Sunday, 22 November 2009

Three pieces that have caught my eye lately

1 Higher education

I'm still gearing up and gathering sources before I write a blog about some things that are currently going on in higher education, but this week two people independently drew my attention to this quite long but exceedingly eloquent article, which first appeared in the TLS, about the proposed 'Research Excellence Framework' and its impact on the humanities. The author, Stefan Collini, scrutinises the 'impact' element of the REF. It is planned that a proportion (perhaps 25%) of the assessment of academic departments in universities will be based upon the 'impact' of their research; that is, upon how that research 'achieve[s] demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society'. As Collini points out, 'impact' is defined in such a way that it explicitly excludes the influence that research has on other researchers working in the same field. One might ask i) how the impact of research on the 'outside world' might be fairly measured in certain cases; ii) how one might define 'outside world' in the first place; iii) whether a four-year assessment cycle is a long enough period for the true influence and value of work to become apparent; iv) why the value of research into, say, Victorian poetry or early cinema should be measured, even in part, by its reach beyond the academy - especially when (as Collini points out) such measurement might very well favour poorly-researched but sensational or soundbite-susceptible accounts over more thorough treatments.

Collini asks these questions and many more in an impassioned and engaging fashion.

2 Mobile phones in Iraq

A fascinating short article in The Economist describes how an alternative mode of economic exchange is springing up around mobile phones:
Reluctant to risk their lives by visiting a bank, many subscribers transferred money to each other by passing on the serial numbers of scratch cards charged with credit, like gift vouchers. Recipients simply add the credit to their account or sell it on to shops that sell the numbers at a slight discount from the original.
And as the article goes on to show, government officials, prostitutes and armed robbers are all getting in on the act.

3 Humanities vs Social Sciences

This has become a pet interest of mine recently, so my attention was grabbed by a THE article about Alan McKee, a professor of Film and Television at Queensland University of Technology, who submitted a paper about pornography to a social science journal and was told by the peer reviewers that he had to modify some of the terminology he employed. The experience led McKee to write a follow-up article, 'Social Scientists Don't Say Titwank', in which he asks
Why does a social scientist have to say 'stimulation of the penis with the breasts' rather than 'titwank'? It is clearly not a matter of imprecision - there's no suggestion that 'titwank' describes the act any less precisely. And it can't simply be a matter of elegance - the single word and two syllables of 'titwank' is more euphonious than the staccato polysyllabism needed to describe the action in less 'vulgar' language.
The THE article summarises a few of McKee's conclusions in light of his experience. I have downloaded McKee's article itself, but have not gotten around to reading it yet.