Monthly Archives: December 2010

A bit of Victoriana

Everyone loves a bit of Victoriana at Christmas, so I thought I’d dig out some of my notes on children’s science books in the 19th century.

(preface of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

The 19th century was the age of professionalisation of science. The word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1833 [EDIT: or even really used until the 1870s], and the period was one for exploring ways to earn a living from scientific work, developing specialist scientific training institutions (including my own) and establishing a flurry of scientific societies. A boom in popularisation of science was part of this process, as the very notion of something to be popularised is both caused by and helps emphasise a sense of a distinct professional culture of science. As Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman have argued, as well as scientists hoping to push out popular texts, there was a ‘pull’ from a keen market of science fans too. This market included young people, or at least the adults who bought books for them.

Not that writing about science for young people was new. One might argue the very first children’s book was on science, but there does seem to have been a bit of a boom in the period. It’s noticeable how many of the writers of such books were women. Indeed, Richard Holmes, in his Observer article last month on the ‘lost women of science’, argued that one of the ways women have quietly contributed to science has been through science communication.

My first example is a publication that (just) predates the 19th century: Evenings at Home: or, the Juvenile Budget Opened by brother and sister team John Aikin and Leatitia Barbauld. Aimed at 7-10s, this appeared between 1792 and 1796 in six, small volumes, each costing one shilling and sixpence and was reprinted throughout the 19th century. Indeed, it remained in print until 1915, its longevity perhaps down to its continual use as a school prize, as well as the fact that the first edition came out of copyright in 1820, just as publishers were looking for content to cheaply republish.

As with many other similar titles, the book aimed to be both ‘instructive and amusing’ (take that ‘edu-tainment’ snobs, it isn’t some kind of recent abhorrence). It’s writers firmly believed that variety was the way to keep a child’s attention, so it mixed genres as well as subject matter – poetry, narrative, dialogue, all used to discuss history, chemistry and botany. It was unusual, however, in that the book didn’t draw out religious aspects to the science as Aikin and Barbauld, brought up in nonconformist Warrington Academy, did not like to impose their religious ideas upon others. This may also be an explanation of its longevity.

Aikin and Barbauld really were quite unusual in this. Indeed, the Religious Tract Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were big publishers of children’s science titles during the 19th century.  Here nature was presented as God’s creation, something scientific understanding allowed the reader to marvel at. Reading about science was a form of devotional activity. It’s worth remembering the sorts of divisions we now see between science and religion were not quite so set in place at the time (indeed, the 19th century was a key period for the laying down of such divisions).

That isn’t to say all forms of wonder in children’s popular science were explicitly religious. For example, Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea and Sky (1837) aimed to present the ‘thrilling’ nature of geology, geography and meteorology (though I should note there are still references to God in the book). As historian of science James Secord puts it:

Wonders appeals to the expansive, progressive ethos of the early industrial age. It encouraged young readers to think that adventure, travel and exploration were not just to be read about by the fireside, but possibilities to be actively pursued. With its accounts of shooting stars, mysterious caves, erupting volcanoes and scenes of extinct life, the book opened up strange new worlds to its readers. This was how many Victorians first obtained their sense of the vast global territory that was coming under the eye of western science

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 3: ix-x)

Peter Parley was a character of sorts. Originally the mom-de-plume of a New England writer, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Wonders was penned by a London-based writer, Samuel Clark, taking up the Parley brand. The narration is rather personable, talking directly to his ‘young friends’ and discusses things as if he is relaying past travels: visiting Mary Anning’s fossil shop, walking behind the falls at Niagara. Their somewhat avuncular tone is slightly different from many of its competitors, which were more likely to apply a dialogues with mothers or staged presentations between children (e.g. Tom Telescope, 1761).

Another book which applied the role of an explicitly male narrator, although this time a real person, was John Henry Pepper’s The Boys Playbook of Science. First published in 1860, in a relatively expensive gold-decorated cloth binding, it was another favourite of school prizes. It was also the most widely red introduction to physics and chemistry for young people in mid/late Victorian era.  Pepper was a star of the London stage (the inventor of ‘Peppers Ghost’) and the book’s biggest attraction was its instructions for activities sometimes known as ‘experiments’ but better described as demonstrations.

(page 25 of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

According to James Secord, the Playbook started to fall out of fashion by the First World War. Perhaps it was a victim of changes in science (e.g. the impact of relativity and quantum physics), or more in the style of communication to young people (a revolt against Victorian didacticism). The real difference between the Playbook and its successors Secord argues, is that children’s science books of the post-Sputnik era were about recruiting for scientific careers, where as Pepper was much more about moral improvement. For Pepper, scientific play was a sort of intellectual equivalent of the health and moral benefits of sport, and thus an embodiment and contributor to the increasingly gendered nature of physics in the 19th century onwards.

Young men were not asked to memorize hundreds of experiments, nor necessarily to follow careers as scientists and engineers; instead, what mattered most was mental preparation for the challenges of the modern world of global capitalism, in which life was a ‘race’ both with one’s immediate fellows and with those of other countries. Readers were expected to use the Playbook to build character and prepare for ‘The Battle of Life’, to serve nation and empire

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 6, ix)

I’ve saved the best for last: Arabella Buckley’s Fairyland of Science. Published by the map and travel publishers, Stanfords, in 1879, it was immensely popular and reprinted across north America, as well as being translated into Danish and Polish. The book aimed to cash in on the Victorian mania for fairies, and embossed gilt fairies adorned its cover. Like the Playbook, it had it’s roots in a lecture series; talks given to middle-class children in in St John’s Wood, although it feels more like storytelling than Pepper’s flashy theatrical displays.

Buckley’s mix of science and fairytale might not sit well with everyone, but as with many science writers who have followed her application of fiction or allusions to magic, the point is to imply that science is as wonderful but with the added value of being ‘really real’. Buckley’s fairies were physical forces of magnetism or gravity. I think the best way to share it is simply to quote from the first page:

I have promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of science – a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I promise you that they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whenever you wander by land or through air; and though they themselves will always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work everywhere around you.

(Arabella Buckley, 1879)

It then goes on to compare Sleeping Beauty with the initial speed of rushing water transforming into an apparently ‘spellbound’ frozen (or ‘sleeping’) state of ice. Buckley then underlines a point of beauty and poetry with reference to a tiny crystals of ice on bushes as water-drops are ‘napping’, and delicate patterns of breath caught on a window-pane.

In some respects, Fairyland of Science followed a similar publishing pattern to the Playbook, revised and reprinted up until roughly the first World War (20 times until 1919, mainly by Macmillan, as well as religious publishing houses), before slowly disappearing. Not that much-loved children’s books ever disappear as, passed on by parents or lovingly stored in personal archives, they can be very sticky cultural objects.

Looking over my shelves of 21st century kids science books, they reflect similar interests, patterns and styles as many of the 18th and 19th century books. Children’s popular science is a lot less formal now, and the genre lost explicit connections to religion a while ago, but the ghosts of Buckley, Parley, Pepper, Aikin and Barbauld still lurk amongst their pages.

Further reading:

  • Much of this post is based on the seven volume Science For Children edited by Aileen Fyfe (Bristol, Thoemmes Press: 2003). This is annoyingly rare – I couldn’t even get a copy at the British Library.
  • For a general overview, Fyfe has put a pdf of her introduction to the Science For Children collection on her publications page.
  • James Secord expanded his piece on John Henry Pepper for Science Magazine, and comes highly recommended.
  • I can also heartily recommend Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace, although you probably need access to an academic library to read it.
  • For those with access through the Times paywall, I wrote about children, science and Christmas for this month’s Eureka, which mentions some of these books in a larger context.
  • I’ve included googlebooks links above to all the titles I’ve mentioned, so you can read them for yourself. Personally I find these things fascinating, and hope you do too.

Science, citizens and everything else

I have a post over on Research Blogs about the Science and Citizen conference last week. The event was a bit of a birthday party for the House of Lords’ 2000 Science and Society report. It might seem ridiculous to run an international conference to toast a decade-old select committee report. It is. It’s also a sign of how influential the report has become.

The report is credited with formalising a model for science in society which stresses the benefits of an interactive two-way relationship between science and the public. In doing so, they also kicked off a whole movement for  Public Engagement with Science (PEST). This is often contrasted with “the deficit model”: assuming the public are deficit in scientific knowledge, to be should be spoken (down) to rather than having a useful conversation with. This “deficit model” is often associated with the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s and pretty much the bogey-man of UK science communication (and, arguably, just as mythical).

Way too much time is spent worrying about being seen to do PEST and not PUS, when in reality the public communication of science is much more diverse than that. Plus, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking all that much changed in 2000. A lot of “PEST” work is actually quite “PUS”-y (or something else entirely).

Moreover, great as many of the ideas of PEST embodied in the Lords report are, we should be open to the possibility that there are problems with them too. As I argue in the Research Blogs post, by calling witnesses like Brian Wynne, the Lords Report brought a sociological critique of late 20th century science communication into policy discourse. We couldn’t say the same for a similar critique of 21st century science communication. Criticising PEST needn’t be a defense of PUS (or simply a reactionary inability to cope with the challenge of PEST). It’s a critique of current work with an eye on making it better. The engagement community is at least ten years old. It’s time it got less defensive and got a bit more self-critical.

I’ve tried asking critical questions before, I tend not to get much of a reply.

With an eye on future models for science communication, I have a piece in Research Fortnight last week on science and “the big society” (paywalled, though most UK universities have a subscription) – see also some earlier discussion on this blogpost and comment thread. I’m quite sceptical about a lot of the big society chatter. But there is scope, perhaps, for some new thinking about science communication to grow out of it. Or, perhaps just a chance for some quite old thought on opening up the governance of science to be used for more than just their rhetoric.

Of course, “the big society” could just be another bit of political terminology on which people pin a multitude of agendas whilst pretending they agree with each other. Or it could turn out to inspire a load of people to run street parties under the auspices of doing something meaningful for democratic involvement. Not that “engagement” was either of those two things at all. <whistles>

EDIT: Simon Denegri agrees.

Brain bloggers

I’m currently doing some research on brain bloggers. The first stage is a rather basic survey (below). This is open from today until Monday the 10th of January.

By ‘brain bloggers’ I mean bloggers who write about the stuff that goes in people’s heads, whatever we think this stuff is. Such bloggers might focus on neurology or psychology, or another field entirely. It might be the history, anthropology or commercial applications of these fields. It might come under ‘research blogging’, journalism, ‘public engagement’ or some form of political activism (or several of these at once, or something else entirely). This focus might be exclusively brain-y, or brain-ish issues might be topics they occasionally blog about in the course of other work.

I’m being deliberately vague here, hence words like ‘stuff’, so I can, as much as possible, get definitions from the results rather than my own initial prejudices. At this early exploratory stage, I’m also employing a ‘snowball’ method for finding people. I’ve emailed this survey to a few people, but have asked them to pass it on too, and thought it’d be worth pasting it up publicly too.

So, brainy bloggers, can you help a researcher out? Fill in the survey and/ or pass it on.

EDIT (30th Dec, 2010): I should provide a bit more context to the research. I should have done this earlier, and will email it out with other notes to all respondents I have address for after the cut off date of the 10th. I research science writing and science writers, and am interested in blogging as part of this. I think the brain and mind blogosphere(s) are potentially a really interesting case study (as much as blogosphere works as a meaningful term…). The idea of this survey is to get a better feel for the area than I can on my own. I eventually want to do a small number of more detailed interviews with bloggers (probably over Skype). The survey will frame this, but any research papers emerging from the project may mention some details from the survey itself, especially as I have been getting such a great response. Please do ask if you have any other questions: brainblogging@gmail.com.

EDIT (13th May, 2011): update here.

——-

Please email responses to brainblogging@gmail.com. You are welcome to post your response openly to your blog if you want, though please send me the link.

Please feel free to leave any blank if you feel the question is intrusive or you simply don’t have anything to say on the subject. This will not invalidate the response.

If you want to answer a particular question anonymously, please note that next to the answer (otherwise it may be quoted next to your blog’s name).

Your answers can be as long or as short as you like and may contain URLs if you feel you have answered a similar question elsewhere.

Blog URL:

What do you blog about?

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre if science blogging? (e.g. neuroscience, bad science, ex-sbling)

If so, what does that community give you?

Are you paid to blog?

What do you do professionally (other than blog)?

How long have you been blogging at this site?

Have/ do you blogged elsewhere? When? Where?

Would you describe yourself as a scientist, or as a member of the scientific community? Do you have any formal/ informal training in science? (if so, what area?)

Do you have any formal training in journalism, science communication, or similar?

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?)

Can you remember why you started blogging?

What keeps you blogging?

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How?

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog?

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations?

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked?

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.

STS and the Bernalian nightmare

blue corners

Steve Fuller gave a seminar on philosophy of science to our MSc students last week. Always good for a provocative one-liner, at one point Steve described 21st century science and technology studies (STS) as “the poster child for neoliberal knowledge production”.

These words haunted me for the following two days, as I attended an STS conference on “Neurosociety“. It was held at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where much of STS at Oxford is based. Many other STS scholars across Europe similarly work in business schools, or at the very least have some sort of reference to “innovation” in the branding of their degrees, something Fuller made a slight dig about.

Saying STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic. However, there are questions to be asked here, especially about who STS serves, and how. I remembered a seminar I attended last year given by Jane Gregory (linked to this paper) where she argued much of the STS influenced “Public Engagement” movement had ended up being used as a way to sell novel products to the UK public (which wasn’t necessarily its initial aim). There are also ongoing questions about the ways in which STS ideas are used by climate change deniers, alternative medicine advocates or proponents of intelligent design.

One of the most entertaining papers at the Neurosociety conference was from Andy Balmer. His PhD looked at contemporary lie detection technologies. He suggested that in some respects, his work could amount to a form of market research; he wasn’t doing history and sociology as much as checking out competitors. Could he, armed with such knowlege, use STS to build the perfect lie detector? His paper’s joke, for those who are familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, suggested the commodification of the black box, complete with a range of attachments: headphones, a timer and, for the “deluxe model” a webcam and wifi. Everyone chuckled and someone suggested the black box might seem insulting, or at least limiting, to  consumers: why not sell them in a range of colours? Still I don’t think STS scholars should just laugh off the ways in which their ideas might be used. Maybe the commercialisation of STS is a good thing. Perhaps it is an important way in which it can have “impact”, as the people most interested in how technologies succeed or fail to sell are those who want to sell  technology. However, there are other ways STS might make their work meaningful to others (and find new meaning through such interactions) and other ways to funding such work too.

There was also a fair amount of talk at the conference about the ways in which neuroscience serves neoliberalism, with some debate over whether neuroscience itself critiques such a link sufficiently. I found quite a bit of this discussion a bit loose. As Will Davies asked in a question, is it neoliberalism people are talking about here, or just  liberalism, or even simply “that which happens to be around in the west today”. This debate could do with a bit more precision. There was also, I felt, slight smugness (and short-sightedness?) over STS’s ability to provide such a critique and an apparent inability of neuroscience to do such work itself. As Nikolas Rose argued at the end of the conference, the idea that neuroscientists are not critical about their field does not hold true at all.

I still think STS-ers can still provide some service here; I’m not arguing that science is simply “self-correcting”. Indeed, I think precisely because neuroscience is such a self-critical area, they would be interested in any (productive) critiques STS had to offer, and have much to offer STS in return.

One of Fuller’s other lines to our MSc students was the image of contemporary science as a sort of “Bernalian nightmare” (as in a nightmare for JD Bernal) where science had become fragmented to serve the various interests of the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry, etc. In doing so, it has perhaps lost a coherent sense of what it means to be scientific. A Bernalian dream, rather than nightmare, would see scientists working together to develop a sense of global sense of science, to keep it ‘pure’ in some way. We could, perhaps, say similar things of science studies which is increasingly located, or at least funded alongside scientific research, with scholars embedded in large-scale projects (e.g. at the LHC, or in genomics).

As I wrote a couple of months ago, I’m quite happy with the idea of science communication studies having a rather fragmented existence. It doesn’t mean scholars can’t hold an independent position, or that people within science communication studies can’t come together to share and argue about the things they study. I’m just not sure they need a coherent sense of self. Moreover, I think they work best when they work with a diverse set of stakeholders. This is something I’ve said about science for years, and I’m happy to apply it to STS too (indeed, it was studying STS that convinced me of this, along with the importance of reflexivity).

Maybe I read too much Dorothy Nelkin at a formative age, I just prefer the “critical friend” model.

The picture at the top of this p0st, in case you are wondering, is of an administration building at Imperial College, taken from a walkway underneath it, looking up.

Children, adults and climate change media

retro moment! (Blue Peter Green Book)

The picture above is of the BBC Blue Peter Green Book. Published in 1990, following the introduction of a Blue Peter green badge in 1988. Sponsored by Sainsbury’s, it also has a forward by Lord Sainsbury, who went on to become science minister for the Labour Government. I have a copy of this book* which I have used when teaching children and the green movement, and dusted it off my bookshelf last week when I had an email from Leo Hickman at the Guardian asking me asking about the new Green Santa show from cITV (trailer here).

Go read Hickman’s piece about this on the Guardian Environment blog, which uses the Green Santa programme to talk about the ‘volatile cocktail’ of combining children and climate change in some breadth. I’m quoted in the piece and added some notes in the comments thread, but thought it was collecting these thoughts here too.

Hickman suggests Green Santa could be the first time children’s TV in the UK has explicitly constructed an entire series around the issue of anthropogenic global warming. Maybe. There is  Captain Planet, but that’s American. I have some memory of a whole series of Nina and the Neurons on climate change issues last year (?) There’s also Uncle Jack from the early 1990s, but I can’t remember the details of (any?) science in this. Blue Peter‘s move to green issues in the late 1980s is worth noting, even if it was only a part of their content. There really was a bit of a wave of this around the early ’90s (great book on the subject by David Gauntlett).

Indeed, I wonder if the slightly ironic tone of the Green Santa trailer reflects the way in which a climate message has become a well-trodden ground in children’s media. It’s one of the ways I find Green Santa‘s tone very different from the more earnest Captain Planet (which because of the fictional element, we might otherwise compare it to). Chris Ryan’s Code Red series and Saci Lloyd’s Carbon Diaries as. These both start with protagonists bored by green stuff which is largely seen as a boring old worry of their parents and then, through their involvement in a new crisis, they can re-discover the issue for their own generation.

I also wonder about the role of nostalgia here. I think EDF Energy’s “it’s not easy being green” advert (‘made entirely of recycled clips’) is really interesting, especially as the girl speaking in it must be at least 30 by now. Nostalgia has run through the green movement since its origins, but this is generally nostalgia for some sort of (imaginary?) pre-modern age before we starting polluting everything. Nostalgia for something that is quite explicitly modern (even ‘late modern’) such as advertising or earlier iterations of an organised green movement is slightly different. Re-prints of children’s green books from previous generations are also significant here (e.g. 2009 version of the Lorax, below) suggesting a multi-generational culture at work here.

A potentially key difference about the 21st century examples: I’ve read some media analysis from the 1990s cynically arguing that directing environmental campaigns at children is just a way of putting the issue off for another generation to deal with. Today, I think increasingly we see children targeted as a way to get adults to think about global warming. The Observer ran a magazine cover story last year on children pestering their parents on environmental issues. We might argue that the DECC’s Bedtime Stories campaign is indicative of this adults-via-kids approach too (albeit an allusion to kids, rather than aiming at kids directly). According to the DECC, this was based on research on how to appeal to adults (though we might ask questions about this).

I’d love someone (me, given time and resources) to do some deeper research into this. The ethics, sociology and psychology of kids and climate change, including thinking about the role of children and childhood in adults’ lives. All fascinating stuff.

* I don’t, however, have a Blue Peter badge, green or otherwise. Yes, this is something I’m slightly bitter about.

The lorax loves trees

The academics are revolting

Crimes against humanities

On Monday, I wrote that it was starting to feel as if a debate on the future of higher education was finally starting to open up. Today, I have a post on Research Fortnight’s blog, Exquisite Life, about the way academics are (in their own way) starting to campaign on this issue.

I bashed out that post at the end of the day yesterday, and then went off to have a 3 hour meeting at UCL with a group of academic-activists (photos taken outside their History department). At the end of the meeting, we saw the news that MPs would vote on the raise tuition fees in England on 9 December. So, my conclusion that campus life seems to be moving little faster than usual at the moment might feel quite true over the next week.

I mention in the piece that I’d seen drafts of further letters to the press. Today, the Times published one from the Campaign for a Public University, signed by 165 academics, stressing  that students are not the only ones angry at the governments plans for education. You can read it here if you have access through the paywall (edit: now liberated). Though I don’t know if this tweet from Brian Cathcart proves my point about academic back-biting (sorry, I mean disagreement, critique and open debate) being a problem in terms of building a united front.

Edit: As well as all this essay writing, they are more and more seminars being organised too. Already spotted one at the LSE and another at Middlesex.

Research and Destroy

Something I didn’t have space for in the piece is the ways in which the students are utalising materials from their studies to better understand,  build and articulate their protests. I visited the UCL occupation on Monday, and spoke to a PhD student there, Aaron Peters:

They’re savvy in terms of conceptualizing the protest, which is a key point. I mean some of the books these kids are reading: Foucault, Derrida, Barthes… You see Lyotard, you see Deleuze, you see Guttari. You see the canon of critical theory and it’s 19 year old people, and they actually practicing it. They want to engage with it politically, in the streets. It’s no longer some sort of intellectual masturbation. It’s being used for something.

I didn’t use this on the Research Fortnight blog, because I thought a focus on academics was most appropriate on that post. However, it is a thread in the story worth bringing out, and I may well go back to it. There’s a lot more to be said about the way students are using their degrees in the protests and, perhaps, augmenting their eduction in the process. Above all, I think the student protests demonstrates quite how much students think, know and care about their degrees. If we do unlock a larger debate on the future of UK universities, it’s going to be very hard to students keep students out (not that I would have wanted to in the first place).

If you are in the area, I can recommended dropping in on the UCL occupation (before they get evicted). David Colquhoun has a post about his visit there, and there is a video on the Guardian. Or read about them directly on their blog.

Bredom is counter revolutionary