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 


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!
And are you?

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.

Monday, 16 April 2018

When HR goes bad…plus some book talk.

Good afternoon from what is surely the only university that simultaneously threatens the entire teaching staff of c. 750 people with disciplinary action (for declining to sign something they say doesn't need our consent anyway).
we have a duty of care to ensure staff are aware that such actions may place them at risk of formal action under the University’s disciplinary procedure. We must stress that this is not an option which we wish to adopt and we would do so extremely reluctantly and as a last resort.
The tl;dr version of this: 'now look what you made me do'. 

'I'm from HR. I just want what's best for you'

The invocation of 'duty of care' is simply humbug or cant of the worst sort. As you can probably imagine, that combined with a frankly moronic program of redundancies and restructuring has resulted in a dull ache of resentment rather than my normal sense of dedicated service to academia this Monday. Which is a shame because I've seen a lot of students who needed care and attention today of the sort that I can't expect to receive from my employers. 

However, enough of that. There are exciting things happening this week that I've played a small part in making happen. Tomorrow I'm teaching The Nether, a tense, scary, morally complex play about online paedophile fantasy spaces. The best first-year English Literature student work last year was about this play: rather than presenting an analysis, two groups performed scenes so effectively that people in the audience cried. In the evening, Kate Lister, aka @WhoresofYore is coming to give a public lecture on 'A Nasty Word for a Nasty Thing: a brief history of C**t'. Kate's pretty much the model academic: socially-engaged, hugely learned and a brilliant communicator. Then a couple of days later we have acclaimed author and critical scholar Adam Roberts coming to give another public lecture on science fiction and current affairs - Thursday, in the Art Gallery, 6.00 p.m.

I've also been reading a fair amount. I've whipped through Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series which was OK, though almost entirely lacking in characterisation and I can't help reading Gurgi as a comic manifestation of the Magical Negro trope, the Jar-Jar Binks of children's mythological retellings. The three witches were good though and Alexander is very witty. 

I'm also part-way through Daniel Kalder's Dictator Literature, which I thought might be useful, or even a model for, my work on politicians' fiction. It isn't. It's actually dreadful. You know a book is bad when it tries to get the audience on side by making snide comments about academics, but Kalder's work is essentially 400 pages of him being snide. He traces - in detail, the research has certainly been done - the logocentricity of a range of twentieth-century dictators and demagogues, but instead of using all this to ask about the complicated cultural contexts of these figures, he uses it to ridicule them as individuals and to point out that virtually none of them could write very well. Which is OK, but you've got to be an excellent writer to criticise others, and he isn't. It's hardly ground-breaking or daring to point out that Lenin and co. were often dense writers, or thinkers rather than street revolutionaries, and Kalder's style is that of the Pub Bore. What could have been an interesting book about why these people were so wedded to the manifesto, the newspaper and the novel is instead a bloated tract that demonstrates how superior its author is to all these men. Kalder thinks their work should have warned people what dreadful rulers they would be. On that basis, I've learned that Daniel Kalder shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a lever of power. 

I also leafed through Salisbury's The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-70: a rather lovely coffee table book which reminded me how many great artists, such as Paul Nash, designed book covers, and I much I dislike the bucolic side of 1950s book designs. Give me the Dutch-influenced postwar graphic designers any day. I'm working my way through Tony Harrison's Collected Poems too, one a day though I did cheat by reading V first. The other book I recently finished is Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies which has been on my shelf collecting awards since it came out. My immediate reaction, after inhaling it pretty much over one weekend, is that it's brilliant. Taut plot, strong sense of location and culture, dialogue absolutely spot on – a triumph. A week later, all those things are still true but I'm struck by the feeling that there is now a formula identifiable for these novels: a Celtic location seen from the centre as bucolic/touristy/untroubled by modernity – dialogue and sometimes narrative rich in dialect and scattered with words from the native language – interconnected tales of the 'hidden', i.e. working or non-working population – some crime and grime – suffused in a Celtico-religious soup either for contrast or explanation – with a dark wit. McInerney's novel is set in the urban Cork underclass. The dialogue and some of the narration draws on Cork English with the occasional Irish word thrown in. The cast each have their own plot but they intersect to devastating effect, and the evil effects of twentieth-century Irish Catholicism form the superstructure for events. It's also very funny. 

I say this not as critique but as an observation. These novelists – James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, Richard Evans, Rachel Tresize and Lisa McInerney to name just a few, and let's not forget Y Gwyll/Hinterland and the various Scottish murder serials – are far better and much more interesting authors than the multiple purveyors of sensitive tales of the north London bourgeoisie who tend to dominate the literary pages of the newspapers and periodicals I read. I also think that there's a market for the Celtic anti-pastoralia, perhaps because publishers and their idealised audiences holiday in West Cork or Pembrokeshire, while pretty much any novel about the Birmingham or Newcastle underclass gets little more than admiring reviews: just ask Anthony Cartwright or Lisa Blower. They just aren't 'other' enough for these supposed audiences and readers can't thrill at the idea of their Dudley holiday home being burned down by nationalist smackheads. 'Celts' are still suffused with mysticism in the English imagination for better or worse, and Celtic Dirty Realism gives them a good dose of the Celtic while adding a good dose of Insider Realism to give the readers a decent jolt. 

Anyway, that's enough for now. Maybe I'll be in a better mood next week.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Why can't we all just get along? A book review

I'm back in the office - have been for a couple of days, after popping over to see the mother and assorted siblings and their children over Easter. I took Good Friday off as promised and went on a long and hilly bike ride, then slumped into utter inactivity once the Saturday Vigil was over (it was a trap: a 2h45m trap).

It was a good opportunity to catch up with some reading though. The best thing I read was Dark Territory, the translation of Jerry Hunter's 2017 novel Y Fro Dywyll.

Ranging from Wrecsam to Naseby to Drogheda to New England and beyond around the 'English' Civil War, it follows Rhisiart Dafydd through multiple identities starting with his Protestant radicalisation as a boy through his service in the Parliamentarian Army, subsequent work as an agent of John Powel, before his encounter with a Welsh Calvinist settlement in America and the gradual realisation that fundamentalism is not just socially destructive but a means of repressing the complexity of the self (a message also glimpsed in the Buffy episodes 'What's My Line?' 1 and 2). In the case of Dark Territory, we see the constant dialectic between sects and visionaries in the early period of the Commonwealth mutate into mutual hostility followed by brutal violence, culminating in the darkest practices of this group of Calvinists, who take the doctrine of 'election' to a horrifying conclusion.

The novel is partly about Welsh identity within a British-English hegemony and within the Christian tradition, and partly a spiritual Bildungsroman, but it's pretty obviously meant as an allegory for Islamist radicalism. Useful, I suppose, to remind us that most religions have these periods of violent repression, but thankfully it's not overdone. Hunter's conclusions are good liberal ones, with an added suggestion that masculinity is closely tied to the search for fundamentalist purity: men, it seems to imply, privilege certainty over mutual respect and openness, unless softened by women. Oddly, a similar – though less nuanced – conclusion is reached in Boris Johnson's Seventy Two Virgins, a 'comedy' about suicide bombers which suggests that more sex would reduce the pool of young Muslims ready to blow people up. Certainly Rhisiart Dafydd learns through hard experience – committing atrocities, losing loved ones – that exclusivity and certainty are the weapons of idealistic young men and dangerous old ones.

I liked Dark Territory very much. It's beautifully and viscerally written (translation: Patrick Ford), carefully-researched and intellectually wide-ranging. Hunter takes seriously the various spiritual and intellectual perspectives found in the Civil War period while subjecting them all to a critical analysis, wrapped up in a compelling narrative. I did find it rather one-eyed when it came to men and women though: while one or two women offer alternative perspectives to the men in their lives, they're relatively marginal. Wives and children die in the plague, widows fear for their babies, a sister nurtures her orphaned brother, and camp followers (though carefully not presented as 'whores') are massacred in the process of Rhisiart's journey to enlightenment. What they are not are thinkers or protagonists to any serious extent. Nor are the native Americans Rhisiart meets: carefully constructed as nice people carefully differentiated by tribal group, they help him in his quest and remind the reader that pat distinctions between Civilised and Barbarian are unsustainable despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, while also suggesting to English readers that the Welsh and Irish might have been analogous. Purpose served, they disappear until, at the end, we're told that they wiped out most of the early English settlements.

I struggled with Hunter's previous novel, Ebargofiant, which wasn't translated into English – the challenging language and literary style combined to defeat me almost completely (my fault, not Hunter's), so I'm delighted that Y Lolfa translated this one. I just wish it would get some reviews and attention in the English-language press. Last week the Guardian ran a piece on translated literature people shouldn't miss: not a single one was originally in Welsh, Scots Gaelic or Irish.
The possibilities aren’t (strictly speaking) infinite, but this month’s remit takes in everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the latest releases from pioneering translated fiction publishers such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press. So: all the classics, and all of French, German, Portuguese, Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian or Russian literature … You get the idea.
You can go for massive, immortal classics such as The Aeneid, The Ramayana, Don Quixote and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – or you can go for a slice of modern life from Dorthe Nors, Xiaolu Guo, Orhan Pamuk and Haruki Murakami.

Mostly wonderful stuff, but without classic and contemporary work from the rest of the archipelago, Anglophones are really missing out on some wonderful literature.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Escape is at hand

Today's my last day in the office before I take an Easter break, which is no doubt a relief for all concerned. I've had the place to myself for most of the week: colleagues are taking the opportunity to get some research done at home or hopefully just having a rest before gearing up to fight the mass redundancies announced. It's been a long hard term made worse by the bumbling brutishness of our management. According to Philip Larkin, 'holidays evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one's daily life'. Maybe, Philip, maybe.

I tend not to work from home: I prefer to do long hours here so there's a real separation between home life and work, which is difficult psychologically because thinking and talking about literature are both my work and my hobby. I also come into the office to do my writing despite sharing it with 13 other people because if I stayed at home I'd just lie in bed staring at the wall or do endless ironing. The house is a foetid tip, but I actually enjoy ironing very much. I've avoided getting an internet connection because I'd never leave the house again. Good for humanity at large perhaps, not so great for me, even though I reckon I'd be able to correct almost everybody being WOTI (Wrong On The Internet) within hours.

Duty Calls

So here I am, eyes looking my last at the dividers between the desks, the bars on the windows (yes, really), the myriad unwashed mugs, piles of unread London Review of Books and the reproachful wall of Tory Novels that constitute my research project. I have two other conference papers to write (domestic space in Welsh literature; representations of Wales in computer games) in the next few weeks, but my marking is up to date and all the angry emails to management have been sent, no doubt to be added to the Sacking File. I've seen a few students this week and read dissertation drafts, so my conscience is as clear as any cradle-Catholic's conscience ever is. Tomorrow, unless it snows, I shall go for a bike ride to commemorate the Passion. Unless you're my mother, in which case be assured that I'll be at a Good Friday service.

Enjoy your Easter everybody. And remember, it's Brexit in a year's time, so enjoy your last real chocolate eggs. In 2019 they'll be made of antiobiotic-flavoured, plutonium-fed American cockroach eyes, iced with the bitter tears of regret. That's what deregulated Freedom tastes like.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Reasons (not) to be cheerful

I imagine you are as bored of my anguished rants about the twists and turns of Higher Education as I am, and I fully planned to turn to lighter or at least more intellectual themes for today's blog post. Instead, it's yet another howl of primal fury.

That was before I attended a series of Faculty meetings this week and received one of the Vice-Chancellor's chatty circulars. The Faculty meetings gave us the cheery news that rather than expand to 4000 students as originally planned when it was formed, we were going to shrink and lose 24 colleagues, particularly targeting senior researchers. Departments would be merged and each expanded department would boast a single Reader and a Professor each. Of course, this is only a 'consultation', despite the Dean announcing that courses would be suspended 'at Easter', which made it feel like more of a coffin-measuring appointment than anything I think of as a consultation. It's also not particularly consultative to inform the whole university that post cut in my faculty will be replaced by new jobs in other faculties.

It's not all doom and gloom though: while many colleagues are being fired, we are being promised a cafe in another building. I'm reminded of The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy, which features a planetary economy destroyed by the proliferation of shoe-shops. I can't help feeling that the solution to declining recruitment and absolutely incompetent, hostile and clueless management really isn't a reduction in the number of seconds away from a latte a student should be.

It feels like a fever dream now, but it's only 3 months since my department acquired its first professor, a Chair no less, and less than that since I watched my boss spend the entire marking period wrestling with REF and TEF reports. In them we demonstrated at great length and in great detail how world-class our research is, how it feeds directly into teaching, how we nurture early-career research and how our work impacts the world around us.

All this may as well go straight into the bin. Pretty soon we're going to have to explain to students why popular modules won't run; why non-specialists are teaching the remaining modules; why their surviving teachers' workloads are even heavier; why good researchers will never be promoted, and why there's no more capacity for them to do a PhD with us, and why people who have fulfilled their side of the deal – more research outputs, fresh new modules, better student support – are paying the price for structural problems and executive failure.

I also look forward to explaining the Vice-Chancellor's gnomic assertion that for our 'footprint' to expand, it first has to contract. I might also fill in some of the gaps in his cheery assertion that everything's fine by pointing to the new campus on which construction has stopped and which is going to cost many extra millions of pounds which could be spent on improving teaching provision. (In other good news, Faculty managers will be keeping their jobs under the proposed plan).

This is of course the self-satirising university: we bought a (derelict, contaminated) brewery and now we are very publicly failing to host a piss-up in it.

We are of course not alone. While executive pay in Higher Education has increased way out of proportion to staff pay, library investment or anything else in the sector other than fee income, things are far from rosy. You're wearyingly familiar with the USS Pension strike, driven by HE executives' desire to divert cash from old age to plate-glass prestige projects and their bonuses, but jobs are being lost all over the place: the OU is being demolished, Liverpool is cutting 200+ posts, Manchester is firing a load of academics, as are Aberystwyth, Southampton and a number of others.

If you're bored with this, and you should be, imagine my depths of tedium. My whole so-called career has been one of permanent crisis. Governments and executives (since when did universities even have executives?) have abandoned any concept of education beyond Mammonisation and much as New Labour imagined the working classes as greedy racists rather than meeting any, the HE sector has decided to cater to imaginary students whom they think of as selfish, grasping, anti-intellectual and unprincipled. The things we measure, the things we're judged on and the ways we're encouraged to behave all point to this concept of Homo Studenticus as a figure waving a receipt, filling in a survey and demanding 'customer satisfaction'.

I recently heard about a university which required its executives to produce research and do a minimum amount of teaching. I bet it's a happier and saner place than most. Apart from a delightful trip to Swansea yesterday, my week has been spent being threatened – and in some cases lied to – by managers, being told that some of my colleagues will be fired, and consoling colleagues and students in distress, some of whom have been shouted at and belittled by management. In one case, an HR executive shouted 'Who are you going to trust? Your employer or your union?' at a bunch of people threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to accept prejudicial new job descriptions. The laughter, as you can probably imagine, was distinctly hollow.

Still, I'm sure there's an online 'resilience' course I can take.

Friday, 16 March 2018

A Tedious Theatre?

My friends in the refined universities are all on strike and having a great time - they're losing a lot of money but they're reconnecting with each other and with their students - kind of funny how you never see your colleagues until you all decide not to do any work – and the rather pathetic machinations of their employers and the pension scheme are being exposed faster than a flasher's undercarriage.

But I've gone on about the USS pension strike enough recently, though I'll doubtlessly return to it before long. Instead, a bit of culture for you. And a moan, obviously. I can't leave you without your weekly fix.

Last semester we taught The Duchess of Malfi as part of our Shakespeare and the English Renaissance module. Volpone was received very badly indeed one year, so I've tried to include a revenge tragedy each year to widen the students' sense of what was available on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. We did Webster's The White Devil for a couple of years, and now it's his Duchess. I'm not sure I did it full justice in my lecture, but despite absolutely hating horror and murder films, TV and books, I have a soft spot for the revenge plays for their dramatisation of a violent, paranoiac culture and society, and while we have Hamlet on the course it helps to have its cousins there for comparison.

This week, the RSC put Malfi on at Stratford, and arranged heavily discounted travel-and-ticket packages supported by the Arts Council, with coaches going from certain economically-deprived towns and cities (and Oxford and Warwick). One coach, open to university and school students, went from our other campus where the drama students live, so I duly signed up and advertised it to the English Lit group. Cometh the hour, cometh the coach. Cometh, however, me, our departmental Graduate Teaching Assistant and her partner. No English students. No drama students. No school kids, teachers, or dogs.

How did this happen? Certainly all my students have jobs and a large number have children or other caring responsibilities. Money is also tight. The scheme wasn't widely publicised – nobody from the RSC contacted my department and we'd have moved heaven and earth to make it a success – and there isn't a culture of theatre-going in this area. That said, I work really hard to make cultural opportunities available and even harder to make them attractive, varied and exciting. Eimear McBride is on the first-year syllabus and she came to talk to the students.

The Making A Scene module includes theatre trips, brings in professional actors for students to direct, includes various sorts of drama training and studies a really interesting, non-standard range of plays. Basically, we work really hard to make literary studies enjoyable, challenging, exciting and vital, particularly as those who come straight from A-levels seem so exhausted and disillusioned. And yet we can't get a critical mass of people who want to try new things. Excluding those who just couldn't attend, a large group of people who studied this play with us, or who will do so next year, decided that they didn't need to experience it live on stage. Clearly that's a failure on my part and I don't really know what is to be done.

The three of us had a great time at the RSC. This production used an ultra-modern, stark setting. The live music was particularly affecting, and Joan Iyiola and Nicholas Tennant were particularly mesmerising as The Duchess and Bosola.

The early acts really brought out the Duchess's emotional and sexual needs in ways I didn't focus on in my teaching, and cut the material that encourages you to understand events as products of a corrupted society (as does Hamlet), while the second half concentrated on the horror. A cow's carcass was stabbed straight after the interval and the enormous quantities of blood slowly filled the stage over the course of the remaining hour – so much that the front rows were given blankets to protect their clothes. The actors then proceeded to dial down the acting and up the hamming, rolling around in the pool until everybody was soaked in the claret. It was certainly viscerally horrific, but I wasn't sure how dramatically successful this element was. It brings up the play's problem: how do you convincingly play someone who gets strangled or stabbed and then keeps waking up do deliver final lines? The RSC production decided to amp up the symbolism and the horror rather than attempt realism, which I think was probably a good idea, but something still didn't quite work in the last acts. Respect for having live dead children in the cast though.

As I keep telling my students, even seeing a bad production gives you things to think about. This wasn't a bad production, but a mixed one and it's made me rethink how I'll approach teaching Malfi next year.

Not a lot else has happened this week. I lectured on Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem again, which gave me a chance to wax lyrical about travellers, free festivals, the Criminal Justice Bill, the Battle of the Beanfield, the Green Man and the constructed nature of national identity, and I deleted 6000+ emails, which felt like a real achievement. A little light union casework, some peer observation, writing a PhD examiners' report and a bit of dissertation supervision. Other than that, I've gone to work, got home late, fallen asleep in my cycling gear then hauled my stinking carcass off to bed. Oh - and met an academic publisher foolish enough to take my politicians' novels idea seriously. I might actually have to write the damn thing now.

This afternoon has ended the week well though. I read this Guardian appreciation of Joni Mitchell and have played album after album of her work today. I actually cannot remember who introduced me to her stuff – I now have a (very few) friends who like her but I started listening to her work in the 90s and I'm sure my usual sources of new music at that point (Radio 3, John Peel, NME and the Evening Session) didn't rate her much and I distinctly remember the Cob Records staff mocking me roundly for buying The Hissing of Summer Lawns alongside some Anhrefn and Broadcast singles. Whoever it was: thanks. I like the weird tunings, the huge range of musical styles across her albums, the refusal to become comfortable or predictable (like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Joanna Newsom and Scott Walker), the narrative songs and the grown-up attitudes.

Here are some of my favourite Joni tracks:

And while I'm in a 60s/70s mood, and reminded of the Malfi line 'like diamonds we are cut with our own dust', here's Joan Baez's 'Diamonds and Rust', about the aftermath of her relationship with Bob Dylan. Coming from the folk tradition she doesn't often write her own music, but in my opinion this song is easily as good as anything he ever did. It's packed with subtle, beautiful literary and artistic references, with the rueful affection of a valued, broken relationship and a couplet that just can't be topped for expressing the tension between being fully part of a couple while realising intellectually (and with rueful hindsight) that even in the most romantic moment you can't fully know your other.

Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there

I managed to see her play about ten years ago: now she's retiring and I'll miss her.

Friday, 9 March 2018

How I Learned to Love the Academy, or, Grounds for Optimism

One of the things that I find difficult is focus, particularly around work. I am, as you may have noticed, intensely interested in politics, structures, power and cultures: these things inform some of my research and provide the framework through which I view macro- and micro events.

I'm from a largely middle-class family with some history of higher education: as far as I can tell, my paternal grandfather was the first to attend university, taking a medical degree from University College Dublin in the 1930s. Both my parents took medical degrees, and all my five siblings have degrees (from much more prestigious institutions than the ones I went to and work at, they unfailingly remind me). Despite being the one with the worst school record of all (4% in a maths exam was a particular highlight), I'm the only one to pursue an academic life. Finding out at 18 that reading books and talking about them could be a way of life rather than an invitation to another playground beating was quite a revelation. The point being that encountering the idea of the academy has been enormously influential on me. I went to Coleg Prifysgol Gogledd Cymru/University College of North Wales in 1993 - by the time I graduated it was Coleg Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales, Bangor and now it's Prifysgol Bangor University. It was small, buzzing with intellectual and social life, and quietly proud of its democratic origins, funded by subscriptions from slate quarriers.

Behind the scenes, no doubt, it was torn by all the tensions inherent in higher education: financial worries, political pressures, recruitment concerns, the balance between intellectual and skills development and all the other things that come with being a polymorphous institution. None of this was visible to students: I went to lectures and tutorials, read books, edited the student newspaper, stood for election (mostly unsuccessfully), went on demonstrations, partied, played sports, ran out of money, lived in terrible houses, met people from all over the world and from every background and generally had a great time. My tutors varied widely in personality and approach, but they were intellectually ambitious and caring at the same time. I came out of it, in short, a better person than I'd gone in. Did I know what I wanted to do next? Not at all. Going to university wasn't really a conscious choice, more an expectation, and leaving it seemed like being expelled from paradise. The problem was, I'd been turned into an idealist. I'd experienced the ideal of the university in what seemed to be its purest form: a community that fought its internal battles passionately and no doubt viciously, but always in the service of a higher purpose: the creation of a better world for everyone through intellectual labour.

I did an MA at Bangor and then a PhD at my current workplace, an post-92 HEI whose adherence to the polytechnic ideal of widening participation to the working class and the excluded proved equally attractive to me. I'm not only still here because I'm unemployable, I'm also still here because I believe that fine minds aren't solely the product of the comfortable suburbs.

The point is, and I'm sorry it's taken me several paragraphs to get this far, is that universities in all their variety are special places. They're full of people – students and staff – who engage in the common pursuit of knowledge and ways of thinking that transcend their immediate context. I have a contract (much-abused) with one chartered institution to teach a specific set of students and engage in particular research, managed by a group of people with medieval titles. They can hire and fire, and they can – and do – practice particular styles of management and discipline within a local culture. All of us, however, explicitly and with varying degrees of commitment, acknowledge that there are deeper connections and responsibilities which go beyond the immediate. I work for my students, for the wider intellectual community, for my colleagues within and without this and other HEIs, and for society. It's an enormous privilege not to have to serve burgers or hoe turnips, a privilege I'm conscious of. I think I understood some of this as a student because it was made clear by my tutors, and I hope that my students get some of this from me.

While my experiences have placed me firmly on the political left, none of these principles are inherently left wing : some of the doughtiest supporters of the university as a space protected from the chill winds of reductive atheism, capitalism or state interference have been conservatives, such as Cardinal Newman and Michael Oakeshott (and for a very interesting and different take, which rejects Newman as outdated, see this piece by Mark Leach). Last night I went to a launch for a very expensive book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. Written, edited and supported by some of my friends, it traces the poisoning of the Higher Education ideal by marketisation and the idea that the sole purpose (expect for the children of the 1%) of HE is to fit young people for soul-destroying, insecure and badly-paid work, while telling them that they're 'investing' in themselves. Within the wider neoliberal social framework imposed by a government with no majority (building on the work of a Labour government which capitulated to the Invisible Hand), Hall and Winn's contributors consider whether universities as an autonomous sector of society can be rescued, and if so, by whom.

One of the problems, they say, is a leadership module of Big White Usually-Male Saviours, and several chapters look at alternative structures such as Co-operative Universities. In the case of the Birmingham Autonomous University, they say it's time to burn down the tainted institutions and start again. I can attest to this saviour mentality, having been a university governor for some years and an employee for longer. I went to a training course for HE leaders, and on arriving the programme director said 'Oh, you're from XXX: your VC is a visionary'. My heart sank. Visionaries run a gamut from Jim Jones to Joanna Southcott, with only the occasional Rosa Luxemburg and they're never good at challenging structural issues. They can bring energy and new ideas, but cultures and economic conditions rarely change in response to a single person's direction. In Weberian terms, I'd far rather live in a bureaucratic system than a charismatic one.

My view and always has been that universities should be vehicles for social justice and enlightenment, and that a university is a collection of groups united hopefully by an intention to understand and improve our lot. Although Liz Morrish has a wittier formulation:
Clark Kerr … said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system
In that case, my HEI is united by bafflement at the (non)functioning of the heating system.

The contemporary university, however, is the sometimes-willing captive of its management. Our students and colleagues sometimes forget that they are the university and that managers should be implementing the carefully-considered policies set by academics, students and service department staff. Certainly my faculty and institution managers often behave as though students and staff are their minions, serving their visions. I have a lot of sympathy for them in many ways: it's almost impossible to work out where the money is coming from with no economic and political stability, but I do feel that we're becoming like the banks before they crashed: captured by their highly-enumerated senior executives, few of whom have ever published a paper or taught a class recently or at all, and captured by a mindset of metrics and income often through no fault of their own, in an atmosphere of doom and gloom. The neoliberal turn has produced universities run like businesses in which managers talk about 'business cases' and 'customers'; these universities produce students who think like customers and staff who are encouraged only to think of 'skills' and 'employability: a reactive institution and culture which has been described as the 'sub-prime university'.

At the launch last night my only contribution was to suggest that those of us who believe in universities as a public good need to recapture a sense of utopianism. There's no reason any subject shouldn't reach for the stars, whether it's astronomy, English or fashion design. Fashion is on my mind because on the other side of the glass wall from last night's launch, students were industriously designing lingerie: it felt rather like an episode of Father Ted. The joy of the current USS Strike is that students, academic staff and all the service department colleagues in the USS scheme are discovering the joys of being members of a community. Shorn of the disciplinary surveillance of the subprime-U, they've discovered that they're all on the same side. They've gone through the small print of the pensions assault, uncovered scandal, corruption, greed and plain bad maths, and communicated these things wittily and effectively to people who are discovering they aren't, in fact, customers but colleagues. It's been wonderful. Oxford University staff overcame the dirty tricks of their VC to reassert academic leadership of the institution, alumni everywhere are putting pressure on managers and Universities UK has been exposed as rotten to the core.

My view is that this provides an opportunity to end the discourse of decline. We have so much of which to be proud, and we are bursting with ideas. The public – apart from my brother, apparently – seems to understand that it's a good idea to teach critical thinking, to research things that aren't obviously and immediately profitable, that not everything should be run like a KFC and that the 'nice' bits of HE shouldn't just be reserved for the nice white children of the 1%. Last night Liz Morrish praised Birmingham City University for the bravery involved in setting up a BA in Black Studies (imagine the 'business case' for that, and the parents wondering how that will get you a job). We need to support and follow them. Every time a minister attacks degrees in Medieval Literature or whatever, we need to challenge them long and loud. We need to encourage our students to take the weird path, and we need to provide managers with the backbone required to buck the market. I can't remember who said it last night, but it was suggested that we should encourage the view that a Vice-Chancellorship isn't a reward: it's a burden. In the more civilised universities, course leaderships and department headships are rotated because it's understood that bureaucracy is a necessary evil that takes us away from students and research, and nobody should shoulder that load alone for too long. I've long thought it should work like that here, and now I'm very attracted to the idea that the VC should have her 5 years and then return to the ranks of researchers and teachers. A visiting senior scholar told me recently that at his institution, anyone in senior management with an academic profile has to do a minimum number of hours in a classroom per year, and make a REF return. It's a long time since most faculty and executive managers ran a seminar or submitted a journal article: they've long forgotten what it's like to do either, let alone both (while writing a TEF report…) and it's time they rediscovered those joys.

Above all, we need to take heart from the knowledge that we don't work for HEFCE, the OfS, the director of finance or the marketing department: we work for civilisation. That sounds massively pompous - because it is - but it's still true. The old slogan still applies: Another World Is Possible.

Because, in the spare time between tweeting GIFs about UniversitiesUK, I'm still a literature academic, I had a rummage through my memory for literary representations of universities. I'm not altogether in favour of campus novels: it's a bit too solipsistic, but I've accumulated a number of them across the years. I have to say: we're not universally adored out there. The posher, older universities are universally derided as the archaic playgrounds of bitter contemptuous snobs with no connection to the 'real world' (Porterhouse BlueLucky Jim); places like mine are laughed at for letting the (often over-sexed) proletariat rabble in (Sharpe's Wilt or Jacobson's Coming From Behind) or for aspiring to be like the old places (one aspect of John Wain's A Winter in the Hills which is actually a quietly wonderful novel). Spirits curdle, murders are committed, blood feuds emerge from petty differences and – almost universally – young women are sexual prey. Campuses provide authors with microcosmic cultures in which proximity exacerbates the worst aspects of wider society: Sayers' Gaudy Night is a classic of its claustrophobic kind: the academic Gormenghast. Alison Lurie's novels play it for laughs until you realise you're crying, while Donna Tartt's The Secret History reinforced all the suspicions about universities being carnivalesque spaces for a self-appointed élite (I hated it because I got the sense that Tartt secretly loved the monsters she'd created: I like Brideshead Revisited more as I get older because it feels less and less like Waugh wants us to celebrate rather than understand his cast). I loved May Sarton's The Small Room for its dated innocence and seriousness: an entire university is ripped apart over an accusation of undergraduate plagiarism, and John Williams's Stoner for its air of quiet dignity and simultaneous desperation. I hated Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning because it spoiled a good campus crime thriller with a pathological obsession with breasts: not a female character appeared on the page without the narrator giving you an update on the size, shape and movement of said glands. Oh, and it reproduced the same female-academics-as-hairy-predatory-lesbians trope which appears in Gaudy Night and Jilly Cooper's Riders.

Universities like mine don't usually get a look-in: campus novels tend to be about the kind of place that has cloisters, but I'll give an honourable mention to Frank Parkin's The Mind and Body Shop which, despite some knockabout xenophobia, uncannily predicted the modern university down to the high-street outlets and the VC clad in a tracksuit covered in sponsors' brands, doing workouts in the office he's converted to a gym.
The Vice-Chancellor of a large English college in Liverpool is remonstrating with the hapless Professor Douglas Hambro of the Philosophy Department: ""If you're still in the red at the end of Trinity term. . .you'll go the same way as Classics and Math and English."" In the modern university, all subjects have to earn their keep (there are coin-operated turnstiles in lecture rooms), and professors are supposed to act as hacks for foreign countries--one of Hambro's venal colleagues, Counselor Hedda Hagstrom, is doing research on a grant from OPEC to prove that children's IQ's are raised by leaded gas emissions.

Beyond the obvious novelistic attractions of the campus as a setting, the better ones are a good corrective: they remind us that we are privileged, and that we have responsibilities to the society that has given us – very reluctantly in the case of recent administrations – to use our time and power wisely, and to open the gates with pleasure rather than resentment. They also teach us not to take ourselves too seriously…

Friday, 2 March 2018

On being slightly, temporarily, Twitter-famous

OK, I need to define my terms first. Being Twitter-famous means, as far as I can see, having a spike in retweets of something you've said rather than being actually famous (which I wouldn't want), and being picked up by 'news' outlets that privilege cutting-and-pasting (also here and here) over doing their own journalism. The second and final phase of being temporarily popular is a wave of pornographic twitter-bots following you. The current giveaway is 'cosplay', and I feel sorry for the original cos-players, who seem like a harmless bunch. I industriously block any account that's either fake, commercial or insincere: currently about 16000. I think that if this was the Counter-Reformation I'd have consigned enormous numbers of people to eternal hellfire in the blink of an eye.

I seem to have accidentally and temporarily become Twitter-famous for doing two things: posting three satirical gifs to illustrate the posh universities' Vice-Chancellors' attitudes towards their staff, who spent the week taking noisy, exciting and witty industrial action against swingeing cuts in their pensions.

One used the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally to illustrate the VC's reaction to USS finding a new way to rip off even retired employees, another took The Hunt for Red October as a metaphor for academics' ability to parse small print (it seemed funny at the time), and the third likened VCs crying poverty to Scrooge McDuck's plutocratic ways, though I could have used this one:

I guess the Frankfurt School would consider such lazy and snide repurposing of commercial art to be degenerate mass culture, but I prefer to thing of it as postmodern remix culture. And definitely not 'goofing off'. What I have learned this week is that a modicum of wit gets a message a long way – whether it has any meaningful effect is another matter entirely.

The other bit of tweeting that nearly broke my phone was simple outrage. I read the Public Appointments Commissioner's report on the Office for Students recruitment process. It turns out that Toby Young got a phone call from the Minister for Universities telling him to apply; that is disgusting social media history wasn't examined; that the social media of all the candidates for the student post were examined; that 133 students applied and none of them got the job; that special advisers to the Prime Minister rejected all the qualified candidates because they had histories of being involved in student representation (I know…) and/or of disagreeing with Conservative Party policy; that the eventual student representative appointed didn't apply for the job: she was found (how? nobody knows) and had her social media deleted on her first day: we know literally nothing about her beyond her name; that the Department of Education deliberately tried to hide evidence from the inquiry.

As a thoroughgoing study in corruption, the Office for Students is a case study in what happens when cynicism meets incompetence. It's the kind of thing dropped in the edits of an episode of The Thick of It. The Office for Students, which launched this week with no apparent shame, is meant to be a kind of watchdog in the Higher Education sector. It is in fact a device to promote privatisation, to deprofessionalise academics, to turn students from scholars to customers, and to abolish the autonomy of universities as any kind of counterweight to the neoliberal model.

What links these two odd events in my week? Well, the public outrage at the Toby Young story and the widespread support from students, newspapers, the public and even some Vice-Chancellors for the striking lecturers. While many of us, inside and out, have reservations about HE in practice, people are supportive of education as a site of critique and resistance, and (except for my brother) view striking academics not as greedy individualists, but as representatives of a worldview that can't be reduced to profit and loss. While a number of very famous institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge have been caught trying to rip off their employees while hiding behind the skirts of Universities UK, it's been heartening to see other senior education leaders defending the principles of autonomous education and the financial structures required to keep them viable.

This was certainly not the case when my own university and sister institutions in the Teachers' Pension Scheme took industrial action. My institution's leaders – despite landing eye-watering pay rises themselves – have never spoken in favour of staff getting pay rises above inflation (now a full decade) or of protecting employee pensions. Some speak of keeping the institution viable; others crudely talk about us as fungible assets to be sweated. Our strike had no effect: ex-polys lack the cultural capital that gets us onto the front pages of broadsheet newspapers, and ministers' children are unlikely to be inconvenienced and the ministers themselves rarely angle for the post-retirement mastership of any institution that doesn't have a High Table. (One day I'll give you my full Why Do Even Good Progressive People In The Establishment Only Ever Take Sinecures At Oxbridge Colleges Yes I'm Looking At You Will Hutton And Rowan Williams rant. It's not pretty).

If that sounds sour, it's not meant to be: the majority of academics at pre-92 universities are progressive, caring people who fully uphold the values of egalitarian liberalism, and many of them in medieval sandstone buildings have worse terms and conditions than we denizens of the concrete academy. I've been massively impressed by their sacrifices, wit and ingenuity in the snow this week and I hope they succeed.

Of course, I have done plenty of actual work this week. As soon as I'd finished outlining the sorry tale of a man chosen on obscure grounds by a mysterious process run by unpleasant characters to do a job he was utterly unqualified for, leading to shame and dishonour, I taught Macbeth to those few first-years who find the idea of a drama module taught in a theatre with working actors and directors as well as academics at all interesting (OK, now I'm sounding sour, and rightly so). I enjoyed it, anyway. I've also had a meeting with my new research mentor, whose first question was 'what are you submitting to REF 2027?' Oh god oh god oh god. It turns out that I've agreed to rebuild the Great Library of Alexandria solely with my own outputs. I did also send off two conference paper proposals though: one on Celtic representation in video games (planning to use Billig's Banal Nationalism to explore that, alongside an argument that Celticism is used to represent an ineffable mush of spirituality that's viewed as cute but outdated, and that all Celts are basically used as interchangeable Others, other than Drippy) and another on food and kitchens in contemporary Welsh literature. If the audience is good I might bake them some Welsh cakes.

I've also been down to London to do my External Examining at an East London branch of the Open University. It's a tiny place attached to an FE college, catering to the most deprived and put-upon students in the country and it's brilliant: the course is superb and the students do astonishingly well. As I listen to the list of hardships the students face ('deported', 'homeless', 'sister recently murdered') and overcome, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the VCs, their pornstar martinis and business-class mind-sets.

The rest of the week has been spent reading a PhD on Tolkien, Pullman, eco-labyrinthicity and Christianity, still reading Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, and staring out at the snow. Despite a couple of slides yesterday, cycling in it was wonderful: still and silent, just the sound of my Kojak tyres crunching through fresh powder and the wind whistling around me. Despite the ice, it's been safe too: drivers are being ultra-cautious. The best news of the last week or so has been my colleague Daisy Black's elevation: she's been chosen as a BBC New Generation Thinker, and will be positively infesting the airwaves with her views on medieval culture for the next year or so.

And on that note, I think I'd better go: it's snowing heavily and the wind's getting up. The office supplies consist of 6 biscuits, a jar of olives, a bottle of Chartreuse, some wine and some tobacco: an interesting cocktail but not really a balanced diet. Instead, I'm going home with this PhD dissertation. I'll ignore the ironing and cleaning, light the fire and settle in. But not before feeding last night's baking to the birds. It turns out that if you buy one of those bread mix packets designed for bread machines, then leave it in a cupboard for almost three years, the yeast dies and you get an inedible rugby ball-shaped object capable of breaking a toe. If I judge the trajectory right, I can bounce it off my noisy neighbour's head on the way to feeding my feathery friends.