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.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends

Yes, I've deliberately chosen a bit of British propaganda to headline this piece because fresh from my analysis of that Communist Academics Should Be Vilely Murdered 'report' from last week, I'm perhaps foolishly going to have a look at That Melanie Phillips Piece despite having strong reservations about a) paying her any attention and b) engaging with The Stupid.

Henry V conjured up a vision of the noble English leading the emotional, talkative, foolhardy and stupid Scots, Welsh and Irish into battle against the Perfidious French in an attempt to keep the French English. It's a great play but it's politics are, shall we say, slightly troubling.

Not, however, as troubling as the fact that a woman with both a Radio Four gig and a column in what used to be the paper of record thinks that Britain is a stable and discrete nation whereas certain others, well, aren't. Many of my leftwing friends are vehemently anti-nationalist, for very good reasons. They feel that nationalism is an ethnocentric trick designed to divide and distract the global working class. I have a lot of sympathy for this view, but I also think that colonised, invaded and appropriated nations have the right to self-determination. A blanket ban on nationalism means that Ireland, for instance, shouldn't have freed itself from Britain, and that the Welsh should have accepted their language being banned by the British state. I think it's perfectly possible to mourn the reactionary nature of post-1922 Ireland and support independence, while accepting the argument in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities that nationalism is the product of advanced industrial imperialist conditions.

Which brings me to Mel. Mel, Mel, Mel.
The most troublesome bits of the United Kingdom are once again showing signs of disuniting.
I'm not sure 'bits' can internally disunite. Unless she means 'from England', which a) instantiates a hierarchy I'm not sure I like and b) implies that England is both untroublesome and united. But no matter: let's carry on.
Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants.
English nationalism, by inference, isn't rooted in romanticism and myth AT ALL. It's just a fact that the people who happen to live in one chunk of the biggest island have sound good sense while their neighbours have invented their identities from fantasies about porridge, harps and hating the English (for no good reason, obviously). The English don't hate anyone.


Weirdly, Mel is one of the few people capable of holding three contradictory opinions at once:
Nevertheless, the genie of national identity is now out of the bottle. Trans-nationalism, or the drive to erode the autonomy of nations, has been stopped in its tracks by British voters.
OK… Scotland and Ireland aren't real nations (Wales doesn't get a look-in). Britain is a nation. Europe is trans-national. Britain isn't. National autonomy is good. Except when Ireland and Scotland want it. Carry on, Mel!
Brexit expresses the desire for independent self-government by a sovereign state based on the history, institutions and cultural ties that constitute a nation. Great Britain, though, is a confederation of three ancient nations: England, Wales and Scotland. The UK is a super-confederation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Obviously this bit is a farrago (a Farago?) of nonsense. Nowhere is there a rule-book which determines what make a state. 'History' covers everything from hugs all round to generations of fratricidal warfare. Does she think that every African state carved up by the British for their own convenience is or isn't a state? What are 'cultural ties'? Does the 1536 proscription on the Welsh language count as a cultural tie? Or Offa's Dyke? Where do the Reformation, the very different Scottish Reformation and Anglicanism come in to this? Why is she so keen on one 'super-confederation', the UK, but not a rather less invadey-happy one, the EU?

Mel's not stupid. She's read – or read about – Anderson and co:
The historians Linda Colley and Benedict Anderson famously declared the nation to be no more than an artificial construct or “imagined community.” In this post-modern formulation, the nation could therefore arbitrarily be either declared or dissolved. The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.
Not sure what she's objecting to, really. Isn't the United States of America a state which was 'declared'? Haven't states been dissolved multiple times? Think of when Poland stretched to Lithuania, Burgundy was a state and the Netherlands were a Spanish possession. Was Rhodesia a state 'solidly rooted in a group of people united by…ethnicity, history, institutions, culture'? It very much depends on whom you ask and whom you don't.
Englishness, however, came to stand proxy for all the communities of the British Isles. Even Edmund Burke, although a loyal Irishman, wrote of himself as an Englishman rather than describing himself as British.
Did it? I know an awful lot of English people say 'England' when they mean Britain, but if Mel would care to visit Limerick, Aberdeen or Llandrindod Wells, she might find herself in a minority. Citing Burke is little more than an anecdote. I find it hard to be amazed or persuaded by the fact that an Establishment figure descended from a colonialism nation's overlords, who moved to London at 21, adopted the definitions handed to him by centuries of imperialist rhetoric.
The Scots developed over time the characteristics of a nation: a distinct language, religion, legal system and so on.
In actual fact, these islands had multiple languages, overlapping and feeding into each other. Norse, Danish, variants of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and the version that became Gaelic, Pictish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Romani, Norman French (spoken by the toffs in England and by their cousins in the Scottish aristocracy) and probably more that I've forgotten. Mel appears to forget too that there have been changing and co-existing religious beliefs in Scotland, and that Scotland was multiple states too.

At this point Mel's piece degenerates into a series of micro-points with little logic.
Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation.
Take that, Switzerland!
Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.
Never mind that Wales was in fact a number of polities occasionally and briefly unified; that its languages are rather more than 'residual' – millions people speaking Welsh at work, at play, on TV and in bed = 'residual'? – and that for many Welsh people there's more to being a nation than a legal system.
The Unionists hate this being said but they are not British. They’re the bit that got tacked on to Great Britain to make the UK.
Coming from the nationalist tradition I'm tempted to cheer Mel on at this point, but my better nature prevails: there's more to the unionist and presbyterian cultures than this, for good or ill, and all I can say is: with friends like this… This is all the thanks those unionists get for waving Israeli flags at Northern Ireland football matches. I suppose what Mel actually means is that the Northern Ireland unionists aren't English, which is what matters.
Does that mean Westminster should tear up the Good Friday agreement and bid farewell to Northern Ireland? No, because it has an obligation to the Unionists; and because the claim to unite Ireland is tenuous since Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922.
Ah! There's a time limit. A state has to be hallowed by centuries. It's a shame Mel hasn't stopped to think that the Israel she defends so doughtily is rather younger, nor that as Ireland seceded (to some extent) in 1922, the current British state is exactly the same age. Surely she should at this point accept that Deheubarth, Bernicia, Armorica and Gaul have greater claims to their territories because, well, age.

However, this is all in the manner of an amuse-bouche compared to the next paragraph, which is a humdinger.
Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.
Seriously? All that education and it comes to this? She's abandoned all the guff about culture and language and institutions and invented the claim that there was an island nation. When? Let's just review a few of the polities that existed on these islands:
Alt Clut.
Dal Riada
Bernicia
Northumbria
Mercia
Deheubarth
Gwynedd
East Anglia
Essex
Kent
Wessex
Mercia
Sussex
Brittania
Deira
Lindsey
Hwicce
Maegonsaete
Rheged
Manaw Gododdin
Powys
Dyfed
the Danelaw
Brycheiniog
Glywysing
Gwent
Ceredigion
Dyfed
Orkney
Shetland
Western Isles
Alba
Scotia
Man

plus of course the multiple realms of Ireland. And of course they spoke a number of languages (often multilingually) and practised a range of religions and within those religions, a number of denominations. But still, 'Britain' is a 'unitary nation', and not only that, it's 'authentic', the meaning of which entirely defeats me. As to secession: from what? What was this authentic original state from which 'tribes' tried to secede? As far as I can see, people speaking Celtic languages were pushed from what's now England into Wales by various Germanic types, Pictish people were assimilated by incoming Irish and Scandinavians, while 'England' gradually formed through the assimilation of the inhabitants into the dominant new culture. The Norse, Danes and Normans turned up at various points and languages, cultures and concepts of belonging changed and changed about.

What's interesting about Mel's piece is her total inability to address the the resurgence of English nationalism, despite her piece being a manifestation of the old and familiar English supremacy. England is so obviously equivalent to Britain that it apparently needs no interrogation: it's only when the fringe natives start bleating in the rain that she gets worried.

And so we conclude:
Britain is a nation with the right to rule itself. It is the EU which is the artificial construct, the imagined community that falsely claims for itself the hollow appurtenances of a nation. The EU therefore has no prior claim on its constituent nations which are under no obligation to remain. By contrast, the United Kingdom is a nation which is governed in accordance with its name. Scotland has no right to rip it asunder if it wants to secede from the Union (which in any event is highly doubtful).
Faced with the contemporary resurgence of regional or tribal uprisings, it’s the ancient British Isles that must hold itself together to take its place once again as a sovereign nation in the wider world.
Mel's the Goldilocks of Nationalism. She tasted a spoonful of Europe but it was Too Big. Then she tried a spoonful of Scotland, but that was Too Small. But the British bowl was Just Right. It's like a form of magic. Some states are 'real' and others aren't. It's hard to tell what the determining factor is because Mel provides a list which she then won't look carefully at. As far as I can see, contemporary Britain is a multicultural-cultural state with a rich, varied and not altogether cuddly history. It has multiple origins and survives by adapting to the political climate. Bits have been welded on and bits have been detached. People have moved around and people have been moved around. Languages have been introduced and languages have been killed. Religions have evolved, split, merged and adapted. Borders have moved, states have appeared and disappeared. Blood has been shed. None of this is inevitable, destined, immanent, justified, divinely sanctioned or – per se – Right. There are reasons for all of this but explanations aren't definitions.

To my eyes, all polities are temporary coalescences of interests. Some of them are economic, some geographical, some racial, some religious, some political. There are probably other bases for forming a nation. Some of these horrify me, particularly the concept of a nation based on perceived racial coherence. But none of them are any more or less arbitrary than the announcement that Britain is special while Europe, Scotland, Wales and Ireland are – somehow – unreal.

Update: those wonderful Sheffield University historians have blogged about Mel's article in a much more considered way than me. Mel has replied in a way that makes it clear (to her) that she is the winner. To the rest of us, it looks very much like a hole construction has been restarted when activity should perhaps have ceased. I particularly like this bit:
Your assertion that no political nation of Britain existed before the union of England and Scotland is absurd, and your claim that ancient Britain was not a “nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas” is itself inaccurate and ridiculous.
The Romans conquered a discrete country called Britannia.
Wasn't it lucky for the Romans that they happened to conquer a ready-made country which already bore a Latin name? How very convenient!*

*Alternatively:
a) perhaps historical accounts are partial and inflected by the authors' experiences and perspectives? You don't ask a Labour Party member or a snooker player what defines socialism or long-pot strategy and leave it at that. Seriously, I shouldn't have to make such a basic point to someone so prominent.
b) maybe the Romans conquered a geographical area which was occupied by several competing polities which may have shared languages and beliefs but didn't operate as a 'country', and then constructed a form of state which they called Britannia, but whose borders changed fairly frequently, and whose inhabitants were not entirely on board with the re-branding. The British state tried to rename Scotland 'North Britain' and Ireland 'West Britain'. You won't find many Scots or Irish using those terms.

Friday, 3 March 2017

A Lefty Academic Writes Leftily About Leftwing Groupthink.

If you read or listen to the rightwing media, by which I mean BBC Radio 4's Today show, the Times, the Mail and a range of other grubby outfits, you'll have heard about some research by one Noah Carl (currently studying for a PhD in sociology at Oxford) that reveals that universities are packed with left wingers.  

 Although I have a very busy schedule of indoctrination and brainwashing to get through today, I thought I'd have a look at this report to see whether it stands up to the kind of scrutiny everything I publish has to undergo, even when it doesn't get the attention of major news outlets. If you're interested in methodology, stick around. 

Firstly, the report is called 'Lackademia', though the URL is a little more blunt: it reads 'Left Wing Bias Paper'. Now this hurts, because some years ago I coined the term 'slackademics' to satirise the view that we teach for six weeks a year before bunking off to Siena or somewhere equally agreeable, where we quaff wine in-between organising attacks on Truth or Objectivity. I meant it as a joke, but unless the Adam Smith Institute (for it is they) are making a clever reference to Lacan's theory of desire being fuelled by a lack of being, then it looks like this thing is snide from the off. 

Who are the Adam Smith Institute? Well, it's a very, very rich think-tank funded by nobody knows whom because they won't tell us (though off the top of my head I'd guess: the Koch brothers, mining, pharmaceuticals, weapons, oil and tobacco firms). They dedicate themselves to campaigning against all government and regulations, believing that the state's only roles should be a) nuking foreigners and b) persecuting trades unionists. Sorry, they do have another role: to ensure that the actual Adam Smith spins perpetually in his grave as the Institute continues to abuse his name and ideas by wilfully distorting and extrapolating beyond anything he'd recognise as his own. 

Anyway… the ASI reckons that universities are stuffed with leftists and they want to know why. I must assume that this is the first in a series of papers, perhaps including 'Why Are So Many Bankers Rightwing?' and 'Why Are Conservatives Over-Represented In The Arms Trade?', though I may be being over-optimistic. For those of you too busy to trawl through the whole thing, the Executive Summary is probably enough: 


  • Individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia. 
  • Though relatively little information is available, evidence suggests that the overrepresentation of left-liberal views has increased since the 1960s. The proportion of academics who support the Conservatives may have declined by as much as 25 percentage points since 1964.
  • The left-liberal skew of British academia cannot be primarily explained by intelligence. The distribution of party support within the top 5% of IQ is relatively similar to the distribution of party support within the general population.
  • The left-liberal skew may be partly explained by openness to experience; individuals who score highly on that personality trait tend to pursue intellectually stimulating careers like academia. And within the top 5% of IQ, openness to experience predicts support for left-wing parties.
  • Other plausible explanations for left-liberal overrepresentation include: social homophily and political typing; individual conformity; status inconsistency; and discrimination.
  • Ideological homogeneity within the academy may have had a number of adverse consequences: systematic biases in scholarship; curtailments of free speech on university campuses; and defunding of academic research by right-wing governments. 
  • Recommendations include: raising awareness; being alert to double standards; encouraging adversarial collaborations; and emphasizing the benefits of ideological heterogeneity within the academy. 
I quite like a report that admits at the very start of a sentence that 'relatively little information is available' then leaves merely a comma before using the phrase 'evidence suggests…'. Point 2 depends on Intelligence Quotient scores, as though IQ isn't thoroughly discredited as anything other than a measure of how people perform on IQ tests: Nisbett's Intelligence and How To Get It is pretty persuasive on how IQ is a function of various silent and/or unconscious social assumptions about what constitutes intelligence. I always did very badly on IQ tests, and also struggle with doors bearing PUSH and PULL stickers, yet here I am with my PhD, managing to string a sentence together. 

Now I have to say that I like the implication of points 2 and 3: that leftwing academics are simply more intelligent and outward-looking than those on the right. Sadly though, it's nonsense. The use of political parties as a proxy for 'conservative' and 'liberal-left' doesn't really work: there are some very-close-minded Stalinists identifying themselves with the left and some very open-minded conservatives (or so I hear: I don't get invited to those kinds of social events). But what's important is that the ASI is worried about campuses producing generations of leftwing graduates and academics who never hear or espouse a rightwing view. Which is funny because virtually every politician did the same course (PPE, Oxford) and there's no shortage of conservatives on any campus. What ASI have done is guess that they're all teaching humanities and decided to focus on that. Then it's a short step to deciding that all these lefties are throttling 'free speech'. 

OK, that's the executive summary: the version that the newspapers and R4 picked up because it makes a good headline. That's what Adam Smith Institute want. But I'm going to spoil their fun by reading the whole thing. First impressions: it's like a bought essay of the kind I'm all too familiar with. It's nicely proof-read and fluently written. There are even footnotes to make it look like real research, but there's a major gap between assertions and evidence. 

It starts with Orwell's attack on the 1930s' left's lack of patriotism (wow, a real 'hot take') and quotations from the Telegraph, the Spectator (James Delingpole, no less) and the Daily Mail bemoaning the leftist bias in universities: “Universities have become breeding grounds for intolerance where anyone challenging left-wing views is ‘shouted down’”. Let's just take a moment to remind ourselves that even Wikipedia has banned the Daily Mail as a reliable source. This is not a great beginning: I once read a student essay which took its definition of socialism from the BNP's website. It feels familiar. 

There's a quick definition of what 'left' and 'right' mean which is largely OK, before we're plunged into the 'evidence' for leftwing overrepresentation. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. 

Relatively little good evidence is available on the political views of British academics. Nonetheless, that which are available point to a sizable left-liberal skew. In April of 2015, the Times Higher Education (THE) ran an online poll open to anyone with a UK university email address, which asked respondents whom they intended to vote for in the upcoming election
That's not great: the 2015 poll was therefore open to all students and staff. It was, as this report fairly notes, 'self-selecting'. However, they continue to use it as evidence, despite admitting in the methodological appendix that 'The question posed by the THE poll (2015) was not stated explicitly in the write-up'. So: the Institute report relies on a self-selecting newspaper poll without being able to say for certain what the question was, and worse, what the response rate was in percentage terms or raw numbers. We learn that 46% of the respondents (probably) said they'd vote Labour but we don't know whether 50,000 people replied or 5. This is backed up by a paper by Halsey from…1992, which even the authors admit isn't an unproblematic thing to do:

Insofar as the question posed by Halsey (1992) was different to the one posed by the THE poll (2015), the two sets of figures are not directly comparable. 
Nonetheless, this paper decides that if there is a flaw with the THES poll, it's that
utilising the overall percentages understates the academy’s left-liberal skew 
for reasons which remain obscure to me. But for them it's fine: it gives them enough ammunition to confidently claim that
Relative to the outcome of the last general election then, British academia shows a considerable left-liberal skew. At least 50% of the general public voted for right- wing or conservative parties in 2015, compared to less than 12% of academics. 
Then the paper says this:
Interestingly, and consistent with evidence from the United States (Carl 2015b), left-liberal overrepresentation varies systematically across subject areas: the percentage of respondents supporting the Conservatives was highest in business and law (though still less than 20%), was low in the social sciences (at less than 10%), and was lowest of all in the humanities and arts (at less than 5%).
Now congratulations are due to Carl – who is cited repeatedly here and is, not coincidentally, the author of this piece –  for getting two papers into the same journal in a single year, both examining why intelligent people are leftwing. However, Carl 2015b doesn't have anything to say about British departmental differences in voting intentions, and nor does the THE poll, at least according to what's quoted in this report (and he doesn't give a link, an issue number or a page number). 

What Carl does do here is make a pretty table conflating Halsey's 1964-1989 political analysis with the figures derived from the THES even though he admits that the questions aren't the same (and without admitting that the THES poll isn't statistically significant or available for analysis). 



Are these percentages or raw numbers? Noah doesn't tell us but let's be charitable and assume that they are. He then provides a graph of the same dubious figures which fills up a little space, then repeats Halsey's 1992 table of far-left/left/right/far-right academic identifications without comment, and certainly without wondering whether definitions (and events) have changed anything in the ensuing 25 years. 

Then we reach Section 3: Intelligence As An Explanation for Left-Liberal Overrepresentation. I should say before I plunge in that I'm a literary scholar, rather than a sociologist or a biologist, so some of what follows is derived from other people who are experts. 

Essentially, Carl sets up a straw man by wondering out loud whether academics are leftwing because they're more intelligent. He cites American research as though conclusions about the political cultures of the US can be imported into a British context without question, and again cites himself to prove that while being clever can make you more social liberal, being clever ('cognitive ability') is positively associated with some rightwing economic beliefs. The suggestion appears to be that the cleverest people don't mind gays and dope-smoking as long as neither activity is being taxed. 

But how do we apply all this to Britain?
Unfortunately, there do not appear to have been any surveys of British academics asking about specific policy issues, either economic (e.g., nationalisation of industry) or social (e.g., immigration). 
 Well, we could do some research. Or we could do this: 
I calculated the distribution of party support for individuals within the top 5% of IQ4 , using data from the Understanding Society survey.  
I don't know anything about the Understanding Society survey other than that it seems legitimate and robust. Score one for Noah. I do know, however and as mentioned above, that IQ is a load of cobblers often promoted by rather unpleasant people who have a habit of moving from IQ scores to theories of racial difference, by which they almost always mean superiority. We'll see what happens as 'Lackademia' unfolds. For now though, Noah discovers that there are as many high-IQ Tories as there are in the general population, and slightly fewer Labour supporters. What he concludes is that Tories aren't being excluded from academia because they're stupid, but because they don't hold the right economic views. I'm starting to smell polemic, children. 

After another couple of exceedingly unhelpful graphs, we move on to a discussion of whether conservatives are rare on campus (despite having no serious evidence of this) because they're not open-minded. Carl concludes that Labour and Lib Dem supporters are more likely to be open-minded than Tories, but dismisses the survey's evidence that UKIPpers are more open-minded than Tories as 'sampling error'. Again, his graphs depend heavily on the problematic THE poll for which he lacks the raw figures and the actual questions. 

Section 5 is where it gets interesting. He asks whether conservatives are too incurious and inflexible to thrive in academia, citing himself to point out that mathematics and similar subjects lend themselves to a 'predilection for certainty'. Elsewhere he refers to science being 'objective':
It should be recognised, of course, that all the evidence of bias cited above is from the social sciences; the physical sciences and mathematics do not appear to have been a icted by ideological homogeneity in the same way. This is perhaps not sur- prising, however, given the objective nature of the physical sciences and mathemat- ics, as well as the obvious fact that the social sciences relate directly to the sphere with which politics itself is concerned, namely human behaviour and society.  
which means he's either missed the last century and the development of postmodernism and poststructuralism, or he just doesn't want to talk about them. Or, and this might just be the answer, he mistakes conservative scientific discourses for neutrality. On this point I'll just leave this here: more research is being done and more money is spent on male baldness than on malaria. Now tell me science is immune to social forces. 

There's a vague discussion about self-selection before Carl wonders whether academics are leftwing because they're paid so little: out of jealousy they start to develop levelling tendencies which they think of as egalitarianism. 
Fourth, the left-liberal leanings of academics may derive from a peculiarity of their social-class positions, namely that they receive low incomes relative to their advanced educational attainment and rich cultural capital (Gross, 2013). The closer that society gets to laissez-faire capitalism, the more status, power and in uence will be tied to individuals’ earnings and commercial achievements, and the less academics will earn relative to those in other occupations vying for social in influence (lawyers, doctors, managers etc.). Consequently, academics generally prefer policies that minimise differences in earnings across occupations, the better to safeguard their own influence. 
Is this true? Am I just a bitter purveyor of the politics of envy? There's no evidence, but Noah's just going to leave it there for you to think about. Meanwhile, he's going to selectively use American research to demonstrate that leftist academics discriminate against conservatives in the hiring process (he's not interested in other research about hiring processes, such as racial and gender biases), nor is he going to mention that hiring is largely a function of managers, not academics). 

But don't worry: he's got solid evidence. Well, he's got a paper which found that 82% of the conservative academics surveyed felt that there's a hostile climate for their views. This isn't, obviously, proof of employment discrimination because 100% of the respondents had academic jobs. Still, 82% is a massive number. We should all be Very Concerned Indeed that 82% of conservative academics feel persecuted. 

What's that you say? Raw numbers? Well, if you insist. 
82% of the 17 conservative respondents felt there was a hostile climate towards their political beliefs within the field, compared to just 7% of the 266 liberal respondents. 
So that's 14 conservatives in one particular field – social psychologists – cowering in their offices in fear of their lives. How many of the liberals feel persecuted? Alas, space restrictions don't permit Carl to dwell on it, but then again, nor does the original paper as far as I can make out (though I'm pretty poor on statistical analysis and remain open to correction). Noah does cite a supporting study, but one review suggests that both papers concentrate on the conservative/liberal divide when what the findings actually reveal is that academics are too ready to discriminate against their colleagues across the field. Some of the evidence just doesn't bear the weight of implication. I'm disturbed by this finding:

Similarly, almost a third of the sociologists interviewed by Yancey (2011) stated that they would disfavour hiring a Republican, while a comparable fraction said they would look favorably upon a prospective candidate’s membership of the ACLU (a socially liberally non-profit organization). 
But I'm reassured by the knowledge that the hiring process wouldn't allow any discussion of this to occur. 

If you're still with me, I can only apologise: we're only just getting to the meat of this study, and this is where the amusement I got from picking holes in Noah's paper comes to a juddering halt. I am officially sounding the Jim Crow Klaxon. The next section of Carl's paper addresses the consequences of his unproved claims. It starts unpromisingly with a citation of Roger Scruton back in 1985, just after the Salisbury Review published Honeyford's academically unjustifiable attack off multiculturalism. Scruton thinks that editing the Review led to him being black-balled from academia: he doesn't seem to think that writing an awful lot of its articles under a range of pseudonyms displayed a lack of integrity. But this is mere throat-clearing. The true purpose of Lacakademia becomes clear. It isn't really about the sociological curiosity of imbalanced political views amongst academics. It is about academic rejection of theories of racial superiority. There's a swipe at climate science, then a sustained critique of sociology's use of the term 'white privilege'. 

the term erroneously implies that whites are advantaged relative to all other groups. Whereas in actual fact, Asian Americans are more advantaged than whites along a number of important sociological dimensions: they have higher average incomes, better educational outcomes, and a lower likelihood of crime victimisation. 
This is of course localised and unnuanced, which is no surprise. A white male author from a country governed by a white male billionaire, taking money from an élite, white think-tank in a country ruled by white conservatives is only ever going to claim that he's actually from a persecuted minority. Plus ça change, plus ça meme chose

He then attacks sociologists in particular for their discourse which casts conservative views of society as constricting rather than structured, then castigates them for their 'angry expostulation', which is pretty rich from someone who started his reports with Daily Mail quotations. Economics departments too are up to no good: their text books have too much to say about market failure and too little about government failure (never mind that the global economy was crushed by banking corporate failure). 

And then, dear readers, we are back to the thorny issue of Race. Carl talks of 'witch-hunts' despite the only recent witch-hunt was the terrifying Professor Watchlist in the US, which invited students to add their professors' names to a database of subversives. What it boils down to is this: the sociologists have been nasty to the Eugenicists and Racial Superiority theorists, in particular Charles Murray. E. O. Wilson and Lawrence Summers. Murray used IQ (hello again) to postulate in The Bell Curve that Asians are intellectually superior to whites, with black and Latino people (yes, all these categories are used homogeneously) at the bottom of the heap, because Genetics. Not history, experience, class, economics, racism, poverty. Bad Genes. (As Roger McCarthy pointed out, another reference is to Helmuth Nyborg's outraged (and outrageous) defence of eugenics.

What are the consequences of these nasty close-minded leftwing sociologists (even though Carl's already suggested they're actually more open-minded than conservatives)? Well, it's a dystopian vision of hell:

‘A social science without sacred values’, Winegard and Winegard (2016) go as far to suggest that a substantial number of academic social scientists have become “paranoid egalitarian meliorists”: individuals who espouse a narrative in which society progresses ever closer toward a state of natural equality (between the genders, classes, races etc.), 
Godless social scientists leading us into a state of class, race and gender equality.  The bastards. (And while I'm at it, Winegard and Winegard (2016) is an unpublished working paper, i.e. not peer-reviewed, while the other paper by this duo cited is a rather bitter defence of Evolutionary Psychology against the perception that it's a crank theory indebted to, well, Nazis and anyone who discounts social and environmental factors in favour of biology. Hello again, racial superiority theory. 

After that, it's downhill to the argument that campus homogeneity leads to the end of free speech, because universities have free speech 'codes' and sometimes give 'trigger warnings'. 


On both sides of the Atlantic, lecturers have begun issuing so-called trigger warnings before they discuss potentially upsetting material. Reportedly, law students at the University of Oxford were warned that they might find the content of lectures about sexual offences distressing, and were given the opportunity to leave beforehand (Daily Mail 2016).  

'Reportedly'! This is just embarrassing. UK universities are compelled by government to have rules about these things. I know because I'm a university governor and contributed to writing those rules. The current government equates freedom of speech to Letting Islamic Terrorists Recruit: British universities have done rather well to resist this implication. Personally, I'm in favour of some basic restrictions: the right seems to be arguing that if someone shouts 'Fire', then I check the facts and say 'Don't listen to him, there isn't a fire', I'm an enemy of free speech. As to 'Trigger Warnings: I teach literature. I teach material that represents and explores deeply distressing subjects in graphic ways. I've never once decided not to teach these things, but because I know there are people in the class who have suffered some of the experiences discussed, I make sure we talk about them in a supportive environment. 

However: any paper that uses the word 'reportedly' and relies on the Daily Mail for evidence is a paper that's less interested in what actually happened, and more interested in garnering – as it did – outraged headlines in papers like, well, the Daily Mail. Carl adds to the abject stupidity by citing Spiked Online as evidence for his opposition to no-platforming. If you don't know Spiked, it's an outpost of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, a tiny groupuscule that as Living Marxism accused ITN of faking evidence of Serbian death camps, then devoted itself to publishing pro-industry propaganda under a variety of pseudonyms. It uses a variety of front organisations to propagate a radical libertarian-captialist agenda which opposes government action against, for example, racism, climate change and child pornography. Once you're reduced to citing this disgusting crew as evidence, you're down the rabbit hole and there's no coming back. 
What's missing from any of this is the absence of any contextual analysis. What about universities as institutions, existing within, contributing to and being influenced by neoliberalising discourses? What of the shift in the UK to student fees, to managerial over-reach, to the Employability Agenda? What about diversity between universities and regions? Or about social and cultural factors beyond individual psychology? Nothing. 

Instead, what we have is a nasty attempt to rehabilitate eugenics disguised as a defence of freedom of speech. It's bad enough that Noah Carl was paid to produce this stuff: it's worse that the media didn't spot it. 

One last thing: the Adam Smith Institute's commercial spin-off was in the paper yesterday too: banned from Uk government contracts for, er, corrupt and dishonest practices. Perhaps they need staff from a wider range of ethical positions to prevent this kind of thing happening? Just a thought.