There is no Confucian conspiracy
In his opinion article “Chinese counterweights” (2 August), Jeffrey Gil discusses the controversies over Confucius Institutes on campuses worldwide.
I find it hard to imagine where these “levers of power” might be that Confucius Institutes are supposed to use to constrain academic endeavour. Confucius Institutes control no budget within the host institution, vet no syllabuses, approve no appointments and organise no boycotts of contentious classes. Where, exactly, are they supposed to interfere in the academic life of their institutional partner?
So Confucius Institutes do not actively promote certain issues that spring to the forefront of Western minds whenever the word “China” appears? That is not what they are there for. I cannot remember the Highland clearances or the Bengal famine being a feature of the British Council’s language and culture classes; and I very much doubt that the Goethe-Institut goes out of its way to explain what “Endlösung” meant in recent German history. Not because there is any deep conspiracy to avoid these issues, but only because they have a particular remit of which those topics are not part.
Take Confucius Institutes for what they are – adverts for Chinese ideals and aspirations. If you want deep debates about the whys, wherefores and doyoumindifidonts of the late 20th-century global rebalancing of power and wealth, take a class on international relations or international politics. I bet you’ll find one in any university with an attached Confucius Institute.
In his blog post “Why the supremacy of English threatens research-led teaching” David Matthews writes that: “For universities outside the Anglophone world, the language of teaching – as opposed to research – looks like it will remain predominantly local for the foreseeable future.”
This has been the case in academia in Dutch-speaking Belgium (Flanders) for years. Overwhelmingly, teaching and administration are conducted in Dutch (unlike the situation in the neighbouring Netherlands), and there is a lot of debate about and discussion of the pros and cons of how things should develop. However, publishing is geared entirely to the English-language market, even more so than is the case in Germany.
In Flanders, universities are publicly funded based on factors including the strength of their journal citations, from the natural sciences to the humanities, which has led to the paradoxical situation in which the results of publicly funded research are not available in the local languages, let alone accessible to a broader audience (for publishing “locally” does not make an individual scholar’s CV stand out in the academic job market).
Teaching materials are often in English (and, to a lesser extent, French and German, depending on the discipline) because key texts are usually not translated (unlike the situation in German-speaking, Spanish-speaking, French-speaking markets and others). Of course, hiring is more and more international, and although there is a requirement to learn Dutch within five years, the success of that is mixed.
On the cover of Times Higher Education and inside in Ellie Bothwell’s feature article “Don’t get comfortable” (2 August), we are told that “scholars worldwide feel precarity’s bite”.
Precarity? This sounds like one of T. S. Eliot’s cats. Does the use of the word ratify the idea of academic insecurity, give it more ponderity (sic) than precariousness? Can we look forward to “vicitity” for “viciousness” and “covetity” for “covetousness”?
Honorary professor in English
University of Nottingham
The news article “Late-night lectures stretch staff to the limit” (2 August) reported that growing numbers of UK universities were extending their teaching hours into the evening to cope with bulging student enrolments and that academics were concerned about how that might affect the family lives of teaching staff.
This is not new. US institutions have long offered classes in the evenings. As a former mature student at a US institution, I relied on having the choice of late-scheduled modules to be able to work to sustain myself during my course of study. What I cannot understand is why institutions are unwilling to hire new staff to accommodate these new, later teaching slots. Surely early career researchers and new academics who already rely on inconsistent contracts could benefit from new positions built around these hours?
Pause and reflect
I was pleased to note that Henry E. Sigerist’s important Civilization and Disease has been reprinted with an introduction by Elizabeth Fee (New and Noteworthy, Books, 19 July).
Sigerist was not only a medical historian who interconnected a wide range of subjects, but also a proponent of what appears to be a form of “ mindfulness ” before lectures . His diary entry for Tuesday 12 November 1940 reads:
“I have developed a new technique for my lectures. I begin with some general or philosophic remarks which immediately create a certain atmosphere. People arrive still busy with their own affairs, thinking about all sorts of things. My introductory remarks prepare them for the lecture. I have developed this technique consistently at Cornell. It is somewhat like the function of a prayer at the beginning of a service.”
There you have it. “Mindfulness” as sort of “prayer-lite”.
R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology