Saturday, 16 January 2016

University Academic Cheating & Its Most Useful Module i.e. "How To Be A Good Game-Player"

The Times (2nd January 2016) and The Independent (4th January 2016) have now both had articles on University Academic Cheating. Sadly, I think these investigations with their national coverage are, at least, 4 years too late! From 2011, I had observed that the collusion between Staff and the Student's Union was bound to lead to all-out academic cheating with the realization that Student Lobbying works! I personally know a Dean of Faculty who actually advised Student Reps how to bully staff to get what they wanted and the mechanism for professionally destroying/eliminating staff who will not collude with a reduction of academic standards! This particular Dean of Faculty was absolutely gifted in this dubious area of student education.

Historically, powerful academics have always had certain favoured students who would be given broad hints about what is coming out in the exam etc. No doubt, that was and is unfair, in that, a student willing to "massage the ego" of an academic i.e. those willing to Stoop to Conquer (!), would do better than perhaps a more talented and honourable student who would not stoop to such unseemly means to get a better grade. That said, what we have now replaced that old "my supervisor is a god!" system with, is an industrial level, of what I term, "authority subversion" cheating system, that is rendering University education, at best, an expensive waste of time, and at worst, a breeding ground for young professional cheats of the future.

Students of today do not like having to submit to authority or indeed to even acknowledge the existence of any learning/knowledge hierarchy; after all, anything we do not know, we can "google". So, it reasoned that, the great leveller, Death (i.e. of Academic Standards), will abolish any difference between staff and students.

Staff-student liaison committees are set up to determine that academic challenging modules are irrelevant and must be "altered" (code for "dumbed down"). Merely to simplify the content alone is not sufficient and the students, through their all-powerful student union reps, will push for module assessment to be changed, for example, from 30% coursework 70% examined content module, to 100% coursework modules with 0% examined content. Thereafter, getting a First Class Degree is a matter of electronically "cutting and pasting" essays together, or better still, getting someone else to write those essays for a small payment (can we call it "smart" out-sourcing?).

There is another component to all this; I was personally present at staff meetings in 2011-2012 where we were instructed from the very top of the University hierarchy, to give 60% of our students Firsts and Second Uppers regardless of how the students performed. We were told that if our modules could not deliver this overall 60% result, then the module content and testing mechanism must be altered.

If highly placed (& highly-paid) University Academics cannot be trusted to protect Academic Integrity and are part of the collusion to reduce academic rigour, we cannot expect our students to have a regard for principle and high standards, as, our students will simply follow the example of those who are deemed their betters and their superiors; i.e. these past-masters of the Art of Game-Playing. Perhaps £9000/- a year is worth it, if you are being taught by successful experts how to become a really good Game-Player!

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Of Chemistry Minds and Motives

The article "A Mind-Blowing Legacy" by Mark Peplow (RSC Publication Chemistry World July 2014) throws up some interesting concepts of "motives" when looking for new compounds. Shulgin's research into psychoactive compounds was probably motivated initially by pure scientific curiosity and then I wonder whether the addictive power of the chemicals he was working with (mescaline and MDMA) did not seduce him into a search for more mind-blowing compounds to try out on himself and his friends, all in the name of science. Was there a point at which the researcher was no-longer master of the "The Search" but instead had become the servant of "The Search"?

Mescaline, a plant alkaloid, is a compound available in nature as are the compounds cannabis, morphine and cocaine. Nature has provided us with a range of psychoactive compounds. However, scientists have also created totally artificial compounds such as MDMA (Ecstasy). Pure research into mind-blowing compounds is all very interesting initially but there must be some real point to it i.e. motive. Taking nature's natural psychoactive compounds and turning them into "molecules of salvation", such as morphine into a pain-killer for the suffering ........ gives meaning to the pursuit of science. It is simply awesome that altering one chemical group (an ethyl for a methyl) can lead to such an alteration of properties where a compound stops being a mind-blower and instead becomes a healing compound. This kind of highly technical and difficult chemistry can sometimes be boring compared with the excitement and entertainment of talking about "withdrawal" and "euphoria" (accompanied by graphic photographs) which now constitute the main subject matter of Drugs Chemistry in Forensic Science courses at some universities. Indeed the title Medicinal Chemistry is sometimes considered to convey subject matter that is too complex, and the more street-savvy word "Drugs"!! with all its promise of illicit excitement has replaced the word "Medicinal". University professors are known to be complicit in this change of focus.

It would be good for students to be in awe of the specificity of brain receptors and the wonderful way very tiny changes (requiring a huge amount of work by synthetic chemists) in a chemical molecule can have the most profound effects in the brain and how this knowledge can be applied intelligently to enhance the quality of life of others. For example, MDMA targets the 5HT receptors in the brain which are normally switched on by serotonin. Prolonged use of MDMA can lead to the depletion of serotonin. Serotonin is nature's brain chemical for keeping us happy. We do not want our serotonin levels to be depleted as it can lead to depression.

Shulgin had ample time to move from pure scientific curiosity and self-experimentation to the worthwhile application of his knowledge. Pure scientific knowledge must of course be acquired as a precursor to application. Do scientists have any responsibility for their work? I think they do; after all, scientists are also people, and as people, we all have a responsibility towards each other. Shulgin, knowing the power of the molecules he was working with, should have felt concerned. Is it possible that, after some time, any reservations he may have had about these molecules were slowing being eroded? Were the mind-blowing molecules he was working with not only driving him on to look for more mind-blowing molecules while at the same time relieving him of any sense of accountability? Servants obey their masters. Servants take orders and are not required to question or take responsibility for their actions. Scientists need to be masters of their search for knowledge; their motives need to remain constantly under self-scrutiny. When motives no longer matter, when research surges forward unquestioningly with a momentum of its own, dragging the researcher in its slip-stream, then the scientist has become the servant of the "The Search".

On a more mundane note, the discovery of these molecules leads naturally to the question of the use/misuse of these chemicals and whether to legalize their use such that valuable police time is freed up from the official pursuit of those using/mis-using these substances. The knock-on effect of allowing all these molecules to be accessible with impunity, will inevitably add to unwell people who will have to call upon our already over-burdened NHS.I think there is a junior doctors' strike looming. What a tangled web we weave!