The Old Fogey Panel

I have been to more conferences than I care to remember and have often listened to old, old fogeys spouting forth. But one of the more fascinating experiences is when some very old man or woman ends up delivering a mish-mash of odd ideas, if not simply rambling on incoherently. I have wondered about knowing when to stop, when your mind and mouth are no longer what they used to be. I guess it requires someone else to tell you.

But over the last few days another idea hit me: an old fogey panel or series of panels. This would be reserved for exactly such garbled presentations, full of vague and wandering ideas. How would it work? The inspiration comes from China. A couple of years ago I attended a large conference, where one particular very old invited speaker was less than impressive. In fact, it was pure rubbish. Yet, after his presentation, countless people came forth, shook his hand, wanted photos taken with him and so on.

Puzzled, I asked the person next to me, ‘How can people be so impressed when what he said was so bad?’

‘Oh’, said my colleague. ‘We deeply respect old people, especially the very old. We show them the utmost respect. But we don’t listen to a word they say’.

Exactly why there should be old fogey panels.

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Busting some myths about teaching and research at universities

An interesting report from the Grattan Institute on higher education funding for teaching and research has just appeared. Among a number of points, I enjoyed these the most:

1. There is little direct connection between research and teaching. I suggest it is because the courses taught usually have little if anything to do with the research undertaken. This busts the myth, propounded again and again, that teaching and research go hand-in-hand.

2. Universities in Australia already make about 3.2 billion in surplus from university fees, mostly from international students. And this is with a system that has significant government input. This money goes directly into research, since universities are keen to climb the dubious league tables that do the rounds these days.

3. Funding for research has increased exponentially since 2002.

However, what the report does not say is that research is typically over-funded with minimal expectations for output. That is, they give too much money for too few results. Each year people ask for more and more money, and fellowships increase their pay levels. Yet the expected results of research are ludicrously small. This situation creates a conundrum: a researcher has to spend grant money on research activities when less than half, if not a quarter, would be more than enough for the proposed research. Why give so much money? University research standing is also assessed on the basis of research money earned. It gets even better, for now we are expected to provide a return (at 2, 3 or 5 times) on the money ‘invested’ – the creation of a pseudo-market. Perverse? Of course. Australia has the dubious reputation of leading the world in such practices. This curious situation has brought me to the point of not applying for research money any longer. As one who has managed to get a few modest grants, I find I can get more actual research and writing done without them.

Three traps of the intellectual life

Following Mao’s example in identifying three problems and then addressing each in turn, I have been pondering three traps of the intellectual life.

1. Institutional thinking. The institution – university, school, or whatever – becomes the all-encompassing horizon. Rules are studied assiduously, new directions pursued. The institution gives one meaning in life, so much so that every little, inconsequential happening looms large. They say this also happens in prisons.

2. Linear thinking. There is only one way to do things, the way mandated by the institution and most others. Busting to get some writing done? Then do it when everything else is finished. Ask for a grant, get time off, write. Need to go to a conference? Then apply for a travel grant. Want a promotion? Then tick all the boxes and put in the paperwork. Forget lateral thinking, since otherwise all sorts of opportunities might arise. Such as: use sick leave, do the things you don’t like badly, skip everything you can, use your ‘own’ money … there’s plenty of ways to do what you really want to do.

3.  I deserve it. A pay rise, a promotion, responsibility, recognition, a tiny bit of fame, your name up in lights … it’s well overdue, since you deserve it. After all, hard work should be recognised and duly rewarded. Intellectuals seem particularly prone to this vice, spending their lives believing that they have been hard done by. It seems to escape them that no-one deserves anything. In fact, the vast majority have far more than they ‘deserve’.

Exchanging ideas: between east and west

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

We were talking after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion. But after this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese, or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite different, the modes of thought and listening move differently and take quite some time to learn. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.

Should someone hostile to theology be appointed to a theology position?

This one comes up from time to time, but I have pondering it today while grouting my tiles – as you do. It is not uncommon these days for someone to be or have become somewhat hostile to theology. It is a pseudo-science, he or she asserts, studying objects that are figments of the imagination. It usually doesn’t get to the point of assuming that theology, or indeed religion, is the cause of all the world’s ills (like the ‘new old atheists’). But it may appear as consistent attacks on theology, dismissals, efforts to prove its inconsistencies, or simply disdain.

Now it becomes interesting. It is also not uncommon these days for such a person to apply for a theological position, whether in a divinity school in the USA, a theological faculty at a European university, or even a theological college.

Should they apply? Should such applications be accepted? Should they be offered a position?

It is not a matter of religious belief, which is a red herring in this context. Rather, it concerns the discipline itself. Would any interview panel seriously consider an application for a sociology position, or history, or linguistics, by someone who held these respective discipline in complete disdain?