Hats off to the PANTS people

December 24, 2004

And the winners are ... Mandy Garner opens the envelope and reveals the recipients of the Poppleton Awards for Notorious Teaching and Scholarship

It's that time again. You've scarcely looked up since September, you fear you may have overdosed on St John's Wort and your Christmas card message from the vice-chancellor reads like a festive version of a P45. But what better time to cast an eye over the triumphs and glorious failures of the year. From the war in Iraq to the resurgence of ballroom dancing, 2004 had it all. In higher education there were department closures, political battles over access, surveys highlighting lecturers' stress, the usual complaints about the Quality Assurance Agency and so on. But on the bright side there was more cash for universities and science in particular (but too little and too late for chemistry) and a new David Starkey series plus book tie-in.

List-mania reached new heights as the media ranked everything from the top 100 intellectuals to the top rock'n'roll drug scandals. In that same spirit, The Times Higher presents its end-of-year awards. After extensive evidence-based research among academics, we can announce the ten winners of the 2004 Poppleton Awards for Notorious Teaching and Scholarship (PANTS).

The first is for most pretentious book by an academic. Christopher Gemerchak's The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille Reading Hegel , nominated by fellow philosopher Bob Brecher, was the runaway winner, garnering 108 votes - over 70 more than nearest rival, Big Brother psychologist Geoffrey Beattie's Visible Thought: The New Psychology of Body Language . According to a synopsis, Gemerchak "attempts to explain the basis - anthropological, economic, religious and philosophical - of George Bataille's work, especially in relation to his Hegelian orientation towards the question of self-consciousness and 'intimacy' (or the conquering of the flight from self)". For many readers, his attempt seems to have failed.

Luton University pulled off the best spin . A less confident institution would have hidden when Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, said that a penny spent at Imperial was a "hell of a lot better for the economy than a penny spent at Luton", which he called "third rate". But the university united to counter the criticism and won valuable media coverage. Applications rose by 1.5 per cent and the ratio of applications to admissions climbed from one in seven to one in five. Other universities must be praying for an insult from Sykes.

The contest for most annoying person in public life was not much of a contest. George W. Bush won by a landslide. There was no need for a recount - the US President romped home with almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival, one T. Blair. Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, might be pleased to learn that he polled the fewest votes in this category - just ten.

For the worst contribution to British cultural life award , there was a tie between the anti-Europe UK Independence Party and managerialism gone mad, which finished narrowly ahead of Simon Cowell, The X Factor supremo, and Trinny and Susannah, self-styled fashion gurus. Despite calls for her resignation, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, may be encouraged that she and The Gherkin (Lord Foster's Swiss Re Tower) polled the fewest votes in this category. Susan Bassnett, The Times Higher 's own Trinny or Susannah, whose column on academic outfits caused endless debate, added her own nomination: "Sex therapists offering advice equivalent to house-cleaning skills."

No one will be surprised to learn that anything from the Quality Assurance Agency led the field in the gobbledegook in higher education category , although university mission statements came a fairly close second.

Academic rivalry may have been to blame for University Challenge being by far the most popular academic-related TV programme , and Starkey's Monarchy the least popular. Indeed, history's glittering array of media dons cut little ice with their academic peers - Niall Ferguson's Empire programme managed only fourth place, while fellow historian Hera Cook voted his book Colossus the most pretentious. Archaeology, however, was much appreciated: The Big Dig and Time Team took second and third place respectively.

The award for the academic most skilled at exploiting the media could be taken in a variety of ways. Feminist writer Germaine Greer was the clear winner, gaining ten votes more than Starkey. Historian Tristram Hunt and gambling expert Mark Griffiths need to take a few tips: they trailed in last.

Unfortunately for Paul Campos, research showing that obesity is good for you was voted the most unlikely research .

Cushiest job was a tie between "any job in the Caribbean" and fertility expert Robert Winston's location work for the BBC. For someone presenting a series on the inner workings of the body, he manages a fair bit of globetrotting.

The last award goes to the person with the worst job in higher education .

Despite several votes of "me" by anonymous academics, the favourite was anyone having to clean a student's room, 16 votes ahead of anyone in a "non-academic" post paid less than £25,000 a year. Roll on 2005...

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