Course Representative Forum (May)

With only one week of teaching left to go before the summer exam period, we were given a short-notice summons to the final forum of this academic year. We had few new issues to discuss, so the conversation was mainly about rounding off what had been accomplished in prior sessions.

This was Isobel Hall’s last forum as President of Education. In the autumn she will be taking on the presidency of the whole student union. She expressed sadness at giving up her “baby”, but was also proud that she had managed to secure an increased printing budget for students.

Certain issues had not changed – there were still complaints that the timetable website was inefficient and that the calendar application didn’t work. The faculty hubs continued to be a target of students’ scorn.

Our deliberations trailed off at certain points whenever we were distracted by the large lemon and chocolate cream cakes which had been supplied. Our president humorously suggested that next year there ought to be a database of which sorts of confectionery would be offered at each forum so that we could compare the effect on attendance.

At the end of the session we were given coloured luggage tags to hang on a model tree – each one inscribed with what we had achieved over the course of the year. Someone managed to suggest the idea of a group photograph in front of it, though the image does not yet seem to have been released.

This is the end of the SubjectRep series. With any luck the sequel will premiere at some point in September.

There are still more types of cake to try, after all!

Student Staff Forum (April 2019)

This is the right room, isn’t it?

For the final time in this academic year, course representatives for all years in mathematics convened to discuss grievances with the faculty. I arrived early and spent several minutes moving the tables and chairs to befit a conference rather than a class.

As is usual, we had little business to discuss and the meeting adjourned after barely one third of the allotted time.

The most prominent talking point was the positioning of our examinations, both spatially and temporally. Students were not happy at the prospect of using the Allam Medical Building, where they would have to balance their pencil cases, question sheets, answer booklets and identity cards on one tiny folding table. Some were also anxious that multiple tests would be placed within the same week, giving little breathing time in between.

We had the usual round of gripes about certain lecturers. A consensus emerged that students wanted their course leaders to be more consistent about putting lecture notes and assignments on Canvas.

I inquired as to the outcome of the faculty reorganization, and was told that essentially the old departments had reformed, so that much of the outdated signage is now in fashion again and the schools system to which my cohort were introduced in 2017 will likely be seen as a minor blip in years to come.

With the conversation fizzling out I was left to put the furniture back in its normal arrangement. I have not yet decided whether to run for this position again in the next academic year, nor even if it will still exist under the same name, so today’s forum could prove to be conclusion of this series.

Course Representative Forum (February)

Actually, that looks more like paper to me.

Today I attended another forum for the course representatives, for which the key topics were Canvas, the library, and access to constituents.

Michelle Anderson, the university librarian, was our guest speaker. The gimmick of her presentation, this being near St Valentine’s Day, was that attendees were asked to write love letters to the library extolling its virtues, or alternatively breakup letters articulating its shortcomings. Generally the negative sentiments focused on the building environment, with calls for water fountains, toilets and lifts to be cleaned more frequently as well as for more furniture to be more ergonomic. There were several calls for more quiet study spaces, though the frustration here seemed to be aimed more at other students than at the facility’s administration.

On the topic of Canvas, we were put in small groups and made to produce mindmaps of our likes and dislikes. Several delegates expressed a desire for the teachers within a faculty – or perhaps the whole university – to be more consistent in their use of the system. Currently there are some lecturers who put all their files and assignments online whereas others have left their pages practically empty. There were also complaints of the sidebars being cluttered with trivial messages for weeks on end.

Turning to the issue of representation, I found that I had little to contribute as my own coursemates have very rarely contacted me directly over issues that relate to my portfolio, so I have not been required to pursue any particularly onerous campaigns on their behalf.

Overall this meeting proved fairly unremarkable. There was, of course, plenty of cake.

Course Representative Forum (November)

Over there is my house!

Today I attended the second forum of this academic year. This time the meeting followed a more conventional format with officials making speeches and being asked questions.

Our guest speaker was Ian Aylett, leader of the scheduling team. Somehow, it is always the timetabling that is a student’s predominant grievance. Some of my colleagues complained of having large gaps between early and late lectures, requiring them to sit idle on campus for much of the day. Others protested at having blocks of more than four hours consecutively. Mr Aylett showed us the inner workings of the timetabling software, Scientia. Released in 1995, this program is older than most of the undergraduates – indeed, older than the county. A new package is due to be released a few years from now, so the current design is not set for much improvement. Students asked why the lecture timetables and examination timetables had to be delivered by separate services. The formal conduct of the session briefly dissolved as a few of the computer science students told those present of how they could synchronize the Scientia timetable with their Google Calendar. To assist this, they directed us to a helpful post on InfinityFlame, run by their classmate (and, coincidentally, my long-ago school bus companion) Aidan Crane.

The next segment of the forum concerned assignments and the student hubs. Several of the members present were displeased at having multiple deadlines on the same day – a gripe which some of my own constituency have also made. The hubs remain controversial. Several months ago the union held an ill-publicized referendum on reverting to the old department system, but it was invalidated by poor turnout. Tales were relayed to us of students going to their respective hubs and not getting answers. Those dissatisfied with the hub system were keen to see another referendum held immediately and reforms pushed through before the students with knowledge of the prior system aged out of the electorate.

That done, President Hall showed us a selection of newspaper headlines and made sure we were informed of national issues regarding higher education. In particular she highlighted the fierce competition between institutions for new undergraduates and a warning that some universities were on the brink of bankruptcy. In a more positive development, she reported that her campaign to increase students’ printing allowance had been successful.

The next proper forum is scheduled for February, though there will also be a Christmas event in two weeks. The date for the next student-staff forum is not yet known.

Course Representative Forum (October)

IMG_3018As the month drew to a close, I attended my first forum of the academic year. The format was rather different to that of the sessions I described in earlier posts here.

Congregating again on the ground floor of the library, we were arranged not in rows but in squares, with pamphlets and post-it notes. After a short ice-breaking activity in which we introduced ourselves to our immediate neighbours (and then in turn described said neighbours to everyone else), we were shown a slideshow about the details of our roles and asked to have group discussions about how we would carry out our mandate. In particular we were shown an organisation chart explaining the hierarchy of the education zone within the student union. We were also taught about the union money available for campaigns (examples given were campaigns to increase printing credits and reduce paper usage in assignments).

There followed a rather confusing exercise – one which President Hall claimed to have copied from a conference she attended some days ago – in which we were given small cards inscribed with examples of things which people at various levels in the hierarchy would be expected to do, and told to arrange them according to how well we thought they were being done. The exercise was confusing because the cards were written in such opaquely bureaucratic language that many of us found them unintelligible. I wish I could recant some examples here, but unfortunately they have proven impossible to commit to memory.

Finally we got to the key theme of this forum, which was – as one might have guessed – timetabling. In a powerfully ironic turn events the registrar, Jeannette Strachan, was not able to appear at the forum in person, so instead we were told to write down our complaints which the president would pass on to her at a private meeting on Friday. The representatives were dispersed and regrouped based on their faculties and told to share their thoughts on the topic. The usual issues arose – online applications not working, websites stalling, rooms being chopped and changed at short notice and even students finding themselves assigned to the wrong course. Our grumbling match was cut short after about ten minutes, though it likely could have lasted several hours.

We returned to our original seats for a closing activity – writing down what we were proud to have achieved in our representative capacity so far and what we wanted to accomplish in the future. For some of us this provoked an awkward moment of soul-searching.

Today’s forum was a distinctly different experience from those which I had last year. Only time will tell if this represents a mere introductory anomaly or a permanent change. Most of all though, I am pleased to see the return of the refreshment table to the flank of our proceedings.

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Three kinds of cake! It’s a wonder Norton doesn’t come to these.

Table Talk for Subject Representatives

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We were just behind that giant lampshade, honest!

Having attended the larger training session for all of the course representatives, today I went to a smaller meeting, less formal meeting for the subject representatives specifically.

We gathered in the ground floor café of the Brynmor Jones Library, having failed to secure a more suitable venue. Our convener was Sanaa Sabir, the faculty representative for Science & Engineering. She talked us through the aims and procedures for the chairing of student-staff forums. As several of us had been school representatives in previous years most of this was familiar to us. We were reminded of the importance of communication between adjacent levels of representatives as well as with the rank and file of the student body. As with last year, it was noted that several subjects – including my own – were missing spokesmen at the lower levels. The first forums have had to be postponed in some cases until the necessary members could be recruited. There was also a discussion about channels of communication, as it was acknowledged that the universities intranets and applications frequently suffer errors. We also knew that many students tended to ignore their university emails.

Sabir also told us to look for a major project at whose helm to place ourselves – along the lines of the “plastic pledge”. My biology counterpart, Simon Groeger, suggested a campaign to make the campus bee-friendly.

It was reassuring to get back to business at the university, if a little disappointing to do so in such a shambolic fashion. One hopes that a more dignified venue may be secured in time for the forum.

Course Representative Training

It’s that time of year again!

As the academic year 2018-19 got into swing (which, at university, can take a rather long time), in came the emails about recruiting course representatives. Naturally I went forward. There has been a slight reform of the role – or at least the nomenclature – this year, as School Representatives are given the more accurate designation of Subject Representatives.

There were also a few changes to the training experience: The session, held on the ground floor of the library, was led by education coordinator Benedict Greenwood and president of education Isobell Hall. We were taken through a slideshow about our responsibilities and told to contribute suggestions through Mentimeter. Also included were two videos: one tailor-made for the union, the other a generic motivational sketch which I am sure has been played at thousands of corporate training sessions before.

Later on we were divided into smaller groups and asked to discuss what we thought our main challenges would be, along with ways to overcome them. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flurry of complaints about inconvenient timetables.

Today’s training was markedly different to that which I had a year ago. On the one hand I was disappointing by the lack of a refreshment table this time, for I had not brought any lunch. One the upside, I now have a badge to advertise my representative status, which somehow never came to me in my first year.