Friday, December 21, 2007

Shame on us?

Alain be Botton writes in The Philosophers' Magazine here about the treatment his work has received at the hands of some professional academic philosophers including -- he names names so I don't have to -- one or two people who work like me on ancient philosophy. His piece concludes:

It clearly feels very important for academic philosophers to guard their borders aggressively. Doing so has brought them extraordinary neglect and mockery. I’d recommend that they learn to make philosophy into a big tent and stop being so threatened by practioners who don’t share their assumptions, lest they find out that there are no more true believers.

I know Alain feels very strongly about this; he was written to tell me as much when I posted something he felt discredited his work in much the same way here he says other professional philosophers have done. But I still think there is something of an improper contrast being made, and perhaps being pursued by both sides. It seems to me that a 'big tent' might well be a good idea, but only so long as it's big enough that we can do what we each do without having to jostle for space or feel threatened by one another. Attacking writers like de Botton for doing what they do might well be unfair and/or unproductive. I see no reason not to call it philosophy. But similarly, telling professional academic philosophers they are somehow doing a disservice to philosophy by pursuing more abstruse or technical or less popular avenues of research is not going to get us very far either. That too offers too narrow a vision of what the subject is and should be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


And one little coda to the interview story: not long ago I rediscovered a little postcard sent to me in December 1991 by the person who was eventually to be my Director of Studies at Clare; he was writing to tell me that I would be getting a conditional offer of a place. That sort of thing isn't supposed to happen any more, because it's important to be absolutely sure that any communication about decisions comes initially via the Admissions Office and is double-checked etc. But in some ways, that's a bit of a shame. That small card meant an enormous amount to me and also was a very humane way of letting me enjoy my Christmas without the anxiety of still not knowing how my application had gone.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

So, tell me a little about....

The admissions interview season is more or less over, so we can at last spend a few days frantically trying to do some of our own work before Christmas. I still remember my own interviews, so this time of year causes some serious flashbacks and I find myself sympathising a great deal with the various candidates who come along and have a go at answering tricky questions in a new and probably intimidating environment with rather a lot at stake. For my part, I hope I do what I can to make the experience reasonably pain-free without stinting on the level of care and seriousness that we apply to the decision-making. It's important for the interview to be revealing of what the various applicants would be like were they to be admitted, so it can't be too cosy.

Like all Classics applicants, I was interviewed at not just the college of my first choice (Clare) but at another place assigned by the Faculty. For me, this was Trinity, and the Trinity interview came first, on the morning after a v. hard test in Clare (which involved a chunk of the nastiest Latin I have ever read; or at least that's how it felt... I don't think there was a verb in the first sentence. Silver Latin, eh?). I had to find my way to Grange Road after a night freezing in a room in Memorial Court. Those were the days before central heating and certainly before en suite facilities -- all now demanded by the paying undergraduate clients and certainly by the lucrative conference facilities. I remember talking to my Trinity interviewer about Herodotus and Thucydides, and wondering how different they were -- even making up something about their prose style. I couldn't read a word of Greek at that time, so it was all a bit off the cuff. At the end, the interviewer told me that he reckoned I had a good chance but Trinity had so many of its own applicants that I probably wouldn't end up there. Fair enough. I hadn't applied to Trinity anyway; but it's interesting to note that that sort of talk is definitely -- and rightly -- verboten these days. (It may well have been verboten even then...)

Then three interviews at Clare, with the Director of Studies and one of the college lecturers, with the person who would eventually be my tutor, and with a Professorial fellow in Classics. These I remember less well, but I was certainly asked if I agreed with Quintilian's assessment of Livy's prose style (ummmm, well.... mumble....) and whether I'd prefer to know a little about a lot or a lot about a little. I have no idea what I said to that. Quite a full day, though.

Still, I think I enjoyed it. At least, I enjoyed the obvious time and attention being paid to my application. And that is still the case. The decisions are taken very carefully and with a great deal of consideration of each candidate's various strengths and weaknesses. It's a shame we cannot take more people, of course, and then there are people to whom the course or the method of teaching we offer are not well suited. In fact, if there is one piece of advice that I would insist upon for potential applicants it is that they all need to look carefully at the course they apply for. Make sure you know what it involves, what it does not cover, and the sort of work you will be doing. All that information is easily available, but it is surprising how many applicants appear not to have spent much time looking and thinking about what they are signing up for...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

More shirts

It seems to me that there are more philosophy-themed t-shirts on sale than there are people who would wear philosophy-themed t-shirts. But sometimes they make me laugh, all the same. Here's one that made me laugh from, 'Offering products than which none greater can be conceived'.

Friday, December 07, 2007


I've just got home on the Citi (sic) 2 bus service. Yes, I know I probably shouldn't be using Stagecoach buses, but it's the only service in town. It was grim enought waiting 40 minutes for the 'every 20 mins' service, but then when I got on I had to share the bus with a eejit who insisted on playing the assembled passenger aggresive rap from the tinny crap speakers in his mobile phone. Prat. I know it must be hard to get respec' on the mean streets of Impington or wherever, and perhaps somewhere in his tiny brain he was entertaining fantasies of ridin' round the projects of Baltimore but for Pete's sake stop inflicting this trebley drivel on all and sundry. Of course, this being Britain and because we're all worried about being knifed on public transport, no one said anything to get him to stop. And why should we have to in any case? Grrrr.

Ho ho ho

Term is over so we academics should all be sitting back and waiting for Christmas, right? Not a bit of it; hence the lack of much blogging recently. At the moment the colleges are full of students who are applying for admission in October 2008 (or for deferred entry in 2009). Our current first-years have only just started and already we need to think about the next year's intake. I find the whole process a lot of hard work, and pretty stressful. Not, I suppose, as stressful as the candidates find it. But all the same, there are some big decisions to be made and we try to make them fairly and well.

That's not all. For our Faculty, this is the time of year when we begin to set exam papers for the summer. It's a long and baroque process, with all sorts of complicated discussions about formats and fonts and markbooks and workbooks and candidates from other courses and the like. One of the hardest parts of the job, in fact, is moving between the various different teaching, Faculty, college, research, and publication tasks that we each take on. I can't juggle and I'm only just able to manage this working equivalent.

But there are some things to smile about too. Like: (8 new elves per second, apparently...). Or the interesting and often very bright students we get to interview. Or finding out that YouTube has footage of perhaps the best thing that Socrates ever did.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Had I written it...

Ah, the demise of the subjunctive... Not long after I became grumpy at the sight of a college Governing Body paper written with clauses like: 'The committee recommend that X is [sic] tasked with' etc..., I find that the new lamentable OJ Simpson book has the title 'If I did it'. Now, this is fine for the Goldman family, I suppose, because now they have been granted rights to the book they can arrange the title on the front cover with the 'If' in a colour that blends almost imperceptibly into the background. But really, what would have been so wrong with 'Had I done it...'? Perhaps OJ is genuinely unsure whether he did it or not, so the remote conditional didn't strike him as appropriate. But I doubt it.