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Third year politics students have reported mass disappointment with their department following module cuts, staff changes and a severe lack of communication.
Several students raised the concerns and felt it appropriate to speak out against the department following the general discontent last year with mass module cuts as part of a department merger. As this academic year began there has been an increased feeling that the department is taking less and less care of its students.
A group of students raised their concerns in person, and claim that they represent far more angry and disappointed students on their course.
Sam Momani, a third year, was particularly vocal. She feels that the problems have been growing for a while. The solution to last year’s module cuts was, she feels, inadequate. “Someone started a petition and everyone signed it, and everyone was pretty upset about it, but it didn’t end up being sent off.”
There was discontentment with the course reps in charge of the petition and their attempts at getting the student voice across, Momani feels. “We got a bit mad, as well. […] That was kind of like the first blow, everything that happened last year.”
The saga of problems did not, however, end there. There has already been upheaval of several key modules taught to third years with staff changes so early in the year. “At the end of last year they told me that I’d have Sue Webber for my dissertation tutor. And then they sent me an email and, basically, after I’d met up with her a couple of times they said ‘actually she isn’t going to be here next year’, and I thought alright, fair enough,” Momani said.
This clear communication in advance of changes has not continued, however. “I’ve just found out this year that this dissertation tutor [her second] is actually leaving after Christmas, so my dissertation tutor’s been changed twice.”
The thinking behind such disruption is lost on her. Given that the dissertations are due in March/ April time, the tutor changeovers are occurring almost a third and two thirds of the way through the module. “I don’t see why they can’t change it now so that I have the same person all year.”
The staff member whose vacancy is causing such concern is Dr Victoria Mason, who is highly involved in three modules, Middle Eastern, African and Human Rights. She is course convenor for two of them, and, as in Momani’s, case is also a tutor for dissertations.
The students are very keen that their worries are not interpreted as blame aimed at Dr Mason, but rather at the department. Momani wishes the department were doing more; “It’s not a personal thing, it’s just she’s so busy and my dissertation, it’s like no one cares about it.”
The Middle Eastern module now facing having no tutor or a short-term replacement is highly popular, Momani said. “This module is the only Middle Eastern politics module left, because they cancelled the other one.”
Momani and another student who wished to remain anonymous said that the Middle Eastern modules were among the reasons why many politics students chose Lancaster University, and that cutting one is a big change to the courses many students thought they would be able to study. Leaving a sole module for it, without a definite staff member to teach it, is worrying those who have chosen to study that area. Momani put it simply; “A politics department without a Middle Eastern politics module… it doesn’t even… it doesn’t make any sense.”
It is not just the disruption within the department that worries the students, but a large void in communication between the student and the staff. This lack of information is, the students fear, one of the roots of the department’s problems.
Momani was very clear, asserting, “I need to say that there is a point where there is rumour and fact, and I’m not sure where they crossover. For example, it was said to me that the petition never got sent off. We’ve just been hearing a lot.”
One student reasoned that “a lot of the problems aren’t their fault, like teachers who have retired, stuff like that, but if that is the case they should be bringing in more staff.” He did counter that “I think they should have told us all as well. Maybe when everyone was choosing their modules would have helped.”
With nothing definite coming from the department, the students have been left to attempt to find information out for themselves.
“Pretty much, they sent us all an email that was really, really vague, they said we’re going to get someone else to teach and we’ll get another dissertation tutor- but what I can’t understand is why haven’t they just changed it at the beginning of the year?” Momani said.
Another student who wished to remain anonymous added, by way of an answer, “I don’t feel like they actually have someone [to replace Dr Mason]”.
Robert Nixon, another third year who is studying modules Dr Mason teaches, said he feels let down, as though “there’s no guarantee that there will be a Middle Eastern politics module next term, and with all these people signed up for it”.
Their concerns aren’t entirely unfounded, either. In an emailed response regarding these concerns, Head of Department for Politics, Philosophy and Religion Professor Robert Geyer confirmed that Dr Mason’s replacement had not yet been appointed.
Geyer said “Victoria Mason’s modules for the Lent term (including the Middle Eastern module) will not be cancelled, but taught by a short term replacement. We are currently in the process of finalising the short term replacement and should know shortly.”
Nixon’s view on the department’s handling of the changes reflects this. “It’s been done badly, to be honest. We found out that Vicky Mason is leaving through student rumours. I only found out officially when I went to a lecture and the lecturer had changed.”
Momani also felt information came too late. “There wasn’t an official announcement until last week [week 2] and everyone already knew about it. It’s kind of like they’re putting students second, they’re trying to cover their own asses.”
Nixon shares Momani’s and the others’ view that the department had acted poorly. “I’d say it’s shocking, really. Really disappointing.”
The rumour mill has thrown up more causes for concern in the stead of department communication. One student said “I’ve heard that they’re not even going to be taking on any
new staff in the department . Whoever does take over Dr Mason’s courses will have whatever they’re doing and the rest of hers, so their time is going to be quite stretched.”
This has only added to the worries that the students on the courses will receive sub-standard teaching. “For a third year course, you’re going to need hands on tutors,” he said.
Other than “one vague email” the students have received no information about the developments. However, at a guest lecture which was mostly attended by lecturers, tutors, and postgraduates, Dr Mason was given flowers and they discussed her move to Australia National University.
The students feel that they were deliberately kept in the dark as undergraduates are renowned for not attending guest lectures. “It wasn’t part of the course or anything”, asserted one student.
Momani agrees it was furtively done. “That was the first time we’d heard what she was doing, where she was going, and it wasn’t to us. It was like ‘we’ll just send them a very vague email’ and just tell the staff and postgrads.”
In Professor Geyer’s response he said “I am happy to discuss this in detail with […] the student(s) (if he/she/they would like to meet me).” He also went on to make public that “yes, Victoria Mason has informed us that she will be taking a prestigious position at Australia National University starting 1 January 2011”, though he gave no indication of when the department had been made aware.
The solutions being sought are ongoing. “After Christmas, in consultation with the students, we will select another appropriate supervisor to continue to support the students until they complete their dissertations”, Professor Geyer offered.
Momani was concise in outlining her grievances. “What upsets me is that they can do this and they kind of have this impression students can’t really do anything about it.”
Professor Tony McEnery, Dean of FASS, the faculty under which the Politics, Philosophy and Religion department falls, was given the opportunity to respond to the students’ concerns either in person or via email. He chose not to do so, though his PA did state that the questions were redirected to the department rather than the faculty: “He [McEnery] has spoken to the head of PPR who has been made aware of your questions will be getting back to you with a response.”