Dancing on the Head of a Pin

I once heard a colleague refer to ‘death by vocabulary’, and she was right.You need to handle vocabulary with care. It is too easy to gloss every interesting word, discuss its various applications and anomalies. Vocabulary is a quagmire which drags you in.

So I should apologise to my student of yesterday for dilating on the (to me) interesting distinction between a pair of compasses and a pair of compasses. Are we talking about a pair of compasses (as we might talk of a pair of dividers), or are we talking about, well, a pair of compasses?

I managed to extricate us both from the impasse, after mulling it for quite some time, by noting that context will usually eliminate any ambiguity, and this is true. Never in the history of all humans has one fatally misunderstood whether another was referencing a pair of compasses or a pair of compasses. It is a false problem.

Philosophers are fond of constructing similar exemplae, in order to demonstrate some point about truth-functions or logical discrimination or whatever it might be, so I suppose they have their place. Language does not have to be sourced from the mostly dreary exchanges of ‘real life’ to be useful or pleasing. Their place is not, however, in the working classroom where time can be wasted on invented minutiae. Perish the thought.

But it is secretly –  and I think I am not alone in this – my favourite bit of teaching. There is nothing I like more than to be presented with a series of imperceptible differences and head-scratching distinctions, whether lexical or grammatical or pragmatical. For the most part, I manage to stop myself running on at impossible length. But just occasionally the need to mull a point in public gets the better of me, and my students get the benefit of my theological reasoning.




We have a diplomat in the school at the moment, Yuta, who will spend the next few years navigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the medium of Arabic. Quite an ask.


I obviously have no idea how diplomatic Japanese connects with diplomatic Arabic. With Diplomatic English, to take an example closer to home, more grammar means more courtesy. Oi! Excuse me! and I wonder if you wouldn’t mind stepping this way a moment, squire are all valid ways to get someone’s attention. But the moment you start using more remote modal structures, you are inflecting your language for politeness.

But there is a problem. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind stepping this way a moment, squire, is almost a parody of politeness, and is more likely, I suppose, to be aggressive than polite. I was told when I lived in Italy that insisting on thanking the bar staff every time they set something in front of me (a saucer, a spoon, the sugar, the coffee, etc.) would not be polite but distancing: I would be insisting on the social difference between me and them. One thank you is quite enough. But a solitary ‘thank you’ when you get on a bus in Cambridge and buy a bus ticket will mark you down as a churl.

No doubt it will all be relatively straightforward in Ramallah.

Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

We have a number of one-to-one tutorial students this week, all studying in splendid, not to say monastic, isolation (for part of the day, at least).

Not that this is a problem. Some people crave solitude. Solitude affords focus and concentration. And while introversion may not be the first character trait you would choose if you were set on learning languages, since language-learning is facilitated by talking, and talking by extroversion, still, neither is it a bar to the acquisition of the skill.

Where would you go, I find myself wondering, if you wanted to balance extreme solitude with the resources to learn English?

The most remote yet still-inhabited spot on the face of the earth is by common repute the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, so named for the Portuguese explorer who first sighted the island, but a British Crown dependency since 1816. It numbers 267 inhabitants, few of whom possess cars, 300 cattle and 500 sheep. There is a school and a single bus. There is no airport, and ships visit a mere handful of times a year. And its capital glories in the name Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.


But it so happens that they speak English (always assuming they speak to each other at all). And there are, from time to time, employment opportunities. Just now, for example, they are looking for an agricultural advisor. Recently, they sought applications for the post of teacher in their school (and received, I understand, well over a thousand applications). They use the pound sterling and drive on the left.

So, a little microcosm of Britain, with plenty of time for study, and all the quiet and focus imaginable. Perhaps OISE should open a school there – OISE Edinburgh-of-the-Seven Seas – and advertise for teachers. I know one or two who would be tempted.

General English

I like to think of my classroom (since yesterday, anyway) as a situation awareness room. If not actually a war room.

I have been watching a couple of talks on TED given by the gnarly General Stanley McCrystal, head of Joint Special Operations in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, and later in Afghanistan, and now a teacher of international relations at Yale, and I want to be more like him – relaxed, intelligent, and terrifying both to his enemies and his allies.

One of the talks he gives is about institutional change, opening up the military command structure to the thousands of civilian contractors who were working in Iraq at the time. The other is about the sharing of information through organisations, and centres on a decision he took to declassify a great deal of information at one point during his command, to the dismay of his superiors. Both show a man of liberal intelligence questioning the nature of the hierarchy in which he grew up.

General McCrystal gets a bit teary and emotional as he recalls the sacrifice and loss; he does a good line in military rhetoric. And he peppers his talk with militarisms – he talks, for example, about accelerants to the conflict, and situation awareness rooms, and so on – to the extent that I worried for my students. But I needn’t have – it seems they have seen sufficient cheesy movies for the language, or anyway the manner, of General English – a rarefied version of Business English – to be familiar.


I have been talking to my students this week about information, and various trustworthy and untrustworthy sources of information, but neglected to mention the least trustworthy of all: their teacher.

Most of what I know comes not from reputable sources (books, the telly, Wikipedia) but from conversation with other people, many of them my students. We swap what we know back and forth in more or less degraded states, and they lose precision in each retelling.

And we can almost never recall where we learnt what we learnt. A friend once told me that of all the information we think we know, we can cite the source for only a tiny percentage, and was quick to point out that he wasn’t sure where he had read that. Bits of information lodge in our brains and we stand by their truth, even though we have absolutely no way of validating their accuracy. We have taken so much on trust.

But now we have blockchain. Blockchain – the technology upon which bitcoin is based – is a method of validating ledgers of information (for instance, financial transactions) across a distributed network. Any change made at any point is replicated across the network, and the chain of information grows with each new transaction.

And its uses are expanding, from validating trades and currency exchanges to tracking products across the globe and serving as real-time contracts between musicians and their publishers. It is the graphene of information.

I’m not sure how it will help me know better, but I can fantasise. I am after all already a wobbly and rather untrustworthy blockchain of information. So the idea that everything we learn as a species will be cryptographically stamped for accuracy and held thereafter in perpetuity across endless humming servers is a blissful one. It will, for one thing, make Wikipedia look like the chronicles of Geoffrey of Anselm, and my lessons like the sideshow of a mountebank.


For academics these days, it’s all about Impact!™

Impact is a ‘measure’ of how the work of academics ‘impacts’ on the world beyond their institutions. Popular science books, blogs, lecture tours, and above all broadcasting work, all score highly for impact. An academic who scores low on impact is a poor sort of academic.

This, I suppose, explains events like the Cambridge Festival of Ideas (rather a nice festival, as I have mentioned elsewhere), and the fact that a ‘record number’ of Cambridge fellows will be setting up a tent (not in person, although that would be a sight to behold) at the Hay Festival 2016 (25th May-6th June), presenting aspects of their work and, if they’re lucky, selling a few books.

There is of course nothing wrong with academics considering how what they do will be read in the ‘real’ world (some would argue that the world they inhabit is realer or anyway as real as any other). Universities are to some degree publicly-funded, and they also need to attract private money, and the connection between rather introverted university research departments and industry, say, has always been a tricky one to manage.

But the relevance of research is determined in sometimes very distant outcomes. What someone in a white coat does now may very well not emerge into the ‘real’ world until that person is dead and the coat gone to the moths. It is occasionally prudent just to let people get on with stuff, for years at a time if need be. Who knows where their burrowing will lead them, if they are not obliged to make regular reports at the Hay Festival?

Honorary Fellow

I notice that Martina Navratilova has been dubbed an honorary fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

Martina must belong to that blessed social stratum whose inhabitants float free of the need to do any work, and take on various ‘ambassador’ roles. She has a social credit account with the rest of us, just like ex-Arsenal and, ahem, England midfielder Ray Parlour, the Romford Pelé.

Ray has recently released his autobiography. In it, he tells the story of a visit to the Nike superstore in central London, at the invitation of his teammate, Thierry Henry, a Nike ambassador. Because it was Henry (not Parlour) they shut the shop and gave the pair free rein. Henry told the childlike Ray that he could choose anything he liked, so Ray snatched a trolley and started to fill it up, until it was overflowing with clothes and shoes and golf clubs. In his own words, ‘three grand of Nike stuff’. When he got to the till he was jovially mortified to find that, Henry, a byword for class, had modestly selected just a single pair of trainers (although there’s no reason to believe that he hadn’t scooped up armfuls of sports-casual leisurewear on his first go-round as well).

I am not sure what the qualifications for honorary fellow are, but before long, if there is any justice, Ray Parlour and Thierry Henry will be collecting theirs and putting their feet up at high table, while the older members of the collegiate body drop their teeth into their soup. And they will have royally earned it.