Archive for March 2014

How do we know what we know?

March 24, 2014

While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?


March 22, 2014

Aa some readers of this blog will have gathered, I am a technophile. I love gadgets, and in particular am fully immersed in the digital world. I read my newspapers on the iPad, and I have goodness knows how many ebooks and electronically stored documents and reports. But I have not completely left the analogue world, nor will I. So for example, whenever I read, in ebook form, a book I really like, then I buy it in hard copy, indeed preferably hardback if available. And in my family home in Ireland, I have a very large collection of contemporary and vintage books, several thousand by now.

I love books. I like the look, the feel, the smell. In older books, I love the knowledge of the procession of people who have read them through the ages. I also own some books printed in the 19th century or earlier that were never read – the pages were still joined together until I cut them. I love the sense that these leather bound volumes were prepared by some craftspeople 200 years ago to be read by me now, for the first time.

So here you can see a small selection of my books from one particular shelf: 19th century travel guides. They are a particular pleasure to read, and in this case, as you can see, they were much used long before I got to them. They are the inherited appreciation of the world we can visit.

travel guides

travel guides

Mind the gap

March 18, 2014

When I was a younger lecturer, most of my students had come to university directly from school. A much smaller number came by different routes: some were mature students seizing a chance to do a university course they had never anticipated doing, and some came to their studies from a so-called ‘gap year’. Typically this latter group came from a more privileged social background. At the time I always enjoyed the particular outlook and approach of mature students, but those who had enjoyed gap years also sometimes had an interesting and more considered outlook on their studies. Of course not everyone could do this; usually it required better off and maybe somewhat indulgent parents.

Now a small number of universities in the United States are experimenting with this phenomenon, and are specifically targeting students from poorer backgrounds. Tufts University for example are offering to fund a gap year for such students by paying for housing, travel and fees. A spokeswoman for the university explained that ‘it’s about providing an experience that up until now has been largely confined to students from more economically privileged backgrounds’.

Will this catch on, and indeed, should it? It’s a difficult question to answer, because more generally the demographics of higher education have changed, as have the expectations of some students as to when in their lives they will do their degree studies. But for those who still travel through the education highway in one unbroken journey, the possibility of a break in the form of a gap year may be interesting. Whether it is affordable, from the university’s point of view, may be another matter; or at least affordable beyond funding a small token number. But this American experiment does remind us that the patterns and expectations of the student experience continue to change.

Just play the game, you’ll figure out the rules as you go along

March 16, 2014

Guest post by Dr Emily Beaumont, an early career academic at Plymouth University, UK.  You can find her also at or @EmilyFBeaumont (Twitter)

Anybody who has had the above statement (in the title of this post) thrown at them before a card game will know that despite the enjoyment of playing the game, they will have to spend a significant amount of time figuring out and understanding the rules.

This is my fourth year of working in academia as an early career academic. I’ve enjoyed every minute (well nearly every minute) of my experience so far yet I still feel I’m trying to figure out the rules of a well-established game. There are rules you learn early on such as ‘Don’t underestimate the value of the administrative staff’, ‘Don’t let your research slip as you become overwhelmed with teaching’ and ‘Don’t immediately say yes to taking over somebody’s place on a committee’. I didn’t know about this later rule until it was too late: I currently sit on six committees. Then there are those rules which creep in and surprise you, just as you think you’ve grasped them all; ‘Keep every email’, ‘Always take your external examiner out to a decent restaurant’ and ‘Network, network, network!’

Yet despite losing a round here and there to inexperience, when you’re playing a game you’re ultimately still smiling and having fun. Which in academia can’t be bad and in due course aids collegiality. However as I continue on my early career academic journey I take advice from no other than Albert Einstein:

‘You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.’

Subject choices in higher education

March 11, 2014

What is the key driver of student choice when it comes to choosing a degree programme? Well, there probably isn’t one key driver, but any list of the top five or so would have to include this: whatever you’ve just read in the newspapers. When I became President of Dublin City University in 2000 the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was roaring, and driving the boom was the IT sector, and in particular the software industry. So back then everyone wanted to study computing, including those with no visible talent for information technology beyond being able to browse the web. Shortly afterwards the bubble burst, and the next thing we knew was that demand for computing and electronic engineering collapsed; and for years it did not recover, despite the well-publicised evidence of huge skills shortages and high value vacancies in the industry.

For the next few years everyone wanted to do some course of relevance to the construction industry, as Ireland’s building sector was booming. Then came the recession and the crisis in the industry, and suddenly nobody wanted to study architecture, surveying or civil engineering. And now we hear that these courses have once again taken off, as news emerges of growth in construction and higher house prices.

These phenomena are not at all unique to Ireland. In the North-East of Scotland, where the oil industry dominates the local economy, it has been hard to get young people to go for a career in an industry that some media reports claim is in decline (which it isn’t). However that industry has a major shortage of skilled employees, and will have for years to come.

The reasons for all of this are of course complex, but one question one has to ask is how good the advice is that students get when making their choices. It seems not to occur to some of those offering guidance or taking decisions (often parents) that today’s news is irrelevant to a choice that will produce no actual employment decisions for another few years, by which time everything will probably have changed. Students should, on the whole, go for the subjects they feel they would enjoy learning; and those offering them guidance should remember that almost all trends are transient, that we know very little now about tomorrow’s jobs, and that the value of the knowledge, skills and values taught in a course will almost always out-last the ups and downs of any particular sector of the economy.

The undoubted grandeur of really bad poetry

March 11, 2014

There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.

McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

And who could fail to be moved by his account of the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, or not be impressed by his ability to explain complex (and tragic) engineering issues:

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

And of course nobody could fail to be persuaded by the sound common sense of those last two lines.

McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:

Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.

In these current challenging times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again. And while he may have hoped that his heart might be patronised by the Queen, we shall certainly do no patronising here.

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

Recognising hard work in higher education

March 4, 2014

OK, I shall tell this as it is. One of the most galling experiences of any university leader (or at least of this one) is to be told that academics lead an easy life and are under no pressure to work hard. It is a miserably resilient piece of horse shit, that is spread around society like manure, but of the kind that clogs the system rather than nourish it.

Those who work in universities, on the whole still, enjoy more flexible terms, meaning that they have some discretion as to how to organise their working lives. That just about still exists. But mostly, this discretion is exercised by academics (and also other university staff) in taking on far more than they should. It is a job in which you will find yourself working at any hour of the day or night. In my university it is known that I do most of my emailing at night, and I often worry that some might feel under pressure to respond at such times; I hope they know there is no such expectation. But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave? And how many professionals elsewhere have to take on the chin ‘witty’ suggestions that they have five months annual holidays when they know that, if they are lucky, they’ll take three weeks?

Some years ago, in another university for which I then worked as a Dean, I recruited a young woman who had decided she would leave a very busy legal practice to become an academic, so she would have a fighting chance of seeing more of her children. Two years later she returned to the legal practice because she found her academic work was far more stressful; and this has got much worse since then.

Not every university lecturer is perfect of course. But there are many documented accounts of how the pressures of academic work affect people’s lives and, sometimes, their health. And yet, few lecturers are pleading for major change, though they may be hoping for something more sensible. But perhaps a good start would be for society to acknowledge that we have created a higher education world in which people fulfil what others might regard as unreasonable expectations, and that they deserve some recognition and respect for it. That would not be everything, but it would be a good start.