Monday, 15 May 2017

I beg the honour, sir…



Titles are weird. Some tell you that your interlocutor's ancestors were the most determined terrorists and plunderers of the day (Queen, King, Duke etc.). Others represent the judicious investment of large amounts of cash in political party coffers (Baron, Sir, Lady), or the neediness of a ruling class that just wants to hang out with the cool kids (thanks, Harold Wilson, for those MBEs given to the Beatles). President, I should say, is now a floating signifier. It once denoted gravitas and authority whatever you thought of the holder's policies: now it represents a nation's collective boredom and the lengths it will go to have a giggle.

Others are earned – despite the neoliberal attack on the professions embodied by Mr Gove's hostility to experts, I like being introduced to Dr. X at the hospital. It doesn't tell me whether she got 100% in her medical exams or a bare pass, but it does tell me that she worked very hard for many years and was considered competent in one of the most rigorous qualification process on the planet.

Yet more titles are unearned and unwanted: ask a female academic what title is bestowed on them by students (and shockingly, online forms) and the answer is frequently Miss or Mrs, despite the answer being 'Dr.'. (Google 'Professor' and click Images, and prepare to be depressed) Men get Mistered too (especially non-Caucasian ones), but not nearly so much – it's as though you can be a woman or a fully-qualified academic, but not both. Dr in this context is a formal recognition on the part of the student and others that the person guiding them is a bona fide expert.

I say this because I just read this very interesting piece in the New York Times about the way students can, do and should address academics, and it made me think about the complex cultures around such things.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.
Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

I deploy my title - and those of others – sparingly. The 'Professors' who were given the title without ever having published anything or taught a class never hear the word from my lips, because I still believe that the term should denote intellectual and pedagogical distinction, nor do I use feudal titles on the rare occasions that I bump into Lords and Dames in the chipper. I have friends who either never wanted careers in HE or for one reason or another couldn't achieve one whom I do address as Dr sometimes, because I think someone should publicly recognise their hard work and contribution to knowledge sometimes. For the same reason, I like to use the title when talking to newly-minted PhDs: it's all very well to be casual about it if you found the process a doddle, or it was decades ago, but being a PhD is special. The title change moves the individual's social position away from sexual and marital identity to the intellectual plane: it represents something valuable you did, rather than your accident of birth or social status. Not many people get that kind of freedom, and they deserve to be recognised for it. (None of this applies to me though: in a flash of pure ego I changed my debit card to read Dr, and have always regretted that moment of pomposity. Though it might help my credit rating, as there are two world-class academics with the exact same forenames and surnames, which has led to a couple of very interesting conference invitations).

So I can understand the need to apply the title for feminist purposes, and I agree that a title which recognises a contribution to knowledge should be celebrated, but I do think there are contexts in which the deployment of titles in general are barriers to inclusion. The author of the NYT piece sees it as part of a culture of informality which is to be abhorred: first names lead to text-message style communications, lead to bombing the campus chapel (seriously, read the piece). I recognise this: a lot of emails don't have any salutation or sign-off, and some are unexpected or indicative of cultural origins: I was both amused and rather gratified to read 'Yo blud'; 'bruv' is not unknown, and one module evaluation simply read 'nice arse', which was both inappropriate and inaccurate. Most emails start with 'hi Firstname', which is fine with me, and in person most students use my first name. There's a cultural aspect to this: often more middle-class students use an honorific, even if it's not the right one, and 'sir/miss' is common amongst those coming straight from school, but on the whole our working-class and mature students often address us in ways which imply social equality, and I like that. I particularly hate the sir/miss thing and work hard to eradicate it because to me it represents an authoritarian structure of pedagogy that has no place in a university. It's true, too, that Americans are generally more formal inside and outside the classroom - you'll hear 'sir' or 'ma'am' everywhere you go, and former titles are widely used - you're a President or a General for life. As an aside: I hate the compulsory obsequiousness of retail staff. They're paid the least their employers can get away with, and it's certainly not enough to justify forcing them to pretend they're our butlers or, even worse, our friends. I admire the honesty of the surly, disengaged till operator who refuses to disguise the exploitative nature of the exchange with emotional labour.

Class is one of the primary factors for me. My institution's undergraduates are 98% working-class; its academic staff are, shall we say, not 98% working class. Nor, racially, do we resemble our intake. We neither look nor sound like them. I therefore think there's a careful line to tread when it comes to formal modes of address in such a context. I want the potential academics amongst them to see a doctorate as something they can achieve; I want all the students to respect the acquisition of knowledge as valuable, but I also feel that the use of titles in an institution like ours raises barriers, and would also remind people that I have colleagues who are better academics than me without having PhDs, and bad teachers and researchers who do hold doctorates). My students aren't my friends: I don't have them round to my house or weep on their shoulders when I'm miserable, but I do generally like them, and want to communicate a sense that they're intellectual colleagues, that I've a head start on them in terms of time and experience, but that we're engaged in a common project of intellectual inquiry in which I can learn from them. Titles can sometimes be a bit like the locked doors that pervade some universities.

I'm not sure there's an answer to the questions raised by this NYT piece. I do think intellectual achievement should be recognised, and there are gender, power, racial and class issues to be addressed, but in general I'm happy to be spoken to informally because I try to be a democrat in all areas of my life. That said, I do draw a line sometimes. A casual email that treats me as a customer service operator will often result in stiff response, and I do remind students that the outside world has different expectations: I once counselled a student that her job application results were probably not aided by an email address containing the words 'sexy bitch', even though my own inclinations are to smash corporate hierarchies and value judgements rather than prepare students to bow before them.

Molly Worthen's view is that despite the problematic racial, class and sexual histories of titular deployment, the careful use of titles is part of a valuable social structure of respect for genuine achievement, though I notice that the NYT house style has stripped both her and her interviewees of their academic titles as a matter of course.
Angela Jackson-Brown, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told me that “most of my students will acknowledge that I’m the first and only black teacher they’ve ever had.” Insisting on her formal title is important, she said: “I feel the extra burden of having to go in from Day 1 and establish that I belong here.”

When Professor Jackson-Brown began teaching in the 1990s, most students respected her authority. But in recent years, that deference has waned (she blames the informality of social media). “I go out of my way now to not give them access to my first name,” she said. “On every syllabus, it states clearly: ‘Please address me as Professor Jackson-Brown.’ ”
I get that, and I understand that it's culturally contingent: my French and German friends have the option (and social minefield) of tu/vous or du/sie, and the progressive moments of the 60s and 70s saw a re-evaluation of their uses. There's a slippage I detect in this article: whenever I hear the words 'respect my authority' I think of Cartman from South Park and worry that it's not intellectual achievement underlying the respect being requested.



I wonder if we should consider how academics address students. If you watch old films (not necessarily historically accurate of course), students are addressed as Mr. or Miss: the formality might be interpreted as either the respect due to adults, or as a signifier of a necessary social distance. I use my students' first names, but I don't think I've ever asked permission to be so familiar: is it an unconsciously oppressive act, or would Mr/Ms sound so weirdly out of time that it would be automatically read as sarcasm or disapprobation? (Nor do I explicitly indicate that I'd prefer them to use my forename - I'd rather go with what people feel comfortable with unless it's the loaded Sir/Miss thing. Few things are more embarrassing than this:



I guess that for me, in the unlikely event of all things being equal, respect is gradually earned rather than enforced through honorifics, but I'm speaking from a position of gender, class and racial privilege. I can wear my PhD lightly (even though I only just scraped through) because I look more like the imaginary Prof than lots of other people (I combat this by being glimpsed in my cycling gear now and then: once the dry heaving stops the comedic value makes it hard to kow-tow again). At the same time, I don't think that students who speak to me casually are communicating a lack of academic respect or a suspicion of experts (the dreaded 'credentialism'): I think it often denotes trust, and that's a valuable thing.
The real point is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.
In the end, I don't think that a friendly deployment of my forename, or an overly familiar email, erodes the pillars of civilisation. It might make us bristle, or consider the underlying social and cultural paradigm, but there are rather more pressing threats to civilisation and civility to deal with, such as the global dominance of a man who thinks it's fun to 'grab' women 'by the pussy'.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Look into my eyes: HE, 'woo' and managing change

Hi everybody. 
It's been an action-packed few days here at Vole Towers. Since my last post I've been the external examiner for a PhD at Aberystwyth (on Jan Morris, Iain Sinclair and post-devolution Welsh literature), done some serious miles on the bike, seen The Play That Went Wrong – highly recommended – co-presented a paper at the Dissent Studies conference at Keele University and talked to lots and lots of students about their work. I've been appraised, planned next year's modules (ish) and done as much union work as I can. Tomorrow we're interviewing for a Chair of English, and then I'm off to AWWE17, my beloved annual Welsh literature conference. I'm not presenting this time, just doing Secretary-of-the-Association duties, so I'm paying for it myself. Oh yes, and there's apparently a general election on. 

So I could bore you with all sorts of things, but I won't. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an innocuous-looking invitation that dropped into my email the other day. 

Module 1 - NLP techniques for Leading Change (for line managers only)
Enables Managers / Leaders to guide their team through some of the challenges associated with change.  The focus here is ‘Leading People and Self through Periods of Change’.  
I'm not a line manager, so I'm not invited. But NLP rang a worrying little bell. I discounted the possibility that it stood for Natural Language Processing because some of my friends work on that and it doesn't help Lead Change (though teaching computers to understand corporate management discourse is probably easier than teaching managers not to use it).  So if not that, then what. All I remembered was that it was something slightly sinister. 

Got it: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 

I'm used – though not resigned – to being described in university systems as a Resource, but I'm not sure an organisation literally founded to foster a culture of rational inquiry and debate should be talking about 'programming' human beings. 

But this is surely Vole being his usual resistant, paranoid self, isn't it? Let's have a look at NLP. Where does it come from? What's it been used for? Does it actually work? Would it pass an ethics panel if I proposed using it on students?

NLP is a psychological model and set of techniques widely used by life coaches, corporate counsellors and similar types as a means of self-help. Here's one such company's explanation:
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language, and they couldn’t understand you? The classic example of this is when someone goes out to a restaurant in a Foreign country and they think they ordered steak, but when the food shows up, it turns out they actually asked for liver stew.
This is the kind of relationship that most of us have with our own unconscious mind. We might think we are “ordering up” more money, a happy, healthy relationship, peace with our family members, and being able to stick to a healthy diet…but unless that’s what showing up, then something is probably getting lost in translation.
In NLP, we have a saying: the conscious mind is the goal setter, and the unconscious mind is the goal getter. Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out TO GET FOR YOU whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.
To me, this is unadulterated woo with no scientific or philosophical basis other than a very, very distant descent from Freudian models. But it's simply yet another quick-fix for the suckers who obligingly keep getting born every minute. No real harm done in applying it to yourself (other than the cultural damage inflicted by the acquisitive, individualist assumptions underlying guff like the above. 

Where it gets properly sinister is when NLP is applied by one person to another to manufacture consent. NLP is the motor of those vile sex/dating systems promoted by 'pick-up artists'. Here's disgusting author of The Game, Neil Strauss:
How To Use NLP For Seduction
NLP’s greatest asset to a pickup artist is its comfort-building technology. Building comfort is a lot like being a therapist, in that you’re trying to create an atmosphere where she feels safe enough to share personal stories with you. However, unlike a therapist, you will be sharing your stories with her in an effort to build a strong emotional connection. 
The key is to listen to the words she uses when telling a story and decide whether they are based on sight, sound, or emotion. Once you decide which representational system they use most, respond in the same modality. With practice, the seducer should notice that the TARGET is much more responsive to everything being said. 
The use of the word 'target' is instructive: the person on the receiving end of NLP techniques is not an equal partner. She is being manipulated through linguistic devices to respond in pre-ordained ways to particular stimuli (if you explore The Game and its eco-system you'll find nasty concepts such as negging, the practice of undermining a woman's self-esteem until she's sufficiently depressed to accept anyone so amoral as a pick-up artist). 

So NLP is first and foremost an exercise of unequal power in which the user overcomes the victim's worldview and emotional/intellectual autonomy. It is emphatically not the use of rhetoric for persuasion on a level ground. It is a specific technique for evading analysis of the communication's content, by appearing to operate on the subconscious level. It is, and I don't think this is hyperbolic, a subtle form of rape, because it aims to achieve unconscious consent. 

In a sense, 'does it work?' is a secondary question, like 'does torture work?': it's clear to me that there's no ethical justification for employing NLP techniques on another human being. However, if you really want to know: very little serious research has been done on NLP, and the well-designed papers that tackle it are clear that no, it doesn't work and claims made for it are scientifically unverifiable (e.g. Sharpley 1987, Sturt et al. 2012). 

NLP is being used at my university to get us all to agree to 'change'. Any change. It is clearly being used to avoid the examination of proposed change on rational grounds. The purpose is to manipulate colleagues covertly rather than to engage them in a process of debate. 

If I proposed to use NLP techniques on my students it would not pass an ethics panel. There is no way that NLP constitutes informed consent to anything. Furthermore, it is entirely at odds with the ethos of education in general, and of this institution in particular. Here's are the first two points of our 'mission statement':
The University of [Cthulu] is a learning community promoting excellence, innovation and creativity. We are committed to being:
An agent for social inclusion and social change
An arena for the development of ideas and critical thinking
I cannot see how the use of covert and discredited techniques of psychological manipulation conform to ideals of inclusion or critical thinking - it is antithetical to both these concepts. Whether the proposed change is a different coffee blend or the abolition of lectures, colleagues in collective endeavour of education should expect to be treated as equals and to be respected. The use of NLP reveals both the paucity of management thinking (because they've fallen for a load of mumbo-jumbo despite being able to call on the skills of a whole department of qualified psychologists) and its moral bankruptcy. A course on applying NLP does not magically appear. This is a bureaucratic system (not necessarily a bad thing: bureaucracies can often guarantee fairness) which requires multiple levels of decision-making. Essentially, lots of people have calmly considered the use of an immoral technique of psychological manipulation and decided that yes, on balance, it would make their lives easier. While this might be what you'd expect of the more slippery corporate organisations out there, universities have legal, social, cultural and moral histories and public positions which supposedly protect their staffs, students and publics from this kind of thing. 

Not any more. The existence of this single little course is enough to tell you at here, at least, the humanist values of higher education have been replaced by a pragmatic, goal-oriented and morality-free system pursuit of other priorities - namely, I think, the frictionless exercise of power. 

I intend to pursue this internally. If this is happening elsewhere, please let me know.  

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Guess who's back!

Like the undead, failed, mediocre Conservative candidates walk amongst us. In my case, it's Paul Uppal, the self-satirising Tory. For my newer readers, I have a little history with Poor Paul. It's fair to say that I disliked him from the start: a millionaire property speculator with no history of public service, he started his parliamentary career by telling lies about electoral fraud. This led to an amusing exchange of letters between me and the Electoral Commission and the police, and between the EC and Mr Uppal. 
The Commission is not investigating any allegation of fraud in Wolverhampton South West. We made initial enquiries about an error in the count at the 2010 general election. However the matter was closed with no further action as a result of all parties accepting the result of the count.
In a subsequent letter, the EC informed me that:
We are aware of Mr. Uppal's MP statement and we will be contacting him to clarify the matter with him.
At least two Labour MPs called him out for his attack on democracy:
Frank Dobson: Does my hon. Friend agree that what really undermines confidence is when people make smeary remarks and no prosecutions follow because the remarks turn out to have no facts behind them? 
Wayne David (Caerphilly, Labour) Indeed, and that is one of the things to which I alluded earlier, as have ACPO and the Electoral Commission. Many people make complaints, be it in the heat of the moment or otherwise, but are then unable to substantiate their allegations, which often fall by the wayside, completely unproven. 
He also has a nasty habit of assuming that all Sikh people will vote for him because he's a Sikh, despite beginning his political career with a swipe against the 'race relations circus'
The Race Relations Circus 
…the McCarthyistic mouth foaming utterances of the race relations industry, which through accusation alone can slay political careers and stifle well intentioned and principled debate. I say this because I have seen with my very own eyes the modus operandi of this circus, employing individuals to perpetuate this climate of political correctness. In reality this industry/business does dreadful damage to Britain’s race relations. It seems more concerned with securing it’s own funding streams and non jobs for it’s membership of zealots. The cost of this is all is so much more than financial, as we lose decent people and gag those who point to the emperor’s new clothes. 
Mind you, his views on immigration and the state display a certain malleability:
"Some years ago, a prominent immigration lawyer told me that the two main drivers of immigration are, first, the perception—right or wrong—that we have an overtly generous welfare system in the UK; and secondly, lax human rights legislation."
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2012-06-11b.48.0#g56.1 
Paul Uppal MP, 18th June 2012:
"I have found from my experience as a constituency MP that many black and minority ethnic communities, particularly migrant communities, came to this country because they wanted to live in an environment in which there was a belief in a robust democracy."
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2012-06-18a.654.1&s=speaker%3A24886#g657.2 
And in a sadly-deleted Channel Four News interview, he managed to claim that Enoch Powell (oh yes) would actually be pleased that his constituency was represented by an Asian person. Of course he would!

He didn't like meeting the public or having his photograph taken, or doing any work, and he was so intent on enriching himself and his speculator mates that the property industry described him as their man in Parliament – I was under the naive impression that MPs were the citizens' representatives. Certainly his parliamentary questions were largely related to lobbying for tax relief on his own property investments. Five years of Uppal certainly cured me of that error: he sponsored no laws, rarely spoke, joined no select committees and generally just warmed a green bench. He managed to make precisely TWO speeches in his first three months, which worked out at £8500 each. Cheap compared with, say, George Osborne, but not exactly Stakhanovite. These speeches were, of course, about himself. How did he spend his time? Taking jollies to Saudi Arabia in return for slavishly defending that appalling regime, and visiting occupied Syria as a guest of the Israel Defence Forces. Still, at least he voted to privatise forests and displayed great political courage by abstaining on equal marriage because the tension between party loyalty and his own opposition to fairness and justice for all proved too much for him. He also voted to slash benefits for disabled children while continually calling for tax cuts for property speculators, a habit which annoyed even fellow Tories!


My second suggestion will probably make me extremely unpopular, in particular with my hon. Friend Paul Uppal. Although the Government cannot do much about the role of small commercial landlords, those landlords are absolutely deluded about their ability to get the rents they ask. Their mentality is to ask for yesterday’s rent; because a shop was rented out 10 years ago at £40,000, they will keep it empty for three, four or five years under the delusion that they will get the same rent, and notwithstanding the fact that they are paying empty property rates, which I point out to the Minister it is right for them to be doing.
If you're wondering, yes, all his political donors are on the shady side. 
In other consistency news, he hosted a MacMillan Coffee Morning to combat cancer, while opposing plain cigarette packaging.

Note to students: Mr Uppal enthusiastically voted to increase student tuition fees to £9000. 

On a light-hearted note I enjoyed watching him recycle Tory PR lines as though they were his (also here and here), and noting the times when 'a constituent' would conveniently express Uppal's own views in precise parliamentary language, which everybody on the street speaks fluently. 
A constituent spoke to me who comes from one of the handful of families on her road who actually work. The rest of the families on her street have made a conscious life choice to live off benefits. [ Interruption. ] Ms Buck may nod, sigh and take a deep breath, but I am faced in my weekly surgeries by people who live in the real world—people who have to deal with the hard reality of life. My constituent had to face ridicule for going to work. That is the situation that we have.
I have seen that so often when I meet young people. They have a choice between work and a life on benefits. They have looked me in the eye and said that a life on benefits is not such a bad option. 
This magic constituent pops up again:
one of my constituents recently approached me. She is one of two families in her road who work. She has not had a holiday for three years. Both parents work to support their children. Neither of their children has a mobile phone, and yet neighbours next to my constituent have children who continually tell her children that they have  mobile phones. 
And again:
A lady on Rugby Street told me that she's ridiculed by her neighbours for going out to work.  
But this is the best one: the Voice of Youth!
I also spoke to about half a dozen young Muslim men, who said to me quite directly, “You will not stem this tide of irresponsibility unless the House speaks with one voice. It is important that the issue is not hijacked for political point-scoring.” Does my right hon. Friend concur with that view? 
These aren't the only articulate young men he spoke to either: here's another
One conversation I had on that day still sticks in my mind. It was with a young person from Wolverhampton who said, “I want to thank you, Mr Uppal, for organising this. You’ve given me hope.” 
Even his kids aren't safe:
my oldest daughter encapsulated my feelings on Sikhism quite wonderfully when she said, “Dad we have such a cool faith, why don’t we talk about it much more?” I hope that in some small way, by making this speech this morning, I have helped that process.
To which all I can say is:



Oh, and it's seven years since I asked him what class degree he got (Politics, Warwick). He won't tell me, which makes me assume it's a Third or an Ordinary. Which is ironic, because he's a big fan of selective schools, and an enemy of parental scrutiny of academy schools. He was elected with 40.7% of the a 67.9% turnout, vote but called for a 50% minimum vote for strikes (policy since enacted, sadly). If you can judge a man by the company he keeps, he fares badly too: see this and this delightful bit of Liam Fox business. He is a bit paranoid too: he was a regular visitor to my blog. That's in-between carrying on a war on street preachers and charity fundraisers. He thinks they are the main reason people don't go to city centres, and his plan is to privatise our streets.

Still, he'll be a good steward of the economy, won't he? Um…not if his own finances are anything to go by: I enjoyed his campaign failing to pay its website bills during the last election campaign and therefore having no web presence at all! 

Still, he's been working hard to stay in touch with his constituents during his days in the political wilderness, hasn't he? Er…not according to his latest Twitter missives:




Well Paul, happy days are here again!

In case you're wondering, the Labour candidate is a nurse, not a millionaire.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What a long strange trip it's been (this week)

A strange few days since I got back from the US. Jetlag of course, but it turns out that all the things I thought were hallucinations actually happened. First a general election announcement, then my youngest sister got married, and yesterday I found what at first I thought was a dead body on the pavement, during my cycle to work.

The election: the Prime Minister's language is starting to frighten me. It implies less commitment to the checks and balances of parliamentary democracy than any British politician I can think of. Certainly even Winston Churchill thought twice about indulging his dictatorial leanings during World  War Two. Mrs May is putting me strongly in mind of the Norsefire Party, the Tory successor that established a dictatorship based on faith and flag in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. I also think that the electorate – which appears to like being on the receiving end of a punishment beating – will give her carte blanche to do what she wants. Several of my friends are standing for parliament this time but all for Plaid Cymru in Wales so I won't have the pleasure of voting for them.

Two years ago I tramped the streets leafleting and canvassing for a Labour candidate who beat the Tory incumbent. I learned a lot while doing so, and was pleased to help achieve a result against the national tide. Now he's decided not to run, pleading age and exhaustion, and frustration with being in opposition. Not a factionalism, he's also exasperated with Jeremy Corbyn's day-to-day competence as a political leader. I fear this means another seat will be won by a Tory. Rumour has it that the previous incumbent, Paul Uppal, will be that Tory. A disaster for the city but a return to the glory days of political spite for me: Uppal was stupendously rich, lazy, dishonest, secretive, inaccessible, paranoid and none too bright. A self-satirising politician in fact, though I'll do my bit (as I did back then).

What else? My sister's wedding was probably only of interest to friends and family but if you want to see pictures of other people's relatives (and of cheese), try here. There was a petting zoo for the kids which attracted the attention of 6 buzzards, though sadly they didn't launch any actual raids. She's the 5th and last of my siblings to marry. That just leaves me…and I've already got an EU passport so there's no reason for me to get hitched.

And so to yesterday's slice of life, a mix of deep tragedy and low comedy. A few years ago I walked into a group comprising a man waving a knife at two women and a little girl and felt compelled to get involved; this time I was cycling to work when I spotted what seemed to be a dead body on the pavement outside a school. I have no idea how long she'd been there, but on closer inspection she was breathing but totally unresponsive. I called an ambulance and then flagged down a passing car which turned out to be an unmarked police car containing two officers who knew the woman by name: she is a local sex worker with multiple dependencies to whom they'd given aid several times in recent days. I've had very mixed experiences with the police in the past, but these ones were very good - slightly exasperated but caring and not judgmental. It was very depressing to hear that they were surprised I'd stopped to help: they're used to people just walking past. They were also quite funny. It was so cold that eventually I sat in their car for a bit. One said 'I guess you're wondering why the car stinks of cannabis', to which I replied 'Oh, so that's what it smells like!' and we all laughed.

I stopped to help for a number of reasons really. Human dignity is the main one: nobody should be ignored in that condition, however inconvenient it is. It also, I think, comes from being a cyclist and pedestrian I suppose. Everyone has their own geography or sense of spatiality which is partly moral and partly communal. A driver is cocooned from events outside the vehicle by speed and metal; they're removed from the ordinary pace of the community, which becomes part of the blur. Moving slowly means that everywhere on my journey to work feels like part of my territory, a space of which I am a part and for which I share responsibility.

I should say that there's nothing special about someone stopping to help, and that my patch of the city may be poor and a little bit scruffy, but it's a good place to live. Or would be, if it weren't for my noisy neighbour. I'd think twice about checking whether he's still breathing.

What else has been going on? I've done the first read-through of a very interesting and thought-provoking PhD I'm examining shortly. I actually had to buy more post-it notes, and now there are more comments than pages. I've read excellent undergraduate dissertation drafts, and we had presentations for my first-year drama module. I was stunned by the ambition and sophistication I saw. Multiple groups performed long, difficult scenes (beyond what the assignment asked the for) and I don't mind admitting that they packed an emotional punch that left me and the rest of the audience gasping.

I also went to a hustings for the regional mayoral elections that didn't leave anyone gasping. All very sensible and good-humoured but distinctly underwhelming. When a candidate's pitch includes a call for a 'task and finish group' and you can't tell UKIP, the Lib Dems, Labour, a Tory and a Green apart without a microphone you get a good idea of why turnouts are so low. I've also attended a meeting with management in support of a colleague in my union rep role and had the rare opportunity to witness a happy ending: everyone round the table was sensible, constructive and thoughtful rather than defensive or confrontational. This is not a common occurrence, and there's an enormous storm coming on other matters. But for now, I'm going to enjoy the moment.

The other highlight of the week was seeing bleak contemporary folksters The Unthanks singing the songs of Molly Drake, mother of the wonderful Nick Drake. I already love The Unthanks' work, and was intrigued to hear this music, recorded at home for enjoyment rather than for the public and discovered only a few years ago. I liked them: folkish, jazz-inflected songs with a Betjemanesque, 1930s tea-party air – musically exactly what you might expect of someone growing up in the interwar/wartime upper-middle classes yet with a dash of contemplative introspection as she processed personal experiences through song. The friend I took with me misheard the invitation and thought we were getting Nick Cave's mother's music. Now that I'd pay to hear.







There's so much else going on but I fear I've delighted you long enough. TTFN.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Austin Rover

So I went to Austin, Texas for a few days, to attend the Britain in the World conference. Yes, I did travel United (and Flybe) and yes, it was pretty terrible. But no, I wasn't assaulted in any way by the cabin crew or security. The first flight I was booked for didn't actually exist, the transatlantic flight was delayed by an hour because the first officer's microphone was stuck, US immigration was distinctly lacking in bonhomie, and on the way back I had a seven hour wait at Houston (boy the charms of that place wear off after about twenty minutes) and the final Flybe flight had to return to the gate because…they'd forgotten to load the luggage. They forgot to unload it at our destination too. That last flight had all the charm of Huis Clos performed by the dishevelled and aggressive survivors of a particularly low-rent stag weekend too. Not that I'm a misanthropist at all…

Plus I hate flying for cowardly and environmental reasons. I have – for what it's worth – shovelled some offsetting money in the direction of ClimateCare. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I don't (can't) drive, cycle or get the train pretty much everywhere and don't have children. 

Anyway, Austin and the conference. It was interesting being a literary scholar amongst almost exclusively historians. They do things very differently - there wasn't much concern for theoretical approaches, and the papers were much more tightly focussed and descriptive than the kind of thing I do. Being a full-scale British Studies event though, the panels ranged around the world and back to the fifteenth-century. The joy of being an academic tourist meant that I could sit back and enjoy them without having to record every detail. I did like the panels on colonialism, emotions and culture - in particular there was one on flag-draped superheroes by Lawrence Abrams which was witty and very insightful, and gave me a couple of ideas for future work. Jennifer Warburton of Kansas U did one that juxtaposed official British doctrine on Protestantism with the pragmatic approach eventually taken when the Empire captured hordes of Catholics, and there was a wonderful session on popular culture: the London musical of Gone With The Wind (a flop involving a live horse), Martin Farr of Newcastle on Oh! What a Lovely War and Kevin Flanagan from Pittsburgh (his office is in the mind-boggling Cathedral of Learning!) doing a stunning presentation on Goodtimes Entertainments series of world war 2 'documentaries', which mostly seemed to involve setting newsreel footage to covers of Beatles tracks - such as Hitler at Berchtesgarten set to 'Fool on the Hill'.  


Amongst their other work is this, by Ken Russell - Ringo Starr was also involved. 



Two of the best things at the whole conference were the round table discussions. One was on the fraught subject of Brexit: some of the pro-Trump academics (yes, you read that correctly) saw Brexit as a huge opportunity but most were rather shell-shocked. Some interesting views from the anglosphere were presented: if the Brits think that New Zealand is going to save them they've another think coming. It was down to me and my colleague to put the view from the Celtic nations and the left however: with some honourable exceptions, 'British Studies' appeared to mean 'English Studies'. The other great session was 'Teaching Controversial Subjects', something my colleagues and I have long experience of: I'm currently teaching Jennifer Haley's The Nether and next semester we're reading Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. The range of material discussed and the kinds of cohorts involved was enormous. I picked up loads of new ideas about how to introduce and discuss tricky things without disengaging students or being paraded through the streets and publicly burned.

I think my panel went quite well, though the audience for Welsh matters was disappointingly small. I discussed Lewis Jones's work as both the end of the proletarian tradition and a missed opportunity for new forms of working-class writing; my colleagues talked about the 1950s Welsh Republican Movement, and this history of Welsh industrial relations in the post-war period. The discussion afterwards was lively, which was heartening. 

Other impressions of Austin: not as weird as it claims. And how could it be, with the Texas state legislature and all that comes with it, right in the middle of town? The relentless searing heat got to me, and the obscene consumption - (delicious) food and massive trucks mostly. I went to Denny's (wonderful) and various other places to try all the foods you can't get here. Grits: gritty wallpaper paste with no discernible flavour. Biscuits and gravy: neither biscuit nor gravy, but a scone with (quite tasty) white sauce. Collard greens: an absolute winner - good spiciness. The Austinites were utterly lovely. The bars are magnificent and the million-plus bats under the bridge are an amazing sight. So much so that I went down twice in the (forlorn) hope of getting some decent pictures. I also loved the classic car/hot rod scene. The stereotypes were sort-of marginal: I didn't see any guns being openly carried but there were plenty of signs restricting entry to various places with guns, so they must be around. Religion is also present but not pervasive, and there wasn't anything like the military-and-flag obsession you see on TV. Austin is pretty liberal though. Finally, I'll just point out that I only had to travel 5300 miles to watch a Stoke City match on free-to-air TV…at 7.00 a.m.. Thanks, Premier League and Sky!

Was it all worth it? Yes, I think so. I learned a lot, engaged with ideas and subjects outside my usual field, and joined in some interesting debates, while having a few days in a totally different culture. But next time it's going to be somewhere I can reach by train and boat!

Some of my favourite photos. The rest are here

Texas State Capitol

Sunset over Lake Travis





Lake Travis again







Release the bats!



Friday, 31 March 2017

Texas Fever!

Next week I'm off to Texas to deliver a conference paper on Lewis Jones and the move away from explicit political engagement in post-1940 anglophone Welsh literature. No, I don't think talking about a Communist activist with a conviction for sedition will go down badly in the US. Why do you ask?

Anyway, cue Orange Juice, The Day I Went Down To Texas from their wonderful album Texas Fever.



A number of things make me think twice about this trip: flying per se, the sheer amount of carbon being burned, the Views I have about certain political developments in the US. The major stumbling block, however, is my university's website.

I'm going to a country whose healthcare system means that if I break a nail, I'll get a bill equivalent to my shoe allowance for the next decade. I need insurance. That's OK though, it's a work trip, so I'm covered. All I need is a form from the website.

1. Access university website. Search for insurance. No results.
2. Go to finance website. Click 'download insurance form' after clicking through four pages.
3. Error: 404. Cheery message: 'we're working on it'.
4. Phone Finance. Get passed on to someone 'who might know what to do'.
5. She does. She explains that the download doesn't work because we have a new insurer. Yes, the new one isn't mentioned on the website and yes, the old one still is, but hey.
6. Receive link to new provider's page. Fill it in, receive insurance certificate. Excellent. Covered.
7. Receive further email: actually I should only have filled in the old company's form on the website. Return to stage 3.
8. Email helpful person this and explain that I did get a certificate from the second company.
9. Receive one-word reply.

Am I insured? Who knows? This, mark you, is a year or so after an enormously expensive rebuilding of the university's website. Still it gives me the opportunity to reproduce this evergreen XKCD cartoon, which in hindsight looks relatively mild.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A letter from the Giant Vampire Squid (revisited)

This morning I received a letter asking me to promote an 'internship programme' to my students. It turned out to be a very expensive training course. I thought you might like to see the exchange. I rarely send rude letters to individuals but felt that it was merited on this occasion.

Dear Dr [Vole],
I am reaching out to deans, directors and faculty to raise awareness
of City Internships and our Global Explorer Program.
City Internships (CI) provides immersive experiential education
programs for university students and recent graduates.

Our Global Explorer Program centres around an internship placement
with a leading company, accompanied by a comprehensive series
classes, workshops and networking events optimised to enhance a
student's commercial awareness and employability.

More than 65% of CI alumni go on to accept permanent graduate
positions with their host company. Moreover, our annual Student
Outcomes survey shows that CI alumni gain employment 3 times more
quickly and earn 30% than their peers immediately after university.
If you feel the Global Explorer Program would be of interest to your
students, please invite them to apply via:
www.city-internships.com/apply
The program may be attended by undergraduate students (including
seniors). And students may choose a program in one of 12 cities
globally, with an internship in one of 9 career fields.
Please note that places are allocated on a first-come, first-served
basis. For Summer 2017, places remain on our following programs only:
London, New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Miami and San
Francisco.
And in return:
Dear Mr XXXXX,
I have now taken a closer look at the programme you asked me to circulate amongst my students. My initial assumption was that it was a charitable enterprise designed to widen opportunities for students largely excluded from the ‘milk round’ that tends to hire privileged white people from supposedly élite universities (and which so effortlessly led to global economic meltdown in 2008).

On closer inspection, I realise that CI is a commercial venture designed to extract large sums of money from rich parents concerned that their already-privileged offspring might not get into their chosen fields despite all the research that suggests they will. It is, in fact, designed to prey upon the insecurities of the bourgeoisie while further entrenching inequality.

My students – and their parents – do not have the enormous sums of money required to join your programme, let alone the resources to allow them to live in a major city for several weeks without an income. They have taken on enormous amounts of debt simply to attend university because government prefers them to cough up rather than ensuring that the corporate sector pays a fair share of taxes. No doubt some of them would like to take up careers in the City, but I cannot in all conscience promote your scheme to them.

I’m sorry to say that your company is part of the economic and social problem.

It's true: I'm sure some of my students would like to work in the City, and have the skills required. They simply lack the social and cultural capital that plays such a huge role in binding together the 1%. If you're in the financial and allied sectors and would like to offer genuine opportunities to them, get in touch. If you're just flogging moonshine to the terrified, feel free not to.

UPDATE: I've had a substantial reply from the CI founder: its tone is as snarky as this post, but I'm pleased by the engagement. I've learned some things, but there are also some aspects that remain unaddressed or evaded. 
Hello [Vole],

Your assertion that CI is a commercial enterprise is correct. (Though you should recognise your initial assumption to the contrary, which seems to have encouraged your seemingly swift and improperly informed conclusion, was your own doing. It is not stated nor implied in my communication or any other material that CI is charity.)
Fair enough. 
Your broader assertion that CI is "designed" to extract large sums of money from wealthy parents, prey upon their insecurities and entrench inequality, however, isn't correct.
It's definitely 'designed' as a capitalist enterprise: the interpretation is indeed mine and my correspondent can be forgiven for disagreeing with my inferences. 
Firstly, your assertion implies a malicious intent that simply isn't there (certainly no more so than the University of [x], or any other 'traditional' or 'accelerated' education provider's, intent to extract large sums of money from parents, prey on their insecurities, etc.).
I do think it's malicious, it's true. No more so than many capitalist enterprises but because it's couched in the language of empowerment and education, it particularly got to me.  I do think that there's a qualitative difference between accredited institutions of higher education and these kinds of expensive training courses. He is right of course to point out that my university charges students large sums of money. The conclusions he and I draw from this are entirely different, however. I marched, lobbied and campaigned against the introduction – and subsequent increases – in tuition fees as ideologically wrong, socially damaging and financially flawed. Everything I've seen in the 25 years since I graduated from my fee-free first degree has strengthened my conviction that fees are a social evil. Most of my colleagues will agree. The conclusion that he draws is that we're now all colleagues in the HE 'business'. 
Secondly, your use of "on closer inspection" intimates you've sought additional information to validate your assertion.

A closer inspection of CI's student demographic data, for instance, would have in fact shown CI isn't the preserve of wealthy families. (Since CI's formation in 2011, a little under two-thirds CI alumni have completed a program with some form of financial aid.
OK. This information isn't available to me.  The FAQs list the courses as costing $4450, $4650 and $7150 with the option of adding 8 weeks' accommodation 'from' $3600. There is 'a portion of CI students enjoy some form of financial assistance' so it's good to hear that so many have had some aid, though detail would be appreciated.
Similarly, a cursory appreciation of CI's operating model, would have conveyed we've been deliberate and candid in structuring our business to ensure a large proportion of our funding is derived from employers. And, moreover, to ensure our interests are inextricably aligned with the interests of the students we serve.
For your information, CI's program tuition fees are cost-based. Meaning CI is not designed to be funded solely - or even fully - by them.
A significant sum of CI's funding comes from fees charged to employers that convert interns, hosted by the employer as part of a CI program, to permanent graduate employees.

We do well when our students do well. Further, our tuition rebate initiative exists to return a large portion of those fees collected from the employer to the student in the event of a permanent hire too.

The merits of this model should be readily discernible. Yes, like traditional educators, CI collects tuition fees in exchange for an education designed to enhance a student's prospects. Yet, unlike traditional educators, CI goes a few steps further in actively tying its success to student and employer outcomes.
 

Not sure that addresses my critique of its operating model: that one has to have an enormous amount of ready cash to access the system. Nor does the final swipe at 'traditional educators' really stack up. Certainly I feel that the education I provide does more than enhance a student's financial or employment prospects: I hope they get the jobs they desire, but it's about so much more: intellectual and spiritual enrichment, a sophisticated understanding of social structures and behaviours, cultural enlightenment. 
Disappointingly, your blunt assertion suggests you've not taken even a moment to discover or consider the facts above.

It also suggests you've not taken a moment to consider the narrow-mindedness - hypocrisy, even - of your assertion. On learning that an organisation collects tuition fees in exchange for providing an experience designed to enhance a student's prospects, your knee jerk reaction is to level accusations of preying on insecurities and entrenching inequality... meanwhile... you occupy a position at an organisation that collects tuition fees in exchange for providing an experience designed to enhance a student's prospects.
Ah. I'm a hypocrite for taking a job in the only HE system available to me. As I may have mentioned in passing above, I reluctantly operate within a system I oppose on multiple grounds. I do not spot a gap in the market.
I thought I'd try to close by identifying some possible common ground.... We do seem to be in agreement that students take on, "a large amount of debt to simply to attend university". Do you agree there is such a thing as 'good debt'?
Not in relation to education, no. And I can't help thinking that a global economy that depended on private debt (hence the 'credit crunch') isn't a wonderful model.
(Your employer does, by the way)
Yes, it does:
Tuition fees are a reality and they do have to be paid. This means “student debt” in most cases, is an unavoidable fact, but if managed correctly, student debt is what we call “good debt” and very different from the usual dealings with commercial debt. Rather than telling students to avoid debt, we should be educating them on how best to manage their money and avoid getting into bad debt.
I have no idea whether 'good debt' is a technical economic term, but paragraphs like those above are one of the reasons I fall out with my employer on a regular basis, and why I tend not to identify myself or it on my blog (though I detect a certain sympathy for the unfortunate fee-ridden student). It avoids unpleasantness to all concerned. It's true, however, that however pernicious student finance is in the UK, interest rates are lower than commercial loans and repayment schemes are predicated on earnings: you don't pay if you earn very little and your remaining debt is wiped out after a certain period. CI's fees can be paid 'up front' if you have several thousands of dollars available; monthly at a 5% service charge or 'later' for a 7.5% charge (plus of course the interest charged if you have to borrow the cash from somewhere).  CI is therefore what my employer calls 'commercial' or 'bad' debt.
If so, perhaps we can agree that efforts to ensure the debt taken on by students yields a positive return (from a financial and educational standpoint) are a good thing?
No, absolutely not. I believe that education is a public good which deserves public support, and that acquiring further debt to jump the employment queue entrenches inequality.
And, by extension, perhaps we can even agree that efforts by organisations such as CI to help bridge the evident gap between educators and employers and the oft discussed 'skills gap' shouldn't be so quickly and thoughtlessly dismissed?
Not thoughtlessly, perhaps, but the fact remains that the skills gap isn't 'evident'. Most of my students work long hours: too long in many cases, usually to reduce their exposure to debt. I'm aware that employers anecdotally talk about new employees lacking immediate skills, but I'm also aware that thousands of employers avoid paying their taxes – thus weakening the education system – and that some employers are none too clear about what the 'gap' consists of. I'm also aware that financial corporations have a terrible reputation for hiring people like them, i.e. predominantly male, middle-class and white. Private training schemes don't address this at all.
I'd like to refer you to a noteworthy study on the subject, though I'm sorry to report it was conducted by a... commercial enterprise. I any case, it identified that while 70% of educators feel graduates are well prepared for work, fewer than 50% of employers and young people agreed.
Sadly my correspondent doesn't refer me to the study so I can't examine it. But for the sake of argument, I'll accept it.
At a time when graduate un- and under-employment rates are high - while student debt is rising in the face of higher tuition fees - and companies report unfilled graduate job vacancies, I'd be surprised to learn or any educator that isn't acutely aware of the dislocation between the skills universities teach and the skills employers need.
We can always do more: my place runs employability training and events. But it also has a 96% employment or further study rate six months after graduation, which is pretty amazing given it's in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. However, I can't help noticing that one thing is avoided: the structural nature of graduate un- and underemployment. People can beg, borrow or steal to buy their way into internships (and let's leave aside the problems with internships raised by organisations like Intern Aware) but I worry about the individualistic implication that if you can't find a job in the city, it's largely your fault. Never mind the demographic skew in the field: it is simply a fact that there are wider forces at work. I recently participated in hiring a new colleague. We received an enormous number of applications from people who were mostly over-qualified. Great as an employer, but bad news for a generation of highly-able, high-achieving people who have been failed by a system. There are a number of structural challenges which I don't feel are addressed by pay-to-play schemes of any sort, and this response doesn't address them.

However, I'll leave the last word to my interlocutor, because I don't want to seem closed-minded, and because I'm genuinely pleased that he engaged in further correspondence.
I note your suggestion that commercial organisations paying their fair share was your idea of a solution. Corporation tax rises may not be around the corner and, even if they were, the funds could help funnel more students into university but you'd still be left with the problem of what happens to them on their way out.

The study I mentioned concludes that the most successful attempts to resolve the dislocation between education and employment were ones that brought educators into the world or work and employers into the classroom. (The study, by the way, was conducted by McKinsey & Company's excellent Social Sector division.

Its clearly a complex problem. Slating commercial enterprises entering the education-to-employment fray as "giant vampire squids" feels lazy to me. Moreover, I'd suggest anyone who fails to recognise that education providers, employers and students are part of the same system, is part of the problem.

To that end, if you're sincerely interested in a constructive, fact-based conversation I am always happy to discuss - and defend - CI and other noteworthy initiatives.

I have no interest in creating an opportunity to be misinterpreted or misrepresented on your blog or social media channels. But, if you would like to speak further I am based in CI's Los Angeles office and readily contactable on xxxxxxxxxxx during local office hours.

Regards,

XXXXX

p.s. One of your followers unwittingly, I suspect, misquoted the 65% statistic quoted in my original message. For clarity, that figure refers exclusively to the proportion of CI alumni hired as graduates directly by their CI program host company. Of the remaining 35%, all bar 3% are hired within 3 months of graduation. (Almost the same highly respectable 97% figure reported, I believe, by the University of X's student outcomes survey too. With the exception that X's figure is derived 6, rather than 3, months after graduation and includes graduates who've re-entered higher education.)

The 30% earnings premium enjoyed by CI alumni versus their peers represents all alumni, regardless of whether they were hired by their CI program host company or another employer. I wasn't able to find comparable figures showing X's graduate starting salaries. Perhaps you are able to share your own past students' outcomes?

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Down in the stacks

I've been so ridiculously busy recently that I haven't really had time for blogging, and when I have it's been addressing Big Issues in a rather sharp tone of voice. Lots of readers (thanks everyone), but it's time to bore again with dispatches from my habitual mundane existence.

Actually it hasn't been entirely mundane: teaching at the moment is a joy, for which thanks are due to my students and colleagues. I'm running a drama module for first years which is meant to put plays into their theatrical context. We're doing it in a proper theatre, and it's co-taught by the director-producer-actor-manager who runs the place, so we examine texts and then look at the challenges and opportunities of staging them. Students have done some acting exercises (more to come), we'll do some technical things, and we dumped three professional actors in front of them so that the students could direct a scene until they were happy with it. Scary stuff for a new university student, but they've done fantastic work. One day I'd like the assignment to be a performance, but it's early days… The plays we've looked at have been challenging too: Pinter's The Birthday Party, Beckett's Breath (full performance below), A View from the Bridge, MacbethJerusalem and for the last remaining weeks, we're looking at Jennifer Hailey's The Nether.



Breath was chosen because it's so completely outside the kind of theatrical experience young students have had: it has no actors, no dialogue and lasts less than a minute. I'm a fan of creative defamiliarisation. Jerusalem is fantastic because it's funny, dark, topical, mythical and controversial all together, while The Nether is confrontational: it deals with online child pornography by forcing the audience to consider the nature of reality and performance. There's a debate that emerges from it that links Bakhtin to Baudrillard and asks some very uncomfortable questions about paedophilia and complicity.



It's hard to stage too - one of the things we explore in depth is the range of potential settings and performances available to a theatre company and what audiences want: dreadful acts are perpetrated, usually between the scenes, but the audience has to ask itself whether it really wants to see them. I think the students are enjoying it: it's not like the 'classic' English lecture, my colleagues are very engaging, and the texts are good. They keep coming, anyway. My other main course at the moment is mostly Shakespeare and Milton, so there's an awful lot of theatre in my life right now. I live for the smell of greasepaint, darlings!

Away from work, I've been reading all sorts of things for fun. Lots and lots Margery Allingham's Albert Campion novels: as a 1930s specialist (slightly manqué) I've become very interested in popular genre novels. First it was Dorothy L Sayers, then Allingham and Nicholas Blake (the pen-name of poet C. Day Lewis. Campion started as a parody of Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey (complete with comedy butler/sidekick), and the series swings between satirical, funny and genuinely dark. They're also very strange: The China Governess and Tiger in the Smoke for instance are gripping but also driven less by plot than by character (post-war London is virtually a character itself), and those characters are often opaque. Perhaps it's the distance between then and now but even as a 30s buff I find myself alienated or excluded by the narratorial interventions and observations: people behave in strange ways and it's hard to tell whether the contemporary audience was assumed to intuit beliefs/perspectives/responses easily or not. They're disconcerting in a fascinating way. Like Sayers et al.,, there's the additional challenge that they reflect middle-class attitudes of the time, particularly casual and fairly liberal anti-semitism with occasional dashes of other forms of racism. Difficult to read, but fascinating from a cultural studies perspective.

I've also just finished Joanna Russ's The Female Man which I wish I'd read decades ago. I know and adore her How To Suppress Women's Writing but this novel is a mind-spinning semi-science fiction feminist/queer classic. Outspoken, cutting and funny.

In almost complete contrast, I also hugely enjoyed Richard Power's The Hungry Grass, recently republished after disappearing since the author's early death in the 1970s. It follows a lonely, conflicted rural Irish priest around his parish in the last few weeks of his life as he struggles with the legacy of his family, the nature of his vocation (or lack of it), his parishioners, a changing Ireland and the small p politics of being a priest. It's being marketed as resembling John Williams's slow-burning novel of masculine failure Stoner, and that's fair. It's elegiac without being hagiographical; sad and moving without being sentimental, deeply rooted in Ireland and above all, profoundly serious. You couldn't write this stuff now because the priesthood and the Church have been so damaged in the intervening years: the protagonist is a personal and moral failure in many ways, but they're quieter ways: he's no paedophile, and there's no plot of this sort to artificially add drama. (Also in complete contrast, I've been buying more Austeniana thanks to a student's enthusiasm for the stuff: I've just acquired two Jane Austen Choose Your Own Adventure books. They're a hoot – and culturally significant, obvs).

I also read Alastair Reynolds's Chasm City after reading a paper that reckoned it's a Welsh novel despite being set millions of light years away. If I can remember the article I'll link to it because it's very convincing. A colleague recommended Genevieve Cogman's steampunk/sf The Invisible Library which was good fun too. Talking of library-themed books, Jenn Swann Downey sent me her book The Ninja Librarians: Sword in the Stacks which was very funny and a good fast-paced adventure. If you have clever children, they'll love it. I liked Sidney Padua's graphic novel/cartoon The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage an awful lot: I've followed their progress online and was very pleased to finally see it in book form. It's got Science and Puns and a Pipe-Smoking Mathematician Who Overcame Being Byron's Daughter To Invent Software And Computer Programming (this bit is true) and Solve Crime With The Inventor of Computer Hardware) I also read a couple of Philip Kerr's The Pale Criminal for their interwar atmosphere: I liked them and admired the way he generated atmosphere, but not enough to commit to what is now a substantial series. They're similar to SS-GB: compromised but honest private detective struggling to achieve justice while getting by in Nazi-controlled Berlin. Quite a change from the Kant I'm reading struggling with at work… Oh yes, and I very much liked Julian Rathbone's 1984 satire of Conservative/conservative Britain: Nasty, Very. It is. And still very relevant. Related to Jonathan Coe but angrier.

That's all I've read in the last few weeks aside from teaching texts (and memos) but it's been interesting. I haven't read anything truly terrible for a while, other than Fifty Shades of Grey (I'm supervising a PhD on fan fiction) and a series of erotic fan fictions (for a journal piece on neoliberalism and culture). Some were disturbing but well written. Some were disturbing and badly written. People: stop thinking about your cats like that. Ugh.

Toodle-pip.