Home / Dave Brockington / Cultural Differences, Academic Edition

Cultural Differences, Academic Edition


at least this time I’m not discussing sleeping with students.

I’ve been remiss in keeping up with LGM responsibilities as a lot is happening in a short period of time, including a couple conference papers I’m presenting in April (WPSA and MPSA) that are in various states of incompletion.  There’s also the catching up on grading thing, which leads to this brief observation (and serves as a low cost way of getting used to our new neighborhood).

One of the many differences between British and American academic culture is the oversight.  In the US, the professor (or TA) grades, and that’s it.  Here, every class is “second marked”, where every “first” (e.g. an A), every fail, and a sample of the grade brackets in between, are given to a colleague to check your marks.  This works well for classes with TAs: my first and second year classes are marked first by my TAs, then I do the second marking; if it’s a new TA who has never graded before, I do second mark every piece of work for the first assignment and we have a meeting about her or his work.

However, there’s a gulf in experience between a first-year TA, and me, but the culture requires that all of my work is checked as well when I’m the primary marker.  Then, for every class aside from first year classes, a sample is ultimately sent to the “external examiner” — again, all firsts, fails, and a sample of the intermediaries — to serve as a tertiary layer of “quality assurance”.  This extends to the final exams I write: the questions for a final exam to be taken at the end of a year long class, in late May, must be submitted to the faculty office in late Autumn, then it’s sent to the external examiner who comments . . .

A seldom commented upon aspect of these relationships is that they can be quite cozy.  My existing external does take his job quite seriously, thus he has a raft of comments about how we can improve many aspects of our instruction which he makes public at our departmental “panel” meetings every June.  However, the norm is cozy, which makes one wonder that for all this work and effort, is this really quality assurance, or is it ass covering?  There are benefits to these arrangements, such as the annual panel for the MA in International Relations that I have inexplicably been teaching on for six years now, where my seminar on methods, research design, and professionalization receives an annual laudatory paragraph from the external.  Not bad for a guy who didn’t so much as offer a sub-field in IR in grad school.

That said, having grown up and been trained in the US culture, I find all this oversight suggestive of a broader untrusting culture in general, and it belies exposes the complete lack of autonomy we have as academics in Britain specifically.

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