14 November 2009

Claptrap 10: Academic acclaim?


This is the tenth and final post in a series marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

Part 2: Eureka!
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre
Part 4: How to get a book published
Part 7: On location

Before trying to get Our Masters' Voices published (Claptrap 4), I'd been warned by Desmond Morris, who was a fellow of the same Oxford college as me, that I would have to be prepared for a sniffy reaction from other academics if I went ahead with my plan to write a book with no footnotes and lots of pictures.

If anyone should know about such things, it was him. Distinguished ethologist though he certainly was, he'd committed the cardinal sin of 'popularisation' by writing The Naked Ape - world sales of which had, by then, reached a mere 15 million copies.

So I should have been ready for the deathly silence that greeted me at lunch on the day after the Claptrap film was shown on television - and should not, I suppose, have been surprised that several days went by before anyone said anything at all.

After all, I knew that the programme had been seen by 12 million people and, however much Oxford dons might pretend that they never watched television, it was statistically improbable that none of them had seen it.

Then, about three days after my phone had hardly stopped ringing - from people asking if I could do the same for them and help them to speak as well as Ann Brennan had done - the silence finally broke.

Standing next to a famous psychologist in the queue for our free lunch (yes, there really was, and probably still is, such a thing as a free lunch in Oxford colleges), I discovered that at least one other member of the college had seen the programme

"Ahh" he said "now about that programme you made a few days ago."

For a split second, this sounded promising, until he went on:

"I think I would need to see the results of more than one experiment to be convinced by your findings."

I was tempted to reply by asking him which funding agency he thought would be willing to finance such a project, and how anyone other than a television company would have the contacts and resources to make all the complicated arrangements that would be needed to replicate it.

It also crossed my mind to launch into a full frontal attack on what I considered to be the rather dubious methodology and facile nature of some of the 'findings' from his own research.

But, by then, I'd been in Oxford for ten years, and had become far too polite to do either.

And however 'unconvinced' my lunchtime colleague may have been by the Claptrap project, within a year or two, I'd been invited to apply for jobs by two well-known American universities, head-hunted by a British business school and seen several follow-up studies published by other researchers.

Within the first ten years, Our Masters' Voices was reprinted five times and, 25 years on, still appears to be in print.

All of which would I think, even if I'd stayed in the ivory tower, have been quite pleasing.

As it was, all the phone calls that came in after the Claptrap experiment led me in much more interesting directions and, somewhat ironically, gave me the chance to replicate the results thousands of times over.

2 comments:

Brian Jenner said...

I remember being absolutely appalled by the standard of lecturing at university. I gave up going to lectures, which had consequences for my final degree result.

Even at one of the best universities in the world, you're expected to regurgitate the lecturers' ideas to do well. So however bad they are, they've usually got a captive audience.

Ross J Warren said...

It has to be said that university for all the good it can do a person, is far from being the only way to gain a good education. As b. often says, university is a matter of reading and listening to lectures, and its possible to discipline oneself to do that literally anywhere. Of course the paper work is useful but it is at best a reflection of a short period of study in the vast majority of cases. Of course there are those with higher degrees, and we must respect that they will often know a great deal about their narrow discipline. So my question is I suppose is academic acclaim a goal that is worth perusing for its own sake? I believe that of course the answer is no, but it can be a very useful spur for the person who desires to be one of the foremost in his particular field. For myself, and I imagine many thousands of others, the fruits of learning are in themselves worth all of the effort. In this respect I have studied that which interested me most, and now in my more mature years I am able to reap the fruits of all of those late nights reading, by applying what I have learned to the words I so enjoy to write. I suppose the moral, for moral indeed there is, is that reading, and listening to, wiser people, is always a worthwhile exercise.