Sunday, 29 April 2012

With sincere apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When scholars seek the truth by questions bright
And on some thorny problems shine some light,
Then trolls and quacks in misspelled missives try
The honest scholar's labours to decry.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

"Liam Burns says the law should require academics to be qualified"

Was interested to note that the president of the UK National Union of Students, Liam Burns, is calling for university lecturers to have teaching qualifications, as reported in last Sunday's Observer. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable, especially in the light of the new undergraduate fee structure. Surely for £9,000 per annum, students should expect certain standards?

Here are my thoughts:

I predicted some time back that one of the more serious and corrosive results of the hike in student fees would be that undergraduates would demand better "customer service" for their money, and would in some cases initiate legal action against universities who do not award them the degree class they think they deserve, citing such "failings" as "inadequate teaching".

It's time we got back to embracing the concept that a university's first objective should be to advance knowledge and understanding through high-quality, scholarly research and discourse. Some would argue that should be its only objective. I am not sure I would go quite that far, but almost that far perhaps.

Universities, like all seats of learning from the kindergarten upwards, benefit from teaching and stimulating their pupils, as of course do the pupils themselves. But the balance from what might call "total teaching" to "acting as a mature sounding-board for a new researcher" should change steadily through time. I work with PhD students. They often tell me that this transition to their being required to take significant responsibility for their research and output, compared to undergraduate and master's studies, can be tough, though they find this stimulating and exciting.

Similar is the transition from the A-Level student in their last two years at school to the undergraduate. This transition is, or should be, due to the marked difference between the objectives of the school to the objectives of the good university. The undergraduate finds himself in an environment where his seniors are principally engaged in research in their fields, and their teaching activities are in second place, even if a close second. This, I believe, is as it should and must be. This means that it becomes the undergraduate's responsibility to actively learn, to actively seek scholarly discourse with lecturers, to take responsibility for her, the undergraduate's, timely output of good quality work.

On the point of "teaching qualifications". I have largely been taught by people, both at school and university, who had no teaching qualifications. I went to grammar schools. Teachers there had to be graduates, but were not required to have teaching qualifications in those days. Most were good, some outstanding, a few were hopeless. Teaching qualifications in themselves will never ensure good teaching, by which we mean teaching which not only informs effectively, but inspires and promotes scholarly and critical thinking - and this can start in nursery school!

As an undergraduate geologist, I was privileged to be taught by the great Jake Hancock (then at King's College London). He many years later was my PhD supervisor at Imperial. He had no teaching qualifications. I recall one undergraduate palaeontology practical class led by him. We entered the lab expecting to see the usual fossils-laid-out-on-benches. Instead there was a table strewn with fundamentalist Christian pamphlets. He asked us what we thought of these. We responded with one voice that they were all complete rubbish. I shall never forget his next words, "But why are they rubbish? You must be able to argue why they are rubbish or your objections have no value!" That's what I mean by education.

If Liam Burns wants great researchers such as Jake Hancock was to take time from their research to get virtually useless "teaching qualifications" then he does not understand higher education, nor his growing responsibilities as a student.

Monday, 23 April 2012

HM The Solar Queen

I can't believe just how very close I came to buying one of these today!

Sure to be a smash hit item of tat in this jubilee year - in fact in any year. The version with the crown is about £2 more than the "standard" varieties, which nonetheless come in a range of tasteless colours.

The choice is yours!

Wartime memories podcast

Quite a while back I converted a pretty rough old cassette tape recording of my father in conversation with his brother, George, and sister-in-law, Margaret. The sound quality is quite a challenge to listen to, but it's still worth the effort.

I have taken the time to check out the facts related in the conversation, and they all seem to be correct, so I conclude that my father's recollections are by and large reliable.

There is much of interest here, including my father's recollection of the dock strikes in Malta. One thing I never knew was that he was involved in the clear-up of the Coventry raids. The recording ends too soon for me, as I would love to know "what happened next", in his own words.

Still, the recording is a treasure to me. This is the link.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

In Jane Austen's Bath?!

I am quite sure the worldly-wise Miss Austen would have appreciated this story.

Can't quite recall in which of her works was this quote, "Of Rears and Vices I saw enough", but this is one little snippet that would have her amused I'm sure.

Oh yes, Mansfield Park.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Former archbishop joins the hissy fit

It will come as no surprise that Carey has joined in the Christian hissy fit, is using words like "persecution" and, yes, "homosexual activists" and is generally misrepresenting actions taken to ensure Christians comply with the law as vilification.

Laws enacted in a democracy should be obeyed, or changed through democratic process: get over it!

Friday, 13 April 2012

See. I'm not all that bad at prediction (see previous post)

It didn't take long. Here is a post on the Christian persecution web pages which sits rather oddly among the other stories of genuine persecution that appear on their pages. Acts which are certainly reprehensible and should be highlighted indeed.

Let me make it quite clear: I think that persecution of anyone is wrong. But Boris Johnson taking some action (which may well turn out to be counter-productive) to ban bus ads produced by an organisation which, despite what they say, offers to cure gay people of their gayness, is understandable and certainly supported by many.

The bus ad issue is moot, and I can't say I have completely made up my mind about it.
Update: this excellent article has helped me to make up my mind!

The Big Pink London Bus

Fresh from my encounter yesterday with HOTS Bath, in the news today is the decision in London to ban a particularly troubling ad that another loopy and corrosive evangelical outfit called Core Issues Trust wanted to display on London buses. Their ad is deliberately designed to mimic Stonewall's excellent bus ad (above).

I listened with interest to an interview on LBC this morning with Core Issues' director, Dr Mike Davidson. Like most of these people, he came across as harmless if misguided, unless you listened very carefully. The agenda they have, made very clear on their web pages, is that homosexuality can be changed to heterosexuality with God's help and a bit of psychotherapy. Now they make it very plain that they don't seek to "cure" homosexuality, but logic says that if their message is (go see for yourself) that being homosexual causes you pain, they offer a way to change yourself, then that is a cure, isn't it? Weasel words indeed! To be fair to them, they do put these words at the top of their home page:

CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression. It respects the rights of individuals who identify as 'gay' who do not seek change.

There's loads and loads of interesting stuff on their web pages, including a liberal garnishing of PhDs all over the place - it's Dr This and Dr That and Dr The Other. So prevalent is this sort of thing in the evangelical and altmed world that I have reverted to calling myself Mrs instead of Dr.

My reactions and conclusion? No quality research has yet demonstrated that psychotherapeutic interventions or spiritual "therapy" can change people's sexual orientation. Little wonder. Homosexual orientation is Not a Disease. Get Over It! The banned ad seems to me to be offensive and likely to cause distress and confusion in some individuals who may be in the process of trying to work out how they can manage their natural sexual orientation in an increasingly hostile world. After all, it's the hostility which causes the hurt, not the homosexuality. Therefore if there is any "cure" to be effected, it should be applied to those who seek to shun and persecute them, or treat them as "sick" when they are perfectly sound.

My prediction: Core Issues will begin to cry about "militant atheism" and "being persecuted" and "free speech" before next week is out. And if not them, then someone else on their behalf...

Any MPs spring to mind?

Thursday, 12 April 2012


No, that's not a typo for Hot Baths.

HOTS Bath has been in the news of late, whereas I don't recall hot baths making the headlines - unless perhaps on a water-shortage-drought-restrictions kinda story.

I have only become aware of this group in the past few days, even though they operate on a regular basis a short walk from my home. "HOTS" stands for "Healing On The Streets" and is an evangelical Christian group who choose to engage with the "hurting" (their word) public by inviting them to be healed of an enormous variety of physical and mental ailments and illnesses. That long list includes some pretty serious conditions including cancer.

The redoubtable Hayley Stevens initiated a complaint about them to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the sole basis that they were making unsubstantiated claims to be able to heal medical conditions in a way likely to mislead the public. Not, as Hayley has made clear, that they hold a belief that God (or Jesus, or whatever apex of the trinity seems to work, I suppose) can heal, or that they were simply declaring their beliefs. She has made it perfectly plain that she is not hostile to Christians in words understandable to the meanest intelligence.

The substance of the complaint was upheld by the ASA and they have substantially modified the wording on the leaflet which they hand out to the passing (and hurting?) public.

Today I went to observe HOTS in action. There they were. There was their vertical blue banner emblazoned with the single word HEALING. There were the folding wooden chairs, all in a nice neat row. There were the team members: some laying on hands and praying, some mooching about the crowds with a silly half-smile, handing out leaflets. I took my place on a bench nearby and watched. After about 20 minutes, one of the team approached me and handed me a leaflet. I said something like, "What's this all about, then? What are you claiming to be able to do?" The reply was well-briefed, I feel. "We are not claiming to do anything." Then some blether about God's love and I have to admit I kinda switched off a little bit here. "Think about it," the kind lady said.

Like the fool that I am, instead of keeping my own counsel, I confessed that I had already given their activities quite a lot of thought, that I felt they were preying on the vulnerable and that some of their material could be argued to breach the criminal law (specifically the 1939 Cancer Act). She wandered away, leaving me to my thoughts.

After a short stroll to clear my head, I hovered around them again. To my completely unsurprised horror, a couple of these people had now begun to work on two children, which they had sat on two of the nice wooden chairs. They were two boys of about ten or eleven I would guess. They seemed to be getting the full-on prayer stuff (but no laying on of hands; these guys are clearly au fait with the law!). Now this got me really angry and outraged. When this nonsense was over, one of the boys was visibly upset (or moved by the holy spirit or crap like that).

Then I walked up to one of the women team members and calmly and politely asked what they were doing to those children. This really put the wind up, and she assured me that their work with children was only with the accompanying adults' consent. A few more words were exchanged before she called over the team leader. He said that they were aware that I had a "few issues" with them today. I made my views perfectly clear that they were making claims to heal, that they were preying on the vulnerable and that some of their promotional material (on-line, including YouTube clips) was arguably in breach of the criminal law, and I quoted the Cancer Act. One of their clips on YouTube clearly headlines cancer at about 3:38 in. I reminded them that holding a "belief" is no defence of a criminal act and that it may be advisable to bear the Cancer Act in mind when providing material or when engaged in acts of street healing. The exchange was serious but courteous on both sides, and my advice was given not because I would love these people to wind up in the criminal courts, but simply because I would like them to comply with a law written, let's face it, to protect the frightened and vulnerable.

If you Google "hots bath" their links are at the top, including a sub-link to their Training Manual (or Manuel, as they say within). This makes fascinating reading, especially if you search within it for the word "cancer".

Monday, 2 April 2012

Back from the Front

It's good to know that there are always some things you can rely on...

The cheapest eggs I could find contained the legend that the contents were squeezed from the contented oviducts of hens which were free to, "stretch, preen and dustbathe". Now my conscience is clear. If only Londoners were similarly treated...

The more prosaic Tetley simply proclaimed that we were getting more of their rubbish for nothing.