Monday, December 2, 2013

Alumni Achievement Award - citation delivered last Friday night for Una Fox

Una Fox, Vice President, The Walt Disney Company - CITATION

The late 1980s were fairly dismal in Ireland. For graduates it was not a time with plentiful opportunities. For an arts graduate with a Degree in French literature and English, it would not be surprising if a career as a secondary teacher or perhaps the owner of a language school would have beckoned - depending on the level and extent of entrepreneurial zeal of the graduate.
But the heights of corporate America might have been thought to be more the province of our business or law engineering graduates. How refreshing then that those dizzy heights are graced by the presence of just such an arts graduate, a humanities scholar, a linguist –  from UCC.
Proof positive -if it were needed- of the truth if what we oft proclaim as self evident - that the humanities are essential, relevant even in the world of technology, and critical for the sustainability of the world in which we live.
Martha Nussbaum calls it narrative imagination- that quality nurtured by exposure to the arts; Una Fox herself in talking about the qualities of the humanities grads with which she works terms it empathy. Whichever term is used, it is a quality which when honed in the Irish perhaps has a particular richness as we have a natural affinity for engagement and curiosity about the people around us. It therefore can provide a heady and effective mix in the challenging world of corporate management.
Nussbaum argues that: “…narrative imagination… means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have. The cultivation of sympathy has been a key part of the best modern ideas of democratic education, in both Western and non Western nations. Much of this cultivation must take place in the family, but schools, and even colleges and Universities also play an important role. If they are to play it well, they must give a central role in the curriculum to the humanities and the arts, cultivating a participatory type of education that activates and refines the capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes.” (at pp95-96)
Nowadays we aspire to make our graduates globally and culturally fluent. As is often the case there is nothing new in the world and our aspirations as educators today in UCC or what Nussbaum was referring to might well be demonstrated in the very path taken and life led by Una Fox.
Una Markey now Fox graduated from UCC with a BA in 1989. She gained 9 years of international experience with Dow Jones, Thomson Financial & Cisco Systems in London and Paris before moving to KPMG Consulting where she worked with global brands such as Microsoft, Qwest, Google, and AT&T. She became a Director at Yahoo! in 2006 and now works as Vice President Retail and eCommerce Technology for The Walt Disney Company.

Self evidently Una Fox is a global technology and business leader, hugely accomplished at global business technology management, operations and the delivery of large-scale business transformation programs. She has focused her career on linking technology capabilities to business models and creating new revenue opportunities. She has managed and motivated successful business and technology teams in complex environments to deliver rich and flexible enterprise services at Fortune 100 companies.

Commitment to Cork Ireland and to humanities graduating classes was evident this week in her ready and enthusiastic  availability to speak to our students about her journey from the BA to Disney. Her enthusiasm for communicating opportunities to young humanities graduates of today is important as they need a champion in the cacophony of voices talking up science and maths. Una has been a member of the external board of advisors to the College of Arts Celtic Studies & Social Sciences since January 2013, and as aspire to educate our graduates for the world of work - and are mindful of the challenge involved- we have already started conversations with her regarding our curriculum and her input will be a lasting legacy of the influence of Dundalk & California, on Cork.
This generosity is not untypical. Una is a frequent commentator and speaker on technology education for children, particularly girls and young women. She is a member of the board of the Hello World Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to inspire young coders and in 2012, founded the Los Angeles chapter of CoderDojo, which has grown the outreach and program from 50 to 500 students in 18 months. She is an advocate for the advancement of women in technology and in corporate leadership roles. She partnered with Irish Technology Leadership group in March 2013 to launch a Women’s Technology Leadership group, which is a global organization dedicated to networking, mentoring and enabling the promotion of women to senior executive and board leadership roles, as well as the encouragement of investment in female entrepreneurs.
But Una is much more than the sum of that demonstrable leadership. Her achievements are self evidently remarkable and a cause for celebration in their own right but why her success is so significant for a University at this point in time and for us as educators is because of what it represents: in terms of education, the importance of values and the significance of crossing disciplinary boundaries with career trajectories. 

The lessons humanities scholarship teaches us help identify global challenges, those technology poses to privacy for example, when we are all only two seconds away from a camera phone or a tweet, so that not just governments but other individuals pose a challenge to our private lives; and highlight how the inequalities in our world could grow greater in scale and significance as the children of the better off become digital natives from a very early age, while the cost of access to technology ensures others face a newer different kind if illiteracy. Those issues can challenge the very sustainability of our democracy. Here again the insights of the arts are critical as in Nussbaum’s words:
“It is easier to treat people as objects to be manipulated if you have never learned any other way to see them.” (Martha Nussbaum Not for Profit at p.23)
There is a grave danger in a world that fails to recognize or articulate those issues, neglects their inculcation in the young, or provides no recourse in the wider community to those with those very skills and values to influence the way in which we manage our world: - not because they are the high priests on the side, but because they are the managers, they are the VPs, they are the corporate giants. 
In that light it is notable that in 2012, Una was named one of the “Silicon Valley 50” and the “Hollywood 50” by the Irish Technology Leadership Group, based in San Jose, Silicon Valley. She is a board advisor to the US-Ireland Alliance, founded by the US Senator George Mitchell, and was recently requested by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to participate in the Global Irish Economic forum 2013, a gathering of the most influential members of the global Irish Diaspora with the Irish Cabinet to formulate approaches to Ireland’s economic recovery.

R ecent European debates regarding Horizon 20:20 evidenced the need for scientists and scholars of literature and the arts to sit down together to implement inter-disciplinarity and an integrated scientific approach in order that Europe will benefit from wise investment in research and innovation.
The Vilnius Declaration recognized that if research is to serve society, a resilient partnership with all relevant actors is required. A wide variety of perspectives will provide critical insights to help achieve the benefits of innovation. The effective integration of SSH requires that they are valued, researched and taught in their own right as well as in partnership with other disciplinary approaches.
(Vilnius, Lithuania declaration of Sept 24th 2013)
All of this purveys a simple truth- we need each side of the divide and we need to be able to talk to one another – It is that ability to translate- to overcome the borders- to merge the worlds of hard and soft science that we celebrate today- Una Fox is important in her own right & in what she represents at this juncture- important for the Humanities but also to technology and the sciences, to say nothing of business,  critically representative not only of our College but of the entire spectrum of what we hope to do as a University.
 Perhaps in that sense it is truly appropriate that she is now in Disney- a company where the fairy tales of our youthful and childlike imagination find expression dressed up in colour and gloss which sophisticated technology makes appear simple: translated onto the digital world with a grace and eloquence which is the result of the very highest of technical expression, coupled with the best of imaginative and narrative gifts. Those are the very qualities which probably also best describe Una Fox- alumni award winning recipient of the CACSSS 2013.
Thar ceann an Uachtaráin Ó Murcadha, agus thar ceann Choláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh, tugann sé an-shásamh dom cuireadh a thabhairt do Una Fox glacadh leis an ngradam mar Chéimí Gaisce ón Coláiste na nEalaíon, an Léinn Cheiltigh agus na nEolaíochtaí Sóisialta i gcomhair na bliana dhá mhíle is a trí dhéag.
Go raibh maith agaibh go leir.

Friday, August 31, 2012

CAO and the like

There has been a lot of heat around this summer, not climatically-at least here-but in the media regarding points, skills acquisition, language, appropriate degrees etc.. Long used to there been a proliferation of expertise regarding such matters in my own field of criminal justice, I am somewhat bemused  to hear Morning Ireland journalists and others now quite adept at conversations regarding the merits of project maths, and well informed about the niceties of CAO points calculation.
What characterises this discourse is the following: The economic and strategic import of skills in certain areas of endeavour is taken as a given, and these areas are fairly narrowly- not to say traditionally defined. Essentially they are regarded as those of science and maths, with some role for modern languages- the latter of course minus the literature. It behoves us to reflect on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn, that scientific endeavour is not so stratified, and that intellectual and imaginative bounce is not the preserve of any one discipline, no more than a facility in a foreign language will improve skills of communication without something more being imbued.
All the talk nationally about changed approaches to admission to Universities, and broad based first year or undergraduate degrees, seems to me to miss the point that students already- as always- vote with their feet to study and stay with what they like; that interdisciplinarity still requires one is imbued with a discipline to start (which is why there is much of the good work there done at postgraduate level); and that making options available to students to study interesting combinations across many faculties, can happen and does happen, within current offerings. Some of the best students I have known come from degree courses which are joint –as in shared by two disciplines- as they welcome the opportunity to ‘work with both sides of their brain’ as they put it. Some of the most disillusioned I have met, are those who have chosen courses because they thought them pragmatic–as in they would get a job -only to discover on graduating four years later that the world had changed. Where there is an opportunity for some of our young people to train vocationally, it may well be at postgraduate taught masters level (which is why our government withdrawal of funding is so shortsighted) and there are many rich offerings in that space. What must be preserved however is the intellectual freedom for undergraduates to range far and wide, whether within or outside their disciplines, in the undergraduate years. This must not be mistaken for repackaging of degrees populated with offerings from different areas or sectors, or become solely a product of same. It must be recognised and celebrated that this is also a matter of approach to scholarship very much found within the disciplines, not exclusively held by just some. When one looks at the lives that our graduates lead, and the major roles they hold: humanities graduates in finance and science graduate in development, their lived lives belie the notion that disciplines are either narrow or confined in their relevance or remit.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Higher education landscape –a crib sheet!

A recent report in the Guardian mentioned how philosopher AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities due to open in (Bloomsbury) London in September, which is focussed exclusively on teaching degrees in the Humanities, will be dominated by students from private schools with just one in five offers being made to state school pupils. The fee of £18,000 a year was according to Grayling reflective of the cost of providing a ‘very high –quality, intensive education’.
Our funders may not share Grayling’s view that high quality intensive education in the humanities costs, and that may not reflect our bottom line budget, but it is a useful reflection on a trend in institutions (elsewhere), their identity and location and cost. As we are drawing closer to approaching the July deadline when the HEA expects our Institution along with the other HEIs to have submitted to them, our mission as a University, with our strategic intentions as to where we propose to position ourselves in the Irish higher education system, it might be useful to muse on these matters a little. According to a letter sent to Presidents by Tom Boland, the HEA CEO, (on the HEA website), submissions need to cover the institution’s distinctive mission, its preferred institutional type and structure, having regard to current strengths, its institutional alliances and its involvement in regional clusters.-  The ‘current strengths’ piece reminds us that this is a reality check, and should be reflective to some degree of what we are currently composed: in what disciplines and areas our students and staff mainly lie.
A recent (first) visit to DCU campus for a meeting of the new Irish Research Council (IRC- logo forthcoming!) served to highlight for me how institutions sometimes feel different, in a way which is not simply a product of building age or design. It has more to do perhaps with the ethos or focus of the place which can be evident in imponderable ways, but ensures that, although in broad measure all higher education institutions within the HEA remit are places committed to similar ideals and aims, and all engage in the academic and educational endeavour, the ‘mix’ or feel of each is different-not inferior or superior-just not the same. That difference, however elusive, might be exactly what defines us-but we may not realise it. It may also be what our students and graduates best and most easily identify-and remember. It may be why they choose our institution over others, and may determine why and if they stay there. Academic staff, (although of course motivated by the realities of employment opportunities), also often move between institutions of different types for broadly similar reasons.
So if you are a student or staff member what does UCC offer-or what might you perceive as a visiting academic in our institution? Easiest to work from the outside in on this:
UCC has a beautiful visually and aesthetically pleasing campus with a commitment to the visual arts and architecture evident in the sculptures in the President’s  garden as well as the Glucksman.
It is a substantial campus in scope giving a sense of the breath and range of the disciplines within –what is often termed a comprehensive University. It has itself a history and considerable heritage (archives etc.), and a commitment to the historic as well as the modern. Nonetheless although located in the heart of the city-it is moving (unconsciously perhaps!) to the western edge more recently-and so in danger perhaps of becoming ‘suburban’. (Memo to ourselves: watch this as UCC has always been a city campus and an important part of the (second) city.)
It has a campus full of students, not in an overcrowded way, but in a visible sense as their presence around the grounds shows it to be a fun place for sport, games and cultural and social engagement. It is also an environment where students concentrate on knowledge, and are removed of other some concerns. It is generally safe, for instance, and there are no considerations such as a strict dress code etc-(in that sense we are like Google!) as the priority is time (uncrowded) and effort given over to thinking and reflecting and growing intellectually. This facilitates students at many levels but prioritises undergraduate and postgraduate up to doctoral and post doctoral level.
It is an intellectual and elite institution, focussed on research for knowledge. The campus is an environment which houses and values a range of disciplinary experts (our academic staff) who are hired, valued and indeed attracted in, in order to make UCC a site of the deepest possible engagement with intellectual argument and scientific discovery, thereby ensuring nationally Ireland is equipped to engage in dialogue and participate on a world basis in research for knowledge.
Clustering or connecting with the positions of other institutions regionally, is a more nebulous one. I can say that in my own discipline I have seen that it can be a destination of choice for many graduates, who on completion of studies elsewhere -e.g. WIT- want a University experience. For them it may perhaps offer a more theoretical component, complementary to courses where the emphasis elsewhere is otherwise. In that sense it offers either a wider scope, or range, or options to a higher level in many subject areas, which are pursued from a different (equally valid) perspective elsewhere. In itself this reflects the fact that institutionally, University College Cork houses, in equal measure, research and teaching which embraces applied, wholly theoretical, and blue skies thinking, as well as valuing thinking for no purpose at all.
How is that for a start?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Here’s the thing

I had occasion recently to mention to some colleagues ‘the new face of academia’. I’m not sure they knew what I meant (even less so that I did). Nonetheless here are a few thoughts on our changing nature, apposite I would suggest as so many of our valued colleagues will shortly depart from a life of public service in the educational sector before their time-and without the fanfare or acknowledgment which they might deserve.
Increasingly academics as I’ve mentioned previously are disappearing as a numerically majority force on our campuses. In their place there are now either new or an increasing number of:
Researchers (now also research professors-begging the question what do the rest do)??
Post docs as increasingly no entrance level posts as academics appear
Part timers
Specialist administrators- these for all manner of additional academic services and initiatives from recruitment to promotion of programmes to ICT.
How then is academia different from previously? Has the lot of the academic changed?
When I started as an academic I like others lectured and taught as I was told and enjoyed it, but was also expected to do-and did-much more. That ‘more’ involved things like promoting our programmes to schools persuading them of the value of a University education (by travelling on a (rickety) bus to far flung places like Youghal); journeying across Europe to meet French and German colleagues & persuade them to take our students; later travelling further afield to the USA to do the same. This was additional to teaching at night and day; publishing; innovating where possible or desirable in the curriculum; and meeting my students. The latter ranged from supervising postgraduates, to mentoring first years and others; while in between chatting to colleagues and performing the usual quasi admin academic tasks like student discipline; exam appeals ; plagerism; as well as speaking at student conferences and events on campus frequently at week-ends. Those ‘additional’ items, apart from the strict delivery of lectures and exams, are part of the fabric of campus life as much as the excitement and shared pleasure of lectures and seminars with students who share one’s own peculiar interests. Some amongst them stick out:-a discipline issue involved a good looking but slightly scary Russian boxer with lots of funds; a tale of a student involving brothels and fires which would turn your hair; a similar episode involving a lost passport; and a charming pre Philosophical society dinner with Clement Freud to which he had brought a very old port for the students to taste (I assisted) which enlivened the subsequent debate on pornography no end.
These kinds of events would be recognised by all academics and those now retiring would have many such tales. But if I talk of the changing face of academia, has that in any way changed? I think it helps answer that question if we look at what academics are now meant to be doing in the sense of what offers reward (at least theoretically) through the promotion scheme in our Institutions. In these one might find amongst the characteristics of the ‘ideal’ (new) academic amongst which would be the following:
Writing research and grant proposals; watching citation indices; creating networks for grants; gathering peer esteem indicators; producing scholarly articles (in peer reviewed journals only) and perhaps monographs. All of this being effected at some speed.
There is visibly less of -or at least less emphasis upon- the importance or centrality of the ‘older’ academics lot of teaching in often overcrowded lecture halls filled with sometimes less than motivated students (themselves obsessing with crafting a CV with ‘suitable’ internships and opportunities and impressive referees amongst which should number the ‘new’ type academic). All of this of necessity causing somewhat ‘slower’ production of research-(but before the pundits reach for the red pen here, think of the ‘slow food movement’ as a parallel).
Nowadays some academics may not do that much teaching in that the said research grants may provide for ‘buy out’ of their teaching; so that they like the above-mentioned researchers engage full time in research. Hence students may not meet these newer academics and researchers in the course of their degrees. The recruitment rounds will not find them visible either to attract students onto the campus, as these are hived off to specialist recruiters, agents and non academics. Yet the loss of the excitement of the communication of the story by the crafter of the postgraduate programme is the loss of a powerful recruitment tool. The student does not get the taste or feel of what a lecture from this person might be like (whether terrible or great).  Meanwhile on campus the student experience for the undergraduate, who is busy polishing their CV, engaging in internships and placements; acquiring transferable skills and documenting how they are engaged in the (always ‘cutting edge!!’) research of their professors in a campus with facilities of accommodation (self catering) and broadband access on a par with anywhere, could possibly be anywhere else.  What happens to the feel of college life: to drinking coffee, thinking subversive thoughts, exchanging views over pints with a lecturer in the old college bar after a student debate; being part of an organisation on campus that does something vaguely shady (I will go no further than to point out that the occasional occupation of college offices; showing of the banned films Patriot Game or Life of Brian and sale of prophylactics in the Kampus Kitchen sufficed in my day). That stuff may now only be found on our campuses in the brief to the ‘marketers and branders’ (new people also on our shore) and may surface solely in vignettes about college life to recruit postgrads.
So where the CAO entrant might ask is the excitement/the beef? Why should they come to us rather than the Technological University of Munster? If the only difference lies in the title, and we take comfort in the assurance that Minister Quinn has stated ITs must try harder to be Universities, that may cause us to rest on our laurels-Yet of all people we should know that aspiration eventually equals grasp, at least on the part of some. If for example we take comfort in the fact that the staff of the ‘technological University’ do not in sufficient numbers have PhDs, they may yet garner the necessary quotient of PhDs holders amongst their staff as indeed we –and other venerable Institutions- did previously. -One of the most impressive exponents in my own field of interest for instance was based in Oxford and proudly known as Mr Peter Carter MA.
If it is that extra ‘zing’ the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that made and will still save Universities, we need to find and safeguard it at a time of disappearing colleagues and emerging competing collegial institutions. To be, and by being different, we need to focus on it-before it also disappears out the door....

Happy St Bridget’s day and best wishes to all our departing colleagues!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

'Public interest' at the heart of our education & research agenda

At a recent celebratory conference in Athlone marking 30 years of the Irish Association of Law Teachers, (the Annual Conference IALT Saturday 19th November 2011) I was asked to join a plenary session on the public role of the academic lawyer. Given the growth of legal scholarship in Ireland during that time which has been marked by a celebratory publication launch the night before, and given that we had also recently marked more than 10 years of the IRCHSS, I chose to reflect on how much has changed in higher education and research in our country in that time. Literally distinctive Irish legal academic scholarship had emerged, and the architecture (IRCHSS) supporting research and literature in the humanities and social sciences (including business and law) appeared.
The following is the piece of musing or writing which emerged, which I offer with apologies for the long silence and still incomplete thoughts. (Within you will glean how events such as the recent announcement of the merger of IRCHSS and IRSET intervened to distract me from my blog!) Happy holidays to all!

The Public Role of the academic lawyer
Annual Conference IALT Saturday 19th November 2011

As the theme of this conference is “Added Value(s)-The Role of Law in contemporary society” and in this plenary session we are asked to focus on “The Public Role of the academic lawyer’, I thought I would examine the role of the academic lawyer in the public sphere from perspectives, reflective of my own experience of that role, within the spheres of:
(1) education for democracy and active citizenship (as well as occasional but not compulsory legal representation); and
(2) the nature of the academy within which we work and our students study; and
(3) the research and education environment in which we currently find ourselves and where and with whom our shared interests lie when fiscal considerations transfix governments.

(1) Starting with education, one of my current favourite quotes on our role is that of Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity
“It is up to us, as educators, to show our students the beauty and interest of a life that is open to the whole world, to show them that there is after all more joy in the kind of citizenship that questions than in the kind that simply applauds, more fascination in the study of human beings in all their variety and complexity than in the zealous pursuit of superficial stereotypes, more feminine love and friendship in the questioning and self government than in submission to authority. We had better show them this, or the future of democracy in this nation and in the world is bleak.”

Nussbaum speaks of cultivating in ourselves ‘a capacity for sympathetic imagination’ that will enable us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves. She notes that the arts play a vital role here: cultivating powers of imagination that are essential to citizenship. There is a tension she identifies however between the liberal arts and a move towards vocational education (& away from humanities) which given the challenges facing governments in a time of financial constraint may influence policy development in that area.
This movement and phenomenon is what Nussbaum in her later publication Not for Profit-Why democracy needs the humanities (Princeton University Press 2010, p2) terms ‘a silent crisis’
“... the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed what one might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science-the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought-are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit making.”

If we think that too farfetched consider the forthcoming Forfas paper on research prioritisation - in it there is not one reference to the social sciences and the only reference to the humanities is in the context of digitisation. A second relevant development nationally is that of the technological Universities which will pose a considerable challenge to the traditional Universities, in that as Nussbaum again notes (at p 23)
“...all over the world, programs in arts and the humanities, at all levels, are being cut away in favour of the cultivation of the technical. Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing. American parents, too, are moving rapidly in this direction...”

For lawyers any such impoverished view will lead to a move away from much of what we have gained as we moved closer to the heart of the academy-a focus on us as the ‘regulation or policy implication additions on to scientific inquiry-the campus lawyers (unpaid) or simply the pathway to vocational riches in legal practice.
The reason I liked or related to Nussbaum’s concept of the cultivation of a narrative imagination, is that I recognised it as coming close to encapsulating some of what has motivated my teaching criminal justice and evidence. In that realm the ongoing and continuing challenges to liberal democratic regimes posed by the accommodation and occasional disruption of political dissent and/or terrorism as manifest in the absorption of the state’s extraordinary response has fascinated me for many years. That theme of how much we tolerate in the name of our values in liberal democracy resonated for me with how much we tolerate in a trial in the name of justice and fairness; and how challenged we are by our (in)ability to identify with the accused-whether s/he is one of us, and what if they are not? The construction of a public discourse on these issues, the role of the media and the absence or compromise of democratic debate also proved a powerful element in consideration of this contemporary cultural interplay. A masters course emerged from this work, and in due course grew to an LLM in Criminal Justice. The option I offer on that programme Dissonance Terrorism and Criminal Justice focuses on these issues and themes, from a lawyer’s perspective, but drawing on material from other worlds that of the ‘real’ world of legal practice as well as those of literature and film where possible. In some senses the course merits a health warning for the law students as it attempts to engage them in a process of ‘unlearning’ what they had been taught as undergrads. Side by side with the clinical experience for those on the LLM Criminal Justice and its crash course on the realities of the practice of law, and the input of those who work in that general area (probation officers, victim support, the police and prison services etc), it can prove a heady combination. Although it offers no certainties however, and asks more questions than it ever answers, is run as a seminar or ongoing conversation with the students, where they have to do advance reading and lead the discussion (ie do most of the hard work!) it has proved to be the most satisfying course of my career-and I gather the students like it too. In sum, the course has its genesis in what might be termed legal deafness or the blindness of perspective, as manifest in the legal system, and the education of law students. Ultimately the aim is to develop a counterveiling wariness of assumption and certainty as well as of bias; and a sensitivity to the ‘other’ point of view. (hence the recognition factor in Nussbaum). A degree of respect for and comfort with the messiness, or straightforward inevitability of contradiction, is also helpful in navigating the course materials, as well as an appreciation of the value of dissent. It seems to me there is a lesson there not simply for lawyers or law students-but for all those interested in citizenship and education; and the value of these issues for our democracy where as Nussbaum’s warns :
“It would be catastrophic to become a nation of technically competent people who have lost the ability to think critically, to examine themselves, and to respect the humanity and diversity of others…It is therefore very urgent right now to support curricular efforts aimed at producing citizens who can take charge of their own reasoning, who can see the different and foreign not as a threat to be resisted, but as an invitation to explore and understand, expanding their own minds and their capacity for citizenship.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak a literary critic and theorist who participated in the Cork Caucus on art possibility and democracy devised by the National Sculpture Factory as part of Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, made the observation that her teaching experience over the past few decades, has firmed up her conviction that education, whether verbal or visual is to teach how to construct the object of knowledge. (Emphasis added)
“Therefore, for me, education is upstream from content. You can change your mind about content more easily than you can change the habit of a mind that makes you build what you know as you do. I also believe this is the only way to share epistemic formations. It is the only way to form a collectivity. I believe further that such formations are nearly always in the nature of unintended consequences. I think this is because education-this teaching how to construct, deliberately or not, the object of knowledge through the arts, through literature, through philosophising-is at best an un-coercive re-arrangement of desires. And yet, the element of persuasion in teaching is not so far from benevolent and patient coercion. That is where the element of surprise, of unintended consequence, of the ‘will have been’ comes in. You must let go so that you can be surprised, because otherwise-and given the educative process itself you cannot- in spite of the best intentions and deliberately non-hierarchical behaviour-you cannot altogether not coerce benevolently.”

I am sure that any of you who has struggled with the certainties of a newly minted law graduate in a Masters class, or the lifelong banker or tax inspector in an evening class, know what I mean-sowing the seeds of doubt in a mind that has been well schooled in a particular fashion is not an easy task-but a worthwhile one when it works! The height of my own success was when an elderly retired bank manager, a student in evening law having listened to me opine and occasionally rant over the course of a four year evening degree, with Introduction to the legal system (which I transformed into feminism 101); followed by criminal law where there was copious reference to MacKinnon and Dworkin (Andrea); through to the law of evidence (lots of terrorism) and labour law (more equality), he finally said to me after those four years of togetherness: “ I suppose there is another way of looking at things-you’re not right mind, but I see there is another way.” Success!

The LLM course I now teach focussing on the partiality of legal construction (at trial) and how terrorism and criminal justice interact explores that view. It forces students to think about what thinking like a lawyer means. It does so in an attempt not just simply to have them ‘un learn’ what they know but to explore how we might challenge the lawyer-or law student- perspective by looking at things differently –and at different things. The limits of the past affect how we see the present (Douzinas) as the role of art is often to force imaginings where reasoning will not go (McCann). The trial as the most visible (though not real as experienced-hence symbolic) aspect of the legal structure serves admirably as the locus of an inquiry into how such a framework constructs the past through the present while influencing the future. The result is illusion (not to say elusive) in its resemblance not at all to ‘what really happened’, but it constructs/decides/identifies for us what is truth, fairness, justice even just as it nominates who we are and who are other(s). In that sense the trial becomes a kind of moral compass for our lives.

Dame Sian Elias (CJ New Zealand) in the 8th Sir David Williams lecture 16 May 2008 on ‘Taking rights seriously’ makes what she terms a pratical point with some relevance here:
“…a critical role played out by law in our societies is as a method of argumentation. ....Expression of values which bear on the outcome promotes understanding and participation. Now this is not a claim for a process based theory of the Constitution, it is a more modest and practical point for the explanation of constitutional law through common law method and real controversies is valuable in itself”.

Our method is part of what we do and teach in legal education, and part of our contribution to the public is the training of lawyers- in a form of argumentation and consideration which exposes them to the other point of view-enabling them to empathise with the other, represent the other point of view, articulate from the narrative imagination.

How does this tale relate to the public role of academic lawyers –outside of that which is involved in the education and training of our students many of whom will become lawyers? Here I want to turn to focus on and within the University, considering the nature of the academy within which we work and our students learn.

(2) Nature of the academy
There is a parallel process of challenging our own disciplines and that of the structures within which we work- or there should be.
Kathy Lahey whom I quoted when delivering the UCC Annual Equality lecture many years ago wrote about tenure expounding the view that we should pass it to that ‘irritating young person down the hall’. While I am conscious that I am no longer that irritating young person (though the adjective still may have credence!), within our discipline of law the narrative of my own work reveals an interesting truth:
For years I focussed on the crime of rape -the choice an obvious perhaps even a stereotypical one you might say. Reform of the law on rape focussed initially on how it is named and defined-anatomical constraints etc-a very male point of view.(Andrea Dworkin-what bits go where in case we’d get it wrong)
Engagement with and of activists became part of that narrative and the long struggle that led legislatively to rape being on the legislative floor twice in Ireland in the decade 1980-90 (manifesting Carol Smart’s giving power to law)
The reality of course was that of the change in the law-the nomenclature-not working to effect what was wished for-a more effective method of investigation prosecuting and judging this crime perpetrated against (predominantly) women. The reason why requires uncovering the hidden truths of the male narrative-that of the power of adjudication in translation-the narrative that would be believed and recognised by the system of police prosecutors and juries-the importance of a story that has cultural resonance and recognition in a way that marginal stories of existence sometimes do not (the date rape scenario for example). These issues were ones of credibility-legal assumptions and rules about same (corroboration) and assessments and barriers to relevance-past sexual history having something to say about consent for example.
The court room and trial narrative-cross examination and the factual context-and therefore belief-on the part of the jury are powerful layers here. The judge and jury will ultimately endorse a story which they recognise as true and society will comfortably mark as unacceptable behaviour which it already knows is-and so the pattern is circular and the voice which attempts to challenge that is silenced.
Hence my interest now in the underbelly of the criminal justice system-the way allegations get turned into truths and fact finding a creative and interpretive process. So how is this tale which might be described as a tale of misdirected energies limited effect and hence defeat, reflected in particular in University hierarchy where some of us occasionally find ourselves?
If you have ever felt the real conversation is being held elsewhere-or that once you are on the Committee the really important meeting is held before that committee meets, I think you are probably part of that community of voices that don’t get heard in the corridors of power. One of course needs critical mass to change narrative/challenge assumption & truths. You also need bravery on the parts of those there not simply to buy into the assumptions and presumptions of truth that about-nor indeed the ready roles you will be given! Challenging a narrative in a powerful way sometimes involves embracing the ‘other’. In my area of interest Justice Catherine McGuinness did this powerfully in my view when in constructing ’fairness’ she pointed out it was just as unfair to assume credence on the part of an allegation of a historical claim of sex abuse, as it had been to automatically disbelieve rape victims. That alternative narrative she endorsed there offered a genuine alternative perspective and is in that sense a ‘game changer’.
The challenge for us is how in our universities to have the hierarchies know that same effect.
Kathleen Hall terms 'a new politics of knowledge' the "…setting the perameters for how we think about the purposes of education and is silencing alternative forms of politics, educational visions and expertise by challenging their usefulness, relevance or scientific rigor".
This is significant because defining what is 'relevant' 'useful' or 'credible' knowledge-or what delivers limits our view:
To quote Hall again in the context of education:
"This discourse is producing not only strategies for improving education, but the boundaries of what remains outside-unspoken, unspeakable, and unthinkable-within the terms of this debate. Fundamental questions about the purposes and politics of education and its relation to the common good cannot be easily formulated within a system orchestrated by the logic of calculation and of measuring outcomes and results. What matters is what works, it is said. Yet is knowing what works all that matters?"
The old humanities idea after all was that knowledge is capable of being its own end (Cardinal Newman). In terms society and influencing public policy, I would suggest that the public interest dimension to the academic endeavour is key. To quote from Kathleen Lynch in a recent paper presented to the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) where she reminds us that Universities and other higher education institutions have justified public funding for their activities on the grounds that they serve the public good:
"[Universities and other higher education institutions] have traded on the Enlightenment inheritance that they are the guardians and creators of knowledge produced for the greater good of humanity in its entirety."
Some such as Wang speak of 'the decline of the Humanities as a precursor to its likely collapse in the not too distant future'.
This decline Wang says "…signifies more than the disintegration of the institution itself. Rather it represents the demise of the idea of the University as such. The idea that intellectual inquiry is worth pursuing in its own right has been not only a justification of the existence of the Humanities, but the very foundation upon which the entire edifice of the University rests…Unless the current trend is stopped…higher education will sooner or later cease to be an institution informed by intellectual autonomy; instead it will become an appendage of corporations, a place of professional and technical training tailored to the needs of industry and commerce. If this indeed comes to pass, it will perhaps be only in museums that future generations will find out what the University was once like. The farewell to the Humanities, for which we have been prepared step by step, will thus be farewell to the very idea of the University."
Lieberwitz has identified commercialisation of the University as a crisis for higher education:
"Commercialisation of the University is a crisis for higher education. By bringing market models into the core university research and teaching functions, universities have damaged their mission to serve the public. Crucial to the integrity of the university is the independence of faculty and the university from private financial interests, including those of corporate donors. This long standing principle …has been linked to the value of faculty academic freedom to pursue research and teaching that breaks new ground and challenges the status quo. These well-internalized academic values have created a strong presumption against the legitimacy of university commercial activities, given the contradiction between the university's public mission and the private good of the market"

Even though this may appear too ‘far fetched’ for the Irish academy, just consider the following:
• Proliferation of industry & university collaboration on research the recent Forfas prioritization exercise being a case in point.
• The power of the science paradigm in research. This is now since last week exacerbated by the merger of IRCHSS and IRSET risking loss of autonomy, dedicated funding streams for AHSS and law and social scientists diverting energies into 'collaborative' (funded- science identified with law as a policy implications 'add-on') research, neglecting other areas of enormous public interest (or none at all).

• Measurement (under the guise of accountability). RIS 'measurement/peer review may mean research similarly (mis)constructed. Citation indeces (and counting) may threaten public dissemination of research. Wang brings home the implications of this process of measurement (in which we are already involved, not to say complicit) and its implications for our disciplines:
"…one's position in the academic hierarchy has little to do with the "what" of one's work but everything to do with the "where", and the "where"- whether one publishes in prestigious journals or obscure ones-is determined not by whether one's scholarship provides original insights into important intellectual issues, but by how visible one has managed to become by following academic trends or by "subverting" them here and (535) there within the broad parameters of these trends. The determining factor, in other words, is not so much the intellectual choice and treatment of the subject matter as the relative standing of the venue of one's publications: so long as one publishes with the prestigious academic presses and journals, one's publications are "excellent"."

• Time (loss of the sabbatical) in a high teaching load environment where our disciplines may be treated as the cash cow of the Universities, threatening the solitary scholarly monograph (which takes time but breaks new ground). A mention also of the 'disappearing' academic- when one looks at the staff statistics and profiles in our institutions, it is striking how many are not traditional academics but research staff whose tenure may well be related to a certain grant or centre. Moreover the increased 'casualisation' of academic staff caused by the ECF, moves us away from academic tenure which Lieberwitz identifies succintly and powerfully with the heart of the academy :
"The tenure system creates a foundation to support the values promoted by academic freedom: free expression of controversial ideas-theories; experimentation with new research agendas; teaching that challenges majority views; disagreement regarding university policies; full collegial debates on academic decisions, including curricular development and peer reviews; participation in faculty self governance bodies such as faculty senates and policy committees and public statement concerning social issues."

These concerns need a voice. I might suggest ours because legal academics don't need a client-unlike their practitioner friends. They explore similar issues but with a broader brush, a different angle– that can be the public role (in part at least) of the academic lawyer.

(3) The research and educational environment.
A Shared project: Reconstituting 'public interest' at the heart of the academy and our research infrastructure

One of the interests we share in the humanities and social science and one that is critical for the future is precisely that of research which is driven by no agenda other than curiosity, acknowledges no standard except excellence, and aims at an understanding and contextual appreciation of the ‘grand challenges’ facing human existence. Addressing these questions at a critical time for university education and society in Ireland, is part of an endeavour which links our research and teaching, ensuring a quality future where teaching is not 'hived off' as a secondary, ill resourced, cash generating activity to bolster more expensive research activities elsewhere. By linking the two and making it integral to our methodology we will do our students a favour by ensuring they are not badly served, we will also secure the future of our discipline within the academy and our own. We will also challenge the orthodoxy that research is something performed by great teams in a lab at great expense to be promulgated by a select few in peer reviewed esoteric publications with no communication to the general public either feasible or desirable. It will meet head on any tendency to reallocate university budgets from arts social sciences business and law to subsidise science and engineering. But it does something more in insisting that the sum of knowledge is not quantifiable or manifest in technical tools or widgets, that the solution to all our ills (including jobs) is not in science and technology-and asserts that the really important line of inquiry may be the one not predetermined by a programme of funding but a scholar looking at the margins-turning things around, reading things backwards perhaps. The space for those contributions formed part of the European Horizon 20:20 discussions in the aftermath of the green paper which I attended in the British Academy in London, where it was acknowledged by our own Maire Geoghegan Quinn the relevant European Commissioner that the ‘grand challenges’-like climate change or security for example are not just to be solved and addressed by science. That is an important fissure in the straightened assumptions heretofore and we need to broaden that aperture and get in there. It needs reflection and repetition nationally where the new ‘research Council’ will need a strong HSS input and presence.

Barrett already questions"[t]he dilution of the higher education subsidy, by universities placing undergraduates in large class sizes and the downgrading of undergraduate lecturing by universities to cross subsidise other activities…[which is]...seriously open to question from the perspectives of taxpayers, students and the wider society."

Universities have transformed over recent times into powerful corporate networks, whose public values have been seriously challenged. Lynch's conclusion is that
"[t]he university operates in a complex cultural location in many respects. It is at the one time a product of cultural practice and a creator of culture; it is a powerful interest and a creator of interests. There is a sense in which its intellectual independence is always at risk, given its reliance on external funding from many sources, and yet its history grants it the capability to reclaim its own independence (Delanty 2001). To maintain its independence, the university needs to declare its distance from powerful interest groups, be these statutory, professional or commercial. It must not only do this rhetorically but also constitutionally. Maintaining a critical distance from the institutions of power is vital if one is to protect the public interest role of the university".

Liberwitz makes a similar point, that " [a]s Universities take on the identity of commercial corporations they may lose their unique position in society as institutions trusted to engage in independent research for the public good."

Our aspiration for the academy has to be a framework for securing traditional (and still important) disciplines as well as new emergent ones, which involves scholars and students engaging with the construction of the public interests. Internationally the identification of the issues and the questions which will be funded under Horizon 2020 and future programmes, are and will be significant for us. We have things to say about the grand challenges such as the sustainable society and security from crime, that are greater than the sum of the technocrats’ ability to design ever more sophisticated surveillance or tracking devices for instance. The importance of preserving space for research guided by the ground up-not programmatic-individual inquiry and alternative narratives is vital here in the public interest. Nationally for Ireland, it is important to have the architecture and capacity for research in the Arts Humanities and Social Science (including business & law) which will allow us to stay on and influence that European field. The merger of the IRCHSS and IRSET into a new conjoined research council undoubtedly weakens that structure, unless we are very careful indeed to preserve the autonomy and funding streams within what emerges. The legacy of the celtic tiger for many of those disciplines including law, for instance, that is often forgotten or unacknowledged, is the body of newly or recently minted PhD graduates who were IRCHSS scholars, many of them who had opportunities in this country well beyond previous generations’ imaginings. They are the intellectual capital of this economy and society.
At the national European level we need to claim the relevance of our disciplines to the grand challenges by addressing issues that are central to AHSS. In terms of engagement with the University as a whole we need to be part of a community of scholars central to the academy and committed to public interest and the cultivation- and on occasion- of dissent within the academy and research.
Law has over the past 30 years in the academy in Ireland exhibited a transformative capacity, as celebrated by the IALT last night. I believe that leaves us well placed to do more outside that place of ours – and that for the sake of the public that we should. Having moved outside my comfort zone of the Law Faculty in UCC (still my true home), I can offer some perspective on that and also a minor health warning connected with my own experience of now being on the margins out there and how that feels. Here I quite like a quote from Tony Judt in The memory chalet (at p.206-7):
“I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another-where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life
...To be sure there is something self indulgent in the assertion that one is always at the edge, on the margin. Such a claim is only open to a certain kind of person exercising very particular privileges. Most people most of the time would rather not stand out: it is not safe.” (emphasis added)
“But if you are born at intersecting margins and thanks to the peculiar institution of academic tenure-are at liberty to remain there, it seems to me a decidedly advantageous perch: what should they know of England who only England know?”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Value of Arts Humanities & Social Science Research

It has been a busy time of the academic year with conferrings –graced by former graduates as speakers extolling the virtues of a liberal arts and social sciences education- and the launch of a research showcase month in the College, which highlights the research activities ongoing in the College and launches a research website and a brochure full of activities: workshops, conferences, summer schools and seminars.
There has never been a more important time to mark the significance of research within the College, as in the national context we await the Forfas prioritisation report which may have implications for the amount of research funding made available for AHSS. Given that as noted in a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times (July 2nd 2011), by Professor John Kelly that over the period 2005-2009 some €1.35 billion of public money was spent on research in our universities, with : “85 per cent allocated to the disciplines in sciences, 8 per cent to engineering and 7 per cent to other, mostly arts, disciplines”, it is notable that a total of 93 per cent of public research monies thus went to so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), with the remaining 7 per cent distributed amongst AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) disciplines.
Consideration of the national research spend is inevitable at a time of fiscal restraint, but it needs to take cognisance of the fact that research monies to date, both from the state and from private industry sources, are more readily available to the sciences than to arts, humanities and social sciences. That is not to deny the costliness or underestimate the value of scientific endeavour, but rather to emphasise the often obscured reality that arts, humanities and social sciences, while benefiting from neither a large pot of available public monies in the national arena, nor from funds from certain industries (e.g. pharmaceutical), have performed very well in international competitions such as those for research funding in Europe. Additionally in Ireland, these disciplines have attracted, and graduated, large numbers of undergraduate and postgraduate students, especially PhDs. They are pivotal to our national strategy for economic recovery in terms of the cultural and historical economy, and international recruitment into education. That this has been achieved with proportionally little investment, and where the return is considerable, in terms of both employment (of postdoctoral fellows and researchers) and leveraging of European funding, has to be taken into account in any debate on research strategy.
The current Forfás exercise on research prioritisation brings government policy on research into sharp focus. There is an apprehension —perhaps unspoken— that research investment will be seen as a mechanism to simply input monies into certain industries. This could happen if all or proportionally most of government funding for research goes into certain identified areas. Furthermore, an economic model of research which equates the latter with commercialisation and employment and which only values applied research is mistaken and dangerous. In this respect the academic communities of sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences would agree that such an approach at the very least will ensure that once blue skies research is no longer being carried out, there will be little to be applied. There must be space for blue skies research in all disciplines, and the autonomy of scholars individually and /or collectively to pursue ideas must be fostered since such autonomy is key to innovation, imagination and progress. The view that any government prioritisation exercise is, or can be, the whole story when it comes to research or research funding, must be rejected, and any dialogue whereby innovation is limited to applied and commercialised research criticised. Indeed, one might also challenge the wisdom of the government deciding to prioritise what will probably be the same areas as every other country in the world,  and choosing to do so using the very limited methodology of simply building on past research success .  After all, where the next ‘big idea’ will come from is not yet known, but it is  unlikely to emerge from those already well-trodden fields. It is more likely that the next ‘big idea’ idea will emerge from the cracks between disciplines.
Ironically, in an era when much lip service is paid to the cross disciplinary and interdisciplinary initiatives, attention to the methodology whereby such scholars talk to and work with each other is fairly scant. Countries which provide structures to support this work and which make provisions to encourage emerging or early-career scholars  to work in these areas will have an inbuilt advantage in future research and discovery. Hunt, in its rejection of hyper-specialisation at an early stage of higher education and a valuing of deep disciplinary foundations, contains a similar message which also must be echoed in research policy and in the later stages of education. As the HEA/IRCHSS report Playing to our strengths (at p17)  notes: “…the expectation that SET research is best suited to ‘create jobs’ is to misunderstand what drives creativity in the first place and understates the importance of AHSS as well as the underlying importance of generic skills in promoting innovation and productivity. ,,,[W]hile the AHSS provide skills for specific occupations and sectors which contribute directly to economic sustainability, they also enhance quality of life and help to make Ireland an attractive place to live, work and do business.”

There is also an additional societal dividend in terms of the ensuring a sustainable society and democracy which merits attention. The focus of academic inquiry and the methodology of our arts humanities and social science scholars has much to offer, not simply in terms of input to public discourse and debate, but in terms of methodology and approach. Despite the occasional lip-service paid to the world of knowledge by politicians in the context of the knowledge economy and society, the recent economic crisis and the focus on utility and transformation of ideas into commercial ideas may often make short shrift of the value of a more traditional approach to knowledge. The latter is one that prefers an ability to critically appraise information and subject the certainties of the moment to analysis in a long-term framework to the dictates of a particular vision of the ‘smart economy’. The ability to articulate and give expression to a dissenting view is exactly what we need as politicians, policy makers and citizens.  Indeed, the failure to do precisely that and to challenge the prevailing consensus may well have been the harbinger of our current difficulties. To forestall any reoccurrence, we therefore need to look to those skills of reflection and analysis and have the courage to dissent and foster an education system which hones them. That means fostering the arts humanities and social sciences in our universities and institutes of higher learning by embedding them more generally in the curriculum across the disciplines (precisely as envisaged in Hunt and Playing to our strengths). In this way we can ensure that the skills in those areas are represented in decision making and policy in all areas and at all levels in our society.
We need to extend a welcome in the College to those students who are now entering the first year of our courses, where the disciplines explore how we might challenge perspective by looking at things differently –and at different things. We need to ensure those disciplines remain central to our educational mission, and enrich the educational opportunities offered to all our graduates by ensuring that the influence of the liberal arts in education are not confined to students registering for such courses.
 There is an important opportunity here in research policy and education to carry the ‘richness’ of the some of the traditions Ireland claims as its own on the world stage, and mark their general and global significance by making them central to our educational and research mission. Showcasing our research is a first step in that process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Customisation or the freedom to wander.

I recently spent a Monday at the Royal Irish Academy listening to the new Minister for Education’s speech on third level and the implementation of the Hunt report. It was an interesting meeting-the Minister stayed for the first discussion session- and striking for the opportunity on the day to engage, particularly the invitation from the Minister for future engagement (which we should embrace), as well as the number and variety of contributors including those of student leaders, as well as quite a number of retired academic staff (in some cases retired Presidents). Of course retired staff may be best placed to dissent and so comment on how things might be without feeling the constraints of living within-though naturally that could also well cut both ways! The occasion marked however the beginning of a dialogue which it is important we have, and it was good that the commitment to continue to engage was evident and manifest on the part of those within the institutions (staff and students) as well as those including policy makers outside. The most damning contribution on the day, however, in my view came from the Students’ Union education officer who claimed that if you removed the University crest or logo from all the course descriptions in our Universities, you would then be unable to tell them apart, so similar are they in content. An indictment of our similarity of mission perhaps, or of the homogenisation of our institutions as we attempt to customise what programmes we offer to the generally held view of what is relevant or necessary?  Let us hope that in any event this conversation with the Minister continues and involves not just preaching to the converted but includes many more new voices-particularly those who are on the ground delivering in our institutions of higher education, who are best placed to offer challenges to our curriculum and celebrate the appropriate distinctiveness in our missions thereby justifying our autonomy.
I reflected on this as I read last Sunday Observer’s article on Google and the feature they now offer, since December 2009 (news to me I admit) whereby what one gets when one ‘googles’ something is not the same response as for everyone else, though the query might well be identical. This is because Google, based on information they already have (from previous searches etc.) will have filtered, pre defined or selected what that person might like or be interested in. This was the subject of a recent talk given by Ell Pariser at TED where he argues that the major internet players may therefore be isolating us in our preconceived world views, by adapting what we find to our known tastes and interests. It is a little like Amazon telling you what books you might like, and in that same sense marginally more worrying than the recommendation of a choice of wine you might like from your wine store, or a cheese suggestion from your local market stall. The idea that we are already predictable and known in our habits-that our selection of movies, food and politics is already charted leads to a longing-on my part at least- for the unexpected. I love to discover something unexpected or unknown about someone- when a colleague sells concert tickets for instance and you get an insight into their music choice (you know who you are!!)
 All of this musing brings me back to the RIA and resonates with something in the Hunt report which I think should find favour and be welcomed. This is the Hunt report’s recommendation of a movement away from too restrictive or prescriptive course offerings, and endorsement of the ability and facility for students to wander and wonder amongst the broader sweep of subjects, particularly important as part of the first year  in University. Not narrowly focussing simply on what is seen to be ‘of the moment’ or strategically important or economically lucrative is also important throughout the undergraduate experience it seems to me. Hence the importance of an arts degree and of the first year in particular offering –as it does in UCC-a breath and diversity in first year-four subjects-some familiar and some new, from which the student can choose to elect to take to degree level those which are to them the most interesting and challenging.
In a sense it is a plea to allow ourselves and our students not to become (yet) parodies of ourselves-and allow our own instincts and natures to be challenged. As we tailor our reading to what we already know we will like-so our media, for example, is pre-selected to contain certain articles on certain topics (not just from a certain perspective). This can more easily happen if we receive or filter our media on-line- and less likely to occur if we have to hold and pass over all of the pages of a newspaper, so that our eyes might then alight on something we might not otherwise have known or wondered about- in the sports pages perhaps! It is the same when we wander through all of an exhibition in an art gallery, or browse the shelves of a book store or library- allows for the unexpected discovery and avoids a narrowing of life. Just as many of us are familiar with the phenomenon of not understanding how a vote goes a certain way in an election or referendum-because no one we know thinks that way- all of us are guilty of surrounding ourselves with ‘people like us’. So a bit of diversity-a chance to choose-a facility for an unexpected encounter in first year with a subject or a lecturer hitherto unknown is all the sweeter because it is unexpected and should be treasured. Our learning and curricular structures should allow for that unexpected something to happen, should avoid the customised route and our personal mission should also be to make it harder for Google to read us- be a little contrarian in nature.  As we have noticed nationally recently, some of that goes a long way.