Thursday, 19 November 2015

International Men’s Day

This post falls very much into the category of “things I am not an expert in”. So I tread somewhat wearily. The post reflects on the Athena SWAN process and it is inspired by my colleague Paul Cairney who wrote this excellent post reflecting on the process too.

So, today is International Men’s Day, which just loosely frames this post. And now to immediately go off on a slight tangent, my colleagues Vikki McCall, Jane Smithson and I are leading on an Athena SWAN application. Athena SWAN emerged from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines as a process to encourage women into these subject and once they were in, to progress to the highest levels on a par with their male colleagues. This recognised the long-standing issue that far more men than women enter these subjects and women tended to drop out before reaching Professorial level. If you don’t think this should be an issue, I shall point you in the direction of new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s comments on gender equality.

The ECU have broadened Athena SWAN to cover the ASSHBL (Arts, Social Science, Humanities, Business and Law [I prefer SSHABL myself]) subjects. This makes perfect sense to me – the world’s population is 51% women and 49% men, if we’re going to increase women’s representation in STEM to 51% we need to (possibly) increase men’s representation to 49% in the ASSHBL subjects.

Now, I’m not saying the social sciences are not sexist. I have heard many horribly stories of everyday sexism from women colleagues in the social sciences; I have seen horrifically sexist behaviour in seminar or conferences; I have seen the massive differential expectations on men and women academics in the social sciences; and I have blogged about the awful macho working hours culture that pervades the social sciences as much as any other area of academe. 

But – and here is where it gets tricky – one of the main challenges we have found in evidence gathering for our Athena SWAN plan is what I refer to as the “feminisation” of our subjects: sociology, social policy, criminology, social work and education, particularly at an undergraduate level. The term “feminisation” I’ve borrowed from colleagues in Biology where it is used to describe how their subject, fairly rapidly, changed from being one men would do to being one women would do. It seems to us that when people are choosing what subjects to study at university, they look at us and think "that's a woman's degree subject".

If we look nationally, 60% of graduates from Scottish universities are now women. Whereas around three-quarters of the students on our programmes are women. This is a particular problem in programmes like Primary Education and Social Work because in broader workforce terms there are long-standing recognised issues with a lack of men in these professions. Even more concerning for us, is that there is some evidence (with a million-and-one caveats attached to it) that these men might not do as well as the women on our programmes – again this reflects broader societal changes.

The question is, what can we do about this? It seems talking about it has been a brilliant start actually – there’s been really useful input from colleagues over the past few months as we’ve been discussing these issues. One of the better Tweets about International Men’s Day I saw was this one which links to broader debates about the “crisis of masculinity”. One of our own undergraduates, off their own back, responded to our data by asking what the gender breakdown of students accessing student support services was – it was overwhelmingly women. As touched on in those stats on men’s mental health and suicide, I ruminated whether we’re in this situation:

Little girls are taught at school to be super-bright, work really hard and always ask for help. Little boys are taught at school to be boisterous and self-reliant, and if they have a problem it’s their own. There might not even be a male role-model around for them to ask for help from. At university this means women get incredibly stressed and anxious about assessment, but then ask for help and support and ultimately do very well. Men, meanwhile, sit back and do nothing and just go with the flow.

There is also the role of assessment methods in here, although a quick search for this journal for the term “gender” didn’t inspire me with confidence that I’d find answers. So, there’s more research and work for my colleagues and I to get at here. But, if you can suggest things to help us on our way, I would welcome any comments.

I am to be an assessor for a number of Athena SWAN submissions from ASSHBL departments in the New Year and I'll be really interested to see how they tackle their issue, but also how they tackle the issue I tentatively mentioned above: I think in the ASSHBL subjects, and particularly social science, men very easily presume that because they're left-liberal and feminist they are not sexist, and there is not a greater reflection on culture and behaviour. If Athena SWAN is going to make an impact in the ASSHBL subjects then, as my colleague Prof. Cairney highlights, we will need buy-in from all academic staff and also probably greater culture change than seen in the STEM subjects. 

/edit: if you want to read something much better about International Men's Day, read First Dog on the Moon's amazing cartoon here.

Friday, 13 November 2015

I did a social media bad

Today was my essay deadline day for my large undergraduate module – 296 essays flowing into Turnitin. In the run-up I was getting the usual emails that can drive you up the wall – this PhD comics. This year, for the first time, I received three emails asking “was there a minimum word limit?”; the final one also stated that “people were asking about it on Facebook”. This frustrated and angered me and I did my first stupid thing which was to send a very angry Announcement to all the students on the VLE. My second stupid thing was to tweet a screenshot of the announcement.

It quickly garnered favorites and retweets and clearly resonated with a number of academics who follow me who want to do the best for their students but get frustrated when it appears students are not applying themselves. At the time of writing it got 13 retweets and 26 favorites. I also foolishly checked YikYak on campus; more of that later. And, I’ll be honest, as with all social media, the social confirmation of those RTs and favs felt good.

However, I awoke to an email from one of the students complaining that the announcement had led them to be publicly embarrassed on the Facebook page. They then emailed in reply to my apology pointing out I had also mocked them by tweeting about it. In both respects, they were largely right. What is frustrating, is from my own research, I should have known they were right before I did all this.

Nancy Baym and danah boyd talk about the idea of socially mediated publicness – that is that new technologies have given us myriad new ways to be “public” and in doing so we have to actually socially mediate this. While you might post something publicly on Twitter, you may not actually consider it to be “public” as you doubt it will go further than your immediate smaller number of followers. If you are more public, this mediation gets trickier.

I should have been aware of this in two ways. Firstly, I should have considered that the original Facebook comment from the student was public and I had not seen it – therefore they could be publicly identified. Secondly, I should have considered the wider public audience of my tweet and how individual students concerned would link this public shaming to their own behaviour. I agree with those who consider tweeting the “hilarious” mistakes students make in their essays as inappropriate and unethical. In this case I was unprofessional in my actions.

There’s a broader point here as well, that I think we need to reflect on as a profession – I know the tweets linking to the blog-post will get far less attention than the tweet that is the subject of this post. Why is this? Why do we always think it’s good to be frustrated and angry with students? Why can’t we focus more on the good and the positive about teaching students – I had some amazing discussions with students this semester about their attainment. I should have publicly shared this, not one minor, negative moment.

So, if you’ve got this far, please go and read my other, more positive, posts on teaching.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Professor Stefan Grimm is not our martyr

I’m a member of the somewhat infamous “crit-geog” JISC academic mailing list. I remain a member primarily for comedy value. It's infamous because over a year it basically does this:
  • Endless CFPs for AAG and RGS-IBG panels, endlessly repeated because “the panel is so popular” with numerous apologies for cross-posting.
  • People asking for journal articles.
  • The responding endless debate about whether this is an abuse of the list, the rights and wrongs of open access publication and the nature of the academic publishing industry.
  • Then a swarm of people asking to be removed from the list (not realising you have to do this yourself as it has no admins).
  • And a good dose of “death of academia”/”woe is me” moaning.

Now, regular readers will know how much I enjoy the latter.

In the latest batch of such navel-gazing someone brought up the horrible case of Professor Stefan Grimm – a lecturer at Imperial College who committed suicide. The email said something like “And it’s literally publish or perish” and then a link to an article about his death.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the tragic death of Prof. Grimm used in this way and as someone who has experienced mental illness I find it deeply troubling. Effectively, this tragic incident is used to argue that some management and audit exercises in modern universities are driving people to their deaths. Effectively, Prof. Grimm is being used as a martyr for attacks by academics on "management" or "administration".

I find it deeply troubling for two reasons. Firstly, using Prof. Grimm's suicide in this way – and indeed most of the reporting (including details of the email he sent to colleagues) – is contrary to advice provided by The Samaritans on how to publicly discuss suicide. I would advise readers to note point 3 of this guidance – avoid “over-simplification”:
“Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.”
[emphasis in the original guidance online]

We cannot ever know what was going on in Prof. Grimm’s head when he tragically took his own life and we should not pretend we do.

Secondly, there is a touch of hypocrisy too this. Many of the people who make use of Prof. Grimm’s suicide in this way will happily vilify Britain First at the drop of a hat when they use the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby to stir up racial hatred. Now, I am in no way justifying what Britain First do. But if we are going to criticise them for using this death as a martyrdom to the emotional hurt of his family, then we should be much more careful what we do ourselves.

So, I implore you. Think of poor Prof. Grimm’s family, friends and colleagues who will still be dealing with grief the next time you use his tragic death to vilify the fact you failed to get a grant, or you’re irked you have to publish four journal articles for the REF. And, please note why The Samaritans have their guidelines – it is to prevent further suicides:
“Remember that there is a risk of copycat behaviour due to ‘over-identification’.”
[emphasis in original]

We should not be even contemplating suicide as a way to escape the pressures of a working environment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Futures of Social Policy

Playing around with teaching, last year I delivered a lecture without PowerPoint, with an actual written lecture on 'Futures of Social Policy'. I made the essay available to my students and also on here.

The feedback on the lack of PowerPoint was interesting - the students who commented said it made them concentrate more in the lecture, but it wasn't very good when they were revising from the recorded lecture on Listen Again(st). The students used the slides as bookmarks in the video to get to exactly the point they wanted to listen to again. I had no idea students even used Listen Again(st) in this way - I thought they just used it when they'd slept-in until 4pm and missed the lecture. So that was useful to know.

Anyway, I've done the same again this year - download it and have a look yourself here. It's not journal-submission quality; it's like a #longread blog post really where I pontificate on where we are and what we might be doing. A big shout out to Peter Taylor-Goodby who's excellent paper on the welfare state heavily inspired this lecture, as you'll see. His paper is part of the illustrious company our own paper on Bourdieu and the Big Society keeps in the latest Policy and Politics.

I'm also making this lecture a wee bit whizz-bang with some PowerPoint idiocy. You can vote on whether I should broadcast it on Periscope via this tweet.

If you like this, then I'm thinking of making SPCU913 an online module over the next two years with most of the material delivered through a WordPress site. So you too can learn my somewhat idiosyncratic take on social policy.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The lecture to go with the feedback

On Friday I posted an incredibly moving account from a student's feedback on my lecture of how they experienced poverty and how my lecture resonated with them. Well thanks to the wonders of modern technology, here's the lecture itself. I think it's the point from 40 minutes onwards when I end up shouting at how shameful our track record on poverty is that particularly resonates with students:

I don't think I do that much in the lecture - all I do is explain the income definition of poverty and then draw on some of the statistics. I end up making the point that the reality of poverty is humiliation, shame and hardship because that's what the evidence shows. I get emotive about it because it would require rather minimal levels of targeted investment in our economy to tackle the problem. 

Also, a BIG thank you should go to my former colleague Kirsten Besemer who did a poverty lecture for me at Heriot-Watt and was so good I borrowed her first slide and a lot of the structure of this lecture from her. Thank YOU Kirsten.

We can raise every household's income to two-thirds median. We choose not to.

(P.S. Frank Field's lawyers - I'm only joking...)

Friday, 16 October 2015

The best student feedback I've ever had

"I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your lecture today; it was amazing to see someone passionate about this topic.

In the last year and a bit, no one has put so much passion into a lecture/seminar/lab about poverty like you have today.

At the age of 4, my parents divorced and I became homeless. My mum struggled to pull money together for us, and for a while it was rough. We finally started to get into a more comfortable situation, but I'll never forget the way she worked for us, the amount of hardship she had to go through, the embarrassment she felt every day. I'll never forget how the care and love she gave us and how she wished she could give us more in life but couldn't because of our situation. My mum is my rock and she has put in so much love and care into my upbringing (which is hard to do with three children all under 4 who are homeless).

Things started to get better for us, but it fell apart a few years ago. We're currently classed as homeless again, and we are in temporary accommodation. My mum struggles to pay electricity bills and gas for heat.

Your lecture really hit a close place in my heart today because, after many lectures around this topic, you're the first to hit the nail on the head. Other lecturers just give facts and figures, or cast blame to parents. They make it sound like people in poverty are all walking around in ratty clothes, who are neglected and unloved, who go through so much pain in their lives and will never fight out of it. But today you showed that that's not the case.

My mum struggles with things most consider a luxury; people take granted they have heat and electricity. But many nights in my childhood we didn't have either - we'd go to bed curled up next to her for warmth and security when we didn't know what was going to happen to us.

My mum is an amazing human being, and you were a 100% right when you said that most lone parents dote on their children. My mum would give up her dinner to feed us, most nights we'd have boiled rice and gravy for dinner because it's all she could afford.

I just wanted to thank you for being so passionate about it, and for finally being the first to see it for what it is. For not clouding over details and making it sounds like either a worse case than it is or sweeping it under the rug. Whenever we've spoken about it before we mention how it's a taboo thing and we don't go into much detail. But today I had to hold back a clap because for once someone, someone outside our family, knows what we're going through. They understand what we've faced and how despite it we still had an amazing childhood. My mum struggled but she never let us see it. She always made a game out of it or would make it fun for us. We never knew we were struggling, and we never went unloved. She often would say "I wish I could give you more" and when we were older "I'm sorry I couldn't give you nearly as much as I wanted". But the way I see it she gave us more. She gave us unconditional love and she has helped us become the people we are today. We know the value of money now and we are a strong family unit. Yes, we're back in the same situation again, but we've done it before and came out strong, we can do it again.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know how much I valued your lecture today and how grateful I am you understand the situations of families out there, and don't sugar coat it or sweep it aside. You nearly had me in tears and screaming "FINALLY someone gets it!"

Thank you so so much for today's lecture, it was interesting to see someone else understanding poverty the way those who go through it do. I really enjoyed hearing you speak today."

Why Gideon Osborne is a genius

When Gideon Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer back in 2010 I thought the coalition were being stupid. Vince Cable had shone through in the general election campaign as being a sensible thinker on fiscal policy – don’t cut for ideological reasons, and invest to maintain growth. As far as I was concerned, Gideon was a posh, out-of-touch idiot who knew nothing about economics. The “Pasty Tax” seemed to be typical.

But since May I’ve come to realise Gideon is an incredibly intelligent politician. I shall use two examples: austerity and the fiscal charter (with the resulting political fun on Monday/Tuesday) and the austerity discourse; and the devolution of taxation powers to Scotland.


Now, Gideon is an austerity chancellor. He has cut public expenditure enormously, although I was interested to note a fortnight ago that Dennis Healey’s cuts in 1976 were greater. As I ruminated with Alex Marsh on teh Twitterz, we are seeing the results of this in the fraying civility of our urban landscapes – the vandalism left unrepaired, waste not collected or swept. And as Julian Le Grand showed in the 1980s, as this is a Tory government elected by people who use schools and hospitals, the cuts are mainly on services Labour voters (or non-voters) use: the benefits system and the nice fluffy extra stuff like urban regeneration and community development that local authorities used to be able to afford.

But he has, quite obviously, not cut the deficit. As many economic commentators and people on the left highlight, he spectacularly missed his own spending targets and has borrowed a quite staggering amount and continues to do so. This borrowing is paying for tax cuts for the rich – cutting the top rate of tax and inheritance tax. But as this excellent blog post highlights, these are just the sort of tax cuts floating voters like as they aspire to be higher-rate taxpayers and think they’ll die with a house worth a £1 million because they “work hard and do the right thing” (to quoth Gideon).

So, I want to suggest that “tackling the deficit” and “austerity” have become entirely symbolic. To throw myself into French post-structuralism, they are now empty signifiers. We all laughed at the “long term economic plan” nervous tick the Tories had during the election campaign, but over the many weeks it stuck like an earworm. If you listen to how David Cameron responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions from the British public at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday, it’s a classic example. The attacks on tax credits were very powerful, but the response was “we have a long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working”. It’s a sentence that, literally, has no meaning in reality. But it cannot be argued against.

Using all the powers of rational argument we have, we can fill-in that: the deficit has not been cut; that promising to always run a budget surplus will suck money out of the economy stymieing private enterprise; that tax credits cuts are hitting hard-working families the most. But no one will listen, because all they hear and know about is that the government has “a long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working”. Unfortunately we have to play that game now. Whether Labour supports or doesn't support the Fiscal Charter doesn't matter. Gideon doesn't support the Fiscal Charter, as people have kept pointing out, he pilloried Labour's suggestion to do the same in 2010. But the Fiscal Charter is a "long term economic plan to tackle the deficit and get Britain working". It's symbolic policy can be used over-and-over again. 

Devolved taxation

At the SNP conference today, Finance Secretary John Swinney is announcing that local authorities will be able to reduce Non-Domestic Rates. This is almost exactly the same as the announcement from Gideon at the Conservative Party conference. As my colleague Paul Cairney points out, this is a classic example of the SNP Scottish Government being socially democratic in social policy, and fiscally neoliberal in financial policy.

However, John Swinney has also announced he’s not going to use the new tax-varying powers that the Scottish Parliament has from this year thanks to the Scotland Act 2012. I want to hark right back though, to the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax. Now, under the 2012 Scotland Act the Scottish Parliament had Stamp Duty devolved to it. The Scottish Government pointed out that the flat rate on transactions over £250,000 was stupid and regressive. They worked out a revenue-neutral, banded scheme instead. The Scottish Conservative in the Parliament realised that this would hammer home owners in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow who fell into the properties over £125,000 band who would suddenly have to pay.

Now, I’d be interested to know how much exchange went on between the Scottish Conservative and Gideon at the Treasury on this. Basically, five months after the LBTT was announced, Gideon announced he was reforming Stamp Duty to make it more progressive and banded, but that it would kick in at a higher level and overall it would reduce the amount of money raised by the tax. John Swinney was then forced to quickly change the LBTT bands to match the English ones, leaving a £50 million hole in the Scottish Government’s finances.

Now, why do I think this is an example of Gideon’s political acumen? Well, basically, it looks like with this, and the Non-Domestic Rates policies, Gideon is forcing the Scottish Government to match the UK’s taxation policies. Much as it might proclaim a distaste for austerity and a desire to increase public expenditure, ultimately the Scottish Government seems to end up being boxed into a corner. It will be interesting to see if Gideon reduces the basic rate of Income Tax to 19% and whether the Scottish Government would then follow.

There’s also a lot of political acumen from the Scottish Government here. At the moment they have the get-out-of-jail free card that a lot of these tax powers are unusable because the increased revenue is offset by decreased block grant. But, if the Scottish Government did ever start using them to lead to fiscal divergence from England, and it did result in economic success and increased revenues and better public services, then they would walk into the anti-independence argument of “well, it’s working ok for you now, why do you need any more powers?”

So, I utterly loathe Gideon. But over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to realise what a political genius he is. I should also add, the Non-Domestic Rates thing is particularly clever as everyone is clueless as it’s such as esoteric tax. It sounds brilliant, but it is horrendous for local authorities and will massively increase (listening to the leader of Nottingham Council utterly fail to explain this fairly simple fact on BBC PM). I really hope Gideon isn’t the next Conservative leader, because then we have definitely got a Tory government until 2025. That is, unless the long memories of those middling voters who have been hammered by the cuts to tax credits do come to haunt him.