The week in higher education – 14 April 2022

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

April 11, 2022

Things always turn up when you least expect them; just ask the University of Cambridge’s librarians. Two decades after they first went missing, the notebooks of Charles Darwin were mysteriously returned to the institution in a pink gift bag, with a note wishing the recipient a happy Easter, reported the Guardian. Who left them, and where they had been for the past 20 years, remains a mystery as the anonymous present giver went to some lengths to avoid detection. But the return of the historic documents – worth millions of pounds – sparked much joy in the institution, and they will now be returned to their rightful place in the Darwin archive. Mixed with the delight must have been an enormous sense of relief as questions remain over how exactly the notepads went missing. They hadn’t been seen since they were taken out to be photographed in 2000 but were only reported stolen in 2020 as staff assumed they had been mis-shelved.

Weeks of disruption caused by strikes over pay and pensions at UK universities have taken their toll on staff and students alike. For some students it has been weeks since they attended a lecture or had any feedback on their work. So, what is required during these anxious and uncertain times? Pilates of course. The University of Sheffield’s psychology department’s offer of a free exercise session to help boost the mood among students was well-meaning but perhaps underestimated the sense of frustration on campus. “Insulting and insensitive” was the verdict among students who told the Times they felt like the class was being offered as a form of compensation that would make up for all the hassle. For everyone’s sake, we can only hope the dispute is resolved before they have to roll out the kickboxing classes.

A first-year Cambridge student has traded in his dinner tux for army greens, driving to Ukraine to help the war effort. The 19-year-old natural sciences major, Nikolai Nizalov, said he felt compelled to travel back to his homeland, where he will work mainly as a medic. “I have friends on the frontlines and I wouldn’t be able to look them in the eye if I didn’t help out,” the Mykolaiv native told the Daily Mail. While he acknowledges he’ll have little time to spare for his studies, Nizalov said he will try his best to keep up with his reading. He didn’t specify when he would return to the UK, telling the paper: “Ideally I’ll come back for second year in October, but I’m not going to leave until we win.” The student acknowledged that he might not get a “great mark” this year, in which case he could apply for special permission to “get into next year” at the university.

It’s not every day that evolutionary science has viral dog-video appeal – but a team of researchers has hit the sweet spot, according to Smithsonian magazine. A new study in Experimental Biology takes a look at the science behind dogs’ irresistible wide-eyed look and proposes that humans may have helped shape that puppy-dog look through thousands of years of selective breeding for such animated faces. Researchers counted the number of muscles around a dog’s eyes and found that dogs have two to three times more fast-twitch muscles – the ones that give us distinctive facial expressions – than their wild counterparts, wolves. “Dogs are unique from other mammals in their reciprocated bond with humans, which can be demonstrated through mutual gaze,” said the study’s senior author, Anne Burrows, a professor in the department of physical therapy at Duquesne University.

While filming a YouTube prank, it’s probably best to steer clear of lectures on the Holocaust. This March, two aspiring “funny” guys interrupted a lecture on the rather serious topic at the University of Southern California, Annenberg. The duo, who pretended to be a student and Russian Mafia member who was owed thousands of dollars, had a heated exchange in the classroom, reportedly causing students to panic and flee the room. The mischief makers were later arrested at gunpoint by Los Angeles Police Department officers, according to the student newspaper. As for USC, the university was unamused. It has since called the prank “dangerous and reckless conduct”, asking for a temporary restraining order. It is also seeking to prevent the defendants from entering any of its properties in the future and wants to be compensated for the cost of its lawsuit – something the YouTubers may find less funny.

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