Beware of ‘the aye been’

Common ridingThe observance of tradition is an important part of many cultures, but it can sometimes act as a powerful force against change.

In the Scottish Borders, where I grew up and have returned to fairly recently, people talk about ‘the aye been’. (Used in this way the Scots word ‘aye’ means ‘always’, so ‘aye been’ means ‘it’s always been this way’.)

‘Aye been’ means reverence towards the customs and traditions of the past, but I think it goes further than that. ‘Aye been’ is sometimes offered as an explanation for why things can’t or shouldn’t change in the future, even when these changes would arguably be beneficial or necessary. (Examples of ‘ayebeenism’ can be found in realms as disparate as ecologically sustainable farming and football coaching.)   It seems to have an unquestionable, almost supernatural power over some people.

By the way I’m not saying that the Borders is the only place where such attitudes exist, in Scotland or elsewhere. But ‘aye been’ does seem to have a notable amount of discursive power there. (‘A favourite Borders phrase that encapsulates the sometimes fierce conservatism of the area’, according to one reviewer of the work of that great ayebeenist, Sir Walter Scott.)

In the research for my MSc dissertation (which is looking at online exams in higher education), one of the themes I’m noticing is people’s inclination to take certain things as a given, including the assumption that they have to maintain lines of equivalence between new and previous assessment practices. For example, they might assume that an online exam has to ask exactly the same questions as a pen-and-paper equivalent, and be subject to exactly the same conditions and regulations (e.g. controlling access to course materials or notes).

Breaking off from previous practices – particularly for something as highly visible as summative assessment – is rightly seen as a high-risk activity by universities. But if we tacitly accept the limitations of old practices by not questioning them when we develop new systems do we create them anew, thereby stunting our ambitions? Do we cheat ourselves out of future possibilities when we show too much respect for the past?

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