Academic Writing Month

I just caught on to the fact that November is Academic Writing Month! The hashtag #AcWriMo had crossed my radar a few times on Twitter this week, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found out what it is all about. I wrote you a brief introduction to the concept if, like me, you hadn’t yet realized this month is special for academic writers.

This is how it works, in brief:

• Decide on a goal that’s word, time or task based (and stretches you)

• Publicly declare said goal (this gives you a push from the start)

• Draft a strategy (planning in advance will focus you)

• Openly discuss your problems and progress

• Don’t slack off

• Declare your results at the end

The longer version by Charlotte Frost, the woman behind Academic Writing Month, can be found on PhD2Published.

The idea of setting a goal and drafting a strategy is something I do regularly (as a GTD disciple). What appeals to me in this project is especially the fourth bullet point: talking about your writing practice with other writers, exchanging experiences and advice. As Tarrant puts it: “Social media platforms offer a great hybrid space – somewhere between the formal institution we’re affiliated to and the comfort of our own homes – where we can think out loud, ask for advice, build a support network, write and research collaboratively.”

Declare your goals on the AcWriMo Facebook page or use the Accountability Spreadheet on Google Docs, and share your experiences using the #AcWriMo hashtag.

For inspiration, see also my page with Writing Tools.

Sorbonne en grève

The Place de la Sorbonne rebaptized as Place de la PrécaritéWe were in Paris this week and stayed at a little hotel in the Rue de Cujas. Beneath our window, whenever we looked, were two French policemen of the CRS, armed with clubs and shields. Our hotel was opposite the Sorbonne, which has been on strike for the past months.

The reason for the strike are proposed reforms in the French university system, which would involve job cuts, changes in the distribution of research and teaching time of lecturers, as well as changes in the teacher training system.

Protesters occupied the university earlier this year, and the strong police force was there to prevent that from happening again. They failed, because on Thursday afternoon strikers re-entered the Sorbonne  — see the pictures below. On the Place de la Sorbonne, rebaptized earlier this year as Precarity Square (the graffiti is gone now) a historian gave an open-air lecture on meritocracy in Middle Ages, with clear political intent.

Le Monde reported on a convention of the European University Association in Prague, where chancellors of European universities were sceptical about the liberal model of financing research and teaching. If it didn’t work for banks, why should it work for universities, asked Peter Scott of Kingston University:

Parallèlement, les universités croient moins que jamais à une approche libérale de leurs modes de financement. “Cela n’a pas marché avec les banques; pourquoi cela marcherait-il pour les universités ?”, a fait valoir Peter Scott, de l’université de Kingston en Grande-Bretagne. D’où l’insistance de tous les recteurs à demander une hausse des dépenses publiques en leur faveur.

This is an argument also made by the Dutch Historian Chris Lorenz at a recent talk I attended. Lorenz edited a volume If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? that provides a critical analysis of the growth of market thinking and corporate logic in  universities. In an earlier publication in 1993, he wondered why faculty at Dutch universities do not protest against the reforms that keep on being imposed on them. While I stood in the Place de la Sorbonne, I asked myself the same thing.

academia_eduI just added myself to, a social networking site for academics. It doesn’t lay claim on your time like Facebook does with all its little applications – it just displays academics in a tree format, according to their universities and faculties.

The tree format is a little hierarchical, but what I really like about the site is that it allows you to list your research interests. By clicking on those interests, you can see who else on the site is working on the same themes. The site also allows you to publish papers, your cv, contacts, websites and more.

What are universities for?


The League of European Research Universities (LERU) has just published a position paper on the question what universities are for. The LERU is a group of twenty European research universities (see the list; membership is by invitation only) that together seek to influence policy in Europe.

Their paper takes a strong stand against the new discourse of the primacy of direct economic benefit (well, new — according to René Boomkens, this discourse found its way into academia in the 1970s). Universities, they argue, are not supermarkets where you can order goods that are currently in demand and whose value is defined by their perceived financial value. To fund universities only by attempting to measure their output is to misunderstand what universities are for – they are not “a lever which, when pulled, will gush forth the tangible effects of economic prosperity” (§ 59), they are only one part of the process of producing a knowledge economy. If we base financial regulation only on those activities that provide output considered desirable within a short-term frame of reference, we run the risk of retaining our universities only in name. A university is a complex whole that can only function as a whole: “one cannot simply searate one element and say this is what we want and that is what we will pay for” (§ 61). The paper’s second, no less important point is that the humanities and the social sciences are as important as science and technology to the well-being of society, but stand to lose within the current short-term focus on output.

Below are key passages from the paper, which is available in full from the LERU website.

Continue reading

Measuring the humanities

The Times Higher Education reports on the British Academy’s worries that policy makers underestimate the value of the humanities and social sciences. In a recent report, “Punching Our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making,” a working group chaired by Sir Alan Wilson reported that policy makers do not make optimal use of research conducted in the humanities and social sciences. The working group commissioned a team from the London School of Economics to advice on measures to improve this situation. The team recommended that the impact of the humanities and social sciences should be measured, because, apparently “what gets measured gets better valued.” 

Fortunately, the British Academy did not uncritically accept the advice it sollicited from the London School of Economics. According to the THE, the report boldly rejects the idea that the relevance of humanities and social sciences research could be captured in mere metrics. The actual rejection is not as full-scale as the THE seems to suggest, but the text does point to the problems of measuring impact:

No single measure will capture the rich and varied contributions that Humanities and Social Sciences research makes. There is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of the research that is funded by the Research Councils. There needs to be a greater awareness among government and policy makers of the damage that over-simplistic indicators might cause. The focus should be on developing a series of indicators (as both the AHRC and the ESRC have sought to do) that will help to illuminate some of the impacts that have been achieved, while recognising the inherent constraints and limitations of such measures. [Executive summary and Recommendations; #13]

In The Netherlands, a committee called “National Plan for the Future of the Humanities” is also researching the value and position of the humanities in a Dutch context. The committee was convened in September 2007, but has not yet published their report.

What has recently been published, however, is a critique of current thinking about the university, and the humanities in particular, in terms of output and performance. In his Top kitsch en slow science Dutch philosopher René Boomkens introduces to Dutch readers arguments perhaps familiar from the works of Michael Bérubé, Marc Bousquet and Cary Nelson. According to a review in this weekend’s NRC (David Rijser, “De Verlichting doet het niet,” Boeken 19-09-2008), Boomkens questions the predominance of the idea of efficiency in the management of our universities, and challenges the notion that the quality of academic research and education can be measured. I’ll go after a copy of the book tomorrow.

See also: Alex Callinicos, Universities in a Neo-Liberal World (PDF)



Cognition, the brain and cultural history

One of the highlights of the ISCH conference so far, for me, was a paper on cognitive theory and cultural history by Evelyn Tribble and John Sutton. In April, I wrote a post on literature and neuroscience, triggered by Raymond Tallis’ objections to the application of popular neuroscience in the study of literature. He considered it a reduction of humanity to a function of the brain. Tribble and Sutton, however, propose a model that accommodates historical and cultural difference. They acknowledge that some proponents of the use of science in the humanities are universalizing in their orientation. Cognition, however, is a diversified field, and we need to be careful in choosing our allies. In their abstract (also online in the conference booklet [PDF]), they write that: 

The model of cognition we propose – Extended Mind theory and its cognate field Distributed Cognition – takes account of historical difference. […] Extended Mind theory posits that the mind is both embedded in and extended into its worlds. Thought is not merely intracranial, but depends instead upon cognitively rich environments […].

In their paper, Tribble and Sutton argued that this model can shed new light on individual agency and social practice in the early modern period. Because of the rapid changes in cognitive technologies and social institutions in the period, they argue that cognitive theory and cultural history are natural allies. They presented brief case studies of an application of Extended Mind Theory to rehearsal practice and mnemonic techniques used by actors, as well as learning practices in the early modern apprentice system. 

What fascinated me about the model, is that it allows for historicization, and even for the interaction between brain and cultural context. Therefore, the model does not only use modern cognitive theory, it also allows for the inclusion of historical, early modern theories of cognition such as the ideas Sutton discussed in his earlier Philosophy and Memory Traces – because they too, like the material practices the paper focussed on, shaped early modern cognition.

On the programme for today is a paper on a related subject, the biological limits of interpretation. In “Culture, the Body and Noise,” Bruce Johnson will explore the role of sound and the body in cultural history. His approach seems to be rather more biologically essential than Tribble and Sutton’s. Bruce Johnson writes in his abstract:

This paper articulates the possibilities of cultural analyses that is neither visually-dominated nor incorporeal. Certain kinds of sounds are already ‘hard-wired’ biologically for a particular repertoire of effects and affects. There are pre-cultural factors which constrain and predispose the affective range of sonic stimuli. […] While cultural scaffolding articulates the social outcomes of sound, there is a biological foundation circumscribing that articulation.

On a related note, I think we are in the middle of a Corporeal Turn — the body is everywhere at this conference, and is often referred to as an entity that resists discursive analysis, has its own agency, and shapes our perception of the world.

And in other news: I gave my paper yesterday, and it was well received. I changed some things, scribbled additional thoughts in the margins that I will add to my previous post later. I also need to find out how Renaissance Self-Fashioning fits into all this. I offered some thoughts on that matter during the discussion, but I need to look into it further.

Arden Shakespeare

I read on The Freudian Petticoat this morning that the Arden Shakespeare has one-sidedly decided to end their contract with Patricia Parker for her edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Arden 3 series. The Chronicle ran an article on the matter. There is also a website in support of Patricia Parker on which she tells her side of the disquieting story. The site also links to a petition started by Richard Halpern to ask the publishing firm that now owns the Arden Shakespeare to reinstate Parker as the editor.

On academic precarity

A recent article by Rebecca Atwood in the Times Higher Education reports that new research has found that young academics in the UK experience high levels of anxiety over their ability to “perform.” Louise Archer, the reader in education policy studies who conducted the research, concludes that young academics worry about the pressure to publish and obtain grants, as well as their temporary positions:

Contract researchers described the insecurity of their positions and felt that they were seen as being of lower status than permanent staff. “If you are a contract researcher you are never part of the team – people don’t remember your name […] You are just here to fill a function,” one said.

Dutch young academics are not immune to these anxieties either, as Intermediair reported only a day earlier (in Dutch). Their article states that in The Netherlands and many other European countries, the system of temporary full-time research appointments after the PhD is a trap in which most young, enthusiastic researchers get caught. After piling short-term contract on contract, seventy percent of these researchers do not get tenured.

According to Intermediair, in 1999 fifty-four percent of all academic faculty had a permanent position; in 2006 that number fell to 44 percent. I am very happy working here at the Vrije Universiteit – where I am not treated as contingent at all, quite the contrary – but I do find these numbers worrying. Although the situation with regard to teaching assistants is perhaps not as serious here as it is in America, these figures do resonate with the growing numbers of contingent faculty that Marc Bousquet describes at How the University Works.

See also:

  • Aik Kramer’s film on the position of temporary lecturers [‘flexwerkers’] at the University of Amsterdam: I love UvA [in Dutch].