Friday, 18 December 2015


I first heard of YikYak earlier in the year when a doctoral researcher I was doing a project on social media use mentioned it as the “thing the kool kidz are using now”. At the end of the summer Dr Nick Pearce at Durham blogged about “YikYak Lecturer” or YYL at Durham who had been using it to provide assistance to students during the exam resit season.

So, I installed the app on my phone being fairly clueless about it, I didn’t even realise it was anonymous. And my first thought when I saw that it was, was “oh God this is going to be an utter car crash”. For the first couple of weeks I was dipping into it, it was a bit of a messy look into the world of the undergraduate (this was a week before semester started, and a week after it started). There were some lovely messages about how excited people were to be coming back to uni and their mates. An awful lot of young men were discussing their onanist habits in graphic detail; an awful lot of young women were moaning that they couldn’t get a boyfriend. When I described this latter situation to friends whose only experience of university was as a student, they pointed out that the two groups could solve their mutual problems with the liberal application of alcohol.

I just dip into YikYak when I’m waiting for my train home. But as semester has rumbled on it’s actually generally impressed me as a self-policing community. The horror stories from the US don’t seem to be happen. Unpleasant Yaks get downvoted (and then disappear) or have rather wonderfully barbed comments on them fairly swiftly. I’ve definitely not seen anything that would overly concern me given some of the issues on campus. I’ve posted some anonymous comments as well – such as suggesting students should see their personal tutors about problems. I’ve also picked up an inconsistency in the University in the way different schools interpret a particular attendance regulation which we would’ve remained blissfully unaware of.

I also posted some Yaks directed at my students asking if they wanted specific help. To varying degrees of success. I managed this short exchange based on one:

And my second attempt got ten votes and ended up with a score of -4. I think the anonymity of YikYak does actually help here, and as Pat Lockley suggested in a comment on a draft of this post, something we should explore doing more using ed-tech. Students will always think their question is a “stupid question” no matter how much we tell them it isn’t. Anonymity allows that hurdle to be jumped.

My most interesting foray was when I’d delivered a brand new lecture on my module this semester. I ran out of time, and the content and delivery seemed to fall flat. I don’t even think I managed to deliver the learning outcomes I was attempting to. Suffice it to say, I left the lecture theatre feeling a bit shit. So I Yakked about it. And the response was quite staggering really. I ended up “famous”:

It really was the peer-support of a student community at its best. It cheered me up no end at the end of the day.

However, I had a couple of trickier moments. As I mentioned before on here, I shouldn’t have looked at YikYak after sending that announcement to my students. One thing I definitely should not have done is check YikYak on the day of my own module exam. I tried reassuring a few students who were clearly getting anxious, but in the end it just made me incredibly nervous that my whole exam was going to go wrong with students leaving the exam hall in floods of tears. Although, again, the anonymity shone through, with a number of students apologising in advance that they might let me down, which was very sweet, and something they were very unlikely to do to my face. I really hope they feel that they haven’t when the marks are released in January.

A more tricky moment came with Yaks regarding a colleague’s classes. The students named the colleague in their Yaks and it always seemed to happen when I had the app open. Basically, as a group of 18-19-year-olds would do, they had realised how to get a rise out of the colleague and were organising on YikYak to do things in classes. It was nothing really severe, and in my judgement (a point I return to below) it definitely did not amount of bullying or harassment. However, given knowledge of YikYak among everyone apart from students seems to be zero, I thought I should probably do something. In the end I emailed the colleague’s Director of Teaching and Learning describing what was happening and left it at that.

So, I don’t think YikYak is going to revolutionise either the world, or the delivery of higher education, but it is definitely an interesting world into which to dip your toe. My main reflection is, with the anonymity, I found myself thinking this is the students’ space, I do not belong here and should not be here (how I feel when I find myself in the Students’ Union) and also thinking about my online identity a lot – how much do I reveal. Could I give myself away in the way I interact? Should I give myself away? You can see that in my discussion with paw in the exchange above.

Yet, YikYak mainly garners negative press, along with similar apps like Yeti. It probably is time to “check my privilege” here as a young, white man, as advised here. The “joking” about the lecturer I mention above wasn’t about me. I might have been able to laugh it off. I might have been able to reflect and think “well, maybe I shouldn’t have done X as I probably would have done the same in the same circumstances.” But the typical Yak where I featured was this:

(and I had to upvote that one. It would have been rude not to). The worst I ever got was in one of the exam day exchanges a student said “your module was shite anyway mate” which I could just shrug off as disgruntlement.

But I have the cultural capital to manage such online spaces well and also the privilege to, largely, be afforded respect in such online spaces. I’m not entirely sure banning such apps and social media is the answer to the problems they have amplified. We need to tackle many of the problems – misogyny, racism, homophobia etc. – at source not necessarily attack the software. We also need to continue to develop our new ethics of online behaviour.

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. 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Archers in fact and fiction

Call for Papers

The Archers in fact and fiction: Academic analyses of life in rural Borsetshire

Cara Courage, University of Brighton, Nicola Headlam, University of Liverpool and Peter Matthews University of Stirling invite the submission of abstracts to a seminar to take place on 17th February 2016 at University of Liverpool in London, Finsbury Square.

The seminar intends to take an academic perspective on life in Ambridge and Borsetshire, with papers from across academic disciplines. Papers might include:
  • A historical analysis of rural Britain as heard through Archers’ storylines
  • A cultural analysis of Archers’ fandom
  • A sociological analysis of class dynamics in rural Britain through the lives of Archers’
  • characters
  • A hydrology of the Am valley following the recent flooding events
  • Elderly care provision in the rural setting
  • Participatory and strategic planning in rural areas
  • Rural and village economics, from the village store to agribusiness
  • The statistical probability of no Ambridge residents listening to radio 4 at 2:00pm or 7:00pm

This list is not meant to be exclusive or exhaustive, but is meant to inspire you to think how your academic research can illuminate and explain life for the Archers and Ambridge. The day is intended to give academic fans of The Archers a platform to exercise their love of the programme and their subject area.

If you are a fellow Archers fan and academic please submit your abstract of 200 words to, and by 16th November 2015.

Friday, 25 September 2015

I love admin staff, all of you

One of the tropes of my favourite genre, the Death of theUniversity, is that the global multiversity is overwhelmed with “administrative”staff. Spurious statistics about massive increases in the amount university’s spend on “admin” are banded about. The people involved are characterised as monsters, intent on destroying academic freedom. The most recent of these was an attack on marketing from a physicist who had once done a marketing module at undergraduate level. Personally I feel fully skilled to comment on quantum physics from my B at GCSE A level, watching a few episodes of something by Prof. Brian Cox, and a quick flick through Nature.

There is no doubt some truth in some of these frustrations, but their unquestioned acceptance by many irritates me for three reasons. Firstly, I am a critical policy scholar, but in my work I would never criticise an individual or even a group of individuals for doing their job – they know not what they do (although I’m just about to start reading Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, so that may change). I will criticise the job they’re doing, and I will criticise the organisational practices and wider social structures that cause them to end up doing what they’re doing, but I won’t criticise them. It’s grossly unfair.

The second reason is I’m of the centre-left and in my trade union. Most of these staff are also in my trade union, or trade unions that closely work with my own. Attacking these staff is an attack on solidarity – the very thing we don’t want to attack. Much of the support for these vindictive statements treats them as hilarious cutting satire. Well I’m sorry, but I don’t think people doing fairly shitty jobs should be the subject of satire from the people who work with them.

Lastly, I dislike these attacks because in my broad experience administrative and professional support staff are wonderful. So I want to write a love letter to all the professional support staff who have helped me.

I love you student office staff, who tirelessly answer all the banal and quite frankly stupid questions from students that don’t hit my inbox; who deal with the ever-increasing pressures from us teaching staff as we struggle to meet the expectations of students; and that through your tireless hard work now know more about the University regulations that anyone else in the institution and stop us getting sued.

I love you research office staff, who without batting an eyelid, or letting me know that you want to kill me, will happily provide all that help that I needed a week ago, but just couldn’t manage to get around to because me and my colleagues are just too disorganised; you who can crack a laugh when you’re manning the registration desk at a conference when there’s a million better things for you to do.

I love you information services staff, who step in and upload my papers to the repository when I fail to do it every time, and get the books my students need with barely a fortnight’s notice because I left it too late to complete the syllabus. The library is a truly wonderful place, I just wish my students would use your resources more.

I love you equalities and disability staff; your emails asking for a syllabus a month before I’ve even thought about it irritate the f*ck out of me, but because of you people who even a decade ago would never have gone to university are sat in my classroom, engaging in teaching and learning and adding something new to the institution. Your incisive analysis of working environments and cultures helps me realise what’s happening around me. By working all the hours God sends, you vainly try and make it so not everyone has to work like this.

I love you research office managers, who surveys the field, knowing the bear pits that lie out there, and has the strategic adeptness to steer this ship of the university on a vaguely correct path; you know we’re pissed off at the world of research and the pressures we’re under; you know you have to make us look good in the REF and all sorts of global rankings. Writing those emails at 9pm on a Saturday night, you try your best to bring in the best, and deal with the worst.

I love you marketing managers, who can tell me how a 20-year-old in Shanghai views my institution and whether we should bother targeting rUK students in recruitment; your tireless efforts keep my classrooms full and diverse. I was befuddled when you removed the line from the university logo and changed the font, but when I look at my old slides I see why you did this.

And, yes, I love you vice principals too; you could pay me twice as much as you get and I wouldn’t do the job for the amount of shit you get from all of us. Oh yes, these meetings you chair are dull, but you are at so many more of them than me. I recognise that every other research strategy aims to put the university in the “top decile” and that decile can’t be all-encompassing, but I know you know that too but the strategy might just make the research environment more supportive for you. Your teaching and learning strategy will get howls of rage for its neologisms, but we will continue to educate to the highest possible standards with the best facilities.

I love you all. If people attack you as individuals because of things you have to do for systemic reasons, I will defend you. If academic critics attack “administration” I will ask them to do your job. Without you, this big, complex messy organisation called the university just would not work. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

The social attitudes of my students

Every autumn semester I run a gigantic second year module called SPCU913 Understanding Social Policy. In the first lecture I get them to answer a selection of questions from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. In the second lecture I then compare the class responses to the Scottish data. I'm a bit naughty in that I remove the "don't know" or "neither" categories for my students to force them to answer.

I thought I'd share the data here in these slides. It's always very interesting. My students, by their nature, are incredibly different from the rest of Scotland's population - on average much younger, more affluent and more educated. Yet their social attitudes are incredibly similar. Just like Scotland, they're actually very centrist in their political views - if I were a stats whizz I'd calculate some confidence intervals around the questions on benefits as it does seem my students are marginally more left-wing than the rest of Scotland. But, as I've commented on before, it's remarkable for the political discourse, how right-of-centre some political views are in Scotland, and so are my students. The vast majority of people in Scotland think most benefits are claimed falsely, as do the majority of my students. 

The real divergences really only emerge on touchstone issues, like university tuition fees. For a policy that is so totemic of progressive politics in Scotland, free university tuition has remarkably low support (26% in 2013). Yet among my students, unsurprisingly, 70% are in favour of free university tuition. However, I wonder if this is down to the way the question is asked. I wonder which option would be most popular out of these?

  • Pay fees from a loan and receive a means-tested grant of up to £5,000 a year
  • Pay no fees but receive all your living costs as a loan of up to £9,000 a year
I asked my students these questions on the 18 September last year (2014) and yesterday (17 September) 2015. What I think is most striking is the data on party affiliation. On the day of voting in the Independence Referendum last year support for the SNP among my students was very low, just 26% compared to 40% support for Labour. Yet now the stats have more than reversed, with 59% supporting the SNP and only 19% of Labour. Very clearly, among this demographic, the SNP and the Yes campaign lost the referendum, but in the year since, have won the political argument. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Honest methodology

One of my favourite journal articles is this strip cartoon by Jones and Evans in ACME on creativity and the research process.

In the most recent set of reviewers comments on a paper I’ve been asked to talk more about the methodology. This will involve a lot of fancy-sounding post-hoc rationalisation. I’d like to write an honest methodology, but that would never get published. But I thought it would be fun to do. So, here goes:

Honest methodology

The scope of the review was decided through the following process. The funder hadn’t received any suitable expressions of interest for the first call, so was fishing around for someone to do the work. One of the author’s former supervisor put them in the frame. They figured it would look good on their CV and the funder needed it doing. One of the authors scrabbled together an expression of interest based on vaguely recalled stuff about the topic from their thesis literature review they did six or seven years ago.

The period for the review was chosen because the budget wasn’t very big and X years sounded vaguely enough that the authors would be able to manage the evidence and data within their limited time and budget and it would look half decent. Post-hoc rationalisations for this decision included stuff about the financial crisis, changes in government policy and the useful fact that another major review article was published in ####.

One of the authors searched key terms on Web of Science and got thousands of results and panicked that it was going to be too big a project. After a quick email to the funders they were able to chuck a load of that out as it was decided the project would be more focused. Then the researcher remembered Web of Science wasn’t very good for social science so panicked a bit more and spent the afternoon reference-chasing, sending occasional tweets, and searching specific journals. Even to this day they come across papers and think “bugger, this would’ve been really useful for that project”.  

The research team missed the deadline quite spectacularly because one of them was overwhelmed with teaching and was moving jobs and the other was on sick leave. When they did eventually submit the draft report it then went through endless iterations with the funders where they’d point out really obvious flaws or gaps and then the research team would think “FUCK why didn’t we include that?!” and panic and go away and do some research into it.

Eventually they produced a vaguely convincing narrative on the topic concerned that they were actually quite proud of. 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Predictive social science

If you do an introductory sociology course* you'll at some point bump into the argument about social sciences not being sciences because they can't predict things will happen. This also comes up quite a lot in the evaluation literature, which I occasionally dive into like Tom Daley, as evaluations tend to be bloody useless at predicting what will happen if a policy intervention is rolled-out to a wider population c.f. the endless bloody debates about double-blind randomised controlled trials.

However, I just saw this tweet;
And could proudly say, "we predicted that" - in this paper, I blogged about here. The paper came about from an ESRC seminar series and just some thoughts I had about our previous work on middle-class activism and how this would interact with the new neighbourhood planning system in England.

I don't have anything profound to say about the philosophy of social science and my ability to predict the future. But it does seem to me that social science can predict some things, the question is what things, and what are you predicting. We could never say exactly how many more neighbourhood plans there would be in affluent areas compared to deprived areas, but smashing together some theory, some findings from an evidence review and some statistical analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey, we could roughly say "you'll probably get more neighbourhood plans in these sorts of places because of these reasons..." 

I should also add, I think this does say a lot for the realist school of evaluation from Ray Pawson's work on realist synthesis. It forces you to come up with predictive, useful, rules of thumb for whats works, in what contexts and why. This means we could easily apply the findings of our earlier study to the case of neighbourhood planning. 

In the meantime, PayPal me £20 and I'll predict your lottery numbers for you.

*I wistfully recall my A Level Sociology course and one of my friends proudly stating "a dog could walk off the street and get an A in A Level Sociology" to which another friend replied with "I got a B".

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Community empowerment - optimism?

So, we have a Community Empowerment ACT now in Scotland. And the Scottish Government are very proud of it too, as Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment Marco Biagi writes. They should be proud too. Scotland has a long history of community empowerment. The minister highlights the example of community land buy-outs. I find the example of community-based housing associations more impressive – they are predominantly urban and commonly created by people in quite marginalised, deprived neighbourhoods being supported respectfully.* They’ve also managed to avoid the pitfalls of legislation such as this, such as the Localism Act’s “Right to Challenge” which is actually a right to have your services privatised due to European Union procurement rules.

I’m also quite impressed by the Scottish Government trying to use the engagement in political issues that emerged with last year’s referendum to try and deepen democracy and democratic engagement in Scotland.

However, I have two problems with the Act that means I cannot share the Minister’s optimism (not that I’d expect a Minister to be critical of their own Act, you understand). Firstly, unsurprisingly, given my interests, is the issue of possible injustices. As my colleague Prof. Annette Hastings said in her submission and oral evidence to the committee scrutinising the original bill, without adequate community learning and development support it is going to be the most affluent and able communities that will be able to take most advantage of these provisions – they could widen inequality not challenge it (as argued in this paper which you can download for FREE).

But, if you don’t know that argument you’ve not been paying enough attention to my stellar academic career, or this blog, so I don’t want to over-rehearse it again. I want to suggest another reason why I don’t share the optimism of the Minister. I just don’t think people are that bothered. It should also be noted that the Scottish Government listened to the concerns of people about the risks around equity and changed the Bill substantially.

I often find myself at events about participation, occasionally asked to speak (though Oliver Escobar is quite rightly Scotland’s go-to man on that count at the moment), and whenever I do I ask the other folk if they ever attend their local community council, PTA, neighbourhood partnership/committee etc. etc. Invariably, these people who are imploring Scotland to be more participatory and deliberative don’t attend such events because they’re too busy and not interested. I honestly say, from spending 15 months of doctoral fieldwork going to such meetings (the endless debate about a grant to a local Budgerigar fanciers organisation was a particular highlight – community budgeting is the future) you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to such events.

Even if these organisations were given substantial budgets and power over local service areas, I still wouldn’t be bothered to get involved – I want my local services delivered well without me having to tell the local authority that I’d quite like clean streets, good local schools, and enough activities and youth work to prevent youth anti-social behaviour. Why should I attend a meeting to get good local outcomes if we know how to deliver those outcomes?

And this is where I think the Government have made a bit of an error of identification. I was a presiding officer on 5 May and, it is true that representative democracy has been invigorated in Scotland. Unlike every single other election I’ve worked, I had no time to stop and relax really – there was a constant stream through the doors. In my constituency there was a massive swing to the SNP, but the Labour candidate actually increased his number of votes compared to 2010. Everyone was voting more, because it’s easy.

The sort of participatory democracy the Scottish Government wants to create through the Community Empowerment Act isn’t that easy to get involved with. It requires giving up time and effort. It also involves thinking about issues in a very complex way. I’m a policy scholar – I get paid to think about these things. Most folk don’t.

The Scottish Government are attempting this participatory approach in their new National Conversation on a Fairer Scotland – my colleague Prof Paul Cairney has written well about this. I saw a tweet from the Scottish Government official account the other day:
And I was just thinking, well? Yes? What about these things? Can we have a policy discussion about these? How about evicting older people who are under-occupying massive homes and distorting the housing market? What kind of jobs do we want to create? Those that match the skills of the labour market now, or plan for the future? These are just a handful of the litany of difficult policy questions that spring to mind when you immediately start to think about what a “Fairer Scotland” might be. And heaven forfend that you might suggest some of these debates might cause conflict and rancour and people might disagree! In the New Progressive Scotland we just need to talk more (but not to persuade people, just to listen to them) and hug a bit more. 

Getting mass participatory democracy to discuss such issues is just utopianism, and I say that even though I’ve dabbled in Habermas. For me, Habermas and the political theory of Iris Marion Young are yardsticks, not blueprints.

To be a little bit more critical, I do have to put the ScotCEA into the same category of policies in Scotland that blurring accountability (Paul Cairney again and again). For me, the broader community empowerment agenda has to be seen as part of Cruikshank’s will to empower. Quite often I’ve heard people say that we need participation so people can meet outcomes. I’m sure this is commonly meant in a positive, co-producing way. But I believe it is also about dumping responsibility onto communities – want the council to do something about the closed primary school in your neighbourhood that’s being vandalised and is an eyesore then you should get together and buy it yourself! What? You don’t have enough money? Well, you’re not empowered enough then, are you.

* I used Richard Sennett’s idea of respect in an age of inequality, I used it in my doctoral thesis to argue in favour of a social democratic regeneration policy.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reflections on Teaching Practice - Student-led Learning

Reflections on teaching practice – student-led learning
In a previous post on here I reflected on how different it was going from small(ish) classroom-based teaching at Heriot-Watt to mega-teaching at Stirling. In this post I want to reflect on my experience of something quite the opposite – last semester I dabbled in student-led learning with a module of 14 students who were in their honours years (third and fourth years).

The module was called Governance and Society and it is ordinarily convened by a colleague who was on research leave. I offered to convene it when I started at Stirling to fill a gap and because I felt reasonably comfortable delivering a module on governance. The time spent wrapping up a research project and running my gigantic module in autumn semester meant I’d had very little time to prepare for running the module, but I knew I would do something along the lines of student-led learning as this was a teaching style I was comfortable with and it would meet the learning outcomes.

The teaching style I’d experienced at Heriot-Watt and that I implemented myself there because I realised it worked, used a lot of techniques that are seen as “trendy” and new, such as the flipped classroom, as just good, interesting teaching. Also, on reflection, I realised that the supervision/tutorial system of Oxbridge, that I had such an interesting experience of, is essentially student-led learning to the max.

I ran the module by doing a deal with the students. They chose three topics from a list I had prepared (I said they could chose others if they wanted) and then they would work in groups to deliver teaching materials in the final three weeks of semester for their colleagues. If they produced good quality materials then I would guarantee that they would not fail the exam – I would give them 40% just for writing their name and leaving the room (I did this on the basis that they were likely to get 60%+ on the question for the topic they had researched anyway, so would probably not get under 40% for the whole exam). In the end they accepted the deal and chose: co-production and the governance of public services; the governance challenges of wind farm developments; and Bourdieu, Putnam, social capital and governance.

For the first eight weeks of semester I led the teaching giving students a basic grasp of ideas around governance, such as governance as a descriptive term (i.e. the rise of the network society) and governance as a normative concept (something governments should do instead of governing). I broke this up with a really interesting trip to Stirling Council to hear their Community Planning manager talk about how they do governance and also brought in a colleague who has decades of experience on governing boards and committees, including an NHS board, who spoke about “good governance” and accountability.

I really wanted the students to get a good grasp of theoretical approaches to power within the module. One of the key parts of this was spending an entire two hour class discussing the second edition of Luke’s Power: A Radical View. It was a book I had not read for a long time and wanted to revisit it. Revisiting with the small group of students was a brilliant, enlightening process for all concerned. It is a difficult book, and the second section of the second edition adds a lot of theoretical meat onto the previous discussion and gets into some challenging discussions on the ontology and epistemology of power. Overall, it worked brilliantly – the students stepped up to the mark.

This section of teaching gave the students the basis for their coursework essays. The student-led teaching formed the basis of the exam. I want to focus on the co-production group as they taught me the most about teaching and learning. In the first week all groups took a very formal approach and basically did a 50 minute presentation of their work to date. I gave each group feedback verbally in class and online through the VLE. The following week the co-production group picked up every point I’d made the previous week and answered the comments through their presentation – it was a case of “you say jump, I say how high”. In the feedback to the group I asked them “were they co-producing?” and “how could they co-produce the teaching in the final session”.

In the end they did co-produce the final class by highlighting how student-led teaching was, in effect, co-production and co-producing a discussion about this. Rather wonderfully it started off as a bit of a love-in as to how much they’d enjoyed the module, but it also worked brilliantly in delivering learning. We covered key issues in co-production theory: inequalities, power, professional knowledge and expertise, the opportunities for transformation. It was great stuff.

Ultimately the student attainment was good – not spectacular, but I imagine the small group were more engaged and therefore stretched themselves more than if I had used standard broadcast techniques of teaching. As one of the students said though, they probably put more work into the module than they had in any module in their studies (these were mainly third and fourth years) and they really enjoyed it. They accepted the responsibility for their own teaching and learning. And I got fantastic feedback.

I don’t know if I’d do it again for this sort of module, but I’ll definitely learn lessons from the experience and try and encourage more moments of student-led collaborative learning within my teaching. I’m looking after another module this coming spring semester and am going to start that with a collaborative problem-definition world-cafĂ©, for example. And it’s interesting, it probably didn’t save me that much academic labour, it just shifted a lot of that to a different time – commenting after a class using the VLE, rather than producing PowerPoints before a class. But, overall I’m glad I carried out this little experiment with my wonderful honours students. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Opening up the university

As part of a collaborative effort in collecting writing in the “death of the university” genre, I accessed this interesting reading list on university space layout, crowd-sourced in the old skool social medja of the Critical Geographer’s JISC mailing list.*It includes this report from Loughborough university, which unlike most of the guff in the “death of the university” literature is actually based on evidence, rather than just someone moaning in front of a keyboard (I really like this response to a recent awful Spectator piece on the growth of uni admin). The report included this interesting space-utilisation graph:

At both universities I’ve worked at we’ve had space utilisation studies and I’ve always wondered what the results look like. It’s not a surprise. I’m sat typing this at home, so my office is part of that 60 per cent that’s unused.

Anyway, I was thinking about this over the past couple of days. As you’re probably aware if you follow this blog, I swim and generally keep fit to maintain sanity (you can watch me swim here). My swimming training happens at a local secondary school in Edinburgh, with the coaches paying a commercial rate to cover all the school’s costs. On the one hand, I can afford to use this resource at commercial rates and this excludes other groups that might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, this income means that the school can actually afford to keep the pool open and have a swimming pool that their pupils can swim (although one of the kick boards I’ve used had “I HATE SWIMMING” scratched into it) – a difficult balance for a local authority to strike and one we don’t talk about enough.  

At the weekend just gone, I competed in the Stirling Triathlon (if you go and look at the results, in my defence, the swim time includes the 50-60 second run around to transition!). This used the university pool at Stirling and the campus for the run. I’m pretty sure a lot of my race fee went towards the cost of renting the buildings.

But, I want to go back to that diagram above. At an event on the Future Public Servant as part of the Scottish Government’s Participation Week yesterday, I made the point that one of the greatest resources the Scottish Government has to enable participation is its own resources – it has extremely talented individuals who could join committees and do participation in their local or interest communities. They also have buildings throughout Scotland that will be left empty at times that people want some space to use. As a research project I supported showed, what helps people engage is somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea and somewhere to prepare and eat food together – something most public sector organisations have in acres.

It strikes me that a very easy way for universities to become more progressive, change society for positive benefit, and coproduce services with local communities is to open some of this space they have up to a much wider range of organisations and groups. Being an academic, I feel very confident walking into other university’s space (cafes, libraries etc.) and using them for my own ends. If the university is going to be engaged then it spaces should be more open and more people should feel comfortable in them. To put it plainly, a local Community Council should be able to use a teaching room of an evening for free for their meetings. Perhaps this is one way the university can engage again with a social mission akin to the settlement movement?

* if you’re not a member of CRIT-GEOG I’d advise joining and getting the daily digest just to have a daily chuckle at the debates that go on. The annual “stop sending requests for articles” debate is a particular highlight I always look forward to. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflections on teaching practice - changing practices

If you’d not already gathered, I moved to the University of Stirling in July last year. I knew teaching here would be a bit different when in my interview I was challenged as to how I’d changes my teaching practices, particularly my enjoyment of student-led learning and interaction that I had developed from being taught at and then teaching at Heriot-Watt, to suit a class of 300. Apparently my answer impressed as I got the job. This will be the first of a series of blog posts reflecting on this change of teaching scenery and context.

Stirling has the “Stirling model” of undergraduate degree. In the first two years you will have one or two core modules you have to sit to progress in your subject and then you can chose what you want from across the introductory modules offered by the University. Numbers of these modules are limited so the classes are commonly enormous. You specialise down in your honours years.

I was coordinating one of these mega introductory modules – Understanding Social Policy. It had 367 students. There was only one lecture theatre on campus big enough for it. If it was any bigger it would have had to be split in two. The constraints this imposes are immense – my timetabling options were nil. It had to be run as two lectures a week for 12 weeks with ten hour-long tutorials. Even the coursework essays had to have staggered hand-ins to prevent the student office being overwhelmed.
In these reflections I want to focus on two aspects: lectures and what I’ll refer to as “not teaching”.

Firstly, lectures. This was my first time when I felt I was properly lecturing in the old school style. I had 50 minutes and I had to broadcast out a group of students to begin their learning process. I was stood at a lectern with c.200 faces staring down at me. And, actually, boy did it feel good. I’m clearly a thwarted actor. In my lecture on poverty I got a little bit carried away and ended up shouting about the scandal that 40 per cent of children in Scotland experience poverty at some point before the age of five. The faces in the audience looked visibly shocked as I boomed into the microphone and banged the lectern.

However, the limitations of the lecture as a teaching medium were very apparent during the exam period. Even in the run-up to the exam, the emails from students, mercifully few it has to be said, revealed that the students understood the exam merely as an opportunity to memorise a lecture and then dump these memories onto the page over three hours. On some of the answers to the exam questions, you could see this was exactly what students had done – not read widely, but regurgitated the 50 minute narrative they had heard as it roughly answered the question.

This is where my PGCap know-how and the idea of devising your assessment to the learning outcomes has really helped. As I joked on twitter the other week:

The basic learning outcome is to get students to read beyond the basic material in lectures. But this, although fun, would not be the ideal way to assess learning outcomes. Instead I’m going to shorten the exam and have the first half of it as comments on contemporary sources – data, quotes from policy documents, the Daily Hate Mail etc.

The second issue I wanted to talk about was “not-teaching”. By this I meant the strange sense of detachment from the learning process from being a coordinator of such a large module. I didn’t run the seminars/workshops, and didn’t do all the lectures (the modules are team-taught). I got to know literally a handful of students by name and only moderated around 15 per cent of the work. This was extremely different to teaching classes of 30-40 where, although you didn’t know every student well, you definitely got a sense of learning with them, rather than teaching at them. Therefore I ended semester with very little idea of how the students had actually got on during semester, except their performance looked like that of a group that were only marginally engaged with the subject (the majority of marks were below 60 per cent). I used a Google Form to get more feedback off my students and achieved an admirable 89 responses which were helpful, if not contradictory, as ever.

Anyway, it can’t have all been bad as I won this: