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Editorial: Core Skills and Modular Education

by Alexander Freer, University of Warwick

 

The publication process for papers in Reinvention can be long and challenging. In the current issue in particular we have seen a number of papers fall by the wayside: in some cases, authors felt that they had revised their views and understanding to such an extent that they could no longer proceed with the original research thesis, a hugely important learning experience for those authors but obviously problematic for the publication; in other cases, authors had moved on from university, and were no longer well placed to undertake the substantial programme of revisions which was required. This does, of course, make the achievements of the authors whose papers are published in this issue even more impressive. Responding constructively to substantial discussion and criticism of one's research is likely to be the most difficult part of publishing for authors with no prior experience; using that criticism to produce a better final paper is a real accomplishment.

It is perhaps an opportune moment to discuss what the core skills of academic publication are, and how they fit into contemporary undergraduate education. I noted in a previous editorial the difficulty for authors of addressing reviews from academic referees, and undertaking revisions, when little to no provision is given to such tasks in undergraduate curricula (Freer, 2010). Regardless of discipline, it seems that there are a set of core skills which our reviewers demand of publishable papers, both in terms of literacy (precision, economy of language, structure) and substantive content (cogency of arguments, rigour of description and analysis, and so on). Although these skills appear central to the undergraduate degree, they are among the most difficult to assess and develop. Academic writing is a skill central to all disciplines, whether in experimental findings, philosophical argument, sociological analysis or medical reporting. I think that there is a danger that such academic writing skills are becoming marginalized in higher education.

By 1996, 65% of degree-awarding institutions had instituted a modular framework for teaching (HEQC, 1996), and the trend looks likely to increase (Dill, 2005: 190). The advantages of such a system are numerous: students have a greater choice of material to study and the flexibility to pursue cross-disciplinary courses and work at a more appropriate level of difficulty; educators can offer multiple pathways and levels of award using the same materials (Billing, 1996: 2-3). In fact, the major drawbacks highlighted in the 1994 review of modular education in the UK were chiefly administrative (ibid. pp. 6-8).

However, great strength of the system – that an extended course of study can be fragmented and seamlessly re-configured – also focuses attention in each module on its specific academic content; that is, the material which differentiates it from other modules. The obvious implication is that the skills and competencies which are most important in all modules cease to become the focus in any module. As Stephenson (1998: 7) notes:

The separate development of skills – bolt-on capability – sustains a fragmented model, divorcing personal skills development from the acquisition of specialist knowledge […] A capability approach is also difficult to develop within modular schemes in which the accumulation of credits is more important to the award of the degree than the internal coherence and integrity of programmes in terms of individual student developmental needs.

There is little in the way of assessment of these core skills in their pure, theoretical form. Jenkins et al. cite the HMI Report on Oxford Polytechnic, which notes that ‘the modular structure makes it difficult, but not impossible, to ensure the systematic development of interpersonal and communication skills’ (DES, 1991: 8). One of the more radical early proposals to teach and assess these core skills systematically and continuously which Jenkins et al. describe was 'to create what was then termed a “long thin module” running through the degree programme. […] In general, students strongly supported this idea; staff vociferously rejected the idea – they saw it taking resources away from academic studies' (1994: 7, my emphasis). Academics, as well as other professionals, certainly do need ‘interpersonal and communication skills’: research is becoming more collaborative, and the publication and dissemination of research remains the key index of academic performance; to consider classing and monitoring these skills as ‘non-academic’ is concerning.

While the benefits of the modular system are vast and should not be ignored, re-uniting the sometimes disparate modules into one degree after three or four years is a difficult task, and universities use a large variety of formulae to combine modular grades into a final classification (Simonite, 2000: 198-99). Similarly, there is no obvious way to unite the core skills required by every module within the current system while these skills are regarded as peripheral activities.

Unfortunately, I think that the current period of reduced spending on higher education, and the subsequent impact on the educational experience, will lead to a focus on the ‘essentials’ of teaching and learning which may in fact cement the problem we have outlined above. It is vital at this point that we do not confuse the importance of core skills and course contents, and in trying to streamline undergraduate education, actually lose some of the most vital and transferable skill sets.

From the perspective of Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, communication and methodological skills such as presentation, clarity, cogency and academic rigour are at least as important as subject-specific knowledge and understanding. It is these skills – crucial for those hoping to publish – that we aim to develop in our ‘Writing for Publication’ training sessions.[1] It is easy to see their importance for students leaving the world of academia after graduation, but these are also the core skills of the researcher. It follows that the teaching role of the journal is not supplementary in nature, but at the centre: the real focus of the undergraduate course should be to equip students for the highly challenging task of engaging with their subjects as scholars in their own right, both in theory and in the field, the lab or the archive. Equally, undergraduate research requires the highly transferable skills of careful analysis and clear communication demanded by employers outside of academia. The publishing process, with its rigorous assessment of these skills, and its demand of responding to criticism and improving previous work, seems an unusual and highly useful form of education, judging by what our authors, successfully published and otherwise, tell us.[2] This journal, of course, can only work with a handful of students on each issue. The real challenge is integrating this kind of teaching process into modular curricula.

All Reinvention’s authors share this key set of 'core skills', although we see them manifested in different cross-disciplinary concerns across the range of papers we publish. In this issue, several of our papers deal with forms and issues of representation. A common trait of the authors we publish is their attention to the complexities of the questions they ask. The typical description of a research paper is description and analysis. These authors refuse to be satisfied with the surface explanations to their questions, their papers concern themselves with the very mechanics of representation. Owen Fung (University of Warwick) discusses representations of race, nationalism and nationhood in Second Wave Norwegian Black Metal, investigating both how these notions of nation are used by musicians, and their complex relationships to the history of Northern European nationalist discourses. Likewise, Rebecca Woods (University of Sheffield) asks why misogynous stereotypes are humorous in the Old French fabliaux, turning the question on both the reader and the writer, sustaining a question which is simultaneously historical and literary. Joseph Cronin (University of Durham) considers the Medievalism of the Oxford Movement and how it was used for precise political purposes, all the time aware of the difficulty of treating Medievalism as a homogeneous and stable movement. Our second triad of papers are concerned with how specific groups behave. They are concerned with drawing out trends and their explanations, but they are all aware of the complexities of writing accounts of causality in the real world. Alison Wheatley (University of Warwick) investigates the ways in which people invested in donor insemination use the internet, noting both the roles of established online communities and the roles of individual actors, both inside and outside these communities. Eleanor Scharf (University of Warwick) analyses the barriers to benefit take-up among ethnic minority groups in the UK, finding a complex network of interlocking factors which are specific to people we describe as of ethnic minorities. Finally, Olivia Fraser and Tarnya Marshall (University of East Anglia) discuss the monitoring and management of cardiovascular risk in patients with inflammatory polyarthritis, analysing how the intentions of NICE guidelines translate into medical practice.

Alongside these papers, we are very happy to announce the launch of a redesigned website, which aims to improve clarity and access to information. A further exciting development is the listing of Reinvention’s articles on Google Scholar, which we hope will improve access to authors' work. A challenge for a journal staffed by undergraduates is the high turnover of staff members: two assistant editors, David Hall and Ruth Simons, who have worked with us for the last two issues, have moved on, and we wish them well in their future careers, while aiming to recruit their replacements shortly. Imparting the skills we have only recently learned ourselves to new members of the team does, however, encourage a very useful spirit of constant re-assessment of our procedures and methods, and, we hope, results in further improvement.


 

Notes

[1] See www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/training

[2] As illustrated by the quotes from many of our authors now displayed on our home page www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/

 

References

Billing, D. (1996), 'Review of Modular Implementation in a University', Higher Education Quarterly, 50 (1), 1-21

Department of Education and Science (1991), The Modular Course at Oxford Polytechnic: A report by HMI, Stanmore, Middlesex: DES

Dill, D. D. (2005), ‘The Degradation of the Academic Ethic: Teaching, Research, and the Renewal of Professional Self-Regulation’, in Barnett, R. (ed.), Reshaping the University: New Relationships Between Research, Scholarship and Teaching, Buckingham, UK: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, pp. 178-91

Freer, A. (2010), 'Editorial: The Growth of Reinvention', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research 3 (1) www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume3issue1/editorial

Higher Education Quality Council (1996), Understanding Academic Standards in Modular Framework, London: HEQC

Jenkins, A., D. Scurry and D. Turner (1994), 'Using Profiling to Integrate Skill Development in a Large Modular Course’, in Jenkins, A. and L Walker (eds) Developing Student Capability Through Modular Courses, London: Kogan Page, pp.133-42

Simonite, V. (2000), 'The Effects of Aggregation Method and Variations in the Performance of Individual Students on Degree Classifications in Modular Degree Courses', Studies in Higher Education, 25 (2), 197-209

Stephenson, J. (1998), 'The Concept of Capability and its Importance in Higher Education', in Stephenson, J. and M. Yorke (eds), Capability and Quality in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page, pp. 1-13

 

To cite this paper please use the following details: Freer, A. (2010), 'Editorial: Core Skills and Modular Education', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 3, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume3issue2/editorial Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal@warwick.ac.uk