Never mind the quality, feel the width

Back in the late 1960s there was a sitcom in the UK called “Never mind the quality, feel the width“: a quick trawl around YouTube will show why it’s poorly remembered.

However ropey the central conceit might have been, it was the title of the programme itself that sprang to mind yesterday, as I walked into an elephant trap of a discussion with students and colleagues.

It’s the time of year when lots of coursework is due, and there had been some queries about whether the word counts the School puts on coursework included the bibliography and footnotes. Thus, I sent out an email to all taught course students with the following:

“1) The School of Politics has always including all text in its word limits (i.e. including bibliography and footnotes).
2)       However, it has also never applied a specific penalty for over- or under-long submissions (i.e. there is no ‘10% rule’): the word count is indicative, not prescriptive.
3)       Instead, the School operates on a rule of reason, namely that there should be a good reason for over- or under-long submissions. Typically, work that is not close to the required length suffers from other problems that do incur penalties. For example, short submissions often lack sufficient scope or depth of development, while long submissions often lack sufficient focus. You may have a reason to miss the word count appreciably, in which case you should talk with the module leader.”

I thought this was all rather clear: that we care about getting work that is good, rather than work that is of a specific length. To my mind, this should make intuitive sense, in that the module leader sets work that can be addressed fully in the given word count, but to which they are likely to be multiple ways of approaching the subject, in turn creating a range of coursework lengths.

However, the email seems to have caused more confusion. On students’ side, they had a variety of understandings of the situation (in part because practice is not uniform across the institution) and so, when confronted with my email, the difference with their understandings caused some anxiety. This despite my message that our policy was one of flexibility, not rigidity. Consequently, I have had to reassure several students since then that they are not going to be penalised.

For my part, it has demonstrated that even permissive systems need to be communicated and explained to users: students might reasonably make assumptions in the absence of other information.

The wider point from all this is that we have to be alive to the creation of ambiguity. Sometimes, that ambiguity is a positive choice, driven by a desire to create a space for differences of opinion and/or critical discourses (indeed, much of political science is precisely about this). But sometimes ambiguity is an accident and attacks the underpinnings of learning environments. At the very least, we need to understand that distinction.