Tangent du jour (warning: political content, and may be hazardous to health)

Obrienatrix apologises for the interruption to normal service, but has caught between – finally – getting to do some actual research, reading, and writing; and bewailing current affairs in what passes for academia. Herewith some of the latter, for your greater delectation.


Item the First:

From Our Illustrious and Beloved Leader here at my home institution today. Names of individuals and institutions have been edited out, for politeness / legal protection / prevention of embarrassment:

Creating the future

Innovation Alliance between [names of institutions edited out]

Building on our track record of research collaboration, [unnameable – unmentionable? – institution] has entered an innovation alliance with [unnameable other institution] to enhance graduate education and to generate a critical mass of innovation that will create job opportunities for our students into the future. The initiative will initially concentrate on science, engineering and technology but will, over the coming months, expand to explore opportunities for the arts and social sciences.

Later today, An Taoiseach, Mr Brian Cowen, TD will attend a special event to outline his support for this initiative. He will be accompanied by An Tánaiste, Ms Mary Coughlan, TD, and the Minister for Education, Mr Batt O Keeffe, TD, demonstrating Government commitment to the higher education sector and Government recognition of the central role the universities must play in the development of the Smart Economy.

Although the impetus for this alliance arose as a natural progression of existing co-operation between the two universities, its urgency is prompted by the need to safeguard the future of our students by feeding directly into the national recovery initiative built around the concept of the Smart Economy.

We are in a time of national crisis. We must do everything in our power to avoid a return to the 1980s when we effectively educated our students for export. The world has changed and we have to equip our graduates with the skills to operate and thrive in the new highly competitive global market place. The Government’s Smart Economy framework pinpointed the ingenuity of our people as the way forward for the country. Since its inception, [institution A] has always embraced its national responsibility and, through this initiative, we believe we can advance the nurturing of that ingenuity.

The [institution A / institution B] Innovation Alliance is a partnership that will work with the education sector, the State and its agencies and the business and venture capital communities to develop a world-class ecosystem for innovation that will drive enterprise development and the creation of sustainable, high-value jobs.

The Innovation Alliance has two major components:

  • The [institution A / institution B] Joint Venture in Enterprise Development will build on the universities existing technology transfer operations and enterprise facilities.

  • The new [institution A / institution B] Innovation Academy will begin the process of defining and mainstreaming innovation as the 3rd arm of the university mission alongside education and research. While the Academy will focus on 4th level PhD programmes initially, it will be important that, over time, we include innovation components in our masters and bachelors programmes. The [insitution A] Horizons modular curriculum and graduate schools with their structured PhD programmes provide us with an established enabling framework for this work.

Ireland needs world-class 4th level graduates who are not only expert in their specific fields of endeavour but who also are familiar with techniques in innovation and entrepreneurship. These will enable them, where appropriate, to convert rapidly knowledge, ideas and inventions into commercial use. We will strive to boost the university contribution to enterprise development by equipping more of our graduates with the skills and ambition to be job creators rather than job seekers. Our Alliance not only builds on the tradition of collaboration and achievement of our two institutions but marks a sea-change in how education and research will be set up to create jobs.

The international experience of success in co-operation between education, research and enterprise for job creation as demonstrated in the examples of Silicon Valley and MIT in the US and in Finland and Sweden in Europe in the 1990s was an important driver for the Innovation Alliance.

Both [institutions A and B] have established world-standing and are national leaders in Ireland in respect of science and engineering undergraduate numbers, PhD numbers, research funding, publications, patents and campus companies. I hope you will agree that we have an obligation to take the lead and to work together as a matter of urgency to contribute to the national recovery process.

The purpose of the Alliance is to use the combined resources of our two institutions efficiently and effectively to boost innovation and job creation. It will include mechanisms for inclusion of students and staff from other institutions beyond [institutions A and B] and we will continue to build strategic collaborations with such institutions and to nurture the valuable links built up over the past years with them.

Neither should this initiative affect the balance between the humanities and the sciences at [institution A] nor should it see any diminution in our commitment to blue skies discovery research programmes. Indeed international experience clearly shows that one cannot develop a world-class innovation ecosystem without a strong foundation of discovery research.

I presented an outline of the Innovation Alliance to the Academic Council and Governing Authority yesterday and was very encouraged by the enthusiasm and support of colleagues for this ground-breaking partnership. I look forward to visiting [institution A]’s Colleges over the coming months to discuss the initiative with you in more detail.

My comments:
(1) We’d all been saying it for ages: such cooperation is a splendid idea. Very happy here.

(2) Pfffff …. that’s right, middle of an economic crisis, we really need more bloody Special Events. Things only count – maybe only exist – if there’s a Special Event around them. We all know there will be Committees created, with Jobs For The Boys, and further proliferation of Vice Presidents and Vice Principals. On the other hand, one positive outcome of Current Circumstances has been a rise in fine satire: UCD has an excellent satirical paper, with good pieces on the likes of our great need for more Committees, VPs, and so on.

(3) And when will Ireland work out they can’t compete with the big guns (China, India, Russia, the Ivy Leagues and MIT + 11 group, Oxbridge,…) on science and technology? We have neither the financial resources nor the manpower. Why not compete in areas where we HAVE an edge? Poetry, music, archaeology, heritage? IT on the digital humanities side? (Ooh yes, and satire. We’re good at that here, and have a splendid past track record.)

(4) Competition of the week: spot the errors – general linguistic, let alone on the stylistic end. Maybe UCD should be investing in proofreaders and editors??? Let alone people who can write, maybe even in Plain English?

(5) Herewith the formal news release c/o the UCD website. With pretty pictures of Important People looking happy, then looking serious and working hard to earn their water. It all sounds more sane – the main, useful points of cooperation anyway; remains to be seen how other institutions around Ireland will be part of this “Smart Economy.” Hmmm, but then again: speaking as a sceptical humanities feminist sort of person: is that not perhaps maybe a teeny bit of a contradiction in terms?

Item the Second:

I’m a philologist and a literary critic (when I get to indulge). By a happy coincidence, the Chronicle Arts & Letters Daily blog produced some useful contextual/intertextual material. Treating this whole business as an interesting exercise in criticism, exegesis, and tracing the evolution/history/archeaology of ideas:

Blow the powder away and look at the evidence: Harvard MBA fingerprints are all over recent financial fiascos. Philip Broughton knows… more»

I leave readers to draw their own conclusions on ethics, policies, Newspeak, and aping a mythified pseudo-American model. Yes, aping, and it looks bloody stupid and pathetic. And yes, sorry guys, that’s a *fiction*, I’ve worked Over There… weirdness being the Harvard MBA as a metafiction. Would make a good essay topic.

Item the Third:

A PowerPoint presentation worthy of Dilbert (on which: see – another fortuitous coincidence – today’s Dilbert strip). This is apparently neither a joke nor a pastiche, but deadly serious, and was presented at A Meeting yesterday. I have edited out the name of the presenter (suffice it to say that this was a Vice Principal), and logos of institution concerned. I have left in the typos, spelling mistakes, and so on for your greater delectation:

Teaching & Learning

Obrienatrix & associates’ comments:
(1) I nearly spluttered coffee all over my computer. THIS is what I was supposed to give my morning’s precious research time up for? I’ve only been teaching for 8 years; I hope this didn’t induce cardiac arrests or psychotic fugues in those who’ve been teaching for 10, 15, 20, … The suggestions on how to improve things are a combination of

(a) the common sense and blindingly obvious
(b) the first part of any standard pedagogy and teaching methodology course, such as one I did in *2000* (that’s nearly NINE years ago…)
(c) Newspeak / The Emperor’s New Clothes / Jargon For The Sake Of Jargon (and used to dress up second-rate or obvious ideas; a very basic, brutish, and banal rhetorical device)
(d) patronising – the stuff about museums? Darling … – the stuff about students learning and objectives – my dears, this is just SOOO passé on the theoretical front, and utterly matter of course to anyone who has the vaguest recollection of being a student, and plain insulting to anyone who actually teaches.

(2) It was very lucky I got the PP afterwards and didn’t attend the meeting. Due to this being a BREAK and to me DOING RESEARCH a.k.a. MY RAISON D’ÊTRE AS AN ACADEMIC. Sorry for shouting. I’d get more research work done flipping burgers …

And now, for commentary by my good friends, some of whom are also family
(Sparing you the comment from a friend who works as an academic IT consultant, and is an expert in the use and abuse of PowerPoint – it was short and sweet, one line long, vicious and vitriolic, and included four-letter words. Good gutsy Anglo-Saxon solidity, though, as opposed to Managerese):

(1) My Arabist friend:

Honey – horrifying – I am only on slide 9.  THe person apparently doesn’t understand the word ABSTRACT, I have to point out, since it has nothing to do with putting the RATIONAL building or whatever into a city, but taking the idea of a building out of any city context whatsoever.  Even I know that and I am still only on chapter 3 of a very short introduction to mathematics.  UGH.

(2) My linguist friend:

I had been thinking for a while how sceptical I am about such meetings at the [edited out]. The old 1990 ppt slides are trotted out with yawning frequency. Tripe is regurgitated and then questions are invited.

I had to attend a caring-sharing one recently so that I absorbed the wisdom gained by a senior lecturer on a teacher training course for academics – which they are threatening to make compulsory for all of us. Yikes! If they do that I’ll have to say I’m retiring because I feel I’m too old to cope any more. She began by telling us how to structure your lecture so that you could fit all in within the two hours and allow enough time to recap… I think I switched off after that.

The VIP – oops, I mean the VP – must have done a great deal of in-depth research. When I saw his slides that were obviously scanned in from a publication – whose author he failed to identify – I Googled Fink and taxonomy, and in 0.12 secs I found the attached. ‘My’ one is from a different edition – probably later ‘cos mine has a nicer diagram with a jolly blue colour, so yah, boo!

PS: my non-native students would get a smacked bottom for lack of consistency in ENG spelling if they wrote ‘analysing’ and then ‘analyze’…

(3) My legal-philosopher friend:

How fabulous — I *loved* the little house-y icons used to explain “pre-structural,” “uni-structural” etc.

(4) Our special archaeological foreign correspondent:

From my petty perspective,

“3. Visit an archaeological site or museum exhibition and adopt an archaeological perspective to the evidence provided there.” (assessed how?)

uMM, I think you’ve seen me do this often, it involves going to a museum and loudly ranting and tutting at exhibits, or if in agreement, making patronising comments about how right they ‘managed’ to get it, and who I know in the photographs. It’s not particularly constructive or edifying though, and mainly makes me look like an uppity resentful nerd. However, it does induce an excellent sense of smugness.

”develop high-level research designs for assessing and conducting environmental archaeological studies on site”

B*gger me, I’m doing that all day today and everyday. It means my head hurts because I really should have paid more attention in Chemistry rather than copying your homework!

“Communicate effectively (both written and oral expression) about interpretative approaches in landscape archaeology”

Oh dear. They really shouldn’t be teaching effective communication. If the person in the the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government actually understands your gobbledegook, you’re probably in trouble and due for a long critical review  – students just need to be taught obfuscation, legalese and buzzwords. Clarity is dangerous.

Overall, is there any obligation at [name of institution edited out] for 1st year PhD students to do a course in higher education teaching? In the UK it’s an elective thing, but the people who do it generally end up being both better learners and better teachers. The rest of what the guy said sounds like basic common sense wrapped up in social science teaching theory, so basic that I can recognise it based on hanging out with too many teachers down the pub.

Curiously, there is no mention at all of EU-wide/national research agendas, key research themes, or how to boost RAE. Which is not just down to lecturers/researchy people, but should be instilled in the students from day 1. I know they need to learn the basics first, but I regret the fact that there are thousands of reasonably intelligent people in 2nd/3rd years being made to write pointless PC essays about the faults of Marxist Archaeological Theory and Nazi relic hunters, when they could be doing useful targeted thematic research, grunt lab work or at least numbercrunching for some worthwhile real world projects using real data. Heck, I just want a lot of free labour for my pet projects and my imaginary well-equipped, centrally funded Fun Lab …



Please see the Plain English Campaign. I’ll be cheeky and suggest the following as Useful Reading (from the BlackBoard site for one of the courses I’m teaching):

CRITICAL ANALYSIS: A WRITER’S GUIDES [ … + in-house guide and my own checklist …]
You will also be expected to write well: clearly, coherently, and with style. (Verve and panache will earn you bonus points and kudos.) The following may help:



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