Archives for category: humanities

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I spoke recently with the Times Higher Education Magazine about reading. It is commonplace now to observe that our digital age entails attentional effects that play out in all aspects of lives, including the university classroom. The philosopher and bike mechanic, Matthew Crawford, is particularly astute on the subject of attention deficit, though in The World Beyond Your Head he locates its source not in the iphone, but rather in the idea articulated by Immanuel Kant that experience must not guide reason. Crawford recommends a re-engagement with material reality and with skills (this is where the bike-repair comes in) that bring us into contact with the physical world, requiring persistence, entailing difficulty and resulting in the production of an object that contains the results of our labour. He sees these as a way to reclaim the “attentional commons”.

I suppose long form reading is a bit like that. It requires time to be poured into it. There is a kind of physicality to it, as the bookmark moves slowly through the thumbed pages, and the experience is just as important as the content.  In the world of 500-800 word blog posts, an idea or set of arguments elaborated in a book of 500 pages can feel heavy, complicated and difficult. Yet as anyone who has worked at the coal face of knowledge knows, scholarship is difficult and frustrating and laboured and slow. But it is in this difficulty that the rewards not just of scholarship, but also of life, so often lie. One of the things universities do is facilitate (in the face of student reluctance) forms of engagement with ideas and arguments that are deeper and slower than those usually available online.

The THE wanted to know what books university lecturers thought secondary school students should read before coming to university. The recommendations were diverse, but my suggestion was Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (edited by David Rieff, 2008). They show Sontag uncertain, sometimes scared and yet intoxicated by ideas and the possibilities of life and sexuality. I love them for the permission they give to take risks, chase passion and, most of all, not to know. All students starting out at university should remember that not having answers is at the heart of scholarship and learning – as long as you keep asking questions.

This has reminded me it is high time for another:

Occasional dispatch from my big green reading chair #2

  • Richard Dennis, Econobabble: How to decode political spin and economic nonsense (Redback Quarterly 8, 2015). This is fantastic no-nonsense piece on the work of economics talk, how it is used to forestall and obfuscate, and how you can blow it apart. It should be required reading for everyone remotely interested in political debate. This is such a brilliant series from Black Inc – longer than a Quarterly Essay but not too long that you can’t finish it in a couple of days. I’m now onto Jessica Rayner’s Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young.
  • Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (Penguin, 2016). This book has a subtitle worthy of the 16th century and indicative of its slightly breathless (!) style: ‘How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Star the Protestant Reformation’. There will be books aplenty coming out in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but Pettegree’s focus is Luther’s adept use of the new-tech of the day: printing as a mass medium. This attention to the intersections between technology and ideas has, of course, many resonances with the present, but thankfully these are not drawn too explicitly by Pettegree, who instead allows the reader to think about disruption and change, politics and power through the lens of a period at once familiar and very different to our own.
  • Rahul Rao, On StatuesThe Disorder of Things blog (April 2 2016). Beginning at the University of Cape Town with a (successful) campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes that dominated the entrance to the university, Rhodes Must Fall has grown into much broader movement which seeks, as its Oxford website outlines, ‘to decolonise the institutional structures  and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ including the ‘structures of knowledge production that continue to mould a colonial mindset that dominates our present’. In this thoughtful piece Rahul Rao (Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS) writes about statues, who needs them, and the politics of their removal, not just in Oxford and Cape Town, but also in Iraq and India.

In the UK Higher Education sector talk of specialisation is in the air.

In June results were released of the pilot study for U-Multirank, the European Commission funded new universities benchmarking tool. Contending that existing rankings are too exclusively orientated towards research, it instead aims to make comparisons based on the stated interests and priorities of its users, thereby placing an explicit emphasis on diversification.

Meanwhile, the authors of the University of Plymouth’s HEFCE funded Enterprising Universities Project have argued that the marketised nature of the sector means that institutions will need to differentiate themselves by focusing on what makes them distinctive. Those that offer popular courses will have to do so ‘vertically’ – via league table positions or differential fees – but universities that move into emerging territory can do so ‘horizontally’ – by offering courses or experiences not available elsewhere.

And now the release of the HE white paper includes incentives that seem likely to push some post-92 universities down the path of boutique education.

But this is not the first time ‘specialisation’ has been seen as the answer for troubled British universities. At the start of the twentieth century it was also held up by some as a solution to a number of issues that seem strangely familiar.

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‘We shall be in danger of making our Universities pale reflections of merely one side of English opinion … what we want are many institutions among which you may have faithful witnesses to unpopular truths and non-utilitarian studies.’

These words were not pronounced in the context of the dramatic changes reshaping English universities in 2011, but rather they were delivered in 1921 by Sir Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, when the threat to universities seemed to come not from the retraction of government funding, but instead from its introduction.

For, in the wake of the First World War, the universities had found themselves under real financial strain. Emptied during the conflict, or turned over to the war effort, after its cessation large numbers of returned soldiers had flooded into them, demanding accommodation, teaching, and new approaches to both. With nowhere else to turn the exhausted universities looked to government to assist them, making new sorts of arguments about their contribution, not just to the war effort, but also to national life. However, though impelled towards state aid, they nonetheless feared the surrender of their independence, worried that government money might carry unacceptable conditions and compromise their autonomy. Read the rest of this entry »