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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Free Range

As Abraham Lincoln once remarked, Thucydides is not the only historical figure to get regularly misquoted. One interesting example is the line that “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”, regularly trotted out to epitomise a certain attitude prevalent within big business. At least in the UK, there is at best only a fuzzy sense of the original context – it was said by Charles Erwin Wilson in 1953, during confirmation hearings for his appointment as Secretary of Defense after being Head of General Motors – and little idea that it’s not completely accurate. What Wilson actually said, when asked whether he would be able to make a decision as Secretary of Defense that would be adverse to General Motors, was that he would, but that he couldn’t actually conceive of such a situation “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa”. That’s a great deal more reciprocal, and less dubious – and hence less useful – than the usual version.

In universities – yes, I am going somewhere with this – there has traditionally been a similar assumption, all the way down to the individual level: (more…)

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Two things on the internet caught my fancy yesterday. The first, quite widely circulated so probably already familiar, was a story in the Grauniad: How Computer-Generated Fake Papers Are Flooding Academia. This struck me as a rather wonderful thing. Of course, the basic focus of the article and the research on which it reports is the lax standard of reviewing at certain journals and conferences, so that papers churned out by simple computer programmes which are essentially gibberish nevertheless are accepted (it wasn’t completely clear from the report whether the papers are submitted  under the names of the programmers, i.e. real people with genuine university affiliations which serve as an imprimatur so that the content is simply ignored, or under fake names as well, implying that there are no quality checks whatsoever). But it can’t be that big a step to write a programme that could generate fake papers by a specific author. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if an analysis of my own works identified clear, consistent patterns in the use of certain words and phrases, tendency to resort to a limited number of key references and to start every paper with a quote from some nineteenth-century thinker intended to unsettle current assumptions, basic structural similarities and so forth (come to think of it, I’m drawing this entirely from Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, aren’t I?) – so, why not use that to produce ersatz Morley essays, barely distinguishable from the real thing? (more…)

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Tail Wags Dog?

Via my colleague Chris Brooke, I’ve just come across the letter published in The Times on Saturday by Professor Sir Fergus Millar, which notes the concerns of the Minister for Universities about the increasing emphasis on research over teaching in UK HEIs, but emphasises both the extent to which this has been driven by government policies, rather than idle academics neglecting their students in favour of their pet projects, and the extent to which this has warped the research activities themselves. Funding for research, Sir Fergus argues, has shifted more and more from direct grants to individual projects; universities are ever more desperate for the overheads and estate costs that come with such projects, and so individual academics (who have now lost tenure and so are at the mercy of their managers) are compelled to expend effort on writing grant applications, at the expense of their teaching and the research they actually want to do. “It is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding.” Long-term research projects, with uncertain outcomes (let alone impact), are rendered impossible, not least by short REF cycles.

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One of the things I most enjoyed about spending a couple of months in German universities this year, and most envy about their set-up, was the sense of freedom when it comes to teaching. Within remarkably broad limits, and subject only to a remarkably small number of regulations and administrative imperatives, it seems that professors can do more or less what they like, and can extend that freedom to their colleagues. One can teach a course over a full semester, or over half a semester with an all-day Blockseminar, or even (presumably) through a number of Blockseminars rather than a weekly class, whatever seems to suit the topic and the level of the students best. One can introduce a new course on one’s research interests without having to complete a lengthy form and submit it for approval from the university – and without the risk of being told, sorry, because of the work involved in completing and approving forms, no new units are being accepted for the foreseeable future. Indeed, when I mentioned even a few minor examples of the bureaucratisation of teaching (without even hinting at the scrutiny of assessment), all I got were incredulous stares. Goodness knows what my German colleagues would think of the full reality. (more…)

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One helpful piece of advice that I received during my doctoral studies came from the late Keith Hopkins: when planning and writing the thesis, think of it in terms of the book that it’s going to become in due course. This shaped my approach in all sorts of ways, and I would say that it worked, both in helping me to produce a more readable and coherent thesis, and in reducing the amount of work needed afterwards to turn it into a respectable book (one reviewer claimed that it still looked like a published PhD thesis rather than a proper book, which I would dispute, and at the very least argue that it’s a lot less like a published PhD thesis than a lot of other published PhD theses…). It has occurred to me since that Hopkins was a rather odd person to be offering such advice, given that most of his own books were collections of loosely-connected studies rather than ‘proper’ monographs, but presumably this was one of those “do as I say, not as I do” things. It does mean that I was, quite without realising it, completely brainwashed into the humanities tradition of privileging monographs over articles, partly because I enjoy writing them (or, to be more precise, I enjoy having written them; the actual process can be a bit painful). Assuming that my forthcoming book on Thucydides and the Idea of History doesn’t hit any unforeseen snags in the production process, by the end of this year I should have as many books as peer-reviewed articles, which from the perspective of any of the sciences or social sciences is really, really weird(more…)

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The Classicists email list is having one of its periodic flame wars; in classic horror movie style, a softly-spoken, genteel little email list, which normally spends its days politely relaying conference announcements and information about studentship opportunities, is provoked by a casual remark and transforms into a raging monster.  Clearly some sort of mutant DNA was spliced into the discipline in its past, because this does keep happening in one way or another. “I’m getting pedantic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m pedantic…”

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