The week in higher education

December 17, 2009

The French national obsession with the bottom has been laid bare in a study involving psychoanalysts, philosophers, scientists and artists. Contributing to a documentary on the role of the derriere in human evolution, Claudine Cohen, a historian of science at the Higher School of Social Sciences in Paris, said: "The gluteal muscles are unique to humans, enabling bipedal locomotion." Edward Lucie-Smith, an art historian, added on 9 December that there was no exact translation for the French term "les fesses", which covers the thighs, bottom and loins. "English words reduce it to the backside," he said.

It is the primate equivalent of "look out, the vice-chancellor's on the prowl": scientists at the University of St Andrews have decoded the "language" used by monkeys, establishing the words for "watch out, falling branch" and "look out, a leopard". The phrases, which translate into monkey-speak as "boom" and "krak" respectively, are used by the primates in Ivory Coast's Tai National Park. The scientists said the system identified "may be the most complex example of proto-syntax in animal communication known to date", it was reported on 12 December.

Derek Walcott has been named professor of poetry at the University of Essex after he was forced to pull out of the running for a similar post at the University of Oxford following a smear campaign against him. Professor Walcott withdrew from the Oxford race in May when details of two sexual harassment claims against him became a dominant theme of the election. In his new role, announced on 12 December, the Nobel laureate will give a series of lectures at Essex's campus in Colchester.

The strain of being married to an academic was discussed in gory detail in a letter to agony aunt Mariella Frostrup in The Observer on 13 December. "My husband, an academic, and I have been together for ten years. The more focused he is on his work, the more chaotic he becomes. He gets cross and I am seething ... Our sex life has gone out of the window," the frustrated letter writer says. Mariella replies that "most women struggling to find balance in their lives will recognise your suppressed rage", but she adds: "He no doubt has days when he'd like to chuck the textbooks out the window and pick up the children from school." Advising that the couple indulge in some "luxury" together, she says: "Sex falls into this category - a chore to commit to, but quite pleasant once you get down to it."

A British-born academic was told by a governor of his university that the sooner he was "removed from the face of the earth" the better, after he appeared in a controversial Channel 4 documentary on "Britain's Israel lobby". David Newman, a professor at the Ben-Gurion University in Israel, was emailed by BGU benefactor Michael Gross after appearing on the Dispatches programme last month. Mr Gross, a member of BGU's international board of governors, told Professor Newman he would "use whatever influence I have to have you thrown out". He added: "The sooner you are removed from BGU and the face of the earth, the better." More than 100 BGU scholars have written to the chair of governors to complain, warning that the email signalled "an attitude of total disdain for the principles of academic discourse". Mr Gross was quoted on 13 December saying that he regretted "the language, but not the sentiment" of his attack.

An independent analysis of the 1,073 emails stolen by hackers from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit has concluded that the messages do not support claims that the science of global warming was faked. The emails, which contained a total of about a million words, were pored over by a team of reporters at Associated Press, who produced summaries that were then analysed by experts in research ethics, climate science and science policy. Daniel Sarewitz, a science policy professor at Arizona State University, said on 14 December that the emails showed "normal science politics". He said: "It is on the extreme end, but still within bounds."

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