Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For sale: one university. Very, very cheap.

The annals of junk science are long and storied: one only has to look at the work of Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst amongst many others to realise that there's a lot of it about, and a surprisingly large amount of it is generated by universities, i.e. institutions that should know better. 

There's bad science, junk science and straight-up, built-to-order findings-for-cash, and I have a doozy of an example for you. Imagine, if you will, a university that issues an official press release ending with this line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour. 
What, you may ask, leads an institution which promises that it is 
Maximising opportunity through generating knowledge, innovation and enterprise.
and develops
Skills and Knowledge for Economic and Social Transformation

informed by 'values':
We will behave respectfully and ethically, in all that we do. We will be inclusive and fair in our interaction with each other and with our wider community. We will act professionally, transparently, confidently, collaboratively and challengingly when engaging with our communities locally and globally.
to encourage the public to get 'support' for 'trauma' from a manufacturer of supermarket pizzas.

The answer, of course, is money.

The headline to this offence is
By whom? We are not told. 
THE stress of ordering and waiting for a takeaway can bring out the worst in all of us, but today it’s been identified as an actual condition, Takeaway Trauma, following scientific research.
Can it? How do we quantify 'the worst'? Should we really be saying 'all'? How many gun massacres have there been following a delayed pizza delivery. Who determines what's an 'actual condition'? My guess would be NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which incorporates the British National Formulary, the prescribers' bible. Sadly, 'Takeaway Trauma' is not listed amongst the many medical and social ills.

So, let's look at the underlying scientific research:
A University of Wolverhampton study, in partnership with Chicago Town, found that the average heart rate increased from a baseline or relaxed 70 BPM to 87 BPM in the period following ordering a pizza, while tense arousal scores - or stress levels - saw an increase with the length of time that participants waited for an order from a baseline 17.25 to 18.38 BPM.
In partnership, we can assume, means that Chicago Town looked around for an institution that would put the stamp of institutional credibility on a public relations stunt designed to get press coverage encouraging people to buy pizzas in supermarkets. Did it work? Their PR company certainly thinks so:

I can't help thinking that if I worked at a university and got a call from an organisation called 'Brazen PR', I might be a little suspicious. Mind you, if I were the Biosciences department and I got a call from a PR company I might think it an odd route for a scientific project to be born. 

Sorry, I said we were going to look at the science. But we can't, because there isn't any. Some students were put on a hospital trolley, wired up, then a pizza was ordered, and they answered a questionnaire. 
The experiment by the University’s biomedical sciences department involved participants ordering and waiting for a takeaway pizza while wearing heart rate monitors to measure pulse fluctuations, as well as monitoring stress levels using the psychometric questionnaire and the UMACL - UNWIST Mood Adjective Checklist - which measures tense arousal scores.
How many subjects? We don't know. How long did they wait? No idea. Would being wired up to a heart monitor and asked questions in a university laboratory affect their heart rates? Nothing is said about this. How was the test group selected? Are there age, gender, ethnicity, educational and class differences between their 'responses'? Who knows? What was the control group doing? We don't know that there was one. Might there be other causes for a slightly increased heart rate? What toppings were ordered? 

Let's look at the peer-reviewed research findings that came out of this project. 

Sorry. There isn't any. Instead, they hired
Behavioural Expert Darren Stanton, who analysed the results of the experiment, classified the condition in four stages: fidgety, anxious, irate and lost.
Curiously enough, and no doubt entirely coincidentally, the first letters of each 'stage' make up an acronym: FAIL, used to describe 'symptoms' on the pizza company's website. Should you be relying on a pizza company to diagnose heart conditions? I suspect not. But we should all relax. Darren Stanton is on the case. Professor Stanton – as he isn't known by anyone – describes himself as 'TV's Human Lie Detector' and was a police officer, but I'm sure that he does a lot of peer-reviewed, serious science on the side. Google Scholar says not, but he has done a TED talk. His Wikipedia entry, which doesn't sound like he wrote it at all, lists no qualifications or research (though Nottingham Trent University proudly describes him as an alumnus in another guessing press release), but does give details of his book:
Stanton has published one book to date. Project Jam Jar is a psychological self-help success book. It aims to empower its audience by introducing them to tried and tested techniques that allow readers to make changes that last a lifetime.
Peer-reviewed? It's print-on-demand! Certainly there's no indication that Stanton belongs to any of the professional bodies which regulate scientific research and analysis. Why was he needed? Surely the university has psychologists and biomedical scientists capable of analysing findings? How did Wolverhampton University find him? Well, the deeply cynical side of me wonders if he was introduced by Brazen PR (for money) to add a tinge of media stardust to this farrago of nonsense.

Anyway, on with the science. 
As stress levels increase further, circa 40 minutes after ordering, a lack of clear communication, the tardiness of deliveries, curtain twitching and the driver going the wrong way heightens emotions and results in a state of being visibly irate, with loved ones often bearing the brunt of this.
The final stage is one of absolute despondency. Frequently after waiting for a long time – around 50 minutes - the wrong order arriving or the food being of a disappointing quality makes people feel lost. During the experiment, participants had a lower heart rate than when they initially ordered, contradicting expectations that they would feel joy upon receiving the pizza they had waited for.
Eh? Can someone lying on a gurney or waiting in a house know that a driver has gone the wrong way? How did the experiment find that 'loved ones' bore the brunt of ire? Were they also in the room? Was ethical clearance received for all this cruelty? What does 'lost' mean? Or 'joy' for that matter?

Said the UoW scientist involved:
the experience has a real impact on stress levels and our heart rate
The experience of being wired up in a lab surrounded by loved ones, maybe. And even then, only slightly. The experience of food being delivered tardily: not so much. But let's see what the Principal Investigator made of all this:
Darren Stanton said: “People order a takeaway as a treat – a way to reward themselves after a long week at work and to enjoy a relaxing night in with loved ones. This study shows that it can be the opposite of this. However, with the four stages we’ve identified as fidgety, anxious, irate and lost, it’s easy to recognise the symptoms of Takeaway Trauma, so we can help others suffering from the condition.”
Sentence 1: 3 imaginative conjectures. Sentence 2: cannot be proven through this experiment. Sentence 3: equates mild cheese-related anxiety with AIDS, Ebola, depression and cancer as a 'condition'.

But don't worry: a cure is at hand thanks to 'boffins' at Chicago Town:
Rachel Bradshaw, Senior Brand Manager at Chicago Town said: “It was really interesting to work with the University of Wolverhampton and Darren on this experiment. Both the physiological and psychological effects clearly demonstrate that Takeaway Trauma is real, and we’ll all identify with the various stages having gone through them ourselves.
“A much more satisfying alternative would be to pop a Chicago Town The Takeaway pizza in the oven at home. With its unique dough rising before your eyes, the freshly-baked pizza delivers a real, takeaway taste straight from your freezer in just 20 minutes – which never disappoints.”
Note the subtle 'work with', which again means: we hired these people to record a video supporting a nasty-minded little sales technique. And then it's back to my opening line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour.
Now you might think that I'm breaking a butterfly on a wheel here, and not being very supportive of my colleagues. Fair enough, but any university has a higher duty to the social good, and to the principles of science. This shady little endeavour has rented out scientific and institutional credibility to an advertising campaign. I don't know if the researcher in this case was forced to do this – my university's annual budget for 23,000 students and 4000 staff is c. £140m, only £10m more than smaller Cambridge University's annual endowment loot ,and money talks – but places like mine, with a pretty poor reputation (unjustified, I might add) should be working harder to claim our place amongst the ranks of the serious. In accepting this money, staging this stunt and then using medical terms in a press release, the university has forfeited any right to be considered trustworthy. It has left all its research staff high and dry and rendered its ethics procedures null and void. I know that I will be accused of being holier-than-thou, and have my rather limited external funding record raised, but these things really matter. We can't develop a reputation of being for hire. It's not fair on the students, their eventual employers or the staff who work here.

Still, it's all a bit of a giggle isn't it? And it did get a lot of press coverage. Impact matters people!

Update: we're so delighted that there's another university story plugging this (not sure if it's viewable) but the video is well worth watching though my one-person experiment demonstrates 'quite profound effects' on my heart rate on the back of a BBC interview (and yes, the BBC should be ashamed too). It's a curious mix of boosterism and self-defence.
“There were some effects but we are not saying, ‘don’t order a takeaway as something really serious might happen’!
“It is just worth remembering that everyday things can sometimes lead to profound effects over time.
People might ask why we carried out this study but a part of my job at the University is trying to create conversations about science.
“If people are out there in the community thinking about health, thinking about their body, thinking about any aspect of science, then I think we are doing our jobs right!”
They might be thinking 'why are my taxes paying for this rather than a cure for malaria, for instance?'.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Inarticulately howling into the void (reprise)

Like most academics right now, I'm marking: dissertations, essays, presentations, performances and online collaborative work. Unlike many academics however, I'm actually enjoying it. Mostly, I must concede, because it distracts me from the multiple horrific things happening at my institution: the brutal dismembering of successful subjects and their teachers; the decision to fire 36 student support workers; the probable loss of one of the most brilliant PhD students I'll ever have because the university's support systems have failed her again and again (oh, and here's a tip for managers in case you're reading: if the director and deputy director of an essential department have left, UPDATE THE DAMNED WEBSITE – in pursuit of a single name I've been passed along a chain of 5 people's automated emails and still haven't achieved my goal); constant demands from bureaucrats for information that's fully available to them already; repeatedly correcting important information that's somehow been mangled; the discovery that my employer has (illegally) underpaid my pension due to using inadequate software and lied to me about it.

Against this background, you can probably understand why even grading 50 essays on the same topic is rather appealing. Marking is always a fraught operation: there are tensions over consistency, media claims of grade inflation, personal preferences about what constitutes quality and good practice, students' and teachers' understanding of how much support and guidance is appropriate… a whole host of issues coalesce over the award of a particular grade. We use the percentage marking system, with which I disagree. The idea that one can coherently justify the award of 56% over 57% in work about characterisation in medieval fabliaux, for instance, seems pseudoscientific. We all, to be honest, have a rough and ready mental model of whether an assignment is excellent (First - 70% and above), good (2.1 60-69%), decent (2.2 50-59%), acceptable (Third - 40-49%) or poor (anything under 40%), then assigning a percentage that communicates whether the piece is near the top, bottom or middle of those ranges. Other pressures include whether a failing piece will be compensatable (i.e. whether the module is a close fail with implications for final degree calculation) and whether the percentage grades will produce a borderline mark: algorithms for calculating final degree outcomes can throw up some weird, counter-intuitive results. The unspoken (actually sometimes spoken) advice is to avoid awarding marks that result in a module grade ending in a 9, whether or not the academic feels this is a fair mark. No wonder too many students get unhealthily fixated by the Degree Result Calculator, endlessly inputting potential marks and wondering whether to prioritise one module or essay over another. And don't get me started on Electronic Marking or Not To Electronically Mark. I found myself semi-ironically using the phrase 'Organic Artisanal Marking' to defend my use of ink on paper: I do type up the substantial feedback but cling to the idea that handwritten marginal comments communicate personalised engagement over the distancing effect of computerised comments.

Underneath all this, however, is an emotional and intellectual roller-coaster as I sit down with a student's ultimate thoughts on the texts I've set them. Although essays are marked anonymously, we obviously recognise the interests and writing styles of those students who have consulted us along the way. We're faced with an index of whether the texts we've asked students to read have struck any kind of chord, and with a whole host of ideas that quite often haven't occurred to me: some convincing, some intriguing, some plain bad. There's nothing like reading an essay to give you a sense of whether and what kind of intellectual communion you've achieved. I'm currently marking dissertations – having done 8 so far, I'm struck by the depth and range of what they're addressing. Some have gone far beyond what's been taught in other modules, and others have found niches I'd never have thought interesting, and have persuaded me otherwise. Not all of them have done a great analytical job, but there hasn't been a single boring or dutiful one so far. It's not just because everything else is rubbish now, but against this backdrop, being able to spend an hour or two on one person's view of a few interesting texts or ideas is just pure pleasure. Obviously I can't mention individual students, but I've read analyses of work by RL Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Ruskin, Gissing, Morrison (A Child of the Jago), Matthew Arnold, Roald Dahl, the Grimms, and Anthony Cartwright…so far. It's been a blast!

Not much time for reading at the moment, but I have devoured Diana Wallace's new biography of Christopher Meredith, Christopher Fowler's The Bleeding Heart (which was OK but I won't be reading the rest of the series), Lloyd Markham's intriguing novella Bad Ideas/Chemicals which actually would have justified another hundred pages, and Nancy Mitford's The Blessing which is just funny.

And now for a bank holiday. No marking, no email, no head/desk interfacing for a whole extra day. See you on the other side. Meanwhile, a musical interlude: the official anthem of simple course leaders pushed beyond their limits.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Home…and away.

Apologies – if any are necessary – for absence for the last couple of weeks. It's been the end of semester, so I've been marking presentations, organising all the dissertation marking and second-marking, tidying up the end of teaching and seeing lots of students, all while the threat of redundancy hangs over academics, administrators, technicians and now (it transpires) all the directly-employed student support staff. From henceforth, students will have a disability support budget to administer themselves, from which they are meant to select and contract agency or freelance staff because it's perfectly reasonable to expect students with plenty on their plates already to add 'employer' to their CV and make judgements about contracts.

Still, as a cynic observed, shifting a lot of hourly-paid, low-wage women off the books will help with the 26% gender pay-gap. Will the cleaners and catering staff be next?

However, I have managed to get away from the misery for a bit. An article I co-authored with one of my PhD students was published in the online version of the Journal of Popular Culture (in print next month) which was pleasing because I rarely get to juxtapose Oliver Goldsmith and cat-sex erotic fan fiction in the same piece. The short version is: fan fiction is structurally conservative; ideologically quite neoliberal; often very weird; sometimes socially maladjusted, and people have very divergent attitudes towards cats.

I went up to Keele University for a fascinating half-day conference organised by the always excellent Nick Bentley on Metamodernism, which is one of the competing terms for literature which may also be knows as post-post-Modernism. It all depends on your definitions of modernism and postmodernism. As we discovered throughout the extremely learned and fascinating papers, these are not yet uncontested terms. My one-sentence, reductive and probably expert-infuriating definitions might go as follows: Modernism – the tortured fragments of previously stable and recognisable literary, artistic and musical (bye bye tunes) forms which reflect the collapse of coherent social, political and psychological models which came in with Freud and Co., industrialisation, class war, fears of miscegenation and working-class uprising, world wars, urbanisation and the decline of authoritative monotheistic religion. Postmodernism: art, music and literature which isn't concerned with coherence and its disappearance, and decides instead to have fun with form and influence without worrying too much about the 'real' world.

Metamodernism, in several of the papers presented, seemed to suggest that there's a post-9/11 literary movement which merges playful, postmodern style with a new ethics or political engagement with the 'real' world – Zadie Smith's name came up repeatedly, for instance, as did her attack on the irresponsibility of 'lyrical realism' in her essay Two Paths For The Novel. Not being an expert in the field, I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but wondered (out loud) whether the working-class and Celtic authors of the 1930s-50s had already had the debate about the tensions between literary forms and social engagement: certainly Lewis Jones's novels Cwmardy and We Live were criticised from the left for being melodramatic rather than Socialist Realism, and from the right for being Socialist Realism rather than 'properly' literary, while Gwyn Thomas struggled with the tension between fury at the state of his community in the Hungry Thirties and the novel form, eventually exchanging absurdist satire for knockabout comedy. I think too that Raymond Williams's novels address this tension too, not always successfully. Perhaps it's just the turn of a bunch of very interesting but also rather privileged English novelists to discover that their secret garden has some gaps in the fence through which reality sometimes intrudes. Certainly Welsh and Irish authors in Welsh, Irish and English have always addressed social concerns in a variety of forms while fending off English accusations of sentimentality, loquaciousness or over-Romanticism, and have often developed a kind of hard-boiled terseness in response.

A couple of days after that I headed off to my favourite conference of the year, the Association for Welsh Writing in English, held at Neuadd Gregynog in mid-Wales. It's a big concrete Victorian stately home which provides austere accommodation, school dinners and beauty amidst which we discuss Welsh literature (in both languages), culture and society. The numbers were high, the papers were superb, the creative events were fascinating and in some cases wonderful (please, please buy Alys Conran's book Pijin – the Welsh-language version or Pigeon – the English version and look out Dignity, which is coming soon) drinks were quaffed and books were purchased. I didn't attend as many sessions as usual because the month's exhaustion hit me and I retired to bed for one afternoon with a splitting headache, but I chaired a session, helped out with the sound for a two-person performance of a play about the Ladies of Llangollen, and presented a paper of my own. I should apologise for that actually: I was the rude person who, despite chopping several pages out of my 22-page script, went on for far, far too long. In my defence, it was an analysis of excess (relating to food) in writing by Richard Llewellyn, Gwyn Thomas, O.M. Edwards and Rachel Tresize. I'm just greedy.

I learned an awful lot as always, and it's just lovely to catch up with new work in the field, old friends and colleagues, and of course indulge in some group therapy. Institutional life is so damaged now that any gathering of academics is a chance to rock backwards and forwards exchanging horror stories of managerial and financial woe. The bright spots are, as always, new ideas and students, those who still attract any to their courses…

I didn't get out with the camera as much as usual, but I took a few photos, which can be seen here. Below - some favourites.

Sarah and Kirsti: Queens of AWWE

Bee off with you

Audience participation in a creative keynote…

More audience participation 


Blue-tipped butterfly
Alys Conran being introduced
An oblique view of Gregynog
Some other delegates
And now it's back to marking, REF meetings, PhD supervisions, admin and ironing…

Friday, 4 May 2018

Mixed pleasures

Things that have really ground my gears this week:
Unpromising election results;
The most outrageous bullying from management (apparently the word 'bullying' is banned by order);
The threat of redundancy hanging over our heads;
Haven't had a chance to read much;
Taxis - specifically DU03GKE – pulling out of side-roads without checking for oncoming traffic, i.e. me on a bike;
Not having time to write next week's conference paper.

Things that made up for this misery:
Birthday celebrations (not mine);
Seeing Yo La Tengo: they meld live-looping, walls of sound and pure pop hooks for audiences consisting solely of PhD-holders and other bands;

Reading some really excellent UG dissertation drafts;
Fencing again, though I'm really feeling decrepit;
Colleagues and students being lovely about the teaching award I got.

Mind you, I've always been with Slartibartfast on most things: keep going on in exactly the same way and occasionally what you do will seem new and laudable.

Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is say “hang the sense of it” and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me, I design coastlines, I got an award for Norway. Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fiords all my life, for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award. In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do, and of course, I’m doing it will all fjords again, because I happen to like them. And I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough… what does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day!
And are you?

No. That’s where it all falls down of course.

It worked for my habitual uniform of cords, cardigans and v-necks, and it works for teaching too. I'm determined to make it come true for Dorothy Edwards and Trembling Blue Stars eventually.

Next week is looking up: I'm going to the Metamodernism conference at Keele University on Tuesday, then off to the Association for Welsh Writing in English annual conference Fri-Sun. It's always a good one, and I'm not just saying that because I take the minutes. It's in a Victorian stately home in mid-Wales, it's friendly, supportive and intellectually challenging, and there are no Manels. My as yet-embryonic piece will be the low point that adds lustre to the other presentations, but for what it's worth I'm looking at kitchens and food in Welsh literature as aspects of perceived national character, from O.M. Edwards's Cartrefi Cymru to Rachel Tresize's Fresh Apples. The tl;dr version is: everyone's obsessed with butter, and blancmange is for English homosexualists. The more meat characters eat, the more neofascist they are. Or perhaps it's the other way round. Don't @ me, this is the product of intensive research.