Archive for the ‘The Academy’ Category

Unconscious bias

As a lecturer at a university, I am confronted on a daily basis with my own biases. After all, I’m a middle-aged white male in a relatively powerful position vis-a-vis my students (a discussion about relative-ness, is for another time). As a course leader, I am charged with achieving inclusivity targets (however it is measured) and widening participation. These are good things, but achieving them is very hard indeed. I’ve been on the training courses, studied exemplars and worked with knowledgeable colleagues. To some extent, it is not for us to define. One cannot wish into existence wider participation, for example, in a climate – economic and political – that is structurally biased against the very people we are trying to include.

Last week I was driving home listening to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, entitled: Why are even women biased against women? As a white male, naturally, I’m looking to get off the hook. In my head, I can hear things like, “well, if women are biased against themselves then I’m ok”, etc. And so I listen. The programme is presented by former Times journalist, Mary-Ann Sieghart, but that is not significant other than her admitting to her own biases against women.

In the programme are two scenarios. I was listening whilst driving paying reasonable attention. I am mortified that I got caught out by both of them. I have been naughty taking a bit of BBC intellectual property and posting it on to my blog. But as Sieghart says, not only are we complicit in our unconcious bias on a daily basis (the conscious bias is another question), but we must find ways of exposing ourselves to our biases on a daily basis also. So here goes:

Scenario 1: 

Scenario 2: 

So, how did you get on?

If readers want to try something else, go to the Harvard Implicit Bias project website and do the test. I did it myself (before the Analysis programme) expecting the worst. I came out of it neutral. But as my failure in Scenarios 1 and 2 demonstrates, there are no laurels to rest on.


The nonsense of anti-trade union legislation

My trade union, the UCU, is in dispute with my employer. My employer seems reluctant to discuss the issues at the heart of the dispute, so the Union organised a ballot if members managed by the Electoral Reform Society, the experts in balloting and the law. The result was a legally acceptable (relative to current law) percentage of members agreeing to take strike action. The Union then called a two-day strike only to find that under the new law, before labour can be withdrawn, two weeks’ notice has to be given to employers. The strike had to be postponed.

We are getting close to the Easter non-teaching period. To withdraw one’s labour in a non-teaching period is a bit of a waste of time (and money). But to leave it until the start of the new term renders the ballot void. So, here we have a piece of legislation that forces members to strike in order to keep the legal mandate to strike. So, at the end of the coming week, we are going to withdraw our labour – symbolically – for half a day in order to strike on another two days later in late April. Brilliant.

Thinking very aloud – Laurie Taylor at the University of Brighton

LaurieTaylorI’ve been listening to Laurie Taylor on the radio for many years. Originally earmarking my Sunday evenings as must listen nights. More recently I have just downloaded the podcasts of his social science review show, Thinking Aloud ( On 11 June I saw him in the flesh speaking on the theme of ‘escaping academia’ – something that us modern-day academics dream about.

The 45 minutes – which seemed like 10 – were packed full of often amusing anecdotes. But like all the best speakers that I know, the anecdotes were woven into the speaker’s more profound and less accessible conceptual points, drawing in the audience in the process.

Taylor talked at length about his early career at York University – a world apart from the reality of working in a university in 2015. More significantly he identified some of his most influential texts/theorists. In particular, Erving Goffman (whom he met in a restaurant in the US and who disrupted the situation by ordering dessert first to make a point about ritual); Michel Foucault’s ( particularly, it seems, Order of Things, 1965), Ernst Bloch and Anthony Giddens.

This made me briefly think about the key texts that had most influenced me. These are indisputably Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View; Stewart Clegg’s Frameworks of Power and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunoch.

But how does one get into radio? In Taylor’s case, he received a phone call from an unnamed BBC person who asked him whether he agreed with, if I recall, an increase in postal charges. His answer swiftly captured ideas about the art of writing being lost if charges for letters increased. The enquirer then asked him to make the opposite case. Bemused, Taylor proceeded to talk about how telephones provide opportunities for real-time communication and ideas development, discourse, etc. The enquirer then asked if Taylor would care to come on his radio show later that week. Seemingly the enquirer was Robert Robinson and the programme was Radio 4’s Stop the Week.

I will not publish my phone number on this blog; but interested radio show hosts, please email me.

Picture: BBC

The entrepreneurial state

Entrepreneurial StateProfessor Mariana Mazzucato’s book, the Entrepreneurial State, contains some interesting observations about the role of the state in fostering innovation and hence creating wealth. It is evident that the private sector relies on public sector investment in research for its ideas, frameworks and technologies. The internet is a good example. Many drugs have their origins in publicly-funded laboratories (recent discussions around AstraZeneca and Pfizer have been caught up in this). Google is built on it. And even if the ideas, prototypes, patents do not originate in public research/educational establishments, the minds behind them do. The problem is, it seems, the private sector’s ability to appropriate these public goods for itself.

Professor Mazzucato’s  recent lecture on this topic can be seen here:; it was one of the best professorial lectures I have witnessed in recent years (notwithstanding Jonathan Chapman’s at the University of Brighton on Sustainable Design, 22 January 2014: Mazzucato demonstrates a number of indicators of disingenuousness on the part of knowledge-rich firms. One of the most startling and worrying is buy-backs. Large firms that spend their cash on buying back their own shares rather than investing in research are painted as villains. In the past, the exemplars were Xerox and Bell with their investment programmes that brought us spinouts such as Adobe, 3-Com and Lucent amongst many others in technology.

Buy backs take out investment from the economy. They put the burden on the public sector to do the risky stuff. Firms have become increasingly ‘financialised’. Pfizer, she argues, is just one example. There are many more spanning hi-tech industries across the globe. She explains this around 24 minutes into her lecture.

And so to remedies. Professor Mazzucato argues that states should be able to claw back some of the benefits accruing to firms when they win on the basis of public funding. Professor Mazzucato’s recommendations include: “golden shares of IPR and a national innovation fund”, “income-contingent loans and equity” and “development banks”. Stian Westlake of NESTA, the UK innovation investment fund, by way of critique, notes the following:

  • Essentially, they all involve the government retaining a financial interest in companies that develop innovations based on public funding, with the idea that this money can be recycled to back more radical innovations. As far as I can see there are three problems with this idea: It would be nightmarish to administer It imposes costs on exactly the wrong businesses, creating both a presentational and a practical problem It’s worse than an already existing option – funding innovation from general taxation.

The full debate can be accessed here:


The future of teaching in universities

Two separate pieces – one on the radio and one in the Economist (22 December 2012) – have caught my eyes and ears this week regarding the future of my profession. in a week when I have been trained up on another piece of software to facilitate electronic interaction with students, it looks like the future of the small lecture is in doubt.
The market has arrived. Leading the way are two start-ups from Stanford University in the US. Udacity and Coursera both offer what are called ‘massive open online courses’ or MOOCs.Coursera boasts now that its most successful class, “How to reason and argue”, attracts 180,000 students. Udacity runs another course on machine learning run by Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research; 160,000 students are signed up to that. Now Harvard and MIT are getting in on the act with $30m of investment to present lectures from the Ivy League universities. At the moment none of these are credit bearing courses, but the potential is clear. The article can be read in full following this link:
Last week the BBC Radio 4’s “The Bottom Line” dedicated half an hour to discuss the trends with a Vice Chancellor (Liverpool) and two private sector providers. It made very interesting listening. I have downloaded it from the BBC’s website and uploaded it here Bottom Line Education

Latest publication

It is almost four years since my last journal publication. There have been and are many in the pipeline, but the printed version has been elusive. So, finally, my name is back in print. Writing with colleagues, the first instalment of An Innovation Perspective on Design has just been published in Design Issues (Volume 27, Issue 4 – Autumn 2011). The second instalment is due before the end of the year.

Even better is the fact that we share an edition with Per Galle, a fabulous design theorist (as well as architect and computer scientist amongst other things). Reputation by association suits me.

Open Space Learning event

The concept is discussed at length in a book authored by Nicholas Monk, Carol Chilington-Rutter, Jonothan Neelands and Jonathan Heron.

The dissemination conference on 27 June 2011 included both theoretical and practical elements. The book authors provided the background drawing on theories of pedagogy (Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Howard Gardner and David A Kolb), sociology (e.g. Stuart Hall, Fernando Ortiz), performance (the concept of the ensemble) and the ‘trans’ (for example, transgressive, transcultural, transdisciplinary, transcendent, etc.).

OSL is challenging for all. Tutors have to accept that in this situation they are there to be ‘dethroned’ of their knowledge; i.e. students discover their tutors do not have all of the knowledge in the room. Criticially, the interaction in creative spaces involving play renders the learning experience both memorable (students remember the sessions) and memorisable, in that the content is also captured.

Rehearsal Room

The learning spaces themselves are interesting. The University of Brighton’s and Sussex’s inQubate creativity centres came from the same conceptual space. Warwick elected – by virtue of their proximity to, and collaboration with – the Royal Shakespeare Company, to create a rehearsal room and a studio space (pictured). No desks.



The ensemble of students at the heart of the method, in some cases, act out roles. For example, first year chemistry students acted out elements in the periodic table, capturing their properties and those of the elements next to them in the table (see notes below). This built up a rapid knowledge about both elements and the table. As a foundation for, and complementarity to, more traditional chemistry teaching, it certainly seemed to capture the imaginations of both students and professors.

Jonathan Heron

Jonathan Heron

There are a number of dependencies. This trial had the skills of a very talented facilitator, Jonathan Heron. Be under no illusions, he is a rare resource. Secondly, ‘lead learners’ acted as conduits and evaluators. Naturally, they were self-selected and all very keen and evangelical about the method. Students are known to be sceptical of activities that do not carry grades. Lead learners, therefore, carry the metaphorical torch for an alternative experience that potentially does more than enhance the learning experience.

The team’s technical lead, Robert O’Toole, has integrated a platform called Evernote. The platform enables the uploading of content relating to events immediately. In the session, content was being generated throughout by users with iPads and other mobile devices. Evernote is demonstrated here:

My notes from the event are here: OSL

Ecology of a Whole Campus Approach to Creativity

I’m attending a conference entitled: The Ecology of a Whole Campus Approach to Creativity at the University of Warwick ( The brief goes as follows:

What is Open-space Learning? “At a practical level OSL is an example of what might be recognised as the workshop model” of teaching and learning. The workshop is the basic unit in pedagogic interaction between
facilitator and participant in OSL. The open space of the workshop allows its participants to become producers of knowledge by creating an environment that prevents the reformation of the rigidly hierarchical arrangements of lecture theatre and seminar room.”