Archive for the ‘media’ category

Can you speak without being prompted?

January 7, 2014

Apparently not everyone can, and that includes some who have made speaking their particular speciality. The somewhat annoying film director and producer Michael Bay recently agreed to provide a public endorsement of a new Samsung television. However, at the launch event the teleprompter failed, and so did Mr Bay, walking off the stage. Watch it here.

Genuine public speaking is becoming rare, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate it.

Texting the course

March 19, 2013

Here’s a phenomenon I hope doesn’t catch on: I recently talked in an airport departure lounge with a student (studying at another university) who told me that his entire knowledge for the forthcoming exams came from mobile phone texts that his girlfriend, who was apparently a more conscientious attender of classes, had sent him summarising the syllabus. He had attended no lectures or tutorials. He had read no books. He had her texts. I hope, really hope, that he was pulling my leg, but I fear he wasn’t. He had, it seemed, the ultimate ‘textbook’, and he was quite confident that he could pass. I never even got to asking him how he had handled essays and assignments, that question occurred to me too late.

But the extreme nature of this particular study technique perhaps illustrates a broader issue. The conventional textbook sold for an outrageous price by a small band of publishers is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that. In one interesting development, an American community college now runs a course that uses only open source material, and the students therefore do not need to buy anything. The college calculates that this saves each student $2,000 per annum.

For many lecturers the textbook was a comforting prop, providing them with course materials that needed no assembling. For students, such books were often profoundly anti-intellectual, suggesting to them (even where that was not the authors’ intention) that there is a ‘correct’ answer to every question, even highly theoretical ones. However, it is important that what replaces them is not just smartly digital, but is also part of a genuine introduction to real scholarship. I suspect that the post-textbook course materials handed out or made available on online learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle are often unimaginative and as prescriptive as the old textbooks – though of course there are also many examples of genuinely good practice.

New technology has freed the universities and colleges from the clutches of publishing cartels. But that must lead to something more profound than a narrow range of online materials; or your girlfriend’s mobile phone texts.

Linguistic crepusculum?

January 9, 2013

If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?

Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.

There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:

‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity.  While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty  bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives.  You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’

So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?

If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.

Telling the university story

January 6, 2011

If you have some time on your hands and nothing better to do, have a look at a university – any university – archive of press releases. You can usually find these in the ‘news’ section that is generally linked from the university home page. What do you see? What purpose do these press releases have?

Overwhelmingly, universities use press releases like the Soviet Union used reports on the last five-year-plan: stories of amazing successes and achievements, presented with all the compelling urgency of a report on meeting tractor production targets. I suspect that the readership figures are tiny, and a substantial proportion of the readers will be those named in each report. If you want some examples – and these are taken at random and are no better and no worse than hundreds of others, so I’m not targeting the institutions in particular – you can see a couple here and here. In fact, some of the items are interesting and even important, but will not achieve wider circulation by being put there.

If that’s what you find, what do you not find? Any kind of thoughtful analysis or advocacy of the university or higher education position. No assessment of pedagogy, no debate on current higher education problems and issues, no discussion about resourcing or strategy. In short, nothing that will attract casual readers looking for something to stimulate them; and nothing that will persuade anyone to support the institution or the sector.

This approach carries over into most universities’ public relations strategy. Think of an important or sensitive issue, and you can be sure that the university’s position on it is to keep very silent in public. This approach is in some ways understandable. Shouting over the airwaves can be risky if the topic is, say, current government policy, as politicians may find that irritating and may turn negative. But on the other hand, what has become alarmingly clear is that universities are not winning any of the arguments in the eyes of the public, in part because the public have no idea what case they are trying to make, or what arguments exist to back that case.

My advice would be this. If you have good news about research successes, human interest stories involving students, announcements about the weather, and so forth, send these directly to those likely to be interested or concerned, and include them in web pages that are specifically dedicated to the individuals or subject areas concerned. Don’t maintain a ‘news’ page which is really given over to advertisements. But do have a PR strategy that allows the university to make a case to advance its interests and those of the sector, and use it to raise awareness of critical issues

Secondly, put a face on it. I believe that one vital task for a university head is to present the institution’s case. It may sometimes seem ego-centric, but it can be very effective and can work well for the university. Deans, department heads, senior researchers and others can also be very effective in advancing the case.

Thirdly, be open and honest. Don’t have a news section that is full of soft focus stories about triumphs and achievements, but tell the institution’s story as it is, showing where it is aiming to go. Make it interesting, and make it engaging. Make it something that does not prompt readers to respond cynically.

Over recent months, as universities have increasingly been targeted aggressively by politicians and public commentators, I have been alarmed at how ineffective they have been in responding and in making a public case. I suspect some academics feel that a PR strategy somehow cheapens them. That is a dangerous view to hold; if we cannot persuade successfully, we may pay a very heavy price.

Bye the way…

August 31, 2010

Here’s something a tad irritating (at least to me). Some weeks ago I became aware of the fact that RTE on its website kept referring to forthcoming (or not) ‘bye-elections’. Of course there is no such thing as a ‘bye-election’ (though there are ‘by-elections’ or byelections’), and as it was a slow day I sent an email to RTE pointing that out – very politely, I should emphasise. I got back a response telling me that this is how the government officially spells it, and that it was RTE policy to follow the government lead.

Of course the prefix ‘by’ refers to the subordinate or secondary nature of (in this case) the election. Another example would be ‘by-product’, which is definitely not ‘bye-product’. If there were such a thing as a ‘bye-election’, it would be a ‘good-bye election’ (not a phenomenon we have yet). I think my correspondent in RTE agreed with me, by the way (or should that be ‘bye the way’), but felt bound by existing practice.

Maybe I’m just being pedantic, but I can’t help feeling our official terminology should be less illiterate.

The news, for a price

July 3, 2010

From yesterday the English newspapers The Times and The Sunday Times have restricted full access to their news websites to paying subscribers – what is now known as putting up a ‘paywall’. In doing so they have departed from the industry’s currently normal practice of offering online news content free of charge. They are not the first to do this – I remember that the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post required payment for access to some news content from the late 1990s; but the Times is no doubt the most prominent paper to require payment, and this move represents a deliberate calculation by Rupert Murdoch that readers will accept the change and that newspaper proprietors will be able, as a result, to avoid major financial losses as readers migrate from hard copy to online versions. Some others are following suit, such as the New York Times (though in their case only frequent readers will be charged).

I can’t really claim to be a judge of all this, but I think he’s got it wrong. People who get newspapers in hard copy tend to have significant brand loyalty – i.e. they buy the Times (if that’s what they get) because they like what it offers and because they are confident about the news coverage. I don’t think the same applies to online users – they move about between media sites and get what they want often on the back of online searches. I very much doubt whether many of them would subscribe, because no matter how many follow Murdoch’s lead there will always be plenty of free content elsewhere. Therefore, I am not inclined to believe that the business model for online news coverage is subscription – I think it’s advertising, alongside payments for special services such as archive searches.

Of course, many newspapers have found the new online world difficult, and a few have gone out of business or moved to online versions only as the number of subscribers for printed copies diminished. Other publishers who have from the start focused solely on the internet have begun to make an impact (such as the Huffington Post). It will be interesting to observe how newspaper publishing changes in the digital age. But my own hunch is that it won’t follow the trend that Murdoch is suggesting would be best. I may of course be wrong.


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