UnUnited Kingdom

“Rule Brittania?
The bitch has scammed ya
No smiling Union Jacks
My friends, I want my money backBut what about the system?
I think no one would miss them
Brain-dead corpses in the House of Lords
We could all learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK

Rule Brittania?
What’s she ever done for me?
Stuck a nail in the coffin of my national pride
And made the tourists hate me

This Green and Emerald Isle?
It’s just 800 miles of bile
High rise, car parks, ash tray dirt?
Well, we could still learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK”


The Case of Norm versus Criterion

Peter Coles making perfect sense, yet again. This time he highlights the clear superiority of the Leaving Certificate system over A-levels (which I similarly lauded here: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/moriarty-physicists-punctuation-communication/ )

In the Dark

I saw a news item last night that revealed the grade boundaries for some of this year’s A-level examinations in the United Kingdom. Among the surprises were that for one board an A-grade in Mathematics corresponded to a mark of 55% and an A-grade in Physics was 59%. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find these results a bit disturbing.

The explanation given for these figures is basically that there’s a new style of A-level examination this year and the boundaries were adjusted so as not to penalize the current set of students with respect to previous years. In other words, students did much worse than expected on the new examinations so the grade boundaries were lowered.

Most assessments of academic performance such as A-levels can be classified into two broad types: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced. In the former performance is measured relative to defined goals, whereas in…

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If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

The very best of luck to all those students who are getting their A-level results as I write this. It’s been a while since I reblogged the post below, but I’ve received a number of emails from students over the years who said that it helped them put things in perspective when they didn’t get the results they wanted so I hope you don’t mind another repost on results day.

I formally finished my five years stint as undergraduate admissions tutor this week, handing over the reins to my much more capable colleague Meghan Gray. I’ll blog about my thoughts and perspectives on the admissions systems in due course, but one key observation is worth highlighting today: even over the relatively short five year period of the admissions tutor role there has been a sharp increase in the number of students who had significant anxiety and stress-related extenuating circumstances. As the following post highlights, even in the worst possible case of failing as disastrously as I did, there was still a way forward…


Symptoms Of The Universe

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not…

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La Tristesse Durera (Sigh To A Scream)*

Just a few short lines on today’s post from the always-worth-reading And Then There’s Physics… ATTP’s exasperation is clear from the title of his post: “Sigh. You should, of course, read the entire piece but the lines that particularly resonated with me, following my own recent cri de coeur on the subject of online factions, were these:

Unfortunately, I think this is becoming all too common. My impression is that we’re now in a position where people who probably mostly agree about the issues, are in conflict over details that probably don’t really matter.

I really do wish it were possible to have these nuanced discussions without it turning contentious; that it were possible to have a discussion where maybe people didn’t end agreeing, but still learned something.

sigh, indeed.

*With all due credit to Mr. James Dean Bradfield and colleagues.

Online Othering: The Other Side

One opportunity I bitterly regret passing up last year was the offer to contribute a chapter (with Mark Carrigan) to this engrossing and influential book…


The blurb for Online Othering reads as follows:

This book explores the discrimination encountered and propagated by individuals in online environments. The editors develop the concept of ‘online othering’ as a tool through which to analyse and make sense of the myriad toxic and harmful behaviours which are being created through, or perpetuated via, the use of communication-technologies such as the internet, social media, and ‘the internet of things’. The book problematises the dichotomy assumed between real and virtual spaces by exploring the construction of online abuse, victims’ experiences, resistance to online othering, and the policing of interpersonal cyber-crime. The relationship between various socio-political institutions and experiences of online hate speech are also explored.

I thoroughly recommend you get hold of a copy, by hook or by crook. (I am also delighted that one of the editors of Online Othering, Dr. Karen Lumsden, took up an Assistant Professor in Criminology position here at the University of Nottingham at the start of the week. Welcome to Nottingham, Karen!)

Mark and I had planned to submit a chapter on the “SJW vs anti-SJW” culture wars but we were both swamped with other commitments at the time and just couldn’t deliver. A year on, however, and after reading Online Othering in its entirety on a recent flight to the US, I think I’d take a slightly different, and somewhat less strident, tack if I were writing a chapter for the book right now. There’s a whole other side to othering that I’d like to explore.

The term “othering” is helpfully defined by Karen and her co-author/co-editor Dr. Emily Harmer in Chapter 1 as follows,

The practices and processes through which the ‘outsider’ is constructed are encapsulated via the notion of ‘othering’. According to Lister, othering is a ‘process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between “us” and “them” – between the more and the less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained’ [Lister, R. (2004). Poverty. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 101]. It involves constructions of the self or ‘in-group’, and the other or ‘out-group’, through identification of what the former has and what the latter lacks in relation to the former [Brons, L. (2015). Othering, an analysis. Transcience, 6(1), 69 90]. It is the means of defining into existence a group perceived to be ‘inferior’ [Schwalbe, M., et al. (2000). Generic processes in reproduction of inequality: An interactionist analysis. Social Forces, 79(2), 419–452.]

“The Other” is subsequently placed in the context of Simone de Beauvoir‘s “The Second Sex”,

 [Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. [De Beauvoir, S. (1976 [1949]). The Second Sex. Paris: Gallimard.]

but de Beauvoir herself substanitally broadened that definition later (p.52) in The Second Sex

No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself … [T]o the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.

“Online Othering: Exploring Digital Discrimination and Violence on the Web” focuses on othering perpetrated by a variety of right-leaning and (far-)right wing, reactionary, and conservative groups, viz. the alt-right, Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs), anti-feminists, anti-trans-rights pundits, white nationalists/supermacists, and anti-social-justice warriors. The title of Chapter 4 tells you all you need to know about the extent of the sickening online abuse* discussed in the book: ‘ “I Want to Kill You in Front of Your Children” Is Not a Threat. It’s an Expression of a Desire’: Discourses of Online Abuse, Trolling and Violence on r/MensRights’

As outlined in the excerpts from the book above, however, “othering” is a much broader concept and involves social settings where those outside our “tribe” can be identified and discriminated against. Some who would traditionally describe themselves as “of the left” (or at least left-leaning) are more than capable of online othering, even when it is entirely counter-productive and ultimately slows progress in furthering diversity and equality.  At best, there’s an exceptionally irksome tendency towards holier-than-thou “purity testing” (and the associated “People’s Front of Judea” in-fighting and backbiting); at worst, others are demonised and/or cast out simply because they’re not sufficiently well-aligned with the values of our tribe. Most depressingly, even when “The Other” recognises and admits to their mistakes, this is not enough. They still have to be avoided like the plague.

Here’s a topical example of what I have in mind:

Great, one might think. A careful and nuanced admission from an ideological opponent that his political party is enabling white supremacy; a clear attack on Trump from behind enemy lines. What could be better? Isn’t this to be loudly applauded? Shouldn’t Senator McCollister receive plaudits from “our side” for calling out the far-from-covert racism of Mr. Trump and his allies?

Scroll down that thread and you’ll find those who are indeed willing to give credit where it’s due, who get beyond the tribalism, and who realise that if we want to make real progress then we have to be willing to accept that those with whom we have political, religious, and/or ideological differences are not invariably evil incarnate.

But then you also find those who will never see Senator McCollister (and, indeed, all Republicans) as anything other than The Other…

This type of ideological puritanism is both bloody exhausting and worse than useless. What does it get us, other than a few more “likes” or “retweets” from similarly-minded members of our tribe? To make real progress, and as Dave Fowler expressed so well in a previous post, occasionally we need to break the rules of the game and step outside the conventions of our tribe.

I’m writing this post from Castleblaney in Co. Monaghan, where I’m on holiday with my son, and which is very close to where I grew up in the seventies and eighties — a time of H-blocks, hunger strikes, Bobby Sands fervour, and regular bombings in the North and the mainland. Monaghan is a border county and also rather Republican — albeit in a rather different sense than for our US cousins — in its outlook. The Northern Ireland peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, did not come about by one side othering the other; those deeply polarised, sectarian divisions were not bridged by the type of tribal mentality that underpins modern online political (and apolitical) debate. It was instead a triumph of compromise, and of recognising the humanity of The Other.

* As the editors deftly point out in their introduction, the offline and the online are, of course, not disconnected, orthogonal spheres of activity: “Moreover, despite the inclusion of the term ‘online ’, we, like others, believe it is important to acknowledge that these behaviours do not occur in a ‘virtual vacuum’—they are part and parcel of everyday life and have real consequences in what some have chosen to call the ‘real’ (versus the ‘virtual’) world. We must throw out the well-worn dichotomies of ‘online versus offline’, and ‘virtual world’ versus ‘real world’, and instead acknowledge the interconnected and fluid nature of our everyday use of information and communication technologies.”