Category Archives: 1000 mile questions

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..

What to do about Rhodes and other evils

I recently read Joanna Williams’ piece in the Conversation, “Safe space hand wringers are attacking academic freedom – we must fight back“. I have also been party to both academic and dinner-table conversations that addressed freedom of speech and cultural representation, currently exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate. A number of themes merge into a wider discourse of freedom: freedom of speech, academic freedom, cultural representation, the infantilisation of students, protection from hate speech and similar. Continue reading

Usurpation of the University?

Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence (Bauman 2002, 222-23).

Last August I discussed a symposium to be held at the Australian Philosophy of Education Society with David Aldridge. That never happened but this note is what I was thinking of at the time.

Is transcendence as transgression a usurpation? We expect it is and is and is to be celebrated.

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Usurpation: the condition of the university?

Usurpation might better be seen as the condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today.

Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) theoretical framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being ursurped and indeed facilitates the process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy.

In making this argument I draw on Popper’s (1996) positivism, Kuhn’s (1962) understanding of development in disciplines and Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory.

The pattern of usurpation described by Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to seize more of whatever is going. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

So we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial themes: Women’s Studies, for example. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). We see the student experience usurping scholarship.

But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. And as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.


  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.

Getting away with it (a blimage challenge)

Bounced off Steve Wheeler’s post, “Blimy its a blimage” and thought I could be a nay-sayer or a player (more on which somewhere else maybe).  The image was of old school desks shot from above.

School desks

Photo by Steve Wheeler

The challenge — for the Blimage is a challenge — is to write an education-related piece about the image. Two thoughts hit me about this. I’ll go off for a bit on one and then close with the last.

First it strikes me that there is much synthesised nostalgia about school days, despite many people not recalling them with joy. I expect these desks are in an antiques yard waiting to be picked up by parents who will put them in their children’s bedrooms as sweet little learning spaces all their own. I sat at desks like that. In my early school days they even had holes for ink pots, though the ink pots themselves had long gone. The desk was was a safe space in which I could seek to be ignored between the much more challenging negotiations to avoid being hurt in the times when we weren’t sat at the desks. But when I see them in my friends’ kids’ bedrooms I do come all over fuzzy with kawaii. The fact that my children appear to be happy in school and there is not a school-desk in sight slips from my mind. I am not saying that the desks are causal, or even necessarily instrumental in themselves in the emotional abuse that old-school sometimes colluded in but they are symbols of order and authority as well as something more insidious: deception. The liftable lids enabled any amount of clutter and contraband to be swept away. As long as the surface could be tidy and the content hidden or deployed tactically and even surreptitiously all would be fine. The covered desk taught as much about what you could get away with as any other lesson. Carving your name in the desk was a rite of passage even if being caught doing it merited a punishment. Even if our subversiveness was unoriginal: smuggling comic books inside exercise books, even if we never read the comic books in class, I remember the frisson of hiding things in my desk and getting away with it more than most (any?) more substantive or intended lessons. I remember the feeling and that is the thing. The feelings that are a deep part of me were inculcated at desks like that and I am afraid I do not remember many feelings of joy from my school days. I am sure I learned other things but even to this day the struggle between authentic learning and just getting away with it occupies me more than I would like.

The second thing those desks reminded me of was this:


Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): Photo by Graham and Sheila

The dark, hardwood stain, the association with a disordered and anachronistic, rectilinear formality in learning and in their own way authority reminded me of the often repeated iconic image of punts lined up on the streams that flow past the two oldest universities in the UK. I saw a thread through the desks to Oxbridge. But again it is not the substance of learning that was drawn to my mind but something other: something about context, deception and subversion, something about the importance of a superficial order even if all was disordered beneath the surface; something about mastering that surface at all cost and if something deeper drifted by so be it.

Humanities and Social Sciences Research at Brookes

Semi-live blogging from the Faculty research conference.

Yet more 1000-mile questions.

In general, academics need to learn that not keeping to time is unprofessional and disrespectful of colleagues and audience.

Roger Griffin on Nomic modernity. Cites Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, as well as old and new academic writers in a compelling whirl of suggestions about the paradoxes of modernity. He suggests that human beings have an excess of consciouness (called reflexivity) which makes us aware of our impending death. Nomos creates a “totalising magic reality”, a world view and serves as a psychic duvet. Given the human condition, the absence of depression is a mystery. Should we have a belief system that celebrates rather than emiserates?. Becker, Berger, Eliade, Jung, Nietzche are his touchstones. Modernity, Griffin argues, is a nexus of forces that undermines nomos.  One loses a sense of space: all that is solid melts into air (Marx); modernity is nomocidal (Weber, Bauman) achieving permanent liminality without closure: liquefaction. This leads to a permanent crisis of identity: “liminoidality” changes the quality of time: empty homogeneous time (W Benjamin). Unstable syntheses of different moral codes (hedonism/family/religions). Modernity incubates addictive behaviours (what is the evidence, asks Juliet Henderson?). Addiction deals with time: temporal anesthesia. Beleaguered cultures protect themselves through violence. How does modernity stand outside the nomos? (Martin Groves). Barrie Axford asks, “What is the theory”.

Chris Lloyd, Department of Law (see Critical Legal Thinking), reads a paper “old school): Retort to Norrie: Derrida, Law and the socio political. Distinguishes between politics (la politique) and “the political” (le politie). Asserts that Derrida’s legal theory neglects the material structures that gives rise to a melencholy. Deconstruction simply happens. Criticises Norrie’s critique of Derrida. See Dick and Kofman “Derrida”). The “trace”: the space between the sign and the symbol, gives you everything: the present being of all things, the origin of sense in general. What gives us entities also undoes them.  The nature of being is called into question, So someone finally asks what is the pragmatic implication? This has to be a thpousand-mile question.

Gary Browning now moves to Rousseau and Derrida. Rousseau is a critic of modernity. Crisis, conflict and meaning. Modernity is a crisis. Rousseau sets up many dualisims. Most salient to this talk is Nature :: Society. Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. Series of paradoxes: we should be forced to be free. For Derrida there can be no absolute “truth” “out there”. There is a paradox of modern politics. You cannot critique or change from within. Are there multiple modernities? Gary Browning claims a particular reading of modernity in reading Rousseau’s understanding of modernity. Modernity is the sum of ways of thinking about modernity. Derrida takes a hermeneutic reading and then deconstructs this.

But are we not left with a totalising assertion of anti-totalisation which can only produce anomie?

Doerthe Rosenow on the Politics of “crisis speak”: towards a new understanding of radicalism in environmental activism. Emerges from anti GMO activism. Is it all about the politics of catastrophe? Does this position not lead to passivity. Is there a Foucauldian consensus in critiquing the politics of catastrophe. We cannot talk about knowledge outside power. (As an aside I ask, Is a non-interventionist small state necessarily a right-wing position?). She asks us to move to a new understanding of radicalism that avoids either millennialism or co-operation with dominant power. So I ask again, “No? is it not about resistance to co-option and colonialism. Everything is corruptable…? (see Mark Duffield and William Connolly).

Jason Danely, “When crisis is the norm: imagining Japanese eldercare”. We are in an age of mass care-giving to the elderly. What about robotic care givers? Lack of community and identity leading to increased prison population of elderly offenders – not aging lifers.

Carina Bartleet, Drama. “Mythologising violence: a crisis of feminist representation onstage in 21st century”. Based in the work of Sarah Daniels … (writer and script editor on Grange Hill). Talk focuses on Morning Glory (2001) and Dust (2002). In your face theatre from late ’90s early ’00s. Daniels is not an in-your-face writer but shares much with those who are. Morning Glory subverts stereotypes. Draws on myth of Osiris and Isis.

Alex Finnen, Russia’s use of ambiguous and unrestricted warfare. Unambiguous concern with “real” power. This paper challenges – implicitly – Rosenow’s paper and to some extent provides support for Griffin’s and in a different way, Bartleet’s position. Theorising perspectives that invoke power as an abstraction is one thing. Revealing the depth of real power is another.

Susannah Wright, Creating world citizens in British Schools 1919-1939. League of Nations Societies.

Rico Isaacs, Exit, voice, loyality and sanctions in Kazakhstan. interested in authoritarianism and the persistence of authoritarianism. What is the agency of ruling elites and their mechanisms for control; and what are the choices for opposition elites. Hirschman’s model of “exit, voice and loyality”. The choices around concepts of exit and voice act as feedback mechanisms for authoritarian regimes.


The role of the PVC International (PVCI)

Alastair Fitt, Vice Chancellor, on the role of the PVC International (PVCI), Thursday 23 April 2015

These comments and reflections are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the Vice Chancellor, Oxford Brookes University or any other member of the audience.

The Vice Chancellor’s talk, which opened the Internationalisation Steering Group’s Away Day, was a personal reflection on his time as PVCI at Southampton. A business and marketing-driven corporate mission and an individual researcher-driven research mission were the mainstays of the reflection.

Although framed within “Partnerships”, the PVCI role is highly market-driven and recruitment focused. Many of the observations made were how to be effective at recruiting and marketing while also promoting partnership. Continue reading

Brookes Learning & Teaching Conference (#bltc15)

Before the conference Richard Francis, David Aldridge and I led two “Walk and Talk” sessions on “a framework for inclusive learning?” (pdf). I have been exercising this framework in several contexts, most fully, perhaps, at the SEDA conference (Roberts & Francis 2014). However, I have to say that although the discussions were superb, the framework was not really tried. My aim was to critique and problematise “inclusivity”. Both sessions had a linguistic focus (unintended but perhaps unsurprising given Richard and I were shaping the conversations), asking, implicitly whether the language of inclusivity in higher education masks a deeper exclusivity, inherited from both ancient traditions of higher education and the current dominant late corporate capitalist, neoliberal, workforce attachment (higher skills and employment) paradigm.

The walk and talks more generally aim to break out of the architecturally and technologically mediated spaces of education and quite simply walk and talk, with a thematic “map” but no notes or slides.

Isis Brooks gave the conference Keynote based on her autobiography: a life in education. Isis spoke without notes or slides and incorporated many discussions into her “talk”, in a way also a perambulation, although confined in a lecture theatre.

She started with developing an academic identity as a mature learner: from school dropout to an access course at the Open University. She spoke about learning to calibrate one’s self against peers and introduced the small group discussion by asking us to reflect on our school experience.

From the OU, Isis went to Lancaster University. There were year 1 distribution requirements. She did her degree in independent studies (IS) in Religion and Philosophy. Most students in IS were mature students. If you were interested, she said, you would go to extreme lengths: stay up all night. Eventually she did her PhD in IS. Excellent for critical thinking. Her PhD started off looking at Science Teaching in Islamic schools, but transmuted into Goetheian Observation of Nature.

Her supervisor, Prof John Wakefield, gave people “more responsibility than they would have thought possible”. Again she asked us to reflect on what experience we might have had  like this.

The perambulation continued across a career in educational development and educational philosophy applied in land-based colleges, concluding with a vision of “purposeful freedom” as the lractice of lifelong learning.

I asked how we might discover that purposeful freedom within performative restraints?

For the remainder of the conference I practiced that freedom.


Roberts, G., & Francis, R. (2014). Transformational Learning Design for Open and Blended Learning. In Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age. NCTL Learning and Conference Centre, Nottingham: Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA). Retrieved from

Widening Participation Working Group Away Day (Oxford Brookes University)

Semi-live notes from very interesting and data filled Oxford Brookes University Widening Participation Working Group Away Day at Marston Road. (Of 30 people in the room only one obviously black man and two Asian women. Matches our BME student profile? c. 10%)

The day was framed by demographics about where Brookes sits, and politics in light of the forthcoming election, which enabled a critical frame for the day: whose WP are we talking about? Is the “lifecourse” educational – or institutional – for everyone?

Should OCSLD have had a pitch here? Because support for staff development IS support for WP. Though we are not seen as a service for students, institutionally, the significant change that has to be made is “Academic”: academic literacy, academic content, academic writing, academic culture.  Critical analysis is HUGE. Planning and structuring assignments is HUGE. When you have many inquiries from the same course at the same time, you ask: Can we move up the river and see “who is ‘pushing the bodies into the stream'”? Is this is where OCSLD has a role working with course teams?

This post will be updated through the day (Tuesday 10 March 0930-1430)

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