Archive for June 2015

Doing it in style?

June 30, 2015

Most academics get to where they are without receiving professional advice. By that I mean, they may have mentors, departments heads, supervisors and all such helpful folk; but they won’t tend to turn to a professional consultant in planning or developing their careers. But there are such people, and one of them is Karen Kelsky, who runs the website The Professor Is In. There she advises people on interview techniques, on writing skills, on preparing for retirement, and other such matters.

She also offers advice on what to wear. In an article just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelsky makes suggestions on how to present yourself to greatest advantage at an academic interview. The article comes with photographs from what looks like a model shoot.

Am I sneering (as some academics might, I suspect)? Absolutely not. Kelsey remarks in her piece, with some understatement, that ‘academia doesn’t prioritise fashion’. It certainly doesn’t. And I’m not at all sure that this suggests integrity and seriousness of purpose, as some probably feel it does.

Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what has been called ‘erotic capital’ (a term originally coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’, and popularised by the British academic Catherine Hakim)?

The reality is that style is a form of communication. We are saying something when we dress, or when we decorate our homes, buy our cars, choose our coffee shops or bars. We may not be saying whatever it is we want to disseminate in our academic mission, but we are creating a background that will sometimes make people more or less open to our message. The academy has, I suspect, never quite worked out whether it accepts the legitimacy of packaging of any sort. But then again, the person in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches is also coming in a package; whether it is one that will help disseminate the message may be another matter.

My research says they’re out to get me

June 22, 2015

Here’s the kind of thing I really enjoy. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Russians are demanding an international inquiry on the NASA moon landings, because as we all know these never happened and were merely staged for gullible western television audiences. We know that because the the US flag planted by Neil Armstrong fluttered in a non-existent wind, there were clearly discernible studio lights, the ‘moon rock’ samples have disappeared: you get the idea.

It didn’t take the Russians to activate this particular conspiracy theory, it’s been around for years. In fact, the number of such theories is impressive, and there’s one to subvert every obvious historical fact you ever thought of. Napoleon was in fact a woman. The Second World War was just a staged show put up by international bankers. Aliens have landed all ver the planet and various secret agencies have suppressed the news. Elvis never died (well, that one’s credible). Princess Diana was murdered. The CIA staged the 9/11 attacks. You probably have your own favourite one.

But almost as resilient as the conspiracy theories are the theories about conspiracy theories. Earlier this year the University of Miami hosted a conference about the topic, with 36 presentations on various aspects of the phenomenon. The Leverhulme Tust and the University of Cambridge have conspired – oops, collaborated – on a project about conspiracy and democracy, with an eerily strange website. Overall, conspiracy theorists are thought to use different neurological methods of processing information from the rest of us, and the impact of their published suspicions can be significant: apparently most people believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

For myself, I find it really suspicious that the Miami conference was ‘not open to the public due to both space and catering considerations’. Really? Do they think we’re stupid?

The inevitable triumph of bad ideas?

June 15, 2015

The contemporary narrative of higher education leaves open a number of questions about how universities could or should develop. But there are certain assumptions that are, at least by implication, generally considered to be indisputable: that institutions must cut costs (and staff costs in particular); that technology will determine both pedagogy and education policy; that public money will be less and less important as a source of revenue.

Is this picture of the future of higher education inevitable? Joshua Kim, the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, thinks not. In an interesting blog post published by Inside Higher Education, he suggests that many of these assumptions are simply ‘bad ideas’ that we should reject.

Whether he is right or wrong about individual items in his list (and I for one don’t agree with him about all of them), it is clear that too much of higher education policy planning is based on an unwillingness to question current received wisdom, rather than on a considered view of what will happen or needs to happen. The rush towards MOOCs was an example of this phenomenon.

It is quite possible to argue that some of Dr Kim’s ‘bad ideas’ are not that bad. But the implication of his list – that nothing is right just because important people say it is – is sound. The critical driver of higher education policy, as indeed of all policy, should be evidence. No idea should be accepted as inherently right without further critical examination. Universities should live by the methods they teach.

Being disciplined

June 8, 2015

In an interesting comment on one of the posts from this blog, Dr Greg Foley (of my old university, DCU) argued as follows:

‘My view is that when people are immersed in a discipline and they gradually acquire the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline, they acquire the ability and the confidence to become critical thinkers – in that discipline. To extend that critical thinking ability into other realms requires further study to gain the requisite discipline-specific knowledge and skill.’

In fact, how we address disciplines, and the extent to which we allow, encourage or insist on ‘interdisciplinarity’ has become one of the major questions of higher education over recent years. Research projects and centres, and increasingly university courses, have tackled topics that cross one or more disciplinary boundaries – something that would have been very rare when I was a student.

Nevertheless, this is not exactly a new issue. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was born nearly 370 years ago. He was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

There are few who would still dispute that many of the world’s problems can only be resolved by people who are able to engage different areas of knowledge in order to reach a coherent analysis and propose solutions. But it is also common to hear doubts expressed about the intellectual integrity of interdisciplinary teaching and research, and the charge that it involves superficial analysis.

It may well be true true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for discovery in science. In any case, we need to remember that ‘disciplines’ are relatively arbitrary constructs, and that it is perfectly possible to have deep learning and scholarship by addressing issues within different boundaries. Some subject areas now described as ‘disciplines’ are in themselves new amalgamations of what were previously discrete areas, such as biotechnology, or indeed economics. It is not that long ago that only philosophy, theology and mathematics were accepted as true disciplines.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz, and ask whether their approach to knowledge was in fact rather modern by our current standards. We might ask whether our higher education programmes are still too much constrained by subject area boundaries, and whether as a result our graduates do not find it as easy as they should to address the problems facing society. And we should ask how we can protect intellectual integrity and rigour in that setting.

For what it is worth, Leibniz received another interesting accolade: he had a biscuit named after him.

There really is a need to re-think ‘Technological Universities’

June 2, 2015

As I have pointed out previously, I am not a supporter of the plans in Ireland to establish ‘technological universities’ through forced marriages between institutes of technology. The very questionable nature of these endeavours is now further underlined by the burgeoning costs of the process of discussion between institutes leading up to the proposed mergers and the subsequent applications for ‘technological university’ status. An article in the Irish Times suggested that the cost of these discussions to date has been ‘over €3 million’, before anybody has even got to the point of a formal merger proposal.

While I genuinely respect those who have been working on the legal framework and in the discussions between institutes, I remain of the view that the whole scheme is daft, based on assumptions that would stand up to very little scrutiny. There may well be a case for assessing whether individual institutes are of university standard, but compelling institutes to merge with each other, creating unwieldy multi-location institutions that will almost certainly run into trouble early on.

I suspect it’s too late, but now would be a good time to re-think the whole framework. It’s costly and complex, and it’s not going to work.

Demonstrating the value of higher education

June 2, 2015

One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.

But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.

As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.

Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.

Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.