Race and racism in political theory


I’ve just finished my half of a new undergraduate course on Race and Racism in Political Theory. I’ve covered ‘Western’ thinkers; in the second half of the course, my colleague Humeira Iqtidar will be covering ‘non-Western’ thinkers.

I’ve found the material tremendously stimulating, and I learned a great deal, both from the literature and from my students. To my shame, I haven’t addressed these issues until a couple of years ago: I have definitely been guilty of what Robert Bernasconi calls the “sanitising” of Western philosophy, by sidestepping racism or by treating it as not central to (some) philosophers.

(And incidentally, if your first instinct – as mine was – is to reply that race and racism were not central to these philosophers, please read the Bernasconi article linked to above and see if you still agree. Very few articles have changed the way I think as much as Bernasconi’s has.)

Here are the thinkers I covered:

  1. Kant.
  2. Locke, Hume, Jefferson.
  3. Frederick Douglass.
  4. John Rawls, Charles Mills, Tommie Shelby.
  5. Mirander Fricker, Charles Mills, Linda Martín Alcoff, Katrin Flikschuh.

I’ll change several things next year. In particular, the Jefferson seminar will probably be replaced with something on different types of racism.

The picture for this blogpost marks the theme of my half of the module – the racism underlying much Western political theory. It’s a fantastic painting by Titus Kaphar, called Behind the Myth of Benevolence. As regards my teaching on this course, the painting represents Behind the Rhetoric of Liberty and Equality For All.

Why so many UK academics are striking

Like many UK academics, I’m striking because of the astonishing attack on our pensions by Universities UK, after poor governance of our pension scheme. Exeter pensions

This will hugely affect our welfare in retirement – about £10,000 every year on average to academics and many professional services staff (more in my case).

We’ve asked for our views to be addressed; this strike is our last resort. At KCL, the strike will be on Feb 26-28, March 5-8, March 12-16, and March 19-20. We’re all hoping it will be over soon, of course.


Who is under threat?

Despite newspaper rhetoric, it isn’t just lecturers who are scared by the proposed changes: also threatened are the pensions of non-teaching research staff, many professional services staff, and huge numbers of potential academics (including TAs and current students!) who may not want to become academics as a result.

So, crucially, if the proposed attack on our pensions happens, many people will leave UK universities, and the education of students will suffer further.


Why are we striking?

There’s great accounts by my colleague Alice Evans in the Guardian, by Waseem Yaqoob in the LRB – see especially the paragraph beginning “The rationale for the changes is dubious” – and by David Smith on Twitter. UPDATE: The Observer puts the pension cuts in broader perspective (although I myself am not too bothered by high pay for Vice-Chancellors).

The indefatigable Mike Otsuka has carefully charted a series of errors and faulty claims by Universities UK, including the questionable role of Cambridge colleges – significantly inflating the apparent support for the move that instigated the strike – and Universities UK’s false claims and incoherent position. As he puts it, “You break it, you own it”. Mike’s work in uncovering the problems and errors deserves immense credit. It’s clear how badly managed our pensions have been (see e.g. here – and this revealing BBC article).

The National Union of Students supports the strike, as does a significant majority of students.


How will this affect my students and colleagues?

I will spend the time doing my own research at home. (Technically, I shouldn’t do work that the university pays me for, but research is the only thing that gives me a sense of well-being right now; I’m doing it for me, and so I’m in a better position to move to a university in another country if things continue to go wrong in the UK.) UPDATE: I hadn’t intended to join the picket line, but I’m wavering.

USS Pension SchemeMy striking will mainly affect my admin role (Director of Education in my department).

I’m not teaching much this term, but I won’t hold office hours during the strike, read draft dissertation chapters, answer student emails (except if my personal tutees have emergencies), or answer emails involving the university or administration. A lot of meetings and emails will then have to be packed into non-strike days, further affecting students who want to meet or who need me to answer emails.

(In addition, I won’t work weekends again. I’ve just had 37 days work with only 2 days break, including a 21-day nightmare of continuous stress with no break. Not working weekends again is unrelated to the strike; I just don’t want to live like that any more! So I won’t be dealing with my email/admin backlog at weekends.)


What should students do?

Some people say that if students cross the picket-line, this disrespects striking academics and rejects our position. I don’t myself agree with that.

Personally, I would prefer students to go to what lectures and seminars they can, and complain. (The first part of this is not the official union position, of course!) UPDATE: Why? Because students are paying so much for their education, are often intellectually engaged with their courses, and don’t want their assessments to be affected (and potentially their job prospects as a result). Not going won’t make a difference, except to them, and going doesn’t show disrespect, in my view.

UPDATE: It would also be nice if students sent strikers a message of support, and showed some empathy about the scary situation we are facing.


What should Universities UK do?

Universities UK can’t win – they should get back to the negotiating table immediately. Many universities already want to do so (e.g. Newcastle, Essex, Warwick, Birkbeck).

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:


‘Methods in Analytical Political Theory’ sent to Cambridge University Press

Marthe Donas, Le Livre d'imagesI’ve now sent the manuscript of Methods in Analytical Political Theory to Cambridge University Press.

Each chapter gives ‘how-to’ advice, explaining how to use the method or approach being discussed.

The lineup is as follows:

  1. Introduction: a ‘how-to’ approach (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  2. How to write analytical political theory (Robert Goodin, ANU)
  3. Thought experiments (Kimberley Brownlee, Warwick, and Zofia Stemplowska, Oxford)
  4. Reflective equilibrium (Carl Knight, Glasgow)
  5. Contractualism (Jonathan Quong, USC)
  6. Moral sentimentalism (Michael Frazer, University of East Anglia)
  7. Realism (Robert Jubb, Reading)
  8. Realistic idealism (David Schmidtz, Arizona)
  9. Conceptual analysis (Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven)
  10. Positive political theory (Alan Hamlin, Manchester and King’s College London)
  11. Rational choice theory (Brian Kogelmann, Arizona, and Gerald Gaus, Arizona)
  12. Interpreting texts (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  13. Comparative political thought (Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt, and Rochana Bajpai, SOAS)
  14. Ideological analysis (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxford)
  15. How to do a political theory PhD (Robert Goodin, ANU, and Keith Dowding, ANU)

The book should be out in 2017.

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.

Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.


Powerpoint Tips #2: press F5 – for God’s sake, press F5!

The worst way to start a talk is to waste five or so seconds trying to work out how to load the Powerpoint presentation, i.e. how to start the slideshow in fullscreen mode. “Where’s the mouse? Where’s the little icon to click? It’s not where it is on my computer. Can someone help?”


The answer is: press the F5 key, and the Powerpoint presentation loads automatically. (If you’re on a PC. If you’re on a Mac, either press Control + Shift + S, or buy a PC. Or, sell your Mac, buy two PCs, and learn how overpriced Macs are at the same time.)

So, press F5. For God’s sake, press F5!




Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 4: Mark Goldie

This is my fourth and final post about teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate.

Mark Goldie taught me just once, for a supervision on Hobbes, but had a lasting impact – not because he inspired me to study Hobbes (my love for Hobbes came later) but because of how he taught me. If I remember rightly, the supervision itself lasted 90 minutes rather than an hour, and Goldie pushed me hard on my understanding of Hobbes. But what had most effect on me was his astonishingly detailed and constructively critical comments on my essay. He read the essay with great care, and then wrote pencil numbers in the margins and typed out a comment for each number.

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students

Mark Goldie, with the first six volumes of his feedback to students.

This was the only time in four years of my undergraduate education that anyone commented in detail both on the substance of my argument and also on how I wrote the essay itself. I clearly took Goldie’s comments seriously: my notes contain responses in four different pens, implying that I probably read through his comments four times.

You can see Goldie’s feedback below. Some comments are very blunt, and he has since told me that he wouldn’t have done this unless he thought I would respond appropriately. And of course, the comments were also explained in the one-on-one supervision process.











When I started teaching, I used Goldie’s approach for feedback. Alas, I have sometimes given blunter feedback, and have not been as sensitive as Goldie to how different students would respond. I’m still learning about teaching!

Goldie didn’t entirely stop my quirky, bizarre essays: that got kicked out of me in Oxford by Adam Swift, Mark Philp, Clive Payne and Anthony Heath (the last of whom told me to remove all adjectives from my writing!). But Goldie started me on the right track. My undergraduate teaching wasn’t nearly as good as what our students get at KCL – Cambridge basically taught me to teach myself, which is not a bad education I suppose – but Goldie was a shining exception to the norm. Thank you Mark Goldie!

You can read the other three posts in this series here (Stefan Collini), here (Stuart Corbridge) and here (Quentin Skinner).

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!

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 3: Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner was, and is, one of my intellectual heroes. He was, and is, the most vital speaker I have heard. He has an energy that makes the ideas and the people come alive. His written words have a similar effect. But it was as a lecturer that he inspired me; indeed, I didn’t read much that he wrote until I was a graduate student.

I owe Skinner a particular debt because he inspired me at a time when I was already losing my new-found love of history of political thought. I had just switched subjects, to study politics. My holiday reading list included Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics, which I found about as inspiring as A Short History of Essex, and John Dunn’s Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, which has to be about the worst introduction to political theory that undergraduates have ever been encouraged to read. (It’s not that it’s bad: it’s not bad, actually. But it’s not that good, in my opinion, and it’s not well written, in anyone’s opinion, and I don’t think that it teaches you much about what political theory is or how to do it.)

Nor was I very inspired by most of the lectures I then sat through (and often, slept through), or the teaching I had for my Plato to Locke course. Then Skinner’s lectures started. He seemed to be one of the few History lecturers who put effort into his lectures. Some of his colleagues spent 8 or 16 lectures meandering through a book they had written, but Skinner knew what he wanted to say, his lectures had energy and direction, and the intellectual content was superb.

Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner

Skinner is equally well known for his methodological writings; much of my own ongoing methodological work involves supplementing and amending Skinner’s. But strikingly, his lectures were largely implicit about method. I think all he said, too modestly, was that there was a historical style of analysing political texts with which his name was associated.

Nonetheless, his method influenced me significantly: I simply imbibed this approach to history of political thought from his lectures and those of his colleagues.

I’ve never really understood the bile that some people have for Skinner, and I believe I have good intellectual reasons for defending him; but I am well aware that I am emotionally biased, because like many people, Quentin Skinner inspired me to do what I now do.

Here’s an hour-long lecture of Skinner on Machiavelli’s Prince. Enjoy!

Stop, start, continue: getting feedback before a course finishes

Here’s a way of getting useful feedback on a course before formal feedback forms are circulated in the final week of term. I normally do this about halfway through a term.

I got this tip from my colleague Cathy Elliott. The approach is widely used in business/management circles. I’ve adapted it for a seminar context, but it can easily be done in different ways, e.g. electronically.

  1. Circulate three pieces of paper, one marked ‘Stop’, one marked ‘Start’, one marked ‘Continue’. The sheet marked ‘Stop’ is for students to write down things about the course which they would like to stop or have changed. The sheet marked ‘Start’ is for things that they want which aren’t currently being done. And the sheet marked ‘Continue’ is for things which they like and want to continue. Obviously, these categories are not perfect, but they work pretty well.
  2. Ask students to put a tick beside previous suggestions if they agree with them, and a cross if they don’t (or nothing if they don’t have an opinion). This will give you a sense of the number of students who feel a certain way – otherwise, you just get a list of suggestions with no idea about how many people agree or disagree.
  3. Don’t start all of the sheets in the same place: this slows things down.
  4. The sheets should go round at least twice, to make sure that people who wrote on them at the start have a chance to put a tick or a cross beside later suggestions.
  5. This takes up to ten minutes, depending on the size of the group. I start the actual seminar after about five minutes,and let the sheets continue to circulate for the first few minutes of the actual seminar discussion. It’s not ideal, but otherwise I feel one loses too much of a 50-minute seminar.

Here’s an example from a second-year undergraduate course in research design (click to enlarge):

Start feedback sheet

The second point, which is hard to read on the above scan, says not pushing people to participate – some just have nothing to say 🙂 . A fair point! Interestingly, the above students disagreed on what kind of group interaction they wanted, but appeared to agree that the format I was using wasn’t right. All of the students found it hard to digest one method we covered on the course: process-tracing.

This kind of feedback helps me to improve things before it’s too late. Sometimes, if I disagree about a proposed change, or if nothing can be done, I can explain why. But any kind of interim feedback session shows students that one cares about their views.

Simon Usherwood of Surrey University uses a similar approach, using PostIt notes. I might try Simon’s version of this method too in the future, to see if it works better or worse for me.

Does anyone else have useful tips on getting feedback partway through a course?

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 2: Stuart Corbridge

Stuart Corbridge is now a silver-haired Professor of International Development at the LSE (below left), but I still think of him as an intense, clench-fisted firebrand (below right) whose style I tried and failed to emulate when I started lecturing. (It took me a while to find a style I’m comfortable with – more relaxed, more humourous, not so stern.)


I still remember Corbridge’s presence, the inspiring way he lectured. I don’t remember him influencing my ideas as much. He did, I think, try to warn me away from methodological individualism, by linking it to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ comment. I loathed Thatcher and felt less keen on methodological individualism for a while. Eventually, though, I saw that I could accept methodological individualism without endorsing Thatcher.

Ultimately, Corbridge’s main influence on me was as a role model. Some young men wanted to be James Bond; I wanted to be Stuart Corbridge. And now I am, except with more jokes, less fist-clenching, and no such thing as society.

Impostor phenomenon

I ran a session for PhD students yesterday on ‘Impostor Phenonemon’.

  • Do you suspect that you got where you are by luck or by fooling people?
  • Do you feel that you don’t deserve your success?
  • Are you worried that you will be uncovered as a fraud?

These feelings are very common. They are more common in women than men, but they flourish in academia – for both women and men.

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

Curiously, the only one who secretly feels like an impostor is the woman in the middle

There’s a test you can take to see how much of an impostor you feel. The test is not very good. For example, question 10 (‘It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments’) also tests how British you are. And the scale for answers is odd: points 2 to 4 on the five-point scale are about frequency (‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’) while points 1 and 5 are about truth (‘not at all true’, ‘very true’).

Still, the figures are in the right ballpark, at least for me. I got 61 yesterday, but I think I would have got 78 during and soon after my PhD. Both results fall short of full impostor phenomenon (80 and above): I would answer ‘no’ to the three questions at the top of this thread.

Nonetheless, I used to worry that my work was very obvious and that anyone could have done it if they wanted. When I said this to my mentor, he said:

90% of academics worry that they are charlatans and the other 10% are.

Those numbers are wrong: there are academics who don’t worry that they are charlatans and certainly aren’t. But it was good to hear that other people have the same fear. Indeed, yesterday’s session on Impostor Phenomenon was partly about showing PhD students that these feelings are normal, they are common, there is no need to suffer in silence, and there are ways forward.

Here are a few tips we found in yesterday’s session. (Please add your own in the Comments section!)

  • If you’re worried about whether your work is good enough, ask for more feedback: maybe your supervisors just haven’t told you. Of course, maybe your work isn’t yet good enough – as with many PhD students! That’s common, and fixable.
  • It’s normal to spend time on something that turns out to be a dead-end. We don’t always know that in advance. Don’t blame yourself for ‘wasting’ this time. But do talk with your supervisors if you are worried that you might be going down a dead-end.
  • We can feel inadequate if we constantly compare ourselves to the best.
  • Get a support network of other PhD students; use social media to find them if needs be.
  • Feeling like a charlatan/impostor is not purely psychological: it can depend on your context, which you can change.

And there are other things you can do to mitigate feelings of being a charlatan/impostor.

Importantly, these feelings can actually be fruitful. Some academics think they’re great when they’re not; your self-doubt can push you to do better. Some academics don’t like having their work criticised and may never hear the suggestions that lead to better work. It’s good to be nervous that people may spot problems with your ideas: it means you don’t already assume that your ideas are right.

I don’t think we usually give enough guidance on what it feels like to do a PhD. I’ve looked at six books on ‘how to do a PhD’, and it’s striking that only two of them say much about the psychology of doing a PhD: Harriet Churchill and Teela Sanders, Getting Your PhD, and to a lesser extent Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh, How To Get a PhD (5th edition). (The best book for the thesis itself remains, in my view, Patrick Dunleavy, Authoring a PhD.)

And finally, it’s worth stressing that these feelings are often most intense among undergraduate students who feel out of depth at university. But I’ll discuss that another time.

Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 1: Stefan Collini

I was lucky to have been inspired by some brilliant lecturers and tutors as an undergraduate. This blog gives me the chance to thank them publicly. I have also thanked some of them in person, but since I left Cambridge I have not had the chance to thank Stefan Collini, who gave me the single best lecture I received as an undergraduate, on J.S. Mill. It was a superb combination of telescope and microscope. I have tried, and failed, to do the same with my own lectures on Mill since then.

Here’s a six-minute video of Collini explaining why the arts and humanities matters. (Click here if the video doesn’t work.) It’s typically concise and incisive. I don’t agree with everything he says, but that is a matter for another time. For now, I’m just happy to remember lectures which were well-prepared, clear, thoughtful, rigorous, and stimulating.