Saturday, December 30, 2006


Bad night last night -- woken by one of the little darlings again and again, so I don't think I got any sleep after 5. They're usually pretty good at sleeping these days (though they were both terrible when younger) but last night was one of those when you are awake between 4 and 5, just the time when you are attacked by all sort of anxieties, worries and -- at least in my case -- get one or two words of a song stuck going round your mind. (Last night it was the first two lines of Respect by Erasure. Nice.) If you're awake then, you're likely not to have slept enough already to feel like surrendering and getting up. But you know that even if you do get back to sleep there is a fighting chance that you won't really feel much better when you do eventually have to get up. Sheer torture, in fact. (And sleep deprivation can indeed be a very effective means of torture, something any new parent would immediately recognise.)
I'm glad I hadn't read until now (from the ever useful Wikipedia) the effects of sleep deprivation, since I reckon we went through about two years of it. It's a wonder they let new parents drive, operate machinery, or do anything that requires any fine judgement at all, let alone care for young children.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Unacademic Christmas

I'm very happy to say that I haven't thought much about philosophy or classics for the last week or so, mainly because we have been busy enjoying Christmas so much. When you have young children there really isn't much you can do except join in with the excitement and the chaos, the boxes and wrapping paper, the noisy toys and messy chocolates. But some others in my line of work are not, apparently, so lucky.
Some academics do, no doubt, spend most or all their vacation in the library (and we are indeed lucky in my Faculty to have access to the library at all hours) but I wonder whether it's really a good idea. When I was a student, the usual stance to take was that you hadn't done much work, were unprepared for the exams and would just have to wing it. Professional academics often take a different stance, explaining at length just how much they have done, at what long or unsociable hours and so on. Now, this might in fact be true. What is interesting is the extent to which some people -- in any profession, I imagine -- find it necessary to tell others and others keep quiet about how much they do or don't do. What should I do? I haven't spent the week working so should I feel like I am slacking off in comparison with my peers? (I certainly do sometimes feel that I should be working more and working harder since others seem to be doing more than me.) On the other hand, it would seem odd in various ways if I were to make an equally public declaration of the time I haven't spent working. Perhaps it would make me seem less in the eyes of my colleagues and superiors. Perhaps people would think of me as I used to think of the annoying fellow students who explained at such length how little they had done. The pressures of comparison with fellow-workers are not insignificant. They are presumably useful for employers and also for pushing ourselves to do more. But they can also be damaging, stressful and impede efficiency.
In any case, beyond all this navel-gazing, I'm happy to say that I'm enjoying my Christmas immensely. I have rediscovered how much fun Lego is, I've watched some excellent kids Christmas TV (top marks for the Charlie and Lola Xmas special...) and it has been great to have a week without the grumbles of college and Faculty. Just the odd reminder for a reference or two, but I had those sorted and ready to print before the vacation. And I had checked my references for a new book typescript early in December...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lies and fables

A teacher at a school in Exeter has been criticised for a lesson in which year 5 children (10-11 year olds) were asked to write responses to imaginary letters to Santa. (The lesson plan and materials were produced by the Hamilton Trust.) In the process of the lesson it was made very clear that Father Christmas does not exist and that all letters purporting to be from him are in fact generated and delivered by the Royal Mail. (Read the news report here.) Parents were perhaps justified in complaining that it should not be up to the school to decide if and when to tell the truth about Father Christmas to children, although it is not clear to me that the teacher was not right to expect all 10 year olds to have worked it out already. (I suspect that lots of children continue to play along with their parents although they are pretty sure it's all a game for some time before the parents themselves realise. Children are quite capable, I think, of appreciating when playing along is to their advantage and, less venally, when playing along is something they think will please their parents.)
Anyway, I wonder how far this principle ought to be applied? Are all myths and stories, of any sort, out of bounds in this way? Should a school never expressly attempt to enlighten children and stop them believing in unfounded stories? (You can see where this is going...) I would have thought that it was in fact part of a school's job to do precisely that, whether or not the parents concerned have given their consent. You do, after all, send children to school for them to be taught things... There are, no doubt, more and less sensitive ways of disabusing a 10 year old of a false belief, so perhaps the problem here is less that fact of enlightenment than the means. But that the children in Exeter were being educated is surely not in doubt. Teaching children that there is no Father Christmas leaves room for positive discussion about the value of Father Christmas as a story, of course, so this need not be a wholly negative affair. But I don't think schools should collude in lying to children, even if those lies are thought by many to be harmless.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No more bishop-bashing, please

Just beating the story of the love between Lembit Opik MP and one of the 'cheeky girls' (how did he pick between the two?), my favourite news item of recent days is an intriguing story of Christmas cheer. Poor Tom Butler, bishop of Southwark, is in a bit of a mess after a night out at the Irish Embassy. Reports of what happened are a bit hazy, but they seem to involve him banging his head, losing a briefcase and phone and -- the best bits -- half hanging out of a car throwing baby toys about. Now, we should not be quick to pass judgement... It could, of course, be that he suffered some sort of blackout or seizure. Or he might well have been the victim of what we can all recognise as a 'dodgy' glass of wine. (The Telegraph, reporting that the bishop has since the event hosted another party (shock!) suggests that 'Portuguese' wine may have been to blame!) But in particular, the bishop is very keen that it be known that he was not drunk. Some of his arguments in favour of this hypothesis are, however, not strong...
1. "I have been going to receptions for 20 years," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme in his first broadcast interview. "Normally, at a reception, I will have a glass or two of wine. I'm very careful. I don't get drunk frequently. I would not be able to do my job if I got drunk. I certainly don't think it's a resigning matter."
Of course, past attendance at receptions is no guide to his recent performance but it is not clear that it would be impossible to be a bishop if one were ever to get drunk. In any case, in saying he does not get drunk 'frequently', the bishop certain implies he does so 'sometimes'. Good for him, too.
2. The bishop said he had used public transport to make his way home in Streatham, south London, on the evening of 5 December. "I defy anyone who had too much to drink to make that journey," he said.
Again, although not an expert, I can certainly point to occasions when an innate 'homing ability' has got me, a little worse for wear, to my home and even seen to it that I get into bed having folded my clothes neatly and piled them carefully on the floor. (Indeed, probably showing more care than I would normally...)
In short, then, this is all a bit of a mystery. But if you want to send the bishop messages of support, then you can do so here.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I've been listening to Tanya Donelly's new album, This Hungry Life, as I crawl round Cambridge from school to work to shops to wherever. It's really good, perhaps better than Whiskey Tango Ghosts and reminiscent of the stuff she did with Belly -- which was my initiation into things Donelly, then Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh etc. Anyway, favourite at the moment is track 3: Kundalini slide, which you can hear on TD's MySpace page. Please go and listen. I think it's very like Seal my fate, from Belly's album King, but pared down and somehow more fragile but also powerful.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


On a quick sortie into town yesterday I passed by a booth set up in the Market Square. Someone was standing outside the booth encouraging frazzled Christmas shoppers to come in and take part in a film. I didn't look too closely for fear of being collared and persuaded to join in, but it looked very much as if people were being encouraged to come off the street and offer confessions to a camera -- perhaps later to be selected, edited, and made into some kind of 'exploration' (is the term I imagine would be used) of .. well, what? Of what people can be persuaded to say if you stick them in a box in the Market Square and point a camera at them. An artificial situation which panders to the extrovert. (And, as far as I could tell, there weren't many takers yesterday.) The I wondered: What would I have said if I had gone in? Nothing that I really think I have done wrong, I decided, in part because I wouldn't want anyone I have wronged to hear my confession in the wrong way, namely if by some misfortune they ever sat through the finished film. And if I simply wanted to express a confession to the air, just to have said it, then I wouldn't want to do so with a camera in my face. So I would probably have made something up, or else confessed to something extremely trivial. Neither of which would make for an interesting film.
But if you want to confess something to the world or, more likely, eavesdrop on other people's confessions, then there are lots of ways to do so on t'internet. Go here, for example. Or here. And then wonder what would lead people to write in and confess.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dads' mag

The top quality publication FQ (Fathers' Quarterly) now has a revamped onlined version available here. The typical issue includes a brilliant combination of articles aimed at the modern Dad: famous Dads to look up to (this month: Will Smith), advice on finances for families and reviews of the top new baby gadgets. And lots of silly lists (e.g. 'Top 10 evil dads': Joseph Stalin new at number 7!) The fact that now you can read the full thing online for free suggest to me that it is generally paid for by the large glossy ads, but perhaps most magazines are like that. Anyway, it's certainly a niche market that hasn't been explored to a large extent before and it's interesting to see how they pitch this at a Dad who hasn't given up on looking good, having fun, and spending time with his mates but still has a sensitive and full relationship with his children. (Just perfect for me, then....) Aspirational, for sure, but these are not bad aspirations for people to have.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Interview blog

Oxford's director of Undergraduate Admissions, Mike Nicholson, is writing a blog describing a variety of interviews and the experiences of applicants during this hectic admissions season. You can read it here. This sounds like a pretty good idea to me, at least it will be if people are confident that it is indeed honest and open. (I can assure my own Admissions tutor that I have no plans on doing the same...) No doubt, there is something of an agenda: it's important to try to make the process less mysterious and perhaps remove some of the prejudices and myths that still surround it. But it will be interesting to see if Mike ever posts about something he thinks went wrong or was inappropriate or unhelpful. (This might be either something done by the interviewers or by the interviewees themselves.) Anonymity will have to be respected, I imagine, so we are a long way from a reality warts-and-all exposé of the interview season. But how about I'm a celebrity, let me into here!: eight little known people sometimes snapped in Heat set about getting in to a Cambridge college for an undergraduate degree?

They live together in a hostel, survive on basic hall food, and each night one of them is voted off on the basis of their performance in an academic trial... (I can see it now... 'Day three, and Jamie Theakston leaves the halls of residence after performing very poorly in the basic inorganic chemistry practical...) If anyone wants to buy the format idea from me then you have my contact details.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Cheating and virtue ethics

A new report commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has set out various ways to tackle cheating in examinations. Many of the more headline grabbing proposals are designed to tackle the current ease of cheating using modern technology, particularly mobile phones. But the report (which can be downloaded here) also includes ideas for removing the desire to cheat. One section in particular caught my eye (p.12-13 of the report):
5.1 The Virtues Approach (Ethics)

This approach should always be the first line of defence against dishonest

5.1.1 Codes of practice:
It includes making explicit the definitions of and code of practices in operation in relation to plagiarism and other forms of cheating to students and to staff. This has been the first line of defence of both the JCQ and QCA in their dealing with institutions and individual students and staff. Statements of code of practice, while meeting legal requirements, have proved insufficient deterrent to much of the
malpractice within the student body however. The next step is developing and
cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for
students to say no to peer and other pressures. Brown and Howell (2001) have
shown that institutional policy statements on cheating and plagiarism can
influence student perceptions.
5.1.2 Honour Codes:
Hinman (2000) reports that in the US academic honour codes (e.g. the Academic Integrity and Kansas State University Websites) have been shown to reduce cheating, for example serious test cheating on campuses with such a code in operation have been shown to be 25% to 50% lower than in institutions that do not have such honour codes both within the secondary and tertiary sectors. Overt codes of practice are a mark of an institution's commitment to good academic behaviour and Digital Technologies and Dishonesty in Examinations and Tests when students perceive their tutors or teachers to be so committed, levels of malpractice decrease
(Underwood & Szabo, 2004)

No surprises, then: make clear that cheating is a bad thing and that it is dealt with seriously. If that doesn't work (and it probably won't) then try to get people not to want to cheat. My main question is: why label this a 'virtues' approach? I know that virtue ethics is one of the most popular ethical frameworks right now, but I was interested to see it crop up even here where you might expect the more 'trad' appeals to rules and obligations or consequences. There is, I suppose, something here about inculcating a certain kind of disposition which rejects cheating, and something also about students moulding themselves on their teachers' attitudes, but elsewhere this seems hardly like any virtue ethics worth the name. There is even some old-fashioned consequentialism mixed in for good measure: 'developing and cultivating an environment where cheating does not prosper and it is easier for students to say no to peer and other pressures'. In other words: try to make sure cheats lose out in the end and also, importantly, make sure that it is known that they do not. (Perhaps just the latter is necessary: make people believe cheating will not be successful and they won't cheat, whether or not cheating is in fact a bad tactic...) But all in all this is thin stuff. Sensible, probably, but did we really need to commission a report to tell us this and dress it up in impressive, near-philosophical, terms?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Brit lit crit

You can soon bid for a page from Britney Spears' school book containing a bit of lit crit on Sophocles' Antigone. See the story here. And here is the page itself...

Soap suds

Great drama yesterday. Coming in from work, having missed putting the kids to bed, I discovered that the washing machine had done its party trick of getting stuck mid-cycle because of a blockage in the outflow. Already grumpy and tired, with an essay to mark and having had no dinner, S and I then spent an hour up to our ankles in old soapy water trying to remove whatever it was that had bunged the thing up. It was, as usual, some bits of paper and stones which the kids stuff into their pockets. All the same, I was not in a good mood and the kitchen now smells strongly of Fairy non-bio.
Perhaps I should not have been so grumpy, though, because to my surprise it turns out that we can learn an awful lot from washing machines. For one, the internet has this excellent site: 'How stuff works', explaining how the damn things function... (And what to do if they don't -- although I imagine doing anything particularly invasive will void the warranty...) But you would be astonished by what other things washing machines can demonstrate. Here, for example, is an argument that shows that optimally designed machines, like modern washing machines, often function less efficiently or reliably than earlier, less sophisticated versions. In that case, the argument continues, the fact that some biological systems appear sub-optimally designed is a point for, not against, the notion that they are intelligently designed by a creator. I hope it's a joke, but I suspect it's not.