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The Death of an Icon 15 May 2015

Posted by Dr Moose in Changes, Life, Ponderings.
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The world around us is changing. It may be a cliché, but the truth remains, that change is the only constant. Sometimes it must be admitted that change appears cyclic, and that as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Political movements wax, wane and wax again. Fashions come and go, recombine and return, and if you are like me and rarely change your clothes to suit the style, sooner or later your wardrobe and suit will fit in and seem fashionable. Other things have their day and are gone, markers of a previous era: ha’pennies, dog licences, pound notes and motor tax discs. There are others, of course, although maybe less noticed or noticeable.

A few weeks back, surrounded by university students displaying the usual range of emotions from cool confidence to sheer, blind, panic in the face of final submission deadlines there was another of those emails that seem to come to me for no clear reason other than by virtue of my name appearing on the staff email list. Systematically spelled out were the regulations of the format in which submissions were to be requested, what staff were entitled to stipulate, and what they were not. It amounted to something of a mild reprimand, too late in the day to expect compliance now, but with a woe-betide-those-who-get-it-wrong-next-academic-year tone. Colleagues were reminded that as the establishment prepares to move to the new campus in 2018 paper was a thing of the past. If staff wished to print out student submissions to aid their marking that was their perogative, but to request paper copies from students was verboten, not the done thing. All this as a steady stream of finalists were engaged in the ritualistic closing act of the undergraduate assessments process, the completion of the dissertation. Student friends passed through the Chaplaincy Centre, waving the end result, or posted photos on Facebook that symbolised the end of hard labour, the two printed and variously bound copies of the dissertation.

The dissertation. Ponder the significance of this artefact. Those of us who have experienced the pleasure-pain of its birthing should need no reminding of its import. A tangible symbol, an icon of academia. I might frequently need to remind anxious students of its purpose, not the earth-shattering revelation of new knowledge (as desirable as that might be) but the simple illustration that they have learnt their craft in terms of research skills and writing. I may also have a Master’s Thesis to my name and a far weightier Doctoral one, but the Undergraduate Dissertation has a special place. I was delighted that the copy I presented to Dad turned up again a few years back, and brought the memories flooding back. I’m not saying it was a brilliant piece of work. It was pretty awful in retrospect, dry, pedestrian and pointless. I can remember why I chose the topic, but not why I thought it would be interesting or noteworthy. I should have picked the topic of the potential of German Re-unification, that actually happened within a couple of years and caught us all off-guard. I can remember the time-scale I had to work to, which colours my incredulity at the apparent laziness and last-minutedness of the current students.

And even this year, submission in ‘dead tree’ format was meant to have stopped. All other written work is expected to be electronically submitted already, but somehow that didn’t hit home. This death of an icon, however, feels too much like the final act, the crematorium curtains closing or the first spadeful of soil hitting the coffin lid. I may be a sentimental fool, wallowing in anachronism (after all, who’d bring back the floppy disk?) but I can’t dispel the feeling that in the loss of the printed, bound dissertation there is the ending of an era, maybe even a paradigm shift. I have plenty of pdfs of my RPG books, but the virtual ones are vastly inferior to the real. I have old theology essays as word-processor documents, but they’re not a patch on the printed ones, with manuscript red-ink scribbles highlighting the good and querying the dubious. As we wave goodbye to the paper we gain convenience, but maybe in doing so we will have lost just another little bit of our soul.

But if you’ll excuse me I’d better go and find my zimmer frame….

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1. Elaine - 15 May 2015

Working in a University office that, amongst other things, processes MBA dissertation submissions, I can’t express strongly enough just what a relief it is to no longer have to deal with paper copies. Having to receive them in duplicate, file one copy in already bulging cupboards, send another out to the marker, secure its return for second marking, and then return to the student, AND do that for up to 200 students, is a nightmare process. The introduction of electronic copies only was long overdue! If students want tangible evidence of their submissions, they can still request a copy through University print facilities.


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