Prestige

I spent 20 years at prestigious universities, first Yale and then the LSE. Now I’m at a non-prestigious one — National Chiao Tung University. NCTU is one of the top universities in Taiwan, and very famous within China, but internationally it’s largely unknown. It sounds like “Ching Chong University,” doesn’t it? Who would ever like to teach there?!

The prestige of a university lends your words a particular power. What you say has authority because you work at an authoritative place. People pay attention. “Dr Ringmar of the LSE, he must be a really smart guy!” “Dr Ringmar of Ching Chong University — he probably couldn’t get any other job!”

nctu

Prestige is a trap. Most people at the LSE go around telling themselves that they are very, very smart. Whatever their other disagreements, everyone agrees on this fact. Indeed, no one is smarter than them, no one anywhere. Meanwhile they forget that they haven’t written anything worthwhile in years. No one has any time to write. Telling themselves how important they are takes up all of their time.

Believing in your own importance is the beginning of the end for an academic. If you want to make a contribution, you have to question everything, especially your own ability to make a contribution. All great academics go from one crisis of self-confidence to another. Only the fools never doubt themselves. (Unfortunately self-doubt alone is not sufficient proof of brilliance …)

I decided to try to make it on my own. Just me alone — and my family of course — but without the crutch that the prestige of an internationally famous university provides. It’s more challenging that way. Trust me, I am the same person I always was and I say the same kinds of things. If anything I’m more productive here since I interact with more interesting people and I live in a more exciting environment. Here I can’t take my importance for granted and no one else does. I must work harder than I’ve done in years.

Blair school of what?

This is a piece of news you wish wasn’t true — the Tony Blair School of Government is to be located at the LSE! More from The Guardian here. Blair needs something to do once he finally moves out of Number 10, and the idea is that he will head a foundation to be associated with the LSE. Apparently it’s going to focus on foreign policy of all things!

Various US ex-presidents have their own foundations (Carter, Clinton), but they are independent of universities. Some US universities have schools named after ex-presidents (Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson) but the ex-presidents concerned are long dead. The LSE’s mistake is to give a living politician an academic platform.

If true, this is another example of the weak current LSE leadership getting all soft in the knees when coming in the proximity of political power. Much as Blair himself swoons when seeing Bush’s big guns. If Blair is Bush’s poodle, Howard Davies is a flea on the poodle’s back.

What self-respecting academic would ever work in a “Blair School of Government”? How many Muslim students would take classes there? Students and academics at other universities are already on the floor laughing.

OK, that’s it

I have now officially departed from the UK. The LSE summer school is over, our house is rented out, in fact I’m sitting at Hong Kong International Airport right now writing this. My flight for Taipei is in two hours. I just had an oyster omelet and a bowl of noodles. It was very delicious. There is no going back now.

I made a lot of new friends during the last half year, and many new enemies. I’ll miss you all equally. All old students: please stay in touch and come and visit me in Taiwan if you can. Meanwhile I’ll be right here, blogging as always.

Not killing Tony Blair (again)

The sirens of police cars have sounded almost continuously for the last 72 hours. Unmarked cars whizzing up and down Green Lanes with make-shift lights flashing on their roofs. As always when terrorism is concerned, everyone’s world event is our local news. Walthamstow, where 9 of the suspect of the recent terror plot live, is next to Tottenham and Tottenham is next to us. In fact one of the suspects is from Stoke Newington which is just down the road.

Of course there is no way of actually determining whether plots like this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the war in Iraq. Still it makes you wonder. If Britain hadn’t invaded, there would have been nothing to avenge. If so, what is Tony Blair’s responsibility for terrorism? Obviously he is never going to admit to a connection, but does he ever think about it? Perhaps in a private moment, if he ever lays awake at night? The mere possibility of a connection should be enough to make him break out in a cold sweat.

In the end this is a story about Walthamstow and nothing else. Or rather about Walthamstow in relation to Britain. It’s a story of what it’s like to be a second generation Muslim in Norflondon. For many Muslims the marginalization they suffer blends perfectly with the way their religion is brought low by British and American foreign policy, and they begin to see a pattern. As some young men conclude, if Britain and the US make war on them, why can’t they make war on Britain and the US? If Osama bin Laden stands up for them, shouldn’t they stand up for him? This is a perverted logic but for someone sufficiently alienated from his fellow human beings, it makes sense.

It is possible to explain terrorism without justifying it. The solution to the problem of terrorism begins in Walthamstow.

Op-ed piece for THES

The Times Higher Education Supplement wanted me to write a short op-ed piece about why I think the LSE is no better than the London Met. They are paying 200 pounds and of course I couldn’t resist such generous blood money. Since I’m actually pretty fed up writing about the LSE, and I suspect you might be fed up reading about it, I’ll put it in a “read the rest” link below.

August 15, update: the piece will appear in THES on August 18. Coming Thursday. They shortened it a bit but not very much.


**********************

What a terrible faux-pas! How could I have said such a thing? That “the LSE is no better than the London Met.” And how could I have said it at an Open Day speech where the whole point is to recruit students? No surprise everyone ganged up on me — the convenor of my department, all the big professors and the professor wanna-bes, assorted administrators and the LSE director himself. “The LSE no better than the London Met! Is the chap per chance mad?”

During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?

The truth is of course that the in-class experience of an LSE student differs very little from the in-class experience of a student at any other university, including the London Met. Think about it. The kinds of courses taught at universities are pretty much the same wherever you go. All universities have the same kinds of reading lists with the same kinds of books, the same exercises and exam questions. The differences that are supposed to be so great simply aren’t there. Those who claim otherwise are either deluding themselves or are brazenly lying.

The same is true of the lecturers, and again this is not surprising. Often after all we got our PhDs from same universities and it was nothing but luck that landed us a job at the LSE rather than elsewhere. And even if LSE academics on average may be better researchers, they are not necessarily better teachers ? and that, in the end, is what matters to students. In fact, ceteris paribus, the more famous the professor, the less time he or she is likely to spend with students. The conclusion is clear: if you want close interaction with faculty, go to a teaching university!

The average undergrad figures all this out in about three months. Yet very few of them actually transfer elsewhere. Why? This too is so blindingly obvious you’ll have to be the convenor of a department not to see it. The students come because of the other students. Above all they come to in order to get hooked up, because of the network a particular university provides.

This is of course where LSE really stands out. Its student body makes it vastly different from other universities, not just in Britain but in the world. The School has consistently been able to recruit some of the smartest, most interesting, intelligent, rich, successful and all-round attractive people on the planet. These are the movers and shakers of the future, the cosmocrats. As an LSE student you are a part of this extraordinary collection of people. This is the pool from which you draw your friends, mates, partners and lovers. Compare the LSE and the London Met by this standard and you’d be a fool to pick the latter.

But it’s also a matter of being certified. Think of this as a question of how employers pick new staff. Again the actual content of an education is of little importance. What you need to know as an employee in a particular company is to a large extent practical, hands-on, stuff which universities can�t teach you. Besides many employers don�t trust universities. Ergo, much of what students learn is pretty useless for their working life.

Why then are employers interested in university trained people? It�s simple. What they want are bright and very competitive young men and women who are prepared to subject themselves to hours and hours of mindless exercises under stressful conditions. How can they find these people? In the universities of course. Picking the best students from the best universities, these are the kinds of people they get.

As students and as teachers we may rebel against this logic but there is nothing we can do about it. Resigning themselves to the laws of the labor market, the LSE becomes a potential student’s obvious choice. An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.

Poor old self-important professors, they really think the students show up in order to listen to their ramblings. Sancta simplicitas!

Ever since that fateful Open Day speech, I have been treated as a whistleblower, as someone who revealed secrets about the inner workings of one of Britain’s most hallowed institutions. How silly. I’m blowing no whistles. I’m much more like a boy innocently commenting on an emperor’s choice of clothing, thereby revealing, shall we say, a certain pretentiousness.

Erik Ringmar is professor at the Institute for Social and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung Univesity, Hsinchu, Taiwan. He taught in the Government Department at the LSE from 1995 to 2006. His new book I’m Blogging This: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital Age will be out next year.

Back in London with turian

I’m back in London again to teach a summer school course. I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I had promised to and I need the money. The students are always great and I’ll get into it. My wife and the kids are in Taiwan. Diane is putting on a brave face, engaging in a lot of retail therapy by the sound of it.

turian

I brought a turian with me to London. Turian, or durian, is the only truly offensive fruit. Its smell is totally nauseating. It’s a sensual, underweary, odor mixed with something sweet and something dead. No surprise turian is banned in Singaporean hotels. People on the flight over all turned their heads as I checked in.

Actually I don’t even like turian, I don’t eat it, but I use it as a talisman. The smell is so unique, so Southeast Asian, and it cannot be mistaken for something English. The smell will remind me of my new life as I struggle through the three weeks of the summer school. The smell will protect me from Englishness, from LSE bosses and from other bad spirits. It seems to be working — in fact, everyone seems to stay away!

The only problem now is telling when the turian has gone bad. How long can I keep it in the refrigerator? How do you know that something so foulsmelling should be thrown out?

Taking off

We are preparing to make the big move. There is a goodbye party happening in our garden even as I write this. Good friends and neighbours coming over to say their farewells. We are leaving London after 11 years. I don’t really know where Taiwan is located, and still we are going. I don’t even know why we are going, and still we are going.

Breaking up and starting again is what my life always has been about. I never felt like an immigrant to Britain, only as a temporary visitor. I never belonged here but then again I never belonged anywhere. I was here for a while that’s all — and now I’m leaving. The human condition.

Yet it is very much a case of leaping first and looking later. Strangely I’ve managed to convince my wife and children to follow me. They are easily fooled. Even if our lives in Taiwan turn out to be worse than here, they will be better. Different is always better if you have had enough of the same.� As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “the man who is tired of London should move to Hsinchu, Taiwan.”
July 6th update: we are leaving this evening, got visas from the Taiwanese consulate this morning — this is really scary!

Dylan again

We went down to Bournemouth to the Dylan concert, just me and my wife this time. It’s only six months since we saw him in Scotland, but I’m a fan and I have no choice in the matter. If Dylan is calling, I will come. The concert was great of course, although very similar to the one in Glasgow. Same band, same hats. Highlights included a first-rate version of “Masters of War” and a very good “Cold Irons Bound.”

The first song was clearly about me and my relations to my present employer:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
They hand you a nickle
They hand you a dime,
They ask you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time,
Then they fine you every time you slam the door.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

Afterwards I had the most terrible post-concert blues. I felt like I had missed an opportunity. The weird, cranky, outsider came from far away and into our lives for a short while. He conveyed some kind of message and then he took off again. What did he say? Why didn’t he tell us what we wanted to hear? Wicked messanger indeed! When the circus left town we were forced to stay put.

The only cure for a post-concert blues is to go to another Bob Dylan concert as quickly as possible. Sigh.

Big wood pile

I have a big wood pile in my backyard. Swedes measure their manliness with the help of the size of their wood pile and mine is huge. Usually it’s an enormous collection of firewood that men in the Swedish countryside keep for the winter. A well dried and neatly stacked pile is the best protection against the bitter winter winds. A Swedish man may chew tobacco, he may never change his underwear, he never talks except to curse — but yes, his pile of wood keeps his family warm through the winter.

wood pile

OK. My pile here in London is a bit different. It’s the wood I bought a year ago for my friend across the street, the conceptual artist who is a carpenter in the day-time, who had promised to come over and build us a conservatory. Despite continuously pestering him, he could never be bothered to actually get the job started. Now the pile is a piece of conceptual art. Everyone who sees it thinks ‘Man, that’s a big wood pile! I wonder why they have that big wood pile in their backyard?’ But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a monument to my Swedishness. A small piece of my manliness in the middle of the enormous, emasculating, metropolis.

We used to have PhD students over for dinner right at the beginning of the Michaelmas term. First we served them vodka, then we fed them fermented herring, then we took them into the backyard for the annual axe-throwing competition. In my part of Sweden they make double-sided axes which are great to use for throwing. We had a sawn-off tree stump as a target and gave points for the ones who hit closest to the centre. Of course everyone got too drunk and started falling about. The axe-throwing got, so to speak, out of hand. Once the police flew by in their helicoptre and we waved our axes at them and cursed. ‘This used to be Viking land you know! Before you Normans arrived!’

Sweden v. England

OK, so this is the day when Sweden is playing England. There is no ignoring it. In fact, yesterday I found myself going off to buy a set of gigantic Swedish flags which my daughters today are wearing. And I always hated all that nationalistic nonsense! But somehow it’s different when you live abroad and when you have children. There is surely no better day on which to affirm your Swedish identity.

Sverige supporter

I don’t mind England beating us really, as long as they don’t go on past the quarter finals. The English always thought ball kicking was their invention and they think they wrongfully have been deprived of the World Cup ever since 1966. All this pent-up Saint Georgian frustration that is just waiting to burst forth! No surprise all foreigners here end up supporting even the most unpalatable of the opponents. We know that if the English come anywhere near the final there will be no living with them.

Thankfully the odds are nicely stacked in Sweden’s favour. If Sweden wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach; if England wins, it’s down to the superior Swedish coach. Come to think of it, perhaps I should get some facepaint out …