Archive for November 2011

The power of love, law… and Facebook

November 4, 2011

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design University of Dundee

Here is a story that caught my attention recently.

As most of us are aware the condition of women in Saudi Arabia is far from ideal, to put it mildly; they are not allowed to drive a car, to make certain decisions such as travelling, getting married or having medical treatment without the agreement of their male guardian (father or brother). In the last of his reports from Saudi Arabia, Edward Stourton – to my mind one of the best BBC foreign correspondents – interviewed Samar Badawi and her husband.

Samar’s story began when she was 14 years old. It was then that her mentally ill and drug addict father started to beat her. Although she had a job and was the only source of income there was no end to the abuse she was suffering so she decided to take refuge in a family rescue center and file a legal case against her father. The case lasted two years during which the father also filed a case against Samar on the grounds of her ‘disobedience’. Not surprisingly Samar lost the case and was faced with a difficult choice: either to go back to her father’s house or to go to jail. Samar, supported by her lawyer (later to become her husband) decided to go to jail, a difficult but perfectly understandable decision, wasn’t the father’s house a jail?

At this point Samar’s lawyer tried all the available legal avenues in order to free her, but to no avail. After seven months he thought that maybe where the law was impotent Facebook and Twitter could do better. So a social network campaign to free Samar started and after only six days Samar was free! For the happy ending to be complete, though, Samar’s lawyer still had to file a law suit against his bride’s-to-be father in order to force him to give his permission for their marriage; the law was on his side this time.

Asked whether all the suffering had been worth it, both Samar and her husband/lawyer were adamant. Throughout their ordeal they were determined to show that the system could be beaten and that their example might help others in a similar situation. I was particularly moved by this story, not only because it is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit but also because in our (often patronising) commentary of events in the Middle East – the struggle for democracy, for a secular society, for human (women) rights – we often lose sight of the comparative dimension. Such contemporary events should be a reminder of our own struggles, of our own suffering, and in the case of women, of the ‘pater familias’ tradition which until a few decades ago made it impossible for women to open a bank account or buy a house under their own name.

Much has been written in the media about the role that digital technology, mobile phones and social networks (Facebook, Twitter) have had in supporting the ‘Arab Revolution’ and I don’t wish to rehearse here the pros and cons; what I found interesting and somewhat ironic about Samar’s story was the fact that Facebook, born in a university dorm for sexist purposes, has served in this case (and in many others in the past) a more noble, liberating cause. It is exactly this power that we need to learn to harness for the benefit of us all.

The interview with Samar is still available at the time of writing.

The digital life, and nothing but?

November 4, 2011

I am writing this post from my office in my university. I am typing it into my iMac (Apple Macintosh). Sitting next to it is my iPad, which right now contains some 50 books and other materials; one of the iPad-resident books I am reading is on the future of higher education. If I look beyond my computing equipment to the wall opposite, there are two bookcases in which I have maybe 250 books (I have rather more than that at home). Are these sources of reading in competition with each other, and if they are, which one will win in the end?

The digital ones will, if you follow the perspective of Salford University’s new digital campus at the MediaCity location. The director of this venture describes his facility as follows:

‘This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world.’

Some of this is at the heart of what we might call the knowledge world, since it extends beyond higher education. There is a school of thought in this world that just thinks digital: the school of MIT’s Media Labs, or of the new Salford venture. There are others who believe that this is all the work of devil, and that those who like digital products and processes are clearly philistines. The reality is probably somewhere in between. But the issue is more important than just a question of technology and platforms. It is about how we handle, disseminate and process knowledge. Digital technology gives us much greater choices, and I am certainly an avid user. But I don’t conclude from this that the world of books no longer has a use beyond aesthetically populating bookshelves. In the end, books are probably still the most durable source of data. I think.

The democratic academy?

November 1, 2011

As has been mentioned repeatedly in this blog, higher education has over recent years been under unprecedented pressure. This has been caused by a number of converging factors, including funding cuts, public criticism of standards, and internal criticism of organisational and managerial methods. Mostly the pressures have created an environment which has become less than happy for those working within it, but it has at least prompted a lively debate on what universities are actually for. But has this debate really answered any of our questions?

Today’s universities are often – and in my view correctly – seen as institutions that are essential for a thriving economy. But perhaps another key issue to reflect upon during these turbulent times is how universities either reinforce or undermine the values of democracy. Until fairly recently universities were the gatekeepers of economic and social privilege, while maintaining internal values of equality and democracy. Then, with the massification of higher education, universities became educational destinations for almost anyone in society with the intellectual talent, but internally they have increasingly been seen by some as being directed by a managerial class. What we may be experiencing right now is a growing separation between the top universities catering more and more for the privileged (described recently as ‘finishing schools for the elite’) and those without the same resources but a more representative student body.

How we arrange higher education is more than a matter of fine-tuning educational standards. It is about securing a better, more just, more open, more successful, more productive society. It is about having institutions that raise both educational and living standards and add to the development of culture and scholarship across society as a whole; but also about having institutions that organise themselves in a way that reflects those ideals.

We need an academy that doesn’t unnecessarily squander public money; but that is not the primary aim. We need to discover what we actually want the academy to be. As a society we have never really known that.

Is it a trend?

November 1, 2011

So what did the late Colonel Gadaffi of Libya never achieve, even as his régime was collapsing all around him and the eyes of the world were on the endgame there? Well, he never managed to ‘trend’ on Twitter. Actually it is likely that the reasons for this absence from the list was due to the large number of competing spellings the international media use for his name. Here I have called him Gadaffi, but other common versions have him as Gadafi, Gadaffy, Ghadafi, Gadhafi, and Qaddafi. Clearly if no two people could agree on the spelling of his name, then he’s not going to pick up the number of mentions in any one version that would allow him to start trending.

But what is trending? How some of the Twitter trends emerge is mysterious. For a few days last week the leading global topic was ‘#dontsupport‘, which allowed people simply to list things they didn’t like and find a global audience for their negative preferences. One person for example urged us all not to support ‘companies that support outsourcing’ (which at any rate is a serious proposition, though probably misguided); but mostly the guidance was rather more trivial. Then yesterday a trending topic was ‘#6HOURS‘, which baffled me until I saw that this was in some way connected with Justin Bieber; and there I have to say that despite my normal desire to be informed about whatever is in fashion, I have managed to avoid knowing anything about the said Mr Bieber except his name.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Justin Bieber – whatever it is he does – will out-trend Colonel Gadaffi. But then again, popular culture tells us something about ourselves and is itself worth knowing. We don’t need to find out about world events that way – there are other ways of doing that reliably – but we can learn a little more about what is exercising what politicians sometimes describe as ‘ordinary people’. By the way, right now they are concerned about ‘April Pratt’. I must find out who that is.


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