Jul 072014

Report WritingReport writing is an area of writing that should be expanded upon in undergraduate courses in academia. I frequently explain to my students that the majority of writing that they are likely to do in their professional careers will be report writing. Yet, universities don’t seem to value this as a skill as much as the professional world does. Report writing, and highly technical writing underpins all other writing types and formats promoted and necessitated and prioritised by universities. Even many purely research oriented journal articles are actually in a report format, so I don’t understand why it has become the black sheep of undergraduate course assessments.

Despite the importance of report writing, and the structured nature of report writing, it is the format that I find my students struggle with the most. Even mature age students who have written reports in the private sector, or for government, tend to fall apart when confronted with writing reports for an undergraduate course.

I understand that essays, critiques and analyses providing summaries and carrying arguments are important and are the backbone of undergraduate assessments. However, these can be present in reports as well. The fact that a report is structured seems to make it seem much more elementary than other writing formats. But for mine, it is the basis for presenting and demonstrating primary evidence – whether this is qualitative or quantitative.

Specificity, accuracy and succinctness are great skills developed and assisted by practice in report writing. Students who hide a lack of understanding with wordiness and vagueness tend to struggle with report writing due to the nature of what is required. Assessing report writing in an undergraduate course would encourage students to learn to focus their writing, and promote a balanced approach to argument.

Report writing is also as varied and adaptable as the other writing formats promoted in undergraduate courses. Reports can be generated for the representation of data, for the documentation of a process, or for providing recommendations and conclusions to an audience.

Being able to demonstrate ability to present primary evidence is something I would like all of my students to be able to achieve. The rise of evaluations for research programmes, community programmes, or projects undertaken by the private sector in my opinion necessitate a greater emphasis on teaching the basic parameters of report writing in greater depth.

Although I studied various science subjects, social sciences and humanities over the course over my studies, it wasn’t until I began working as a research assistant, and writing reports and evaluations for government, that I felt comfortable with writing reports. Apart from publications, I can’t remember writing anything else – which I find strange when I look at what is required in undergraduate courses.

So what do my students struggle with when writing reports?

Abstracts are the biggest problems that students face. Somewhere between an introduction and an executive summary, the abstract is hung out to dry. An executive summary is something that should be promoted as a tool to be used as an assessment piece, in and of itself, but I digress. I find that students haven’t read enough peer reviewed material to be able to write successful abstracts. Writing abstracts for students will be the subject of another post, as it is worthy of more discussion than what I can offer here.

Introductions are also problematic for many students, strangely enough. In reality, an introduction for a report should be no different to an essay or other format – just that it is structured differently. And this is where I believe reports should be used more frequently in higher education, because in the process of writing a report, students are forced to state their hypothesis or what they are attempting to prove/ disprove. The matter of factness of stating the intentions of what is being written and presented is not something that is done well by undergraduate students.

The inability to write in this way has consequences once students become involved in their own research, through further study or as a research assistant. I know that I had problems with this, and it probably took me the entire length of my thesis to realise this flaw.

The presentation of data is also something that students struggle with. It’s quite often lumped in without much thought given to it. There is often no lead in to the results presented, or context provided. Results and data are simply thrown in without much thought as to how they are to be interpreted. It’s perhaps my most common feedback in report writing assessments – that data in tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the document.

Discussions are an area where students really need a lot of guidance to be able to extend the concepts that they are analysing in their report. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for students. It’s essentially a mini essay within the report, which students should already be familiar with. However, it requires dovetailing and being tied into the investigation, experiment or other process which produces the primary evidence.

What are the opportunities for promoting report writing?

A lot is made of the technological savvy of generation y. For mine, the ability to be creative, using new technologies and data tools is an area on which this generation should actually focus. I would like to see new ways of analysis and presentation of data. Using traditional data tools and new tools alike to present and promote data in new and interesting ways. Presentation and explanation of data as a standalone assessment piece, is something I think should be promoted more explicitly in undergraduate courses.

There is a perception that report writing should be formulaic, traditional and ritualised. I think this has led to most reports going left unread and unused in the workplace. But they are an untapped resource, especially for promotional or corporate education purposes. I want to see my students playing around with different data visualisation techniques. I want to see them be able to show potential employers that they can reinterpret “boring” reports and evaluations in new and interesting ways. We live in a world which is data driven, and data is demanded by bosses and management. But we also live in a world where this data is hidden, and underutilised.

Using elements of reports as assessment items that will be required in the workforce is the area of opportunity. Students are going to demand to be provided with relevant skills to what they will require once in the workforce. I can’t think of anytime I have been asked to write an essay. But I have been asked to write evaluations, procedures and policies. All of these are potential ways to integrate report writing as an assessment task within an undergraduate degree course, which will provide long lasting value to students.

May 212014

StudentsFeeling useless is something I know a fair bit about. Being a philosophy major, you could say I’m an expert in uselessness. But these times are tough. In the immortal words of Kent Brockman, “Joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors – useful people are starting to feel the pinch.” I’m going to ignore the absurdity in that sentence, but it’s really apt for now. The last week has been particularly hard on my students, following #budget2014. No doubt they feel personally insulted, aggrieved and bewildered, and as if society is rejecting them as a whole.

My students almost represent the entirety of the demographic that is under assault by our current politics: Under 30s, science students, Indigenous, mature age and single parents. But my students are fantastic people. If they weren’t, they’d be studying economics (apart from those who follow Steve Keen and the like); human resources (who have no other skill apart from liking feeling superior than everyone else); Accounting (but my students have a personality); Finance and commerce (parasites and sociopaths), or any other number of occupations that seem entitled to dictate what people do and how their value to society is measured.

All gross stereotypes aside, it is important for my students to know that they have valuable skills. These valuable skills are distinguished from those listed above. And just because the occupations ahead might tell them they have no worth to society – for employment or whatever, that they actually do have options about where to head in their future – that they are generating valuable knowledge and extremely worthwhile skills for society.

This semester, I’ve been teaching Oceanography, generally, to a group of Environmental Science students. Teaching at a small regional campus allows me to have my lectures and tutorials in a completely different format to what otherwise would be the case. And this session last Friday, I decided to do something different – aside from teaching them that a shelf is not just something that influences currents, but is also a quiet elf.

Other lecturers such as Lee Skallerup talk about the importance of caring for their students. I’ve written previously about the problems facing us as graduates after university. For mine, they are almost one and the same. I can’t care for my students without looking out for their futures, and what they require. But that doesn’t happen without knowing the drives behind my students, and my students being aware of them. This shaped my latest lecture and tute.

I was sure my students were sick of hearing that their lecturers and whatnot are negative about the budget and the government etc. So before we got started, I asked my students to get into groups of three, and discuss what brought them here – to this unit, to this course, and what about them fundamentally has led them to be doing what they are doing (none of this, it’s a mandatory unit and so on…).

I also asked them to discuss a skill that they have brought, that they can develop at university, which they can use once they leave university.

It was an interesting process. My students are really passionate about what they want, and about why they are doing what they are doing. I have students that want to change what they have done all their working lives, those that wont to make a better world for their kids. Those that want to teach science and environmental issues to students, those that love being outdoors.

What I did not expect was the blank that occurred when I asked the students how they could use their passions into the workforce. I suspect it’s the reverse in the case of the students I’ve lambasted above (no passions but an idea of how to use their skills in employment).

But the fact is, my students do have incredibly valuable skills and knowledge. Many are great with numbers. We need more mathematically inclined people in the workplace. And it really doesn’t matter how you get there. A really good friend of mine and a personal mentor as got into health research through developing skills in ecological statistics.

There are a lot of visual learners in my class. But being science students, I suspect they’re also data interested. I suggested that if this was so, to tailor their studies to GIS and the spatial sciences. You might not be working in an environmental field, but you will likely be working outdoors, with data and in a visual way.

Most of my students are people people. I suggested maybe that they consider teaching. If they’re outdoorsy types, consider youth work or support services. There are ways to use your passions like surfing to do something that is going to utilise your passions, as well as your knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired.

Just because you are doing a science, where people think you are useless, doesn’t mean you are.

We have a problem with valuing intellect and knowledge in Australia. I implored any of my students to look overseas. Go somewhere where you feel wanted, because places overseas do value your skills, your knowledge and your passions. If it wasn’t for personal circumstances, I would be heading overseas to live, myself.

It is important for my students to understand that the small minded society Australia has become, is not a reflection on themselves, or their skills. We shouldn’t be taking societal and employment advice from people who have been given a free tertiary education, only then to be taking a wage directly from the taxpayer. That’s cretinous.

We also shouldn’t be taking employment and education advice from people who measure their worth to society by the amount of tax that they pay/ or don’t pay. Because if we did, there would be no beans for the bean counters to count, no money for financiers to be parasitic of, no ideas for the idea quashers to quash, and no occupations where HR types would be able to feel more secure than.

May 122014


PrecariatRecently I wrote about my experience in the Precariat, and it seemed to generate a lot of interest and some discussion away from the blog. It appears to speak to a narrative which is quite hard to navigate, and is fraught with racist and xenophobic undertones which threaten to hide legitimate issues requiring discussion. It just so happens that after expressing my opinion of the 457 Visa system as being a rort, and scammed by many employers, that in the last week or so, an alleged organised crime racket has been exposed for allegedly abusing 457 workers. This unfortunately for the 457 workers involved, puts them in an extremely precarious position – the worst kind of Precariat situation imaginable.


As I have discovered recently through some twitter debates, the issue gets quite heated, and responses to insecure work in Australia can quickly degenerate and appeal to racist elements in the community. One such representation of this is recent union advertising, pointing out that 457 workers “took our jobs” and that these jobs belong to “us”. Despite the fact that unions do help uncover 457 visa abuses, and help 457 obtain better working conditions and entitlements, this is an unwelcome response to an issue that is tricky enough to navigate as it is.


Language such as “us” and “them” when talking about foreign workers, immigrants and so on is inherently xenophobic. Australia has a pretty horrible history with such language and policy responses, going back to mining days in the early goldfields, Asian immigration in the north of Australia and the response with the White Australia Policy.


What is missing, and what was pointed out by others in the debate, is worker solidarity. In a globalised world, insecure employment is an issue impacting upon young workers almost everywhere in the developed and undeveloped world. And the response must be global. The issues facing young workers in Australia are undoubtedly faced by the workers coming to Australia on 457 visas in their own economies. But it makes no sense to create more problems in other countries – the movement of skilled labour internationally is a huge false economy and a massive cost faced by the host social systems and structures, not borne by the corporations that create them.


Those who were a part of the conversation that lead to this post were quite right in arguing that the correct response should be to improve the working conditions, pay rates and improved employment across the board in the host countries.


It is the lack of accountability on companies and businesses which leads to inappropriate employment practices and the lack of up-skilling of workers in developed countries, right around the world.


It is precisely because companies do not have to provide adequate pay, conditions and training that enable 457 Visa rorts. If companies were only allowed to work 457 visa holders to 40 hours a week, at the market rate of pay, the incentive to employ, train and invest in local workers is increased. In my opinion, it is only because of these factors that make 457 workers attractive to employers. For every worker on a 457, there is probably another half a full time job that they are doing, that could be done by someone else. This is not an acceptable situation. We do not have full employment and we have an alarming increase in our youth unemployment. These problems could be addressed with increased training and investment by companies.


The other issue is the abuse of the sponsorship and visa provisions. Unions, and I think everyone should argue that is employed on an ongoing basis should be given something akin to permanent residency. The fact that the employer holds the employees citizenship rights, is a naturally abusive power imbalance. The power imbalance is what undoubtedly leads to worker abuse and the sort of practice I explained in the previous post. I don’t think 457 workers would be prepared to lie in legal documents if they knew they could go elsewhere. As it is, employers can force 457 workers to sign documents wrongfully showing their working hours. An unwillingness to sign such a document, or to work illegal, exploitative and abusive hours is likely to see a dismissal and deportation.


By ensuring that all workers have appropriate rights to stay in Australia means that employers will have to ensure that they are well looked after and remunerated. I’m sure many companies who struggle to attract and retain Australian workers face their shortages because they are such poor places to work. If their 457 workforce were to be able to leave, it would ensure that their employment practices are appropriate – otherwise their shortages would continue. The 457 process hides failings within the employment practice that are unwilling to be addressed by the companies. Ironic, given the reasons many companies give to hiring foreign workers – laziness, incompetence, lack of skills etc of Australian workers.


Thanks to an earlier discussion, there is a way forward on this issue that can positively impact change that is not xenophobic or racist. Tactics employed by the unions in this area are counterproductive and as so often with the union movement, tarnish the good things that unions do. The focus should move to improving conditions for all workers, changing the working residency status for workers and improving employment and up skilling practices. Not only would this be better for 457 workers, but also increase the chances of Australians attaining work, and a more skilful, harmonious and loyal workforce.

Apr 162014

PrecariatA few weeks ago whilst driving down to Yallingup for a field trip with my Oceanography students, I was amazed by and at the same time greatly irritated by Radio National’s Life Matter Program ‘What Did You Do With Your Degree’. Being a member of the Precariat, it repeated many of the rubbish, meaningless and glib phrases that I’ve heard all of my life about education.

It latched onto the now common debate about whether university degrees are still worth doing. And the answer from those working for Universities was a resounding, “yes”. The problem of graduates finding it hard to gain employment is still all someone else’s problem. It was an extraordinarily self serving debate and got me more than a little riled up.

Following your passions, your interests etc is still the mantra of university marketers. Well, passions don’t pay your bills. And unless you have wealthy parents, your passions aren’t going to save you from poverty if you’re overqualified with useless skills and an education that makes you overqualified for everything you try to apply for.

The debate conveniently ignored many of the factors that impact upon recent graduates and those of my generation. Or the hosts blithely glided over them and put them in the same basket as the “casualisation” of entry level jobs.

I am without a doubt a card carrying member of our generation known as the Precariat. Since graduating in 2009, I’ve had one interview. Since completing my Master of Science last year, I’ve had none.

I exist on using personal contacts (none of which have been developed from study) and casual insecure contracts. Although I have a good work history, I probably live in borderline poverty from time to time, and without family I would already be homeless.

But recently (and it took me a long time to realise this), is that of course we are producing too many university graduates. That much is obvious, despite the answers given by the panellists. But this is a function of a society that is task focussed, vocationally focussed and exceptionally removed from a world of self critique and self examination, cohesion and social betterment.

The real discussion, which wasn’t overtly set out was why we might want to have a society where we have a lot of graduates that are performing valuable roles in society. And this is the argument that needs to be made and needs to be carried if employers are actually going to take on more local graduates.

There is an implicit message sent with Australia’s policy settings regarding graduates, immigrants and skilled workers. In my field, I have to compete with workers on 457 visas, who have already been trained elsewhere, and are cherry picked by companies who don’t want to have to invest the minimum investment required to skill me in what I need to do. Despite the fact that I have valuable skills and knowledge that I deliberately targeted because of what I thought would be desired (if you want to hire me, get in touch by the way).

It’s also the case that 457 workers are working illegal hours, and then signing legal documents to say that they aren’t working those illegal hours – knowing full well if they don’t do those hours or sign the documents, their 457 sponsorship will be jeopardised. It is really another example of a disadvantage that local workers are facing.

I have friends who have graduated in Nursing; a skill in high demand, as we are frequently told. But they have not been able to secure any ongoing employment apart from casual, agency type work. Yet, we are still employing nurses on 457 visas. It does not make any sense. Unless there is an implied assumption that our own graduates are not up to standard.

The real issue is what we do with so many graduates facing insecure or few job prospects, whilst competing with policy that is actively working against them.

But it is not just policy that is working against graduates and members of the Precariat. HR departments and HR workers have become notorious and synonymous with misunderstanding the skills that graduates have. They are themselves a parody of what employment and education in Australia has become.

However, this is not exclusively the fault of those in the HR industry. Given that many companies are completely outsourcing their recruitment functions, HR consultants are constrained by the types of employees they are willing to recommend for positions. Gone are the days where employers would understand the translatable nature of the skills that people have in different positions. Instead, many skills are frowned upon.

I myself have had this happen with one HR consultant. After looking at my resume, he informed me that he didn’t have any work going in the education field. Well, if you’re in HR and think that I’m in education because I work for a university and not in education because I have specific skills and knowledge related to particular fields of expertise, then it is a problem.

Or an argument I had with one who concluded that academics and those in Higher Ed were completely unaccountable for the public funding they received. I had to remind her that she did not have to gain ethics approval to do her job, nor have to acquit her funding on the basis of performance or outcomes. Nor was a failure to understand what constituted accountability by way of production of research and inability to cognise academic production the fault of the academic, but a symptom of the problem of HR types and their interaction with the Higher Ed sector.

And don’t get me started on HR in Higher Ed! Often the most obstructive and counterproductive people in Universities to research production and outcomes within the University!

But it is a problem partly of the making of Universities and the higher education sector as well. Those working in HR are “skilled”, rather than “educated” and really probably don’t have enough grounding in alternative fields to understand what particular potential workers can bring to a workplace. It’s all well and good to say that architects and arts graduates can work in banks advising on different scenarios (as the radio programme did), but if you have a HR department that doesn’t understand different attributes, then it is a pointless discussion.

I could go on for hours and hours about my frustrations with employment following graduation, about the lack of understanding of my generation’s skills; the precariousness of employment that my Dad’s generation simply does not understand. I guess the important thing to take out of this is that the problem is known. What we need to do is actually talk about the problem that exists. It isn’t going to be helped by increasing student enrolments, which is what one of the pushes is on for. Nor do we need 457 visa workers in a lot of the areas we have them. Employers and those in the HR have to be more aware of the skills that are actually out there – and be prepared to train people up. Unlike previous generations it is not something that is being provided for my Precariat generation.