Wednesday, November 30, 2011

new PhD

Congratulations to my soon-to-be-ex PhD student Neelam Gohar, who passed her PhD viva today. Neelam came here from Pakistan with a government scholarship, and has a teaching position at a university there. Her thesis studies the properties of sequences of tactical or manipulative changes of vote, in the context of voting systems where each agent maintains a declared preference amongst the alternatives, and may change their declared preferences in response to those of the other voters.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Work to rule your HEI

A flurry of stickers on the university’s car-park entry barriers carry the slogan “Hands off our pensions”, a current campaign by the UCU. This has resulted in an action called a work-to-rule. When I first heard the phrase, I thought “rule” was a verb, and you were supposed to parse it like “play to win”, but it actually refers to the practice of doing the minimum work stipulated in one’s contract of employment, which is a tricky notion in the context of academic life. I’m not sure it’ll do the pension scheme any good, but it has the interesting side-effect of shedding light on the general ‘academic experience’, the way diverse academics perceive the job. This page has links to some press coverage, including one to this article in the Guardian, which (along with the readers’ comments) provides insights into the way academics manage their time, and the pressures they’re under, attitudes to research (do you do it because it’s part of the job description, or because you can’t stop yourself doing it?), and whether we perceive ourselves to be working for a specific university, or for a research community. That raises the question of whether it makes any sense to take any form of industrial action.

The article also highlighted the grey area between work, and stuff that’s vaguely related to work but isn’t, talking of which... On Friday I read this panel discussion on the future of universities, also in the Guardian, of particular interest since Lance Fortnow was one of the panelists. Does reading that stuff constitute work? You can make the case that if you know what the future holds, you’ll serve your own institution better. Then again, you might just conclude you should get a job at Google. Anyway, the introduction to the panel discussion read:
The way universities deliver learning, see their role in society and fund their activities is changing fast. But what will HEIs look like in 2020? Join our live chat Friday 11 November
Anyway, to be honest, the discussion was a bit of a disappointment. I guess the warning lay in that usage of “HEI” (that’s ‘higher education institution’.) I’ve never seen an interesting passage of text that contains the abbreviation HEI. Just as slang and colloquial words serve the purpose of flagging up informality, “HEI” connotes a dreary managerialism. More seriously, I think the problem with the discussion is that it focused on the impact of political trends on universities, rather than the more interesting economic ones (e.g. the globalized academic job market, and whether China and India will produce more prospective students, or recruit more academic staff), and it also missed out on the even more interesting technological trends, such as whether the internet will take over from traditional teaching methods like lectures.