Review of ‘Infinite Autonomy’, Jeffrey Church

I spent much of the summer  writing this review for the Journal of Nietzsche Studies, which told me – not unreasonably – to make it less, well, unforgiving. That amended version will appear in JNS later this year, I think. But in all its seething and resentful glory, here is the “uncensored” version of my review of some book on Nietzsche and Hegel.

Preparing for the end of the world


Graduates in philosophy at the University of Essex are this week holding their annual Graduate Philosophy Conference. This year the theme is nature, and as per tradition the organisers are screening films related to the theme in the week leading up to the conference (Saturday 4 May, more details here).

On Tuesday Tom Whyman (PhD student and “think-bro”, philosophy, essex) introduced Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, a film that is – unsurprisingly – about the end of the world, but also about the end of a particular world, and the way in which Herzog envisages the end of that world as brought about by the resurgence of another, more primordial and authentically natural world. In anticipation of Saturday’s conference, and while this is fresh in my mind after last night’s screening, I note here some thoughts about Herzog’s exploration of the death of humanity at the hands of nature.

Encounters is a documentary filmed at McMurdo Station, a base of operations for biologists, volcanologists, physicists and others working on scientific study of the Antarctic ecosystem. Herzog’s journey to Antarctica is driven by his fascination for a spectacular submarine realm that is as beautiful in its transcendence as it is terrifying in its threat of violence and death. The journey, which begins with him asking why most animals do not subjugate the rest of the natural world like we do, soon reminds Herzog that he does not believe that the natural world is as innocent as his initial questions suggest, and that for all his concern with the brutality with which humans abuse other creatures, it is only a matter of time before nature will again reveal its true role in our lives: less indentured servant, more cold and unforgiving pan-deity, an apocalyptic messiah that will return once we have destroyed the Antarctic icebergs and released the same primordial bloodlust that we, Herzog suggests, fled from when we evolved out of the sea and onto land.

What is perhaps most interesting about Herzog’s vision of the end of the world is that it finds itself most often pre-occupied with how we prepare for the end. Encounters is obsessed with preparation. Much of the time spent with the scientists is at McMurdo, the base of their operations and a village that seems to exist in a constant state of being built, populated by JCBs, diggers, trucks, and drills. Here, as in the field camps that we move to later in the film, Herzog becomes intrigued with the way that the inhabitants of McMurdo prepare for expeditions. One extended sequence follows the camp’s survival training, preparation necessary for anyone who will venture out of the confines of the camp to face the unmitigated danger of the Antarctic wilderness, and we watch the blundering attempts of a dozen trainees to cope with conditions simulating a blinding snowstorm. Another scene patiently observes the preparation of an expert diver on his last dive below the ice, watching the diver labour over his multiple layers to protect him from the cold, a “suiting-up” that seems to take as much time as the dive itself will take.

In conversation with the diver preparing for his last dive, Herzog discusses the similarity between the creatures under the ice and the science-fiction monsters that this diver watches in his down-time. In one of the documentary’s funniest, and I think most revealing moments, Herzog asks the diver whether he thinks that mammals and humans evolved into land-creatures to escape the terror and cruelty of life in the sea, that evolution has been driven by panic and fear. The diver agrees. When the divers prepare to submerge, they prepare to re-enter this violent arena that we know from other Herzog documentaries he sees as the cruel reality of the natural world (think for instance of his only disagreement with Treadwell in Grizzly Man – Treadwell is to Herzog, for all his virtues as a filmmaker, naive about the brutality of nature). In other words, Encounters suggests that the explorations of the divers is their return to a primordial, and in Herzog’s eyes more authentic natural realm.

Encounters emphasis on the scientists’ preparation to return to this more authentic is compounded by the film’s messianic theme. Herzog also observes that the divers and their team prepare for their dives in complete silence, and tells us that it reminds him of priests preparing for mass. In conversation with one of McMurdo’s physicists, we learn that their project to detect neutrinos – trillions of particles bombarding and colliding with us at every moment – is thought of by this physicist as an attempt to make some kind of connection with what he describes as a spiritual realm that surrounds us in parallel to our empirical reality. The physicist even goes so far as to describe this as something surrounding him ‘almost as some kind of spirit or God’. It is as if the scientific exploration undertaken in the Antarctic is an attempt to reconnect with a lost sense of the divine, and that the lengthy preparations taken by the biologists and physicists – priests preparing for mass – are their preparation for a return of this divinity.

The story that is told through these suggestions is one that casts the end of the world as a return of the violence of primordial nature. When the characters of Encounters discuss the most obvious manifestation of this impending apocalypse – the migration north and ultimate melting of the icebergs – the film frames this as a discussion of the opening of a natural Pandora’s box, the ice melting to release the sci-fi monsters and brutal authentic natural world currently contained and hidden under the ice. All this means that the vision of the end of the world at which Herzog arrives puts his initial questions about the subjugation of nature at the hands of humanity into a transcendent and humbling context. The question “why don’t animals abuse each other for their own ends in the way do?” is met with the answer: “the brutality of humans riding on horses is nothing compared to the destruction we will face once the true violence of nature returns”.

The messianic picture of the end of the world in Encounters is thus not of the return of Christ to establish the kingdom of heaven in our world, but the return of the savage nature that we escaped from when we escaped out of the sea onto land. And perhaps the most humbling moment of Herzog’s presentation of this picture is when we watch one of the inhabitants of McMurdo show us precisely how he is ‘always prepared’. One of the many travellers who have somehow found themselves at the end of our world tells Herzog how he always has a backpack packed and ready to be used should he need to travel. The backpack is designed to contain anything the intrepid adventure might need: a sleeping bag, a tent, clothes, cooking utensils, even an inflatable dingy and a paddle, all kept under 20kg.

Herzog suggests that the inclusion of the dingy and the paddle is strange. And he is right of course. Not if we think of this backpack as a preparation for a trek through uncharted territory, because you never know when you might need to cross a river, but if instead we think of this backpack as a futile attempt to prepare for what everyone else in Encounters is preparing for: the end of the world. For Herzog, the final voyage that we are preparing for promises only destruction, violence, and death, and when we’re up that particular shit-creek, even a paddle can’t help us.

On the Genealogy of Paolo di Canio


(okay I’m a little late on this, sorry)

Paolo di Canio’s appointment as Head Coach at Sunderland has prompted much more discussion than di Canio’s appointment at Swindon. This could be a matter of the greater attention generally paid to Premier League football than lower leagues in the UK, although I think papers such as the Guardian have spilt more ink on SAFC these last two weeks than they have all season. It’s more probably caused by David Milliband’s resignation as Sunderland’s vice-chairman, a decision he claims was taken because of di Canio’s ‘past political statements’. Nothing, of course, to do with his other recent resignation as South Shields MP and his imminent move to New York.

Whatever the explanation for the scrutiny of di Canio’s past political statements, coverage of the appointment has reminded us of what an utter prick di Canio is. A few notable examples of di Canio’s past idiocy have served as a reminder of this. The first is one of many incident that involve di Canio the player: pushing referee Paul Alcock when playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1998, resulting in Alcock’s laughably embarrassing slow-motion stumble to the ground. This was a particularly silly moment in di Canio’s turbulent career as a player, and is perhaps more forgivable than his conduct during the fallout of the red card and the push. You will read in some recent coverage that di Canio accepted his 11 game ban with dignified remorse, agreeing that he’d made a serious mistake and serving his suspension without fuss. While this may be the case, he was much less honourable following the suspension. Di Canio spent most of the suspension in Italy and when the time came for him to return to Sheffield in December 1998, he refused. His absence from training resulted in fines from the club totalling £102,000, and ultimately a move to West Ham the following January.

In most other footballer’s careers this would be a relatively serious incident, but as a one-off it would likely be forgiven. But of course, in di Canio’s case this was neither a relatively serious incident, nor a one-off, but instead symptomatic of an unpredictable temper and a confused attitude toward authority that would lead to much more serious cases of stupidity. Similar situations in his brief time as a manager are I think less easy to dismiss, and with greater responsibility for the direction of a club the actions of di Canio the manager should be taken more seriously than those of di Canio the player. And so perhaps we should be more worried by the altercation between di Canio and Leon Clarke, a forward at Swindon during di Canio’s period as their manager.

In August 2011, after Swindon were beaten by Southampton 1-3, Clarke left the field in a bit of a strop telling staff around him, including di Canio, to “fuck off”. In the video above we see a clumsy attempt by di Canio to calm Clarke down, putting his arm around Clarke and trying to find the words to cool Clarke’s temper. Di Canio doesn’t have much luck with this, but has already committed himself to the playing the role of comforting coach-father, and refuses to let Clarke go. Di Canio is blinded by his pride and his steadfast refusal to give up on an ill-judged attempt to console his player (the mistake should be evident in the way Clarke reacts initially), and this leads to a quick and violent escalation once di Canio and Clarke are (almost) out of camera-shot at the end of the tunnel.

Di Canio’s explanation of the situation runs as follows: “I saw Leon insulting my colleagues. So, as his manager, I put my arm round his shoulder and told him to go down the tunnel…He kept on swearing. I had to grab his shirt and put him up against the wall. It wasn’t violent. But he’d been saying ‘fuck off’ repeatedly, to people older than him. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson in that situation. Eventually I had to say: ‘OK. Now you fuck off.’”

Thus according to di Canio he had no choice (and, apparently, Fergie would have done the same). In a sense, he’s right about this, so long as we accept three things. First, that he also “had to” put his arm around Clarke. Once the decision had been made to deal with the situation in this way, there was no going back for di Canio. Second, that the best way to deal with the possibility that, as an inexperienced manager unsure of how to deal with a very pissed off player, you might have made a mistake, is to push ahead with that decision tenaciously and ignore all the signs that you should rethink your approach. And third, that when all else fails the only option in response to a disrespectful player is to “grab his shirt and put him up against the wall”. In other words, that when someone is being irreverent and failing to acquiesce to the authority of elders, that person needs to be dealt with violently.

Although of course according to di Canio he wasn’t being violent; he only grabbed Clarke’s shirt and put him up against the wall. This instance of di Canio’s Jesuitical reasoning bears much resemblance to his account of the third and most infamous example of his utter-prickishness. Di Canio’s personal history of fascism is of course what Milliband was referring to when he cited ‘past political statements’ as his reason for leaving Sunderland. To be more specific, Milliband was referring to di Canio’s explanation of why he had raised a right arm salute to Lazio fans at at least two matches: ‘I am a fascist, not a racist’. Add to that di Canio’s praise for Mussolini in his autobiography (‘basically a very principled, ethical individual) and the ‘Dux’ tattoo on his right arm, and we have the reason why local war veterans are boycotting the club, and the Durham Miner’s Association have requested the club return their trade union banner, previously on permanent display at the Stadium of Light. This has to be the most worrying aspect of di Canio’s pre-Sunderland history as both a player and a manager, and the fact that it took him so long to go on record at Sunderland to say he is not a fascist will continue to worry fans like myself.


Too much has been made, I think, of di Canio’s attempt to distinguish fascism from racism, partly because it wasn’t really much of an attempt at all, but just another instance of di Canio doing or saying something without any thought. Di Canio doesn’t show any sign of having a considered position on whether fascism entails racism, what fascist principles are, or what it would mean to be a fascist. He also doesn’t seem to have much understanding of what racism is, or any understanding of the difficulties in distinguishing nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, chauvism, and racism, nor should we expect him to.

But this hasn’t stopped others trying to make these distinctions for him. I’m thinking particularly here of a feature on Newsnight last week, a panel discussion on the history of fascism with Paxman approaching the issue with a typically clumsy “what is fascism, anyway?” and historians and anti-fascism campaigners disagreeing over whether the fact that Mussolini didn’t introduce explicitly anti-semetic laws until 1935 means that fascism is not inherently racist.

The “what is fascism?” question should, I think, remind us that what fascism is not necessarily what it was when it was first given a name in Italy, not necessarily a feature of a political ideology that is common to each instance of a legitimate use of the word “fascism”. What fascism means now, and what it means for someone to state that they are a fascist in the 21st century, can be and is different to what it would have meant in pre-war Italy, and different again from what it would have meant in Europe immediately after the war. Figuring out whether there is something to defend in di Canio’s claim that he is a fascist and not a racist should not involve an effort to identify core principles of fascism that predate the explicitly racist laws of war-era Italy. This is precisely because a commitment to fascism, with a proper understanding of what that entails, is a commitment that will entail different things at different points in history, and in 2013 it is (at least) more likely that a commitment to fascism, with a full understanding of what that means, is also a commitment to racism.

All this is to say that whether or not we can legitimately divorce fascism from racism will not be decided by trying to identify a feature common to different uses of the word “fascism”, nor a version of fascism that is purified of its ostensibly accidental features. Nietzsche was making a similar point when he said that ‘only something which has no history can be defined’ (On the Genealogy of Morality II 13): that to try to understand something like a society’s punitive practices, or in our case a political position known as fascism, we must do something other than settle on a definition of the phenomenon (features X, Y, Z are necessary and sufficient for something to be an example of fascism).

Nietzsche’s application of this principle in the case of the history of punishment leads him to object to the common place assumption that punishment has always been thought of as retribution for those who have wronged. Originally we did not punish because the punished “deserved it”, Nietzsche will say, but instead because those who fail to keep their obligations to others (particularly material debt obligations) needed to compensate those others for that failure, and did so in the form of a right to indulge in sadism (“can’t get your money back? Make up for it by getting off on beating up your debtor”). Understanding what punishment is now, for Nietzsche, does involve understanding its history, but not to understand what has stayed the same through that history but in order to understand what new perspectives and interpretations have been introduced in order to make punishment what it is today.

Similarly, an application of this sentiment in the case of di Canio and fascism should lead us to resist finding the answer in core content of fascism ever-present in its history. This is not to say that the history of fascism is irrelevant to the question of whether fascism entails racism, but it is to say that looking to an original meaning of fascism is unhelpful.

The issue of di Canio’s racism aside, we have the question of whether he is a fascist – it’s not as if the problem with di Canio’s possible fascism is just whether or not he is must be committed to racism. Di Canio himself is obviously confused about whether he is a fascist (and indeed confused about whether Mussolini was worthy of admiration). But what di Canio thinks about this isn’t really the point. The sense in which di Canio is a fascist is seen is his conduct, and not in what he has said about fascism explicitly.

There is a reason di Canio has been drawn to Irriducibili Lazio (to whom his fascist salutes on the pitch have been directed), and a reason for his attraction to Mussolini. An answer to the question of whether di Canio is a fascist, and not just if he is thereby a racist, must recognise the character seen in, for example, his confrontation with Clarke. If I’ve read the situation correctly, Clarke ends up against the wall because of di Canio’s stubborn refusal to back down, a hard-headed tenacity that his defenders portray as principle and passion but surely rather betrays a fragile pride and a reluctance to admit error. Combine this with di Canio’s claim that he had to deal with Clarke’s irreverence with violence, and you see the latent fascism in di Canio’s attitude towards player management. The authority of the manager, and of other elders, is not to be questioned. The possibility that this authority has made mistake cannot enter into his assessment of the situation, and when a decision is made by this authority it must be followed through no matter what. And if the dissenting subservient continues to question the authority, violence is a legitimate, in some situations the only, way to deal with that subservient. Thus whether di Canio’s past political statements are a reliable indicator of his attitude towards fascism, his fascist sympathies are evident in his unspoken statements, and the way he has conducted himself as a manager.

Still, we should at least entertain the prospect that just as fascism is a historical phenomenon – and thus capable of adopting different meanings at different times – so too is di Canio. It may have taken him a while, but he did finally denounce ‘fascist ideology’ in a late attempt to defuse the situation. Has a new, non-fascist interpretation imposed itself on Paolo di Canio? As a Sunderland fan, I certainly hope so.

Considering a PhD?

I gather it’s PhD application season, at least in the UK. For many at the end or beyond the end of the PhD my jaded cynicism will be tiresome, trite, and dull, so I’m not going to write much about it.

All I’ll say is: if you’re considering a PhD, make sure you have digested the following. I don’t know if any of this will be news to any budding PhDers, but I know that even though I was a relatively clued-up Masters student I didn’t really appreciate the destructive force of the PhD process itself, and the state of the job market after that process.

The following are NOT exaggerations of the perils of doing a PhD. You have been warned.

Doing a PhD will break you:

Piled Higher and Deeper (has probably saved the sanity of a few friends of mine):

(If you’ve made it through the PhD) Short-term contract academics:

Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time (heavy emphasis on employability – with thanks to Jef):

If you have any to add to this list, please let me know (do a comment). I’ll add to this if I come across something relevant.

Sorry, I can’t think today, I’m too busy making impact


This seems so obvious to me as to be almost not worth writing. But there seems to be some kind of confusion about this among some people in very important positions in HE, or if not confusion then contention, so perhaps the following is not as trite as I hope it to be.

 If you ask an academic to do something other than research and teach, then their research and their teaching is likely to suffer. There is no substitute for spending time thinking and writing when trying to produce a better paper or improve as a teacher. When asked to do something other than thinking or writing about a paper, or preparing for a class, an academic is asked to reduce the amount of time and energy they will dedicate to research and teaching.

Of course thinking and writing are achievements that take a broad variety of forms and can be helped by a broad variety of activities. Thinking can be shutting oneself away from distractions to plough through relevant material and scribble down ideas. It can also be meeting regularly with other people who also like to, you know, think, and helping one another break deadlocks. How we write, and the habits that help us do so, vary enormously from person to person.

Fine, ok, whatever. But neither thinking nor writing take the following forms:

  1. Applying for research funding
  2. Trying to use research to make “impact”  

This is what I think should be obvious, and is obvious to most people I know (most): spending time on either of these two things will distract from the work of research and teaching, and is likely to have a negative effect on the quality of the latter.

I can think of two cases in which this point is either not understood, or ignored. First, most recently, there has been an exchange on Philos-L concerning a recent job advertisement at Sussex. (Philos-L is a philosophy mailing list that circulates information about conferences, journals, seminars etc. and every once in a while will host a limited discussion). The first objection to the wording of the advertisement focussed on the request for a candidate with ‘an entrepreneurial attitude to generating research grant income’. After much discussion a member of the faculty at Sussex responded in defence of the advertisement, which included the claim that ‘It’s hard to see what’s bad about this [entrepreneurial attitude] or how it interferes with being a philosopher.’

I don’t want to pass comment on whether the department at Sussex have made a mistake by advertising in this way. The request for an entrepreneurial philosopher is symptomatic of the pressures that the department (all departments) is under and the fact that they need philosophers who can secure external funding. So the advertisement may be a symptom of an illness in UK HE, but not necessarily something for which philosophy at Sussex should be blamed. Maybe. I leave this open.

But the response from Sussex does ignore what I thought an obvious, though it seems still important point to make: that taking an entrepreneurial attitude to obtaining research funding (which means, in the words of the response, taking the initiative to purse grants to extend and promote their research) interferes with being a philosopher by taking time and energy away from, well, being a philosopher.

The second case is that which I find myself in here at Essex. At the end of last term I heard our VC Anthony Forster talk about third generation academics. Forster’s story goes something like this: first generation academics were only (!) expected to do good research and good teaching; second generation academics were expected to do good research and good teaching, and attract external research funding; third generation academics will be expected to do good research and teaching, secure funding, and make impact. Forster thinks we are now entering (perhaps have entered) this third generation. This means that the demands he will be placing on academics at Essex will reflect the criteria for being a good third generation academic.

Here the obvious point is missed twice over. Expecting academics to be good “second generation academics” misses the point with regard to attracting funding. You can’t expect researchers and teachers to continue to be good at what they do and fulfill an extra criterion for being a good academic. Expecting academics to be good “third generation academics” miss the point with regard both to attracting funding and “making impact”. Academics are people who, in my experience, work 60-70 hour weeks just to make sure they fulfill their administrative obligations while maintaining quality publications and quality teaching. If you ask them to also apply for funding on a regular basis (not a quick or easy task) and engage in public dissemination of research, together with forging and maintain close connections with non-academic “research users”, then something has to give. And that something is always going to be either research, or teaching, or both.

Isn’t this obvious?

Research, Taxes, and “Return on Investment”

I have often read that publicly funded research should in some sense be fed back to those who fund it. Taxes pay for research funding via, for instance, HEFCE and RCUK, and indirectly via state provided student loans (though the way in which source of income is tax-payer funded is of course much more complicated than it was a few years ago). The tax payer, it is said, is therefore entitled to benefit from the research that she pays for.

This point has been made in defense of two causes: open access publishing, and the “impact agenda”. Some say that research should be published in journals that are open to all to read, free of charge, because the public has already paid the upfront cost of reading this research through funding that research. Others say that research needs to demonstrate its extra-academic impact because researchers have an obligation to show those who have funded their research that this research benefits them (I’ve come across this everywhere. To give just one example, this piece by Dave Hone broke the camel’s back and prompted me to write this).

This is always going to be a reductive simplification of the relation between public services and taxes. My taxes also pay for the bins to be collected in Penzance, but I don’t see any direct benefit of that. And I don’t need to in order for it to be a legitimate use of government money. But I don’t think this would be denied by those who make the point about public benefits of research, and to respond in this way misses what is wrong specifically about thinking that research needs to demonstrate its benefit to society in order to justify using government funds.

I won’t touch the issue of open access publishing, simply because I don’t know enough about this debate to feel like I can form an informed and worthy opinion on this. I will say that I suspect there are better arguments in favour of open access publishing, but perhaps there aren’t  or perhaps the open access cause is so important that it is worth using any argument we can to force through a change in the culture of academic publishing. Perhaps.

But I do think that there is something wrong about with the claim that researchers are obliged to demonstrate the benefit of their research to the tax paying public. The problem is that this way of talking about the public funding of Universities ignores the more complicated question of why we have Universities in the first place. This is, I think, the question demanded when we are concerned with the use of government money to fund Universities. To put this rather crudely, taxes are used by the government to fund, among other things, public services, and Universities can be considered, among other things, public services, like bin collection, road maintenance, transport, healthcare and, most importantly, school education. Universities play the role of a public service in a variety of ways, including the provision of research that has demonstrable benefits to a non-academic public (what is now called impact), and including education.

This latter social benefit, education, the provision of teaching, seems to be altogether missed when we say that research needs to show a benefit to the public. Take for instance the way that impact will be assessed in the REF next year. There’s a range of social and economic benefits that departments can submit as examples of impact for their REF submission. Research has impact if it changes cultural institutions, public awareness and knowledge, business ethics, business profitability, teaching practice, healthcare, public policy, etc etc. But the long list of impacts in REF guidance documents does not include change to teaching within Universities. Research undertaken by an academic that does not change his or her teaching in that area does not count.

In short, HEFCE do not think that University research can benefit society through teaching. And I think the same position is implicit in the claim that research has to benefit society directly through some form of public engagement or outreach.

The mistake here is to think that the only way that tax payers can see a return on their investment is by researchers making direct connections with non-University “research users”. The mistake, in particular, is to ignore the social benefit of Universities as teaching institutions. The tax payer will see the benefit of University teaching the next time they visit their GP, visit a museum or art gallery, take out a loan, or apply for another divorce. And the society in which the tax payer lives will see the benefit of the right kind of University education in the form of an informed, thoughtful, and critical electorate.

But the most important point to make here is that academic research can and does benefit University teaching. I would not be able to teach a course on Nietzsche were I not also someone who has spent a lot of time reading and thinking and writing about Nietzsche. And I would undoubtedly teach a better course on Nietzsche had I more time to spend on research in this area. In this sense, research can have benefit for the tax paying public in the form of research that informs and improves teaching.

As I mentioned above, there is something very fishy about framing discussion of good research in terms of a return of investment for the tax payer. But even if we do talk in these terms, we cannot ignore the multiple ways in which publicly funded research will have benefits for society. And making that research accessible and popular is only one of those multiple ways.

Counting Readers

the count

The LSE Impact blog and the closing conference of the LSE Impact in the Social Sciences project earlier this month have given me much to chew on. Some of this has provided healthy masticatory exercise (no it’s not really a word). Some of it has tasted sour. Here I write briefly about what has left the worst aftertaste.

I heard a lot on the day of the conference about the value of digital technologies in a new academic age. Before attending the conference I had read a little and talked a little with colleagues about a range of new technologies that could be used to a variety of ends in academic research, and had, to be honest, developed provisional scepticism about the value of anything described as a “new digital technology” in the context of research. There is something suspicious about both the religious fervour of new digital paradigm zealots and the near-messianic rhetoric they employ (“social media will soon wash away the sins of peer-review”, or something). I found in particular the value of social media in research to have been exaggerated, and used too often as an easy but superficial fix to real challenges faced in Higher Education.

The day of the conference I heard more about how academics can use social media and blogging, in particular how these platforms can be used to disseminate research. The LSE project is after all concerned with academic impact, so it makes sense for them to explore the benefits that social media and blogging can confer on the academic impact of research. I also witnessed debates about the value of alternative impact metrics. I heard that “standard” or “traditional” impact ratings for journals are said to be out of date, out of touch, and incapable of tracking the way publications make an impact through online dissemination. Measuring the academic impact of publications requires more sophisticated software that can collate online citations and more specific data about the way publications are viewed and used online.

I have no doubt that twitter, facebook, pinterest, tumblr, etc are the means to reach the greatest number of readers, both academic and non-academic. That strikes me as a no-brainer. In this respect, such platforms are important for those of us who want or research to be read by as wide an audience as possible. Nor do I doubt the value of reaching a wide audience with research.

But the discussions that have been held about online research dissemination are not without their flaws. First, this same debate on the day of the conference did not always remain focussed on the issue of measuring the effects of research within academia; at times it slipped into a discussion of how best to measure the quality of research. Peer review is the standard nemesis of those who herald the second coming of myspace, and once again at the LSE conference peer review got a good kicking from those arguing in favour of using (their company’s) new software to measure research hits and citations. Better citation metrics not just as a replacement for journal impact factors, but as an alternative quality indicator to peer review.

This is a big mistake, and not because peer review is a reliable indicator of the quality of a paper. It isn’t (or at least, peer review alone is unreliable, and we have to rely on a number of other sources of information to predict the quality of a paper based on the journal in which it’s published). It is a mistake because the number of people who read, cite, retweet etc your work is also not a reliable indicator of the quality of your work. It is an indication only of the fact that lots of people know about and are reading your work. At best it is an indication that your are a particularly skilled writer who has made their work accessible and readable. It may also be an indication of the fact that you are a good networker (not necessarily something of which to be proud – I know some disgustingly talented “networkers”). It may also be an indication of the fact that your thoughts are so misguided, offensive, perhaps even abusive, that the world sees the need to share these thoughts as a warning that you and your work are very very far from being considered “high quality”.

I think this straightforward conflation of citations and quality is rare. But often considerations of quality are not confused for bibliometric success, but simply replaced by it. This, I think, is the biggest worry about the level of attention that is currently being paid to the significance of impact. The effect of REF impact assessment will be to force all academics to consider the effects of their research, who will be using it, who will be reading it, how many will be using and reading it, whenever they think about the next project they undertake or the next publication they aim to write. Promotions will soon be based on impact; research funding decisions by the research councils and other sources is already based on impact plans; and Universities will soon be placing obligations on their academics to demonstrate their impact capability.

HE management will insist that this does not detract from the quality of research, and that academics will be asked to produce research that is both high quality and has impact (my VC at the University of Essex has already said as much – not to mention the fact that he also wants his superhero academics to do these things and be excellent teachers). But no matter how much management insist on this, the reality will inevitably be that the quality of research will diminish as attention shifts to impact, the new and exciting party-trick that researchers are now expected to perform. Academics do not have limitless time and energy, and on the most part have already reached their limit. Hence asking them to do more in terms of impact means something will have to give. All this means that concentration on how many people are reading research will inevitably detract from the quality of that research.

And it is not just HE management that are guilty of propagating a culture that will erode thinking time in favour of blogging time. Those such as Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson, who maintain that ‘blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things an academic should be doing right now’, are equally responsible for demands being placed on academics to blog more. I cannot see how we can avoid these demands leading to less time for thoughtful, considered, patient research, and hence to worse research.

The second, more subtle flaw in the way that digital technology discussion has been conducted has been to conflate broad dissemination with impact. Again, the value of social media and blogging has been sought in the way in which it can get your research to as many people in the world as possible. This, it has been said, is the way to make impact. But whether we are talking academic or non-academic impact, it will always be a mistake to assume that thousands of blog hits, retweets or paper downloads will lead to impact. This point has been made many times over in the context of non-academic impact, and as those of us currently working on impact case studies for the REF are well aware, broad dissemination does not equal influence (millions of people can listen to you on Radio 4 while doing the ironing and not give a shit about anything you’ve said). But I think it holds for academic impact as well. The importance of being read in academia must be surely be who reads you, how you are read, and the influence you have on those who read you. This cannot be captured by measuring how many times your work has been downloaded (or, for that matter, the subscription rates for a journal in print).

So my point is as straightforward as this: lots of people reading your work is not the same thing as your work having impact, and is certainly not the same thing as your work being good. And to be blunt about it (and with the proviso that I realise this does not follow from anything I’ve written above): if you want to write good work that has influence, I’d suggest that you spend less time counting hits, downloads, and followers, and spend more time thinking.

Honesty and Ethos in The Great Gatsby

As an MA and PhD student I was lucky enough to be given plenty of very good advice by very good people about academic writing. For 6 or 7 years now the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex has held a writing workshop, an intensive course for graduate students (primarily philosophers) in which students are asked to write an essay a week, by midnight on Sunday. Students are then given feedback by the workshop teacher in an hour long tutorial at some point within the next few days. This is obviously very hard work for both the course teacher and the students, but in my experience it was a very good way to learn to write academic philosophy.

There are probably a number of reasons why the iterative approach to learning academic writing works in the case of philosophy. Here I want to explore, in a rather loose and baggy way, one reason that comes to mind. We might say that there is something along the lines of a “voice” in humanities academic writing, no matter how bland the subject matter and no matter how formal the articulation of the claim, argument, or observation of the author. A personality can be expressed even in the most dull philosophical writing, and one doesn’t have to write like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Cavell, or Derrida to express character in a philosophy text. Sometimes one’s character, and in particular the way one lives an approach to philosophy, can be expressed when our questions are expressed in the most simple terms. Think of, for example, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Equally, philosophical writing can be greatly disadvantaged when the character expressed is distasteful, offensive, or in any way unpleasant (you could read some of Brian Leiter’s work on Nietzsche to get a taste of this).

It may be easier to explore the possibilities of character expressed in writing by considering literary examples. Here I choose The Great Gatsby (because as should become clear shortly, the above two paragraphs are mostly an excuse to post on a putative HE blog some thoughts I’ve been having about one of my favourite books).

I’ve been told that it’s customary in classroom study of The Great Gatsby to question the reliability of the narrator. Nick Carraway’s perspective on Gatsby, the crowds that flock to Gatsby’s parties, the east coast élite by which Carraway seems both attracted and repelled, may prejudice the narrative of the book to the extent that we should be suspicious of its portrayal of its characters. Gatsby’s sexual history with Daisy, for instance, is raised to the heights of a near-metaphysical romance, contrary to some indications that the relationship that haunts Gatsby was infused with animalistic lust. The combination of Carraway’s priggishness and romantic idealism leads him to reconstruct Gatsby’s history in a way that exaggerates the purity and virtue of that history and of Gatsby himself. We may wonder, then, whether the man who makes his fortune through clandestine investments, attempts to buy both romantic and platonic love, and is unwilling to accept that the object of his desire could have ever loved anyone but him, is as innocent as the lonely and vulnerable soul described by Carraway.

For what’s it’s worth, my opinion on the matter is that Carraway is to be trusted. But this is not because Carraway’s is an objective narrative, in the sense that he brings to his account no prejudice or bias influenced by his own personality. Carraway is a character in the book in his own right, with his own perspective on the story, and the narration of The Great Gatsby will be influenced by the particulars of his perspective. We might say that to ask Carraway to give an account that is not influenced by his perspective is to ask him to see the world around him without perspective at all; we might say further, after Nietzsche, that this is like asking Carraway to tell the story from the perspective of someone who has cut off his own head (“We behold all things through the human head and cannot cut off this head”; Human All Too Human, #9).

Rather than trusting Carraway because he has achieved the impossible status of a decapitated narrator, I trust Carraway because I find him to be a trustworthy person. To justify this view of Carraway I would probably need to give a more detailed reconstruction of that character than I am willing to undertake; but I do want to note that I find Carraway to be one of the most honest characters in the book, albeit a character who does have a tendency to fantasy and romantic exaggeration. Thus if pushed to answer the question of Carraway’s reliability, I would say that he is reliable as a narrator not despite the biases of his character, but because of the biases of his character. Attention to the particulars of his personality and his perspective, in my opinion, should encourage us to trust him more, not less.

We might say, perhaps after Aristotle, that I trust the narrator of The Great Gatsby as a result of the ethos expressed in that narration. Roughly, as I understand it, Aristotle meant by ethos the character or personality that a speaker expresses in her speech, the impression she gives to her audience of the kind of person she is. In particular, effective rhetorical persuasion is aided when the speaker gives her audience the impression that she is a credible authority on the relevant issue. In many situations we will accept that a person is a credible authority on an issue based on their credentials, our knowledge of that person’s experience, or on recommendation. In some situations, an effective speaker will be able to express authority and credibility in no more than the way she speaks. In the case of Carraway, we might say that my trust in him is partly a result of the credibility that is expressed in his account of the situation. I know very little about Carraway other than that which is tacit in the way he narrates his story of Gatsby, and thus my impression of his character relies heavily on the authority he conveys in the way he tells that story.

Carraway’s ethos partly explains, I believe, why he is trustworthy. But the reason I am happy to accept Carraway as a reliable narrator is not just that he expresses credibility in the way he narrates his story, but also that he expresses an honest and trustworthy character. The point here is that Carraway’s expression of the character of a reliable narrator is partly explained by the ethos of his narration, and partly by the honesty expressed in his narration.

There are then two features of the expression of character Carraway’s “writing”: first, a successful ethos in his writing gives me an impression that he is a reliable authority on the subject of the book, Gatsby; second, the character expressed in the way he writes is in my view an honest character, a trait broader than his reliability as a source on Gatsby, Gatsby’s past, and Gatsby’s obsessions, but a feature of how honest a person Carraway is in the way he will conduct himself generally, and how reliable his recounting of any story is likely to be.

Persuasive academic writing certainly seems to need at least a modicum of these two traits. If an academic writer does not give me the impression that she is a credible source on her subject matter, nor a trustworthy character generally, I am likely to be at least suspicious of the content of the piece. It’s hard to know how to teach or to learn how to write like this. But the benefit of an iterative approach to learning how to write is that having someone repeatedly give you feedback on your work allows that person to tell you whether you are achieving these features of good writing. It is likely that an author will be blind to the character she expresses in her writing, and one is probably going to need a reader to point out if one tends to write in a way that does not come across as honest, reliable, and credible. There may be rules of thumb that can guide writing to achieve this (cite credible sources, do not swiftly dismiss critics, exercise charity when considering arguments, avoid autobiographical musings, quit using lazy and boring thought experiments) but what fictional examples and examples of really really good writing in the history of philosophy show us is that the impression philosophy writing gives can often be down to a voice that is developed over a long period of writing many drafts.


I was recently reminded of a term that I haven’t heard or seen since I worked in the Learning and Teaching Unit (now Learning and Development) of the University of Essex. The term is “learner”, a word used to refer to someone most people would call a “student”. The word has always sat uncomfortably with me; it is at best an ugly and to my mind unnecessary neologism, and at worst the symptom of something more troubling (more of which in a moment).

I don’t recall hearing any convincing explanations for using “learners” rather than “students” when I first asked colleagues in LTU about this. Not that I pressed anyone very hard for an explanation – I was and remain to a certain degree rather dismissive of the term. I remember no more than the obvious reason: “learner” emphasises the fact that those who attend courses in a University want to learn something. To which the obvious retort is of course: yes, but “student” emphasises the fact that those who attend courses in a University want to study something, and without studying there ain’t no learning. Similarly those who attend lectures presumably want to listen to the lectures; shall we call these people “listeners”? Are those who have to submit coursework as part of their education “courseworkers”?

Thus, at best, switching to “learner” is just unnecessary, and I’ve no reason to think it’s any better than “student”. Or at least, the very limited amount of time that I’m honestly willing to spend looking for a reason has not come up with much. At the risk of straw-manning (see how ugly language can be as a result of thoughtless attempts at creativity?), here’s one particularly clear but not particularly good attempt to show the virtues of “learner” in contrast to “student”:

Students Learners
Relationship with educators Students are employees, expected to obediently follow instructions. Learners are citizens with a vested interest in the learning society.
Relationship with other “Students” Students are competitors Learners are collaborators
Motivation Obligation: Students are culturally obliged to work for the teacher & for compensation(below) Responsibility: Learners are motivated by an understood and realized “value” in their work, especially when it is valuable to others.
Compensation Institution-defined grades and gateways to college (another institution) and a good job (another institution) A sense of ongoing accomplishment that is not delivered but earned, and not symbolic but tangible and valuable — an investment.
Mode of Operation Compliant, group-disciplined, objective-oriented, and trainable Persevering, self-disciplined, group-, goal-and product-oriented, resourceful, and learning in order to produce and accomplish rather than simply achieving learning.
Why? Compelled Curious
Equipped ..with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge — prescribed and paced learning ..with tools for exploring a networked variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding, and constructing knowledge — self-invented learning
Assessment Measuring what has been learned. Measuring what the learner can do with what has been learned.

(This is taken from an old post by David Warlick, a self-styled “Educator, Writer, Programmer, Public Speaker & Entrepreneur”)

There are of course all kinds of problems with this. I won’t spend time going through it in any detail. Warlick is likely not the best proponent of the use of “learner” (or if he is, then I feel wholly vindicated in a way that I probably have never been before and never will be again). And it’s also pretty obvious what’s wrong with this table. In short, there’s no reason to think that the term student means any of the things in the first column, and certainly no reason to think that this is what we must mean when we use the term. Warlick seems to be on to something in his “compensation” row (though it’s not obvious to me why we would talk of a student’s “compensation” at all). Certainly UK Universities are increasingly concerned with employability, and to my mind have replaced concerns with other elements of a University experience with job prospects rather than adding employability to those concerns (a position that would take a whole other post to substantiate). But Warlick’s preferred alternative is to think of the “compensation” of education as a return on investment, and it’s not clear to me how this is any different from thinking about education solely as a means to a good job. Generally, the table isn’t convincing as an account either of the vices of using the term student or the virtues of using the term learner.

I’m open to better defences in the shift in terminology, but I’m inclined to think such defences aren’t available. In fact, I suspect that there’s a deeper problem with the use of the word “learner” that would not be resolved by any defence of the term. The deeper problem, I think, is that this strange use of the word is a symptom of something broader, namely the way in which Universities have taken the view that teaching is a specialism or technical practice. For many Universities managers – and this is I think reflected in the existence of rather substantial distinct Teaching sections within HEIs – teaching is thought of a topic of expertise or consultancy, and that the reliable experts and consultants for teaching will be those employed full-time to develop their teaching expertise.

Terminology like “learners” helps, I believe, to perpetuate this attitude. The impression that this terminology gives is that there is a vocabulary that we need to be versed in in order to be good teachers, a specialist terminology exclusive to those who really know how to be a good teacher, comparable to the (for me) impenetrable language of, say, property law, computer programming, or car mechanics. This specialist vocabulary seems designed to convince us that there is something that only an expert few can really understood about good teaching. Referring to the people who listen to you for an hour a week as students shows your lack of expertise, and the fact that you need specialists like David Warlick to teach you (or perhaps, aid your learning) the right way to think about education.

And of course the problem with this is that the insight into education brought by the term learner is no real insight at all. It doesn’t take much thought about a teacher’s relation to a student to realise that proper education requires proactive students who are interested in engaging and learning. Nor does it take much thought to realise that students are not given knowledge by their teachers in the way that a tradesman may be given tools to do his or her job. I’ve never come across anyone who teaches and has not already had these “insights”. And those who teachers who do not already understand this are not laypersons who need the help of a teaching consultant; they’re simply bad teachers.

Of course teaching specialists may be less concerned with what teachers say they know about teaching, and more concerned with the way they actually teach. I might insist that I realise all of the insights associated with the term learner, yet fail to practice these insights. Fair enough. But is the right way to address this really to encourage people to refer to students as learners? Will that really change the way we treat students? Isn’t it more likely to make the bad teachers feel that they’ve made a virtuous change to their teaching, instead of realising that they’ve only papered over the cracks?

I’m suspicious of a term like learners, in short, because it seems to contribute to what we might call a technicisation of teaching (again, see how ugly neologisms can be) that deals with real questions and issues in teaching in very shallow ways. Calling our students learners does not, I think, help us improve the way we actually think about education, nor the way we actually relate to students. If anything, it seems to be used as an excuse for avoiding the more difficult issues faced in education.

REF and “Impact” within departments

One of the more controversial effects of the impact element of the REF will undoubtedly be the way that Universities will begin/have already begun to create institution-wide impact infrastructure. Universities have long been encouraging academics (in increasingly strong terms) to up their impact and increase their ability to demonstrate their impact. Thus, on the one hand, academics will be pushed in ever stronger terms to link their research with extra-academic audiences, clients, research users, or whatever name seems most appropriate depending on the discipline in question and the types of connections made outside of a University. They will also be encouraged in ever stronger terms to collect evidence of the effect of research as they occur. This could mean, for instance, making sure that questionnaires are distributed to non-academic attendees at a conference, and perhaps following up with respondents to collect testimonials that speak to the way the research presented at the conference has changed their mind about, say, contagious yawning in turtles, or whatever. This evidence will be needed, primarily, for future REFs which are very likely to ask for evidence of impact, much like REF 2014.

Why is this controversial? The usual reasons: time, resources, and the malformation of research. Academics have precious little time as it is, never mind asking them to find the time to create innovative ways of making an impact with their research and recording that impact in a “REFable” way. University money is being set aside in increasing amounts to pay for staff (like myself) to become experts on the way the REF assesses impact and the way it has to be achieved and recorded in order to be REFable, not to mention money for staff and equipment to do the impact coordination and recording. And perhaps most importantly there’s the worry that research will be skewed negatively by this emphasis on impact. In a mundane sense, this would be due to the way that academics would be spending time on achieving impact that could otherwise be spent on the research itself. In a more complicated sense, the nature of the research undertaken will also be changed, because it must be research that is demonstrably capable of having an effect outside of academia, and of course much good research does not come into that category.

In my last post I suggested that this might not be so much of an issue, because the impact element of an REF submission does not have to detail the impact made by all research in a department. So long as a relatively small department has a couple of good case studies, all other research can be totally insular.

Since then I’ve thought of two reasons to rethink this. First, it is true that the nature of the impact element of the REF does not necessarily mean that all research undertaken in a department must be research that has obvious connection with non-HE institutions. But I learned this week that impact is not just a major part of the REF, but is now a major part of funding proposals with the national research councils. Apply for funding now, and you have to show that your research will have impact. This, I believe, will inevitably force all researchers looking for funding (i.e. all University researchers) to do research that can have REFable impact. So a departmental strategy of some researchers doing great impact and some doing other kinds of great research seems to be at the very least strongly dis-incentivised.

The second reason has to do with the secondary feature of the impact REF submission. Each department that is submitted for the REF must include case studies explaining the impact of some (but not all) of the department’s research. With this they must submit what is called an Impact Template, a document that details the context in which those case studies have taken place. The case studies make up 80% of the score for impact, the template 20%.  I haven’t looked into this in great detail, but the REF guidance suggests that a good Impact Template will describe the way a particular department has been encouraging and facilitating impact from their researchers. Those that score well will, it seems, be those departments that have been pushing impact on their members. And this of course is at least in tension, if not incompatible, with a department strategy that promotes some pure research, and some applied or impact-ful research.

This second point will no doubt exacerbate the worries some have about the way researcher’s will be under pressure from their institution to make and record an impact with their work. Many are not happy with, but at least used to having to resist, unwelcome direction from some management staff within Universities. But I get the impression that many academics would be argue that a line has been crossed when not only academic-related administrative staff, but also academic staff within their own department, are having to bang the impact drum. It’s one thing to put up with the pressure felt from an REF-related admin post; it’s another to have to resist that same pressure from your own colleagues within your department.