Archive for July 2018

The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist,¬†Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

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Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

A presidential view: university metrics and the rise of mediocrity?

July 9, 2018

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not been reluctant to enter contentious debate during the course of his term of office to date. Most recently, at the launch of the Cambridge University Press History of Ireland, the President offered the following view on universities as comfortable hosts for academic studies:

‘Within the universities, humanities have borne the brunt of the vicissitudes of new funding models, as resources are increasingly channelled towards areas which, it is suggested, will yield a return, at least in the short-term, to the university in terms of increased funding. Much of this is facilitated by an abuse of metrics; an ideological fad that views the use of metrics of academic work, not as a contribution or an instrument of knowledge but as a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity.’

The President has of course on previous occasions offered a similar analysis of the direction of higher education, and it is also clear that his view has support amongst a good number of academics; this article in the Irish Times is a good example. The English Campaign for the Public University also offers very similar views.

There is in such campaigns sometimes an element of irritation that taxpayer funding should come with strings attached, and in so far as this is part of the complaint it cannot easily be upheld. There are few areas of public life supported by exchequer funds that can still expect to be outside of value-for-money scrutiny, however lofty the objectives of the funded bodies. What is perhaps a better focus of analysis would be what strings can acceptably be attached to educational funding, and of course the more general question of what kind and volume of public funding is required or justifiable.

The resistance to outcome-driven funding as a matter of principle is, I would think, bound to fail: the spirit of the age is against such resistance. The better argument would be about what outcomes are an appropriate subject of targeting and monitoring. For example, is it justifiable to reject targets for socio-economic inclusion in higher education (the access agenda)? Should research performance be entirely a matter of individual choice? How much weight do we give student opinion on quality and content of courses?

These are complex questions, but probably not questions that should be dismissed with charges of a subversion of higher education by neoliberal ideologues. Rather they are questions of policy that have never got to be the subject of agreement between the wider academy, their leaders, and government. Universities will never be run again as they were in the late 19th century; nor should they be, as they catered solely for a social elite. So we need to find a new social contract between the academy and the taxpayer. That is now the task.

President Higgins is right to raise these matters. But the ensuing debate needs to be conducted outside the trenches of hardened opinion. On all sides.

The mental health imperative

July 3, 2018

When I was a student in the 1970s, almost nobody ever mentioned mental health. And yet, I knew several students with anxiety and depression, who often found it difficult to share their problems with anyone, and who had pretty much no support they could call upon within the system. At least one of them was unable to complete their course, and struggled with these problems for many years subsequently.

Now, in 2018, the problem is at least increasingly recognised, though whether we are close to providing mental health and wellbeing care and support for all those in higher education is another matter. What is clear is that the pressures on students are increasingly intense and many find it difficult to cope. Staff on the other hand need what the charity Student Minds calls ‘mental health literacy’.

NUS Scotland has recently adopted a Charter for Student Rights on Mental Health. This sets out ten basic rights for students based on clearly identified need. Some of the problems identified by the NUS included the impact of internet trolling, inadequate availability of counselling, special problems encountered by LGBT students, and growing suicide numbers.

The NUS initiative is to be welcomed, and individual universities and colleges all need to prioritise mental wellbeing also. My own institution, Robert Gordon University, recently concluded a Student Mental Health Agreement with our Students’ Union, which will, I hope, provide an effective framework for support where it is needed. There is still much to be done.

The most important thing is not to ignore mental health and wellbeing, and not to let any members of the university community feel they have nowhere to go and nobody to support them. This is where we have to start.