29 August 2006

On not being able to say something.

I drove back from a short break this evening, and became increasingly impatient with Radio 4's unctuous celebration of the centenary of the birth of a pretentious and patronising second-rate poet. I'm not usually po-faced, but to write;

in the same year as Guernica (not sure of the exact chronology) is not post-modern ironic (neither of which ideas would have made sense to Betjeman [even if they do to any of the rest of us {I must get out of these nested brackets}]) No brackets; it is simply crass.

Is this a rant about Betjeman? No, actually. It is just an illustration of an issue I fell to thinking about having switched off the radio.

My substantive meditation (if there is such a thing) was around the extent to which we are conditioned to think of "learning" as a static state which can be assessed by "snapshot" methods such as examinations. In email exchanges with several correspondents (thanks, Renee) I have come to suspect that this may be inadequate--and indeed that it is not "merely" academically inadequate, but that it seriously constrains educational policy and practice... Exciting stuff! I'll write an article about it!

But--leaving aside the fact that fewer people will probably read the article than will read this blog--how long will it take me to produce an academically acceptable piece which will pass peer review, by including a literature review testing the proposition that the conventional wisdom of educational theory treats "learning" as a static achieved state..? It's the kind of task you assign to a Ph.D student, so assuming you are a nice supervisor who is going to grant him or her a few months to add their original gloss for a thesis---30 months? Forget it.

Of course, a journalist could make the same point on the basis of a couple of days on the net and ringing up a few interested parties for quotes.

And a blogger doesn't even have to get past basic editorial control.
  • Did Betjeman write those lines before or after Guernica? I don't know; it may simply be a cheap shot on my part with little basis in fact. Regardless of the historical facts, did B. know about Guernica? Where were his sympathies (if any) in the Spanish Civil War?
But this line of thought raises further questions. What is the premium of ---shall we say, "credibility"--- actually conferred by full academic referencing? Does it actually matter very much?
  • Clearly it does in some subjects, which are more or less clearly cumulative; Newton stands on the shoulders of giants.
  • But in the humanities and the social sciences and professional disciplines, when did you last read a dispassionate literature review (other than from a librarian)? Indeed, when did you last check such a review? There is so much stuff out there that there is no way I could read it all, still less evaluate it. And I certainly do not know whether this literature review or that "truly" represents the literature in a particular area.
Academic practice may need to be scrutinised as a form of restrictive practice. In many cases it serves no particular purpose apart from making it difficult to get published, prolonging the process, and inflating the egos of those of us who edit and referee the journals. (RAE aside).

It certainly has very little to do with increasing anybody's understanding of anything.