Archive for October 2016

People talk about interdisciplinarity, but will we ever really do it?

October 31, 2016

During my first year as a lecturer in 1981 I attended a workshop on ‘the protection of academic disciplines’. The event had been organised by a group of academics from various subject areas who wanted to draw attention to the risk, as they saw it, of scholarship and knowledge being put at risk by an obsession with interdisciplinary studies and research. In the opinion of these colleagues such work would compromise academic excellence because those doing it would have to know something about too much, and so their knowledge of anything would not be very deep; ‘skimming across the surface of knowledge’ was how one participant described it.

At the time this was of more than passing interest to me. I had been an undergraduate law student, and had then written a PhD thesis that covered law, sociology and economics; and subsequently I began my academic career as a lecturer in industrial relations in a business school. In fact that business school had amongst its senior staff a philosopher, another lawyer, and a mathematician. We used to meet most mornings in the School Head’s office and discussed books we were reading. But outside of this congenial circle it was often a different story. I remember attending a law conference during that period and finding myself under sustained attack by a very senior academic from another well known university for ‘pursuing a cheap and unscholarly route’ in my publications. He presumably felt I was skimming.

In any case interdisciplinarity was, for me at least, soon put back in its box. I changed jobs and joined a law school, and at about the same the powers that be in the UK introduced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – now the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). The law school did have some interesting interdisciplinary work, but the RAE didn’t recognise such stuff (review panels were always overwhelmingly or even exclusively made up of single-discipline people), and with us as elsewhere the focus moved back into the disciplines.

But more generally the search for insights going beyond just one intellectual frame of reference never stopped, and advances in various areas made excursions across disciplinary boundaries more and more desirable. In the United States interdisciplinarity was promoted increasingly by funding agencies. The National Science Foundation has for some time recognised ‘the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery.’ But in the UK it has been argued that any early career academic going down that route may find it difficult to gain recognition and promotion.

Nobody says any more what I was told in the 1980s – that interdisciplinary work is intellectually deficient. But actually doing it can still be just as frustrating and can still fail to find proper recognition. We are too often emotionally committed to particular boundaries between areas of knowledge which were often, in their origins, entirely arbitrary. It is time to think again.

Thumbs down for educational technology?

October 24, 2016

It is exactly 30 years ago today that I took delivery of my first personal computer. It was an Apple Macintosh, and it had an incredible 1 megabyte of RAM and, er, no hard drive. A week later I produced my first computer-generated presentation for my industrial relations class, which however I had to print out on acetates in order to display the slides on an overhead projector. For me, technology-enabled education had begun. Colleagues looked on in admiration.

We have of course come a long way since then. Nowadays every higher education curriculum in any institution will feature a truckload of technology-enabled learning, the assessment of which is then crunched on various data programs to produce good-looking spreadsheets to please any board of examiners.

But is it adding value to the learning experience? No, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Education. Or rather, not necessarily. Academics seem to value the opportunities for innovation provided by technology, but are sceptical as to whether the accumulated data gathered by IT systems is being used appropriately; or whether the quality of the learning experience is being much enhanced. They suspect that technology is deployed more to impress those evaluating institutions than to help students.

We must not be Luddites: educational technology is here to stay. But it must be used properly, and for the right reasons. This must mean in particular that the design of technology must be driven by academics rather than administrators, and must target the student experience and pedagogy rather than efficiency of processes. And there must be a clear understanding of how standards are affected – for good or bad – by online methods.

The strange, strange behaviour of the Brexit victors

October 18, 2016

I think I have a word of advice for those who were on the winning side in the recent Brexit referendum in the UK and who are now preparing for Britain’s departure from the European Union: stop behaving in such a truculent manner, you won. There is no need for you to keep attacking and insulting those who voted to remain, they (we) lost.

The speeches and comments from the winning side seem to me to be shot through with insecurity, with some deep worry perhaps that the great Brexit project might not go well. And so they lash out at those who voted to remain – and who on the whole are actually staying relatively silent, waiting for what will happen next. So some of the more exotic (meaning, divorced from reality) newspapers rant about ‘Remoaners’ and suchlike, sometimes à propos of absolutely nothing. And the Brexit politicians and their surrogates come up with ever more ludicrous statements, like one Stewart Jackson MP (who understandably is not a household name) who has suggested that all patriotic British people should boycott the Economist because of its ‘liberal smugness’ and ‘Remoaner whining’. Dear me. Or the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers peddling conspiracy theories and suggesting the voices of ‘Remainers’ should be silenced. Or the deservedly unknown Tory Councillor Christian Holliday (who should maybe take a break), who started a petition to make arguing for the EU an act of treason.

We might and should ignore the latter idiot completely – his ‘petition’ has been taken down, though not without having received some support first – but for the really curious response to it by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. When asked whether she supported the idea that support for EU membership should be treason, a spokesman replied (according to the BBC):

‘Different people will choose their words differently. The prime minister is very clear that the British people have made their decision.’

There was only one possible rational answer to the question, and that was ‘No.’ The fact that the Ms May apparently couldn’t being herself to answer clearly is itself astonishing, and potentially a cause for concern.

Supporters of Brexit are now filling the airwaves with conspiracy theories and loud complaints about all those who don’t agree with them, blaming them in a precautionary way for any economic turbulence that may yet emerge. The curious thing is that all the whining, notwithstanding these claims to the contrary, is now coming from the Brexit side. But why? Are they so insecure, so unable to see their mission with a sense of self-confidence? Do they think that they must cover their own inability to manage the Brexit agenda with a barrage of insults aimed at those who have the temerity to ask them about it; or indeed even those saying nothing at all?

It is clear that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. It must do so on the best terms available for the economy and for society. That necessary objective should prompt close and constructive collaboration and inclusiveness; not these constant attacks and stupidities. Brexiteers, it’s time for you to realise that you won and to grow up.

The politics of taking offence

October 17, 2016

Recently Jackie Walker, who was vice-chair of the Labour-aligned Momentum group, was first suspended from the Labour Party and then more recently was removed from her Momentum position because of remarks she made about Holocaust Memorial Day thought by many to be antisemitic. She had also indicated that she had never come across a definition of antisemitism that she ‘could work with’.

Amongst other things, these events prompted a very interesting discussion on Twitter between the journalist Iain Macwhirter and the President of NUS Scotland, Vonnie Sandlan. The issue in broad terms was how one could identify antisemitism and therefore address it through law and other appropriate means. Iain Macwhirter argued that this could not be done simply through ‘self-definition’ – i.e. by allowing members of a racial or other group to declare what offends them and what should therefore be out of bounds in open discourse. Vonnie Sandlan in turn argued that ‘I fundamentally believe that any action on racism or fascism should be led by, and defined by, those who experience it.’ If that latter approach were to hold, Macwhirter argued, the alleged victim of racism would always be right in their complaint.

In the context of a lot of recent debate about the rise of antisemitism in particular and experiences of oppression by various groups more generally (e.g. Islamophobia), and indeed of the extent or limits of debate where contributions are liable to offend someone, this has become a significant issue. It is a particularly complex question in universities, as it also involves discussion of what constitutes legitimate free speech and where we will constrain it because it creates offence. The battle lines in Britain have not yet been drawn to the same degree as in the United States, but there is little doubt that we will hear more about these matters over here too.

The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values

October 10, 2016

Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.

But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.

There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?

The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.

Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.

The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.

Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.

Brexit outside Britain

October 3, 2016

Those of us living in the United Kingdom may, in the light of recent excitements here, sometimes forget that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) does not just have repercussions in Britain. In fact, it is increasingly clear that the implications of Brexit are huge and reach into areas of economic and social life all over the EU, to an extent that has not yet been fully worked out. This of course includes higher education. An obvious element of this is the Erasmus programme, under which students can undertake some of their studies in another EU member state. If Britain were to leave the scheme, this would not just affect UK students who might gained experience elsewhere in Europe, but also the host universities, and indeed the 125,000 or so students from other EU states who are typically studying in Britain at any given time. Another significant impact could be felt in research, where even now there is evidence that academic cross-EU partnerships involving British academics are being affected.

One country that will be particularly concerned about the implications of Brexit is Ireland. There is virtually no area of Irish life where there could not be a significant impact, not least the almost impossible conundrum of what will or will not happen with the Irish border. But in Ireland also the concerns in higher education are significant. They were given an airing recently by Fiona O’Loughlin TD, Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills, at a symposium on EU affairs and the impact of Brexit.

Of course there are many international links and partnerships in higher education, and not just those involving EU member states. However, some of the mood music of Brexit has been strongly anti-internationalist, and it will be important for the key players to emphasise that higher education across borders remains a driver of policy, and that academics will not have to fight to retain the key features. Right now that is not obviously the case, and it is scary.