The week in higher education – 24/31 December 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

December 24, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (24/31 December 2015)

Homes festooned with glowing plastic snowmen, fake snow and Christmas fairy lights may provoke cries of “Bah humbug!” among some cynical academics. But not Les Back, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who says that over-the-top festive decorations – sometimes dismissed as a sign of working-class tackiness – are a heart-warming expression of community solidarity. In a study of the brightly lit Hopkinson family home in Croydon’s New Addington council estate in South London, Professor Back states that the annual switch-on of its thousands of lights has become an “unofficial celebration of community” – with the home now a “giant beacon of festivity” in the neighbourhood, The Times reported on 17 December. “In the glow of the Hopkinsons’ Christmas illuminations is a hope that is cast against the darkness of a society where class divisions are deepening and where a generation is being cheated of the prospect of an affordable home,” says Professor Back in a sentimental flourish worthy of a Dickensian tale.

How many Bob Dylan references can the world’s scientists sneak into their journal papers before anyone notices? The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind, but precisely 727, The Times reported on 15 December. After word spread last year that the free-wheeling musician’s songs were popping up in the titles of medical journal papers, a librarian at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute did some research on what he calls “an extraordinary trend”. Carl Gornitzski uncovered 135 variants on The Times They are a-Changin’ and 36 variants on Blowin’ in the Wind, although his favourite was “Dietary nitrate – a slow train coming” and a study on neurones grown from bone marrow titled “Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate”. “Like a rolling histone”, a neural stem cell paper, and “Knockin’ on pollen’s door” also gained Mr Gornitzski’s approval.

With two female vice-chancellors appointed at Staffordshire and Glyndwr universities, it seems that academia is increasingly minded to think that women can do the top job as well as men. However, new research shows that there is one area in which men may have a justifiable claim to superiority: putting up Ikea shelves. In a study by researchers at the University of Tromso  in Norway, 40 men and 40 women of university age were asked to assemble an Ikea kitchen cart – a task that took men one minute less than women on average when they had the instructions, the Daily Mail reported on 18 December. When the instructions were not available, men completed the task four minutes quicker than women, says the study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

A self-styled “prankster” has been fined for popping £160 worth of balloons meant for graduates, the Huddersfield Examiner reported on 15 December. University of Huddersfield drama student Shayan Shayegani has amassed 90,000 Facebook followers by filming tricks on strangers and posting them online, but his latest stunt failed to amuse magistrates, the paper said. Mr Shayegani, who calls himself Speedo Shy, posted an online video of him bursting a balloon arch created for a graduation ceremony on 13 July – adding that he was a “balloon murderer” and was going to hand himself in to police. He did so four days later and was ordered by Kirklees Magistrates’ Court last week to pay £160 in compensation to the university and £150 in court costs. He told the court his behaviour was “immature”, “disrespectful and rude”, but had changed his tune when quoted by the Daily Mail on 16 December. “I cant believe theyve been so serious,” he said.

A University of Oxford college is set to tear down a plaque dedicated to its colonialist benefactor Cecil Rhodes, The Guardian reported on 18 December. Oriel College said that it hopes to get consent from Oxford council to remove the memorial to the mining magnate, who attended the institution in the 1870s, as it “does not share Cecil Rhodes values or condone his racist views or actions”. The college will also consider whether to remove a controversial statue of Rhodes. Oriel added that the Rhodes-funded scholarship foundation had allowed 8,000 students from around the world to study at Oxford, yet his “values and world view stand in absolute contrast to the ethos of the scholarship programme today”. The decision is likely to anger those who have likened the desire to tear down relics of Oxford’s colonial past to Islamic extremists destruction of monuments. But the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaign group said that it welcomed the removal of tributes to the “genocidal” colonialist and other “toxic figures”.

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