What is the role of a post-grad supervisor?

I participated in a seminar today designed for beginning PhD students to explain the Confirmation of Candidature process. I willingly gave my time because sometimes students don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t want to ask their supervisors for fear of appearing silly. But another fact emerged – some supervisors didn’t know the process and instead of finding out, the student went to a seminar. Or, the process had changed and the supervisor wasn’t up to speed. There is a line here, a line within the role of a supervisor in an academic setting. What does a post graduate supervisor do? Do they guide the student academically, and leave all of the administration well enough alone? Or should a supervisor have some knowledge of the administration requirements of the candidature? Is it simply a cop out to tell the student to go and find out what’s involved admin-wise? There is a lot of help available for students – as it should be – but how much of that is because we (post graduate supervisors) have become lazy in our supervision? I think we, as supervisors, have a responsibility to be able to explain the entire PhD process to the student. Within that will be elements where we need advice of the nitty gritty, to be sure. But a question like “What’s in a confirmation document?” is something that the supervisor needs to know.

So at this seminar today, two issues emerged for me. One, the PhD student gets a lot of benefit participating in seminars to reinforce what they already know, or to learn what they were too shy/embarrassed to ask their supervisors. And, two, some supervisors would probably get just as much benefit (but are not required to attend).

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Propaganda in war

It seems that Australia has been drawn into the Middle East conflict thanks to some very schmick marketing by the Islamic State group. Young men (always young, and always men) have joined the cause from Australia. The recent video we have seen of the young fellow from Sydney beating his chest and making all sorts of threats against the rest of the world illustrates to me how successful this marketing campaign has been. Islamic State offers young men a place to be tough and violent. They get a gun and they get brotherhood. One can imagine the appeal (although being neither young, nor male, my perspective may be somewhat skewed). The videos that are produced are very professional. They are set to music, and they show young men making a difference against the big bad rest of the world. Of course it’s appealing. And that is the point. It’s like any war propaganda – it’s designed to inspire young men to give their lives and to make the families respect their sacrifice. So when the young men die, and they do, it is because they have given their lives for the greater good.

My interest in this conflict is from the propaganda perspective. Hitler was an evil man, but he was a master orator. He could whip people into frenzies just through his public speaking. Thankfully it does not appear the Islamic State has anyone with Hitler’s charisma (or they wouldn’t need our young Sydney friend) but the rationale holds true. Get people to believe in something and they will die for it. The 21st century of war propaganda includes You Tube and Twitter, and not the stump speeches and pamphlet drops of old. The message, however, is the same. Join us.

To those of us not wearing blinkers, the propaganda is easy to see. But to the naive or disillusioned, a professional social media campaign provides just the credibility they are looking for. An opportunity to escape this world and rebel against the system. The news media then fuels the fire, reporting on the events, creating more ammunition to be used in the next round of propaganda. Such is the immediacy of journalism in 2014.

I am reminded of the Kony 2012 social media campaign. A flash in the pan to be sure, but a big flash at the time. Millions were drawn into the debate about Joseph Kony. And then it was over. What the Kony campaign had was a very professional video and a knowledge of marketing. The Islamic State campaign is being maintained longer and harder than the Kony campaign – but one wonders if it could exists without the propaganda. Just like the Kony campaign, once the publicity dies the campaign dies too.

Privacy debate for online publications

There is a University of Sydney lecturer causing all sorts of kaffuffle in the media at the moment because he emailed a whole bunch of racist rants to his colleagues. An online news organisation got hold of the emails and published them. The lecturer has been stood down and is now taking legal action against the news organisation for breaching his privacy. This is a really interesting case. My mind immediately goes to the defamation space, but of course there is no defamation here because truth is a defence, and no one is disputing that the emails existed and were actually sent by this chap. The news organisation said they published the emails because it was in the public interest – another defamation bell ringing here for me – but the privacy legislation in Australia does not create a loophole for public interest, regardless of how influential this bloke is. The news organisaiton is also defending its sources and not revealing how the emails were received. So now I’m starting to think about the shield laws for journalists as well. There are so many things going on. There is a court hearing coming up to decide whether the emails need to be withdrawn from the site. I think that’s actually a moot point – the issue has been so well covered by mainstream media that the lecturer’s appalling terminologies for the people of Australia are already widely reported. Removing the emails now will not make any difference to his reputation. It will be interesting to see if the sources are required to be revealed. It is an important case for journalism and I will be watching with interest.

Reflection on MOOCs

I’m not a fan of MOOCs. It is a fancy name for something we have been doing well at CQUniversity for decades – teaching distance students. I get a little frustrated when big universities present an online course as a novelty, as if they were the first to think of it. Meanwhile the distance and online universities have been operating in that space and refining the techniques. So the big universities come along and present a MOOC, falling into all of the traps that we have already overcome. Then we get to read about how MOOCs don’t work, that student engagement is limited, that you can’t learn effectively in an online environment. So, with my fairly cynical view of MOOCs firmly attached, I was interested to read about the MOOC for Citizen CSI at the University of Queensland. You can read about the course here http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-21/citizen-csi-crime-101x-gives-public-a-chance-to-catch-criminal/5827604. I am a former police officer, and I am now a university lecturer in the distance space, so my interest has been piqued. I’ve enrolled in this MOOC. I’m curious. Will it be like the others? Or will there be something different about this one? I’m actually looking forward to it. The blurb from the university tells me that I only need to devote one or two hours a week to this eight week course. I’m not sure about what sort of content I can obtain in only an hour a week, but I’m willing to give it a go. I’ll maintain an open mind – the best outcome is that I find the content marvellously interesting AND I pick up a few techniques for my own distance students. Worst case is that I file this under learning experience. And actually, in fairness to the course itself, it is aimed at community members who just want to learn something – so I’ll keep in mind its purpose.