Best new books of the week – 15 December 2016

The perils and pains of growing old; romancing a Romance language; on hold, again; learning from failure; transparent higher education

December 15, 2016
Dry old apple cut in half
Source: iStock

The War on the Old
John Sutherland

It comes to us all. Even if you’re short on sympathy for the boomers – last spotted V-flicking their own patiently suffering elders, prancing through their demographic-bulge salad days before boring everyone who came after with nth-hand tales of shagging at the Isle of Wight – you should read this short, sharp, scary book about how bad it is, and how much worse it will soon be, to get old. Covering media invisibility, “millionaires’ bus passes” and bloody Nick Clegg, pensions, prostates, pills and “the old man’s friend” of the massive coronary, winter fuel allowances and care home horrors fit to make medical suppliers vomit in the car park, it ends on a determined note – wise up, don’t be a victim – more bracing than Skegness.

¿Por qué? 101 Questions About Spanish
Judy Hochberg

The linguist author describes finding all the answers to her favourite questions (the titular 101) as a dream come true, and those who find language learning nightmarish may well be beguiled in spite of themselves. Aimed at the general reader, but offering informative signposts to the relevant literature at the end of each disquisition, the book treats queries on matters such as Latin’s metamorphosis into Spanish, the famous ñ, “charming derivational endings”, the rolled r, the “la la” rule, and, yes, the plaintive cry – to which Hochberg’s reply is supremely reassuring – “is it too late for me to learn Spanish”?

Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres
Jamie Woodcock
Pluto Press

Crikey, talk about “the classical Marxist notion of alienation”. Which is exactly what Jamie Woodcock does in this grim account of the modern-day “chain worker”, goaded to keep pitching to the terminally ill, the weeping bereaved parent, the trade union official who replies by asking about the cold-caller’s union status and, as both quickly switch to code, wishes him luck. The author, a London School of Economics researcher, knows not only his theory but his subject inside out: he researched it by taking a job in the bleak heart of computerised Taylorism. There’s casualisation, cruelty and regimentation, but also subversion, and Woodcock’s focus on employee resistance offers a flicker of hope.

Failing in the Field: What We Can Learn When Field Research Goes Wrong
Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel
Princeton University Press

Epic fail? Or just common or garden? Even though they’re the stories that nobody likes to tell, “many idea failures are actually research successes”, say the authors. Most of the types of flops they identify – inappropriate setting, flawed design, partner challenges, measurement problems and low participation rates – will have a ring of familiarity. As they gently unpick six case studies ranging from asking the wrong questions about malaria bed nets in Ghana to stillborn financial literacy training in Peru, they reiterate that “all researchers will experience failure at some point” and urge “all the less-than-perfect readers out there to join us in reporting failures like the ones we share here”. Highly recommended.

The Market for Learning: Leading Transparent Higher Education
Hamish Coates

“Everyone has a stake in education,” observes a University of Melbourne scholar in this well-referenced monograph. While attempts to transform the sector are countless, Coates argues that “understanding and developing transparency” is the real “lynchpin to success”. Herein, he offers detailed discussion of institutional architecture, sector-specific transparency rationales, broadening disclosures, assessment of learning outcomes and student engagement, “research-based leadership” and moving “from open days to open always”.

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