Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jon Stewart & Mike Huckabee on Abortion

This is part two of the interview, but I thought it was excellent. They both know their positions very well, and it’s refreshing to see a civilised debate about the issue, where no one’s frothing at the mouth or attacking the other. I do, however, agree with Jon Stewart, but I suppose that was inevitable. They both talk about increasing education on reproduction, which is a glaring omission from syllabuses (as far as I’m aware – going by what I read in the newspapers; though it’s also partially true for some schools/areas in the UK). Anyway, decide for yourselves:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mike Huckabee Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran
(The rest of the interview is available on The Daily Show’s website.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Someone’s on the same page…

From David Rothkopf’s recent post, about Obama’s honeymoon being ‘officially’ over:

3. No matter who is president, Kim Jong Il is still nuts...

Kim Jong Il has spent the past month reinforcing the preceding point. "You may be Mr. Charisma," he says via his missile tests and nuclear experiments, "by I am Mr. Certifiable Loon. Which in the rock-paper-scissors of international diplomacy means I win every time." All of a sudden, Obama finds when it comes to North Korea...and a host of other places...sitting in the Oval Office makes him look and act a lot like his predecessor no matter how much he wishes it weren't so.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The thing about Twitter…

I’ve been reading the TIME magazine cover story about Twitter and how it’s going to radically change our lives (colour me skeptical at the moment), and I must say that I still don’t really get Twitter. I’ve got two tweet-feeds (one for me, one for my book review site – seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s really just a waste of time), and I don’t get the attraction. I’ve been tweeting more this past week, and I must say that there’s been no noticeable change to my day, life, or anything. It’s a bunch of mini-blog posts.

I’ll give it a bit more time, see if anything interesting happens.

The weirdest thing

Yesterday (possibly Friday), someone stole the toaster from our kitchen, and replaced it with a completely broken one. It required moving our big-ass fridge to get to the plug. That’s an awful lot of effort for a toaster. Why?!

Living in college, we have communal kitchens outfitted by college. If something gets broken (as you can imagine, a frequent occurrence), all we have to do it mention it to the porters, and they’ll either fix it or get a replacement as soon as they can. I reported the broken on, and had a new one the same day.

Some people in college do the weirdest things…

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

Should I really be doing this?

I’ve started to pull together the latest chapter for my PhD, covering non-governmental actors in US foreign policy. I must say that I’m seriously questioning whether or not I should be doing this. Not because I’m not interested in the subject, but because I’m having quite a hard time actually writing this damn chapter.

I’ve read hundreds of articles and book chapters on the subject, and I am completely lost. There seems to be no consensus for who is or isn’t influential in the foreign policy-making process. Media, one would think, should have an influence on foreign policy. But, with conflicting statements by government officials, who is to be believed? Those who state how a policy would play in the media as a genuine concern (e.g. James Baker III, Colin Powell) would ‘prove’ that the media was an influential actor. But, equally, there are many in the media as well as researchers and officials who state all the media does is facilitate the government (see, for example, Noam Chomsky and the New York Times-Iraq scandal). The literature on the influence of special interests and business on US foreign policy isn’t great. There’s plenty of innuendo about business buying foreign policy and officials, or special interests taking over the Clinton administration, etc., but it still doesn’t really come together to make a good chapter or even a particularly good chapter.

The aim of the chapter is to make the reader aware of the forces that exert even a modicum of influence over the foreign policy-making process, if not to be the definitive last word on the matter. These forces are clearly business, media, special interests/lobbies, and ‘the academy’ (think tanks, scholars, former officials, etc.). Stretching it all to 10,000~ is probably not going to be too much of a problem, but the stuff I’ve got is just so… blah. (One can only hope this mastery of the English language is not quite reproduced in the final draft…) I can’t bring myself to care about the subject at the moment – I’ve been reading the material for four months, frequently experiencing eureka moments only to discover that they last for no more than a paragraph (if I’m lucky) or actually prove useless to the chapter.

Beyond my concerns about content, I have concerns about the way I’m writing and approaching the chapter. I seem to be writing in a manner that would barely pass muster for an undergrad, let alone a PhD student. It seems simplistic, trite and a has a considerable air of “who cares?” about it. My comments and “analysis” are hardly earth-shattering or particularly intelligent, and I can’t imagine the examiner at the end of this thinking I’m worthy of having “Dr.” at the start of my name.

I’ve got a week to finish the chapter, and one can only hope that what I finally produce is vaguely reminiscent of a PhD chapter. Otherwise, I just might pack it all in.

Monday, June 01, 2009

On Durham’s Admissions Procedures

So begins the Sunday Times’ article, “Top Schools Boycott ‘bias’ Durham”:

“SOME of the country’s most academic schools are discouraging pupils from applying to popular courses at Durham University in protest at what they see as an admissions system ‘fixed’ against them”

I attended (“did time at”) Marlborough College, one of these “top schools” (it was, I can’t deny I got an excellent education from some of the best teachers in Britain), and at no point was I ever discouraged from applying to Durham. In fact, there was a running joke that Durham took the “Oxbridge Rejects” (i.e. anyone from private school who applied to Oxford or Cambridge but was rejected for whatever reason – this includes myself). Ok, so I started at Durham University in 2001, but still.

With this in mind, what’s all the fuss actually about? Apparently Durham University uses a mathematical formula to decide who gets admitted to the university, favouring those students who are from poorer or less-privileged backgrounds:

“because candidates from low-scoring schools have outstripped their peers, they deserve more credit than pupils who score a string of A* grades at a school where most pupils do so.”

I seem a certain amount of merit in this position, but why should my GCSEs be worth less? Did I not do the work for them? Did the current crop of students being turned away not do the work?

Durham turns away approximately 3,500 applicants with or expected to receive 3 A’s at A-Level. Apart from a small selection of students who give the impression of being as dumb as posts (making determinations on this somewhat difficult), I would say that an easy majority of my students this year were of upper-middle class backgrounds, or at least from wealthy families and from good schools (whether private or otherwise). I therefore wonder just how much of an issue this really is: The Times article had only one example of a student rejected from Oxford, Edinburgh, York and King’s College London. He’s now going to study in the US (lucky him, I would have loved to have been able to study there).

As Mike Baker soberly wrote in The Guardian:

“The fears over positive discrimination are probably overdone. No university wants to admit students who lack the ability to complete their course. No one is suggesting tariffs or quotas. But universities should treat each applicant as an individual, taking account of prior achievements, circumstances and potential. And that means A-level grades alone are not everything.”

I got this in an email today:

“In some subjects Durham is now as competitive as Oxbridge for entry. In many subjects AAA is the minimum entry qualification. Thus, inevitably, many very strong candidates will be disappointed. Last year we rejected 3,500 students predicted to have at least AAA at A level.”

I know it’s common for people to comment on how “things were harder in my day”, but I think this is the case. My first year tutees this year – with but a couple of exceptions – were by and large as intellectually curious as bricks. Ok, that’s perhaps a bit of a harsh representation, but most of them exhibited little ability to think outside of the box, an over-dependence on spoon-feeding (also evident in my 2nd year tutees, who were taking a 1st year module), and a reluctance to engage in class discussion. Sometimes it was next to impossible to get my students to join the discussions.

This makes the Vice-Chancellor’s response to the Sunday Times article all the more surprising:

“personal statement, reference, study skills, motivation for the degree, independence of thought, achievements in non-academic activities and how applicants perform in relation to other leading students in their school” [emphasis mine]

With almost every student achieving 3 A’s at A-Level, universities must rely on other criteria to make decisions. I believe I was admitted on the strength of my interview with one of my future lecturers. Personal statements should be considered, but then there is the problem of them also becoming formulaic and over-flowing with misplaced praise. University-specific exams? Well, I remember reading somewhere that Oxford and Cambridge were considering bringing them back (are they already in place?), but I can’t imagine Durham bringing them in anytime soon.

As a final comment about grades: I received one B and three C’s at A-Level (one was for General Studies, so I guess it doesn’t count), yet I’ve completed a BA from Durham (receiving a 2:1), a Masters degree from Cardiff, and am now in my third year of PhD back in Durham (tutoring on the side). My point is, in complete agreement with Mr. Baker, grades aren’t everything and they don’t indicate what the student might be able to accomplish under the right conditions. For that reason, it is dismaying that Cambridge University now admits to no longer reading personal statements when considering applicants – it is on the personal statement that students like myself, who maybe don’t have a stellar academic history pre-university, can have the chance to shine or catch an admittance officer’s eye.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Having a tantrum about it won’t help, and neither will running to the papers crying foul. Maybe your kid just didn’t stand out – it’s a nigh-on impossible thing for a parent to admit that their child isn’t, actually, particularly special (I know my parents are somewhat blinded to my own academic short-comings).