including the schooling they receive in primary and secondary school.

The second speaker was, Malcolm Grant, president of University College London, and chairman of the Russell Group. He too addressed the problem of the participation gap in British higher education, stating that "the primary barrier to widening participation is the failure of 360,000 16 year-olds annually to achieve satisfactory grades on their GCSEs, particularly in maths and English."* Grant explained that the achievement gap at university entry (between working and upper class students) was a legacy of gaps as far back as pre-school, citing research by Feinstein.**

Grant echoed Harris's earlier words, indicating that the issue of "fair access" is more one of preparation and the admissions process, than an isue of financial barriers. He noted that the selective universities (including UCL) rely on more than just performance on the A level exams, indicating that "we're interested in assessing merit, potential, and the ability to thrive in a highly competitive environment." This sounds very much like the language used to describe holistic admissions processes in the U.S.

He recognized that it is not enough for the universities to sit back and blame the primary and secondary schooling systems for poor preparation of working class students. He provided examples of university programs at King's College London and the University of Leeds that provide outreach to underserved populations of students, including building more bridges to the further education colleges and secondary schools. These are similar to the outrach programs many U.S. colleges have implemented.

The third speaker was Michael Driscoll, vice chancellor (equivalent of president) of Middlesex University, an institution much down the prestige pecking order in England. He opened by providing some parameters on the participation gap in the country, noting that of the 3,500 secondary schools in England, 200 of them provide half of the entrants to Cambridge and Oxford, and 100 of them provide one-third of the entrants. Having stated this, however, he said that the country should not bother to focus on these two institutions (and by implication, other elite universities as well), as there simply are not enough admissions slots in these institutions to have any substantive impact on closing the participation gap. His comment sounded very much like comments I and others have made in the States, that we're not going to close the participation gap between rich and poor there by focusing on getting more poor students into the top 30 institutions in the country - there simply are not enough seats to address the scope of the problem as it exists today.

Driscoll also described a HEPI research report documenting that the teaching and other instruction in the less-prestigious universities in England is superior to that of the more research-intensive and elite institutions. He also described how the more elite universities have higher bursaries, indicating that the institutions that enroll most of the working class students have insufficient resources to support them financially:

  • Cambridge and Oxford: £3,000
  • Russell Group: £1,700
  • Million+ (an organization of the less prestigious universities): £700

Following the presentations by the three speakers, the audience was invited to ask questions. The format they use for the Q&A session is interesting; they take three questions from the audience, and then ask the speakers to briefly respond. This tends to speed things up a bit, and discourages the audience members from making long-winded statements disguised as questions. It also encourages brevity of responses from the speakers.

Many of the questions, including one from our MP host, Evan Harris, questioned the assumption of Harris and Grant that there were no financial barriers to a university education in England. Harris questioned whether students and parents really understand the bursary scheme, and have enough information to be able to make accurate decisions about what a university education will cost. Students don't know for sure what their bursary will be from the university they attend until after they are accepted and decide to enroll there. While some universities have good information on their websites that would allow a student to estimate the bursary they would receive, in not all cases is this possible.

One key difference from the U.S. is in the national grants, which are for maintenance, or living costs (income contingent loans are available for tuition fees). Eligibility here in England is based on the income of the parents, in contrast to the 100+ question FAFSA form that is required in the U.S. So as long as you know your parents income, you'll know if you'll be eligible for a full (£2,835) or partial maintenance grant. In addition, universities that charge the maximum tuition fee allowed, £3,145 this year, must provide a bursary of at least £310 to students eligible for the full maintenance grant - thus ensuring that the combination of maintenance grant and bursary equals the tuition fees. Next year's maximum grant will be £2,906, with an income cutoff of £18,360 (average income in the country is about £25,000). I'll be describing the financial aid system in more detail in a future post.

Another important issue brought up by members of the audience was part-time and adult students, many of whom are not eligible for financial aid, or at least as much financial aid, as full-time, traditional-aged dependent students.

In the end, it was a spirited give-and-take both between the speakers, as well as the members of the audience. And as I mentioned above, I was impressed with the participation of the MPs that were there.

*GCSEs are the national subject area tests English students taken during year 11 (the equivalent of the sophomore year of high school in the U.S.) of schooling. Students take them in the subjects that they are thinking of studying at university, or in further education, or related to those subjects (which can include a vocational area). For example, a student who is planning on studying engineering would likely take the maths and physics GCSEs. And by the way, "maths" is what they call it here, with the "s". The GCSEs are the precursor to the A levels, examinations taken by students in further (post-age 16) education that are used in the university admissions process. I'll be writing more about GCSEs and A levels in a later post.

** Feinstein, L., Robertson, D., & Symons, J. (1999). Pre-school education and attainment in the National Child Development Study and British Cohort Study. Education Economics, 7(3), 209-34.