Friday, 29 June 2018

Midsummer madness

Bit of an odd week.
Firstly, let's talk about the weather.
I hate it. I evolved, as far as the genealogy suggests, a waterproof skin perfectly adapted to digging peat from a bog in the rain. I have worked hard to avoid adding to climate change: no car, no children, almost no flights ever (currently averaging one every 6 years, solely for work) and yet people with SUVs, air conditioners, holidays and commuting are burning me to a crisp. As I cycle to and from work I sometimes wonder why even that altruistic act qualifies me for a faceful of poisonous exhaust and abuse simply to make more room for flatulent drivers of flatulent cars.

On the up side of this week, I spent two days in Swansea acting as external examiner for their MA in Welsh Writing in English. It's a good course taught by inspirational people at a university in a park opposite the beach. If there's a league table of Universities With Beaches, Swansea must be near the top, alongside Bangor, Aberystwyth, Bournemouth and (in a few years' time) Cambridge.

On the down side, my colleagues and I all got letters telling us whether or not our jobs are in danger. It's not the declining applications that get to us. Nor do we think that any course has a god-given right to exist. It's being sent inaccurate letters by incompetent people based on untrue calculations by people with no understanding of our subjects, little or (in some cases) no experience of teaching and who have no concern for teaching quality, workload, sustainability, student experience or research. Having failed on a spectacular level to keep the ship afloat, they're throwing us off the side while clinging to the topmost mast, still collecting the bonuses and bellowing orders down at those of us in the water.

Despite my letter congratulating me on moving from a job I haven't had in four years to the job I've been doing for four years (not a surprise: they're also telling me that they haven't lost my pension, only the records relating to my pension), I'm as angry and despondent as my targeted colleagues – what does one say to those in the firing line that's at all meaningful? All the ideologically loaded, statistically-meaningless things we've been bullied into doing – TEF ratings NSS satisfaction, REF outputs that distort actual research – have suddenly and conveniently been dumped in pursuit of short-term gains to protect those in private offices who won't pay any kind of price for their failure. I run a big course and a couple of associated ones. We're down to the bare bones: a small group of utterly brilliant colleagues with no duplication of specialism. Lose some, and we lose not just bodies in classrooms but swathes of expertise needed to meet the subject benchmarks.

Needless to say, when my colleagues are fired, the survivors' workloads will (as usual) be way above the contractual maximum. There is a culture of overwork in all universities, but this time it's serious. Redundancy is a legal term used by employers when specific work no longer exists. If my employers fire people and still overload others' workloads and/or employ teaching cover, it's tacit recognition that the work does still need doing, and that the redundancies are bogus. So this time I'm declining anything that breaches my contract because to do otherwise is to connive with managers to get rid of my colleagues.

There's plenty more where that came from, but I'll save it for the next instalment. Instead: books. I seem to be on an accidental Manchester kick at the moment, which is fine because it's one of my favourite cities. Having re-read Jeff Noon's Pollen, I'm most of the way through Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay, an intriguing mix of academic, historical and sexual identities set in the previously under-appreciated south-of-Manchester towns and villages (the title is from Keats and also the title of a Llewelyn Cowper Powys long essay). Very highly recommended. After that, it's on to Hugh Lupton's loose and interesting-looking new Mabinogi translation, The Assembly of the Severed Head, Nicholas Daly's Literature, Technology and Modernity 1860-2000 and Huw Osborne's much-lauded Queer Wales.

But tonight, as my reward for writing the programme notes (successfully avoiding being sacked for glossing last year's The Tempest as a piece of Brexit madness), I'm off to see Macbeth performed in the shadow of Stafford Castle, prefaced by a Gala glass of warm white wine!


Phil said...

I'm declining anything that breaches my contract

And so should you all, and so should we all.

Where's the union in all this? I can't remember seeing your employer featured in the weekly email.

Alan said...

Yes,indeed, Phil, it is time for it to get a kicking from the UCU. I'm reminded by Dr Vole's piece of the publish-or-perish cull disguised as "redundancy" that carried me off from an institution in west London named after an engineer of French descent. My POSTGRAD course - I kid you not - was taught in the next academic year by a Ph.D. student whose area of research was barely tangentially connected with the subject.