History of Political Thought teaching this year

I’m very excited to be teaching history of political thought again this year! This time we’re covering Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, the Federalists/Anti-Federalists, and Bentham, with half-hour mini-lectures on corruption, gender, methods of interpretation, parties, public opinion, religion, and tyranny/totalitarianism. In the first half of term there’s also practical exercises e.g. how to deal with ambiguity in texts (applied to Machiavelli), and how to break down and analyse arguments philosophically (applied to Hobbes). We do other exercises in seminars, e.g. how to use historical evidence (applied to Rousseau), how to apply modern conceptual frameworks (applied to the Federalists/Anti-Federalists), and how to draw contemporary insights (applied to Bentham). It’s a wide-ranging module which I love teaching. This year my TAs will be Caroline Ashcroft (Cambridge) and Max Skjönsberg (LSE), who are both giving two of the mini-lectures, with Sarah Wilford (KCL) returning to give two other mini-lectures.

Here’s a two-minute video of me summarising the module:


Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague

The Charles University

From Wednesday I will be spending a few days as a Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest in Europe.

I’m working hard while I’m there:

Wed March 16: lecture on ‘Passions, Corruption and the Maintenance of Institutions:
From Machiavelli to Today’.

Thu March 17: seminar on ‘How (Not) To Use History of Political Thought/Philosophy for Contemporary Purposes’.

Fri March 18: Hobbes seminar. Part 1: ‘Interpreting Hobbes Philosophically and Historically: Different Questions, Different Answers?’ Part 2: discussion of my chapter on ‘Reason, Deliberation and The Passions’ in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Hobbes.

Sat March 19: ‘Academic Essays’ workshop for students and staff.

(Details here.)

I will also see two Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte), in the Prague Estates Theatre – where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787.

Let me know below if you have any suggestions about where I should go or what I should do/eat/drink. I’ll be back in Prague again in September for the ECPR conference so can tick more items off the list then!

Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.


The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.


In order to apply you need a MyECPR account (http://ecpr.eu/Login.aspx). This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me (Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk) or Keith Dowding (keith.dowding@anu.edu.au) if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.



My most rewarding term of teaching ever

This term has been really hard: I’ve had a great deal of teaching to do, papers to write, and a book to edit – while trying to sell my house (and succeeding), and trying to juggle many other balls (and failing!).

But thankfully, the teaching has been incredibly rewarding, thanks mainly to the calibre and engagement of the students I’m privileged to teach at King’s College London. Most of these students are from my department, the Department of Political Economy, but this year I’ve also been privileged to teach students from Law, Liberal Arts, Management Studies, and even the Social Science, Health and Medicine department.

Here are the teaching highlights:

  • Adrian Blau lecturingsuperb engagement from my first-year ‘Studying Politics’ students. As ever, most students took a bit of time to get the hang of this module, but especially in recent weeks, some of the ideas discussed in the seminars have been incredibly penetrating. My wonderful students are seeing issues and problems in the readings that I and my TAs haven’t spotted before, and the seminar discussions have been fascinating. I’m particularly pleased when students who start off rather shy or reticent end up making some of the most incisive contributions in discussion;
  • some stunning interpretations from my second-year ‘History of Political Thought’ students. My own seminar group has been awesome: I’ve been pushed hard on my readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau (although I’m not yet convinced by the quantum physics reading of Hobbes!). The essays were superb as well: a quarter of students got Firsts. This is a hard course – one in ten students dropped out in the first few weeks – but the response has been wonderful. If you set the bar high, some students will slink off (to another kind of bar), but most respond very positively;
  • some impressive dissertation drafts, as ever, although I suspect I’ll see even better next term. But again, the engagement is better than I’ve seen before: in the past, about half of my dissertation students have been very much under the radar – this is the first term that I’ve seen every dissertation student regularly;
  • a wonderfully enjoyable MA research design/philosophy of social science module, taken by students on the MA in Public Policy, the MA in Political Economy, and the MSc in Public Services Policy and Management. Each week I’d test their grasp of the ideas with specific research-based exercises, and the quality of suggestions was the best I’ve yet seen;
  • introductory lectures on writing well, in my ‘Academic Writing Skills’ module – DPE is the first department in the university to run a term-long module on academic writing skills, and I know a lot of students in other departments are jealous of this course;
  • great progress from my super PhD students Donald Bello, Irena Schneider, and Elena Ziliotti – all brimming with clever ideas;
  • and bits and bobs of teaching in the Doctoral Training Centre (on research ethics), the Graduate School (on publication strategy and tactics), and some ‘taster’ lectures for school students thinking about studying at King’s.

It’s also been a huge pleasure to work with my outstanding TAs: Alex Chadwick, Simon Kaye, Liz Morrow, and Sarah Wilford.

More generally, the Political Economy community seems more positive than in previous years. My first-year tutees are happier than ever – something in the drinking water?! My colleagues, like me, are tired and overworked, and we know that there’s still ways to improve our teaching; but most students appreciate our efforts (even if most of them have no idea how hard we work, or that we are researchers not just teachers). Our great students respond so well to the way we push them. That means an incredible amount to me.

New DPE students: welcome to King’s College London!

Critical ThinkingIf you’re joining the Department of Political Economy (DPE) as a new undergraduate student in September 2015: welcome!

I’m one of your lecturers, and here are two (optional) preparatory readings you might find helpful, for two different modules which I convene.

4SSPP101 Studying Politics

Studying Politics is a core module taken by all students on the Politics programme and the Political Economy programme. It’s designed to empower you to think rigorously and critically about the politics research you’ll read at university. Reading 1 is the first 20 pages of Jon Elster’s book Explaining Social Behavior (2007), which gives a great sense of how to think like a social scientist. One of the most important things you’ll learn at university is the importance of thinking like a researcher, not just like a student. We want to encourage you to criticise what you read, not just make notes on it. To be critical, you will need to understand the choices that researchers make and what they could have done differently – and we will give you the tools to do this.

Students on the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme don’t take this module – but you’ll still find Elster’s article interesting and useful if you want to read it, because the ideas in it apply to other modules you’ll take.

Academic Writing Skills

This is an optional module offered to all students taking the Politics programme, the Political Economy Programme, the PPE programme, and the Politics, Philosophy and Law (PPL) programme. My department is the first in the university to run a term-long course like this. It gives you guidance on how to write better university essays. Reading 2 gives a lot of practical advice about studying at university, including the important of not being too trusting about what your lecturers and seminar tutors say! (We expect you to be critical of us, not just of what you read, of each other, and of yourselves.) Especially if you’re a bit worried or unsure about what to expect at uni, this chapter will give you a flavour of studying politics at university.

Looking forward to meeting you in September!

Nat Blau (1928-2010)


Joseph Norman ‘Nat’ Blau

My dad died five years ago today. He was a brilliant doctor, empathising closely with his patients and making thousands of lives better. He was a neurologist specialising in headache and migraine, and co-founded the City of London Migraine Clinic, which gave free consultations to all migraine sufferers. In 1962 he beat Roger Bannister to the post of consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, at Queen Square in London. He used to joke that it was the only time anyone ran faster than Roger Bannister.

Queen's Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

Queen Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

He published over 100 papers in scientific journals, not only on migraine but also on such things as ponytail headache (from tying ponytails too tightly) and sleep-lack headache. He edited a respected textbook on migraine, and his Headache and Migraine Handbook (1986) was written in a straightforward style for ordinary people. He was a superbly clear and concise writer: many of the tips I pass on to my own students came from him.

Mum and Dad's wedding

Mum and Dad’s wedding

He was married to my mother, Jill, for 41 years. He was a caring father to me, my brother Justin and my sister Rosie. He put a lot of emphasis on our education, and inculcated a questioning attitude in us. One of his sayings I still quote is: “If a theory explains all the facts, the theory must be wrong, because some of the facts are wrong.” He disliked the phrase “we now know”, because in his view, some of what we “know” is actually incorrect. His papers would sometimes mention what we don’t know or what his hypothesis could not explain – partly out of honesty, partly as a spur to further research.

He used to refer to “Blau’s Law of 10%”, which was his rule of thumb that only 10% of people have “got it”. He would sometimes follow this up with another comment: “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you haven’t got it, you’ve had it!”

Meeting Princess Diana

With Princess Diana

His preferred version of IQ was the “Insight Quotient”; no one could get to 100% on this scale. He also invented an SQ – a “Sleep Quotient” – referring to the number of people in the audience who were asleep in talks and lectures. His own SQ was almost always zero, I suspect – he was an exceptionally engaging lecturer. He would never get stuck behind the lectern or talk at an audience.

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968. Dad is in the middle of the front row.

He was by all accounts a superb teacher. He taught until he was 80, when his cancer excessively affected his mobility. His students had great admiration and affection for him. He disliked the way that medical students were expected to soak up knowledge without also developing critical faculties.

He was very funny. If we complained of some pain or ache, his answer was always “Talking too much”. In my case, this was usually true.

Dad age 75

J.N. Blau, at 75

Around the age of 75, he started work on a book called Wrong Ideas and No Ideas in Medicine, which he never finished. He had always been fascinated by wrong ideas which held back progress. He published a seering critique of the neurologist Harold Wolff (Cephalalgia 24:3, 2004) which attacked him for “a high degree of obsession, a desire to be on top and to win, and from an intellectual point of view, his dogmatism and ultra-focus on the vascular theory of migraine …. Wolff retarded progress in the understanding of migraine by at least 30 years”. That sums up several things Dad regarded as key sins. He used to say “Listen to the patient: he is telling you the diagnosis.” Wolff’s descriptions of migraine clashed with what Dad heard from the vast majority of his own patients. The one thing worse than a theory which explained all of the evidence was a theory which didn’t even match much of the evidence in the first place!

A black-tie event at Queen's Square, Feb 1965

A black-tie event at Queen Square, Feb 1965

In his day, most medical students came from wealthy backgrounds. He had next to nothing, and if he hadn’t worked hard at school he couldn’t have won the scholarship that allowed him to study medicine. I’m incredibly proud of what he achieved.

I think of him most when I’m very sad or very happy. When I’m sad I wish he was here, and when I’m happy I want to share good things with him. When I won a teaching award in 2013, I had a brief moment of joy and then started crying, because he wasn’t around to hear about this. My brother won a teaching award in the same year and I think my dad would have been prouder about these two prizes than the promotions my brother and I also got that year. Teaching mattered more to my dad than academic standing. When I asked why he wasn’t a Professor, he said: “I don’t profess to know anything.”

I love and miss him very much.

Event: Social Science and the #DigitalWorld (May 21st)

King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC) Regulation Cluster
‘Social Science and the #DigitalWorld’
  • Thursday 21 May 2015, 13.00 – 15.30
  • Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Strand Campus, London WC2R 2LS
Social Science and the #Digital World
Has the #DigitalWorld killed the academic expert? If academics don’t engage with the #DigitalWorld as celebrities do, have they diminished their role in political and policy debates? Are these questions even important?



Ewan Ferlie, Professor of Public Services Management, Department of Management, King’s College London. Author of Making Wicked Problems Governable? Hater of social media.

Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture, Department of Geography, King’s College London. Author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Curious about social media.

Cassie Werber, Reporter for Quartz and formerly for The Wall Street Journal. Co-organiser: Hacks Hackers London. Digital journalist.

FORMAT: 20 minute talks by each speaker, then 30 minute drinks/nibbles, then 60 minute discussion.

Please RSVP at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/social-science-and-the-digitalworld-tickets-16895062587.

How the King’s College London rebrand could have succeeded

King’s College London has accepted defeat over the botched effort to rebrand it as “King’s London”. But the plan needn’t have failed. Here’s how the rebranding company could have sold it.

(1) Establish the idea of change, by pointing out how amateurish the current logo looks. It looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word, and was: I made logos like that in my student journalist days.

KCL logo

The current logo

(2) Establish the idea that we are behind the times, by pointing out that every other big London university institution has rebranded in the near or distant past, or is not called by its legal title:

the LSE (not the London School of Economics and Political Science);

UCL (only rarely called University College London);

SOAS (not the School of Oriental and African Studies);

Birkbeck (not Birkbeck College);

Imperial (legally The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine);

Queen Mary (no longer Queen Mary College);

Royal Holloway (no longer Royal Holloway and Bedford New College); and

Goldsmiths (which dropped “College” in 2006).

(3) Provide evidence that “college” is confusing. For example, in North America a “college” is usually known as a trade/vocational training centre and is a “lesser” institution than a university [UPDATE: Mike Otsuka corrects me on this point in his Comment below]. (I’m still unconvinced that “college” is so confusing, but I’d have listened to evidence if the rebranding company had offered it.)

(4) Give actual quotations from the focus groups showing how confusing people some find “college”. Most of us laughed when told that people couldn’t understand “college”; concrete examples might have changed our minds.

(5) Give survey evidence that the LSE and UCL have better name recognition than King’s College London (if it’s true).

(6) Make a logo that looks good. This is the sine qua non, which is Latin for “do this or we want our money back”.

The proposed logo

The proposed logo: ahahahah

(7) Since lots of people are conservative, point out that most of us initially sneered at the London Olympics logo but liked it in the end.

(8) Get the KCL Student Union on side. (This was done, but when student outrage became apparent, the Student Union did a great impression of an embarrassing backtrack.)

(9) Coordinate the announcement so that the rebrand doesn’t leak early.

(10) Imply that this is a bargain: e.g. if it cost £300,000, this is equivalent to about 20 new overseas MA students who wouldn’t have come under the old name. (OK, the calculation’s not that simple, but suggest that by spending some money we’ll get far more back.)

I’m not saying that this would have worked, but it would have had a chance.

An open letter to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding

Here is the text of an open letter which I have just sent to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding by which we would be known as King’s London.


Dear Principal,

A College has a collegiate ethos, but many of us feel that this has been overlooked by the rebranding company in their incomplete consultation process.

​Their proposed rebrand has caused dismay. No one seems convinced by their reasoning about dropping ‘College’ from our name. The letter K in the alleged new logo looks broken and weak, as if we are trying to sneak our foot into London.

broken K logo

The changes are disliked not only by current staff and students but also by alumni. Yes, we must look to the future, but we cannot ignore our past.

I hope this email is not impertinent. But I have been moved to send it because of my pride in this university, on a day when our outstanding results in the 2014 REF show what we can achieve — with our present name!

Your sincerely,

Adrian Blau



Dr Adrian Blau
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Department of Political Economy
King’s College London
London WC2R 2LS

The impact of impact

There are still a few places available for tonight’s event on ‘The Impact of Impact’, run by the King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC), Monday 16 June 5.30 to 7.00 pm at King’s College London, Strand Campus, room K2.31:



  • Dame Janet Finch, Chair of the Social Sciences panel in the Research Excellence Framework
  • Aileen Murphie, National Audit Office Director DCLG & Local Government Value for Money
  • Anthony Tomei, former director of Nuffield Foundation
  • Dr Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Advisor, Oxfam GB & author of From Poverty to Power
  • Moderator: Mark Easton, Home Editor, BBC News

For a number of years, social scientists have been subject to increasing scrutiny of the contribution of their research to the economy and society in general. Impact outside academia and the ‘usefulness’ of research have gained additional salience in the current context of budgetary constraints and austerity. In this context, selling one’s ideas to practitioners has become a requirement for many social scientists. Academics are expected to frame their work to match the expectations of consumers outside of the university sector (private companies, foundations, etc.).

But what are the implications for the development of knowledge in general? Does the focus on the impact of social science distort research? Or are these changes an opportunity for social science to contribute more directly to society and stimulate social engagement?

Our illustrious panel represents academic, practitioner and funder perspectives and will debate how the shift in social science research funding influences – consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively – the content and nature of academic knowledge, and thus shapes the field.


‘History Research’: scam/vanity publishing?

This morning I got an email from someone at David Publishing who wrote:

We have learnt your paper “Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Quentin Skinner’s Real Method in the Association for Political Theory 11th Annual Conference.

I’m glad they “learnt” my paper, not least because I never gave it – the paper was too tricky and I gave a different one instead.

But what raised my eyebrows was this:

If the paper is accepted by our journal,you need to pay some fees for publishing. $50/page and if the paper is over 15 page or with high quality we will give you a discount about 30%-50%.

This journal, History Research, published 36 articles last year. If we assume 10 pages an article at the quoted figure of $50 a page, that’s an income of $18,000 for this one journal alone. Given the poor quality of English in the email they sent me, I’m guessing they don’t spend much money on proofing.

A quick Google search reveals lots of academics worrying about this publisher: see here (Scholarly Open Access’s watch list) and here (Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog).

History ResearchOne of these worries – that it’s all a scam – is clearly outdated: David Publishing are now explicit, up-front, that authors must pay to publish. So, this isn’t a scam. Indeed, a quick Google search shows that most of the people publishing in recent issues of this particular journal have posts in established academic institutions.

My worry is that many academics, especially young ones, are easily enticed by such emails from publishers; see here for several academics who took David Publishing’s emails seriously. And I remember being very flattered when I was told that my first ever conference paper had been accepted for the conference proceedings. The conference proceedings were fairly prestigious in the sub-field, but in retrospect I should have thought seriously about declining, and submitting the paper elsewhere. I certainly doubt that History Research would carry any serious weight at any serious academic institution. Indeed, having such a journal on your CV could count against you, not in your favour.

So, my very obvious advice to readers of this blog – especially MA and PhD students, and early career researchers – is to be very careful about such emails, and to chat with more senior colleagues about where to publish your work.

10 tips for chairs of seminar/conference papers

A chair tip

A chair tip

1. Don’t read out the speaker’s past history from a printout of their webpage: look as if you know something about them. And for multi-paper panels, all you may need is ‘next up is Jo Public from Edinburgh’.

2. Don’t read out the speaker’s original title, which may have changed since submission. Check the title in advance, or just introduce the speaker not the title. You may also want to check how to pronounce the speaker’s name/university.

3. If possible, tell speakers well in advance how long they have. The organiser may already have done this, of course.

4. If possible, warn speakers well in advance that you will be controlling time carefully. Graduate students and junior faculty may worry about saying this to senior faculty; but if a speaker overruns in a multi-paper panel, it’s discourteous and unfair to other speakers, and if a speaker overruns when she is the only speaker, it’s discourteous and unfair to the audience.

5. Keep speakers to time. Don’t congratulate them on the timing: it’s their job to finish on time, not something which merits praise. If you comment on the timing of the papers, it makes the session about you not them.

6. Before the session starts, tell speakers at what times you will warn them at (e.g. 5 minutes, 2 minutes, time up). Think too about how to warn speakers about timing; it’s not always physically easy (e.g. when someone uses a lectern). A hastily scribbled piece of paper can be hard for speakers to see: if you can, pre-print sheets or use a board-marker pen.

7. Keep questions and answers short, especially when several questions remain near the end of a session. Be firm, be fair. If you’ve asked for short questions and someone starts a four-parter, it’s your job to politely interrupt them. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is they who are being insensitive, not you.  

8. Try not to ask your own questions unless needs be. (Needs sometimes be.)

9. Never collate questions: it’s spectacularly pointless. [UPDATE: I no longer agree with this. Collating questions can save time at the end. E.g. if you have five minutes left and three questions, there’s something to be said for giving each questioner 30 seconds, then letting panellists pick and choose what they respond to.] Be flexible about question order: if someone has already asked a question, she’s less important than someone who hasn’t.

10. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Not everyone will want the session to keep going: some people will be bored, others will want a pee, a cigarette or some coffee. When time is up, time is up. In exceptional circumstances, break briefly to let some people escape before you continue.


The underlying principles are as follows:

(a) Speakers are more important than the chair.

(b) The audience is more important than the speakers.

(c) Timing matters.

(d) Think ahead.

(e) Be firm.

(f) Be fair.

Journal of Universal Rejection

This spoof journal made me laugh – hard.

Make sure you scroll down to the hilarious table of contents.


Annoying aspects of electronic journal and book websites

Here are some things that bug me about publishers’ websites, and a list of publishers who make these errors.

(1) You find the page of an article, log in to access the article (because you’re at home not at university), but then get sent to the publisher’s main webpage, not to the article. Why?

  • Annual Reviews
  • Project Muse
  • Springer

(2) You are browsing through issues of a journal. You get to the bottom of an issue, but to click on the link to the previous or next issue, you have to scroll back up to the top of the page again. Why not have the links at the bottom of the page too?

  • Annual Reviews
  • Cambridge Journalscomputer frustration
  • Oxford Journals
  • Project Muse
  • Springer (which doesn’t even have a link at the top of the page)
  • Wiley-Blackwell

(3) You are accessing a journal from home and need a password to access it. However, the ‘website’ you’re using only remembers your institution for a week, or not at all. Why not longer?

  • Cambridge Journals
  • Springer

(4) Even finding the login page can be hard.

  • Oxford Scholarship (has ‘Sign in’ for personal users at the top, but institutional login at the side – why not put them together?)

N.B. The Elsevier (ScienceDirect) website, which isn’t mentioned above, works pretty flawlessly for me on the above criteria.

Please add more suggestions below and I’ll incorporate them in the list if I can.

[UPDATED 13 March 2015, to include Annual Reviews.]

The return of the Janus-faced cliché

In an earlier post, I scoffed at the academic cliche ‘Janus-faced’. This over-used phrase is largely empty: nearly everything points in different directions. I could get ‘Janus-faced’ into the title of every article and book chapter I have written. Here’s the proof:

  • ‘The Janus face of Hobbesian passions’ – Hobbes says that passions can lead us to make good choices or bad choices.
  • ‘Anti-Janus-faced-Strauss’ – Leo Strauss seems to argue that some people wrote esoterically, but might just be using this as a guide to his own esotericism.
  • ‘Janus-faced uncertainty and the history of ideas’ – uncertainty is both objective and subjective.
  • ‘Rationality and deliberative democracy: a constructive critique of John Dryzek’s Janus-faced democratic theory’ – the real basis of Dryzek’s democratic theory does not imply what he thinks.
  • ‘Hobbes on Janus-faced corruption’ – Hobbes shows that corrupt acts can benefit people in the short-term but not in the long-term.
  • ‘The Janus face of party systems’ – we get different conclusions depending on how we quantify aspects of party systems.
  • ‘Against positive and negative freedom: Isaiah Berlin’s Janus face’ – Berlin says one thing but does another.
  • ‘The Janus face of the British electoral system’ – first-past-the-post’s very strengths could undermine it.
  • ‘The Janus face of fairness and electoral reform’ – different definitions of fairness lead to different conclusions about electoral reform.

Have you ever published anything where you couldn’t get ‘Janus-faced’ into the title? If so, say below.

Or, add your own favourite ‘Janus-faced’ publications, e.g.:

  • Horkheimer and Adorno, Janus-Faced Enlightenment
  • Isaiah Berlin, ‘Janus-faced liberty’
  • Marx, Janus-Gesicht Kapital
  • Robert Putnam, The Janus Face of Italian Democracy
  • David Mayhew, Janus-Faced American Government
  • Plato, Republic: One And a Half Janus Faces of the Soul and the City
  • Paul Kennedy, The Janus Face of the Great Powers
  • Emile Durkheim, The Janus Face of Labour in Society
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Janus
  • Marcuse, Semi-Janus-Faced Man

Rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan

Read a spoof rejection letter for Hobbes’s Leviathan at Paul Sagar’s extremely funny blog, ‘Rejection Letters of the Philosophers’. The blog also features spoof rejection letters for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. Superb stuff.

Powerpoint Tips #1: stats, tables and graphs

obesity slide

Argh! Too small.

In the comments on my post about conference annoyances, no one mentioned bad Powerpoint presentations, curiously. Yet lots of us have sat through Powerpoint nightmares with graphs and tables which are too small to read, statistics reported to six decimal places, or key findings covered in a milliseconds.

Eva Lantsoght offers some excellent tips on how to make technical presentations accessible to the audience. Her overall message, in effect is:

(a) we should think about what our audience needs to understand technical information, and

(b) the presentation should move slowly enough for our audience to understand it.

My only criticism is with some of her sample slides, where some details are too small. Default settings on stats programmes produce graphs which look OK on paper but are hard to see on Powerpoint.

So, we can add a third point:

(c) the information needs to be large enough to be seen and hence understood.

In case this sounds too self-righteous, I’m well aware that I’ve broken all of these rules at various times!

Minor annoyances at conferences and seminars

Here are a few things which often cause frustration at conferences and seminars:

  • People sitting in the front row who ask questions so quietly that no one at the back can hear them.
  • Chairs who give speaker a rousing introduction which ends with the chair reading out the title of the speaker’s paper – only for the speaker to immediately contradict the chair by giving a paper with a different title.
  • Questions in threes.

Please add more below!

The professionalisation of academia: is it bad, all things considered?

Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, has written an important post criticising two things: the view that intellectuals must be academics, and the damage that the professionalisation of academia thus does to intellectual life.

I’ll sidestep Back’s focus on intellectuals outside of academia, but I do want to dissent somewhat on three of his points about the professionalisation of academia.thinker

(1) He rightly bemoans the tendency to equate ‘being an intellectual’ with ‘having an academic job’ – in Edward Said’s words, ‘something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five’. Following Said, Back also rightly criticises (2) over-specialisation, and (3) excessive risk-aversion.

I sympathise with each point. But it’s important to see the other side too.

(1) Before the RAE/REF really kicked in, there was relatively poor accountability and meritocracy as regards UK academics: many were in effect paid by taxpayers to not do much research and, in some cases, to not do much teaching either. Things are hardly perfect now, of course, but we shouldn’t think that there was a golden age of intellectualism where UK universities were filled with academics thinking super thoughts and doing brilliant teaching.

(2) We do need specialists. Indeed, we need a good balance of specialists and generalists. Generalists often draw on specialist research, and specialist criticisms of generalist work often help to advance the debate. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more generalist work, but I suspect there’s more inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary thinking than there used to be.

(3) We do need some risk-aversion. Indeed, we need a good balance of risk-avoiders and risk-takers. Risk-takers often build on careful, ‘normal science’ research done by risk-avoiders. Like Back, I’d prefer to see more risk-taking research, and there’s a danger that the PhD and the early years of an academic job inculcate too much risk-aversion. But we shouldn’t pretend that everything is now ‘normal science’.

I’m not pretending that things are perfect now – far from it. Much of my own work, indeed, involves risk-taking efforts to challenge excessive specialisation. But I think that there are lots of people like me now, and lots more high-quality specialist and risk-averse research than there used to be – and in my view, a far lower proportion of people paid by taxpayers not to think or teach.

Sorry, that’s not a very nice thing to say. Sorry too that my empirical comments above are unsubstantiated, and that I’m imprecise about what a ‘good balance’ means. For now, I just want to make sure that the debate is well-rounded.

Would John Rawls have been submitted for the REF?

Since the mid-1980s, UK university departments have undergone periodic reviews of research quality. The current process is called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). As part of these reviews, academics submit four pieces of published work (fewer for early career researchers), to be graded by members of an expert subject-panel.

One complaint I’ve often heard at conferences is that the great political philosopher John Rawls didn’t publish enough to have been submitted in the RAE or REF, if he’d been at a UK university. The implication is that (a) if Rawls couldn’t make the REF, then the REF is a joke, and (b) the REF undermines our ability to write pioneering, systematic studies.

Now, there may be some truth in (b). But I don’t think that (a) is right. I’m attaching a list of Rawls’s publications, from Samuel Freeman, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Rawls.

It shows that Rawls produced an entirely respectable number of books and journal articles.

'Look at how much I wrote last year.'

‘Look at how much I wrote last year.’

True, Rawls might have had a few difficulties if there’d been an RAE covering the years 1978-84, when he ‘only’ published one article and two book chapters. But the article was in the Journal of Philosophy, a leading philsophy journal, and one of the book chapters was a Tanner lecture, an extremely prestigious publication.

And we shouldn’t ignore the counterfactual: if Rawls had known that he was required to submit four articles by 1984, it wouldn’t have been hard for him to amend his publication strategy accordingly. Might this have slowed down his efforts to write pioneering, systematic studies? It’s possible, although from his list of publications I can’t see that the effect would have been too troubling.

To use the ugly language of UK academia, then, John Rawls was eminently ‘REFfable’.