Call the Royal Baby Mohammed – here is why:

As everybody is still speculating about the names for the royal baby, there are two distinct approaches: one is to find the name that would seem silliest with the royal number I behind it, and the other is to speculate, on the basis of family tradition and genealogy, what the name might really be in the end.

This post goes for neither of these options: I look at the genealogy, and the resulting suggestion is certainly not silly, but quite impossible. But why should it be? Throughout history, ‘East’ and ‘West’ have been much more connected than many would like them to be. But this is something we really should remember.

Thus, if the Royal family really values genealogy, and wants to choose the name of their most illustrious ancestor, they should probably go for Mohammed. Let me explain why:

There is indeed a pretty good chance, as far as certainty ever can go with genealogies going back that far, that Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The connection is via Edward IV and the royal house of Castile, who in turn were related to the Muslim rulers of Seville, and they had a claim to being descendants of the Prophet. Since Burke’s Peerage seems to have accepted it, it’s good enough for me.*

How much chance is there that this is correct? Descent from the Prophet was soon important in early Islamic politics, and is likely to have been recorded or remembered in detail early on; as the number of people with the highly prestigious claim to descent from the Prophet himself grew, it is more difficult to tell how well this would have been policed, and how easy it would have been for high-ranking families to invent such a connection. One thing is clear, however: during what we would call the Middle Ages, much of the Muslim world almost certainly had better standards of record keeping than any part of Europe.

If you try to define how European aristocracy defines the importance of ancestry, you’ll find that both an early date and historical impact or fame are crucial factors. Hardly any European aristocratic family can point to securely documented ancestors before the eighth century, yet the Windsor family can point to a famous ancestor in the seventh century. Moreover, it is difficult to point to any other of their ancestors (try it!) who has had more impact on the world, and who is considered important by more people around the world than the Prophet Mohammed.

Thus, the choice is obvious, isn’t it?

Call him Mohammed!

What would the world say?


* I have not found a direct link to the original letter written by the then editor of Burke’s Peerage to Margaret Thatcher on the issue in 1986, but here is a blog post which quotes the press release about it.


Posted in Current events, Exploring the Past, Inventing the Past, Life in the UK, Memory, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I am back!

Wipes away the cobwebs…
I have been absent for a long time. There are reasons, and I hope to blog about that sometime in the future. In short, I haven’t been very well, but I hope things are getting better now.
It’s a topical post which got me to come back….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Critical Reading, Online Scare Stories – and the Death Star

Yesterday, a petition from avaaz started going round the internet. It spread very rapidly, through twitter and Facebook. Many generally thoughtful, concerned people passed it on, some with words of anger or concern, urging others to sign the petition as well. This kind of thing happens every day, and I keep wondering whether anybody ever actually looks at this kind of thing properly.

I do sign online petitions sometimes, so I looked at this most recent one, too. But my only reaction was: don’t people actually READ this stuff before they sign and inflict in on their friends and aquaintances?

If you teach Classical texts or history, one skill you really want to teach your students is critical reading: scrutinising a text and trying to read beyond the superficial message it contains, to comprehend subtleties, ways of making you react in a certain way. In a world which is full of advertising, this skill is more important than ever before.  I really despair when I see that it is so terribly hard to make it a habit. Responsible citizenship and effective protest require critical scrutiny of communication, otherwise it’s easy to create outrage and exploit people’s perfectly well-intentioned anger (read an excellent discussion of a recent example which circulated in the UK)
Let’s look at the scare story in question, which is here (link may change one the specified time is up).

Here is the ‘information’ provided as per 13th September 2012:


3 Days to Stop the Corporate Death Star

‘Corporate death star’?! Really? – This wouldn’t be taken seriously in another medium, but it’s a pretty effective way of appealing to a specific readership for whom ‘corporate’ is going to sound suspicious from the start. We might also conjecture that the target audience will be found particularly in a certain age range – people  for whom the term ‘Death Star’ will be most effective in conjuring up the most effectively scary images. Many of these might be  well-meaning people who used to be activists back at school or university, and who might be worrying now that  they aren’t doing enough. Clicktivism is a comfortable solution: little time and effort, high good conscience factor. Find the right language to make the right demographic angry and click before they check the detals, and you’ll get a good turnout.

Also note that it was 4 days yesterday, so somebody is carefully counting down: urgency is one of the simplest marketing tricks in the book, and if you don’t have time, you might just click before you think.

Is that too cynical for you? I happen to think that this kind of clicktivism is a cynical business exploiting people’s good intentions. But let’s look at the ‘information’ provided to explian the context of this particular petition.

Details are leaking of a top-secret, global corporate power grab of breathtaking scope — attacking everything from a free Internet to health and environmental regulations, and we have just 4 days to stop it.

Question: Just how top-secret is this ‘powergrab of breathtaking scope’ (and what does that man anyway, once we get around the hyperbole)?
Answer: so secret that if we were actually told that the dastardly plot in question is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (the term is mentioned in the actual petition, but not in the explanatory text), a bit of googling will get you a lot of information from a mix of sources (friendly and hostile). Claiming that something is so very ‘secret’ is, however, a good excuse for not providing any evidence   (see the Australian Government’s take on the agreement here).

What conspiracy theorists often forget is that top secret plots, especially if they are world wide and involve governments are VERY difficult to sustain. Actually, scratch that and make it ‘impossible’ rather than ‘very difficult’. And do they ever wonder why they are reading, on the web of ll places, about a lot that’s allegedly so secret?

Leaders of the 9 states involved in the TPPA

Picture of the leaders of a top secret global plot of nine states, as available on the Australian government website

And how global is this dastardly plot? It’s nine countries: The United States, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
How many of those who signed the petition bothered to check what it was about?

 Big business has a new plan to fatten their pockets: a giant global pact, with an international tribunal to enforce it, that is kept top secret for years (even from our lawmakers!) and then brought down like a Death Star on our democracies.

More emotional buzz words. How exactly would a giant global pact  with a tribunal to enforce it be kept top secret? Even if ‘global’ actually means nine countries, that’s pretty difficult, when you have democracies like Australia involved. And how can states actually engage in these negotiations, let alone signing a treaty, if it is being kept secret (drumroll) even from our lawmakers?!

Yoda and Luke Skywalker

'An Avaaz petition create you must, young Jedi'

And do we really want to trust somebody whose best shot at a scary metaphor is ‘Death Star’? Wouldn’t that suggest to you that they might not be entirely in touch with the reality of  events in a real world? Perhaps they see themselves as jedi knights with shining sabers, saving the universe from a dark shadowy empire. Well. If that’s he case, let me break it to you, Luke Skywalker, an avaaz petition isn’t going to do it.

 Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Walmart and almost 600 other corporate lobbyists are all in on the final draft — including limits on smoking laws, affordable medicines and free speech on the Net.

More language designed to make you nod along in disgust and distrust. The language and choice of examples suggests that this was created in the febrile political atmosphere of the States, where evidence counts little in political discourse these days, and many people are willing to believe the worst of anybody they consider ‘not us’. Shouldn’t we ask whether a multilateral trade agreement can actually do all this, and how?

The latest round of negotiations ends in just 4 days — but outcries in each of our countries could shake the confidence of negotiators and scuttle the talks forever. Let’s get to a million against the global corporate takeover. Sign the petition on the right. Avaaz will project our petition counter on the walls of the conference so negotiators can see the opposition to their plan exploding in real time.

Surely, by now the choice of words has made us suspicious? … ‘outcries’… ‘scuttle (sic) the talks forever’  … ‘global corporate takeover’. Well, apparently not …. the signature counter keeps ticking over mightily fast – over 200 000 in less than 24 hours. How many of these actually checked the details?

This makes me sad, it really does. Trade agreements are a very tricky matter. They can do enormous damage, and some have in the past. Mostly they do damage to poor states, and I think that people, particularly in the affected countries, should engage with the process, and ask some serious questions (it can be done a lot better, e.g. here, a random example I found through a simple web search). It seems true that preliminary negotiation positions (and a text, if one exists) haven’t been released. I should wonder, therefore, why so many people seem to know what’s going to be in it. I wish they did release a text or basic principles: it’s so easy to fill a vacuum with vague, meaningless scaremongering.

People are cynical these days – and rightly so. But I always find it worrying that people who are sensibly skeptical of the traditional channels of political discourse drop any form of suspicion and cynicism when they come across somebody who claims to fight ‘vested interests’, ‘stand up for the exploited majority’, etc., without any evidence or credentials. It’s important to do stand up to vested interests, and it can be done well (the Occupy movement comes to mind, and note their insistence on lectures and open discussion forums in many of their camps). We need to keep our wits about us.

Masses falling for emotive language instead of thinking for themselves are never an edifying spectacle, even if they don’t all stand in one large square cheering political oratory.

I don’t know about everybody else, but my signature is dearly bought, and I am not about to fall for empty words designed to make me angry and fearful, stirring (if clunky) prose making we want to be part of something greater. I don’t care whether it was done with good intentions, or just to prove to some geeks that five hundred thousand signatures can be got in a few days. Even if the cause seems good, it’s worth watching out for the signs of manipulation, especially if they are aimed to stroke our consciences and tap into our preconceived opinions: if it’s too easy to agree it’s worth checking whether grand rhetoric or pithy polemic hides a lack of substance or evidence.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Politics, Protest | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Welsh Higher Education Madness

During the last few days universities have been concentrating on Clearing, the process whereby students can find places in university courses in the days after they receive their A-level results, and change their plans if their A-levels are significantly different from predicted grades. The two weeks after results are published are also the period when universities find out whether they have been able to hit their admission targets, and since funding is increasingly determined by student numbers, it’s a nerve-racking time, when those academics and administrators who handle admissions frequently get visits from colleagues with the question ‘how are the numbers?’

This year, there has been a drop in applications throughout the UK – this was to be expected, since last year’s eighteen-year-olds applied in record numbers to escape the higher fees which are kicking in this year. However, compared to two years ago, the drop is not so dramatic (some say the figures are up since 2010, but the only set of figures I found, from January, had them only slightly down). But while this drop in numbers has been observed everywhere, the Welsh government is responsible for a policy which can’t cope with such a (predictable) development.

In Wales we are therefore faced with a situation where lower numbers are likely to exacerbate a situation which is already dire, as even a part of the opposition in Cardiff has now finally realised. It is well known that the Welsh government decided, a few months before the Welsh elections in May 2011, that students living in Wales would not have to pay more than the current fees (c. £3500), even if they went to an English university. As it turns out, this scheme will only work if we attract a significant number of English students (24 000 at last calculation, see previous link) who pay the full £9000 fees, and, quite predictably, we are unlikely to meet the necessary target under the current circumstances.

The result will be a wider opening of a funding gap which has been developing for over a decade now, and this is well documented by the government’s own higher education funding body, HEFCW (e.g. here, for 2007). Yet, the responsible Welsh Government Minister, Leighton Andrews, continues to refer to it as ‘the so-called funding gap’, even when challenged with the facts (e.g. here, @ 4:40 pm).

The Learned Society of Wales has tried to make the minister and the government see sense, but the correspondence, as published on their website, suggests that he minister prefers to stick to distorted figures and half-truths which conceal (albeit only very superficially) the shambles over which he has been presiding. It’s worth a look: read it and despair…

Just one paragraph of Andrews’s letter of 14th June shows how disingenuous (or willfully ignorant?) his approach is, even when he is not talking to voters who might not be so clear about the facts, but replying to somebody who clearly knows more about Welsh universities than anybody in the current Welsh government does.

…I hope that you now welcome our recent announcements on what I regard as the most equitable student finance system we’ve ever created in Wales. At the same time, the level of public funding for the Welsh HE sector (through HEFCW) will be higher than that available to English institutions. Our proposals are far more generous over forthcoming years [than] that are predicted for England, where teaching budgets are expected to fall significantly. These changes effectively abolish the so-called Funding Gap.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog why the new fees system in Wales is anything but equitable, and will particularly disadvantage Welsh youngsters from poorer backgrounds who aspire to go to university.

But let us look at the rest of this statement, claiming that state funding in Wales will be higher than in England. This is correct, but it doesn’t mean that Welsh universities will get more money than those in England. Whatever one thinks of the new fees regime in England, one ought to stick to the facts, and fact is that most of the teaching grant has been withdrawn and replaced by income from higher fees. In Wales, the fees haven’t been raised, and so the grant remains, which is why it is, and has to be, higher than in England. However, what Leighton Andrews isn’t saying is that Wales can’t afford a teaching grant high enough to make up for the significant shortfall. Only a significant influx of full-fee paying students from England could do that, and at last count, English teenagers haven’t been willing to help out Leighton Andrews in sufficient numbers. Not many people (apart from Leighton Andrews, perhaps) will be surprised.

Of course, he seems to think that this isn’t a problem, since he is sure that universities are so wasteful and inefficient that there is a lot of room for more savings – but unless he has some special Welsh fairy dust to allow universities to provide teaching and research a lot more cheaply than universities anywhere else in the UK, this looks like wishful thinking at best (see Sir John Cadogan’s letter of 8th July in the correspondence also linked above for a thorough refutation of Andrews’s arguments). There is no such thing as a cheap higher education sector. The most likely outcome, in spite of valiant efforts on the part of Welsh universities to improve quality and output with inadequate funds, is that more Welsh students will want to go to the better funded English universities, taking ever more HE funding with them, while fewer English students will be ready to provide development aid for Wales by paying full fees on courses in a cut-price environment.

Somebody stop this madness. Please.


PS: Swansea Classics, Ancient History & Egyptology have yet again managed to admit more students than (optimistically) predicted, and in spite of the circumstances described in this post, our students tend to be very happy with my department, both in History and in Classics. I am very proud that we are able to achieve this – I just wish the government would appreicate our work and understand that it doesn’t come cheap!

Posted in Education, Universities, Welsh Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Open Access Publishing – but who will pay?*

Guardian front page 16th July 2012

Guardian front page, 12th July 2012

Today’s Guardian front page offers an encouraging headline: Free access to British scientific research within two years. The idea is that by 2014 all publications of all research which has been funded by the British taxpayer has to be accessible to universities, companies and individuals.

This is a response to the real problem of expensive academic publishing, where companies accept (for free) research papers from academics, ask other academics to peer-review those papers (also for free, usually) and then sell the published product at a very high price back to the same group of academics who can’t be full participants in research activities without access to these publications. In the UK, the situation is made considerably worse by the REF, which makes many universities dismiss publications unless they appear in a select group of ‘top journals’, which further increases the market value of some titles.

As a result, the publishing companies have universities in a stranglehold, and library budgets are feeling the pinch. In some areas, journal subscriptions are now purely online and defined in a way which does allow access only to members of the subscribing institution: for the first time since the invention of libraries, this means that even traveling to a well-funded library will no longer give you access to all material you might need to read. In the sciences this situation has led many scholars to boycott the most ruthless of these publishing companies, Elsevier.

The government’s initiative therefore looks like an excellent move – and the Guardian clearly considers it good news. But I see some very worrying problems which will arise from this proposal, particularly for scholars in the arts and humanities (as so often, a solution tailored to the sciences is not going to suit everybody in academia).

Here is the problem: as the Guardian reports,

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

Of course, in the arts and humanities, the situation is different (read Mary Beard’s description of how a top ancient history journal works), but somebody will have to pay for publication here, too. In the sciences, most projects, virtually all, in fact, are funded through grant income. Write publication costs into proposals, and it’ll all work out fine. But this is not the case in arts and humanities. Funding pots are very small in these areas, and much of the research is done by scholars working around teaching and administration: salary costs and reasonable library budgets (usually equally necessary for students) is all that is needed. Much of this will be funded by tuition fees in future, since state funding is retreating from higher education, but it’s hard to believe that journals will be able to stick to the subscription model if the government’s free access proposals become law. The cost for publishing research becomes the responsibility of the author. Perhaps universities will divert some of their current subscription budgets towards publishing, but in concert with REF publication pressures, how will this funding be handled? Who will decide preferences? Or will we end up with a situation like in Germany, where many scholars already pay publication costs (currently mostly monographs) out of their own pockets? A PhD thesis there has to be published to be considered valid, yet publishing a book with a reputable publisher can set you back thousands of Euro, and funding is often not available. Is this where we want to go? Thus, while arts and humanities currently hardly contribute to the problem, they might be hit particularly hard by the impact of the government’s ‘solution’.

But there are more general problems as well.
– Firstly, one might ask (as Stevan Harnad of the LSE does here) why scholars cannot give each other open access to publications, bypassing expensive subscriptions completely. Unsurprisingly, the publishing companies are against this practice, and government has clearly listened to their lobbying.
– Secondly, even scientists, may have to battle over publication grants in future, and the idea that publication no longer merely depends on (perceived) quality, but also on the ability to pay will make it even harder for newcomers to enter an academic career.
– Finally, it seems doubtful that library budgets will remain the same: this may well mean another excuse for further budget cuts, with no guarantee that any of the money no longer needed for journal subscription will be invested in publication costs or (might we dare to dream?) in books.

In the end, the question is whether we do need a much more radical overhaul of academic publication. Journals originally were the best (and often the only) way to make research results known to the scholarly community. As academic publishing became more professional, peer review was developed to provide quality control, and recently, journals have also become a tool for measuring perceived quality for the purpose of research assessment by universities and governments. In the age of the internet, journals are, however, non longer the most efficient mode of disseminating research, and scholars continue to use them because they need the recognition which only publication in a reputable journal can provide. Do we still need journals? Is there another, more practical way of organising rigorous peer review?

*This blog post started its life as a discussion between colleagues: thanks for insights, links and ideas – particularly to Mark Humphries (who started the discussion) and Birgitta Hoffmann (who showed that my initial suspicion did not go far enough). Errors and opinions in this post are, of course, all my own.

Posted in Current events, Education, Universities | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

London 2012 and the Pastoral Idyll

(Do shepherds dream of idyllic sheep?)

Danny Boyle's set for London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony
Danny Boyle’s set for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

A few weeks ago, when the design for at least part of the Olympic opening ceremony was revealed, I was nothing short of appalled. You see, I grew up in a small village surrounded by farmland, and I have little time for the romantic longing for the countryside. Radio 4’s endless pastoral idyll, the Archers fills me with horror, and the idea of presenting a world audience of potentially four billion with grazing sheep and village cricket strikes me as perfectly ghastly. Did I see correctly that the set even includes a figure ploughing a field with a team of horses? Nineteenth century nostalgia madness, I say.

Is this really the best way of celebrating one of the most exciting, urbane, multi-cultural, creative cities? It looks like an image of imagined English countryside, as stuck in c. 1880 or thereabouts, at least as the 1880s might look in the nostalgic mind of somebody like Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, complete with the lovely tint of the evening light and some decorative (but neither too hard working nor too dirty) peasants in the distant background.

But on second thought, this might actually be uniquely appropriate for London of all places. Because the pastoral idyll, this impossible longing for a fantasy countryside, is a unique phenomenon of the megacity, and in Europe at least, London has one of the longest histories of a large population almost entirely separated from the countryside and therefore prone to conceiving romanticised notions of it.

The idea of writing about a countryside unencumbered by the many complications of sophisticated life seems to have taken off, for the first time, in ancient Greece. But it was not Athens which gave us this particular genre, but Alexandria, the new, impossibly large mega-city founded by Alexander, populated, within two generations, with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For the first time in the Greek world, there was a city where most citizens did not farm, and where walking out into the countryside would no longer be so easy as to be part of normal life.

Theocritus, a poet probably working at the court of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian/Greek kings of Egypt, first hit upon the idea of setting his poems among lovelorn, simple shepherds (for example, look at Idylls 1, 3 and 4). Wealthy, educated inhabitants of these big cities enjoyed to imagine life in Theocritus’ fantasy version of the Sicilian countryside or in an idealised Arcadia. Later, similar themes became fashionable in Rome, yet another cosmopolitan city with hundreds of

Laurent de la Hyre, The Arcadian Shepherds
Laurent de la Hyre, The Arcadian Shepherds

thousands of inhabitants: once Rome had become large and urban enough, Vergil’s Eclogues (example: Eclogue VII)  appropriately allowed them to return to yet another idealised Arcadian shepherds’ world. Early modern Europe rediscovered the fascination with the genre once city life yet again became the focus of the sophisticated classes: 18th century aristocrats enjoyed playing at being shepherds in carefully stage-managed faux rural landscapes.

Herding sheep in the real Arcadia

Herding sheep in the real Arcadia

And what about real Arcadians? The people who lived in the mountains of the central Peloponnese did indeed base much of their wealth (as far as it went) on mountain pastures. When they had a chance, c. 370 BC, the first thing they did was to combine the population of many small villages into a city which they ambitiously named Megalopolis. Shepherds are more likely to dream of the big city, and would hardly recognise townies’ vision of the romantic countryside.

Thus, however counter-intuitive it may seem – Danny Boyle’s recreation of a rural idyll may be the most urban creation the Olympics have ever seen.

Shepherd in what was once Arcadian Megalopolis

Shepherd in what was once Arcadian Megalopolis - probably not dreaming of idyllic sheep.

Posted in Exploring the Past, Inventing the Past, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Academia: abandoning the next generation

The fate of young academics in UK universities looks increasingly bleak: the chance to reach paid employment as an academic in the Arts and Humanities increasingly depends not only on talent and a willingness to work hard, but also on access to considerable funds.

The problem is that universities increasingly expect early career academics to take on heavy teaching loads for a pittance, and often such jobs are paid only for eight or nine months. Yet, when those same institutions hire people for ‘real jobs’, they expect CVs with large amounts of research – the kind of CV you can’t achieve when you don’t actually get paid research time.

Where, then, do these people with appropriate CVs come from? A very few have the privilege to get one of the few coveted fully paid post-doctoral research positions – in the Arts and Humanities most of these are junior research fellowships in the old universities. To stand out among hundreds of applications, you’d better have a CV with special prizes back to prep school – and if you are from the UK, that kind of CV is certainly easier to get if your parents have the money to put you through a private education.

Beyond that exclusive world many excellent young researchers find it increasingly difficult to an academic career without drawing on private funds. The exploitation starts at PhD level – many undergraduate courses could not be taught without postgraduate students who are willing (feel compelled to) provide teaching for a pittance which is usually well below minimum wage if you take into account all that is actually required in order to do the work properly.

But once the PhD is finished, the difficulties really start. Our young aspiring academic is now perhaps 26 or 27, has three degrees, and has to be ready to survive for several years on low-paid short-term contracts, with regular gaps of employment  in summer, little mentoring while in employment, and hardly a chance for any help with long-term planning and career development. Some have to be grateful to survive on a patchwork of minimal contracts or some lecturing paid by the hour; often commuting between workplaces will be necessary to stay afloat at all. Count in all the unpaid preparation time, and this tends to be highly qualified and specialised work paid at or below minimum wage.

Why am I blogging about this today? Because the situation looks as if it is getting worse. Today it became public that Birmingham university had advertised ‘honorary research positions’ for graduates – in essence a very intensive form of unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are common in many sectors of business, media and the creative industries – and they are a major obstacle for anybody who lacks the connections to get one of these posts and the money to maintain themselves while working as an intern. Yet, these internships are often a crucial precondition for landing a proper job in any of these professions. No wonder that so many in leading positions in the UK are from wealthy backgrounds! This advertisement has now been withdrawn, but I think we all have to remain alert: unpaid internships are an obstacle to giving chances to the most talented in any area – but academia can least afford to select its personnel by wealth rather than by ability.

UK academia has never been entirely meritocratic, it’s impossible with a school system that so clearly favours the wealthy, but one might argue that a generation ago, people with outstanding degree results had a good chance to get into an academic career, even if their parents couldn’t support them into their early thirties. Just ten years ago, I started in my first academic job a week before submitting my thesis, I managed to get to a permanent position some years later without ever being unemployed, not even over summer. I’d consider many of our early career academics very lucky if they could still manage to achieve that: temporary positions which last twelve months are hard to come by these days.

Under these conditions, it is extremely hard to accumulate the kind of research record departments matter-of-factly expect from anybody applying for a permanent position. Without money to pay themselves some research time, our own homegrown talent finds it hard to compete with candidates from countries where postdoctoral research is still funded more generously, for example Germany, which produces many highly qualified postdoctoral researchers just to throw most of them onto the academic scrap-heap in their mid-30s.

What I find particularly despicable about the situation in the UK is that universities seem happy to abdicate their responsibility to nurture talent to the level they themselves expect from those they employ in permanent positions. What other sector can allow itself to be so short-sighted  in neglecting the development of the next generation?

I wish I knew how we can turn round this situation. I remember trying to raise the alarm about the increasing number of eight-month temporary teaching contracts when I first got my permanent(ish) job. But if departments have to choose between being even more severely understaffed and abandoning the moral high ground, there seems to be little chance to insist that we should not exploit young academics so shamelessly.

Birmingham had to withdraw its unpaid internships this time – but for how long will we be able to resist the pressure to adopt yet another practice from the corporate world which is entirely unsuitable for academia?

Posted in Education, Universities | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

What the Church of England is really saying about same-sex marriage

Guest post by Alan Renwick, Reader in Comparative Politics, University of Reading   @alanjrenwick

Confused about the Church of England’s arguments concerning same-sex marriage? Here is a brilliant executive summary which which knows how to read between the lines.

Alan Renwick posted his thoughts on Facebook this morning and has kindly agreed to share his observations on my blog in order to make them more widely available.

Alan Renwick writes:

Alan Renwick profile picture
Alan Renwick

I’ve just read the Church of England’s response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. For those of you not inclined to trawl through the whole thing, here’s a summary:

1. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman.  But we are not opposed to change as such, just change that is damaging to society (paragraph 8).  So we acknowledge it’s not a good argument just to say that same-sex marriage goes against tradition.

2. There is a “fundamental complementarity” between men and women (e.g., paragraph 13).   The only concrete way we can find to justify this statement is that a man and a woman are needed for procreation (paragraph 10).  We somehow think that this means we can exclude same-sex couples from marriage but not opposite-sex couples that just as clearly cannot procreate.  We don’t think we need to justify this mysterious logical leap.

3. We are not horrible people, as can be seen from the fact that our bishops supported the Civil Partnerships Bill in the Lords in 2004.  At any rate, we will assert this and hope that no one notices that in fact six of the seven bishops present supported a wrecking amendment on 24 June 2004 designed to destroy that Bill.  We will maintain the claim even though Iain McLean pointed out its falsehood in the Guardian last month.

4. If this legislation is passed, the European Court of Human Rights might rule that the CofE and other religious institutions are obliged to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.  At least, we will write rather a lot (annex, paragraphs 26–44) that is likely to be reported by journalists as suggesting this danger.  But actually we acknowledge that there is no reason to think the Court would require any religious organization to solemnize same-sex marriages (annex paragraph 36).  All it might require is that religious organizations that want to solemnize such marriages should be able to do so (annex paragraph 37).  We actually believe in religious freedom only for ourselves, so this prospect sends us into a frightful tizzy.

Anyone wishing to submit their own views to the consultation has until Thursday 14th June to do so.

Posted in Current events, Guest Post, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Subject to a right royal confusion

(with thanks to Don Kranz, whose blog is a real inspiration, for luring me out of work-induced blog hibernation!)

It’s Diamond Jubilee weekend, and a time to think about the role of the monarchy, and the role it plays in all our lives. As so often, I seem to have some clear principles which turn awfully messy when they meet with real life, particularly when ‘real life’ means the chance to have a good party.

You see, I don’t really like the idea of having a head of state who is chosen on the hereditary principle: there, I said it. After all, republicanism (strictly small-r) is not a popular view right now – people don’t like politicians, and most people rather like the Queen. If you asked the electorate at the moment, their democratic decision would be, by a very large margin, that they want a head of state chosen by entirely undemocratic means.

Usually it’s quite easy to gloss over those sorts of questions and get on with life. But there are some moments where these issues suddenly have some practical importance.

I have plenty of principled friends who decided to leave the country, or at least to boycott (quietly or loudly) anything to do with the Diamond Jubilee.

I respect a principled stance like this, but I myself didn’t go that way.

– Perhaps I simply don’t feel about it strongly enough.
– Perhaps I think that as long we have a monarchy, certain things ought to be celebrated, and a republic would have to find worthy alternatives.
– Perhaps it is because I just can’t resist a good party.

You see, my neighbours organized a street party,  just as they did last year, on the day of the royal wedding.

Royal party image

Preparations for last year's royal wedding party

Socialising with your neighbours strikes me as a thoroughly good thing, and if it takes a royal event to motivate everybody to join in, that’s fine by me. And of course I went.

Is this hypocritical? Quite possibly.
But any other course of action, including just staying away, strikes me as so much worse.

The most awkward moment, however, came this afternoon when I spotted some pictures of republican demonstrations in London. It was important for somebody to be there to express an alternative opinion. I am more than disappointed to hear that their freedom of movement seems to have been restricted.

But one of the slogans on their placards really annoyed me.

Demonstration in London, 3rd June 2012Citizen, not Subject?

Surely, that’s NOT the issue. Almost everybody in the UK  really isn’t a subject in any sensible definition of the word, and to me, this is a very important fact.

You see, when I applied to become a British national,  I wanted to be a citizen, and I had absolutely no intention to be anybody’s subject, in any legal or practical definition, and I agonized over this for quite some time.

In fact, the 1983 British Nationality Act makes the difference pretty clear. British citizens are not (legally speaking) subjects – the ‘British subject’ status is actually a category for rather exceptional cases. So there wouldn’t be (and there isn’t) any piece of paper which confers this status on me in a legal manner. Of course, this might not be worth the paper it is written on, so what about reality?

I can’t really think of any way in which the Queen could restrict my freedom of action, speech or conscience in a way which would confer subject status. The government has such powers, too many in some areas, I’d argue, but they are elected (after a fashion I don’t appreciate, but the electorate likes it that way, as we found).

So, I am simply not impressed if republican demonstrations go out of their way to suggest to people that the subject/citizen divide is an issue. Perhaps they thought they had to remind people that they weren’t subjects, or wanted to emphasise that the audience was assuming subject status? What were they trying to say?

I’d find it a little presumptuous to suggest that everybody joining in the celebrations might be – think of themselves as –  give anybody else the impression that they are –  anybody’s subjects. Nobody forced them to go, and it’s their good citizens’ right to go and watch the celebrations; they probably did so for a variety of reasons: I bet that not everybody in that crowd was an ardent admirer of the monarchy. It was clearly quite a spectacle – and, to be honest, if they had included the reconstructed Greek trireme in the event (why didn’t they?) I’d have gone myself and stood in the rain just to see that magnificent vessel in action.

If people want that change, it’s time to remind everybody that we could get an elected head of government  – if that’s what a majority of us wants. ‘Power to the People’ surely isn’t the issue in this respect – it’s the question whether people actually want to use that power, or how they want to use it. Let’s not pretend that we live in a regime where that change wouldn’t be possible.

The real task, then, for all those who would prefer a republican system, is to convince a majority of British citizens that an elected head of state is in fact what they want. If legitimacy is the crucial issue, and I think it is, then the only way of improving on the current situation is a democratic decision to have an elected head of state, followed by elections. Nothing else will do. Will it happen soon? I am not holding my breath, to be honest, but you never know… (the case that change is not entirely improbable is being made here).

It’s days like these which really bring out some baffling contradictions and absurdities: and it’s days like these when I realise that this is exactly why I like this country so much.

Posted in Current events, Democracy, Life in the UK, UK Citizenship | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Greek Treasures: ancient and modern

I just came across this opinion piece in the LA times of 26th February by James Romm, a scholar I admire greatly.


Portrait bust of Pericles (Roman copy). Inscribed: 'Pericles son of Xanthippus, Athenian'

But here he offers an example of  highly emotional rhetoric which is historically unjustified. At the same time, his article is a great example of how ancient history is used in the debate about the state of modern Greece and its finances.

The article comments on the plans in cash-strapped Greece today to make money from its ancient sites, for example by hiring them out as film sets, and then makes a connection to a few incidents in antiquity, when states took temple treasures to make up for budget shortfalls.

Romm’s Exhibit A is the Athenian statesman Pericles, who, in Thucydides’ Histories (2.13.3-5) gives the Athenians an overview of their position at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. He includes a quick audit of the cash reserves of Athens:

… there were still six thousand talents of coined silver in the Acropolis, out of nine thousand seven hundred that had once been there, from which the money had been taken for the porch of the Acropolis, the other public buildings, and for Potidaea.  This did not include the uncoined gold and silver in public and private offerings, the sacred vessels for the processions and games, the Median spoils, and similar resources to the amount of five hundred talents.  To this he added the treasures of the other temples.These were by no means inconsiderable, and might fairly be used. Nay, if they were ever absolutely driven to it, they might take even the gold ornaments of Athena herself; for the statue contained forty talents of pure gold and it was all removable.This might be used for self-preservation, and must every penny of it be restored.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon - temple, treasury or bank?

Is this temple robbery, a sacrilege, as Romm maintains?  There are two interesting facts one should remember about the Parthenon: firstly, it was apparently never used as a conventional sacred building. It contained a giant gold-and-ivory statue of Athena,  but the sacred image of the goddess was housed elsewhere, probably in the Erechtheion. And secondly, like many temples in antiquity, the Parthenon served as the treasury of Athens and could also take on the function of a bank. Temples did not invest funds, but they were seen as the most secure place to deposit treasures, public and often also private, for safekeeping.

Reconstruction: Athena Parthenos statue

Reconstruction of the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon

One can see that Thucydides (Pericles?) imposes a kind of hierarchy on the temple treasures: the coined precious metals come first, then public offerings, private offerings and spoils of war dedicated to the goddess,  and finally treasures in other temples, too. The goddess herself, in form of her statue, is the lender of last resort, giving away, so to speak, her own golden clothes to save her city. Was this sacrilege? The sums listed here are large, but Athens had to finance a large fleet which required hundreds of talents every year. Their income at this point was good, drawing on tributes from allied states (also called ‘subjects’ by the Athenians themselves). It is not clear that at this point they  expected to reach such a point of financial desperation, although Thucydides may well have written this passage with Athens’ final defeat in mind.

Was it sacrilege to take these treasures? Pericles was clearly making a bold suggestion – but the case is not as clear-cut as Romm is suggesting. Modern Greece can hardly take its archaeological treasures to the bank – but in ancient Greece, the difference between a city-state’s savings and the treasures of its gods was not as clear-cut as Romm would have us believe. Athena – this particular Athena – was the protectress of Athens, and in the end, it was ultimately an argument between the Athenians and their goddess whether the temple treasures or the survival of the city would be more precious to her. Pericles suggestion was not as heinous a crime as Romm wants to make it out, even though stripping the goddess herself was an extreme measure which they probably never took (though we can’t be entirely sure). 

The situation was, of course, quite different when states proposed to raid international sanctuaries (such as Olympia or Delphi), or when an army helped itself to temple treasures as they moved through other states’ territories.

What is interesting in Romm’s article is that he seems to accuse Thucydides (and by extention, Pericles) of being far too pragmatic: how could somebody who was Greek, Athenian even, contemplate to use such cultural treasures for expenses in war?

As so often, we see a contrast between the pragmatic reality of fifth-century Greece, a tough world of politics war and, yes, sublime cultural achievement on one hand, and later constructions of that period in history on the other. Greeks under Roman rule looking back to the good old days of freedom moved the cultural achievements centre-stage, and this image was enthusiastically taken up by western Europeans re-discovering the country under Ottoman rule, imposing an idealised view to cope with their disappointment that what they found hardly resembled the Hellas of old.

I am not proposing that modern Greece should be as tough as Pericles in using its ancient treasures to deal with its financial problems – but its worth being careful with its history, too.

Posted in Exploring the Past, History, Inventing the Past, Remembering the Past | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments