Archive for May 2014

Experiencing a nasty turn

May 26, 2014

I’d like you to read the following passage, but I feel I should warn you that it may be a distressing experience:

‘Based on constructivist epistemology, the linguistic turn puts forward a conception of history as a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality (White, 1987). Textualism presumes that whatever is taken as the real is constituted by representation rather than pre-exists any effort to grasp it in thought, imagination, or writing.’

The passage is taken from an article by an American social scientist, entitled ‘Introducing the “linguistic turn” to history education’. But what does it mean? I am not querying the academic prowess of the author; indeed I am deliberately not naming him or her because I am not trying to make an ad personam point; countless other academics write in similar style.

I came across this passage recently when I was referred to it by another scholar. I could not make out what the author was intending to say; I couldn’t even work out what ‘turn’ meant in this context. Indeed much of the article was, to me at least, completely impenetrable. But when I asked a former colleague what he thought of it, he assured me that you could not hope to be published unless you used this kind of style; anything easily accessible would be considered an example of dumbing down.

It is not just that the extract is hard to understand, it also displays a penchant for Romance verbiage. This includes ‘constructivist’, ‘epistemology’, ‘conception’, ‘textualist’, ‘reality’, ‘constituted’ and so forth. One of the  five rules suggested by Henry Watson Fowler in his classic book The King’s English was that writers should prefer Saxon to Romance words, and that their style should be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid’. Much of today’s academic output, particularly in some disciplines, has turned all of that on its head and has gone all out for inaccessibility and complexity. Too much writing leans heavily on jargon and on the apparent belief that knowledge is the property of a cult.

Nobody is suggesting that you can publish a worthwhile academic treatise on quantum mechanics in text that anyone could understand. But history education does not need to be presented as a form of quantum mechanics. There is no need to create and deploy a secret language that uses complex codes. Accessibility does not betray an aversion to critical thought. It is time to bust the jargon.

Where will the world’s leading universities be?

May 20, 2014

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The recent recession, which may now at last be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also leave a significant legacy, and this time it is higher education that may see some of the major changes. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we don’t just discover where to find higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Many presume that the position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. Not just China (which has been investing huge sums in its universities), but also Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are taking aggressive steps to give their universities a chance of global recognition. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. For some time now the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, has been under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise.

However, I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education, even if they may find themselves sharing the limelight a little more with universities from Asia. But in Europe? The signs are not necessarily that great. Even the new U-Multirank ranking system that has been devised in Europe (with the hope held in some quarters that it would return more European universities in the top places) still shows American universities leading the field. To change this, countries in this part of the world need to show ambition and vision in their higher education policies. If they don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time.

Another Newcastle

May 14, 2014

Readers of this blog will know that I am a supporter of Newcastle United FC, with all the ups and downs associated with that particular interest.

Newcastle is of course more than a football club. The city is interesting in all sorts of ways. Earlier this month my son and I visited the city to watch the last home game of the season in St James’ Park. To our surprise and delight Newcastle actually won the game. But I also used the opportunity to take some photos in the city, and these are below. On this occasion I had forgotten to bring any of my cameras, so what you see below was taken with my iPhone.

Hotel Beehive

Hotel Beehive

Newcastle Cathedral

Newcastle Cathedral

Newcastle alleyway

Newcastle alleyway

Central Arcade

Central Arcade

Time to retire the sage on the stage?

May 13, 2014

For centuries universities in the west have based their learning methods on the lecture. The concept is simply enough: a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic. Students take notes. Then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer’s approach to the subject, and maybe add some analysis or commentary if they dare. And if all of that works well, the student gets a degree.

Of course a good deal of lecturing is better than that, but some isn’t. Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don’t turn up at these events at all. Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible (in terms of design and furnishing) lecture theatres. But is that justified?

A recent study in the United States has again called into question the usefulness of the lecture. It revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a high failure rate and learn less effectively. This does not mean that teaching large classes is always bad, but rather than various ‘active learning’ and participation techniques will create a better pedagogical setting. This could include the use of technology, or breaking into smaller groups for more interactive discussions.

In reality many lecturers will already employ interactive learning techniques, even in large lecture classes. However, it is perhaps time to look again at how useful the lecture really is. Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information. But it can also be asked whether a theatre-style lecture room is what is needed as we make use of newly gained pedagogical insights, and whether new academic buildings should contain such facilities at all. It is time to ask whether lecturers really should, well, lecture.

Refreshing the mind

May 6, 2014

A few months ago I visited  a well known company and was struck by some of the facilities they maintain for their employees. One of these was a darkened room in which there were recliner seats where people could go to take a nap. The idea is, I was told, that they re-emerge from the room refreshed and tackle their work with much greater vigour.

This approach has now also been adopted by a university: the University of Michigan has introduced ‘napping stations’ in their library, consisting of beds and pillows. This is intended to allow students to take a break and overcome the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

It will be interesting to observe how these napping stations are used and what the impact is, assuming this can be properly assessed. It seems to me that there may be scope more generally to look again at how institutions can provide facilities that allow both staff and students to seek refreshment and a break from routine – particularly if this enhances creativity.