Monday, 22 December 2014

Memo to all staff: Graduation Deportation Protocol

To: all staff.
From: university security and ceremony directorate
Subject: Graduation Ceremony protocol.

Colleagues, like every university, we have a formal procession at graduation. The students take their seats in the Grand Theatre and we staff march there in pairs from the ivory tower in all our finery, escorted by a chap of military bearing carrying a great heavy mace. The traffic stops as the townsfolk pause to admire us and (hopefully) aspire to one day join us.

Next year, thanks to the Home Secretary and her leadership aspirations, some alterations will have to be made to the pomp and circumstance.
Theresa May to 'kick out foreign graduates' in new immigration plans

  • We will still parade through the streets, but we'll be accompanied by a phalanx of G4S security personnel (Mubenga Division), resplendent in their ceremonial body armour and steel toe-caps. The billy-clubs and handcuffs will be merely symbolic detail and the Mace of Office will be adapted to include a spring-loaded net to ensure full attendance. 
  • Outside the Theatre, gleaming black transport will await our honoured overseas graduates, complete with blacked-out windows on each bespoke, individual cell. 
  • Each bright young student will hear their names called and walk on stage to collect their degree certificates from the Vice-Chancellor. Enclosed in the scroll will be a heavy parchment copy of the student's extradition order, personally electronically signed by the Home Secretary wishing the lucky graduate a safe and speedy trip out of the country. 
  • Before they leave the stage, an accountant in gold-trimmed robes will formally offer each student a card reader to settle any tuition fees and deportation costs while an appropriate song plays to cover the sounds of any churlish and undignified protests. 
  • Staff are reminded that weeping is undignified and that higher education funding is now dependent on informing the authorities on any student or colleague suspected of a) being foreign b) holding unauthorised opinions. (Please note: annual appraisal will now take place in the basement. Please ensure that you bring a signed copy of your Extremism Disavowal form CTCH-22 and warm clothes).
  • As the beaming, freshly-minted graduate leaves the stage, the Mubenga Corps will offer them a congratulatory headlock and escort them into the airport-bound black maria. On arrival any survivors will be given celebratory 'bumps' by their guards of honour and waved off to start a new life using their new-found skills somewhere else.

We trust these minor tweaks to the annual ceremonies meet your approval.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

On Proportion.

I guess we shouldn't look to celebrities for a reasoned examination of the facts, but this caught my eye:
Madonna has described the leak of several new songs as “artistic rape” and “a form of terrorism”
So I thought I'd provide Madonna and anybody else upset by the unofficial leak of some pieces of pop music with a handy checklist of what does constitute rape and terrorism.

Madonna: has neither experience terrorism nor rape through music leaks
So here goes.

Things that are rape:
1. Penetrative or non-penetrative sexual contact without the full, conscious and informed consent of all parties.

Things that are terrorism:
1. Acts of violence against civilians in pursuit of political, ideological, religious or territorial aims. Examples might include September 11th, attacks on civilians by Republican, Loyalist and British Army units in the Troubles,  the murder of hundreds of Pakistani children by the Taliban, the Australian hostage outrage, or the US and British military's murder of civilians in Iraq (and lots of other places, Like this:

Things that are neither rape nor terrorism:
1. The unauthorised release of pop music.
2. Leaked emails from a media company.
3. Things which mildly inconvenience famous people.

Perhaps this is overly flippant but words like 'rape' and 'terrorism' have to be used carefully or they'll lose all impact. Madonna's appropriation of the terms isn't witty or justified: it degrades the true horror of these acts.

Phillippe de Champaigne, Vanitas

Kings used to have fools to remind them that the ego can lead us into monstrousness. Some of the Roman emperors had a slave in their trains during triumphal processions whose only job was to walk behind him whispering 'remember that thou art mortal'.  Now we're a sophisticated society, celebrities have dispensed with such things and have entourages to encourage their narcissism. Perhaps we should provide a fool or a memory-slave at public expense to anyone whose ego appears to need swift spiritual kick to the head that alters their reality forever.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Light relief.

No depressing or negative post today. Though if you want to follow the ramifications of Stefan Grimm's demise, I'll point you towards Melonie Fullick's excellent piece, which explores the nature of workplace bullying in an academic environment (and yes it does happen, rather more than you'd think) and the institutional systems that encourage it.

So anyway, happier – though utterly exhausting – stuff. Well, last week was ridiculously busy but also very enjoyable. I had that Niall Griffiths in the back of my class so that we could talk about his novel, A Great Big Shining Star, and then his professorial inaugural. Then I went down to the University of Gloucestershire to deliver a lecture on the place of myth – and retellings of Welsh myth in particular – in our postmodern, media-saturated society. 

I have no idea what the students thought, but I enjoyed it. We started with the Enlightenment and its abjection of the irrational, which was often Othered as female ('old wives' tales') or primitive (peasants' stories, Celtic barbarism etc.), then touched on the alienation of urban capitalism and its discontents (Goblin Market, The Waste Land and other texts), talked about Jung (according to this bullshit quiz I'm the Sage: 'incredibly intelligent but you risk over analyzing until you're incapable of actually making a decision', when I'm actually just a highly-skilled procrastinator) and Freud – particularly the notion of the 'uncanny', about The Owl Service novel and TV series;

about the marginalisation of the weird into genre fiction (Machen, Lovecraft, fantasy novels) or into 'high culture' (such as Yeats and the rest of the Celtic Twilight), about postmodern social structures and practises allowing the non-rational and uncanny to re-emerge, particularly in computer games and decent science fiction like Paul McAuley's Fairyland, and about the decentring of the self making the flat characterisation and absent motivations of mythological protagonists comprehensible again. I seem to remember William Morris's wallpaper and poetry made an appearance, as did prog rock record sleeves. And some other stuff.

All in all, it was hugely enjoyable. They did also grab me for a couple of short video conversation which I find so painful that I can't bring myself to post. I have the voice of a bronchitic duck and the chins of a walrus that's let itself go. Ugh. Though I am going to force my colleagues to undergo the same experience. 

After that, the weekend was gloriously relaxing. Saw two Hollywood films and enjoyed them with a few reservations (Hunger Games and The Hobbit) then it's back into this week. I've just done a lecture on one of my favourite novels, Jackie Kay's Trumpet. To be recommended (the novel, not my lecture). 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bought and sold?

A while back, I sat in the audience while a friend gave his professorial inaugural address (the closest I'll ever get to one). A business studies scholar, his final assertion was that Business Schools should be 'about', rather than 'for' business. Critical distance is essential: without dispassionate critique, neither businesses, the systems that generate them nor the public good are served. The evidence to the contrary is clear for all to see in the great recession: a global finance system populated by MBA-holding elites, advised by academic consultants from the most prestigious universities, and yet not one of them saw the contradictions inherent in the system. Here's a striking discussion from the documentary Inside Job:

A couple of things reminded me of this today. One was seeing that Warwick University's Business School has a satellite unit in the Shard. No doubt to their management and neoliberal staff this looks like a prestigious address close to those with money to burn consulting them. To me it looks like a public declaration of love and fealty to the money rather than a critical and independent perspective. It also looks like willy-waving competitiveness of the kind only the silliest institutions engage in.

The other conflict of interest that caught my eye today was the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education Journalism Awards. This afternoon, I taught a Media Ethics class about PR: its origins, its methods, its motives and the ethical context of public relations. It boils down to one thing: money. Public Relations operatives are answerable to their employers and the law. Anything not illegal is therefore permitted in pursuit of profit, with the caveat that one should not get caught.

As Nick Davies' Flat Earth News demonstrated several years ago, PR success is measured in news column inches. If you can get your promotional activity reported as news, you've won. It's relatively easy now: journalists are time-poor, resource-poor and under pressure. They are hosed down daily by a shower of easy 'stories' which are actually adverts. One of the jobs of journalism is to filter out the PR guff. And yet: I watched Twitter tonight as reputable journalists from the Times Higher Education Supplement – people whose work I respect – celebrated winning awards from an organisation whose job it is to fool them. The EJA Awards themselves are a PR stunt to make the industry look more reputable, and it's working. They also attempt to close the distance between journalism and PR copy, which is disingenuous to say the very least.

As far as I can see, a journalist waving a CIPR award is a journalist who doesn't mind being tamed: the trophy may as well be a collar with a bell on it, plus a tag with 'If found, please return to CIPR'. They're being used to dignify a dubious organisation and they've lost critical distance in the same way that Warwick has sold out to finance capitalism and that economist sold himself to the corporations. How can we trust an article by a journalist who has accepted such an award? How confident can we be that they'll apply their critical judgement to material that crosses their desks?

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm in the process of writing a commissioned article for the THES. I wonder if this blog post will magically lead to its withdrawal…

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Our own Great Big Shining Star

Cover of Niall's latest novel projected onto a stage curtain

Talking for a moment about happier academic events, last night Niall Griffiths gave his inaugural professorial address: he's our Professor of Creative Writing. If you don't know Niall's work, it's scabrous, demotic voices-from-the-underclass stuff, often featuring the Welsh and Scouse underclass (he mentioned last night that there's a Welsh-language dialect called Scwelsh: Scouse Welsh). Lazy early reviewers talked about him as an Irvine Welsh acolyte, and perhaps early titles such as Sheepshagger and Runt did misdirect a little in that general area. I've taught Niall's work quite successfully over the years: my favourite is his scumbag road trip novel Wreckage, which locates the aforesaid scumbags touring North Wales in a Morris Minor robbing post offices in their cultural context of Welsh-Irish hardscrabble Liverpool. Niall says the novel's a failure but what do novelists know about it eh?

An enthusiastic audience awaits

So anyway, Niall spent a couple of hours with me in class talking about his vicious attack on celebrity culture, A Great Big Shining Star, which some of the students had managed to read before the lecture. For a writer with a reputation as a wild man, he's actually rather moral and old-fashioned. Having dismissed Martin Amis ('smells of falseness') and the postmodernists, he agreed that there's a kind of Victorian condition-of-England flavour about the work, though he maintains that he's rather more optimistic than the characters. That said, he warned us not to expect happy endings any time soon, despite his medication.

Niall takes aim at the Granta set

After a stimulating couple of hours I went off to teach my media class, catching up with Niall for his evening lecture to a distinguished audience in the relaxed atmosphere of the theatre over a glass of sulphurous wine. I couldn't possibly enunciate Niall's lecture here: I need to read it slowly and follow some of the threads of quotation and argument before I understood it fully, but some aspects came over loud and clear. Amongst them: Basil Bunting good, the Granta set (Amis, McEwan, Barnes & Co.) bad. He spoke up for 'dark' writing – citing Alan Warner – and rejected the notion that dark = depressing: the dark writer, he seemed to say, takes up the cross for the rest of us. For all his occasional sweariness, there's a definitely a moralist in there. Niall also spoke up – hence the praise for Briggflats for writing that represents vernacular and accented speech, and makes literary experiments.

He rather sadly and entertainingly took issue with John Banville (from the land of Joyce!) for linking grammatical error with moral failure in a piece aimed at Warner: honestly, what a dumb thing for such a good author to say.

Beyond what Niall said – and I'll come back to it when I get my paws on a script – I thought it was wonderful and important to have someone like him there. He's a shaggy, edgy, lightning-quick intelligence with a rough tongue and a pronounced Liverpool accent. He is, in short, a creative writer. His lecture demonstrated a huge range of reading and thought, but it was delivered in an uncompromisingly personal style. He isn't tame, neat, tidy or polished, and this alienates some people (and may lead to them underestimating his keen mind). As he pointed out and I'm well aware, the academy can be too ready to exclude those whose faces, accents or looks don't fit. It was me who suggested appointing Niall a Professor: because he deserves it, but also because he symbolises some key facts we may have forgotten. The academy doesn't own culture or criticism, we just take part in it. We shouldn't be trying to tame it, own it or make it nice. We need to be in there adding our ideas and making it easy for the excluded to join in the conversation: appointing Niall does exactly that.

Then we went for curry and wine and we'll draw a veil over the rest of the proceedings.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Grimm's Tale

I should be marking. I should be reading a colleague's book. I should be writing next week's lectures. I should be replying to student and colleague e-mails. I should be researching that chapter and doing that review. I should be chasing grant funding, organising guest speakers, reading committee minutes, doing some union casework, attending meetings and organising those conferences, doing that administration and marketing and sales. Not long ago I was asked to judge whether or not a particular student would make a good Royal Marine. As none of his assessments involved killing anyone, I found it hard to say, and rather thought that the Marine recruitment people would be better placed to make that call.

Instead, for a few minutes, I want to contemplate the life and death of Stefan Grimm.

I never met, or even heard of, Professor Grimm until yesterday. He was Professor of Toxicology at Imperial College, one of the world's great science institutions. One of my sisters studied there and a cousin works there. Stefan Grimm was a great man. The things he wrote – 73 papers – will change the world without us ever knowing.

The only reason you and I have ever heard of him is because he he has been found dead, and left a note detailing his recent professional experiences. He or a friend sent out a letter to a wide range of colleagues and peers, explaining that his life and career had been made unbearable by his managers and their version of what research should be. You can read it here.

Stefan was going to be fired. Not because his work was no good: it was, as the publications list shows. No, he was going to be fired because he didn't attract the 'sexy', headline funding. He quietly raised money to pay for his ongoing research as and when he needed it. His failure was the inability to grasp that his university – which isn't so different from lots of others – care far less about the discoveries made than the headlines achieved from lottery-style grants. 'X wins £50m grant' is the dream THES or New Scientist headline, not '£50,000 for Grimm'.
Your current level of funding does not constitute the appropriate level for a professor at Imperial College. Unless you submit and are awarded a Platform grant as PI in the next 12 months we will seek to initiate disciplinary action against you. This email constitutes a warning that your performance is being monitored and that action may be brought if you fail to meet the conditions herein
Grimm was told he had to bring in £200,000 p.a. – not contractually, but let's leave that aside. His letter explains that he did that through a series of small grants, but that wasn't good enough: it had to be the stuff of headlines, or 'impact' as it's officially known in the Research Assessment Framework to which we all have to submit.

This isn't about science - it's about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. Grimm was informed – in public – that he was to be fired, and left waiting for the axe to fall while the axe-wielder marauded around the campus boasting about it like an even more pathetic Alan Sugar.
I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status. 
If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.

This is not, I shouldn't have to say, how academia works. Peter Higgs, of Higgs Boson fame, said that there was 'no Eureka moment' to his work, and he only has 4 papers listed on Google Scholar: but what papers! Science rarely has a Eureka moment: it's rather a series of careful, thoughtful developments of work done by one's forebears and peers. A management which demands a Eureka a day is one which doesn't just not 'get' academia, it's a management which contradicts the academic method and it's one which has forgotten that it's meant to serve the needs of science, the arts, students and researchers, not the insatiable maw of attention seeking 'Leaders' (that's the word they use now) and the PR office. It's also a management that kills.

I am not Stefan Grimm and my university does not have the same reputation for bullying that Imperial has, but I've been a UCU caseworker for long enough to be able to recount (were it not for professional confidentiality) a long list of stories almost as awful as Stefan's. Thankfully none of my colleagues have killed themselves, but I've seen careers ended in bitterness and failure because individuals didn't fit into a corporate vision of efficiency and attention-grabbing Eureka moments. The twin demands of a marketised HE sector and the deforming and frankly dumb priorities of the REF conspire to distort educational and research processes, aided in many cases by management structures which hire those who've forgotten the basic notions of collegiality and progress through community. 'We' are just a workforce to be exploited and 'they' are the equivalent of commodities traders, ramping up the share price and being rewarded for short-termism.

My friend Kate over in Australia, while coping with cancer, has been tracing the cultural and social effects of this turn in HE. She and her colleague Richard Hall call it the 'anxiety machine', in discussing academic labour in Foucauldian terms, while Melonie Fullick (not Fullback as auto-correct keeps insisting) draws attention to the hidden levels of mental health problems in HE produced by the weight of the anxiety machine. Stefan's death would be no surprise to her, nor to any of my UCU caseworker colleagues.
Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.
Compared to many, academics have an easy life. Little manual labour, indoors, largely engaging with the things that inspire us, and passing on those passions to students and colleagues. And yet: like nurses and doctors, the work can't be quantified despite the best efforts of funding agencies and appraisers, and it never stops at 5 o'clock or when you leave the office or classroom (I got back to work last January to find students had phoned my office on Christmas Day). We already want to be good – at teaching, at advising, at researching, at planning, at writing, at supervising – yet we know that most of the people in the room are smarter than us. No wonder 'impostor syndrome' is rife on campuses. Add to that the often unexplained priorities imposed on us by a management far-removed from classroom life or active research if they ever were academics, and it's a recipe for self-imposed burnout.

One of my friends told me about his first job, in a well-known software/outsourcing company. A government tender would appear. His company would throw in an outrageously low and unsupported bid, promising too much, too soon, too cheaply. They'd win it, and only then would management tell the workforce what they had to do and how much it would cost. Inevitably costs would soar, deadlines would be missed and some of those executing the task would be fired. The management? They carried on regardless: winning the contract was all that mattered and they were richly rewarded. It strikes me that this permanent revolution/permanent crisis is now the dominant mode in HE. This is how Richard Hall puts it:
inside the University as it is restructured for value, and as it is recalibrated as a means of production, academics and students are separated and exploited through their abstract labour. Even worse, this separation afflicts and undermines the relationships that emerge between those with tenure (who are transformed into the impacted), and the precariously employed graduate student or post-doc, or the undergraduate who is forced into a precarious existence rooted in unpaid academic labour that is disciplined through a financialised existence.
I know plenty of professors and star researchers who eat, sleep and breathe research, and can't understand why their junior colleagues (try to) insist on playing with their children on a Sunday afternoon or going home at 6. 'You can't do a PhD and have a social life', my predecessor told me. I'm no star (my research record is meagre, to put it kindly), but my students and colleagues know that I'm always here, and I've lost count of the times I've been locked in the building at 10 p.m. Does it make me a better academic? You wouldn't think so if you attended my lectures, or read my papers! It makes me an anxious one. The difference is that I'll cheerfully admit it: I sometimes wonder how many of my colleagues feel the same way.

It's not just what we do, it's also how we do it. Just as Stefan discovered that doing good, unheralded work wasn't acceptable, there's a culture of individualism that goes against everything I though academia valued. What got me publishing again was co-writing. Working with someone else kept me going, partly out of a desire not to disappoint my colleague once a commitment had been made. From that wholly positive experience has come more co-writing opportunities with other people, but also some solo work. I thought that was the point: not the lone gunman but the pack of huskies dragging the academic sled along together (OK, I'll drop the metaphors now). The REF, however, has put a dampener on this: in my field we're being told that co-written work is less valuable and that journal articles are more valuable than books. The message is clear: drop your mates and churn out those papers, rather than work collegially and invest time and effort in long-form thought. It's the numbers that count, not the work itself. Ordinarily, I'd say we should look to our Professors for resistance, but they've gone. Stefan's dead. Others have been turned into cogs serving the bureaucracy. Yet more have internalised the values of the academic market because they're winners. The rest are just keeping their tenured heads down.

As Kate puts it, the culture of frenzied overwork isn't just self-harming: it harms those we acculturate into the same practices, like cycling team leaders encouraging their domestiques to dope. Is there workplace resistance? To an extent. Put a few thousand high-achievers on a campus and they'll talk. Perhaps that's why my campus no longer has a class-room and all-staff Faculty meetings have been abolished ('too negative', apparently). But we're all well aware that there are 30 eager and innocent new PhDs desperate to do each of our jobs, for less money with less security. We're also trapped by our intellectual sophistication. We're like the Byzantines waiting for the Fourth Crusade. We think the approaching hordes are on our side. They look just like us, speak our language and understand what we're for. But as the Byzantines found, the Western Christian forces weren't on their side at all. They didn't come to defend the city against the non-Christian hordes: they came to strip it of all that's valuable while it was still there. While we ponder every side of the argument, they drive people like Stefan to their deaths.

As for me: it's back to work. If I don't do it, somebody else will have to. And so it continues.