Friday, 15 June 2018

Definitely not another allegory of the week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

You Play The Child Extremely

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 June 2018

A Play for All Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

Despite the sensible interjections of Kent:

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

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

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

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

your disorder'd rabble
Make servants of their betters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For sale: one university. Very, very cheap.

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

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

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

The answer, of course, is money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 May 2018

Inarticulately howling into the void (reprise)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Home…and away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah and Kirsti: Queens of AWWE

Bee off with you

Audience participation in a creative keynote…

More audience participation 


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

Friday, 4 May 2018

Mixed pleasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 27 April 2018

Prizes, professionalism and…something completely different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 April 2018

When HR goes bad…plus some book talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Escape is at hand

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

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

Duty Calls

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

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

Friday, 23 March 2018

Reasons (not) to be cheerful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 March 2018

A Tedious Theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my favourite Joni tracks:

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

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

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