Marking

I really hate marking. There is something particularly loathsome about reading piles and piles of exam scripts. Last year I read over 300 and I’ll do it again this year. It’s too much like real work, like the kind of work normal people do — like working in Tescos or answering phones.

I’m supposed to write up a motivation for why I mark a particular answer a particular way, and I do, but often it’s impossible to come up with something much to say about it. Most exam answers are good, ok, fine; it’s 63 for an MSc student and 58 for an undergrad. I don’t know why, but I feel I know a 63 when I see one. What more can I say?

I read three exams an hour — 20 minutes for each one. Afterwards I need a two hour breather to clear my head. To judge inspires dread. Coming up with reasons and motivations for one exam after another, for over 300 exams, just grinds you down in the end. It makes you wonder how God will feel the day after the Day of Judgement. He’ll probably need to take a breather too.

This is what all students should know: don’t forget the audience for your exam script is a overtired teacher on the verge of throwing up. Have pity on this poor creature: don’t hesitate, repeat yourself or deviate from the subject. Yes, and write legibly!

The scale we use is nominally from 1 to 100, but for some reason all students cluster in a very small spectrum. For MSc students it tends to be from 62 to 66. What we should do is to scrap all this accursed marking, identify the few really outstanding students and the few duds, and then randomly assign everyone else a mark between 62 and 66. It would save a lot of time and headache.

It would be interesting to read some study on the psychology of marking. I mean, why is it that we arrive at a particular mark rather than another? Of course we claim that it’s all about the knowledge and analytical skills of the student concerned, but that’s an empirical claim that might be false. It could just as well be the handwriting or the sentence structure. Why do we decide that someone is smart and someone is not? I don’t think anyone really knows.

The union is trying to convince us not to do any marking until the strike is over but I don’t think anyone does it that way. We all know that we’ll have to do the work in the end and we mark on the sly just to avoid ruining our vacations. For now we’re witholding our marks. That way we can remain loyal both to the union and to the students. The paperwork should be easy enough to sort out once the strike is over.

On strike

As a new union member I now find myself on strike. It’s terrible to have to inconvenience students but what can I do? You can’t ask the union to stand up for you if you don’t stand up for the union.

Going on strike during exam time is of course our only opportunity to exert any pressure. At what other time of the year would anyone miss our services? A striking tube train driver would be missed in a minute but if it wasn’t for the exams striking academics wouldn’t be missed for 500 years.

There is a wide-spread perception in this country that academics are lazy, that they are perpetual students who can’t give up their self-indulgent life-style. The oppressive seriousness of an institution like the LSE is clearly designed to counter this vicious rumour.

But I don’t know any lazy academics. Like people in other creative occupations, we are always working and never working. I get up at 4 every morning to write; most of the time I’m stressed out about some obstruse argument I can’t get my head around; there are emails to respond to 24/7. How do you measure such activities and how do you remunerate someone for them?

Routledge clearly think they know. I just got the first royalties for a book — The Mechanics of Modernity — which I worked on for some six years. Routledge is paying me exactly 345 pounds! And royalties will decrease sharply after this. That’s less than a penny per hour.

But in contrast to other authors I have a regular salary. I used to make 22,000 pounds per year when I first got to the LSE ten years ago. With a PhD student wife and lot’s of little kids it was very difficult to make ends meet. Our first daughter slept in a heap of clothes for months since we couldn’t afford to buy her a cot; we always felt ashamed of our shabby buggies when we went back to Sweden (even kids drive Volvos over there).

I now make more than double my original salary — �50,650, including my Summer School course — and I’m probably not worth much more. I’m paid in time rather than money. I’m the only father I know who will look back on his life and regret he spent such a lot of time with his children when they were young.

The real problem is not that established academics are underpaid, it’s that young academics are seriously underpaid and that the London allowance is far too low. If a strike can do something about that it’s a just cause.

10,000 and counting

This blog just had its 10,000th visitor! Amazing result in just one month. There are 32,605 hits altogether (clicks on individual pages) and my Open Day speech has been read by some 1,965 people. Two individual computers at the LSE has clocked up over 600 hits each.

Btw, the Davies vs. Ringmar poll just closed. The Guardian article ended Davies, 94 – Ringmar, 396.

The Facebook list has 281 signatures.

China syndrome

If you wonder why I’m banging on about freedom of speech on the internet, check out today’s news:

A Chinese Internet writer was sentenced to jail for 12 years on Tuesday for “subversion of state power” after backing a movement by exiled dissidents to hold free elections, his lawyer said. Yang Tianshui, 45, who has been in custody since last December, did not plan to appeal, a protest against a trial he felt was illegal, his lawyer, Li Jianqiang, said. “We expected the result, but we are still dissatisfied because he is innocent,” Li told Reuters.

Unless we live by our own rules, how can we ever criticise the Chinese authorities? How can various LSE experts travel around the world preaching freedom of speech unless the institution itself embraces it fully?

Speaking of China, Jessamine Garden talks about me. Chinese characters required. (No, I don’t understand it, but it looks great!)

终于有个有良心的出来批判LSE!!

收 到Amar的信,government专业的讲师Eric Singmar在LSE的openday上对着想申请LSE的学生说,我们的老师都忙着发表文章,课其实是Ph.D准备的,由他们代劳,还不如申请 Metropolitan,至少你能多见你的老师几面,而且”researches are less heavily emphasized”and” lesser institution”。他进一步指出 “What I do know is that the in-class student experience often differs very little between the LSE and a place such as the London Metropolitan University.”

他声明选择来 LSE完全是因为有出色的学生和cosmopolitan的组成结构。这一点说的太中肯了!但他声明他没有compare LSE to Chinese institutions,他说不希望LSE成为Chinese authority那样压制言论自由。Gosh!!

Transgression, here I come

I’m off to Taiwan next academic year, as professor at the Center for Social and Cultural Studies at National Chiao Tung University. There I’m going to give a course on transgression, on the crossing of borders — geographical borders, cultural, moral and psychological. This seems appropriate given the transgredi I’ll be making.

There is a lot of great stuff to read on this topic — from Euripides onwards, and it integrates literature, politics, culture and history. Why is it that people want to cross to other sides? Where is the “side” and what happens at the “border”? What are they planning to do once they get there? How can you understand what you come across in this alien land? And how can you understand yourself once you have transgressed?

The yearning for transgression is supposed to be dead in our age of market-based rationality. Yet it’s everywhere — in films, music, drug culture, religious prophecies, porn flicks off the web. This after all is what we spend most of our time and money on. Transgression is about violence too, about wars, and the U.S. and the U.K. invading Iraq.

Of course this is politics and of course it is relevant, but equally obviously I could never teach a course on something like this at the LSE. The LSE has only heard about Apollo, never Dionysus. In fact, it’s just about as Apollonian an institution as one ever will come across. This all-pervading cult of the expert, the talking head, with his data and his graphs!

I was never an expert, never featured in the LSE rent-an-expert catalogue. I was never sure enough of myself and never serious enough; always convinced that what is might not be. Yet this is clearly not good enough. As an expert you have to be literal-minded and pretentious. How else can you speak to poor and ignorant people with authority and tell them what to do? How else can you motivate your own position and the money you are charging for your advice?

Meanwhile Dionysus is calling to us from the mountains to come and join his drunken and frenzied crew. I hear him clearly and so do poor and ignorant people around the world. No surprise even the most carefully laid out of the expert’s plans often comes to nothing.

talking head, LSE employee

Some news

Some recent developments:

  • a journalist from the Times Higher Educational Supplement just called me. There might be a story in the paper; if there is I’ll try to link to it from here. They wanted a photo but I declined. It makes me feel uncomfortable to have my face in the paper and the real story isn’t me anyway but rather about the defence of freedom of speech.
  • I’m being called in for an ‘informal investigatory meeting’ next week where my crimes will be looked into by an LSE professor. They are inventing new charges against me. Funny how I get to be investigated while the people who deprive me of the right to free speech are left alone. If they think they have a case there will be a disciplinary hearing later in the term.
  • I have evidence that they are trying to dig up dirt on me. This is a great opportunity for everyone who wants to make friends with people in high places. Please report any emails I have failed to respond to, office hours I’ve been late for or written work I haven’t marked on time.
  • a rumour is being spread that I’ve gone mad and that I’m asking for a disability leave. Apparently I’m not allowed to mark this year’s exams. What is the quickest way to prove one’s sanity?
  • this blog has now had more than 30,000 hits from over 8,000 visitors. I’m getting statements of support from around the world.

what I want

The LSE authorities are clearly trying to put the whole issue of blogs and freedom of speech behind them. My 15 minutes of fame seem to be coming to an end. The official statement from the LSE director claims that ‘we regard the matter as closed.’ At long last they even seem to be winding up the investigation into my crimes and misdemeanours. Let’s hope so anyway.

Yet the bigger issue remains. The present situation is untenable. This is what I want to happen …

  1. there must be an official LSE policy on blogging and other internet use by students and staff. No one should have to go through the kind of harassment and abuse that I have had to suffer during the past six weeks. An offical LSE policy — ‘a bloggers’ charter’ — would protect internet users, guarantee our right to speak and make sure that no one can censor or intimidate us.
  2. more generally — no more hypocrisy on free speech. The LSE explicitly incorporates article 19 of the UN Human Rights Declaration in its charter. This article guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression. The LSE must live up to its own rules. There is a difference between a great university and Walmart or the Chinese authorities. For example: all students and staff must be allowed to criticise the LSE, privately and publicly, without threats of retaliation.
  3. academic freedom. The right of academic staff to speak freely in the classrom must be explicitly guaranteed. No more official Powerpoint presentations, no vetos by heads of departments or LSE administrators.
  4. the LSE needs a much better way of communicating with its students. The School must begin to really listen and engage with student concerns. The obvious way to do this is for the LSE administration to start blogging. I’m very much looking forward to the Sir Howard Davies blog! What a great way to recruit new students!
  5. in fact, everyone who reads this should start their own blog. A blog allows you to speak in public, in your own words and in your own fashion. This is particularly important for people who previously never had a public voice. Blogs are incredibly empowering and as such a great — you could even say a necessary — complement to human rights. If you only have your own blog you can even take on the British establishment — and live to tell the tale.

Extra, extra, read all about it

The story of this blog and the LSE authorities has made it into the papers. First The Beaver, The Guardian and then Times Higher Educational Supplement. I’d be very interested to hear your views.

Meanwhile I’ve turned down an interview with the Sunday Times and an offer from Mail on Sunday to write an article on why academics are so lazy. I suggested to the Mail that I’d write something about freedom of speech and blogging but that clearly sounded too high-brow for them. I guess I blew my chance to break into the mainstream.

A publisher has approached me for a book about blogging at the LSE. I don’t think I’ll do it though. I mean, I really shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be right, right? Who’s interested in that kind of stuff anyway? And more importantly: it probably wouldn’t count towards promotion.

Back to the Guardian article: since not everyone cares about the who-said-what-to-whom aspect of this story, I’ll put my own comments below. If you’re interested please click on the ‘read the rest of this entry’ link.

I always wondered what the official LSE statement would look like. How do you defend hypocrisy? Now we know:

A terse statement from the LSE today said: “Following complaints made by staff about the content of Dr Ringmar’s lecture to the open day, and further complaints about offensive and potentially defamatory material in Dr Ringmar’s blog (at that time connected to the LSE website) that came to light after the lecture, Dr Ringmar received a reprimand from his convenor. We note that Dr Ringmar appears to have removed the objectionable material from his blog and regard that matter as closed.”

An LSE spokeswoman responded: “Dr Ringmar has had a number of different versions of the lecture on his blog and the latest version is not the lecture that was given.”

This is a bunch of untruths and easily exposed evasions. Let me explain:

  • the complaints about my Open Day speech were made by an LSE administrator, present at the time, who works with student recruitment. The claim was simply was that I had departed from the official truth as given by the Powerpoint presentation. There was nothing whatsoever in the speech that was offensive or abusive.
  • there was never any ‘offensive and potentially defamatory material in Dr Ringmar’s blog.’ All it ever contained were things that departed from the official sales-pitch. At the same time this is a very sneaky tactic on the part of the School. How can I ever prove that I never called the director a bastardo imbecile or the convenor of my department a kn�ln�sad fl�skpotta? How can you ever prove that you didn’t say something?
  • What I can prove is that both the LSE director and the convenor of my department objected in the strongest possible terms to entries on the blog which always have been there and still are. The material has not been removed. The ‘English professors’ entry is one example. This is the entry Davies called ’slanderous’ and which led him to ask me to ‘carefully consider my actions.’ This is intimidation and censorship! I have some very interesting email documentation to back this up.
  • the statement that my blog at the time was ‘connected to the LSE website’ is untrue. The blog was always on my own server (with Streamlinenet, incidentally, located somewhere in Gloucester, I think) and it had nothing whatsoever to do with the LSE server. For a while there was a link to my site from the Government Department’s web site but it is outrageous to imply that this somehow gave the School a right to censor me. If this was the case, a link to the LSE website from this blog would give me the right to censor them.
  • Note how the LSE administration inadvertently admits to continously monotoring my blog ;-)

The Times Higher Educational Supplement is saying that I’m resigning over this blogging business. People have asked me if this really is true. Is it? Well, yes and no.

  • I was always planning to go on sabbatical this autumn and to work for the two subsequent years at the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan. The fact that I had this previously made plan is no doubt what emboldened me to stand up for might rights in relation to the LSE.
  • But I was always planning to come back to London. These plans are now abandoned. I don’t want to work in a place that is this hypocritical on matters of free speech and that treats its staff in this manner. What I’m particularly saddened about is the reaction of the big professors — no one has stood up for the values the School claims to believe in.

Mayday! Mayday!

I just joined the union! A little late one might argue, but better late than never. I was always a great supporter of unions but I thought they were for people who couldn’t take care of themselves. I also thought that doctors only are for sick people and that lawyers only are for people who get into trouble.

Now I’m a union man
Amazed at what I am
I say what I think
That the company stinks
Yes I’m a union man.

Oh you don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

As a union man I’m wise
To the lies of the company spies
And I don’t get fooled
By the factory rules
‘Cause I always read between the lines.

And I always get my way
If I strike for higher pay
When I show my card
To the Scotland Yard
This is what I say.

Oh you don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
You don’t get me I’m part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

Sista april

Sista april – the last day of April — is the day when Swedes traditionally celebrate the arrival of spring. As you can imagine it’s all very pagan. We make and light bonfires, assemble in public places to sing songs and give speeches; we drink heavily. Usually half-way into the revelries it starts snowing.

The day is celebrated with particular gusto in university towns, nowhere more so than at my alma mater in Uppsala. The time-honoured schedule for the day looks as follows:

  • 0700: oatmeal porridge and champagne in dorm.
  • 1000: wet and very cold ride down local river in home-made boat.
  • 1230: lunch at student union. Herring, potatoes and vodka.
  • 1500: assembly at royal castle, donning of student caps, collective and mad rush down castle hill.
  • 1600: champagne and dancing at student union. Street parties.
  • 1800: home for quick nap and shower.
  • 1900: official Uppsala celebrations at royal castle. Bonfires and choral singing. Speech by mayor in honour of spring.
  • 2000: student union for black-tie dinner, polite, slightly slurred, conversation.
  • 2200: sauna, vodka, mutual slapping with birch-branches.
  • 2400: back to student union, heavy drinking, general boogying-on-down and snogging in corners.
  • 0400: sudden queeziness, realisation that one is wearing the wrong trousers, inability to find shoes. Secret vow never to do it again (until next year).