Blast from the past

While searching my e-mail archive for a message from years ago, I stumbled across this unpublished submission to the letters page of the Times Higher Education. More than a decade later, I’m still smarting a little that they didn’t accept it for publication…

From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 30 November 2008 20:48
To: letters@tsleducation.com
Subject: Comment on “‘Clever crazies quitting science” (THE 27 Nov)

Bruce Charlton of the University of Buckingham argues that modern scientists are boring because they are mild-mannered, agreeable, and socially inoffensive (News, 27 November).

What a dickhead.

Philip Moriarty, Condensed Matter Scientist

School of Physics & Astronomy
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD

 

Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 


[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.

’twas the night before Christmas…

Published at the Times Higher Education website Dec 24 2018.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when, on a paper-strewn desk
A mouse is stirring, a blue-toothed pest…

Dear Santa,

I know I’m well past the deadline to submit this annual report and request, but if you’d seen the sack-full of papers I’ve just finished grading, you’d understand. I’ve been a very good boy over the past twelve months, securing a substantial rise in my Student Evaluation of Excelling in Excellent Performance in Teaching Excellence scores and establishing a new programme of physics-cum-engineering research on a topic of particular interest to your team, viz. Sleighed: Under what loads can reindeer achieve speeds of 100 mph or more? Our sponsor, Mr. Holder, is eagerly awaiting snowfall so we can test the latest developments in our state-of-the-art sleigh technology. The impact component of this case is particularly exciting, and we’re looking forward to rolling out the results in the New Year.         

I very much hope that I make it past the Elf Review Panel this time. As you may recall, the damning report from Relferee #3 was instrumental in my ending up on the Naughty List last Christmas. (Yes, I appreciate that the feedback on that particular piece of student coursework was perhaps less restrained than it could have been. And the relferee was absolutely correct to highlight this. But, in my defence, thirty-nine comma splices in a single paragraph would push anyone over the edge.)

I have followed the sage advice of your elves and have substantially reduced the number of presents requested. While I don’t agree with the elf panel’s suggestion that I was vigorously over-egging the pudding last year, I’ll admit that I was perhaps a little bit too full of Christmas spirit at the time I was writing the letter. (You’ll be pleased to note that the five star doggy hotel holiday for Maxwell, my Maltese, is not on the list this year.)

My 2018 Christmas list is as follows, Santa. Fingers crossed that at least one of these is going to appear below the tree this year. (And no fobbing me off with a subscription to the THE. Again.)

  • 4* Paper Detector. I’ve yet to get a definitive answer from anyone, at any level, in any institution, at any time as to what definitively defines a 4* paper in the Research Excellence Framework. No, it’s not the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published, they’ll say. Nor is it the name of the journal, or its perceived prestige. Nor is it the number of citations. Apparently, it’s all about research quality – the panel members actually read the papers and they know quality when they see it. I need a 4* Paper Detector this year, Santa, so I can see what they see.
  • Corporate-Speak DeBolloxerTMEngaging our stakeholders in innovative synergies, going forward, by expressing our USP in an environment where excellence is paramount ….” Arrrggghh. Make. It. Stop. Please, Santa, I really, really, really need the DeBolloxer this year so that I can translate, into gold old honest-to-goodness English, the torrents of this nonsense that infest and infect my inbox.
  • League Table Legends board game (with all-new Metrics Massager). This is both a fun and educational present, Santa. I’ll be able to learn all about the bells, whistles, tricks, and japes that make university league tables such an exciting part of the higher education landscape. Choose a university and manage it to maximise its league table ranking! No need to bother with all that old school 20th century stuff like trusting staff and providing an environment in which they can flourish. No, just rely on massaging the metrics until they bleed – so much more entertaining.
  • “When I Were A Lad…” box-set. (A total of 48 two hour DVDs, each narrated by Jordan B. Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, in his own inimitable style.) I’ve got to be honest, Santa, this one’s not for me. It’s instead a gift for one of my somewhat more jaded and knackered colleagues who, despite all evidence to the contrary, points to those halcyon days of yore when men were real men, women were real women, and students would rise at dawn to do triple integrals, vector calculus, and eigenvalue problems before breakfast, all the while debating the merits of a Keynesian approach to fiscal policy as they composed their latest symphony.

Yours in anticipation,
Philip (aged 50)
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham, UK

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

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My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

I’m reblogging this important post by Jeff Ollerton on retiring the description of postgraduate researchers as “PhD students”. This has been something of a bugbear of mine for quite some time now. We ask that PhD researchers produce a piece of work for their thesis that is original, scholarly, and makes a (preferably strong) contribution to the body of knowledge in a certain (sub-)field. Moreover, the majority of papers submitted to the REF (at least in physics) have a PhD candidate as lead author. Referring to these researchers as “students” seems to me to dramatically downplay their contributions and expertise. I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and use the term “postgraduate researchers” from now on. The comments section under the post is also worth reading (…and there’s something you don’t hear every day.)

Over to you, Jeff…

Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

2018-11-10 17.40.18

Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller…

View original post 332 more words

“I’m a social media manager who hates social media”

A very, very quick blog post about this brutally honest and deliciously forthright cri de coeur: “Anonymous: I’m a social media manager who hates social media“. Well worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Sample quotes:

I hate being part of this machine. I hate helping these platforms grow – these spaces that fail to deal with fake news and abuse, and that are contributing to so many people having poor mental health.

These are all the kinds of things you’d probably expect to hear from a middle-aged man – the sort of old git who loves to get on his high-horse about, well, anything that disagrees with his world view.

But – surprise! – the person writing this article is actually a millennial. Moreover, a millennial who also happens to be a social media professional with more than a decade’s experience.

Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew

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I’m just back from a fascinating and thought-provoking day at Woburn House Conference Centre in London where I had the pleasure of contributing to Making An Impact: Marketing and Communications in Higher EducationI’ll quote directly from the blurb for the conference:

 Making an impact: Marketing and communications in higher education will bring together communications, marketing, external relations and digital professionals to discuss the particular nature of university marketing and communications, to draw inspiration from outside the sector, and to examine case studies to help you progress and enhance your own marketing and communications strategy.

At the start of the academic year, the conference organisers, Universities UK, invited me to present and run a breakout session on the upsides and dark sides of social media in academia. I was delighted to have been invited, but what I found rather surprising, if not a little disconcerting, when I scanned down the list of hundred or so delegates this morning was that I was apparently the only academic attending.

Now, I realise that, as is clear from the blurb above, the conference was pitched at those in higher education comms, marketing, and external relations. But still. A conference on core aspects of HE that was largely academic-free is symptomatic of the troublesome “us and them” divide that increasingly exists between those “at the chalkface” and our marketing and comms colleagues at the “centre”. Although I’ve been fairly — or unfairly, depending on which side of the divide you fall — scathing of the more corporate aspects of HE branding, I of course fully recognise that we academics need the support and guidance of our colleagues in marketing and comms. But that runs both ways; there has to be mutual recognition of each other’s expertise. I hope that more academics will get involved with this type of conference in future.

Despite initially feeling like a stranger in a strange land, however, I got a great deal out of the conference. Robert Perry‘s opening presentation on “influencer mapping” was fascinating. Perry made a strong case for the much greater online influence of the individual academic over that of the institution, which chimes with our experience with Sixty Symbols (and Brady Haran‘s other channels): the lack of a corporate “sheen” in connecting and engaging with an audience is almost essential.  As a fellow geek, I was also intrigued by the “connectivity mapping” that Perry presented in the self-styled “Geeky Bit” part of his presentation.

Next up was the engaging and informative Sian Griffiths, Education Editor for the Sunday Times, who was interviewed by Michael Thompson of Universities UK. This was a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from the unhelpful defensiveness of a certain breed of  university press officer to whether unconditional offers for university applicants are a good idea. (As an admissions tutor, the latter certainly piqued my interest.)

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Closing the morning session, we had Kirsty Walker, Director Media Relations, University College London and Beth Button, Campaigns Manager, Universities UK on the #MadeAtUni campaign. Georgina Munn’s tweet below captures the core rationale for #MadeAtUni. (Georgina is Customer Success Manager at The Access Platform (TAP)).

At this point I had not imbibed caffeine for a good ninety minutes, so rushed to grab a coffee before the palpitations kicked in. (Again.) Then it was up two flights of stairs to the Boardroom for a session on crisis management from Will Marsh, Head of Media at Bristol University, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager for the Science Media Centre. Universities UK worked Will hard for the conference — not only did he co-present this session but he and I jointly delivered a breakout session after lunch (see below). Will discussed the tragic student suicides that have happened at Bristol University over the last two academic years, describing just how he and his team dealt with the issues with sensitivity and insight. (Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail did not exactly cover itself in glory in its coverage of the tragedies. Handling intrusive tabloid coverage was a recurring theme of Will’s talk.)

Tom Sheldon similarly made mention of tabloid hyperbole in his presentation…

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Despite being very much of the “glass half-empty, fallen on the ground, crushed to bits…and we’ll never get the wine stains out of the carpet” persuasion, I was hugely encouraged by Tom’s slide below:

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In case you can’t read the text above, the headline message is that 90% of the UK public (via the MORI Public Attitudes To Science survey in 2014) trusted scientists working for universities to follow the rules and regulations of our profession. That is remarkable (and, from certain perspectives, rather at odds with attitudes to academics across the pond).

Will and Tom’s Q&A had to be curtailed so we all could go to lunch. Will and I made our way back to the Boardroom for our session, “Communications professionals and researchers: Collaborating for success”. I discussed my rather polarised relationship with social media. Working with Brady Haran on Sixty Symbols, Numberphile (and, very, very occasionally, Periodic Videos), and with Sean Riley on Computerphile, has completely changed how I think about not only public engagement but teaching in general. But I’ve also written about the deep downsides of social media engagement both here at Symptoms… and elsewhere.

The key message I wanted to get across to the comms/marketing audience in the room (who kindly listened to me drone on for twenty minutes or so) was that it’s a mistake to think that there’s an adoring public out there waiting for academics to enlighten them about our most recent world-leading, pioneering, game-changing, cutting-edge (add buzzwords ad nauseum…) research. As ever for this type of presentation, I asked how many in the audience had heard of GamerGate (just five hands went up) or Anita Sarkeesian (three hands raised). This is a concern, given that this was an audience of (social) media professionals. My slides are below.

Will’s presentation focussed on just how a university Media and Communications team can collaborate with academics who have been targeted on social media (and beyond) due to research which is perceived as contentious. Remarkably, one especially contentious area of research turns out to be work on chronic fatigue syndrome. Will, depressingly, discussed how Bristol academics have received death threats due to their work in this area. (This article in The Guardian, which Will cited, highlights one example of targeting of a Bristol researcher.)

There is, of course, no silver bullet solution to protecting academics from the adverse consequences of engaging publicly. (The related issue of just where the line is drawn between professional and personal online activity was something that was raised in the Q&A session following our presentations.) Will made this point repeatedly for very good reason throughout his talk. Regardless, however, of just how we respond to each crisis, what is essential is that there are always good lines of communication and a strong professional relationship between the comms/media team and the academic staff.

For all of these reasons (and many more), next time I attend a conference on marketing and communications in HE, I sincerely hope that, as an academic, I’m not in a minority of one.

Update 09/11/2018: I’ve just scanned this week’s Times Higher Education over breakfast and read Charlotte Galpin‘s insightful and timely article on academics engaging via video: “Video must not kill the female stars of public academic debate“. Her article certainly resonated with me — Galpin echoes a number of the points that Will and I raised during our breakout session yesterday:

Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.

My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before.

It beggars belief that a university can express surprise at the type of backlash Dr. Galpin received. This lack of appreciation of just how toxic and aggressive it can get “out there” is troubling and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For one thing, Galpin’s article should be on the list of required reading for all HE media and comms professionals. Anita Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk should similarly be part of the learning resources for Social Media for Academics 101…