Tuesday, 19 November 2013

We happy few…

As so often these days, I'm in two minds about what to post here. This is the fault of a local journalist who uses anything I say as evidence that academics are detached, arrogant and stupid, and that students are awful in a variety of ways. Your comments also get lifted and reused without acknowledgement either. I wrote to the editor about this but – in the tradition of open journalism – got no reply. 

However, I believe in the free exchange of ideas. I think that the good things that happen here should be shared, as well as the bad things (up to a point). Difficulties in my research, teaching or academic life are likely to be ones others have experienced too, and a problem shared is a problem solved. Or at least commiserated with. So yah boo sucks to the local Rita Skeeters. 

Though at least Rita Skeeter gets out and about before making stuff up. 

And so to today's business. I was recently asked to take over organising our programme of visiting speakers. The idea is that we invite prominent academics in their field to talk about their research – a good way to exchange ideas and get a different perspective on the field. Hopefully they benefit from a different audience too, asking questions and supplying new takes on their work. 

Apart from the endless administration (it took 4 people to organise the expenditure of £16.50 on posters), it's a fun job. I get to consult with colleagues and construct a Fantasy League of guests. Only Grayson Perry's agent hasn't bothered to reply, but to be honest I wasn't expecting that one to come off. Everyone else has been lovely and we have a decent number exciting events lined up (including public ones: Jack Zipes is here on Monday 2nd Dec and Ben Knights is coming in the new year: all welcome).

Today was the first event. We invited Dr Mary-Ann Constantine over from the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies / Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd, a seriously prestigious research-only institution. One of the country's leading multi-disciplinary Romanticists, she gave an amazing lecture on Thomas Pennant's Tour of Scotland and Tour of Wales which had new things to say about authorial practice, intellectual networks, the birth of Welsh nationalism and the foundations of Britishness (as much contested then as now, perhaps even more). I even managed to dredge up a bit of Tacitus which shed light on Pennant's intertextual habits as a little contribution. In short: it was not just interesting, it was important. 

Sadly, it was delivered to three people: me and two colleagues (and we were all wearing corduroy, as an aside), which was both embarrassing and a missed opportunity. Others were ill, looking after the ill, teaching, on sabbatical, away or simply drowning in other duties. It seems like a really obvious thing to say, but the way modern universities are run simply excludes time for intellectual work. It's a long time since Levy was able to respond to the appraisers like this:

It's not that any of the other things we do are bad: I love teaching and I know that committees, meetings and other duties are necessary, though I do feel that some of our work detracts from what we're principally here for and could be done better by others. It's that the mania for targets and quantifiable achievements relentlessly drives out the opportunity for intellectual development. We used to have a staff room, for instance. In there, you'd find yourself sitting next to an economist or an historian and suddenly find that there are shared interests, or that you've read the same critics. From that might be born a module, a paper, or a book. Now we don't have a staff room and it's harder to speak to anyone other than your office colleagues (lovely though they are). 

Tired and coping with everything from REF submissions to requisition forms, it's no wonder that my colleagues have neither the time nor the energy to come to a paper on something outside their immediate field, even though we all know that what generates interesting teaching and research is the unexpected moment of serendipity or recognition. What example are we setting our students when we stress 'employability' yet convey a sense of isolated struggle and heads-down labour even in the relatively humane environment of the university? My colleagues and I need the space and time to hear and discuss other people's ideas to keep us interesting (or in my case, to make me so). 

So excellent as today's visit was, I found it pretty depressing. Nobody sat around thinking 'that's really boring, I won't go', but a large number of people found themselves unable to attend for structural, institutional and cultural reasons which conspired to produce an audience of three.* I just hope the next event is better attended… 

*Which is two more than a lecture I once gave. It was scheduled for the same day the module's final essay was due (not my choice). So 149 of the 150 students skipped it and one, keen on learning something for its own sake, turned up. I offered to cancel, but she wanted the full lecture and that's what she got, in a cavernous hall. Along with my unstinting respect. 


John Canning said...

Sorry to hear so few turned up. I've just had a message that I'm one of just four people signed up to attend a talk and the organisers wanted to check I still wanted to come.

I think you're right in your analysis. We are all talking and writing, but we are not listening, reading and discussing.

Arron Hook said...

I've never understood why if you've taking out a loan to go to university, you'd not go to the lectures.

The Plashing Vole said...

Some people have a customer mentality - they've paid for the certificate and not for the opportunity to test themselves and ideas. You've seen enough people sitting at the back, texting and never speaking in class…