The week in higher education – 11 May 2017

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world’s media

May 11, 2017
Game of Thrones cartoon

The creator of Dothraki, the language used in Game of Thrones, will teach a summer course on invented languages at the University of California, Berkeley. David J. Peterson was set on his way to a career in invented languages, with other work including the film Thor, by a master’s in linguistics at Berkeley. The news of the course, reported by the Independent on 28 April, renews the feeling that one of the essential dividing lines in modern Western society is between the minority obsessed with Game of Thrones and the majority who find that obsession as mystifying as a lecture delivered in Dothraki.


Donald Trump has written many books about himself, but his comments about America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, suggest that he should steer clear of penning any works on history when he leaves the White House. In a discussion with the Washington Examiner published on 1 May, Mr Trump claimed that Jackson was “really angry” as he watched the Civil War unfold, despite the fact that “Old Hickory” died 16 years before the conflict began. “He said: ‘There’s no reason for this,’” Mr Trump explained of President Jackson’s apparent outrage, adding that the slave-owning military strongman known for his brutal clearance of Native Americans also had a “big heart”. The incumbent president also posed a challenge for US historians, stating that “people don’t ask…why was there a Civil War?”. Interviewed by BBC News Online, historian Judith Geisberg, from Villanova University, confirmed however that the subject may possibly have come up in various university seminars a few times over the years. “People have been asking that question from the moment the war began – there are generations of answers,” she said.


A Mission Impossible-style attempt to infiltrate an academic’s office via an air vent and steal an exam paper ended badly for two US students, the Daily Mail reported on 4 May. With a statistics examination coming up, two students at the University of Kentucky accessed their professor’s office by clambering along an air conditioning duct and lowering themselves into the room, the Mail reported. However, the duo were apprehended in their Ethan Hunt-esque break-in because their professor was working late and returned to his office at 1.30am. Finding the door barricaded, lecturer John Cain said that he shouted that he was calling the police, causing the pair to make a run for it before one of them decided to hand himself in. The student – whose ingenuity and dedication in purloining could surely have earned a decent mark if directed towards revising – also admitted to having lifted another paper from the academic’s office in a similarly acrobatic way. The duo are now set to face burglary charges next month.


Forget mind maps, revision timetables or “smart drugs” – those who want to do well in exams should try sniffing some sprigs of rosemary. According to researchers at Northumbria University, pupils working in a room perfumed by a whiff of rosemary, in the form of an essential oil, achieved 5 to 7 per cent better results in memory tests, BBC News Online reported on 4 May. The tests, conducted on 40 children aged 10 and 11, support traditional beliefs about rosemary’s association with memory, as in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, when Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” “It could be that aromas affect electrical activity in the brain or that pharmacologically active compounds can be absorbed when adults are exposed,” said the study’s co-author Mark Moss, who hopes to extend the study with “large-scale trials of aroma application in education settings”.


Barack Obama once considered having an affair with a gay university professor, an explosive new biography has claimed. In Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer prizewinning author David J. Garrow states that the future US president “developed a friendship beyond the classroom” with Lawrence Goldyn while at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, the Daily Mail reported on 2 May. Dr Goldyn’s penchant for wearing “really bright yellow pants and open-toed sandals” did not put off the young Mr Obama, who, according to Mr Garrow, “wrote somewhat elusively to his first intimate girlfriend that he had thought about and considered gayness but ultimately decided that a same-sex relationship would be less challenging and demanding than developing one with the opposite sex”. Dr Goldyn, who retrained as a medical doctor and is now an HIV specialist in Mendocino, California, “was the first…openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with”, Mr Obama has written. His friendship with Mr Goldyn “helped to educate me” on gay and lesbian issues, he has written.

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