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The adventure of going to class with little idea of how many students there will be.

“Classes” I said because I seldom give lectures and for years I have managed to ignore the distinction from the 19th Century, enshrined at the University of Sydney, between lectures and tutorials. My classes are mostly discussions, and not always led by me. (Perhaps I will say more about method later.) It is easy enough in a small theory unit with an enrolment of 40-50. (Though I have had some students rigidly resist this approach – on that more later.) For those interested in the stage machinery, to date I have been able to schedule double hour classes twice a week. So I have four hours and the norm is to use about 75-90 minutes each time so that students get the three hours of class contact. No doubt all of this is against a rule someone in the Chancellery has written, will write, or would like to write. Since the denizens of the Chancellory only have dusty memories of teaching, rule writing will be free of any authentic experience. Memories being just that, the parts we remember.

Getting back to GOVT 2601 in 2005, it was in the second semester, starting in July. I well remember the first day of class. Class lists at the University of Sydney are a thing of wonder. I had one with about 50 names on it and I had prepared name tags for the students whose names I had, though experience suggested an error margin of our management information system of 50% (image if Qantas Airlines had a 50% error margin in passenger reservations!). Before heading to the class room, I checked the blackboard web site to make sure all was well there. I looked at the students enrolled on it. Gulp! They numbered more than 75! I went into a spin! I dashed down stairs to the Government office and asked Maria to photocopy more copies of the syllabus. I thought about trying to knock out name tags but it was fifteen minutes from show time. I was confused, upset, and even angry (I don’t know why because this has happened to me before so I should expect it and act accordingly.) But then when I realized there was nothing else I could do before the class, I relaxed a bit and thought it would be great to have that many students starting out in political theory.

No sooner did I have this pleasant thought then I hit the class room, MLR3, a room I prefer – flat floor and seats about 80 at a maximum. I entered to find about 50 students. It was an anti-climax. The 50% error rule applied. Twenty-five were the class list and the other twenty-five were not.

I did try to investigate the discrepancy but got fobbed off but the blackboard administrator. I had never had this trouble with blackboard before or since. The 50% error margin I referred to was in the names not the number on class lists. If the list has 50 names, 25 of those names will be there and the other 25 will also be there whose names are not on the list. In pre-blackboard days I did have wildly erroneous class lists, of course, showing thirty names and finding sixty people in the class room was common. This is what you would expect from a 1, 5, 50 university. See the University of Sydney web site for an explanation of this mantra.

It occurs to me that not all readers will know what blackboard is. It is an e-learning platform. Those who used both blackboard and WebCT say that blackboard is easier to use, so naturally the University of Sydney went for WebCT. Only we rebels in the Faculty of Economics went and stayed with blackboard. Here’s the link to cut-and-paste into the browser to find out more. http://www.blackboard.com/us/index.Bb
Now the two corporations have merged, what will happened next?

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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