The week in higher education – 15 October 2020

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

October 15, 2020

After weeks of allowing US students a free run of virus-related foolish behaviour, freshers at the University of Manchester landed a blow for the UK by organising their own “Covid-positive party”. According to The Guardian, one 18-year-old physics student at the university said that the party took place earlier this month at the Fallowfield campus halls of residence but was broken up by security: “There was a flat party a few days ago which had a policy that you could only get in if you were positive. It was like their health-and-safety measure.” Another Manchester student said: “There are always invitations flying around on WhatsApp saying stuff like: ‘Come to flat 8, we’ve all got ’Rona’. There’s a fear if you don’t go out you will be alone.” Alone, yes, but not stupid, either.

Western celebrity chefs have long been ridiculed in Asia for their botched and bastardised efforts at cooking local dishes – see Jamie Oliver’s dreadful take on fried rice for a recent example – but recently it was the turn of a British academic to feel the wrath of Asian food lovers. Edward Anderson, Smuts research fellow in Commonwealth studies at the University of Cambridge and an expert in Hindu nationalism, wrote on Twitter that “Idli are the most boring things in the world”. And thus began “Idligate”, as South Indians of every stripe took to social media to defend the region’s much-loved rice cakes and round on Dr Anderson. Shashi Tharoor, the Indian MP and author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, struck back: “There are some who are truly challenged in this world. Civilisation is hard to acquire: the taste [and] refinement to appreciate idlis, enjoy cricket, or watch ottamthullal [a Keralan dance] is not given to every mortal. Take pity on this poor man, for he may never know what life can be.”

Calling all those who seek to hyper-contextualise dialectics: a recent study has revealed some terrible news for academics who enjoy nothing more than littering their written output with dense “academespeak”. According to scientists who researched, among other things, 64,000 dissertation titles, a greater use of jargon and specialist language is more likely a sign of insecurity than academic prowess. Zach Brown of Columbia Business School and his colleagues used a ranking of universities and compared the use of jargon in the dissertations to see how it correlated with the supposed excellence of where it was produced – and found a clear inverse correlation. “I did an MBA, where there was a lot of jostling for status…That meant there was a lot of jargon thrown out,” Mr Brown told The Times, before recalling an example of people talking about “disintermediating existing physical retail channels” rather than “not selling in shops”.

Yorkshire firefighters enjoyed a unique university take on the classic “cat stuck up a tree” call recently. On this occasion, it was students from the University of Hull who made the emergency services aware that a drunk student was stuck inside a tumble dryer. Rosie Cole, 21, had been enjoying drinks with housemates when she was dared to get inside the dryer in their shared accommodation. “I, thinking there was no chance I’d actually fit, decided to try it and to my surprise it seemed easier than I thought. It wasn’t until I wiggled both my hips in and got my legs crossed behind me that I realised I couldn’t get out,” Ms Cole told Metro. Luckily, the entire episode lasted just 20 minutes and Ms Cole said the firefighters saw the funny side: “They were lovely and they just laughed at me.”

In the latest instance of academics posing as people of colour on social media, a white, male assistant professor of chemistry at the University of New Hampshire has been placed on administrative leave after being accused of posing as a female, immigrant scientist of colour on Twitter. Craig Chapman is alleged to have created an account with the name “The Science Femme, Woman in STEM” and used it as a platform to attack Black Lives Matter, feminists, trans advocates and other causes he disagreed with. “As a department, we wholeheartedly reject any statements or actions which seek to minimise, dismiss, hurt or harm others,” Glenn Miller, department chair, wrote in a statement on Twitter, which has since been deleted but was reported by Inside Higher Ed. Dr Chapman, who has reportedly been placed on leave, did not respond to a request for comment.

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