Friday, 20 October 2017

Trigger-happy?

Good Friday! 

Its been another exhausting, if intermittently exhilarating week here at Vole Towers. We have quite literally had laughs, tears and leaking windows, plus the occasional bout of teaching and learning (this week: Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee which went down very well indeed, The Tempest, a selection of JG Ballard's short stories, and Jilly Cooper's Riders for the last time ever). I've enjoyed it enormously, particularly the privilege of hearing a new colleague lecture quite brilliantly for the first time ever. Next week sees me teaching more Ballard short stories, Dave Eggers's The Circle, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and Hamlet. Never let it be said that my teaching load is monotonous. 

The other issue of the week has been the latest reappearance of cynical government ministers demanding universities defend 'free speech' and threatening fines. This is a cyclical event: in a few weeks a story will appear in which the same government minister will condemn a university for hosting a 'radical' or 'extremist' speaker. Being the organiser of a public lecture and research seminar series, I can attest to the simultaneous paranoia and liberalism at play in university hierarchies. They genuinely want to be open to a range of ideas, but they've also been trained by Prevent and their local security service representatives into seeing terrorists under every shalwar kameez. It's all dressed up as 'mental health concern' and equally applicable to 'extremists' of any type, but it doesn't hold water: we know very well that the definition of 'extremism' is covertly linked to ethnicity. The Overton window is getting smaller every day, and the modern university discourse of employability, vocational skills and so in makes it shrinkingly unlikely for any student to be exposed to anything other than capitalist discipline. 

However, the other evergreen education story of the week is my old favourite, Trigger Warnings. Personally, I hate the phrase, almost as much as I hate the terms 'Political Correctness' and 'Check Your Privilege'. Perversely, perhaps, I like and endorse the sentiments and purposes – 'privilege checking' is what we literary critics have been doing ever since someone pointed out that the Leavisite Great Tradition was just a tad narrow. It's just the awful language that implies a deadening managerial rationality to concepts that are and should be expressed emotionally. I'm with Stewart Lee on 'PC': it's about being polite enough to recognise that words have effects and should be used thoughtfully – or as he puts it, 'you can't even scrawl racial abuse in excrement on cars without the political correctness brigade getting involved'. 



As for Trigger Warnings, I've been teaching (and alive amongst humans) for long enough to know that a significant number of people in my class have experienced deeply traumatic things: a depressing amount of my time recently has been spent trying to help my admirable students cope with things that nobody should have to deal with. I happen to think that literature is how we collectively process our experiences, and that it's entirely appropriate to study texts which examine awful events. There's a difference between doing that and deliberately picking texts because you think 'snowflake' students should 'toughen up'. I don't give anything that might be construed as a 'Trigger Warning' (it sounds like the kind of thing a lawyer would advise an institution to put in place) but I do carefully introduce texts and make sure that graphic texts are contextualised sensitively and chosen for their literary merit or social significance rather than just because it might be a laugh. One of my very clever and inquiring students told me today that she'd given up on a book because it used self-harm as the basis of a cheap gag. I'm with her: there's a qualitative difference between a text that takes serious experiences as its subject and one that unthinkingly throws such things in. 

Exposing people to something horrifying without context or warning then telling the newspapers that they're snowflakes is pretty much my definition of Being A Dick. And, let's note, the Telegraph understands this too: here are some lines from their Style Handbook:

 we do not make gratutitous reference to a person's ethnicity or sexual orientation.
obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden. 
Clearly the readership of the Telegraph must be protected from hearing the kind of words they used freely in the colonial wars, but students don't deserve enough respect to introduce things carefully. I can't find the Mail's style guide ('All foreigners are Bloody') but commenters are – and this may surprise you if you've ever seen its message boards – asked to be nice:

Please be polite. Do not use swear words or crude or sexual language.

Rule 5: No libel or other abuse
You must not make or encourage comments which are:
defamatory, false or misleading; 
insulting, threatening or abusive;
obscene or of a sexual nature;

offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory against any religions or other groups.

We have entire modules about taboo and banned texts – Cannibal Holocaust is on the menu soon – but students haven't objected because we demonstrate that there's a justifiable reason for analysing these texts: I have some controversial texts coming up which I won't name because I don't want to make yet another unwilling appearance in the local rag, but I've had to think long and hard about whether the offence is academically justified. I think students are quite right to expect academics to a) ask them to read disturbing texts; b) to have a justification for doing so and c) be happy to have the debate in class. 

The latest furore is about Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's nasty revenge tragedy. I don't think I'd spend too much time on trigger warnings if we were simply reading the play, but I'd certainly warn people what to expect if we showed them one of the recent film adaptations – just as the RSC did when it toured a production in the 1980s. Even horror films have certificates and explanations of what's in them, and I don't think the Mail is calling for abolition of the BBFC. Julie Taymor's astonishing film Titus (1999) got an 18 certificate for its 'strong sex and violence and sexual violence theme'. 

Finally, just to tie the week's education news together, we discover today that Oxford and Cambridge (from whence the Trigger Warning story emanates) have recruited almost no black students, and very few from poor or provincial communities. Perhaps it's because so  much of the political and media classes were educated there, but there seems to be a special level of outrage applied, as though the journalists' and politicians' successors at such places are specially degenerate, whereas the oiks who attend ex-polys like mine are so brutish that they're incapable of feeling much at all. 

The temptation therefore is to write off these Cambridge students as pampered posh whingers, but that requires us to treat them monolithically rather than as individuals with agency and unique identities. Perhaps the Telegraph (which quite often moans about the loss of civility and politeness) disagrees, but being rich does not exempt one from abuse and assault, as a review of historical boarding school abuse scandals should indicate. (The wicked thought crosses my mind that perhaps Oxford and Cambridge are so aware that their posh intake are such reactionary pigs that it would be abusive and unsafe to expose ethnic minority students to their behaviour: the former BNP fuhrer Nick Griffin went to Cambridge after all…).

Academics should always be self-critical and open to re-evaluating their professional practises and how they relate to students because those relationships are complex, driven by sometimes unexamined or unconscious dynamics. I really don't think that simplistic headlines generated by privileged people in furtherance of a generational warn against their own children is particularly productive, and we shouldn't be feeding the beast. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

I think I can feel the skull beneath the skin

Too busy working to have opinions this week, which I'm sure is devastating news to you all. Come to think of it, between exhaustion and a hefty dose of the traditional Freshers' Flu, I can barely think what I've been doing all week.

I did see Bladerunner 2049: a visual and sonic feast, wonderful performances and a decent storyline, though not as philosophically groundbreaking as the original film. There were even a couple of jokes. I did wonder about the nipple count: in this dystopian future only women get naked, and the core of the plot is maternity. Still, about a thousand times more intelligent than everything else on at the moment.

Teaching: this week we've done The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's Digger Manifesto The True Levellers Standard Advanced, and Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem.



They're all on different modules but they all seem to have shared interests if I think about them long enough. Away from work a Renaissance theme emerged too: I just read Nicholas Blake's 30s detective thriller Thou Shell of Death (Blake was the pen-name of poet laureate C. Day-Lewis: he claimed to churn out the detective novels for cash but he's very good at it). If you know where the title's from, you know who the murderer was and how it was achieved. I also read, on a Twitter friend's recommendation, Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning, a title (and chapter epigrams) lifted from Francis Bacon's Renaissance work of the same name. It's a campus murder mystery: efficient, witty, well-plotted and with a real sense of HE in 1971, but astonishingly and authorially sexist (women are always and only characterised by the size and shape of their breasts - in one case, 'hive-shaped', which beats me). A shame: I enjoyed his Austen pastiche, The Price of Butcher's Meat. Next week's classes aren't quite so coordinated: Ballard's short stories, Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee, Jilly Cooper's Riders and another session on The Tempest. 



I'm also reading a PhD on masculinity in Welsh twentieth-century fiction, MA dissertations on drugs in dystopian SF and on reason in Winstanley and Milton's works, and racing through a collection of essays on working-class fiction for the event I'm chairing tomorrow at Birmingham Literature Festival. An ironic cheer to the publisher for getting the book to me…today. I did manage to get along to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an hour, for research purposes: Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson were plugging their books. It was very low-calorie entertainment and mostly covered Brexit in various depressing ways, but I got some useful material by listening to the audience and observing the authors' throwaway comments on being a politician novelist. Johnson went for the full sprezzatura effect, claiming never to have been a serious politician or writer, while Cable saw his novel as a way of exploring the effect of political life on the soul – closer to the didactic tradition. Johnson's latest is a cut-and-paste job ramming together the Trump and Brexit stories as products of a Russian plot. At the event he announced that he thinks Angela Merkel is a Russian spy (echoing one of the mouth-breathers who shouted out the same theory on Question Time recently), and that having been a Remainer, he now thinks Britain will leave the EU with no problems at all ('I wake up every morning and wonder why you're all so worried: what's the problem?'). Sigh.

I also staffed an Open Day on Saturday. Having sent a snottogram to our highly-paid, bonus-culture directors about the mean-spiritedness of withdrawing the limp cheese sandwich traditionally provided to staff and students who gave up their Saturday, I was cynically fascinated by the queue of managers lining up to claim that it was nothing to do with them, out of their hands and something they disagreed with. Sustenance apart, there was an uptick in visitor numbers, though I confess to being shocked that families are checking universities out while their children are still doing GCSEs. Given that my taster class contrasted Jilly Cooper's sex-and-showjumping novels with BS Johnson's book-in-a-box I was a  touch worried about innocent youngsters' being debauched, but it seemed to work OK.

But all this is mere hackwork compared to the Magnum Opus of the week: writing the Course Academic Enhancement Report, the annual masterplan that will transform NSS lead into TEF gold, or something. And on that note, I'd better get back to it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Random Ramblings at the end of a long week

I'm not sure I have any coherent thoughts this week. It's the end of our first week of proper lectures. I've met a largish number of enthusiastic new students (though not as many as previous weeks), welcomed back the existing ones, and plunged headlong into a dizzying array of modules. This week I've discussed Hall and Althusser with the third-years, John Ball, Froissart's Chronicles and Piers Plowman with the second years, talked with an overlapping group of second-years about whether the Renaissance is a meaningful term and what happens to those cultures and texts which are either included or excluded, and got an entire MA module on JG Ballard going (mmm…alienated). Enormously enjoyable of course, but I'm preparing an awful lot of new material in one go. I don't let modules or text drag on, preferring to refresh everything after about three years, but this year is feeling daunting. Next week's menu is The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's writings, some Ballard short stories and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem and the contested nature of Englishness.



I'm also nipping off to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an evening of Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson promoting their novels- Cable's is a debut novel, while Stanley-Father-Of-Boris has produced quite a number over the years: I've bought them both but not yet read them. A few years ago my research colleague and I had our own slot at the CLF discussing politicians' novels, with Michael Dobbs on the panel. Our research is going slowly (see the first paragraph of this post) but I try to attend events like this to keep an eye on the way politicians frame their creative work and what audiences think. I also had a letter on the subject in the TLS last week, and someone sent in a follow-up too.

My collection of politicians' writings also gained some new entrants this week. The first was Sir Stuart Bell's Paris Sixty-Nine, long fabled as a suppressed self-published pornographic novel by the MP for Middlesbrough. In his later years he became a Commissioner of the Church of England, basically the CofE's ambassador to Parliament, and was rather reluctant to acknowledge this saucy little number. It's not actually pornographic in the sense that there are entire chapters without sex scenes, but those scenes are revolting conceptually and in literary terms. Obviously this is a family blog and I won't scar your eyeballs with quotation, but I will say that they read like the work of someone who had never met a woman, or at least not one for whom he'd ever had any respect.

Bell was accused of being Britain's laziest MP – no constituency surgeries in 14 years – but he devoted quite a lot of time to writing autobiographical short stories, some of which made into print, and the rest made available on his website for years after his death (sadly, no more). As the New Statesman implied, he had quite a high opinion of himself:
Stuart Bell MP has written another novel, Binkie's Revolution (the first in a trilogy), which chronicles the lives and loves of several families, beginning in Durham mining villages around 1900 and ending (two novels hence) in the election of the first president of the United States of Europe. The style is so fluent and racy it carries the reader along. We know this to be true, because the author says so in a five-page handout that also explains how to order the book from his publishing arm, Spen View Publications. It's being a Church Estates Commissioner that 'as made 'im so 'umble.
I haven't read Binkie's Revolution yet, but it vaguely echoes Edwina Currie's The Ambassador, which is set in a future united Europe in which the transcontinental ruling class has genetically engineered itself to retain power forever, despite the sterling efforts of a lovely English woman, a brash US ambassador and a supporting cast of outrageously stereotyped ethnic minorities.  Sadly, while there is a sequel to Binkie's Revolution on Kindle only, Bell appears never to have finished the trilogy.

The other politician's work that turned up this week is one of the very rarest and most beautiful (and expensive) books I've ever got my paws on. Lord Lymington's Spring Song of Iscariot was published in 1929 in an edition of 125 by the fabled Parisian artisan Black Sun Press, which also put out work by Sterne, Poe, Lawrence and Joyce in similarly tiny numbers. It comes in a complicated slipcase, is printed on beautiful paper with an exquisite typeface. Sadly the poetry is pretty woeful: bursting with the kind of imagery you'd get if a Vogon had eaten Freud and developed an obsession with Ezra Pound.






In a way I'm not too saddened by this, because after Lord L stopped being an MP for Basingstoke, he devoted his time to being a full-time Nazi, starting in the mystically-inclined blood-and-soil ruralist group English Mistery, then the English Array, the British People's Party and ultimately Kinship in Husbandry, several of whose members contributed their viciously racist and mystical ideas of purity to what became the now-respectable Soil Association. He ended up emigrating to Kenya with the rest of the despicable crew of toffs who made up the remains of the Happy Valley set.

Lymington's interesting though. Not many professional politicians wrote poetry at all (though some of the Welsh-speaking Liberal and Labour MPs did), and none associated with hardcore modernists. While the poetry isn't much good, it's ambitious and far removed generically and intellectually from the usual concerns of politician-authors. I'm not expecting Stanley Johnson or Vince Cable to start going on about the Pillars of the Womb, for instance.

Anyway, that's your lot: I've got tomorrow's Open Day talk to prepare. I think I'll leave readings from Bell's and Lymington's works until they've signed up…

Friday, 29 September 2017

Friday in the Garden of Good and Evil

This week has been way to busy to consider blogging. I've met all the new students several times, so they've seen all my decent clothes and heard all my decent jokes. Or the jokes that I think are decent anyway. This year's intake are very engaged and chatty, which was lovely: it didn't take much effort to get them talking about interesting things, and they even indulged me when I quoted Plato and Michael Oakeshott while encouraging them to care more about ideas than grades. We also had a party: loads turned up, nobody stood on the edges looking lonely, and we had to go out for more wine and not just because my colleagues drank it all.

The more frustrating element of the week has been trying to get the new VLE and the online course management software working: despite getting all the details right several months ago, students are still struggling to sign up for the right classes, and obviously they complain to us. My desk bears a slight dimple where my forehead keeps meeting it a speed. The upshot is that I'm teaching mostly brand new material at several levels from next week, lecture-writing has very much taken a back seat. Ah well, I'll get there. Next week I'm teaching everything from The Address of John Ball and Gerard Winstanley's manifestos to Ballard's short stories. Exciting.

The other thing that happened this week was Question Time at the university. I didn't get a ticket, but I returned to watching it in the hope that my esteemed students, colleagues and townsfolk would break the cycle of answering moronic panellists with reactionary attitudes. Sadly, I was mistaken. Dimbleby – seemingly suffering from a vision problem that means he can only see men – picked a succession of people I would characterise as disturbing, actual, fascists. One shouted that Angela Merkel was an East German Communist, another defended the AfD against allegations that praising the actions of the Wehrmacht in WW2 makes them pro-Nazis, and another contributed the bullshit cri de coeur de nos jours of 'Europe needs us more than we need Europe'. Unless there's suddenly a need for Alan Sugar's warehouses of unsold Amstrad @mailers for some unimaginable reason, I remain unconvinced. As a fillip for the university, getting a show like Question Time in was a coup. As an advert for the city, it did not give off the impression that it's a progressive, welcoming, intellectual powerhouse. Still, if you're thinking of holding a cross-burning, or want to open a golliwog shop, there's probably a chance of making a go of it here.

I'm off to lock myself in and draw the curtains. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Feeling sic…

I wrote to the London Review of Books with a correction but it wasn't printed, so you can have the doubtful benefit. I'm still unsure whether I'm being pedantic, paranoid, or postcolonial. Also: the author is Marina Warner, one of the greatest minds of her generation, so I feel a little conflicted about that too. Hey ho…

In the midst of a very interesting review of Thomas Laqueur's The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, I found these three words:
Jesu Grist (sic)
The subject was Dr William Price, the doctor, Druid, political activist and all-round Romantic polymath powerhouse who illegally cremated his son and spurred on the legalisation of the practice. An accomplished wind-up merchant and anticlericalism, he named his son Iesu Grist.



So what is the 'sic' all about? If it refers to 'Jesu', it's wrong. Price was a Welsh-speaker, and Welsh only uses 'j' in loanwords. The boy was called Iesu: not a misspelling of Jesus. If 'sic' refers to 'Grist', that's wrong too: Grist is standard Welsh for Christ.

The mistake, and the compounding addition of 'sic' suggests either Warner or the LRB (I'm hoping it's the LRB) has a rather anglocentric notion of culture in which a prominent intellectual's correct – if provocative – use of his native language can only be understood as an English mistake by an eccentric from the wild Celtic fringes.

Say it ain't so…

Friday, 15 September 2017

Lesbian Bastard Heroes and Other Stories.

I have had an eventful week, to put it mildly. A week ago I was decorating a village hall, carrying chairs and checking camera angles for my friends' wedding in an idyllic English village in the heart of Brexit country. My main job was photographer, but I'm now an expert at bunting hanging, guest corralling and taxi-marshalling. The happy couple were beautiful, the rector was organised and thoughtful (even this atheist appreciated her sermon) and the draught porter was Murphy's. Oh, and I came home with a sack of cheese left over from the reception, which was a bit of a result.

I could have done with a couple of days' rest after that, but the pre-term panic is well and truly ON! Rather than write lectures (including the MA module on Ballard I've suddenly inherited), I've been wrestling with a new VLE and trying – after six months of work, to get the powers that be to give students the correct course guides so that they actually know what they're meant to be studying in two weeks' time. We've had a day-conference on 'widening excellence', a 'roadshow' from the VC which consists of buttered words and sharp steel, and before we even start inducting the new students there's a staff conference and graduation to look forward to. On the plus side, the department has a new Graduate Teaching Assistant. Having taken a First Class degree this year, she's getting used to seeing what her former teachers are like behind the curtain. Only one keyboard has been punched to death in her presence this week (not by me, I hasten to add).

The other highlight of the week was tearing a calf muscle while fencing. My first injury in almost 25 years: it's painful, and I can only hobble about. Given I commute by bicycle, it's making life rather difficult. Age is a terrible leveller, my children.

It's not all drudgery. I'm enjoying catching up on all the texts I'm teaching this year (including lots of Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Doctorow, Eggers, Atwood, Valerie Solanas, Winterson – in the course of which I found Esther Saxey's journal article with the superb title 'Lesbian Bastard Heroes' – Gerard Winstanley, Ballard, Monica Ali, Jackie Kay, Jilly Cooper, Gil Scott-Heron) and I have an interesting PhD to examine in early November. Oh, and I'm compering an interesting event at the Birmingham Literature Festival on working-class writing, including Catherine O'Flynn, one of my favourite novelists. I'm just not sure when my research is going to get done. I'm still working on my politicians' novels project, but the discovery that Robert Kilroy-Silk has produced three of them has rather taken the pleasure out of it. It just struck me that he's exactly the kind of politico who thinks he has talents in every field, so I looked him up on WorldCat and there he is: a mid-eighties novel called The Ceremony of Innocence which doesn't sound entirely savoury, and three more recent e-books which sounded even worse than Peter Hain's, Norman Tebbit's and Boris Johnson's output (and having read all of them, I promise that's very, very bad indeed).

One's a Condition-of-England one that attacks 'political correctness' and another one makes the case for father-daughter incest. If you don't know who RKS is, or what he's like, this Guardian article tells you far, far more than you might ever need to know.
Eye-poppingly unsavoury novels…Kilroy-Silk is beholden to no one as he writes novels that he self-publishes on Amazon's Kindle. He's published three since the spring and each seethes with rage at political correctness in modern British society – with their unsavoury racism, glum sexist stereotypes, borderline homophobic jibes and digs against Islam, they reek of an outsider judging a world he doesn't want to understand… 
Closure ends (spoiler alert!) with the wretched stereotype of an obese lesbian social worker being murdered by a vengeful father who leaves her strangled corpse tied up amid dildos to make it look like a perverted autoerotic asphyxiation. After, of course, having arranged that the children have been kidnapped from their adoptive parents and whisked away to Cyprus.
Which rather takes us back to 'Lesbian bastard heroes' I suppose. Anyway, welcome to my world. Enjoy your weekend.

Monday, 4 September 2017

This post was brought to you by…

Last night I texted someone to say 'even Portishead have licensed a track for advertising now'. My friends are used to such retro naïveté and some of them even summon up the energy either to take me to task ('bands can't rely on sales income any more') or to tease me ('another band off your list').

I am a stuffy puritan about these things though. I never download illegally despite reservations about copyright law and music labels because I want artists to make a living directly from their art. When they licence their music for adverts my feeling is that they've subordinated their own art to a product. I therefore stop buying their music. If they don't value it enough, and have another income stream, they don't need me, and I can't be sure that their music isn't produced with an eye to attracting further revenue streams. Funnily enough, there's a cultural hierarchy of these things. Most people don't care if pop bands sell their music; some people mind that BP and cigarette companies sponsored classical concerts and art exhibitions, while there was an outcry when Fay Weldon wrote a book sponsored by – and heavily featuring – tasteless jeweller to the oligarchs Bulgari.

Why yes, people have accused me being a pompous revanchist git before. Thanks for asking.

Why am I going on about this now? Because I spotted a tweet from WonkHE announcing a 'partnership' with Hotcourses, one of those businesses which repackages public information, adds what it considers 'value' and makes a lot of money. I don't like it much, and liked it even less when it was owned by Jeremy Hunt MP. I do like WonkHE though. Despite its overwhelming maleness, Englishness and preoccupation with the Russell Group, it's a lively and interesting arena for Higher Education policy discussions. It's particularly useful to me because it often features views I might otherwise miss in my neomarxist bubble.

I hadn't thought about WonkHE's funding model at all previously. I tended to treat it as a service rather than a business. I didn't notice that it had any 'sponsors' at all, which means either I'm dumb or they're very discreet.



Perhaps the fact that I like the site lulled me into a state of acceptance, because I'm normally very wary of such things. Having spent years teaching students about the social media model, I know that if a service is free, you are the product. This is why I don't have Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp or anything other than this blog and Twitter. I pay for a Flickr account, and I keep all identifiable details off Twitter. Obviously all the data is still very profitable to them, and it takes about 30 seconds to deduce my identity but I don't make it easy, and I'm gradually adopting ad-blockers and the like to my electronic presence to reduce my exposure even further. Next step: TOR or EpicBrowser (both blocked on my university network).

My problem with WonkHE is the same one I now have with Portishead. Now I know they have a lot of funders, I have to start assuming that everything they produce is shaped – however remotely – by their commercial instincts: just look at what happened when Google didn't like the conclusions reached by some academics it funded. WonkHE will gain access to data from their sponsors, but that data will have been collected and shaped to further particular ends. Likewise, while WonkHE won't be selling reader data to their sponsors, it will be helping those sponsors understand me, my colleagues and my context for their own purposes. It won't feel like a community any more. I'd have been happy to pay a subscription – as I do for The Guardian, LibraryThing and Flickr – to keep a valuable arena open, but now I feel a bit used.

This is of course a function of my privileged position as an academic. Universities are complex things, behaving in multiple – often contradictory – ways at the same time. They're charities, businesses, liberation movements, social justice vehicles and corporate service providers all at once. It's frustrating and wonderful at the same time. One of the key advantages though is that almost everyone in HE understands that we have multiple responsibilities. There's this magical notion that intellectual purity and honesty outweighs immediate, local or commercial concerns: while 'truth' is accepted as a social construct these days, commitment to open and fearless enquiry is at the heart of what we do, and my particular employers have sometimes stood up for these principles even when they've been deeply frustrated with the consequences.

The result is that when my students attend a lecture, or someone reads a journal article I've written, they know that there are no hidden motives or justifications for what I've asked them to consider and what I've said, nor are my thoughts consciously shaped by the interests and perspectives of my employers or anyone else: I'm beholden only to my students and my sense of professional duty. No publishers have sponsored my reading list. I can't any longer assume that this is the case for WonkHE: while individual articles will no doubt be rigorous and honest, each additional sponsor will have some effect on what is presented and how it's framed.

I should apologise to WonkHE: they aren't doing anything worse than thousands of household names (in fact they're a lot better than most) and they wandered into my field of view just as I was getting on the highest of horses. Objecting to one organisation's adoption of tactics refined by much nastier companies (and Portishead) with barely a squeak of resistance from the public is totally pompous, quixotic and certainly ineffectual, but here I am. I can do no other. Other than fall off this horse and do myself a nasty injury.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

"You can't beat the West Coast, Mrs"

Well, I'm back. I was in Co. Kerry, Ireland for the famous Killorglin Mid-Kerry Puck Fair.• It rained a lot and I read some books (Three Guineas, The Nigger Factory, Tales of the City, Sheila Wingfield's Collected Works (thanks, Canon!), The Just City, Brick Lane, Fight Club, The Wretched of the Earth and Little Brother, ate far too well, saw a play about Jimmy Gralton, went to the Vermeer and Co. exhibition, and took some photos. In other words: perfect. Below – a few of my favourite shots. The rest are here.









Handheld! 


At the fireworks

Also at the fireworks

Despite being called 'Chilled Cans' and being held up by scaffolding inside, this place insists on pouring Guinness properly even with 10,000 people waiting. Unlike every single pub in the UK. 

Tork Waterfall, Killarney

The Skelligs from near Waterville




I return to the cheery news that our faculty management, which has never been less than profligate when it comes to its own pursuits, has decided to cut costs by withdrawing the sweaty but free cheese sandwich it gave staff who came in on Saturdays to run Open Days. As a symbol of mean-spirited and misdirected economy in HE, said sandwich really takes the biscuit.

•It's only a Mid-Kerry festival according to a man from Castlemaine. He also told us his mother's house rules for Puck. 1. Don't vomit on the sofa. 2. Don't bring back any Beaufort girls. We didn't get to learn what she had against them.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bye for now

Right, it's time to put my feet up.



I'm off on my holidays, by which I mean going somewhere else to prepare next semester's lectures and read a PhD thesis. But at least there will be a goat up a tower for symbolism. And rain.


See you all in a couple of weeks. Unless Donald and Jong-un manage to spark an all-out nuclear onslaught.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Back to reality

I don't spend all my time agonising over the state of academia. I also punch printers.

University of Darkplace
Network Printer Instructions

1.     Press Print
2.  Choose ‘Follow-You Printer’
3.     Walk to printer
4.     Touch ID card to sensor
5.     Read ‘No Jobs Received’
6.     Curse the day the printer salesman sold machine to gullible IT services rubes. Curse his/her parents, children, pets and pot-plants
7.     Walk back to office
8.     Email documents to Head of Department
9.     HoD walks to printer.
10.  HoD returns with documents. Apologise profusely and pretend that this will never happen again. You both know this is a damned lie. 
11.  Phone IT Services more out of habit than hope.
12.  Repeat thrice daily.


For more information, please re-read.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Full disclosure

The BBC salaries report has prompted me to do something I've had in mind for quite some time. I read a while ago that (now ex-)Google employee Erica Baker found the limits of her employer's openness when she circulated a spreadsheet with her salary on it, inviting others to join in.

All companies like to be secretive about salaries. This is partly because those in the magic circle get inflated salaries and bonus payments which are often way out of line with those awarded to the workforce, and partly because employees sharing their salaries leads to muttering in the ranks. This is certainly the case in HE. My VC's last recorded pay rise was of the order of 20%, in pursuit of the 'industry average': in my 8 years as a full-time academic I have never had a pay rise that exceeded inflation. In my four years as an elected staff governor, pay was never discussed in detail and I was excluded from the Renumeration Committee that decides on senior salaries, performance bonuses, and the university's stance on the the national pay award for teaching staff. The only fact I managed to establish was that senior management salaries are calculated after a confidential survey of management salaries across the sector, meaning that as long as they all stick together, there's never a chance of a below-inflation rise or a cut.

So here it is: my salary.

£48, 327.

I am 42, and have had a full-time academic job since 2008, when I was 32. At the moment I'm a Senior Lecturer and a Course Leader (i.e. I do all the validation and organisation for a couple of degrees but I don't manage people). Before that I took a long time to do an MA and a PhD, and taught as an hourly-paid lecturer in six different subject areas for 8 years. When things were tough, I did some supply teaching, which is why I admire teachers so much and feel so guilty about my behaviour in school. Well, some of it anyway. I also had a £6000 annual scholarship to do my PhD.

If you think 32 is late, the generations of academics behind me have it far worse. Being on a selection panel for an entry-level lecturing job was shaming: every single applicant had achieved more in terms of research, while doing huge amounts of teaching, while never having had a full-time job, a permanent job, or even a full-year job.

Salaries are not as transparent as they look either. Some academics negotiate, while others aren't aware it's possible, and there are ethnic and gendered aspects to this. I was once sitting next to a colleague who was offered a proper contract after working with us for years. To his enormous credit, the associate dean on the end of the phone talked her into accepting a higher salary than was technically on offer. I was also lucky: I'd taught for years in so many areas before the possibility of a part-time job came up that I quaveringly asked whether my length of service might justify making me a senior lecturer, and the panel agreed. I doubt this would ever happen now.

How do I feel about my salary? I feel rich. The average UK salary last year was £27,600. I live in a very poor area, so the gap is far wider. I have benefitted from being middle-class, white and male: lacking any one of these characteristics would result in a sharp drop: lacking all three dramatically reduces earning potential.

I do have other feelings about my salary, and they're mostly comparative. I work in a sector where managements work very hard to make sure that academic salaries fall behind while their own converge with industry. That annoys me. I feel that the long years of earning little or nothing (and therefore not contributing to a pension) and having no job security simply to acquire the qualifications and experience needed should be reflected in academic salaries. I'm also aware that this is my peak salary: the elevator stopped long ago, and insecurity is once more afield. I work hard to remind myself that my salary is way in excess of my neighbours and what most of my students will get, and that I don't even have a family to support. I mitigate the guilt by happily paying every tax I can, and by making sure that those earning less than me never buy the coffees: that's how it was when I had no money, and I'm just passing it on.

I also feel that I work hard for my salary. I have contracted hours, and they're officially exceeded by a significant amount every year, and unofficially exceeded by even more. Then there's the emotional labour involved in this kind of work: we don't just teach and write, we provide intellectual, cultural and emotional support to students and colleagues in ways that can't be quantified. The strong bonds between us means that there's a culture of overwork which is never acknowledged. It's true, however, that within a neoliberalised social system, being a lecturer in English Literature and a researcher in Welsh literatures is a luxury good. It shouldn't be, but it is.

So there we are. That's what I earn. I'm lucky to work in a sector with a national pay bargaining unit, and resigned to the ever-widening gap between my colleagues and our overseers. I'm conscious of the class, racial and gender bonus included in my salary. I don't aspire to riches, simply to security. I spend my money on books and train travel, and lust over extremely expensive bikes that I'll never be able to afford. I'd happily pay more tax and see a more level salary landscape, but I also think that there are a lot of people taking home a lot more tax for doing less useful work.

Don't feel you have to share your salary too - but do add your observations in the comments.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Ye Olde Annual 'Three Month Holiday' Post: special Adonis Edition

Every year, teachers and university lecturers are chaffed by friends and loved ones about their 'three month holiday'. Extrapolating from the sudden presence of children on the streets for 5-6 weeks, and dimly remembered long hazy undergraduate summers spent snorting marijuana and seeing Barclay James Harvest at the 100 Club (sub: check details?), they're under the impression that educators simply down tools in about mid-April, swan off to their agreeable second homes in Tuscany/the Hamptons, and read Iris Murdoch novels or translate Das Kapital into Serbian free verse.

This year, we have the added joy of an ermine-clad lord weighing in. You remember Andrew Adonis, don't you? That wonderful night in 1997 when after months of stump speeches and solid campaigning  he overturned a massive Tory majority in the constituency of…

Oh wait.

That was Stephen Twigg. Andrew Adonis was one of those white men in suits who went to a boarding school, then Oxford, did a short stint as a research fellow – having written a D.Phil on Politics and Aristocracy – and after a few years on the FT and the Observer, fortuitously found himself doing Politics amongst the Aristocracy courtesy of being made a Baron and a government minister by his fellow private-school/Oxford chum Tony Blair. It's almost as though sex, class and whiteness open the door to power and privilege…

So having never troubled himself to get elected to anything other than Oxford City Council, Andrew found himself in charge of education policy and landed with a permanent vote in the British legislature until he dies, and £300 per day just for turning up. Turning up, that is, on a schedule that makes his imagined university look positively Stakhanovite: roughly 130-145 days per year. Still, nice work if you can get it. But not the kind of lifestyle that entitles Andy to make comments like this:




My colleagues around the country have been slightly riled by this: the very best is a long, detailed exposition by Christina de Bellaigue, who knows the Oxford system inside out. Andy was a Junior Research Fellow in Oxford in the late 80s. Oxford wasn't representative of the HE section then (or now); a JRF was an untypical position with quite low formal expectations; HE was nowhere near as bureaucratised then as it is now; student numbers were much, much lower. And as Jonathan Healey of Oxford University points out, Dr Adonis's outputs were not exactly multi-volume works, despite being employed primarily as a research specialist.

One was a book based on his dissertation; the others are rather ephemeral – and not all peer-reviewed – to the point at which my research committee, at my not-even-in-the-league-tables HE institution, would be tutting and making pointed remarks about REF-ability.

Poor Baron Lord Doctor Adonis or however he's titled seems to have missed the expansion and bureaucratisation of higher education, despite having been the Father of Fees and the Minister for Academic Mayhem under New Labour. Many better academics than me are pointing out on Twitter that the '3 month holiday' is the period in which we: a) write new lectures for next year; b) get research done (the stuff that feeds into teaching and attracts funding, the only thing promotion and hiring panels give a stuff about; c; go through the results of every single student in the institution to work out whether they've passed or graduated this year; d) do the marking; e) do the resit marking; f) counsel students who've failed or just want to see us (79 appointments over the last month for me); present at conferences to make sure we're still current; examine other universities' courses to make sure they're up to scratch; attend administrative committees; sit on progression and results boards (2 in August in my case) and so on ad infinitum. And let's spare a thought for my colleagues on courses like nursing and medicine: while Andrew coped with 8 week terms, mine are 15 weeks long (with marking and prep in between) and health courses just carry on. Spare a thought too for all those hourly-paid and 10-month contract academics who produce the amazing new work required just to get a foot in the door, while not being paid for a single hour outside the classroom. No holiday pay, no pension, no lab space, no research hours, no payment for helping students outside the class: and still they get the books written. Like me, they will be judged on the quality of their research output, regardless of their working conditions or institutional structures. Was Lord Adonis measured and monitored in this way? I very much suspect not.

Although anecdotes aren't data, I thought I'd share my working situation with you. I'm pretty ordinary: I'm a course leader (which doesn't bring cash with it, just 150 hours to design and administer the whole damn thing). My contract theoretically divides 1597 hours p.a. between teaching, research, scholarly activity, administration and the rest. I counted up almost everything I do and found myself doing 2200 hours, and sent it off to the faculty committee so that they could take away some duties and make my workload conform to contract. Instead, they left every single duty on the sheet, but invented lower hourly tariffs. This year, they have decided that I can write a book – while being permanently present in my shared office of 14 people, and available to students at all times – in 30 hours. The fact is that all universities rely on academics and support staff putting in enormous amounts of unpaid and unrecorded labour simply because some of it pleasant and much of it will benefit the students that we care about. What's shocking is that they're happy to record some of it: while they've fiddled my workload data to falsify the stats, they've cheerfully left it significantly over the contracted hours because they know that I and my colleagues are too conscientious to leave work undone.

Despite my contract saying I'm entitled to 4 working weeks of 'unbroken' leave, boards are scheduled throughout August, and faculty events throughout September. Today I attended a research seminar and wrote a conference proposal; yesterday I assisted with a student writing skills event and wrote another proposal. The day before, I went to the Faculty Learning and Teaching Conference. Last week I attended two conferences and marked a lot of resits (more to come). I'm off next week to attend the board of another HEI in my role as an external examiner for two courses: before I get there I have to read all the essays submitted for 12 modules, if they ever arrive, then write a report about the teaching, the curriculum, the feedback and the courses' suitability. Then there are the PhD students who don't go away for three months either. We have a new VLE launching in September: before then, I've got to learn how to use it, transfer everything from the old one, and design new teaching methods utilising its whizzy new features – and that's in addition to writing an entirely new module (15 new lectures on 20 new texts, 15 new seminar designs, assembling primary materials), sorting rooming out and organising my subject's Welcome Week activities. I have a PhD to examine. We also have the Course Committee findings to address, an external examiner's report to which to respond, some troubling Equalities and Diversity committee statistics to look into, two literature festivals to help organise, the Estates Committee meetings to attend, school outreach events to do, journal articles to write, book research to do, grant applications to write and union members to advise – often about workload worries, unironically. Then there are the students, who work long, long hours in their own jobs and rely on us to be available to see them at any time – and we do, because we like them and want them to do well. Our teaching hours, by the way, are 9-9.

I get to work at 8 a.m. on many days, and leave 12 hours later. My boss is usually there before me and usually still there after I go home. My management's response – from their private offices and company limos – is to announce a crackdown because we're never there, and that those who choose to do their research at home are swinging the lead.

What's most pernicious about my managers and Andrew Adonis is their implication that academia is about 'product'. While he's a little disingenuous about his own output, he clearly only values what's tangible. He – and they – refuse to value the intangible work done. How can I demonstrate that I have made students think about new things in new ways? That I have in some small way changed their lives, my life, or my field of inquiry? Sure, there are cards and emails but I'm damned if I'll produce those as evidence. I could produce a paper a month and a new module per semester (actually I'll be introducing a new one in every semester for the next three years) but volume and quality are not the same thing, despite the efforts of REF, TEF and university managers – many of whom collect performance-related pay and credit when the metrics go in their favour, but are conspicuous by their absence when there's blame to be assigned.

I know, I know: plenty of people do longer hours in harder jobs for less pay, with more domineering and even less honest management surveillance. And yet I hope you understand why people go red and even cry when you say 'three-month holiday' to them with that cheesy grin. And to be very very clear: my students are not having a three-month holiday. All of them have jobs. More than I'd like are working full-time hours (i.e. 40 hours) while studying full-time too. During the summer break a lot of them work even more hours because they have families to support or huge debts. I continually nag them to take actual holidays for their own health, but for many it's just not possible. Surprisingly few of them have holiday homes in Chiantishire…

Lord Adonis is very much not one of them.

Postscript: Lord Adonis is also going to town on all those massively overpaid Vice-Chancellors and university executives. He is entirely right to do so and I support him on this every step of the way.