(james benedict brown) on the road


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 June, 2008

It’s done. After seven years, my little blue student card has expired. Not only have those tasty student discounts begun to evaporate, I can no longer get into the Arts Tower (or University Library) at weekends. But then on the plus side, I no longer have to carry a photograph of me taken when I was eighteen as proof of identity.


Snapshots: repairing the windows

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 June, 2008

A noisy afternoon in the studio. The sound of hacking and chiselling of concrete and plaster filled the room during a meeting earlier today, with a kind of physical weight and loudness that suggested something more than the usual source of noise around here (architecture students hacking something apart for a model).

Two workmen had come to fix a broken window on the south facade of the building. A crack had appeared in the single pain of the opening window a couple of months ago, causing some concern. A maintenance log was filed, and finally time and resources had been found to remove the broken window and replace it.

This being on the seventeenth floor, it was understandable it had taken some time to fix.

Not a job I plan to be applying for with my new found qualifications.

Snapshot: Crookes Valley Park, Sheffield

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 13 May, 2008

R u ready2Go upTempo?

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 March, 2008


After last week’s post about the University of Sheffield’s new corporate look, I was invited to speak at an open debate entitled Is the University of Sheffield School of Architecture sleep-walking into a culture of mediocrity? With a bit of help from Jay Lloyd we concentrated on the way in which our school and university presents themselves. As you can imagine, our views were forthright and heavily opinionated. That’s what happens when you’ve been at university this long.

To give credit to both the University of Sheffield and the School of Architecture, we have plenty of opportunity to express our opinion on academic services, the quality of teaching and the issues we face as students. And from time to time these opportunities include a free lunch. So busy is the Accommodation & Campus Services department, who provide on site catering for university departments hosting events, that I reckon if I could just keep up with their little delivery van I could probably eat a free lunch every day of the week. The expensive touch of the marketing gurus hasn’t been spared on the Accommodation & Campus Services department either. The usual sandwich, mini-quiche and nacho lunch came with a bag of beverage paraphernalia, attached to which was the label shown above. The person within our department who ordered our buffet lunch probably just asked for a buffet lunch for twenty people. But we got so much more. Oh yes, because we got a Ready2Go upTempo lunch experience.

Friday’s free lunch  Ready2Go upTempo buffet came with the opportunity to provide detailed feedback on the responses made by sixth year students to the National Student Survey, a rather vague consultation carried out online amongst final year students across the country. University officials get rather steamed up about this survey, as the results are published by department and can be compared against any other university in the country. Unfortunately, the fine line between accessibility has been hard to find. So afraid of students getting bored with a long questionnaire, the survey has been pared down to such woolly questions as:

I have been able to access general IT resources when I needed to: Definitely Disagree, Mostly Disagree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Mostly Agree, Definitely Agree.

The library resources and services are good enough for my needs: Definitely Disagree, Mostly Disagree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, Mostly Agree, Definitely Agree.

The very reason for the free lunch and feedback session is that the point scores produced by the survey tell the department virtually nothing about why the students answered the way that they did. And if we score 0.1 point less than another institution, people demand to know.

Those questions are cases in point. Extensive campus wireless has made my life phenomenally easier and more social: I can now work on electronic files at the same table as someone in my studio who is making a model. The departmental computer rooms are no longer grim places to spend late nights staring at the monitor, because with wireless I can use my own computer where I want and access university servers, printing services etc. But as a result in overspending elsewhere in the university, this year’s departmental budget was slashed, and the usual bi-annual upgrade of architecture department computer rooms was postponed. The postgraduate computer room in the University of Sheffield School of Architecture is now amongst the worst equipped I have seen of any architecture school, not just in the UK, but in the world. The flood of terminals throughout university computer rooms and the new Information Commons is great for Facebook-ing and downloading course notes, but useless for rendering complex 3D images.

Similarly, I am delighted with the superb architecture collection in the University of Sheffield library. We have a reasonable budget for buying books and adding journals, which if not always sufficient for our needs can at least be accessed by students; I’m proud to have been responsible for requesting at least a dozen books to be added to our collection. But while the collection is great, the environment in which it is kept is not. Speaking off-the-record (because who wants to get cited by a grumpy student blogger?) several members of staff within the university confirmed the same story about our collection’s struggle to remain a defined unit within the library.  The opening of the multi-million pound Information Commons (IC) heralded a shift in the provision of library services at the University of Sheffield. A handful of smaller (and therefore more expensive to maintain) libraries were closed and added to central collections. The bulk of undergraduate collections were then shifted to the IC, with postgraduate texts staying the Main Library, adjacent to the Arts Tower, where the Architecture Collection is based. The architecture department apparently received a call a year or two ago. The instruction was simple. Please set about dividing your architecture collection into two, so that the undergraduate texts can be sent to the IC, and the postgraduate texts can be kept in the Main Library. Whoever it was who answered the phone, put it down and laughed out loud. One of the most exciting aspects of studying architecture is that undergraduate and postgraduate students follow paths of study that frequently overlap. A librarian simply can’t determine whether a journal or monograph is only of interest to a postgrad or an undergrad, because the study of architecture sends us back to the same buildings and texts throughout our careers. And a first year student preparing an overview of a material and its properties will have just as much reason to research a construction method as a sixth year student preparing their thesis project. The concept of one library for undergraduates and one library for postgraduates depresses me to the point of pain. Not only because it neutralises the phenomenal interaction between levels of study, but because it downgrades undergraduate learning to a set of approved reading lists.

Thankfully, the architecture collection remained in one place, and still (phenomenally) in its own dedicated room. But with the opening of the IC, the architecture students are not a happy bunch. Staffed hours at the library have been cut to maintain services elsewhere (i.e. the all-singing-all-dancing IC, which is open twenty-four hours a day). So on Saturday and Sunday, my busiest work days, I can’t collect reservations or get collection information in the library until 14h00. When I asked a member of staff why this was, she shrugged her shoulders and said that if I wanted help before then, I’d have to go to the Information Commons. But what if I needed someone to collect a journal in the Main Library stacks? Well, I’d have to come back after 14h00, because “most students don’t get up before lunchtime at the weekend.”

I kid you not. First they kick you in the teeth, and then they patronise you.

The questions posed by the National Student Survey are interesting, and the results are always worth reading. But they simply don’t address the subtleties of student opinion on essential academic services. I’m grateful for the university for providing opportunities for me to express my opinion, but I’d be much happier to have the chance to give the survey much more specific information about my satisfaction with library collections and access to purchasing budgets, and to express my dissatisfaction with staffing levels (how else do you think the books get back on the shelves after being borrowed?) and opening hours of the real library branches (i.e. the ones with books and journals, not just twenty-four-seven study centres with key texts on three day loans).

So there’s my beef. But thanks for lunch anyway. Hopefully the university is as ready as I am to move things up tempo a bit.