Teaching at a distance

A few months ago, Dan Weinbren, who is heading up the History of the OU project, posted a wonderful archive film clip of a real, live course team meeting – from 1976. The course team is one of the central organisational forms of OU-style distance education, although they have changed a bit – as Dan noted, there was a lot of smoking going on back then.

Things change, things stay the same…

Course teams are now technically ‘module teams’, and we don’t smoke anymore, not the in the meetings. The OU Social Science Faculty Facebook page has just posted a set of photos providing a ‘sneak peek’ at the course team I’m currently part of, which is producing a new social science module due for its first outing in 2012. If you do this course, you might find out why smoking no longer goes on inside the meetings, but outside in designated boxed-off spaces.

You can play spot the difference if you like. Obvious things, apart from the smoking, is a lot less denim in 2011, less facial hair too. There seems to be plenty of coffee in both meetings (or maybe tea in the 1970s), but larger cups in 2011. The great mystery, of course, is just whether the 1970s really were that brown compared to the light, airy shininess of 35 years later. Or is that something to do with advances in technology?

Thinking about democracy

Via Thomas Gregersen’s ever informative Political Theory blog, a link to a paper by Claus Offe on what can and can’t be expected from deliberative politics; and a link to the ABC Democracy blog of Reza Javaheri, which contains news of a translation of Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy. The ABC Democracy blog is great – regular posts about democratic theory, theoretically informed political analysis of ongoing events in Iran and the Middle East, and a resource on political theories of non-violence.

What kind of social science for what kind of public policy?

Via the Soft Paternalism blog, some thoughts from Jessica Pykett on the newly published report by the House of Lords Inquiry on behaviour change. I think the interesting thing about the findings of the report is that it is another example of the emergence of a clear divide around interpretations of behavioural science in policy debates, a divide framed around the degree to which ‘nudging’ is presented as an alternative or supplement to regulation, legislation, and other standard forms of government action – the coalition government embraces the idea that it is an alternative, the Report from the House of Lords questions this, as do other recent interventions, such as a short piece in The Lancet suggesting that recent government initiatives misrepresent ‘nudge’.

One of the recommendations of the House of Lords report is that an independent Chief Social Scientist be appointed – a response from various submissions arguing that this post should be reinstated. Jessica’s post raises some interesting questions about what counts as ‘social science’ in this sort of world. The last holder of this position was a criminologist by background.

Marx and other Zombies

Via Crooked Timber, I came across a newish journal, Jacobin, which contains an interesting piece on Zombie Marx – picking up on a ‘debate’ a couple of years ago involving David Harvey and Brad DeLong onthe merits or otherwise of Marxist and neoclassical economics. In the piece, Mike Beggs raises some interesting questions about the argument often made that back in the 1860s Marx effectively debunked neoclassical economics, and by extension ‘neoliberal’ ideology, before it even appeared on the scene. The broader point, beyond questions of the status of the labour theory of value, of concepts of supply and demand, and the like, is the issue of whether/when certain strains of radical thought will be able to treat Marx’s writing historically, rather than canonically. Beggs has a follow-up post on Joan Robinson’s remarks about having Marx in the bones rather than in one’s mouth, and the discussion of these issues continues on the Jacobin blogsite.

All of this reminded me of something I read a month or so ago when I was reading Erik Olin Wright’s book on real utopias. Wright’s book is presented as a reconstruction of a Marxist critical social theory, but it contains barely any referencing or quotation of Marx himself. In an interview from 2001 Wright elaborates on this feature of his own scholarship:

“I generally do not believe that the best way to develop arguments and push theory forward is to engage in fine-grained debates about the interpretation of texts, however brilliant they may be, particularly texts written a century or more ago. Thus, almost none of my writing centers on Marx’s own writings. If the Marxist tradition is genuinely committed to a scientific understanding of the social conditions for radical, egalitarian social change, then it would indeed be extraordinary if the most useful things on most contemporary topics in the 21st century were written in the middle decades of the 19th century. Just as evolutionary biologists don’t bother reading Darwin’s work, except out of historical interest, eventually there will — hopefully — come a time when Marx’s writings will mainly be of interest for the history of ideas, but not for the exposition of scientific arguments.”

I can well imagine how this position would rankle many avowed Marxists, but it seems to me to contain the same sort of ‘methodological’ challenge that Beggs’ post lays out. It also raises some interesting questions about the degree to which social science and humanities approaches to critical theory might well be divided by different degrees of dependence on and reverence for textual canons – a matter that stretches beyond debates in and around Marxism.

Towns on TV

For those of us who live in towns, not cities, news of a forthcoming BBC/Open University TV series on Towns, presented by Nicholas Crane – the first of four programmes will be broadcast on Thursday 28th July at 9.00pm on BBC2. Colleagues from the Faculty of Social Sciences Gerry Mooney, Matt Staples, and Geoff Andrews have helped with the academic input to the series, which includes such places, towns, as Perth, Totnes and Ludlow (but not Swindon). There is an associated booklet with the series, and other online resources, which can be accessed via the OU’s OpenLearn site – the series will have its own site which goes live the day before the first showing on July 27th. The series and these associated materials explore the many of the ways in which towns have come to be the places they are today; places that, while shaped by often very different histories, are also looking towards futures that might be very different but which are all characterised by uncertainty.”