Homewood is a climate change ‘sceptic’ whose claims that climate data is being manipulated made headlines in yesterday’s Telegraph. He has a blog called notalotofpeopleknowthat. My post-Christmas binge on Ben Goldacre’s latest book “I think you'll find it is a bit more complicated than that” set off my spidey sense. So who is Paul Homewood, what are his credentials and how is he viewed in his field of study?
To date my web search has not yielded any answers. Interestingly his own website contains no biographical details or why he is interested in disproving climate change. This is not to say he is wrong of course, but it all seems rather odd, especially for someone who is computer literate enough to run his own blog. I would have thought that a key part of the website would be about establishing his expertise. After all, even a journeyman academic (such as me) has a substantial digital footprint and I have never been lauded by the press as any kind of expert.
Ben Goldacre’s work has heightened my awareness of the sort of people quoted as experts in the press. Ad hominin attacks are out of order, but so-called ‘experts’ are often people who are selling things or have vested business interests. Is Paul Homewood as academic, a businessman, an oil company employee, a conspiracy theorist? The truth is I have no idea. That makes his expert profile even more intriguing than most of the people Goldacre cites in his work.
Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend a talk by David Pencheon of the NHS’s sustainable development unit.
A few of Dr Pencheon’s questions, thoughts and observations I noted:
1. Climate change not always best entry point for talking about sustainable development. We need to listen to what people are saying. He showed some of the usual graphs about past and projects CO2 emissions etc. – these don’t really engage people.
2. Intelligent life from another planet would be surprised about how much we know about ‘fouling our own nest’ and how little we are doing about it.
3. Climate change is a public health issue.
4. People have difficulty with numbers smaller than 0.5 and bigger than 25. Using huge numbers to provoke reaction not helpful.
5. Humans find it difficult to deal with things a long way away, things in the future and things which happen incrementally.
6. In the Paris heatwave of 2003 the biggest predictor of death was social isolation, not age. Even couples were found dead together.
7. Most surgical instruments used by the NHS are produced by child labour in Pakistan.
8. Hospitals are paid for activity, not outcomes.
9. People in ‘caregiving’ professions are no better than people in other professions. Often feel they are going it in ‘day jobs’. He includes educators and faith groups in this.
10. We need innovation, not increased efficiently. Increasing efficiency often means doing bad things differently.
11. Dr Penchoen visited a community in China where the people paid a small amount for the doctor only when they were well. This gave a the doctor an incentive to keep people well—in the NHS GPs and rewarded for doing certain sorts of activity.
12. Dying well – good health practices to extend the middle of life, not the end of it. Dr Pencheon was recently at a conference where GP’s indicated that helping people to die better was something of a priority.
I promised that my ‘Critical Thinking 2’ session for the PhD students would focus more on the development of oral critical thinking skills. I came across the idea of ‘Socratic Circles’* and thought I would give it a try. I did it slightly differently to the linked document – for example I did not distribute the texts in advance. I shared some thoughts about the concept of ‘critical thinking’. These are explored more in Critical Thinking 1 (which not all the students had done—this wasn’t really supposed to be the case).
Not making assumptions
Thinking carefully about what other people say
Being able to defend your opinion
Thinking about thinking
Open to the possibility of being wrong
Making time for thinking
What I did
I had seven students in the session who I divided into two groups.
I distributed to each individual a sheet of paper with two quotes:
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
the concept ofneeds, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
· the idea oflimitationsimposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."
World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 43. [Bruntland Report]
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
On reflection the second quote was too complicated, whereas all the students were able to discuss the first. I will choose another if I do this again.
3. I gave the students a few minutes to read the quotes and make notes if they wished.
4. The first group sat in the centre of the room and discussed Quote 1 whilst the second group observed.
5. The discussion time was set at about 10 minutes. I had minimal input into the discussion and the observing group were not allowed to comment or intervene.
6. After the discussion, the second group had ten minutes to discuss what had just witnessed. Before the discussion I suggested the observing group look out for:
Arguments and opinions put forward
Where and when opinions were challenged or not challenged.
Was there anything which surprised them or particularly stood out.
Did any of the participants appear to change their views?
The groups then swapped over the group which previously observed discussed quote 2 and those who had discussed quote 1 observes. This was a struggle, in part because the students found the quote much harder to understand.
What was got out of it?
I did not know quite how this was going to work out. The discussion of the second quote did not go well at all, but it was encouraging to observe the discussion the sustainable development quote went . There was a high level of critical thinking displayed in thinking about the content of the quote, and whether, as it was written in 1987 was it appropriate for 2013? Ideas of wants and needs were discussed. A discussion on vegetarianism was particularly interesting.
In a short 10 minute discussion the students were able to dig into the complexities of the sustainable development quote, thinking about assumptions, definitions, actions which might be needed, who was responsible, how behaviour needs to change and the ethics of asking ‘less developed countries’ to forego the development and prosperity experienced by the ‘west’. It wasn’t the purpose of the task to come to a consensus or a conclusion.
I did this exercise PhD students. It might be a risky with undergraduates who might be reluctant to talk and fully participate.
Will I do it again?
I will try it again. I will definitely use a different second quote. I might reflect more on the outcomes, but the process is central to the exercise. There might be a case for distribution a longer passage of text in advance, but then I would have to rely on students reading and thinking about it before the session.
*Some things on this website are a bit ‘out there’, but I thought this exercise was worth a try.
As part of my Fellowship of the Staff and Educational Development Association I have to write an annual review of what I have been doing and what I’ve learnt and what I plan to do for the future. We are then alloated 'triads' of other fellows and we will comment on each other's reports. I wanted to do something a bit different year as we don't have to submit as a written report. I couldn't think how I might do it differently, so I decided to make my report public, crowdsource my professional development I suppose.
This year has been the most challenging of my career so far. Last year the Higher Education Academy took the decision to withdraw funding from its 24 subject centres. The decision focused my mind somewhat. What had we achieved as a team in the lifetime of the subject centre? Where were we going to go from here? More crucially what had I achieved in the eight years I had been part of the team? Where was I going?
Subject centres, LLAS at least, was very much a we organisation. This was great on one level, but I had found it increasingly difficult to distinguish myself from subject centre. I have also learnt a lot about how people see subject centre staff, and I don’t always like it. In 2010 I wrote a short piece for the Teaching in Higher Education about the identity of subject centre staff in the educational development community. The anonymous referee was adamant that subject centre academic coordinators are essentially administrators though one or two do some good pedagogic work (we need adminstrators of course, but I sensed very negative undertones in the reviewer's use of the word). I wanted to raise awareness about the job I did and somebody seemed to be suggesting that I had misinterpreted my own job. The reviewer said that he/she was a member of a subject centre advisory board—my first response was that I hoped they weren’t on our advisory board. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. I'm not sure that I am.
As the 2010-11 academic year drew to a close my angst increased. Our director did some good work in persuading the powers at be in Southampton that it was worth keeping LLAS work going as an independent unit—another opportunity though painful reflection was involved too. Who were we? Could we continue as we were? (How) would we have to change? The team, which had grown through Routes into Languages and Links into Languages would have to be much smaller. We had to reapply for our jobs. I was fortunate in this process, but lost a day of week of hours. We still had some funding from the HEA, but we needed to start charging for the sorts of activity which used to be free or low cost. And we had to start getting the funding in to keep going.
What have I done this year? What have I learnt?
The LLAS work
One of the challenges with the subject centre goings on has not been the changes which have taken place, but the continuity. As usual I organised and participated in workshops for Heads of Department, a workshop for new academic staff and a workshop on sustainable development in the humanities. I have received funding from the British Academy to produce an online statistics books for humanities students under the Academy’s Languages and Quantitative Skills Programme. I have long been dissatisfied with statistics textbooks. In my opinion they explain too little and assume that the reader will take concepts such as the normal distribution as an article of faith. The book uses the sorts of examples that humanities students will use such as historical and population data. I hope that by providing a more verbal resonating approach the book will help students (and academics) who find quantitative data difficult to deal with.
I edited two further editions of Debut: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. In the latest issue my editorial reflects on the concept of publishing undergraduate research, how good it needs to be and how undergraduates journals help students to complete the research cycle. I am also part of LLAS’s EU-funded Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality(SPEAQ) project which, in my view at least, seeks to allow students and academics to reclaim ‘quality’ for themselves. I often feel that the term ‘quality’ has become increasingly associated with ‘tick-box’ approach to teaching which has little, if anything to do with the learning experience. We have developed a workshop to enable students, lecturers and quality managers to come together to reflect on the concept of quality.It has been interesting to learn about the experiences of academics from other countries who are our partners in the project.
I also headed up the organisation of the main LLAS biennial conference, the first of the post-HEA era. This year it was called 'Language Futures' and was held in Edinburgh.
One of my first tasks of the 2011-12 academic year was to provide maternity cover for my colleague Lisa who was coordinating the HEA’s Islamic Studies Network. As a non-expert in the field I knew this would be challenging, but with the closure of the subject centres most team members left the project too. Lisa was kind enough to draw up a plan of what had been done and what needed to be done. My main task was to begin the post-Islamic Studies Network (funding is about to end) sustainability plan. I drew up the consultation questionnaire over the Christmas period and we received over 50 responses. Now that Lisa is back this work is her capable hands and it looks likely some sort of scholarly association for Islamic Studies will be formed in the near future. I was fortunate to be able to draw on the wisdom and enthusiasm of the Advisory Board members.
Other University of Southampton work
I have been part of the University of Southampton’s participation in Green Academy, a scheme run by the Higher Education Academy to support institutions in embedding sustainability in the curriculum and overall life of the institution. One of the key achievements of our participation is that we have secured funding for full time programme assistant who is working on embedding sustainability into the CORE (curriculum, operations, research, experience) of the University of Southampton.
I will also be involved in teaching on a new Southampton-wide module: Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment. As in previous years I have also contributed sessions on employability and writing book reviews to the Faculty of Humanities Doctoral Training Programme.
The entrepreneurial John
I have used my 'non-working' time to develop skills in new areas. I have developed a website in Drupal called yazikopen a portal for open access research into learning and teaching modern languages. This has been a steep learning curve on the technical side of things as I do not have a background in web development. I am pleased that the website is functional, but I would like to work out ways to grow the website and see if there is any way enabling the website to generate revenue to cover its costs. I have also been being doing some freelance work and hope to develop further in this area.
Hope (Future plans)
At LLAS I am again organising a workshop for Heads of Department which will focus on the growing sources of public information about teaching in higher education (e.g. National Student Survey, Key Information Set etc.). I will also be putting in bids for various projects. I would like to continue development of the yazikopen website and will look for further freelancing opportunities.
I also hope to have a say in the open access debate. If true open access is to become a reality universities have a greater role to play in academic publishing.
Alun Morgan's sharing of a personal outdoor space (mentioned in my previous post) got me thinking about one of my own. The first one which came to mind was the park on Millham Road, Bishop's Cleeve, Gloucestershire (marked in blue) where I lived from the age of two until I was eight. In constrast to the growth of the rest of Bishop's Cleeve, relatively little has changed in this area over the past 30 years. Crucially the park still borders the fields between Bishop's Cleeve and Gotherington. Millham Road and the nearby Oldacre Drive are Post War (Confirmed by the 1945 OS map below). It is possible to see to the right of the current Ariel photograph what was a disused railway line in my childhood which is now part of the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Steam Railway. It was possible to climb the steep bank and walk along the railway until the GWR laid the track. The station on Station Road is clearly marked on the 1945 map, but I don't think any evidence of it remains. The railway line forms an imprecise boundary between Bishop's Cleeve and Woodmancote.
I am not entirely sure why I thought of this location in such a way. The field was very uneven and people would walk their dogs on it without cleaning up afterwards. I also have strong memories of the rusty goalposts.
A report on "Nature and the natural in the humanities: Teaching for environmental sustainability"
As the organiser it is predictable that I will be biased but the LLAS-organised, HEA-supported workshop on environmental sustainability and the humanities was an excellent event which far too few people attended.
Peter Vujakovic spoke about Christ Church Canterbury University’s Bioversity Project. Although the campus is modern it is located on a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A sense of place and a connection with history was very much at the heart of Peter’s talk. One of the highlights is the planting of an orchard with local Kentish varieties including Pride of Kent cooking apples, apparently considered too ugly to sell in supermarkets (I can’t find a picture of one online, even in this otherwise illustrated leaflet).
The place theme continued with Alun Morgan’s talk on sacred places. Sacred places can be of any scale from a tree to an entire landscape. Alun’s sharing of a personal sacred space from his childhood, aided by OS maps and Ariel photographs led to thoughts about my own sacred places.
Adrian Rainbow provoked an interesting discussion about whether science is reductionist and whether storytelling offers a way forward. He quoted from Greg Garrard that we need “…ideas, feelings and values more than we need a scientific breakthrough”. In a second literature paper Elizabeth Harris spoke about how she has engaged urban students with sustainability issues through the study of T S Eliot’s the Waste Land. Elizabeth argued that locating sustainability in the rural (e.g. through the study of the Romantics) can serve to exclude students from more urban backgrounds.
The key thing I’ll take from Arran Stibbe’s discussion on discourse analysis was his comment that with exception of hot sunny days most weather is defined as ‘poor’ and in negative tones. After the workshop I tried to gauge Arran’s reaction on the opposite platform of Birmingham University station as we were warned to take extra care on the station platform “…due the poor weather conditions” Rain is poor weather, not wet weather.
Paul Reid-Bowen set up his talk though talking about the “post-everything” discourse and the human evolutionary ability to manage anxiety – however this attitude is maladaptive when we reach overshoot. His ecological philosophy course focuses on reconceptualising and rethinking economy, nature life, ethics and what is valuable in the world.
Andrew Stables drew on the work on Kant discussing whether sustainability could be said to be a moral principle and universal ethical law.
A couple of good quotes from his paper:
In effect, it is unsustainability far more than sustainability that prompts human action. Furthermore, we are often most strongly prompted when the illusion of sustainability is shatter by the reality of unsustainability.
… it can be argued that the arts, humanities and critical social sciences have a disillusioning role. They serve to perpetually disabuse humanity of its naïve, often vainglorious commitments, to remind us of the limits of our ambitions, even of our ambition for sustainability”.
Bertrand Guillaume teaches humanities to engineering students at Universite de technologie de Troyes. Engineering students need insights which go beyond the technical and he draws on philosophy, ethics, poetry and graphic novels in his teaching, including the Peter Parker (Spiderman) quote "with great power comes great responsibility". Sustainability has changed the nature of ethics—traditionally ethics has not engaged with reciprocity to future generations and non-humans.
I hope to be able to organise a similar workshop next year. The opportunities for the humanities are tremendous. We need to get more people involved.
I promised further reflections on Alex Steffan’s lecture I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. I have been recently thinking a lot about planned obsolescence, that is designing a product to cease to be functional after a certain amount of time or after a certain amount of use. The centennial light at the Livermore Firehouse in California is often cited as an example. Over 100 years after its first use the light bulb is still working. It is most often associated with technology – manufacturers not providing backward compatibility when a new version of software is released, printers which cease to work after a certain numbers of pages and products with built in rechargeable batteries which don’t charge any longer.
Regular readers of my blog (does my blog have regular readers?) will know that I enjoy cycling for work and for pleasure. Over the summer I converted my old bike from an 18 gear touring bike to a fixed gear. There were a few reasons for this – firstly after reading Sheldon Brown it struck me that fixed gear riding might be quite fun, and secondly, not that I’m known for being a fashion victim, it seems to be quite trendy at the moment (I even removed the mudguards). However, the real reason was that I needed a new back wheel for my bike and they seem impossible to get (In short I needed a 126mm axle with a freewheel block, rather than a 130mm or 136 mm with a cassette. There are work arounds, but they are expensive – it involves changing the axle spacing, buying a cassette, new chain, new shifters, front and back derailleurs. I suppose I could have got a custom made wheel, but the fixed wheel approach seemed to be the cheaper option.
Some might have limited sympathy with me complaining how I can’t get parts for a twenty-year old bike, but a the writer of a recent letter to Cycle magazine complains that he is unable to get replacement parts which were standard just one year ago. I hear that 8-speed is the next thing that will be impossible to replace.
The irony here is that cycling is such an environmentally friendly hobby (though I’ll reserve judgement on thinking about the environmental impact of events such as the Tour de France). The manufacturers of low quality Bike-Shaped Objects (BSOs) have much to answer for the UK’s volume of unused and scrapped bikes, but manufacturers of good quality bikes are not without blame either.