Archive for the ‘society’ category

Analogue tales

July 5, 2015

I was standing behind two teenagers waiting for a bus the other day, and one was telling the other about a get-together planned for that evening with some old school friends. ‘Wow’, said the other, ‘that’s so analogue Facebook’. I chuckled at the expression. But right now we can still laugh because even the two teenagers still had some point of reference to distinguish between a real life meeting and social media interaction. They also understood that many things digital have or had an analogue antecedent.

record

 

But is the analogue world slipping away from us? Or is it more resilient than we sometimes thing? After all, vinyl records are apparently making a comeback. And I have set my Apple Watch (and yes, of course I have one) to show an analogue clock on its home screen. I still have (and use) a telephone on which I can really dial numbers.

analog

And in between reading stuff on my iPad, I still buy hard copy books.

reading

It’s not all gone.

watch

PS. However, all the above photos were taken with the iPhone 6 camera and edited with Photoshop. Hm.

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?

Too much higher education?

March 24, 2015

In many develop countries it has been government policy for some time to secure growing levels of participation in higher education. While I was President of Dublin City University the Irish government had a target participation rate of over 60 per cent. In the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, the target was 50 per cent. Going for high targets is the ultimate destination in the process of ‘massification’, under which universities have ceased to be educators of the elite only and have opened their doors to those who would not in previous generations have considered this to be an accessible, appropriate or affordable route.

But not everyone thinks this is necessarily the right policy. Last year the founder of the Virgin group of companies, Richard Branson, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper:

‘Ten years ago it felt as though teenagers in Britain were being told that university was the be all and end all, whereas in reality higher education wasn’t of use to many of those paying for it.’

Branson felt that, in particular, the rush for everyone to go to university was threatening to deprive the country and the economy of people with vital skills, particularly digital skills of importance to the IT sector. These skills he felt were generally not acquired in universities, but through other forms of vocational training. This trend, if not arrested, would endanger relevant industry investment.

In other accounts, it has been suggested (in this case in the Daily Telegraph) that too many young people were being cajoled into university; and some of them would find that higher education didn’t suit them, and they would drop out.

Of course there are other issues wrapped up in this discussion, including the question of how ‘vocational’ a university education should or should not be (and therefore whether universities can or should provide some of the skills the economy may be at risk of lacking). There is the question of the ‘social value’ of higher education, and whether those not experiencing it will be, or will mostly be, relatively disadvantaged. But it may well be time to ask the question of how far university education can, or should, go.

So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

March 17, 2015

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

Professorial elitism

February 24, 2015

An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite'; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.

How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

February 3, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists':

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.


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