Lecturing is obsolete — and always has been

Pretty much since I became a professional academic two decades ago there has been constant agitation against lecturing as a technology for teaching. Either new research has proven it, or new technology has rendered it, obsolete. Thus I was amused to read this comment in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

We talked of the difference between the mode of education at Oxford, and that in those Colleges where instruction is chiefly conveyed by lectures. JOHNSON: ‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book.’ Dr. Scott agreed with him. ‘But yet (said I), Dr. Scott, you yourself gave lectures at Oxford.’ He smiled. ‘You laughed (then said I) at those who came to you.’

Guilt of admission

When I first arrived at Oxford I expressed admiration for the rigorously academic nature of the student admissions procedure. I have since soured somewhat on the whole segregate-the-elite approach, as well as on the implicit fiction that we are selecting students to be future academics, but I still appreciate the clarity of the criteria, which help to avoid the worst corruption of the American model. I have long been astonished at how little resentment there seemed to be in the US at the blatant bias in favour of economic and social elites, with criticism largely focused on discrimination for or against certain racial categories. Despite the enormous interest in the advantages, or perceived advantages, of elite university degrees, very little attention has been focused on the intentionally byzantine admissions procedures, on the bias in favour of children of the wealthy and famous (particularly donors or — wink-wink — future donors), the privileging of students with well-curated CVs and expensive and time-consuming extracurricular activities, the literal grandfather clauses in admissions.

Now some of the wealthy have taken it too far, by defrauding the universities themselves, paying consultants to fake exam results and athletic records. The most unintentionally humorous element of the whole scandal is this comment by Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.

Fraud is defined here as going beyond the ordinary bounds of abusing wealth and privilege. You pay your bribes directly to the university, not to shady middlemen. The applicant needs to actually play a sport only available in elite prep schools, not produce fake testimonials and photoshop their head onto an athlete’s body.

Of course, this is all fraud, because no one is paying millions of dollars because they think their child will receive a better education. The whole point is to lay a cuckoo’s egg in the elite-university nest, where they will be mistaken for the genuinely talented. For a careful (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the costs and benefits of this approach, see my recent article on optimised faking.

From the archives: Charitable giving to universities

With The Guardian portraying the magnitude of Oxford and Cambridge college endowments on the front page as a major scandal — though taken all together they don’t reach even half of the endowment of Harvard — it seems like a good time to repost this comment I made five years ago, when the government was being attacked by Oxford’s chancellor for considering limiting the tax deduction for charitable donations to educational institutions. The post begins:

Let’s think this through:

  1. The government wants philanthropic funding of universities to replace public funding.
  2. Under current law, contributions to universities (and other charities) are matched by a 40% tax rebate for higher-earning taxpayers, so 2/5 of the costs of nominally “private” contributions are actually paid by the taxpayers. The government proposes to cap this subsidy at 15% of income or  £20,000.

Do you see the contradiction? Neither do I. In a time when the government is cutting funding for all manner of worthy projects, it seems pretty undemocratic to effectively allow wealthy citizens nearly unlimited access to the treasury to support their own favourite causes. The £560 million in charitable gifts last year presumably included more than £200 million in “gift” from the government. Whether or not this is a good thing, it seems troubling, as a point of democratic principle, that control over these £200 million has been passed from the citizenry at large (in the person of their elected representatives) to the infamous “one percent”.

For the rest, see here.

I think everyone would agree that if the wealthy elite want to spend their money on providing luxury education in medieval buildings to particularly talented young people, many but not all of whom come from privileged backgrounds, that’s probably not the most useless or antisocial thing that they’re free to do with their money. (And I can confirm, from personal experience, that Oxford colleges spend insane sums of money on maintenance for their buildings.) But as long as they’re leveraging public funds, which the current government has decided to withhold from educational institutions that serve a broader public far more efficiently, it’s no longer a simple matter of private choice.

Counting to 20

I’m sitting in the Sheldon Theatre for a meeting of Congregation, Oxford University’s governing body, to discuss a suspension of rules to allow a discussion of the proposed resolution to change the university’s negotiating posture on the pension issue. (The motion was proposed with only 18 days notice, rather than the required 22.) The rules allow 20 members to rise (ageism!) to object, which blocks consideration.

It surprised me how determined the university administration was to block this vote.

But it also surprised me how difficult it was to count to 20. It took around ten minutes. They seemed to keep getting confused, and needing to recount various sections.

Whether there really were 20 I’m not sure, but they finally said there were, and adjourned the meeting, to shots of “Shame!”

At which point the meeting was spontaneously moved outside, and a wildcat vote was held.

Why I am striking

Strike actions have been conducted every year or two since I’ve been at Oxford. At the first one I participated unquestioningly. My previous job was at Queen’s University in Ontario, where everyone was a member of the union, and the union was our joint instrument for protecting our rights, both academic and contractual. So if there’s a strike, I figured, everyone stops working.

I felt like I’d fallen for a prank. There were three days of “strikes”, on three different weeks, I signed up to forego my salary for those days, joined three other people on a picket line for an hour, while all of my colleagues were at work — and all my work still had to get done on other days. The strikes would go unnoticed, but the 1.5% after-inflation salary cut would be replaced by 1%, approximately replacing the pay lost by striking, and the whole process would repeat a year or two later.

I consequently ignored the most recent strike action, to begin with. But I’ve now come to realise that this is a more serious matter. The strike isn’t continuous, but it covers most workdays over a period of four weeks (to begin with). The basis of the conflict is more fundamental than a one-percent salary cut: the decision by employers to offload pension risk onto the individuals, in replacing defined-benefit plans by defined-contribution plans. It’s not just a matter of how we — and particularly our younger colleagues — are being treated, and how it will affect people’s financial plans. It is part of a longer-term struggle about who will stay in the profession, and who will choose to enter the profession in the future. And of the struggle to define the nature of the academic profession, and of academic institutions.

I entered academia long after those halcyon days when there was an easy path for any reasonably smart person to a secure job. But there was still a sense that an academic career was a plausible aspiration for normal people from all kinds of backgrounds, and that one could plausibly trade away a quick grab at the high salaries of private industry against a quieter, socially useful, and more contemplative life, that would provide at least financial security and a long planning horizon.

Last week we received a letter from Oxford’s registrar, arguing that the pension cuts were unavoidable. Not to worry, though:

Nothing in the current proposals changes anything that USS members have already accrued as pension rights.

This line rankled. It is a direct appeal against solidarity. For all the aggravation that one should have over opaque employment practices and discriminatory pay at Oxford, the fact is that every one of us who have permanent jobs at a leading research university has won the lottery grand prize compared with what is left for equally talented students. We are clinging to the last helicopters fleeing the ruins of the academia that most of us aspired to join. The younger academics who had the poor foresight to be born too late are being overrun.

Decisions are being made on the basis of an ideological assertion that co-operative academic institutions motivated by a shared pursuit of truth and scientific advancement have no future: Universities need to emulate the soi-disant successes of British industry. They need to be ruthlessly hierarchical and constantly marketing their “product”. The proximate cause of  the strike is a qualitative cut in pension rights — the shift from defined benefits to defined contributions — driven by irrational changes to official pension valuation methodology, combined with universities’ boundless need for capital to fund expansion. (Lest one think that expansion might be good for higher education in the long run, and hence for higher education careers, it should be noted that student numbers have actually been declining. In keeping with its ideology of competition, the government seems to be promoting a contest for dwindling resources.) Those of us who got in ahead of the capitalist singularity are being promised a partial reprieve, in exchange for acquiescence to the

I don’t want to strike. It creates conflict. It disrupts the lives of students. It disrupts my own life. At a time when the position of all foreigners is particularly under threat in this country, I’d like to keep my head below the parapets. I don’t like getting caught up in fights between different groups of English people, that always seem to involve subtexts that no foreigner can understand. Especially in Oxford, participating in strike action feels like the opposite of collective action.

In discussions with several colleagues in recent days I tried to argue for why I, personally, shouldn’t strike. No one tried to persuade me otherwise, but I frankly could even persuade myself. The arguments rang hollow, particularly the argument that I don’t know which portion of my work counts for my three-days contribution to the university. (Oxford academics have a complicated division of roles between university and college, and the colleges are not being targeted by the strike. Oddly, because all reports suggest that they had an outsized role in provoking the strike.)

I am inspired by reports of young academics walking picket lines, and humbled by the support of the National Union of Students, which wrote

We believe that fairly rewarded staff are the cornerstone of the university experience and that the proposal by Universities UK to substantially cut the pensions of members of the USS pension scheme will be hugely damaging if implemented.

Day by day we accept the small privileges that accrue to us from the steady erosion of opportunities for the younger generation of teachers and scholars. Now, in the rare circumstance where a decision is forced upon us, where the cost to ourselves is minimal, where the students themselves — “think of the poor students!” — are collectively supporting the action, at the very least now we can take this tiny step in support of our colleagues, and of hope for better conditions in the future. A step that will take me out of my office and down the street, to the picket line.

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

Racism in context

Oriel College, Rhodes BuildingThis story happened to a friend of a friend — FOF in urban legend technical parlance — when I was a student at Yale. Said FOF had applied for a Rhodes scholarship, and was invited for an interview. Reading the FOF’s application letter stating that he sought to “further the legacy of Cecil Rhodes”, one interviewer asked, “When you refer to the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, do you mean in particular his legacy as a white supremacist or as a pedophile?”

I’m not sure if it’s credible that a representative of the Rhodes Trust could speak so disparagingly of its founder — this may be an example of British establishment values refracted through the prism of 1980s American student sentiment — but the principle is solid: Many who advocate leaving monuments to dubious figures of the past in situ — whether Cecil Rhodes or Robert E. Lee — complain  suggest, instead of “rewriting history” that this statuary needs to be seen “in context”. But they rarely concern themselves with providing the full context.

Now that Charlottesville has deposed its racist monument and Oriel College has kept its own, I wondered if the Oxford City Council might propose a solution amenable to all. Accepting the right of Oriel and its not-at-all-racist historically-minded alumni who refused to donate to a Rhodes-free institution, there is still plenty of space in front of the facade for more context. As it stands, the college places Rhodes in the context of two 20th-century kings and four 15th-16th-century college provosts and bishops. The city (or enterprising protestors) could contribute more context by placing an exhibition out front of famous British racists — for example, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Enoch Powell — with the Rhodes statue in the centre.

Mandatory retirement age

Oxford University’s ruling body, the Congregation, had a meeting recently to discuss the possibility of abolishing the university’s mandatory retirement age, with the somewhat orwellian title of Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). EJRA is provided for in the 2010 Equality Act that banned various sorts of discrimination, including age discrimination. Every serious discussion of this topic uses pilots as an example: Safety functions depending potentially on fast reflexes, known to decline with age, and hard to evaluate individually. Not really analogous to a typical university post. Instead, the argument is that the old need to be pushed out to make way for the young, a matter of intergenerational fairness. Of course, there is nothing special about universities in this point — except that university posts are seen (by some) as singularly attractive. It’s a kind of discrimination Catch 22: Anti-discrimination law allows people to keep their jobs as long as they wish (and are performing them competently) only if it is a job that is unpleasant and that they would rather quit as soon as possible. If you have an attractive job that you’d like to keep doing, then you have to retire to make way for new people.

Although my research on ageing has concerned itself largely with technical issues, and often with evolutionary theory rather than social issues, I have been interested from the start in questions of variability in ageing patterns, and I have read some of the literature on the destructive effects of age stereotypes. Personally, I’ve always felt strongly attracted to the sartrean dictum that existence preceeds essence and have reacted viscerally to constraints placed on people because of the categories they are associated with. Continue reading “Mandatory retirement age”

Infinite sponsorship

I’ve just been reading the novel Infinite Jest, and immediately struck by the originality of Wallace’s conception of corporate sponsorship. Universities such as my own have been willing to paste sponsors’ names on buildings, institutes, libraries, posts, scholarships, quadrangles, and pretty much anything else that is identifiable on a map or organisational chart, but they have left the temporal dimension barely touched. Whereas in Wallace’s novel the naming rights to years are sold off, so that a date might be referred to as 1 November, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, or Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, we still name our terms for medieval feast days: Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity terms. Imagine if, instead, we had Nuffield Term, Sainsbury Term, and (Your-Name-Here) Term.

Of course, that is not the limit. (Of course!) There are periodic arguments in my subject over abandoning the dowdy name of “Statistics”. “Information science” and “Data science”are two alternatives that have been proposed. But if we are going to change our name, why not get paid for it? We could become the Department of GlaxoSmithKline. Across the way the Computing Laboratory would become the Department of Google. And what we now know as the Department of Mathematics would be more recognisable to prospective students as the Department of Goldman Sachs. They’re not fooling anyone.

The Rhodes goes ever on and on

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.