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).

On the road again

Whenever I’m forced to listen to someone particularly boring and self-important or when I’m in a meeting where people speak about things I cannot relate to or properly understand, some piece of Bob Dylan lyrics and a Dylan voice suddenly pops into my head:

People are crazy, times are strange/ I’m out of bounds, I’m out of range/ I used to care but things have changed.

Quickly it blocks out all the droning voices, grows and grows in strength and eventually it’s just me and Dylan and the words.

I got my dark sunglasses/ I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth/ Don’t ask me nothing about nothing/ I just might tell you the truth.

Teenagers often listen to particular bands or singers since they seem to tell them something about the world that no one else ever tells them. Some bands are secret friends with secret insights, conveying messages written in code. Today Dylan is like that but for middle aged people. Middle aged people need secret friends too. And sometimes I think I can almost decipher his codes.

I flew up to Glasgow with my two oldest daughters last November when Dylan was in town. The arena was uninspiring and full of dour Scotsmen in black leather jackets. No jumping or dancing or even much clapping. My daughters thought they were at a geriatrics’ convention. But Dylan was far more generous than his audience. I replenished my supply of snippets of songs for the jukebox inside my head.

A neighbour of ours threw out Dylan from a restaurant in Crouch End once. He was looking for somewhere to have a beer but our neighbour who runs the place informed him that he had to eat if he wanted to drink. He wasn’t hungry he said and was told to leave. For heaven’s sake — give the man a sandwich! It’s Bob Dylan! Only later did they realise their mistake and now they have a ‘Dylan table’ which people reserve in order to be close to greatness.

Funnily enough Saga, my oldest daughter, was thrown out of the same restaurant. We had booked a table on her 8th birthday for her to have dinner together with some friends. Our neighbour, the manager, had the day off and the on-duty staff panicked when they realised they were dealing with unaccompanied children. They were shown the door. I often think Saga should have had Dylan as her father. He could have taught her songs and they could have gotten thrown out of restaurants together.

Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift/ Yes, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark coulds lift/ Gonna break the roof in — set fire to the place as a parting gift.

He is playing Memphis, Tennessee, tonight. We have tickets for the concert in Bournmouth at the end of June.

Comments on my Open Day Speech

Faculty and students are slowly assembling for the new term which officially begins tomorrow. I’ve started to receive feed-back on my Open Day speech. In fact, there’s been something like 2800 hits on this site in the last week alone and the speech itself has been read by some 212 people. I’ve never had my stuff read by so many people during 20 years of writing academic books and articles! I’m such a sucker for attention.

Faculty members — 5 comments so far — don’t deny the truth of what I said but they also, unanimously, emphasise that they never would speak that way. It is not quite clear why. It seems the problem is that some of the things I said, even if true, might reflect badly on the School. ‘I totally disagree with your statement that faculty mainly care about their own research,’ said one colleague, ‘but I’m away on a conference right now and I don’t have time to comment in detail.’ Mainly however my colleagues seem to think I was foolish not to follow orders. Why make trouble for yourself?

Students liked the speech a lot more: ‘too true’; ‘great to hear an academic give an honest account of the student experience’; ‘too often universities are mis-sold and students end up going to the wrong place,’ etc. Many also insist that a balanced account is more likely to recruit students — ‘We aren’t stupid, you know!’ — and that the LSE, just because it is such a great university, easily can afford the luxury of discussing its undergrad programme in a realistic manner.

Some students, however, think that I shouldn’t have said particular things:

  • ‘are accountants really the proletariat of global capitalism?’ My father is an accountant!
  • ‘is the English class system really perpetuated by universities like the LSE?’ My family always voted Labour!
  • ‘why talk about the repressive regime in China? A lot of students come from there after all!’
  • I should have mentioned that ‘a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom and that students benefit from having a lot of intelligent faculty around.’ That’s a good point. I should have mentioned that.

I’d be very interested to hear more comments. In particular critical ones that point out mistakes in what I said. You can click on the ‘comment’ link below.

A perfect picture of myself

The final results of the first on-line poll are now in. As you remember I asked what you think of the content of the blog. The results are:

  • truly scandalous, punishable: 2% (1)
  • a bit pretentious, otherwise ok: 14% (7)
  • thought-provoking (and a great way to recruit students): 60% (30)
  • self-indulgent, if occasionally somewhat witty: 24% (12)

Total Votes : 50

I’d like to think that this result presents a perfect picture of who I am — 60% tought-provoking, 24% self-indulgent, 14% pretentious and 2% truly scandalous. If that’s the case, why is the blog giving such an accurate picture of myself and how come the opinion of the 50 voters picked up on this so perfectly?

Or maybe I’m flattering myself — maybe it should be 60% ‘provoking’ — no thought!

Special thanks to the voters who expressed their conviction that blogs of this kind actually could help recruit students. Of course you’re right! I hope the students recruited in this fashion will be thoroughly thought-provoking, self-indulgent, pretentious and scandalous.

How to run an academic department

Paul Krugman, when visiting our School a year ago, talked with some exasperation about the years he spent as chairman of the department of economics at Princeton. ‘It was like herding cats,’ he said invoking a wonderful image. ‘It was impossible to make my colleagues do anything I said.’

This is of course exactly as it should be. Academics must be cats, independent-minded and uncontrollable. They should all go off in their own respective directions looking for adventure or trouble. This is why they are academics rather than, say, accountants. Or differently put, the ones who are too easily controlled are rarely proper academics. They’ll never have an original thought in their lives and they’ll contribute nothing but boredom to what they take to be ‘the profession.’ ‘Thou shalt not do as the Dean pleases …’

The way to make cats do what you want is of course to open a big can of tuna fish in the middle of a large field. Smelling a good meal, they’ll all come running towards you.