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September 7, 2013


Lost in Translation – LLM Approval Meetings

by Jess Guth

I had a meeting as well as several conversations with colleagues last week about approval of a new course, an LLM to be precise. Throughout these conversations and to some extent the meeting itself, there was a real sense of a ‘them and us’ culture pitching those on the approval team/committee and administrators against the academic team (so in this case mainly me) designing the course.  It was a pre meeting to get the paperwork right for the approval event in a month’s time. Apart from arguments about whether the institutions ‘validates’ or ‘approves’ and whether it is ‘Master degree’, ‘Masters degree’ or ‘Master’s degree’, there were elements I found both interesting, frustrating and ultimately a little upsetting.  The details of the meeting and issues we discussed are really not important here but at one point I was told in a nice but firm way ‘it isn’t your programme’. And of course the person making that statement is right, it isn’t mine, it’s a university degree course, if it is anybody’s it is the university’s. But as I left the meeting (with issues resolved and everyone sort of happy) I couldn’t shake off that statement and I am beginning to wonder whether it might be at the core of the tension between admin staff particularly staff charged with quality and QAA matters and academics.

Because you know what, that LLM is my programme. Not only have I invested a ridiculous amount of time in creating the paperwork required for it to be approved (not validated!). I have invested far more time thinking about it, designing it, redesigning it, making it coherent, making it flow. But it’s not just time, there is so much of me in that programme. The learning, teaching and assessment  (LTA) strategy reflects my LTA philosophy, it reflects my socio-legal background and convictions, it is built on my ethos of education and research. Of course it’s my programme. I’m not a complete nutter, I realise that in due course someone else is likely to take over as director of studies (or programme leader as I think we now call them) and that as we start to teach the programme it will move from being mine to being ours and staff will take ownership of their modules and the programme overall. I know that, but at this stage, it’s very much mine. It has had input from students, other staff, administrators etc but essentially I have put my heart and soul into it (see I can do drama queen quite well!) and it is most definitely mine.

If that is not something that is clearly understood by staff in the Academic Quality Unit (AQU – or whatever equivalent there is at other institutions) and if academics don’t fully appreciate that staff charged with quality assurance issues are likely to see programmes as university programmes without the emotional baggage attached to them then it is no wonder that discussions can get heated, defensive and ultimately get us nowhere. I suspect academics think administrators and AQU staff are stifling creativity and innovation and are caught up in a tick box culture and that administrators think academics are in their own little bubble with little regard for  regulation. Neither is probably true, or at least it needn’t be if only we talked to each other in a language both groups understood.

You see when I talk about a module being at Level 7 I am talking about the module itself, the content, the way I see the module delivered and the way I see it fitting into the programme. AQU staff can’t possibly think of it that way – they don’t have the knowledge of the course or the teaching experience to do so – they are thinking about the module descriptor and what that reflects. Asking me to amend the module descriptor so that it better reflects the Level 7 module is one thing, something I will find irritating but will ultimately be ok with. Telling me my module is not at Level 7 is something else entirely, I will get defensive about – I designed it, trust me, it’s at Level 7. There are other examples of academics and administrators using the same language but meaning very different things but I don’t want to bore you, essentially I (and maybe academics generally) am talking about the programme etc and AQU are talking about the paperwork.

As academics we perhaps need to be less precious about ‘our programmes’ but then I didn’t really think I was. I am just as interested in providing documentation which is ultimately going to be for students, which is clear, user friendly and provides the reader with a strong sense of what the programme is about as AQU are. What I am not interested in is ticking boxes for the sake of it. I know my LLM is a good quality programme which will engage students and help them become better researchers, critical thinkers and writers. What I need AQU to do is help me turn my vision into paperwork the institution can understand because, as it turns out, I don’t speak the institution’s language – and I don’t think I want to either.

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. James Hand
    Sep 18 2013

    From my limited experience I gather people may want to play buzzword (or forbidden word) bingo and if it keeps them happy – and they do their job as well – I guess we can indulge them. It helps if we can see the reason behind the argument and the boxes to be ticked, though.

    Thanks for the post and good luck next month.


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