Academic life

Thank heavens that’s over …

Examining, I mean. For the last time ever. And, after a long-drawn-out and rather depressing experience marking tripos, at least I finished on a high note, viva-ing a particularly excellent M.Phil. thesis.

Now it is back to clearing my office. Into the bin with lecture notes from courses twenty-five years ago! Out with old overheads and handouts! Onto the come-and-help-yourselves shelves in another room for a lot of never-read/never-to-be-read books!

But now it is getting harder. I’m slowing down, and it is all getting more discombobulating.

In some cases it is a matter of regretfully having to acknowledge that — being realistic — I am never going to have a year or so to really get my head again round X or Y. I’d love to really get to the point where I was back on top of the state of play in the philosophy of quantum mechanics (say); but it is never going to happen — or at least, it’s never going to happen if I am to have half a chance of finishing some logicky projects. So that whole area will have to remain a closed book, or rather a small pile of closed books. A cheering reminder of faded hopes, eh?

Then there are the books to which I still feel an odd attachment and find difficult to let go for no reason I can easily articulate. Irrational, as I’ve not read them for decades, and I’m surrounded by Cambridge libraries. For instance, I’ve just found myself rereading some of  Cornford’s Unwritten Philosophy, which I must have bought in 1967, and not had occasion to read much since. I’m sure it is all very creaky: ancient philosophy has come such a very long way since when Cornford was writing (the essays date from the thirties and forties). I’ve long since lost touch, and my Greek has quite disappeared. And yet, and yet … The charm of his writing still weaves its magic. No; this I think I will keep, just for a bit longer.

Back to the pile for sorting …

The AHRC and BS again, and again

A remarkable number of people have already signed the online petition to remove “The Big Society” as a strategic area for AHRC funding. If you are an arts UK academic or grad student, you might want to add your name at

and then spread the word among colleagues.

And, if you can bear to read more on this, here’s a useful timeline of the debacle, done with wit.

(Added later) For more comment, see James Ladyman’s excellent piece in the New Statesman. I found his concluding remarks about the AHRC’s bullshit particular congenial, as my own small run-in with them was about the bullshit factor in their sprinkling around descriptions of solid-but-ordinary research (including my own) as “world class”. In correspondence, the AHRC apparatchiks seemed quite incapable of seeing why one might worry about this, and I suspected then that this was symptomatic of a more general inability to think and talk straight. I take no great pleasure in finding my unease to have been proved to be well-placed.

(Added still later) The petition already has over 2000 signatures, and growing. For more analysis about why this should have got people exercised, here’s more insightful good sense from Iain Pears.

(Later again) Read, too, Stefan Collini on the AHRC and the road to intellectual mediocrity.

He that toucheth pitch …

The story so far. The Observer run a piece entitled ‘Academic fury over order to study the big society’ which starts off

Academics will study the “big society” as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a “significant” amount of its funding on the prime minister’s vision for the country, after a government “clarification” of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives …

Cue a great deal of angry comment about the dirigiste ambitions of our paymasters (not to mention comparisons with Stalinist direction of research in the eastern block).

Cue in turn a vigorous if not entirely literate rebuttal from the AHRC:

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer … We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.

Ok, suppose that they’ve not been coerced. Still, off their own bat, they seem to have rather enthusiastically gone along with talk of the Big Society. Far from keeping at arms length from the passing whims of a making-it-up-as-they-go-along government, the AHRC’s Delivery Plan 2011-15 repeatedly refers to the Big Society (you can search the PDF). Thus …

The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in section 2 …

In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda … the AHRC will continue to support …

And so on. Their website also hosts a document called ‘Connected Communities OR “Building the Big Society”’ quite explicitly headlining quotes from Cameron.

A spokesman rather pathetically says that the delivery plan had referred to the Big Society ‘to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities’. Really? And are we really to believe that the connected communities project would be looking just the same if Labour were still in power?

I’ve not myself had direct dealings with AHRC apparatchiks (except for a storm in a teacup over some past remarks on this blog, which didn’t impress me). But those I know who are rather closer to such things, at one level or another, have often expressed exasperation or contempt. I’ve heard few good words. And the recent chatter on facebook and twitter and in comment threads suggests that, very widely, the AHRC is indeed held in pretty low esteem.

Now that might, for all I really know, be all terribly unfair (I’ve better things to do than spend a lot of time thinking about the AHRC, the REF, and the likes). Maybe the AHRC really are trying to make the best of a bad job, without undue pandering to their political masters. Maybe. Let’s be really charitable (humour me!). But still, how can the AHRC apparatchiks not know how very low — unfairly or otherwise — their standing is among the academics whose interests (or at least, the interests of whose subjects) they are supposed to serve? And if they do know, how can they not have realized that spattering talk about the Big Society through their documents would only serve — unfairly or otherwise — to confirm the prejudices of all those who already are primed to regard them as toadying third-raters with brains addled by management-speak? Only by being politically dim to a rather staggering degree.

So even taking the most charitable line (which to be honest I don’t), this doesn’t bode too well for us.

PS: I’ve just noted that the always estimable Iain Pears has added his thoughtful two-pennyworth on all this.

Another “last ever …” box ticked

There’s no getting away from it: it does all feel slightly odd, as the academic year rattles on, being repeatedly struck by the thought “Well, this is the last time I’ll be doing that.” At the start of the year, the last time to be faced with another year of brand-new, eager-faced students at more or less their first university lecture; in December, my last first-year logic lecture; and now this last week, my last undergraduate class ever. (For USA readers: like all but a tiny handful, I have to retire from my post at the university’s statutory retirement age.)

Will I miss undergrad. philosophy lecturing ? Difficult to predict. But I think probably not. I might try offering a Part III maths course next year, if DPMMS will have me, but that’s a quite different kettle of fish.

Students are right to be pissed off …

… about the proposed “reforms” to higher education funding. I’ve started a couple of times to write a blog-post adding my two-pennyworth of comment. But firstly, I get too depressed musing more generally about the awfulness of various education “reforms” over the last forty or so years (at my most charitable, let’s say they are quite spectacular object lessons in the Law of Unintended Consequences). And second, much of what I might say has in fact already been said, and said very well, by others — e.g. by Stefan Collini on ‘Browne’s Gamble’, John Sutherland, writing under the cheery title English degrees for £27k – who’s buying?, and particularly by Iain Pears on ‘How the Humanities’.

Iain Pears’s point about re-centering the business of humanities departments on teaching strikes a real chord with me, as I approach the finishing-line with my job. It is difficult to credit now, but when I started as a lecturer we really had only half a day’s “induction” course — and one element of that was a talk on Arnold, Newman and Leavis on the idea of a university (can you imagine?). Yet that didn’t seem out of place. We did mostly thought of ourselves as university teachers with a commitment to “pass it on” (as Alan Bennett puts it in The History Boys). So we took it for granted that we would spent a lot of time talking with our students. ‘Research’ (as opposed to ‘scholarship’, i.e. keeping up our reading and thinking to inform our teaching) was something to be done in our — admittedly generous — spare time. Certainly, the idea that research in the humanities — yet another article in some minor passing debate, yet another unnecessary book? — should be at the very centre of everything, and teaching something to be avoided as much as possible (by getting research grants) was a long way in the future.

It wouldn’t be such a bad thing — and will be the least we owe to the kids who have to mortgage more of their futures to study with us — if in this one respect at any rate we went forward to the past.

5-4-3-2-1 …

There are just five more lectures to go in (my segment of) this year’s 1A logic course. Which means that — after, ye gods, forty years in this game — there are only five more lectures to go in (probably) my last ever intro logic lectures.

It has to be said: it does in a way feel rather strange. But will I really miss giving them? I suspect not. I have been rather enjoying this last trip around the block. But I’ve written up and elaborated the lectures in my Intro to Formal Logic some years back, revised less than two years ago, so I hardly think I’ll be depriving the world if I don’t give the live show again. And by the time I’ve spruced up the slideshow, strutted my stuff, and recovered from the excitement, that’s two-and-a-bit hours out of my life for each lecture, and I’ve much more interesting logical things to do while I still have the energy.

So, short of some major bribery, I think this will be the end. And just when I was beginning to get the hang of it too. But that’s life …

Taking it slowly, #1

I have been rather quiet here, not because life has been so wildly over-exciting as to distract me from blogging but for the opposite reason. Nowt much happening.

My Faculty office is, at the moment, out of bounds as the builders are in my end of the Raised Faculty Building stripping out and replacing the heating system. (“Why wasn’t it done when the building was refurbished not so many years ago?” Jolly good question. And next summer they are going to replace all the windows, so that will mean more disruption and another round of covering everything up and cleaning after … Brilliant money-saving efficiency, eh?) But an upshot is that I’ve found myself working in the Phil. Faculty library, for the first extended period in … what? … forty years?? Which all seems a bit strange. Though very quiet and congenial with no students around.

Anyway, as I’ve said here before, my plan was/is to write a book which says enough to explain what is going on in Gentzen-style proofs of the consistency of arithmetic (how do they work? what do they show given that we all think that PA is consistent anyway, don’t we?). But it isn’t going quite according to the original plan, as I found that there wasn’t anything that I could point to as giving the background theory of small countable ordinals in the way that I’d want to have it presented. There are aspects I really like about Wacław Sierpiński’s old Cardinal and Ordinal Numbers (from 1958); and the short treatment in my friend and colleague Thomas Forster’s Logic, Induction and Sets (CUP, 2003) is very helpful. But all the same, I find myself spending the time writing a long tutorial on small ordinals as the first part of the book as now re-planned. More precisely, this is a tutorial (addressed to myself as much as anyone!) on small-ordinals-without-set-theory. And as always with these things, doing it carefully with (I hope) total transparency about what depends on what takes for ever (or at least, takes me for ever).

Perforce, then, I’m taking it slowly. I just hope that when this part of the book is done someone else will find my route through this stuff an interesting one to take. Anyway, when it is gets to a natural division point and is sufficiently polished, I’ll make this tutorial available here (perhaps 120 book pages?) for no-doubt much-needed comments. Watch this space, though don’t hold your breath.

By the way, talking of Sierpiński, Rafal Urbaniak has pointed me to a whole list of books by Polish mathematicians which mentions another nine by him (gotta admire the energy!), including a seemingly rather nice book in English on the Theory of Numbers, available online .

The Bertrand Russell Professorship

When I moved to Cambridge a dozen years ago, people asked why I wanted to leave Sheffield which was and is such a good department. “But aren’t the attractions of Cambridge obvious?”, I’d reply, “it’s more work, less money, and astronomical house prices.” (There’s an explanation, then, for the noted tendency of Cambridge to appoint people who already have strong Cambridge connections: we are the ones daft enough to want to take the deal!)

The Bertrand Russell Professorship of Philosophy has now been advertised. The title is now wonderful: but as to the work/money/living costs … well, it will be very interesting to see who is still susceptible to the other inestimable attractions of Cambridge.

The Bertrand Russell Professorship

In the official words of the Cambridge University Reporter,

The Council submits the following Graces to the Regent House. … (3) That the Professorship of Philosophy (1896) be retitled as the Bertrand Russell Professorship of Philosophy.

This means that when my colleague Simon Blackburn retires at the end of next academic year, his successor will glory in a splendid title — and because we have raised funding for the chair, the post will indeed be filled, even in these straightened times. (Not of course that Russell himself ever held this chair: its previous holders have, however, included Moore, Wittgenstein, Anscombe and Mellor). And wouldn’t it be good if the new incumbent had Russell’s passion for logic and the philosophy of mathematics, to maintain and enhance that thread of Cambridge interest? Potential applicants watch this space for an early warning about when the appointment process starts later in the year!

I fear, however, that things aren’t looking at all good for the filling of my post when I have to go at the same time as Simon. (Oh dear. I can feel a rant coming on, about the absurd bloating of the central administration and the proliferation of ludicrous expenditure away from the university’s core purposes, at the cost of running down core humanities departments. But that would be boring, so I’ll have another wee dram of Talisker instead.)

Pseuds vs academic bureaucrats

Let me come clean. By my lights, the University of Middlesex philosophy department appears to be a fount of appallingly pretentious pseudery and intellectual garbage of the worst kind. Don’t take my word for it; have a browse through the links here.

Still, that’s not why it is proposed that the department be closed down. It hasn’t anything to do with reputation, supposed research quality (a good score on the last RAE), student numbers, or the like. Indeed, philosophy is the top-rated subject in the university.  No, as a letter from members of the department says,

The Dean explained that the decision to terminate recruitment and close the programmes was ‘simply financial’, and based on the fact that the University believes that it may be able to generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other subjects – from ‘Band D’ to ‘Band C’ students.   …  In a meeting with Philosophy staff, the Dean acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University.

So now you know. It indeed seems the ‘latest example of mindless behavior by out-of-control academic bureaucrats’ (to borrow the words of Leiter Report, where you’ll find more info), acting in such a way to destroy the very sense of a university as a self-governing academic community.

Sides have to be taken. In this fight I’m with the Bullshit Brigade.

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