Don’t feel obliged to have a clue

Like many academics, I occasionally see journalistic comment on something I know about, and wonder how such nonsense gets published. In the interests of impact, or informing the public, we sometimes try to set things straight.

So, here is some of what is wrong with Will Hutton’s article blaming Donald Trump for the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, not that I want to be seen as defending Trump. Hutton lays a fair bit of the blame at the door of Boeing, contrasting its approach to that of Airbus, and the approach of the US aviation regulator to that of its European counterpart. Begin here:

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So now engineers are jihadis too?

[This post is to be treated as a draft rather than a fully-developed position: so I welcome comments, and requests to expand points, and may well change my mind about certain things.]

Not for the first time, the argument is being made that STEM turns its graduates into uncultured oafs, recoverable only through the application of the mind-soothing balm of the humanities. This time, however, it’s serious: Paul Vallely, citing a British Council study, claims that there is `“an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.

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How to be a bastard: crowd control in the academy

When I had my first academic job, new staff spent a couple of days of induction learning about how to teach. On the afternoon of the last day, which was the Friday before teaching started, the course tutor asked if there was anything he hadn’t covered which we would like to learn about.

A colleague said he had 150 first year engineering students on Monday. I laughed. The course tutor laughed. Nobody else laughed. The tutor explained to the other academics, mainly from the humanities, that engineering students, at least in Ireland, are a notorious shower of animals, liable to throw things at the lecturer, including, on one occasion, a frozen chicken.

“So you want to know how to be a bastard?”
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War on the humanities, again

The THE reports that leading historian Professor Peter Mandler has delivered a paper on the “crisis in the humanities”, concluding that there isn’t one. In particular, he says:

It is hard to take too seriously talk of a crisis in Britain when even by the narrowest definition of the humanities the absolute number of humanities students has increased fivefold since 1967, and by the broader definition almost 10-fold.

In the US, over a period of much slower expansion, their numbers have still doubled…Talk of a crisis triggered by a decline in a percentage point or two does seem like an over-reaction that is likely to contribute to rather than ameliorate the alleged problem.

As well as looking at student numbers, we can look at the UK data for academic staff numbers, as a proxy for resource allocation.


The figure shows the percentage of academic staff in STE (Science, Technology, and Engineering), Humanities (shown dashed), and Medicine from 1994 to 2008, using the freely available HESA data sets. The break in the curves corresponds to a change in the reporting of data. The details of how staff numbers were assigned to the three categories are given in a separate PDF.

The first part of the plot shows a drop in the percentage of STE staff, which might correspond to the closure of Chemistry departments over that time (the data for these years are not broken down to subject level), while Medicine rises, and Humanities are fairly steady.

After the change in reporting methodology in 2003, Medicine has about the same proportion of staff as before the change, while Humanities increases markedly and STE reduces. Clearly, this is an artifact of the breakdown of data and does not indicate real changes in the proportion of academic staff in STE or Humanities. The trends from 2003 onwards are validly indicated, however, and show STE and Humanities holding more or less steady.

In summary, the data from 1994 onwards show a sharp drop in STE, a rise in Medicine, and a small drop in Humanities.

Crisis in the humanities? What crisis?

War on the humanities? What war?

After I wrote a response to Professor Sarah Churchwell’s comments on the `war on the humanities’, she tweeted that if I wanted her opinion, it could be found in a piece on The Conversation, and represented a better statement of her views than a ten sentence extract from a ninety minute interview. I was not the only person to object to the comments as reported, whether in comments on the article, or in the letters page, but it seems only fair to engage with a full statement of the position.
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It’s only yourself you’re hurting in the long run

Recently, Sarah Churchwell, `one of our most prominent public intellectuals and professor of American literature at UEA’, was quoted on the subject of the `war against humanities at Britain’s universities’:

“What has changed radically in the last 10 years is that they’re trying to turn everything into a for-profit business,” said Churchwell. “And that’s bullshit. Universities are not for profit. We are charitable institutions. What they’re now doing is saying to academics: ‘You have to be the fundraisers, the managers, the producers, you have to generate the incomes that will keep your institutions afloat.’ Is that really what society wants – for everything to become a marketplace, for everything to become a commodity? Maybe I’m just out of step with the world, but what some of us are fighting for is the principle that not everything that is valuable can or should be monetised. That universities are one of the custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration. That education is not a commodity, it’s a qualitative transformation. You can’t sell it. You can’t simply transfer it.”

Churchwell is right: education is not a commodity and should not be monetized, and universities are “custodians of centuries of knowledge, curiosity, inspiration” (letting pass what Paulo Freire might have made of such a concept of learning). It can surely be agreed that universities are, in Stefan Collini’s words, places where things are studied for their own sake and that the value of education is not monetary, whether to the student or to an economy, that education needs no market justification because it is a good thing for people to be educated and for there to be places where disciplines can be pursued for their own intrinsic worth. Read the rest of this entry »

Linebaugh, Taylor and Roddick for engineers

This is a set of brief notes which I issued to engineering students on a now defunct degree, as part of a class on the social context of engineering. This is converted from a LaTeX file which accounts for the lack of direct links to references.

Chips and ships …

At the end of the eighteenth century, workers in the naval shipyards of London were paid, if they were lucky, twice a year. Their wages were subject to various deductions for on-site services (the resident surgeon was paid from the men’s wages) and for disciplinary offences (football, cricket, absence from roll calls). Furthermore, wages were often not paid at all—in 1767, wages were fifteen months behind—and since sacked workers did not receive their back pay, there was little incentive to strike (The material on the London shipyards is taken from Linebaugh, 2003).

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