Archive for the ‘society’ category

Alphabetical fate

April 19, 2016

A good few years ago I wrote an academic paper with a colleague. We thought it was pretty good. While we did more or less equal amounts of writing, I had done most of the research and so we agreed easily that my name would come first. This was not however the view of the journal in which we wanted the piece to appear. They agreed to publish it, but insisted that my fellow author’s name had to come first.

Why was this? Was he the better academic? Was he better known in our field? Hell, was he better looking than me? None of that. His surname began with the letter ‘B’, mine with a ‘V’. That was it.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a report on research that showed that people with a name beginning with letters from A to M were more likely to earn more money than those nearer the bottom of the alphabet, more likely to be elected if they were politicians, more likely to be university leaders, more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

In my own case, I could of course argue that my surname officially (under German practice) begins with a ‘P’ rather than a ‘V’, but why bother, I end up in the lower part of the alphabet either way.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in this most intellectual of environments – in the academy of higher education – the odds are also stacked in favour of those higher up in the alphabet. When we tell ourselves that we are always objective and uninfluenced by irrelevant factors, someone might perhaps suggest to us to think again; though ideally that someone’s name should begin with an ‘A’.

That Newcastle show, off the rails [football/soccer alert]

March 7, 2016

Every so often this blog leaves the higher education world behind and engages with that crazy crazy world of Newcastle United FC. Being a Newcastle supporter can be incredibly exciting at times, but more often than not seems just an exercise in needless masochism.

It is not that Newcastle lose games – all clubs and teams do. It is not that there can be longer periods during which things just don’t go right; that’s what makes being a football supporter such fun. Rather, it is because those who take decisions in the club seem to be so determinedly inconsistent, irrational, amateurish, unintelligent. They buy and sell players at the wrong time, they appoint managers and ‘head coaches’ who seem to have no claim to the role apart from an established recent record of failure, they ban communications with the media to ensure all news coverage is bad, they maintain management structures no one understands and no one can operate effectively. And then they seem totally surprised that none of this works perfectly. And because it hasn’t worked this time and last time and the time before that, they try it again just in case it’s going to work now.

So what have we got? An expensive team that should produce results but whose members stroll aimlessly around the pitch during matches. A ‘head coach’ who seems not to have any sense of strategy or tactics and who comments after the game as if he were just a disappointed supporter, not the leader. An owner of very questionable business practices who seems to measure success for a football club with quite different metrics from the rest of us.

What needs to be done? Well, whether he is a nice man or not, the club needs to part company with Steve McClaren. It is abundantly clear that he cannot do the job. It needs to appoint in his place someone whose availability is not occasioned by a string of recent failures in other places. It needs to develop and keep to a clear strategy of battling and (when possible) winning on the field, not on the financial spreadsheets. It needs ambition,  swashbuckling determination, a sense of adventure.

But beyond Newcastle, club football needs to return to being just that. Much of the fun went out of the sport when it became a money game measured by the depths of the owners’ pockets (and strategic common sense). I’m normally all for free enterprise, but actually not in this setting. Football should be a game played for and on behalf of the supporters, not the oligarchs now dominating it. Clubs should be owned by those supporters. It is time to re-socialise football.

Must Rhodes fall?

January 12, 2016

If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.

Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.

But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.

In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.

For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.

Floods

January 11, 2016

As readers of this blog will know, many parts of Britain have had to deal with serious flooding. The North-East of Scotland had, until about a week ago, largely escaped the heavy rain and wind that caused such damage elsewhere, but over recent days that changed dramatically. By the weekend many towns and rural communities had been affected. The rather pretty little town of Ballater (near Balmoral Castle), for example, has been so badly flooded that some are wondering whether it can ever be restored to its prior state.

My own neighbourhood has not fared well. We live outside the village of Tarves, and the little road from our house was by Friday submerged, though still passable with care.

flooded road

Not far away, the river Ythan burst its banks in the village of Methlick.

Methlick

The actual river is on the left, above – the large expanse of water on the right is a flooded field, and the houses on the far right were at one stage about three feet under water.

One other feature of the floods has been the flow of unexpected items in the torrents caused by the floods. In one location two mobile homes were dumped by the flow of water in a person’s back garden, having been pushed over the garden wall; sitting on top of one of them was a BMW car! In the photo below the car was carried along by the water and left stranded on the edge of a flooded field.

car

It is to be hoped that the weather will now settle down – there has already been too much damage.

Here’s what I’m hoping at the start of 2016

January 5, 2016

It is the human condition to hope that everything will be better in this year compared with the last. Tennyson expressed it well:

‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.’

So, in that spirit, here are my hopes (I shall not say expectations) for 2016. They may or may not be in order of importance.

  • Newcastle United will shine in the English premiership. OK, won’t be relegated.
  • Ireland will win the European football championships. OK, won’t be eliminated in the group stage.
  • There won’t be a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in Scotland. (I don’t think it should be adopted anywhere, but let’s stick with Scotland).
  • There will be a real drive to remove bureaucratisation from higher education.
  • Daniel Craig will agree to play James Bond one more time.
  • Aberdeen City and Shire will succeed in the bid for a City Region Deal.
  • The Eurovision Song Context will be the most enjoyable ever, and avoid geopolitics.

A very happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2016 bring you health, and prosperity, and intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.

Keeping the library open

December 21, 2015

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

Very frequently, not unique

November 24, 2015

For all you academic authors out there, what you need to know about the title of this post is that you must never ever use any of the words in your writing. Nor should you ‘feel’ anything ‘eagerly’, or indeed ‘frequently’, and ‘finally’ you should ‘never’ write about ‘the public’.

Who says? Well, it’s a support service for writers called Tameri, and they have a guide for writers that contains a  list of words and phrases to avoid. And indeed they also suggest you stop using adjectives and adverbs; and infinitives. Only then will your writing be perfect. Or not, as you mustn’t use ‘perfect’.


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