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November 29, 2009

How not to solve university unhappiness

A book on unhappiness in British universities? Great. Much needed. But, from the review at least, you get the sense that he's totally Missing The Point:

Students are also thought to be victims of the happiness industry. The author suggests that rather than enhancing wellbeing, the preoccupation with student satisfaction, value for money and support for special needs may, in fact, breed unhappiness. Surveys of student satisfaction are singled out for blame: Watson highlights a "reverse Hawthorne effect" based on their findings, where "the more they are encouraged to assert their consumer rights, the more inclined they will be to be grumpy".

So, it has no connection to the vague and insatiable demands placed on students, the ways in which teachers assign work with only the faintest idea of how much effort is required for it, or how offhand comments are endlessly amplified by an undergraduate culture generally dependent on rumour to figure out what the tutors really want?

[I avoided academic misery almost entirely, by a combination of being personally resistent to pressure, and studying in a department that went out of its way to shield students from the paranoia across the rest of the university. But I was one of the very few lucky ones]

November 23, 2009

Art squats and political novels

1) The Oubliette, a very impressive group of art-squatters. Currently occupying a building in Leicester Square, ffs. Previous squats: the former Mexican Embassy on Mayfair, and a language school on Oxford Street. And they're Doing Things™ in the buildings.

2) Crooked Timber searching in vain for political novels. Even CT's collective erudition doesn't turn up much, at least in the Anglophone world. This is odd; surely politics should be the perfect backdrop for fiction? Constant conflict of duty, ideology, loyalty, and self-interest. Articulate, self-aware characters continually mythologizing their own lives for public consumption. A prefab Greek chorus of pundits and journalists. Day-to-day politics may be dull, cynical and idea-free, but that doesn't stop it twisting people in fascinating ways. So, what excellent political novels should I be reading?

November 20, 2009

'Ashton can only be a positive surprise'

Nobody else seems much cheerier about Ashton than I am.

"deep embarrassment...permeates the senior ranks of Gordon Brown's ministerial team this morning....."Shaming and dreadful" is how one prominent colleague privately put it" --- Michael White in the Guardian

"She has little experience and is a bizarre choice. It would be a sign that European diplomacy is downgraded to an economic policy post."
--- French official quoted in the Telegraph

"On the day of her election, the best that could be said of her was that she is a good listener". "expectations are so low that Van Rompuy and Ashton can only be a positive surprise"
---Spiegel

More justified grumbling elsewhere:

November 19, 2009

How to avoid a democratic Europe

Today's EU appointments are a catastrophe for anybody counting on the Lisbon treaty to give Europe a public face. The only chance to kick-start a pan-European public sphere was to populate the top posts with figures fit to be loved, hated, or at least recognized across Europe. Instead, as foreign minister, we get Baroness Ashton.

Baroness Ashton has no obvious expertise in foreign affairs before last year. Nor has she ever won an election. "Even friends are stunned that someone so low key could have been elevated to such a high profile job", according to the [FT]

She's an apparatchik. Worse, she's an apparatchik who doesn't even know Brussels. At least not until last year, when she was shuffled in as Trade Commissioner so that Mandelson could sneak home and salvage the Labour party. Before then, she was a backroom figure in the UK, working her way around charities, quangos and political posts. All worthy, but hardly preparation for Europe and the world.

How did she end up at the job? Was it Machiavellian manouvering by Britain? Talk up Blair, drop him at the last minute, and bounce Ashton in on the resulting pan-European wave of relief? Somehow I don't think so; I just can't see why they would go to all that trouble for somebody so unpromising. Instead, I'll have to rely on the standard explanation for how every EU appointment happens: she was suggested at the last minute, and nobody knew enough about her to object.

Ban Ki-Moon was the last appointment to disappoint me this badly, and for similar reasons. Without a charismatic leader, the UN faded further into the shadows, and is losing influence month by month. Ban was chosen in part by people who wanted to keep the UN weak; what excuse is there for the EU ministers? Intentionally or not, they've just placed a brown paper back over the head of Europe.

November 1, 2009

Votes for prisoners

Prisoners in the UK are denied the vote, a fact I'm somewhat embarrassed not to have realised before this weekend. Obviously I should grit my teeth and read the Guardian and the Independent more often.

I had heard about it in the US, where it's a bigger issue. There the numbers are larger, the rules are tighter (in some states ex-cons are also covered). And dubious implementation of the law -- let alone the law itself -- have been claimed as deciding the 2000 presidential election. But in the UK, it just bubbles along a little way below the headlines.

Most of the pressure to change the situation comes from outside. Prisoners have been trying to use human rights legislation in order to vote, most recently Peter Chester. He is kept in jail not because of his original crime (he's already served 20 years for that), but because he is considered a danger to the public.

Four years earlier another prisoner, John Hirst, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights, demanding his right to vote.

I'm not sure of the legal implications of that ruling. The government certainly didn't jump to change the law. There is now a consultation in progress, which I suppose is the most time-consuming way of doing nothing.

Apart from the moral case, John Hirst puts the practical argument pretty nicely:

"When you're a prisoner, the only thing you can do if you want to complain and no-one listens, is riot and lift the roof off"