Friday, 12 October 2018

Moan moan moan.

No doubt you all turn to me as the still small voice of calm in a culture increasingly given over to intemperate, oppositional exchanges. Not today, I'm afraid. While this week has included many pleasures – friends, teaching The Tempest and Cwmardy to delightful students, my employers have excelled themselves in their ongoing pursuit of casual insult and deprofessionalisation. Some of it is so petty – especially given the sickening portrait of working life that I've just had from a student – that I quail at the thought of presenting it to you, but I do so because the very pettiness gives one an insight into the thoughtless nature of our managerial class.

OK. As you probably know, universities run open days at weekends to give potential students a chance to see what we do. I do my fair share of them and generally enjoy doing so. People usually laugh, and I like to think it's at my jokes rather than my face, clothes or commitment to literary study as a means of liberation. That, and I think our degree is really very good and student numbers have plummeted, so we need to try our best. So anyway, academics, administrators and students take a day away from our families, beds and bottles on a voluntary basis for the good of the institution. In some institutions it's a two-day event, so colleagues might be in work without a break for twelve days in a row.

Are we, therefore, received with gratitude and solicitude by our senior management (one of whom manages to appear for the first half hour before disappearing in an SUV)? We are not. Our briefing this year started with a dire warning that any informational errors made will result in disciplinary hearings because fo the Consumer Marketing Act. This is followed by an announcement about refreshments, which I reproduce here in full with the original emphases.

·      There is free tea and coffee for visitors in Campus Life. 

·      Catering for staff There will be no packed lunches or lunch vouchers provided by External Relations for Open Days. Feel free to bring in your own lunch or purchase food from MC Courtyard Kitchen and Starbucks. Please feel free to use the water fountains around the Campus.

Don't know about you, but the bit about water fountains reminds me of the dog bowls provided at railway stations for people's pets, while the bold and underlined bits seem calculated to rub it in. My management has imposed permanent austerity on (non-manager) salaries, staff recruitment and student welfare, so it makes sense that the extra £500 needed to give staff a sandwich for working on weekends might be what tips us into bankruptcy, but it feels that little bit more insulting when I recall that the numbers and renumeration for senior staff go ever upwards, the VC has a chauffeur-driven limo and we sponsor – for no justifiable reason, alongside a Chinese restaurant and a dental surgery – a cricket club in Sheffield – while nobody else has had a real-terms pay increase since 2008. I guess someone's got to pay for that, and the £11m ploughed into a short-lived University Technical College and the derelict brewery we as yet haven't managed to organise a piss-up in, but economising on a cup of tea won't pull us out of those holes.

I'm also insulted by the idea that having given up a day of our weekend (because the alleged day off in lieu never actually happens and besides, you can't take your kids, partner or friends out on a working day), we're invited to donate our own cash to the tax-evading multinational coffee outlet we've invited onto campus. Marketisation in action. I've emailed senior management a fairly sarcastic letter but don't expect any response other than a howler inviting me to a disciplinary hearing for unauthorised use of irony.

The other kicker this week is the news that supervising PhD students no longer counts as teaching for workload purposes. This may appear arcane, but it makes a difference. Teaching hours attract preparation hours at a one-to-one ratio, so that our teaching is pedagogically and critically cutting-edge. PhD supervision is intense and very time-consuming: whether you're analysing experiment methodology or critiquing a 20,000 word chapter, it takes time. Moving it to another category means that either we use up hours already earmarked for other duties or we short-change the students when it comes to giving the attention they deserve for working so hard. I totally admit that the kind of stuff I'm talking about today seems minor compared with other peoples' lives, and that I can cope without tea or a couple of hours' thinking time, but there's still a tiny part of me that clings to the idea of professionalism: that I'm responsible to society for how I conduct my teaching, research and behaviour to students and colleagues. That part of me is flickering towards extinction as the structural and experiential conditions of my working life militate against doing my best for others, or even being able to operate in a civil fashion. Will I find myself turning down bright new thinkers for supervision, or explaining that maybe a chapter will change the way we understand literature in some way, but I don't have time to read it? What a depressing thought.

Sometimes I wonder how a group of people (especially the few who were once teachers and researchers) come to spend their lives actively making their so-called colleagues' working conditions and professional experience that little bit nastier (or as they no doubt see it, efficient)every day. Nature or nurture? Are they thoughtless, selfish or cynical? Is it self-preservation? Do promotions flow from their ability to evidence the ways in which they've made life tougher for us bottom-feeders? Is it simply the case that management see degrading working conditions as a tool for getting people to resign? Whatever the answer, it gets harder to hoist the grin and tell our potential students what a great place this is to study.

Anyway, have I done anything to take my mind of this rubbish? Teaching has been a joy, and I've marked an excellent MA by one of our students and an M.Res by one from a different university, ready for examination shortly. That one quotes me in ways that made me reconsider what I think of the novels in question, which I take as being a very good thing. I saw my mother for her birthday (present: a quince tree) and I went fencing on Wednesday only to face an international sabreur nobody else was foolish enough to take on, so everything hurts now. I saw BlackkKlansman for the second time and it really stood up to re-watching, and I read a couple of books: The Alone to the Alone and Cwmardy for work (both wonderful), Masefield's The Midnight Folk which reminded me how subtle Masefield can be, and VE Schwab's Vicious on the urging of a student. It's kind of a millennial's mash-up of Frankenstein and X-Men with some angst on the side. A fun read with some neat twists. The highlight was Chris Reynold's The New World, an elegiac, beautiful, uncanny and spare graphic novel that I bought solely on the strength of a good review in a newspaper. Next up is the reissued How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, a Chilean manifesto published in 1971 and publicly burned by the military regime that murdered Allende in 1973 for annoying the money.

Ignore me. Enjoy your weekend.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Re the worsening work conditions and denigration of professional staff: if I hadn't already decided to leave, I would now, given that nothing in the 'system' works and we are expected to make excuses for it whilst being chivvied to do more with less all the time and chided for not doing enough. And anything that doesn't work is our fault, natch.

Adam Roberts said...

Everything you say here sparked parallels in my mind from my own institution.

Fanis Missirlis said...

It is no secret that most universities in the UK are seriously damaged. Higher education is incompatible with the new class that has taken financial and micro-political control in the institutions. There cannot be too many ways ahead. Either they will be ruined - in the sense of losing their ability to perform critical, high quality work (they may still make money for the managerial slime to continue covering any remaining clean corners). Or the academics will expel the managers and take back the responsibility of running the institutions. In the former scenario, free enquiry and thought will require a new home. Who will provide it? It is hard to guess.

Anonymous said...

So reminiscent of my own institution. And it is a sad indictment of the petty lows to which I believe they would stoop that I have chosen to leave this comment under anonymity. This is the kind of thing that is making me consider leaving the sector. The relentless marketisation (run by people who are not even good at it) is so draining. And I've been beaten down to such an extent that I've started two sentences with "And".

Anonymous said...

I retired from my academic post earlier this year. I miss the academic work and intellectual engagement but none of the managerial bullshit which is found across the sector. My concern is that the management caste promote and favour those in their own image. Junior and career academics who progress parrot the same old, same old; students are customers, we need to support students by providing greater certainty in the subject material. But to teach critical thinking, the lecturer him/herself require to be able to think critically themselves. But critical thinking cannot be commodifed and threatens the prevailing neo-liberal ideologies in UK universities. Yet without critical thinking higher education is an empty shell.