Sunday, 26 June 2011

Teaching focussed

This is the first advert I've seen for a lectureship which is explicitly described as 'teaching focussed', i.e. it's a 9-month post in which you shouldn't expect to get any writing done - and therefore shouldn't expect to get a better job next year.

I have no problem with there being academic jobs focussed on teaching out of scholarship, rather than on publishing original research; but there does need to be a career structure attached.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Motivation, Global Justice, & Empire

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at this enjoyable event, organised by Kerri Woods:
The aim of the workshop is to consider the persistent gap between the demands generated by our best theoretical accounts of global justice and the action in support of global justice that real world agents are motivated to take; and to advance normative research on global justice that is sensitive to, and informed by, empirical questions.
That is: we rich people ought to do far more for the global poor, and many of us know it, but we still mostly don't. Why not, and what can be done about it?

Several kinds of response were offered. Perhaps our solidarity, compassion, and sympathy are poorly developed, and need to be educated (Kerri Woods, Carol Gould). Perhaps our complicity with the economic and political system which creates poverty renders us liable to what would otherwise be illegitimate manipulation by charities, by analogy with the way an attacker renders herself liable to self-defensive violence (Graham Long). Perhaps, as Sue Mendus suggested, fulfilling our responsibilities to the poor would require such a radical loss of our way of life - not just wealth, but liberal politics and the right to children - that we can't imagine it. We're not just unmotivated, but immobilised, the way Bernard Williams suggested the ancient Greeks were about slavery.

I found myself wanting to raise another possibility: what actually motivates much human action is habit and institution. We act out the scripts we've internalised for our social roles. We take the opportunities presented to us by our local institutions (governments, work-places, cities...), pay attention to what they make salient, ignore what they don't, and rarely push back against the limits they impose.

So, what we need to motivate the huge and systematic action our best theories of global justice require is not (just) solidarity or compassion: it's new habits and institutions. And we have a good historical example of an available set of habits and institutions which could do the global job: empire. To deal with global poverty, we need to create a system of institutional roles which makes dealing with it habitual and easy: a global imperial bureaucracy. This has the further advantage that it could recruit some very powerful human sentiments to the cause: desire for status, recognition, security, and a place for me and my children. A letter from Oxfam, no matter how heartrending, is a much less effective motivation than a secure job managing the distribution of generic medicines, steady career progress, and a decent pension at 65.

Kerri and others took this as an attempted reductio: if that's where our theories of global justice take us, there must be something wrong with them. I admit that I did have my tongue partly in my cheek. But I'm not sure the reductio goes through: the Roman, Austro-Hungarian, or British empires had good features (the rule of law, peace-keeping, religious toleration, opportunities for locals to enter the middle classes by joining the bureaucracy) as well as bad ones, and it's at least not obvious that an empire of this sort would be worse than the current world system.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Mix: A Joyful Noise

Public vs Private in Universities and Health Systems

Howard Hotson in the LRB argues that the success of world-class private US universities (Harvard etc.) isn't evidence that market tactics would improve UK universities. Although Harvard and the other Ivies do exceptionally well, the US university system as a whole does worse on average than the UK, is far more expensive, and maintains huge inequalities.

A parallel point can be made about markets in healthcare: the US system does exceptionally well at the top end of provision, but does no better than the NHS on average, costs a lot more, and maintains huge inequalities (see references below).


Some places to start on markets in healthcare, and especially the NHS:

Friday, 10 June 2011


A compliation of work by Swiss artist Zimoun:

Zimoun : Compilation Video V2.8 | Sound Sculptures & Installations from ZIMOUN VIDEO ARCHIVE on Vimeo.

I like this a lot, I think because it hits a couple of my buttons at once: (1) art as an environment to explore. I felt the same way about Rothko at the Tate Modern a couple of years ago - all those pieces together worked as a machine for engaging my senses and adjusting my mood by moving around the space. (2) noise as music - I'd happily listen to the sound these things make on (not too isolating) headphones, while walking around a city; environmental noise would add to it.

(Hat tip: BLDGBLOG.)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: the one-sentence version

Thomas Cromwell as Tony Soprano.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

For the first couple of hundred pages, I thought this might be something special, to put beside The Name of the Rose: compelling fiction which is also valuable history, an attempt to re-enact medieval thought [1]. It isn’t. It’s wonderfully written at the sentence level, it has set-pieces both funny and bleak, and Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a great character – appealing, frightening, sympathetic and dreadful. But Wolf Hall, finally, is high-class soap opera. It’s excellent entertainment, but it’s not more than that.

[1] See R. G. Collingwood, Autobiography, chapter X.

Mix: We're the Martians Now

Saturday, 4 June 2011

ad hominid

Argument ad hominid: the fallacy of trying to establish moral, political, or other conclusions by telling stories about cavemen.

(Idea stolen from Cosma Shalizi)

Friday, 3 June 2011

Header image credit

Bundles of neem twigs for sale near Manek Chowk in the Old City, by Meena Kadri. 

Student evaluations

Like many universities, Lancaster has systematic student evaluation: at the end of a module, our students are invited to fill in an online form mixing Likert-type questions (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree) with free comment boxes. Any good teacher wants to know how well her teaching is going, but here are three reasons to doubt that forms like this are going to tell her.

1. Irrelevant correlations: many studies suggest that evaluation scores don’t reliably track teaching quality. For example, high scores are correlated with teachers who: (a) match gender stereotypes in dress, mien, and social behaviour [1]; (b) mark generously, or more generously than students expect [2]; and (c) present in an enthusiastic style, regardless of content [3].

2. Anonymity breeds contempt: as anyone who’s read youtube comments knows, anonymity encourages some people to speak expressively and without normal filters: to say things they’d never say to your face, haven’t really thought about, and couldn’t defend. There’s good reason to make anonymous channels of communication available to our students, but not owning their words in evaluations may not promote honesty or usefulness, let alone civility [4, 5].

3. Competent judges? Evaluations may tell us whether our students like us and our teaching or not. But if we want to know whether we’re good teachers of our subjects, why think our students are competent to judge? They typically have no teaching experience. They don’t know what they don’t know, or what they need to know, or how to gain that knowledge. The best learning is often unsettling, inconclusive, and not what we expected. Perhaps someone in the middle of that difficult process of development isn’t in the best position to judge how well it’s going.

None of these are reasons to stop listening and responding to our students. But they are reasons to wonder whether the evaluation tools we use actually tell us what we want to know.


  1. Kierstead, D., D’Agostino, P., & Dill, H., ‘Sex Role Stereotyping of College Professors: Bias in Students’ Ratings of Instructors’, Journal of Educational Psychology 80(1988): 342-4.
  2. Greenwald, A. & Gillmore, G., ‘Grading Leniency is a Removable Contaminant of Student Ratings’, American Psychologist 11(1997): 1209-17.
  3. Naftulin, D., Ware, J., & Donnelly, F., ‘The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction’, Journal of Medical Education 48(1973): 630-5.
  4. Penny Arcade
  5. xkcd

Further discussion:

(This post is a version of a piece I wrote for Lancaster University's independent email newsletter Subtext).