10 things I know nothing about

1. … undergraduate teaching.
2. … how to shut my big fat blog.
3. … which side my bread is buttered on.
4. … where babies come from.
5. … what’s good for me.
6. … how to chew gum and rub my shoulder at the same time.
7. … how to tell my ass from my elbow.
8. … which way the wind blows.
9. … how to take seriously what’s poked at me in fun.
10. … how to get a promotion.

Which ten things do you know nothing about?

Footnotes to the Open Day

OK, I know I promised to ‘forget the footnotes,’ but let me make an exception for this post. My Open Day speech comes with a few references:

  • The direct inspiration for a speech of this kind comes from my old polisci professor in Uppsala, Leif Lewin. He had a great routine. First he would walk back and forth in front of the students in the big university auditorium for an embarrasingly long time, pensively looking down into the floor. Then, with a sudden dashing turn of his heels he would look directly at us and begin — ‘Students! You are all assembled here today ….’ I loved the theatricality of it. He was rhetorical and ironic and talked about things that mattered.
  • There seems to be a Germanic tradition of these kinds of speeches. I read Schleiermacher’s address to students in 1808 — ‘Thoughts on the University in the German Sense.’ That’s a great statement of academic freedom and the need to think in order for civilisation and culture to survive.
  • There is also Max Weber of course, another German source. His ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’ — ‘Science as a Vocation‘ — is a broad statement of how a university education best should prepare students for life.
  • A more recent, and Anglo-Saxon, reference is Robert Reich. The arguments about elite universities as nodes in power networks and as places for future leaders to get to know each other, I got from his 2002 book. The corresponding argument about the relative irrelevance of what the teachers actually say comes from Reich too. This is of course the part of the speech that really got the nickers of my colleagues into a collective twist.
  • I heard a rumour that Robert Reich was a runner-up for the job as director of the LSE. If that’s true, too bad he didn’t get the job! He would surely have silenced my critics. Lot’s of people around here are more impressed with the power of an office than with the power of an argument.

Brit for a day

My wife had this idea that she was going to become a British citizen. ‘It makes it a lot easier when we get into Heathrow,’ she explained. She sent off for the papers and got a number of bona fide Brits to affirm her suitability for membership. Next she was called to the Wood Green Civic Centre for a ‘citizenship ceremony.’ Curious, I tagged along.

Before us was an oil portrait of a dumpy woman in her mid 70s, accompanied by a blue, white and red rag on a stick. A secretary divided the people assembled into two groups — one religious, the other not — and a greasy little man wished us welcome. It was an important day in our lives, he declared, when the great gift of Britishness was going to be bestowed on us. From this day onward we were parts of his community and besides England was going to do really well in the football World Cup and we might as well join now.

The candidates then proceeded to swear their allegiance to the dumpy little woman, her heirs and successors, and to the rag on the stick. The religious group added a thingy about god, the non-religious group did not. Thus it happened that my wife renounced her rights as a free citizen of a free republic and entered into subjecthood in a feudal monarchy. Then they all sang a little song and had tea and biscuits.

Obviously it couldn’t last. Realising that she was far more of a republican than she previously had thought, my wife renounced her Britishness already the next day. Luckily the American embassy was never told about the incident.

What’s strange about this ceremony is that it is so profoundly un-British (except the tea and biscuits part). It’s obviously copied from the US — no doubt by some overly zealous consultant working for Blunkett’s Home Office — but what they didn’t realise is that the values affirmed in the US are totally different. In the US you declare yourself a citizen; here you declare yourself the loyal subject of an essentially medieval monarchical order. Instead of affirming your right to stand up for yourself, you affirm your subjectification.

What is strange is also that there is an opt-out for the non-religious but not for republicans. Why can’t you become a British citizen if you are a republican? And why is it that Brit-wannabies are asked to make a pledge which clearly many existing Brits would refuse to go along with?

I particularly appreciated the way the instinctive chauvinism of the English inadvertently was revealed: as the little man should have remembered, there is no ‘British’ team in the football World Cup!

Talking to prospective students

The convenor of my department told me to show up at an “Open Day” for prospective students and their parents. Obliging as always, I agreed. Only today, thinking about what to say, did it strike me how perfectly unsuitable I am for this task. The parents clearly want someone English who with knowledge and authority can talk about exactly how a university education will help their brood get ahead in the English class system. I know nothing about the undergrad programme, and as Swede from Norflondon with a ponytail, I’m not likely to inspire confidence. Last time I talked to prospective students I lost the School thousands of pounds. The only reason they asked me is that everyone reasonable already has buggered off on their respective Easter vacations.

They’ve sent out a pre-prepared Powerpoint presentation with the official sales-pitch which I am expected to talk over. A pre-prepared Powerpoint presentation!!! Who are they kidding??? I have two PhDs and a conscience; I don’t go into a classroom with someone else’s Powerpoints. Surely it is is far better for both the School and for prospective students if I try to tell them as truthfully as I can, in my own words, warts and all, what it’s like to study at an elite university.

What I’ll do is to reuse the traditional speech I always give to incoming MSc students, with some amendments for the fact that these are prospective undergrads. It’s worked in the past, it’ll surely work again.

My Open Day speech is here.

What’s in the speech?

  • don’t come to the LSE if you expect close interaction with faculty. The LSE is a research university where staff spend most of their time on their own research.
  • come to the LSE for the students — we attract the smartest, most ambitious, and all-round attractive people on the planet. Future leaders, just like yourself.
  • what we teach you doesn’t matter for your job prospects, but it will make all the difference to your life.

Freedom of speech

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Compare the LSE statement to the same effect.

Truth in advertising

If a university education now is to be sold like so many sausages, isn’t it about time that we started telling students exactly what it is they are buying? What we need are labels on each course listing the content including the artificial colouring, the fatty acids and the possible presence of reconstituted ingredients. Or why not simply go ahead and publish the student evaluations from previous years? This way students know which courses are good and which are bad.

As a first step in this direction, I’m publishing the students’ comments on a course I taught last year, Gv4a6, The Politics of Resistance. Click on the ‘read the rest’ link below for the details. I’ll be posting more of these evaluations as they become available (and not all of them are necessarily this positive).

English professors

A friend of mine at Oxbridge University points out that next to all the professors in her department are English. ‘Nothing strange about that,’ I argued. ‘This is England after all!’ ‘OK, fair enough,’ she retorted, ‘but the weird thing is that the vast majority of non-professors in the faculty are foreigners. Foreigners are teaching but they don’t get promoted.’

I took another look at my own department and I suddenly saw it in a new light. It lists 49 people as full-time academic staff, including tutorial fellows and lecturers on temporary contracts. Of these 16 are professors. 14 out of whom are English, two are American. Of the 33 staff members who are not professors, 8 are English, 25 are foreigners. That is, among the English there are 14 professors to 8 non-professors, and among the non-English there are 25 non-professors to 2 professor. 64 percent of the English are professors but only 7 percent of the foreigners.

I wonder why there is this difference? Why is it that the English keep the professorships for themselves? It looks an awful lot like the glass-ceiling that keeps women from advancing in their careers. (Speaking of which, only two out of the 16 professors in my department are women!).

One obvious explanation is that the English are smarter than the foreigners and that this is why they go further in their careers. Another possible explanation is that the English establishment, here as elsewhere, rely on imported, exploited, foreign labour to do the dirty work for them. A third explanation is generational. It takes time after all to make professor. If more English staff was hired, say 10 years ago, then more of them would be professors today. On the other hand, it could be that the foreigners quit and go elsewhere — return home — since they feel that their careers are blocked.

My sociological explanation is that the professoriate in any university constitutes a club. As all clubs they are ruled not primarily by intellectual principles but instead by social psychological. Above all it is important to make sure that no one rocks the boat. This is difficult to assure since, famously, all professors always are at each other’s throats. This is why it is important only to include people who are like the already existing club members. Picking people with an Oxbridge background assures that a semblance of peace and order is maintained. It is at Oxford and Cambridge after all that you learn the 101 of gently nodding while ferociously stabbing each other in the back.

My Open Day Speech

Dear prospective students and parents!

Welcome to the LSE and to the Government Department. My name is Erik Ringmar and I’m a lecturer in the department. This is my email. I’m writing it clearly so that you can contact me after this event if you have any further questions about anything I said.

Let me begin by asking what your status is. Have you applied to the LSE? Have you been accepted? Are you planning to apply? Planning to apply? Ok, very good! I’ll give you a brief introduction to the School and to the Department. I know others may have done this today, but I’ll do it again. My way.

Read the rest here.

stop blogging, stop blogging right now

OK, I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin, but half a paragraph in today’s New York Times should alarm us all:

And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said. “You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”

To me this unequivocal order is of course reminiscent of my boss at the LSE, George Philip, ordering me to “take down and destroy my blog” in the spring of 2006.

I’ve noticed something interesting: conservatives, even really pretty conservative conservatives, are almost always acceptable as long as they take a strong stand in favor of free speech.  You can talk to them about stuff, exchange views, learn things.  They are my friends.  But conservatives who are trying to ban free speech are always my enemies.  And they should be the enemies of us all.