Friday, 20 July 2018

Spot the Difference, or, a Teachable Moment

All staff got this message this morning.


Excellent. I'm all for it. We have a large proportion of BME students and manual staff especially cleaners and cooks, and a very low proportion of BME academics and managers. Basically, seniority looks white here. 

Simultaneously, we ran this billboard and web campaign:


Oh dear: the old 'white saviour' trope in which kindly white individuals solve the problems of an undifferentiated mass of dependent and grateful black people.



Plus the extra touch of describing Africa as an unexplored new world. This will be news to its inhabitants, one suspects. I feel too for my students, 40%+ of whom are of BME extraction: rendered in this ad not as potential teachers/health workers but as the recipients of white bounty.

Having been alerted to this the university has been quick to pull the campaign off the web and the billboards are coming down today. It still suggests that there's a problem though. My colleagues in English, Media and Cultural Studies have been teaching this stuff for years - I used to do a whole lecture on media coverage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine - but this campaign was written, designed, cleared, printed and published without anyone noticing the implications. I have absolutely no doubt that there's not a shred of conscious racism in what happened, but despite every member of staff having to take online courses in 'unconscious bias', this still appeared. 

While I applaud the university's efforts to put in place structures and plans to create an inclusive culture, I can't help thinking that strategies and publicity campaigns are looking like marketing devices rather than searching self-examination. Academic departments' courses have been revitalised by the decolonisation of curricula: now it's time for the managers who harangue us about such things to systematically reconsider their own practises. 

Friday, 13 July 2018

'Curse your English education'!

What a week…what a week in public life. A Chequers away-day for the government that sounded as awful as anyone else's away day, and culminated in Johnson, Davis and Gove talking big to their mates, grovelling to the PM to her face, then resigning once they'd got home and out of her sight. Well, not Gove, obviously, but Davis, Johnson and several Tories whose existence was previously unsuspected.

The week ended back in the same place, with the same PM (somehow) having talks and dinner yet again with a collection of rude blowhard men who think that bluster is an acceptable substitute for brains. The accents may have been different, but it's hard to tell one portly, amoral, sexually-promiscuous racist half-American New York-born blond (Boris Johnson) from another (Donald Trump). I know a lot of people were rooting for May – despite everything – to grow a spine and re-stage a scene from the world's worst film (Love Actually followed closely by Drop Dead Fred and Jack Frost) but it was never going to happen.



Having walked out on some fairly decent allies, May is left clinging to a country which doesn't need Britain, led by a man who has no concern for his own country, let alone its allies. Given Trump's obvious hatred of democratically-elected women, I'm actually feeling sorry for the PM: she's being gaslighted by Trump. I watched his press conference this afternoon, which consisted of him describing the interview he gave to a friend's newspaper only yesterday as 'fake news', mealy-mouthed attempts to smooth over the insults he sent her way in that interview, and the repetition of the lie he keeps telling about being in Scotland the day before the EU referendum and predicting the result. He wasn't: he turned up a day after the result was announced.

What a shambles: thirty years of shameless lying has led to a supposedly serious country being thrown into the arms of a rogue state which will strip what's left of Britain bare then leave it for dead, while enriching a few oligarchs along the way.

Oh yes, and there was a game of football that I missed. At least Thierry Henry's Belgium lost – a modicum of recompense for cheating Ireland out of European qualification. Yes I know it was in 2010 but it feels like only yesterday. I gather England played too, but I was fencing and missed it. To be honest, my sporting focus has been on the Tour de France: compromised as it is by drugs, Sky and repressive regimes sportwashing their reputations by sponsoring teams, I find it utterly compelling: the effort involved, the tactics, the distances, the landscape, the bikes I can neither afford nor deserve (if anyone's got a spare £18,000, this is the one I want), the spectators dressing up as giant syringes to greet Chris Froome…magic.

My week is ending in sport too – this weekend is the Much Wenlock Olympian Games, acknowledged by the Olympic movement as one of its inspirations. It's a great mix of events: some serious events on the calendar (fencing, triathlon, archery) and some properly silly things, like wonky bicycle races. I tend to alternate refereeing and competing, depending on whether my waistline is waxing or waning, but this year I'm refereeing/organising as we're unavoidably short of staff. We run adult competitions plus a mixed-sex children's team competition, perfectly scheduled for the hottest weekend of the summer.

The rest of the week has been spent successfully not writing the conference paper I have to deliver in not many days. Marking re-sit essays and dissertations has filled quite a lot of it, plus seeing students to sort out their programmes and suchlike. The redundancy situation rumbles on with no sign of management managing to extract their braincases from their rectal passages. All we've heard this week is that a) research by people being fired won't be accepted by REF, which is both fair and a disaster for the faculty and b) graduation attire is even more prescriptive because management doesn't want to see the Save The Arts logo anywhere. Which is just a challenge, as far as I can see. There's even a line about 'formal business attire' and 'formal shoes'. They will of course be wearing their traditional academic-manager costume:



and shoes…


Ah well, it depresses me to even think about these vandals. 

I have managed to read a little this week. Two very contrasting texts: The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth, and Nick Harkaway's Gnomon. I've read almost all of Edgeworth's novels now – she's a fascinating slightly older contemporary of Jane Austen, and her work is a more uproarious version of the social comedy form, with lots of added Irish elements: she was part of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, though one with considerably more social concern than many of her peers or indeed characters. The Absentee is a short, funny but also uncomfortable comedy about her own class: minor Irish aristocracy torn between where the cash comes from (grinding Irish peasants into the dust of the land stolen from them) and the giddy social whirl of the London establishment that sees them as figures of fun. Edgeworth attempts a defence of the 1801 Union (English manners and Irish spirit will benefit each other) but it's not pursued far, and the more parasitical absentees are lambasted roundly, all within a spirited marriage plot and lots of family in-jokes. As an early examination of the tricky colonist's social perch, it's unmissable. 

Harkaway's book is unmissable in another sense: it's 684 pages long and far, far too pleased with itself. A near-future rendition of Britain under total surveillance, its politics are hard to disagree with but god it's hard to love (and that's even without going in to a novel whose dead dissident is called Diana Hunter: not subtle, Nick). There's something odd about surveillance novels: Dave Eggers's The Circle (another bad book attacking bad ideas) also falls into the trap of using the omniscient-narrator novel form to attack omniscience, though I must admit that it does caution against the possibility of objective perspectives throughout. Most readers want total awareness of everything that's going on - as I know when I give my students texts which obscure, complicate or refuse 'truths'. While Harkaway's book is a little more adventurous stylistically (The Circle is sort-of cleverer in that it keeps subtly referring to Wordsworth's Prelude), I don't think either author is deliberately playing with the irony – I don't think it's occurred to them. 

I suppose, in Harkaway's defence, a 684 page novel is a kind of warning against state Total Information Awareness: overload is a real danger. I'm not sure what a decent surveillance novel would look like, but I don't think its either of these. Gnomon is a fun read but its exhaustiveness defeats its own point and starts to look like a rather Victorian-patriarchal attempt to dominate its readers' every thought… which rather defeats its own point. 

See you next week. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Prince of Wales Bridge Naming Ceremony Transcript

A grateful nation woke this morning to the news that the new Severn Bridge had been secretly ceremonially renamed as the Prince of Wales Bridge, without any public consultation or invitation to the momentous event, nor even a photographer. Luckily a concealed bridge-spotter was on hand to record the glorious pageant, which took place in the basket of a hot-air balloon floating high above the structure deep in the middle of the night.



Alun Cairns: 'Welcome, everybody to the Great British Bridge Renaming Ceremony. Please don't lean too far over the side'.
Carwyn Jones: 'Sssshhh. The proles might hear us'.
Prince Charles: 'Who's there? I can't see a damn thing. Are you quite sure the grateful masses are gathered on the bridge? 2 a.m. seems a bit late even for the jobless. I can't hear any forelocks being tugged.'
Alun Cairns: 'Absolutely sire. They're only keeping quiet to avoid disturbing the barnacles. Have you rolled up your left trouser-leg as prescribed by ancient rite?'
Carwyn Jones: 'Dw i eisiau…'
Prince Charles: 'None of that Welshie stuff. Can't understand a bloody word. Bloody ugly bridge too. Monstrous carbuncle. Concrete isn't even organic. Get on with it before those damned gulls snatch my chips. Should have brought my Holland and Hollands.'
Camilla: 'Yes, get on with it. I can't hold onto him much longer anyway. Swing the bloody bottle Charles and get back in pronto. I need a gasper'.
Alun Cairns: 'OK, OK. By popular demand, er, anyway for some reasonInamethisbridgeafteryoursereneandgracioushighnessgetoffgetoffGETOFF…'




Monday, 2 July 2018

Poetry corner.

A Poem Listing All The Things Thrown At Me From His Apartment Window By A Stranger As I Walked By One Sunny Afternoon

One earthenware teapot, yellow;
One plain pint glass, empty;
One can of Heinz Baked Beans, full.
Abuse, largely incomprehensible.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Midsummer madness

Bit of an odd week.
Firstly, let's talk about the weather.
I hate it. I evolved, as far as the genealogy suggests, a waterproof skin perfectly adapted to digging peat from a bog in the rain. I have worked hard to avoid adding to climate change: no car, no children, almost no flights ever (currently averaging one every 6 years, solely for work) and yet people with SUVs, air conditioners, holidays and commuting are burning me to a crisp. As I cycle to and from work I sometimes wonder why even that altruistic act qualifies me for a faceful of poisonous exhaust and abuse simply to make more room for flatulent drivers of flatulent cars.

On the up side of this week, I spent two days in Swansea acting as external examiner for their MA in Welsh Writing in English. It's a good course taught by inspirational people at a university in a park opposite the beach. If there's a league table of Universities With Beaches, Swansea must be near the top, alongside Bangor, Aberystwyth, Bournemouth and (in a few years' time) Cambridge.

On the down side, my colleagues and I all got letters telling us whether or not our jobs are in danger. It's not the declining applications that get to us. Nor do we think that any course has a god-given right to exist. It's being sent inaccurate letters by incompetent people based on untrue calculations by people with no understanding of our subjects, little or (in some cases) no experience of teaching and who have no concern for teaching quality, workload, sustainability, student experience or research. Having failed on a spectacular level to keep the ship afloat, they're throwing us off the side while clinging to the topmost mast, still collecting the bonuses and bellowing orders down at those of us in the water.

Despite my letter congratulating me on moving from a job I haven't had in four years to the job I've been doing for four years (not a surprise: they're also telling me that they haven't lost my pension, only the records relating to my pension), I'm as angry and despondent as my targeted colleagues – what does one say to those in the firing line that's at all meaningful? All the ideologically loaded, statistically-meaningless things we've been bullied into doing – TEF ratings NSS satisfaction, REF outputs that distort actual research – have suddenly and conveniently been dumped in pursuit of short-term gains to protect those in private offices who won't pay any kind of price for their failure. I run a big course and a couple of associated ones. We're down to the bare bones: a small group of utterly brilliant colleagues with no duplication of specialism. Lose some, and we lose not just bodies in classrooms but swathes of expertise needed to meet the subject benchmarks.

Needless to say, when my colleagues are fired, the survivors' workloads will (as usual) be way above the contractual maximum. There is a culture of overwork in all universities, but this time it's serious. Redundancy is a legal term used by employers when specific work no longer exists. If my employers fire people and still overload others' workloads and/or employ teaching cover, it's tacit recognition that the work does still need doing, and that the redundancies are bogus. So this time I'm declining anything that breaches my contract because to do otherwise is to connive with managers to get rid of my colleagues.

There's plenty more where that came from, but I'll save it for the next instalment. Instead: books. I seem to be on an accidental Manchester kick at the moment, which is fine because it's one of my favourite cities. Having re-read Jeff Noon's Pollen, I'm most of the way through Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay, an intriguing mix of academic, historical and sexual identities set in the previously under-appreciated south-of-Manchester towns and villages (the title is from Keats and also the title of a Llewelyn Cowper Powys long essay). Very highly recommended. After that, it's on to Hugh Lupton's loose and interesting-looking new Mabinogi translation, The Assembly of the Severed Head, Nicholas Daly's Literature, Technology and Modernity 1860-2000 and Huw Osborne's much-lauded Queer Wales.

But tonight, as my reward for writing the programme notes (successfully avoiding being sacked for glossing last year's The Tempest as a piece of Brexit madness), I'm off to see Macbeth performed in the shadow of Stafford Castle, prefaced by a Gala glass of warm white wine!

Friday, 22 June 2018

A short ride in a fast week.

Funny week this week - lots and lots of the more formal end-of-year administration to do, much of it important but also quite tedious, alongside some more enjoyable things, all conducted amidst an atmosphere of mutinous fury.

The week's main activities were Boards: mark entry deadlines, internal results board, external results board, meeting our external examiner and arranging for him to spend some time with our students. It's not all wearing tweed and wowing people with our fabulous knowledge: marking is soul destroying because there's a lot of it to do in a short space of time. Then we moderate it. Then I get to check that all four forms have been completed for each module, after which I send them off to an underpaid External Examiner from another university who checks that the courses are intellectually appropriate, assessments are fair and challenging, support is sufficient and so on. He meets our students who give him their perspective and then we all get together to go through every module's results, theoretically identifying strengths and weaknesses as we go along. We do it all over again in a few weeks for Results Boards and Resit Boards. Most of the time it is amazingly boring, but it does mean each class and each student gets careful consideration at every level. This year, our externals very politely pointed out that getting rid of excellent colleagues and courses is a ridiculous course of action.

All this is conducted, naturally, during the annual round of newspaper stories claiming that university grades are being massively inflated. In actual fact, the posh universities hand out far more top-class degrees than places like mine, and we all spend a lot more time explaining to students exactly what constitutes good academic practice. I did a degree in the 90s: 'learning outcomes', 'marking criteria', 'academic skills' classes, draft review tutorials, mixed-mode assessments and the like didn't exist. We hand-wrote what we thought might be an acceptable essay and got a grade. No wonder students are doing better now: we support them a lot better. I was one of two people who got a First in my cohort: I expected a 2.2 and still couldn't explain what was expected of me beyond 'good writing' and 'ideas': but I was armed with the middle-class cultural and social capital that let me guess what constitutes these things. I spend time explaining to intelligent students with no HE cultural capital what I'm looking for, and it works. I also think that my students are over-assessed, but that's a whole other post.

I'm an external examiner too - at an Open University centre in East London and a Welsh university. The small fee isn't the point: it's a contribution to the health of the whole sector, and it's a chance to see how other courses run. And to steal their ideas, obviously (or share your own). It gives you a sense of how your field is developing and a chance to be a good citizen - it's one of the things that I do which feels important, however invisible it is. Quite a lot of this week has been spent reading work by students at these universities – while I'm massively proud of my own degree, I'd happily recommend anyone take their courses (if mine are oversubscribed, that is).

Other highlights of this week: my colleague Daisy Black gave a performance of her feminist Chaucer re-tellings, Unruly Woman, interspersed with #MeToo renditions of familiar and new folk songs; I went to a PhD progress presentation on digital poetry that was rather thrilling, I gatecrashed the Science faculty's conference to hear about the Big Read project my Faculty says it's too poor to join, and I interviewed a mid-PhD stage student to see how he's getting on. Having worked as an employment office adviser for years, he's doing a philosophy/ethnography project on wordlessness as a concept and his only problem is too many ideas – not a challenge I've ever faced, sadly. It was just excellent to meet people doing such exciting things in so many areas.

Not, however, as exciting as the delivery of my new, massively over-engineered steam generator. You may all think of me as a risk-taking, devil-may-care cultural, political and pedagogical provocateur, but those who meet me in meatspace are always struck by the crisp perfection of my natty outfits.* I iron everything, less as a hobby and more as a calling: where some people pray, meditate or paint trompe-l'oeil scenes on their chapel ceilings, I find fulfilment and calm in ironing. The death of my most recent one a week or so left a gaping void in my soul and indeed schedule, healed a few days ago by the delivery of a bigger, more powerful, state-of-the art that promises crease perfection.

Quite frankly, I feel like breaking a bottle of bubbly on its prow or saluting it with Also Sprach Zarathstra or Fanfare every time I switch it on. Mentioning this on Twitter attracted a flood of ironing-sceptics including some good friends for whom I previously had some respect. You people are animals. 

Obviously the advent of The Beast has considerably cut down on my reading time, but I did get through a couple of old favourites: Iain Sinclair's book-dealing-and-antiquarian-serial-killer psychogeographical novel White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings and Jeff Noon's wonderful Pollen. Both highly-recommended. 

*Not entirely accurate. Even the one tailored suit I own looks like I robbed it from some rough-living person of a totally different build then buried it for a while.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Definitely not another allegory of the week

High up in my Faculty's main building perches a nest of vicious, self-interested killers. Motivated solely by their own survival, they swoop down to pick off the weak and defenceless without regard for their victims, the future, the wider ecosystem or the needs of others. They have no predators, appear to be a protected species and float freely high above the busy, insecure and short lives of lesser creatures – like voles – scurrying about in the undergrowth. Their own short-term needs are satisfied without delay and that is all they need to know.

I speak, of course, of the peregrines which roost on the deep concrete ledges of the 7th floor, and not about Faculty management at all. You must all have either deeply cynical mindsets or a keen eye for analogy. Or perhaps both.


In completely unrelated news, our Faculty's restructuring plan has been circulated to everyone except the students and the students' union and it manages to pull off the twin achievements of being more hostile to the values of HE than expected and even more factually incorrect than the previous drafts. It's too much to expect a Dean of Arts to care about the Arts and Humanities, but these failings aren't even compensated by an ability to count. The faculty staff has passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in our 'leaders': the governors have ignored it and the VC has rejected it, so they now own the situation.

I am used to students crying in my office because we've produced a society and a scholarly atmosphere which imposes unconscionable pressures on them without justification: I am now getting used to my colleagues being reduced to tears and fury not just by management hostility but sheer incompetence and refusal to engage on factual matters. Still, it could be worse: Cardiff University ignored the pleas of one lecturer that he was overworked – including being required to mark 418 exam scripts in 20 days –  and he killed himself. My own employer is finding creative ways to reduce the appearance of overwork by removing time allocations for things like committee membership: colleagues will still be expected to serve, they just won't appear on documents. I was allocated time to write a book this year: 30 hours. I will be judged for not having written said book, but nobody will justify their insistence that 30 hours is enough. Meanwhile my own workload allocation was something like 300 hours over the contractual limit: we do the work because we care about students but my colleagues are being fired because there isn't, apparently, enough work to do. But it's OK: we'll be offered 'resilience training' to stop us feeling bad about a sick and sickening structure.

By the way, in addition to firing dozens of academic colleagues, the university is firing 36 of the 37 student support workers, who are to be outsourced. As you know, outsourcing always leads to secure, supportive employees doing a bang-up job for their clients with all the support they need…

Anyway, enough of this moaning. I've done nice things recently: took the boss for his first trip to Dublin where he thrilled at the graves of Jonathan Swift and Hester, paid homage to the dead of the Rising, and generally appreciated not being in Brexit Britain for a few days. I've read a couple of books (Lethem's Dissident Gardens, Blake's A Penknife in my Heart, Reeve's Station Zero) been fencing and watered the wisteria. I also popped down to London for a meeting of some of the Justice League of Academia, where we had our brains picked in return for a slap-up meal. Picking my brains lasted as long as it took to serve the amuses-bouche but I stuck it out for a couple more courses. Beforehand I strolled through Camden Lock market which was a vision of hell: my bedroom circa 1993 with added banal nationalism. Never again.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

You Play The Child Extremely

This week seems to have passed in a blur of marking and marking-related administration, but the weekend saw one of the highlights of the year: the English and Friends trip to the Globe Theatre. Students, staff, graduates and assorted others buy their own tickets and the Faculty pays for a bus. We go for lunch together, then take our chances with whatever's on at this time of year. We've seen some wonderful and some dreadful productions, in all sorts of weather: The Taming of the Shrew set in a Dublin tenement in 1916 was memorable for leaving us all completely baffled; Antony and Cleopatra took place in a thunderstorm so bad that the next day's newspapers all featured photos of lightning hitting the Shard building next door, while the poor actor who stepped in to play Antony that very morning tried to read a disintegrating script as he and the others slipped and fell every time they tried to move.

This year we saw Two Noble Kinsmen. It's hardly ever performed: I've never seen it, though I vaguely remember reading it as an undergrad. On paper it sounds quite dull: a version of Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale', a love triangle featuring Palamon and Arcite, two cousins who fall for the same woman – Emilia –  from their prison cell. The Arden Shakespeare describes it as 'a Jacobean dramatisation of a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance version of a Latin epic about one of the oldest and most tragic Greek legends'.

In the Shakespeare-Fletcher version, there's an unnamed Jailer's Daughter who goes mad with unrequited (unnoticed) love for one of the cousins, and a lot of morris dancing. Structurally, it's all over the place: the widowed Queens who feature so much in Act I are never seen again, while the Jailer's Daughter is bundled off and probably married well before the end.  The end isn't much cop either - a highly contrived settlement for the two young men, so equally matched.



On stage, it all worked gloriously: between Northern Broadsides' comedy chops, some astoundingly filthy gags appreciated most fully by the medieval drama specialist who sat next to me, Eliza Carthy's music and some hugely charismatic acting, particularly from Francesca Mills as the Jailer's over-sexed Daughter, it was two hours of excellent entertainment which made me wonder why it's not performed more often.

And now…back to the marking. Other than that, I'm halfway through Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens, which I'm mostly enjoying even though it feels a bit Great American Novel By Numbers.

Friday, 1 June 2018

A Play for All Seasons



I watched the BBC adaptation of King Lear the other night. I don't know if you are familiar with the plot, but a man incapable of running his fiefdom and more interested in status and baubles than hard work decides to hold a restructuring exercise based on incoherent whims, demonstrating along the way that he doesn't understand his vassals' duties or personalities, eventually finding out that bad management shares some qualities with the boomerang.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.

Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Only Cordelia, who points out that instigating a round of currying favour is no way to achieve success or to run a complex organisation, fails to join in the greedy, desperate grovelling and in-fighting that ensues:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Despite the sensible interjections of Kent:

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.

Cordelia's intransigence is felt not to fit with the kingdom's new mission statement or values and she and Kent are made redundant without even a notice period or compensation.

…take thy reward.
Five days we do allot thee, for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world;
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banish'd trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death.

Cordelia reluctantly heads off to a neighbouring institution which recognises her qualities, while Lear
sets off for a tour of his kingdom's new subsidiary units and finds himself neither welcomed nor treated in the manner to which he believes he is entitled. His new executives have their own priorities, and feeding a load of superfluous layabouts isn't amongst them:

your disorder'd rabble
Make servants of their betters.

despite Lear's claim that his management team are pushing the envelope of entrepreneurial skill:

My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know,
And in the most exact regard support
The worships of their name.

And as for those trying to do their best, but for a few who flee to France, their only solution is to speak in riddles and lay low:

No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.

Or else stand witness to folly, and bear the cost, as the Fool suggests:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,

It does not, need I say, end well for Lear or anybody else.

He eventually realises the error of his ways, having relied on the flattery of his closest confidantes

They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say 'ay'
and 'no' to every thing that I said!--'Ay' and 'no'
too was no good divinity. When the rain came to
wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when
the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I
found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are
not men o' their words: they told me I was every
thing; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

but culpable or innocent, most of the senior protagonists are soon departed, leaving behind a shattered wasteland and a shell-shocked population with - no doubt - a somewhat jaundiced view of top-down strategy, given that there's not much chance of this occurring:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

There's a vague hint of happier times ahead under new management, but it seems distinctly unlikely. Lear, though he saw the error of his ways, is not much missed:

 O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

The wonder is, he hath endured so long:
He but usurp'd his life.

and we bid farewell to this wretched place sadder, wiser, yet not empowered. 

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And if you're wondering why I've treated you to this whistle-stop tour of high-handed ignorance and selfishness, why yes, it is an allegory. Have a good weekend. Tom's a-cold. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For sale: one university. Very, very cheap.


The annals of junk science are long and storied: one only has to look at the work of Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst amongst many others to realise that there's a lot of it about, and a surprisingly large amount of it is generated by universities, i.e. institutions that should know better. 

There's bad science, junk science and straight-up, built-to-order findings-for-cash, and I have a doozy of an example for you. Imagine, if you will, a university that issues an official press release ending with this line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour. 
What, you may ask, leads an institution which promises that it is 
Maximising opportunity through generating knowledge, innovation and enterprise.
and develops
Skills and Knowledge for Economic and Social Transformation

informed by 'values':
We will behave respectfully and ethically, in all that we do. We will be inclusive and fair in our interaction with each other and with our wider community. We will act professionally, transparently, confidently, collaboratively and challengingly when engaging with our communities locally and globally.
to encourage the public to get 'support' for 'trauma' from a manufacturer of supermarket pizzas.

The answer, of course, is money.

The headline to this offence is
“TAKEAWAY TRAUMA” IS RECOGNISED AS AN ACTUAL CONDITION
By whom? We are not told. 
THE stress of ordering and waiting for a takeaway can bring out the worst in all of us, but today it’s been identified as an actual condition, Takeaway Trauma, following scientific research.
Can it? How do we quantify 'the worst'? Should we really be saying 'all'? How many gun massacres have there been following a delayed pizza delivery. Who determines what's an 'actual condition'? My guess would be NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which incorporates the British National Formulary, the prescribers' bible. Sadly, 'Takeaway Trauma' is not listed amongst the many medical and social ills.

So, let's look at the underlying scientific research:
A University of Wolverhampton study, in partnership with Chicago Town, found that the average heart rate increased from a baseline or relaxed 70 BPM to 87 BPM in the period following ordering a pizza, while tense arousal scores - or stress levels - saw an increase with the length of time that participants waited for an order from a baseline 17.25 to 18.38 BPM.
In partnership, we can assume, means that Chicago Town looked around for an institution that would put the stamp of institutional credibility on a public relations stunt designed to get press coverage encouraging people to buy pizzas in supermarkets. Did it work? Their PR company certainly thinks so:

I can't help thinking that if I worked at a university and got a call from an organisation called 'Brazen PR', I might be a little suspicious. Mind you, if I were the Biosciences department and I got a call from a PR company I might think it an odd route for a scientific project to be born. 

Sorry, I said we were going to look at the science. But we can't, because there isn't any. Some students were put on a hospital trolley, wired up, then a pizza was ordered, and they answered a questionnaire. 
The experiment by the University’s biomedical sciences department involved participants ordering and waiting for a takeaway pizza while wearing heart rate monitors to measure pulse fluctuations, as well as monitoring stress levels using the psychometric questionnaire and the UMACL - UNWIST Mood Adjective Checklist - which measures tense arousal scores.
How many subjects? We don't know. How long did they wait? No idea. Would being wired up to a heart monitor and asked questions in a university laboratory affect their heart rates? Nothing is said about this. How was the test group selected? Are there age, gender, ethnicity, educational and class differences between their 'responses'? Who knows? What was the control group doing? We don't know that there was one. Might there be other causes for a slightly increased heart rate? What toppings were ordered? 

Let's look at the peer-reviewed research findings that came out of this project. 

Sorry. There isn't any. Instead, they hired
Behavioural Expert Darren Stanton, who analysed the results of the experiment, classified the condition in four stages: fidgety, anxious, irate and lost.
Curiously enough, and no doubt entirely coincidentally, the first letters of each 'stage' make up an acronym: FAIL, used to describe 'symptoms' on the pizza company's website. Should you be relying on a pizza company to diagnose heart conditions? I suspect not. But we should all relax. Darren Stanton is on the case. Professor Stanton – as he isn't known by anyone – describes himself as 'TV's Human Lie Detector' and was a police officer, but I'm sure that he does a lot of peer-reviewed, serious science on the side. Google Scholar says not, but he has done a TED talk. His Wikipedia entry, which doesn't sound like he wrote it at all, lists no qualifications or research (though Nottingham Trent University proudly describes him as an alumnus in another guessing press release), but does give details of his book:
Stanton has published one book to date. Project Jam Jar is a psychological self-help success book. It aims to empower its audience by introducing them to tried and tested techniques that allow readers to make changes that last a lifetime.
Peer-reviewed? It's print-on-demand! Certainly there's no indication that Stanton belongs to any of the professional bodies which regulate scientific research and analysis. Why was he needed? Surely the university has psychologists and biomedical scientists capable of analysing findings? How did Wolverhampton University find him? Well, the deeply cynical side of me wonders if he was introduced by Brazen PR (for money) to add a tinge of media stardust to this farrago of nonsense.

Anyway, on with the science. 
As stress levels increase further, circa 40 minutes after ordering, a lack of clear communication, the tardiness of deliveries, curtain twitching and the driver going the wrong way heightens emotions and results in a state of being visibly irate, with loved ones often bearing the brunt of this.
The final stage is one of absolute despondency. Frequently after waiting for a long time – around 50 minutes - the wrong order arriving or the food being of a disappointing quality makes people feel lost. During the experiment, participants had a lower heart rate than when they initially ordered, contradicting expectations that they would feel joy upon receiving the pizza they had waited for.
Eh? Can someone lying on a gurney or waiting in a house know that a driver has gone the wrong way? How did the experiment find that 'loved ones' bore the brunt of ire? Were they also in the room? Was ethical clearance received for all this cruelty? What does 'lost' mean? Or 'joy' for that matter?

Said the UoW scientist involved:
the experience has a real impact on stress levels and our heart rate
The experience of being wired up in a lab surrounded by loved ones, maybe. And even then, only slightly. The experience of food being delivered tardily: not so much. But let's see what the Principal Investigator made of all this:
Darren Stanton said: “People order a takeaway as a treat – a way to reward themselves after a long week at work and to enjoy a relaxing night in with loved ones. This study shows that it can be the opposite of this. However, with the four stages we’ve identified as fidgety, anxious, irate and lost, it’s easy to recognise the symptoms of Takeaway Trauma, so we can help others suffering from the condition.”
Sentence 1: 3 imaginative conjectures. Sentence 2: cannot be proven through this experiment. Sentence 3: equates mild cheese-related anxiety with AIDS, Ebola, depression and cancer as a 'condition'.

But don't worry: a cure is at hand thanks to 'boffins' at Chicago Town:
Rachel Bradshaw, Senior Brand Manager at Chicago Town said: “It was really interesting to work with the University of Wolverhampton and Darren on this experiment. Both the physiological and psychological effects clearly demonstrate that Takeaway Trauma is real, and we’ll all identify with the various stages having gone through them ourselves.
“A much more satisfying alternative would be to pop a Chicago Town The Takeaway pizza in the oven at home. With its unique dough rising before your eyes, the freshly-baked pizza delivers a real, takeaway taste straight from your freezer in just 20 minutes – which never disappoints.”
Note the subtle 'work with', which again means: we hired these people to record a video supporting a nasty-minded little sales technique. And then it's back to my opening line:
For Takeaway Trauma support, please visit www.chicagotown.com/takeaway-saviour.
Now you might think that I'm breaking a butterfly on a wheel here, and not being very supportive of my colleagues. Fair enough, but any university has a higher duty to the social good, and to the principles of science. This shady little endeavour has rented out scientific and institutional credibility to an advertising campaign. I don't know if the researcher in this case was forced to do this – my university's annual budget for 23,000 students and 4000 staff is c. £140m, only £10m more than smaller Cambridge University's annual endowment loot ,and money talks – but places like mine, with a pretty poor reputation (unjustified, I might add) should be working harder to claim our place amongst the ranks of the serious. In accepting this money, staging this stunt and then using medical terms in a press release, the university has forfeited any right to be considered trustworthy. It has left all its research staff high and dry and rendered its ethics procedures null and void. I know that I will be accused of being holier-than-thou, and have my rather limited external funding record raised, but these things really matter. We can't develop a reputation of being for hire. It's not fair on the students, their eventual employers or the staff who work here.

Still, it's all a bit of a giggle isn't it? And it did get a lot of press coverage. Impact matters people!

Update: we're so delighted that there's another university story plugging this (not sure if it's viewable) but the video is well worth watching though my one-person experiment demonstrates 'quite profound effects' on my heart rate on the back of a BBC interview (and yes, the BBC should be ashamed too). It's a curious mix of boosterism and self-defence.
“There were some effects but we are not saying, ‘don’t order a takeaway as something really serious might happen’!
“It is just worth remembering that everyday things can sometimes lead to profound effects over time.
People might ask why we carried out this study but a part of my job at the University is trying to create conversations about science.
“If people are out there in the community thinking about health, thinking about their body, thinking about any aspect of science, then I think we are doing our jobs right!”
They might be thinking 'why are my taxes paying for this rather than a cure for malaria, for instance?'.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Inarticulately howling into the void (reprise)

Like most academics right now, I'm marking: dissertations, essays, presentations, performances and online collaborative work. Unlike many academics however, I'm actually enjoying it. Mostly, I must concede, because it distracts me from the multiple horrific things happening at my institution: the brutal dismembering of successful subjects and their teachers; the decision to fire 36 student support workers; the probable loss of one of the most brilliant PhD students I'll ever have because the university's support systems have failed her again and again (oh, and here's a tip for managers in case you're reading: if the director and deputy director of an essential department have left, UPDATE THE DAMNED WEBSITE – in pursuit of a single name I've been passed along a chain of 5 people's automated emails and still haven't achieved my goal); constant demands from bureaucrats for information that's fully available to them already; repeatedly correcting important information that's somehow been mangled; the discovery that my employer has (illegally) underpaid my pension due to using inadequate software and lied to me about it.

Against this background, you can probably understand why even grading 50 essays on the same topic is rather appealing. Marking is always a fraught operation: there are tensions over consistency, media claims of grade inflation, personal preferences about what constitutes quality and good practice, students' and teachers' understanding of how much support and guidance is appropriate… a whole host of issues coalesce over the award of a particular grade. We use the percentage marking system, with which I disagree. The idea that one can coherently justify the award of 56% over 57% in work about characterisation in medieval fabliaux, for instance, seems pseudoscientific. We all, to be honest, have a rough and ready mental model of whether an assignment is excellent (First - 70% and above), good (2.1 60-69%), decent (2.2 50-59%), acceptable (Third - 40-49%) or poor (anything under 40%), then assigning a percentage that communicates whether the piece is near the top, bottom or middle of those ranges. Other pressures include whether a failing piece will be compensatable (i.e. whether the module is a close fail with implications for final degree calculation) and whether the percentage grades will produce a borderline mark: algorithms for calculating final degree outcomes can throw up some weird, counter-intuitive results. The unspoken (actually sometimes spoken) advice is to avoid awarding marks that result in a module grade ending in a 9, whether or not the academic feels this is a fair mark. No wonder too many students get unhealthily fixated by the Degree Result Calculator, endlessly inputting potential marks and wondering whether to prioritise one module or essay over another. And don't get me started on Electronic Marking or Not To Electronically Mark. I found myself semi-ironically using the phrase 'Organic Artisanal Marking' to defend my use of ink on paper: I do type up the substantial feedback but cling to the idea that handwritten marginal comments communicate personalised engagement over the distancing effect of computerised comments.

Underneath all this, however, is an emotional and intellectual roller-coaster as I sit down with a student's ultimate thoughts on the texts I've set them. Although essays are marked anonymously, we obviously recognise the interests and writing styles of those students who have consulted us along the way. We're faced with an index of whether the texts we've asked students to read have struck any kind of chord, and with a whole host of ideas that quite often haven't occurred to me: some convincing, some intriguing, some plain bad. There's nothing like reading an essay to give you a sense of whether and what kind of intellectual communion you've achieved. I'm currently marking dissertations – having done 8 so far, I'm struck by the depth and range of what they're addressing. Some have gone far beyond what's been taught in other modules, and others have found niches I'd never have thought interesting, and have persuaded me otherwise. Not all of them have done a great analytical job, but there hasn't been a single boring or dutiful one so far. It's not just because everything else is rubbish now, but against this backdrop, being able to spend an hour or two on one person's view of a few interesting texts or ideas is just pure pleasure. Obviously I can't mention individual students, but I've read analyses of work by RL Stevenson, Mary Shelley, Ruskin, Gissing, Morrison (A Child of the Jago), Matthew Arnold, Roald Dahl, the Grimms, and Anthony Cartwright…so far. It's been a blast!

Not much time for reading at the moment, but I have devoured Diana Wallace's new biography of Christopher Meredith, Christopher Fowler's The Bleeding Heart (which was OK but I won't be reading the rest of the series), Lloyd Markham's intriguing novella Bad Ideas/Chemicals which actually would have justified another hundred pages, and Nancy Mitford's The Blessing which is just funny.

And now for a bank holiday. No marking, no email, no head/desk interfacing for a whole extra day. See you on the other side. Meanwhile, a musical interlude: the official anthem of simple course leaders pushed beyond their limits.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Home…and away.

Apologies – if any are necessary – for absence for the last couple of weeks. It's been the end of semester, so I've been marking presentations, organising all the dissertation marking and second-marking, tidying up the end of teaching and seeing lots of students, all while the threat of redundancy hangs over academics, administrators, technicians and now (it transpires) all the directly-employed student support staff. From henceforth, students will have a disability support budget to administer themselves, from which they are meant to select and contract agency or freelance staff because it's perfectly reasonable to expect students with plenty on their plates already to add 'employer' to their CV and make judgements about contracts.

Still, as a cynic observed, shifting a lot of hourly-paid, low-wage women off the books will help with the 26% gender pay-gap. Will the cleaners and catering staff be next?

However, I have managed to get away from the misery for a bit. An article I co-authored with one of my PhD students was published in the online version of the Journal of Popular Culture (in print next month) which was pleasing because I rarely get to juxtapose Oliver Goldsmith and cat-sex erotic fan fiction in the same piece. The short version is: fan fiction is structurally conservative; ideologically quite neoliberal; often very weird; sometimes socially maladjusted, and people have very divergent attitudes towards cats.

I went up to Keele University for a fascinating half-day conference organised by the always excellent Nick Bentley on Metamodernism, which is one of the competing terms for literature which may also be knows as post-post-Modernism. It all depends on your definitions of modernism and postmodernism. As we discovered throughout the extremely learned and fascinating papers, these are not yet uncontested terms. My one-sentence, reductive and probably expert-infuriating definitions might go as follows: Modernism – the tortured fragments of previously stable and recognisable literary, artistic and musical (bye bye tunes) forms which reflect the collapse of coherent social, political and psychological models which came in with Freud and Co., industrialisation, class war, fears of miscegenation and working-class uprising, world wars, urbanisation and the decline of authoritative monotheistic religion. Postmodernism: art, music and literature which isn't concerned with coherence and its disappearance, and decides instead to have fun with form and influence without worrying too much about the 'real' world.

Metamodernism, in several of the papers presented, seemed to suggest that there's a post-9/11 literary movement which merges playful, postmodern style with a new ethics or political engagement with the 'real' world – Zadie Smith's name came up repeatedly, for instance, as did her attack on the irresponsibility of 'lyrical realism' in her essay Two Paths For The Novel. Not being an expert in the field, I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but wondered (out loud) whether the working-class and Celtic authors of the 1930s-50s had already had the debate about the tensions between literary forms and social engagement: certainly Lewis Jones's novels Cwmardy and We Live were criticised from the left for being melodramatic rather than Socialist Realism, and from the right for being Socialist Realism rather than 'properly' literary, while Gwyn Thomas struggled with the tension between fury at the state of his community in the Hungry Thirties and the novel form, eventually exchanging absurdist satire for knockabout comedy. I think too that Raymond Williams's novels address this tension too, not always successfully. Perhaps it's just the turn of a bunch of very interesting but also rather privileged English novelists to discover that their secret garden has some gaps in the fence through which reality sometimes intrudes. Certainly Welsh and Irish authors in Welsh, Irish and English have always addressed social concerns in a variety of forms while fending off English accusations of sentimentality, loquaciousness or over-Romanticism, and have often developed a kind of hard-boiled terseness in response.

A couple of days after that I headed off to my favourite conference of the year, the Association for Welsh Writing in English, held at Neuadd Gregynog in mid-Wales. It's a big concrete Victorian stately home which provides austere accommodation, school dinners and beauty amidst which we discuss Welsh literature (in both languages), culture and society. The numbers were high, the papers were superb, the creative events were fascinating and in some cases wonderful (please, please buy Alys Conran's book Pijin – the Welsh-language version or Pigeon – the English version and look out Dignity, which is coming soon) drinks were quaffed and books were purchased. I didn't attend as many sessions as usual because the month's exhaustion hit me and I retired to bed for one afternoon with a splitting headache, but I chaired a session, helped out with the sound for a two-person performance of a play about the Ladies of Llangollen, and presented a paper of my own. I should apologise for that actually: I was the rude person who, despite chopping several pages out of my 22-page script, went on for far, far too long. In my defence, it was an analysis of excess (relating to food) in writing by Richard Llewellyn, Gwyn Thomas, O.M. Edwards and Rachel Tresize. I'm just greedy.

I learned an awful lot as always, and it's just lovely to catch up with new work in the field, old friends and colleagues, and of course indulge in some group therapy. Institutional life is so damaged now that any gathering of academics is a chance to rock backwards and forwards exchanging horror stories of managerial and financial woe. The bright spots are, as always, new ideas and students, those who still attract any to their courses…

I didn't get out with the camera as much as usual, but I took a few photos, which can be seen here. Below - some favourites.



Sarah and Kirsti: Queens of AWWE





Bee off with you

Audience participation in a creative keynote…


More audience participation 

Syd

Blue-tipped butterfly
Alys Conran being introduced
An oblique view of Gregynog
Some other delegates
And now it's back to marking, REF meetings, PhD supervisions, admin and ironing…

Friday, 4 May 2018

Mixed pleasures

Things that have really ground my gears this week:
Unpromising election results;
The most outrageous bullying from management (apparently the word 'bullying' is banned by order);
The threat of redundancy hanging over our heads;
Haven't had a chance to read much;
Taxis - specifically DU03GKE – pulling out of side-roads without checking for oncoming traffic, i.e. me on a bike;
Not having time to write next week's conference paper.

Things that made up for this misery:
Birthday celebrations (not mine);
Seeing Yo La Tengo: they meld live-looping, walls of sound and pure pop hooks for audiences consisting solely of PhD-holders and other bands;



Reading some really excellent UG dissertation drafts;
Fencing again, though I'm really feeling decrepit;
Colleagues and students being lovely about the teaching award I got.

Mind you, I've always been with Slartibartfast on most things: keep going on in exactly the same way and occasionally what you do will seem new and laudable.



Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is say “hang the sense of it” and just keep yourself occupied. Look at me, I design coastlines, I got an award for Norway. Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fiords all my life, for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award. In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do, and of course, I’m doing it will all fjords again, because I happen to like them. And I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough… what does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day!
ARTHUR:
And are you?

SLARTIBARTFAST:
No. That’s where it all falls down of course.

It worked for my habitual uniform of cords, cardigans and v-necks, and it works for teaching too. I'm determined to make it come true for Dorothy Edwards and Trembling Blue Stars eventually.



Next week is looking up: I'm going to the Metamodernism conference at Keele University on Tuesday, then off to the Association for Welsh Writing in English annual conference Fri-Sun. It's always a good one, and I'm not just saying that because I take the minutes. It's in a Victorian stately home in mid-Wales, it's friendly, supportive and intellectually challenging, and there are no Manels. My as yet-embryonic piece will be the low point that adds lustre to the other presentations, but for what it's worth I'm looking at kitchens and food in Welsh literature as aspects of perceived national character, from O.M. Edwards's Cartrefi Cymru to Rachel Tresize's Fresh Apples. The tl;dr version is: everyone's obsessed with butter, and blancmange is for English homosexualists. The more meat characters eat, the more neofascist they are. Or perhaps it's the other way round. Don't @ me, this is the product of intensive research.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Prizes, professionalism and…something completely different

Good Friday!
You catch me in a mood of unaccustomed indeterminacy. On the one hand, my wonderful students voted to give me an award yesterday, so I'm now the proud holder of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence.



I'm always ambivalent about prizes, knowing that anything any individual does is the expression of wider culture, context and structure and also because I'm deeply bitter and unfulfilled, but it's lovely and very humbling to know that I've made sufficient difference to people's lives that they want me to know about it. The other hand is the continued bullying and unprofessionalism emanating from our Human Resources department, which is now reaching back to the 18th-century to employ cant to defend their various assaults on our professionalism. Get this: Faculty union reps cannot be allowed to represent colleagues because it might be upsetting and the university which wants to sack them has a duty to care about their feelings. 


The previous argument was that union reps potentially impacted by the restructure would be conflicted. They've kept that one and added this utter nonsense about sparing our snowflaky feelings. Then they told a blatant lie to prevent a union rep from another faculty getting into a meeting (failed).  And they wonder why when an HR manager asked 'who do you trust? Your union or your employer?', colleagues just laughed.



It's a very odd thing to go from shaking hands with the VC at 9.00 p.m. to explaining to him the shortcomings of his Faculty managers at 9.00 a.m.!

Academia is a very strange life. As a profession and an institution, it's way older than the corporate and financial structures within which it now exists: it emerged from religious and communal models with a set of values relating to the communal good, but now has to justify its existence in a much more hostile environment: one of the good things the VC did this morning was to give a clear, analytical assessment of British HE's political and social environment. Institutions have to balance values, a coherent understanding of what constitutes the public good, commitment to the local community and economy, an increasingly competitive prestige market, a sales-oriented approach to students, its own financial sustainability, and a regulatory environment which is both chaotic and relentlessly opposed to autonomy, challenges to its own underlying assumptions, and to any values beyond 'value for money'. HE leaders want to simultaneously preserve the special nature of universities while also behaving like CEOs. They like the gowns, title and towers but they also like to individualise and hierarchise decision-making and policy-setting (they call this 'modernisation') because they think Elon Musk and Alan Sugar are cool rather than exploitative, sociopathic, greedy nineteenth-century style sweatshop merchants, and because they believe that survival is a matter of speaking the language of marketisation rather than transcending it - understandable but in my view conceding the field. We see these tensions in play all the time: the shenanigans around REF eligibility, executive pay (constantly increasing), academic pay (no increase since 2008), recruitment struggles, battles over union recognition and a host of issues.

Although some of my good friends have been bullied out of higher education and feel much the better for it, life is worthwhile despite it all for me because all I want to do is talk and write about creative work with people who are equally enthused by the curious thrill of encountering a cultural artefact, however, weird, scary, offensive, mainstream, obscure, boring, sexy, cerebral or incomprehensible that particular book, play, sonata or doodle might be. I have my off days and no student could ever be completely engaged all the time, but my teaching model has always assumed that the other people in the room are as curious and open-minded as I am. If not, we cope with it and sometimes we fall out, but on the whole I find that enthusiasm is contagious despite the ever-widening cultural and age gaps between us. I can shut the classroom door, be isolated from the tide of metrics, survey, quality enhancement strategy documents, course journals, directives and threats that fill the inbox and just converse about interesting things.

The same thing goes for my colleagues and managers: none of us do this for the huge cash jackpot (which is just as well) and goodwill abounds. I always hope that when I cross swords with executives and senior management figures, they understand that it's mostly out of a genuine and deeply-held commitment to the open, democratic ideals of academia, though I'm first to admit that I find it very easy to rub people up the wrong way and I have on occasion contacted people to say so or to apologise for letting my mouth get the better of me. Nobody likes a smartarse (which I know I can be) and relentless hostility doesn't often produce results, so I'm trying to reserve my deepest ire for the most serious situations. Sadly this is one of those times, and I've had to publicly call for the replacement of my Faculty management because its actions, plans and methods will retard the provision of good teaching and research to the community even when the current difficult HE climate is taken into account. The outrageous behaviour of our HR department is really testing me though - currently they're saying union representatives in a Faculty facing redundancy can't attend meetings to protect them from stress, and they're claiming that any expression of no-confidence in management is 'personal' criticism and a breach of the university's values. I look forward to deploying the same arguments when I next represent a colleague accused of unprofessional behaviour…Meanwhile, threatening all 700+ members of the academic staff with disciplinary action at the same time is apparently perfectly acceptable.

Anyway, sermon over. If any of my students and colleagues at any level are still reading: thank you - you keep me going and I hope I help you too.

As for the rest of my week: it's been busy. My drama class had a second week on Jennifer Haley's disturbing, brilliant play The Nether, and a visit from dramatist and comics author Matt Beames, which provided students with insights into the creative life. I went fencing and for the second week running didn't lose any fights because, having been away injured, people had forgotten how useless I am and mistook my graceless flailing for cunning second- and third-intention attacks. I bought a mop. I went to the SU Awards which involved good company and an excellent dinner in the stadium restaurant of the football team that is about to replace my beloved Stoke City in the Premiership but I'm absolutely fine with that completely fine no bother at all honestly. I read the lightest of light books: The Clue Bible, a history of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Despite everything (the rather reactionary, boys-only, posh, Cambridge-common room culture and the refusal to engage with the real world), I have an enduring love of the silly, weightless word-play and gentle anarchy of radio comedy. I have the complete Round the Horne on my phone and I'm Sorry… will often leave me helpless with laughter and I'll confess to a love of Paul Temple and Steve, George Formby and Gracie Fields too. Here's a taste - dive into a different mood.