Archive for August 2008

Ireland and America – the future

August 11, 2008

For the past week or so, this blog has been coming to you from the United States of America. For many years now, I have been a regular traveller to the States, both on business and vacation. During that time, some subtle changes have been taking place in the relations between both countries. Of course, a very substantial proportion of the American people have, or believe they have, an Irish heritage, and one of the consequences has been a strong engagement by them in Irish issues. This was at its most active during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s. It would be fair to say that US interest and support helped secure the peace in Ulster.

Ironically, the end of the Troubles moved Ireland off the radar a little for many Americans. In addition, the prosperity which followed the Celtic Tiger also meant that Ireland was a much less obvious recipient for US generosity and financial support. And on top of that again, the same prosperity has resulted in what is more or less the end of mass emigration from Ireland, so that a new generation of Irish Americans with direct experience of the home country is not being formed in the same way as before. This has led some to conclude that the strong ties between both countries will inevitably be loosened over the years ahead.

Maybe they will. But it has to be aid that US interest in Ireland has been a very important part of Ireland’s success, and it will continue to be needed if that success is to be sustainable. The Celtic Tiger was nurtured through American investment in Irish industry, and while we must accept that some of that investment will move elsewhere in the global economy, we must try to ensure that the conditions are right for attracting new interest. It is in this context that the higher education sector in Ireland is so important a point made also by the then US Ambassador to Ireland in 2005 in an interview.

In the future, it will be much harder for us to persuade American investors that Ireland can provide the optimal environment for manufacturing plants and call centres – we are not as low cost a location as we used to be. However, as some recent investment decisions have shown, we can still persuade our US friends and partners that we have some critical mass in knowledge intensive areas, with a strong research performance that will provide a perfect home for R&D, and highly skilled people trained to PhD level in sufficient numbers. For Ireland to avoid the risk of recession, investment in universities is a critical condition; any ambivalence could have hugely detrimental consequences.

For the Irish universities, it is also important that we continue to develop direct links with US businesses and universities, so that a knowledge partnership between both countries is seen to be growing. My university actively pursues such links constantly, and we have joint research teams with both industry and higher education partners in the States.

In the overall matter of Irish-American relations, I am an optimist. I believe that Irish-American links will continue to grow. But we need to work at it. And I am sure we will.

F*** the expletives!

August 9, 2008

When the television series Father Ted was first broadcast in the 1990s, it proved life-changing for a friend of mine. An academic in her 50s, she had always avoided any swear words or other expletives. For those who might not have come across it, Father Ted was a totally crazy (but very funny) series, featuring the exploits of some entirely dysfunctional Catholic priests on an island off the Irish coast. One of the priests, Father Jack (past his most agile mental state) liked to shout out a string of expletives, starting with ‘Feck!’ – an Irish adaptation of the internationally more familiar ‘F***!’ Anyway, my (English) academic friend suddenly decided that ‘feck’ wasn’t a real swear word and that she could properly use it – and from that moment on her language was suddenly peppered with ‘fecks’ at every available opportunity. She infected her students, and whole classes of that generation were overheard telling each other to ‘feck off’, and referring to ‘fecking’ this and ‘fecking’ that.

They would probably have felt quite at home in Dublin, where the F-word, with or without the local adaptation, is constantly in the air. So much so, that it has almost ceased to be an expletive or a swear word, it is just a filler. I was sitting next to a group on a public transport vehicle recently, and literally every sentence had one or more F-words; until one of the group accidentally banged his head, and as he shouted out in pain for the first time since he came within earshot he didn’t use the F-word – it was too normal a word for him to serve as an expletive.

I confess that I can very occasionally be overheard using the F-word, usually for deliberate effect. And in fact, I take the view that swearing can have a purpose. Some studies suggest that the judicious use of swearing can have a positive psychological impact and relieve stress. But I suspect that this is lost entirely if swearing is just a verbal tick that is peppered through a conversation with no meaning at all.

So maybe we need to think again about the language that is used in popular conversation. Maybe we need to encourage a more judicious use of expletives. In fact, F*** all this swearing!


PS – For those who might want to hear Father Jack in full fecking form, you can get some extracts here.

Spelling – should we care?

August 8, 2008

Every so often the question is asked – as it was in the Guardian newspaper this week – whether university teachers should worry about their students’ spelling when marking exams and assignments. This is part of the more general debate which occasionally emerges about the rules of orthography in English. Put succinctly, the question is this: are spelling rules for English so bizarre that we should just abandon them, either allowing a free-for-all or introducing a structured reform of spelling?

The problem with English is the sheer complexity of standard spelling, and its often irrational nature. The spelling of any individual word can be governed by any number of things: its linguistic root, its sound, an historical association, and so forth. But these criteria are not applied consistently to different words, and this produces a bewildering array of spellings for similar sounding words, together with an array of rules that nobody can explain any more. This is sometimes illustrated with words that rhyme but whose spelling is radically different: ‘though’ and ‘go’, ‘their’ and ‘hair’, ‘weir’ and ‘fear’, ‘night’ and ‘quite’. And what is the ‘k’ doing in ‘knife’, or the ‘l’ in ‘palm’?

The argument therefore sometimes goes that English spelling needs major reform, simplifying the complex rules and making spelling much more intuitive in line with phonetic principles. American spelling, it could be argued, has made a start (turning ‘plough’ into ‘plow’, for example), albeit a very modest one. Other languages have done this, and continue to do it. Both French and German spelling has been reformed from time to time.

However, this is not as easy as it might appear to be. These days, nobody knows who ‘owns’ English. It is hardly the property of England alone, and even if it were, who in England is in charge of this? And if someone turned up claiming to have jurisdiction, who would pay any attention in the dozens of countries where English has some official status, and the many others where it is widely spoken?

But beyond that, until someone can be found to effect a reform of orthography in an effective manner, should we attach any significance to bad spelling in documents or, in the education system, in exams or assignments? The basic argument in favour of not caring is that misspelt words don’t matter if the meaning is clear. But the counter-argument is that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking to many readers and undermines the persuasiveness of the document. 

Then it may of course be that the suggestion that spelling doesn’t matter is a comfort to the many people who are no longer secure in their own spelling ability. Maybe this whole debate is pointless – maybe the complexity of English has already overwhelmed its speakers. Or maybe the time has come to give proper attention to the rules of spelling and grammar, both in order to apply them and, where appropriate and possible, to reform them.

University strategies

August 7, 2008

Ten years ago, when I was a Faculty Dean there, the University of Hull adopted what it called a ‘Corporate Plan’. This was not the university’s first strategic plan strictly speaking. Like all universities in the UK, it was obliged by funding council rules to produce regular strategic documents, but in reality these documents were not strategic plans: they were drafted by someone working in the university’s administration and nodded through by one or two committees; their rather lengthy content essentially set out what the university was doing and what it was already committed to doing under a variety of headings. Nobody in the wider university community was really aware of these successive plans, and certainly no strategic or resourcing discussions were informed by them.

Ten years ago, there was a slight change of procedure in Hull: a working group was established to consider whatever draft plan might emerge, and I was made a member as the representative of the Faculty Deans. A draft plan duly emerged and we had a meeting to discuss it. The draft was very long, and was divided into several sections, each dealing with the key elements of university business: teaching, research, physical infrastructure, and so forth. The discussion, as I recall, was not animated and mainly focused on fairly minor adjustments to the text. When I was invited to comment, I suggested that the whole approach was wrong: strategy was not about trying to describe existing plans and commitments, it was about creating a vision and setting out a framework for prioritisation and action. A plan should use language that was accessible to a wider audience but that would also energise and motivate the university community, and it should be much shorter. The result of these discussions was that, on this occasion, the University of Hull adopted a plan that was quite different from the previous norm.

What I was able to learn from this process influenced my approach to planning in Dublin City University after I became President in 2000. My major hope was that we would have strategic documents that would avoid too much detail and would look to the future in terms that would allow the university to prioritise its decisions on resource allocation, and also tell a story to external partners and stakeholders that would persuade them to back us. While this was still a learning experience – and in particular it was a while before we had a fully effective implementation programme – I believe that the last two DCU strategic plans have had a major impact on how planning is seen in the Irish university sector.

The problem with university strategies is that they have to address the balance between the need for an overall organisational purpose and direction on the one hand, and the need to respect academic autonomy on the other. This is a very difficult balance to get right, but unless it is got right the whole planning concept cannot work. But in all sorts of vital contexts, including the need to be successful in bids for competitive funding, the ability to demonstrate that the university as a whole has a coherent strategic direction and that it will be able to reflect that in prioritising the allocation of its resources (including the ability to withdraw resources where appropriate) is a condition for success.

At one of the very first meetings of Irish university Presidents that I ever attended I suggested that we should all issue a joint statement on an issue then (and now) of vital interest to the university sector. One of the other Presidents declared that he would not be able to declare, on behalf of his university, what its policy was on this issue (or actually on any issue), because there would be no consensus in his university that it should have any overall university-wide policy on anything. Strategy was a matter solely for the departments. We have come some way since then, and I doubt that any of the Presidents would say that now. But there is still a not yet fully developed shared understanding of what a strategy should look like in a university or across the sector.

DCU will be adopting a new strategic plan towards the end of 2008 to follow the last strategy, Leadership through Foresight. The new strategic plan is likely to be short, to contain a small number of key objectives with metrics that will guide implementation, and will address both university and national needs and trends. One of my hopes is that we will receive help from the wider public in the planning process, and I shall certainly be interested in a wide range of views and suggestions as this unfolds. My email address is

The Amazon Kindle – some first thoughts

August 6, 2008

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently taken possession of an Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Initially it arrived with me while I was still in Ireland, and so it is worth mentioning a significant limitation for all non-US users: its functionality is severely limited outside America. In particular, it cannot be used to download e-books from the Amazon Kindle store online; that can only be done in the US and if you are using a US credit card with a US address. Therefore if you have no access to such a payment method, the only e-books you will be able to instal on the device are free ones with an Amazon Kindle format, or with a compatible non-Kindle format (mainly non-secure Mobipocket). Or to be more precise, you will be downloading only the classics or similar books, which can be found easily enough for free. For example, I downloaded the complete works of Shakespeare and pretty much all of the novels by Charles Dickens.

As I am currently in the US for a few days, I have been able to expand the functionality significantly. Using my American credit card I have now been able to stock up the device with recent releases and other books of interest, so that I should have enough to read for quite some time. My downloads have included two novels by Anita Shreve and one by Sue Miller, a book on modern European history and another on science and religion.

As for using the Kindle to read, on the whole my experience is positive. On the plane I read about two hundred pages of a novel by Anthony Trollope (Phineas Finn), and didn’t find the method of reading too irritating. One small gripe: you ‘turn the pages’ by pressing a bar on the right of the screen, and I have found that it is easy to make a careless movement and move the page on before you are ready; you then have to turn back, which requires you to push a smaller bar on the left. But the ‘page’ looks good, and the print is easy to read.

But despite this on the whole positive experience, I cannot say that it altogether ‘feels’ the same as reading a book on paper. The aesthetic pleasure of holding the book, feeling its texture and turning its pages is still somehow special, and is not really replicated totally on the Kindle. I suspect that in future releases the device will become thinner, and more imaginative ways still will be found to create a ‘cover’ that gives it more of a book’s look and feel. But it is not a bad start all the same, and I don’t regret the purchase. Why the Kindle hasn’t been released in Europe beats me, or why European users of the current model released in America are so restricted; maybe that can be addressed soon by Amazon.

So would I recommend the Kindle? Yes, I think I would. But I would suggest that it is used as a back-up for situations where taking hard copy books is not an easy option, rather than as the primary method of reading. And of course, there are other e-book readers out there, some more easily available outside the US.

The appliance of science

August 5, 2008

This blog is coming to you from the United States of America. Over the past 24 hours I have shared in what is, these days, the air traveller’s standard experience: the sheer misery of overcrowded airports, flight delays and cramped conditions in the plane. Maybe a reflection for another time. But the delay in Newark airport – over several hours – allowed me to sit in front of a TV screen and watch C-SPAN. If there is one thing that marks out America for me as a mature political society, it’s C-SPAN – and I say that not only because I was once featured on it.

Today I was able to watch Barack Obama on the channel, somewhere in Michigan, setting out his stall on energy policy. But what struck me most in his comments was his commitment to significant funding for science research, as the basis for innovation that will alleviate energy problems and global warming. Innovation needs to be funded and supported – as the US has always recognised. It is to be hoped that our own approach to innovation will show a similar understanding and determination, not just in research, but also in the educational activities that produce the qualified people who can do the research later; and that we will remain consistent in less certain economic times.

Solving the major environmental, health and social problems is not just about saying things in a determined manner – it is about understanding that what Science Faculties do in universities will often be applied to intractable technological and scientific problems – and that is where our future lies. And moreover, that is what will persuade global companies to continue to invest here.

Common courtesies

August 2, 2008

I confess you may find this to be another of those posts on this blog that show me to be some ghastly middle-aged traditionalist. But here I go anyway.

This morning, as I was about to leave a shop, I saw an elderly man with a walking stick who was about to enter; so I stood back and held the door open for him. He walked past and grunted something, perhaps to me and perhaps not; and a couple of teenage girls who were watching had a fit of giggles.

And these days, almost every day of the week at some point I will see a group of youths, usually young men, standing around verbally molesting passers by.

Of course none of these phenomena are unique to our age, and as I have pointed out in other contexts, those who believe that there was once a golden age (whatever that may have been) are deluding themselves. But for all that, I do wonder whether the concept of ‘manners’ has peculiarly disappeared from our social environment at this point in history. As a young boy I went to a boarding school, and every menu for our meals had the words at the foot of the page, ‘manners maketh man’ (sorry, that was not yet an inclusive age in terms of gender). And then, some years later when I was studying for my driving test, the state-published booklet setting out driving theory began with the statement that at the heart of all good driving were the three ‘C’s: ‘care’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘consideration’.

If I bemoan the fact (if it is a fact) that we have lost a sense of manners, it is not because I am yearning to be treated with the respect due to my great age, or that I have some sort of old-fashioned desire for Victorian primness – though there is an interesting analysis of Victorian manners in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996). Rather, it is because I believe that manners and courtesy are part of the glue that allows us to have communities with a sense of community spirit. The basic premise of the idea of a community is that we feel concern for and solidarity with others; and it is hard to generate that condition if on the whole our attitude and behaviour towards others is one of contempt or even just disregard.

On the other hand, manners and courtesy will seem counter-intuitive to people if we do not provide them with the social infrastructures into which these concepts can fit easily. If we maintain local communities without social spaces and supports and without opportunities for young people in particular to make social contributions we cannot be surprised if people discover a sense of fun experienced on the back of other people’s discomfort. Society needs to get people’s respect, but it also needs to earn it. And if someone of my generation wants to be shown respect by today’s youth, we also need to show them respect.

My fear at the moment is that we treat ‘manners’ as some sort of outdated practice that we should now regard as vaguely embarrassing. We need to find a way back from that position, but perhaps we also need to foster a better understanding of what society – and community – really is.


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