Stewart Lee

Mrs B says I look like an Indian Stewart Lee. I am not him, I can’t see  the resemblance really. I’m more a younger Salman Rushdie, or Keith Vaz, maybe David Baddiel when I have a beard. Or Carlos the Jackal. Not Stewart Lee. Although I do have a similarly receding hairline, my hair is greying in the same places and I could probably do with shifting a bit more weight.

I used to enjoy watching Stewart Lee’s TV series with Richard Herring, back in the 90s, on the television, when there wasn’t the internet and smartphones you have now. But I found his more recent solo series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle a little trying when they were first broadcast. When Mrs B and I went to the Edinburgh Fringe festival earlier in the year I was dubious about whether to book tickets for us to see SL’s preparatory show “A Room With Stew”.I felt there was a serious risk that, being unaware of what he was like, the reaction might have been ” what on earth is this boring and pedantic man boring on about ?”. As it turned out, we queued up for returns and in the end only Mrs B went and loved it so much that she has since hoovered up pretty much all the live footage she could find of him on YouTube as well as both series of Comedy Vehicle and his books, “How I Escaped My Certain Fate” and “If you prefer a milder comedian just ask”, which I have just read. I’m now going to write sort of about them at some length so don’t say you were surprised after clicking the “read more” link. In conscious stylistic homage there are footnotes which will digress from the main thrust of the piece, such as there is one and will obtrude into the page because footnotes don’t really fit as a concept in a continuously scrolling page. The might even be some end notes. But that’s a long way off. Continue reading

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Oxbridge Interviews

Pimms on the Quad

An old joke goes, “Q: How can you tell if someone went to Oxbridge? A: You don’t need to, they’ll tell you first.”. I’ll prove it right by saying, yes, I did my degree at Oxford. It is university application season and coming into December, it is also the time when Oxbridge applicants will be girding themselves for the apparent ordeal of the infamous interviews.

In most areas, things will have changed so much over the years that personal experiences from the past will have little value. However, Oxbridge moves and changes slowly. From media coverage it seems that the interviews held by Oxford and Cambridge are not so very different now to what they were 22 years ago when I boarded a bus with a handful of others from my sixth form college to spend 3 nights among the dreaming spires.

I was fortunate enough to have attended a state sixth form college with a record of success at Oxbridge entrance that is beaten only by a couple of public schools. Being in Cambridge also meant that the risk of being architecturally intimidated by either of the two universities was low, even though at the time I attended most classes were conducted in temporary classrooms and huts some dating back to the 1950s and there was a frozen food distribution centre in the middle of the school which meant that what is now “the quad” was then during breaks a reversing area for lorries. There was also less of a feeling that competitive universities were not for “people like us” as some of the 1000 students were from academics’ families even if the vast majority were not.

Despite this, there was relatively limited support for applying to Oxbridge. Additional classes were available to discuss the entrance exams and teachers were willing to mark attempts at practice questions. The interviews themselves were not something which we got particular preparation for other than to expect them to be challenging and to try our best to answer questions. I have no recollection of what I put in my UCCA (as it then was) form’s personal statement or that I got any particular feedback or guidance on drafts and rewrites from anyone. I did become aware during one of my interviews that it might have helped if someone had told me it would potentially be a bad idea to have included a joint-honours course as one of my applications to another university: the interviewers at my first choice college picked up on my having chosen “Law and Accountancy” at Manchester to probe my commitment to Law in ways that they wouldn’t have done had I just put down 5 applications for single-honours Law. Hedging my bets for practical and career purposes was perhaps unwise when being assessed on my academic interest in Law by people who had devoted their lives to the academic study of the subject.

Other than that, the interviews I had did not really throw up any peculiar or intentionally obtuse questions. The few wintry days spent in the city and its numerous pubs did give a better feel for what it would be like to be a student there than open days, including the mild panic induced by the message in the porters’ lodge on my penultimate morning inviting me to an interview at my second choice college. That panic was mainly down to being rather hungover and the realisation that my only smart pair of trousers unfortunately rather smelled of the beer that one of my fellow interviewees had inadvertently spilled on them the previous evening in the King’s Arms. Perhaps my ability to perform moderately while hungover and underprepared was what swung it for me at that interview as a good indication of whether I’d cope with real undergraduate life!

The big difference between then and now is the entrance exam. This meant that there was somewhat less pressure in terms of wondering whether I was “good enough” while at interview as I would not have been at interview at all had I not managed the exams with some degree of credit. It also meant that there was something beyond my interview performance and application form for the tutors to see in order to gauge my writing style. Now, as the entrance exam has gone, there is a lot more pressure on candidates and interviewers to get more out of the interview than an assessment of whether either thinks they’ll enjoy spending three years in the other’s company.

Part of the problem with the entrance exam was that it was hard for those candidates who did not have any support or preparation for them. This was, perhaps, less of an issue in my case as I deliberately chose papers that did not rely on specific prior knowledge – having attempted past questions in Maths and Physics I realised that I hadn’t a hope of performing creditably in competition with those who were aiming for science degrees and that Law tutors would only be able to judge those papers on the basis of the marks received rather than seeing the answers themselves. As on this blog, being able to witter away on a number of random topics in two General Papers or to do some unseen English comprehension exercises was more my style and probably not too bad an indication of ability to process the vast amounts of argumentation involved in academic study of law!

Reintroducing the entrance exam would potentially be a positive move to open up access. The issue of the ability of schools to prepare candidates for entrance exams ought to be less significant now than in the late 1980s. This is because it would be much easier to provide more information about the exams, past papers and mark schemes now through the internet. The information advantage held by schools which have more experience of Oxbridge application would be significantly lower and possibly reduced towards zero. If there’s one thing which Oxbridge tutors can see right through either at interview or in entrance exams, it’s detailed and targeted but superficial preparation of “gobbets” like in The History Boys.

Oxbridge shouldn’t however, be fetishised. Oxford and Cambridge are excellent universities but missing out on a place or deciding that other institutions would be more suitable for good reasons is not a mark of failure either by candidates or the universities. There may well be several people in your year at Oxford or Cambridge who go on to lead illustrious careers in the public eye. You might even be one of them. Or, you could be like the vast majority of Oxbridge graduates and move on to mundane obscurity after having chosen not to focus relentlessly on networking and “hacking” in politics, drama or journalism and just getting on with studying and doing what countless other 18 year olds do around the country. Good luck to those who have applied and to those who have chosen to do something else that suits them better.

New College of the Humanities – Oh, the humanity!

There has been an astonishing storm of media and blog invective railing against the announcement by AC Grayling and a host of other celebrity academics that they are setting up a New College of the Humanities. The concept appears to be to establish an unashamedly intellectually elitist liberal arts college in Bloomsbury, combining Oxbridge-style one to one tuition with lectures from leading popular academics and a broad syllabus requiring humanities students to take courses in science and business/work skills. However, the element which has been most criticised is the economic elitism implicit in the college’s £18,000 a year fees.

I’ve written before that I don’t really have a problem with promoting elites by merit. Being an elite footballer (extra-marital dalliances aside) is never seriously considered a bad thing for those boys who have the ability to do it. There aren’t any angry media tirades against Manchester United being ruthlessly selective in choosing which children get to participate in its academy, nor indeed that the ranks of professional footballers include far fewer privately educated players than would be representative of the 7% of children who attend such schools. So, at least in principle, elite education for those who have the highest levels of academic aptitude, ability and application should be no different.

So, it is understandable if the worry is focused on students being excluded from the elite education to be provided at NCHum by reason of cost. Well, it would be if the education that was being provided, along with the cachet of the institution was so great that students who could not afford to go to it would be disadvantaged both absolutely and relative to the students who were able to afford entry.

This is where things get a bit more muddled. Several commentators have presented good arguments against the quality of the education that NCHum might provide. For example Professor Richard Moorhead at http://lawyerwatch.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/new-college-of-humanities-a-new-model-for-laws/ sets out some concerns about the scope for NCHum to teach in innovative ways given that it will not be in control of its curriculum and examinations along with other balanced criticisms. David Allen Green describes NCHum as Grayling’s folly at http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2011/06/ac-graylings-folly.html and convincingly sets out why the “name” academics are no guarantee of educational excellence.

However, if NCHum is going to be academically questionable, that puts a great deal of pressure on it to establish a very strong institutional reputation so that having the NCHum diploma in addition to a University of London International BA/LLB will be considered by employers to be a mark of exceptional value. Ironically, there may be an extent to which the loud condemnation of NCHum for social elitism could help to establish just such a brand value for its graduates. If NCHum selects students who are going to go out and be great adverts for the college the brand will grow, but on the basis of those students’ personal merits.

Even if this does happen, the numbers of students graduating from NCHum are likely to be low (about the same as a small Oxbridge college) and they will be competing with large numbers of graduates from Oxbridge and other internationally recognised leading universities. It is difficult to see how they could form an elite in any meaningful way. The entry requirements for NCHum are intended to be high (3 As at A level minimum) so in a small way, NCHum will reduce the pressure on places at existing elite universities. As the high fees at NCHum will make it more accessible to students from wealthier backgrounds the majority of the reduction in demand at other universities will be in relation to rich students, thereby potentially increasing their accessibility by poor students. I don’t think this should be overstated though – I would be surprised if in practice NCHum wasn’t largely attended by overseas students.

It may be that the real social elitism criticism is not about what NCHum itself will realistically be able to achieve but rather the possibility that its success would be the thin end of the wedge. If NCHum were to be successful in attracting students and academics of suitable quality beyond the initial novelty value at launch, it would encourage other private universities to establish themselves. Worse still, it might put pressure on top publicly-funded universities to seek to become private universities. If NCHum and others are able to attract substantial levels of endowment funding and to poach the brightest students and staff from Oxbridge et al that could make Oxbridge fight for their own independence so as to be able to compete.

This does not strike me as particularly plausible because, again, it relies on NCHum having to be even more excellent and successful than Grayling and his backers believe possible. This is not consistent with the sensible scepticism of Moorhead and Green about the education that NCHum could offer. NCHum may be an abomination, but it is unlikely to become the model for a new significant mainstream segment of Higher Education. It is, going back to a football analogy, more like the establishment of MK Dons – a horror in terms of what was done to Wimbledon FC, but not something that is likely to be replicated much or at all.

Finally, for all those who want the NCHum experience but are not likely to be quite up to getting into one of the top universities and can’t afford £18,000 a year a couple of tips. If you want the cachet of the top universities, go to a good one that is not quite at the top but still has a good academic reputation in your subject. Work hard, get a good degree and cultivate your tutors so that they will give you good references. Then, if after a couple of years of studying, when you know more about your subject and what you want to do, apply to do a Masters at one of the top universities. Entry is somewhat less competitive than at undergraduate level, you get the Oxford (or wherever) degree along with whatever social advantages you think are available. Better still, as a graduate student you are more likely to get regular meaningful engagement with the leading academics in your field, rather than just the ones who happen to be famous but specialise in something else.

If you aren’t quite up to that but just want to experience the teaching of the stars, go anywhere you like, but look up the lecture lists for Oxford to see what seminars and lectures your favourite academics are giving. Do a little more research on how to get into the buildings and just turn up. Unless things have changed a lot and security gates put into all academic buildings it should be possible to get into a load of lectures and seminars. I remember attending a fantastic series of seminars in Jurisprudence which were debates between Professors Dworkin and Finnis when I was an undergraduate. Anyone could have walked in off the street to the seminar room at University College but in practice there were rarely more than a dozen people attending. Less flippantly, the star academics often do free public lectures so if you are interested in them, find out. Pretty much anyone can go and hear the Oxford Professor of Poetry’s lectures or those of other celebrity Professors (sadly I didn’t make the time to hear Professor Jackie Mason’s series on comedy, but am glad to have gone to hear Seamus Heaney after years of studying his poetry at school).