New and noteworthy – 5 May 2016

Edtech unhyped, Nigerian noir, hard-bodied prose and squaring heavens above with those urges below: must-read academic books

May 5, 2016
Collection of bound essays piled high
Source: iStock

Collected Essays on Philosophers
By Colin Wilson
Edited by Colin Stanley with an introduction by John Shand
Cambridge Scholars

“Like many others,” writes John Shand in a warmly personal introduction, “I was partly inspired to study philosophy at university by having read [Colin Wilson’s] books, in particular The Outsider – not that when one turned up at university the manner in which philosophy was done was anything like that found in the book.” This collection of Wilson’s essays on 17 philosophers ranging from Russell and Husserl to Sartre and Spinoza attests to the plain speaking and persuasive arguments of “England’s only home-grown existential philosopher” and a scholar who was, concludes Shand, “in some manner a great man”.

The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose
By Helen Sword
University of Chicago Press

The author of Stylish Academic Writing returns with a ruthlessly slimline slice of advice – and, at, a prose flabbiness test: just pop in a sample of your work and prepare to blush. Addressing wielders of words who remain in thrall to the passive verb and the abstract noun, Sword aims to lead us to “fit and trim” prose via an assault course covering horrors such as “Prepositional pudge”, “Ad-dictions” and “Waste words”. The tone is equal parts exasperation and encouragement, and worth every sweaty minute.

Is Technology Good for Education?
Neil Selwyn
Polity Press

Edtech – what’s not to like? Well, there’s all that “marginalizing the collective and the commons”, “dehumanizing teaching and learning”, Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for “networked individualism”, and a focus on what is commercial, calculable and effective rather than good, observes Selwyn. Persuasively understated rather than simply polemic, this short, wide-ranging essay roams from Moocs, the Khan Academy and chilling US dropout statistics to the work of UK scholars Kalwant Bhopal and Farzana Shain, and doesn’t hesitate to put it plainly: “Even the most committed and zealous proponent of digital education knows in their heart of hearts that nothing is going to be ‘fixed’ through technology.”

Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet
By Kelsy Burke
University of California Press

The joy of sex, as sociologist Kelsy Burke highlights in this fresh and finely told account of her research, can be a particularly complex issue when the three of you in your marriage are you, your spouse and Jesus Christ. Drawing on rich online data from,, and other websites, blogs, social media and forums frequented by evangelical American Christians, Burke looks at attempts to square the desires of the flesh with the demands of faith and fidelity. There’s clearly everything to play for, albeit definitely at home rather than away: as one pastor argues, “There’s a party being thrown in heaven when married Christians have sex.”

This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime
Stephen Ellis

“419” is a joke – if not for the many victims of the online scams so associated with Nigeria that they are named for a section of its penal code. In his final book, the eminent Africanist Stephen Ellis explores how the country became a hotbed of illicit trade, endemic corruption and organised crime after the collapse of the oil industry. From moustachioed men of Empire to trafficked prostitutes in Italy, from Pentecostal entrepreneurs and the “King of Dating” to coup leader Major-General Sani Abacha, Ellis paints a bleak and detailed picture of villains and victims big and small, and the power, corruption and lies of what he unhesitatingly calls “a distinctively Nigerian type of criminality”.

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