Nov 06

Ekkelsia on CUs vs. SUs

The thinkers at Ekklesia have published a report that provides a very sensible overview of the issues in the ongoing debate around Christian Unions and Student Unions. You can find out about it on their site.

(via Maggi Dawn)

Nov 06

Christian Unions suing Student Unions?

Having put quite a bit of time into unravelling the issues between the Students’ Union and Christian Union in Reading, I was dismayed to see The Times today reporting that some Christian Unions in the UK are considering legal action against the Student Unions on their campuses because:

Christian Unions claim that they are being singled out as a “soft target” by student associations because they refuse to allow non-Christians to address their meetings or sit on ruling committees.

While each situation is different as it rests on the constitutions and practices of the various bodies, the points put forth in the article do little to suggest that the CUs are being victimised. They are rather the most visible group on most campuses to not fit within most SUs’ equal opportunities policies or democratic and financial systems.

One of the key aggravating factors in our experience was the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship who often seemed to be the source of scare stories (which I never saw corroborated) of CUs that have been hijacked by other groups, and purported ‘legal advice’ about the relationships between CUs and SUs that massively misunderstood the issues we had found to be central. I’ve not had any contact with that organisation in a few years now, but at the time I couldn’t help but feel there were individuals within it who relished confrontation.

We (Martin did a lot of the work) tried to come to an understanding about the two bodies’ relationship on our campus and found that the main issues were not the expected hot buttons, but were more about whether the CU actually wanted to be an SU society, whether they were willing to hold open elections, and whether their financial management was compatible with ours.

That process allowed us to agree that for the CU membership in the SU was not vital, and that the SU could nevertheless provide some facilities to the CU because of the two organisations’ friendship (given certain provisos).

The press reports leading up to today’s news have certainly lacked clarity. Hopefully the CUs will step back from the brink and some new arrangements can be made that step round the current confrontation.

Update (4th Dec 2006): For clarity, at the time of these conversations I was a post-graduation sabbatical officer of RUSU and Martin was a non-sabbatical officer. I was never a member of the CU but attended a number of meetings and had many friends who were members. We have both now left the university.

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Nov 06

NPR Notes: Ted Koppel on Talk of the Nation, and On Point’s false dichotomies

A change of plans yesterday led to quite a bit of time in the car mid-afternoon, and a chance to listen to Ted Koppel promote his new documentary about Iran on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. I was very impressed with Koppel’s apparent grasp of the nuances of the Iranian political situation, of the shades of opinion within the country, and particularly with his commitment to educating people about it given its ongoing importance in world affairs and US foreign policy. The documentary airs on the Discovery Channel on Sunday and you can find the Talk Of The Nation interview here.

I was distinctly less impressed with the discussion of Iraq policy on On Point last night. All too often that programme seems to invite on “experts” who delight in presenting every situation as having only two possible solutions. Such binary distinctions are all too common in the US’ two-party political system, but I continue to hope that NPR programs will invite more voices to the table. I’m not equipped to fully judge McGovern and Polk’s “Blueprint for leaving Iraq now“, but that’s an example of an opinion that seems well reasoned and should at least crack open discussions like last night’s to talk about third, fourth, or even fifth ways.

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Nov 06

Bittersweet results

In a political system as complex as that of the US it’s never going to be possible to have a clear emotional response to a set of election results. While the Congressional results and the outcome of the Michigan gubernatorial race are heartening, there’s a bitter taste left by Tennessee’s tacit support for the racist tactics of Bob Corker, the passage of Michigan’s Proposal 2 (banning affirmative action) and more locally the fact that David LaGrand lost in his race for State Senate.

Many times last night I found myself wondering how I came to be supporting the Democratic Party, which for most of my life I have considered to be almost as right-wing and reactionary as their opponents. Partly it’s that I’ve come to realise the breadth of both major parties in the US, and that just because there are right-wing, pro-war Democrats as Joe Lieberman was and like (contrary to popular opinion) Hillary Clinton is, there are many who are not so hawkish. And last night the US just needed a reminder that it is possible to dislodge Republicans from their positions of power.

The Senate is still up for grabs, and that will be the determining factor in whether or not the ascendent Democrats are able to push forward with the progressive legislative agenda they promise. But last night’s national results do mean there is a real chance that a withdrawal plan from Iraq can take shape, and that the political debate may begin to inch forward.

Nov 06


Lately I’ve been working on Calvin’s campus each Thursday because of our regular Festival of Faith and Music meetings. I work in one of the main areas where students congregate and each week there’s a little bit more frustration and culture shock as I overhear bizarre conversations about current affairs.

At the moment there is a guy sitting in the booth next to me holding forth on the state of the middle east. He is asserting quite forcefully that Iran is in the process of testing nuclear missiles and those around him are eating it up.

Iran is about to engage in several days of war games, and that includes testing long-range missiles that could be capable of eventually carrying nuclear warheads should Iran develop them, but there is a clear distinction between that and actual nuclear tests of the sort that North Korea have probably recently been conducting.

Overhearing misconceptions such as that—beliefs that fit so well into the administration’s disinformation policies that could so easily be used to prepare public opinion for a future military engagement—would be frustrating enough, but there’s also the fact that it’s far from an isolated experience, and that this particular student was comparatively well informed.

(For full disclosure: I confronted him about his statement, and he admitted that he had mis-spoken. But the climate is such that there are probably plenty of people repeating such statements and who will never be confronted, or don’t even realise that the information is wrong).

Oct 06

An endorsement

With elections coming up in just a couple of weeks the local paper is full of letters endorsing or attacking candidates, and we decided to join the fray with an endorsement of David LaGrand for the State Senate.

For those who don’t know David, he’s probably best known around Grand Rapids for his role in the founding of Four Friends Coffee Shop and more recently Wealthy Street Bakery. There’s a tight word limit on letters to the paper and so there’s not much detail, but if you’re interested you can find out more on his website.

David LaGrand’s commitment to the City of Grand Rapids and the people of the 29th district is second to none. He is without a doubt the right man to represent the district in the State Senate.

We’ve been deeply impressed not only with his long term commitment to the City through the businesses he has started and his work as an attorney, but particularly with his efforts to reach out to the whole community—including those traditionally ignored when canvassing—with his campaign. That commitment means his policies on education funding, growing the job market, and bringing tax income back into Grand Rapids have stood the test of constituent scrutiny. He will fight to fully restore revenue sharing so we can open our city swimming pools and achieve appropriate fire and police staffing levels to protect our neighborhoods.

His business and legal background give him the skills necessary to help Michigan grow, rebalancing its tax base, supporting the city and the environment, and adapting as the global economy changes. His commitment to the people of the district mean that his decisions and actions will be grounded in the needs of the working people in his district.

Kari and James Stewart

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Oct 06

Human campaign calls?

Today we got our first political phone call of this election cycle. It was a pre-recorded message from some fear-mongering group posing as some sort of ‘family defense’ group (I didn’t catch their actual name) complaining about Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm‘s policies on policing. Apparently she’s not strong enough to defend the poor scared suburban middle classes. Or something like that.

But politics I vehemently disagree with aside, I was struck by the didactic tone of the message. I’m used to the pre-recorded messages at least making some attempt to engage the listener, usually by starting with a greeting. This one launched into a tirade without any introduction whatsoever. I couldn’t help but feel like the person scripting it wasn’t used to real human interaction.

Oct 06

Vocational education

The news of the potential closure of my old department has led me to wondering what the future is for a subject like physics, which in turn had me thinking about its past.

While many have been worrying lately about declining interest in a number of ‘core’ academic subjects, such as physics, it is easy to forget that the subject only came into existence as a distinct discipline within the past two centuries. Many of the great heroes of physics–people like Kepler, Galileo, and Newton–would never have considered themselves physicists, probably leaning toward the term ‘natural philosophers.’ Maxwell‘s contributions to the discipline were immense, but he’s also notable for being one of the earlier practitioners to go by the name ‘physicist’.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead Jane Jacobs argued forcefully against the move within higher education from broad, high quality education toward ‘credentialing.’ She’s far from alone in that concern, and it’s well founded. A solid grounding in the history and traditions of a discipline are as important a part of a full education as specific skills, and are necessary if we are to move forward wisely. If the decline of a subject like physics is the result of a push towards a form of vocational study that is focussed on credentials, then it is a bad thing.

Many physics departments emphasise in their promotional materials how much society needs the skills that are found within physics. And it’s true. Most of the technological innovations we enjoy day-to-day have come to us filtered through the work of other disciplines, but their underpinnings come from physics. We so desperately need new forms of energy production, and the ideas for that are likely to come from physics. Often ‘pure’ research, free of strong practical concerns, can yield the most useful knowledge for practical progress.

But the importance of physics research and of an education connected with an historical tradition should not shield us from the fact that the labels we now assign, and the distinctions we currently make are not absolutes. The form of education and the lines between disciplines will inevitably shift in the future just as they have in the past. What is vital is that we pay attention throughout those changes and keep the emphasis on education over credentialing.

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Oct 06

Department Closure

I received an email over the weekend from the President of Reading University Students’ Union informing me that the Department of Physics (in which I studied) is being prepared for closure. Yesterday, the BBC picked up the story.

Enrollment in physics courses across the UK has been going down for years, and the fact that the department only attracted thirty-five students is a striking low. It’s not a surprise that the University’s Senior Management Board is considering drastic measures. But this is also the fourth department to be scheduled for closure in as many years. While I was working in the Student Union we were fighting the closure of the Music department, and since then they’ve closed Sociology and Mechanical Engineering.

Closing a university department is a complex business, and they tend to be phased out rather than closed suddenly. In this case, should the University Senate and Council approve the decision, they won’t close for several years but instead will stop taking new students after this year. There will be an attempt to ensure a good experience for the current students, but post grads and academic staff will naturally be looking for more secure positions so some ‘drain’ is inevitable.

Beyond that, the University of Reading needs to be very careful about these ongoing changes. Whatever economic sense it makes to close down certain departments, and however well other parts of the university might pick up their curricula, four closures in as many years is liable to breed uncertainty. How many staff or students are going to want to go to a university who have proven that they can and will pull the rug from under your department after you’ve made your commitment to it?

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Aug 06

Mission Accomplished

In the current climate it’s difficult to believe that anything that should give pause to the US administration (or public, for that matter) will. Nevertheless, it’s still good to see such things getting some attention and maybe something will gain the critical mass and longevity to really make a difference.

The latest is Harpers Magazine‘s coverage of a document thought to be from the safe house of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (either the mastermind of the Iraqi insurgency for many months or a buffoon, depending on which day’s governmental press releases you chose to read) stating that:

The best way to get out of this crisis is to entangle the American forces in a war against Iran. A war between the Americans and Iran will have many benefits in favor of the Sunni and the resistance

More can be found here.

(via slacktivist)

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