Friday, 29 September 2017

Friday in the Garden of Good and Evil

This week has been way to busy to consider blogging. I've met all the new students several times, so they've seen all my decent clothes and heard all my decent jokes. Or the jokes that I think are decent anyway. This year's intake are very engaged and chatty, which was lovely: it didn't take much effort to get them talking about interesting things, and they even indulged me when I quoted Plato and Michael Oakeshott while encouraging them to care more about ideas than grades. We also had a party: loads turned up, nobody stood on the edges looking lonely, and we had to go out for more wine and not just because my colleagues drank it all.

The more frustrating element of the week has been trying to get the new VLE and the online course management software working: despite getting all the details right several months ago, students are still struggling to sign up for the right classes, and obviously they complain to us. My desk bears a slight dimple where my forehead keeps meeting it a speed. The upshot is that I'm teaching mostly brand new material at several levels from next week, lecture-writing has very much taken a back seat. Ah well, I'll get there. Next week I'm teaching everything from The Address of John Ball and Gerard Winstanley's manifestos to Ballard's short stories. Exciting.

The other thing that happened this week was Question Time at the university. I didn't get a ticket, but I returned to watching it in the hope that my esteemed students, colleagues and townsfolk would break the cycle of answering moronic panellists with reactionary attitudes. Sadly, I was mistaken. Dimbleby – seemingly suffering from a vision problem that means he can only see men – picked a succession of people I would characterise as disturbing, actual, fascists. One shouted that Angela Merkel was an East German Communist, another defended the AfD against allegations that praising the actions of the Wehrmacht in WW2 makes them pro-Nazis, and another contributed the bullshit cri de coeur de nos jours of 'Europe needs us more than we need Europe'. Unless there's suddenly a need for Alan Sugar's warehouses of unsold Amstrad @mailers for some unimaginable reason, I remain unconvinced. As a fillip for the university, getting a show like Question Time in was a coup. As an advert for the city, it did not give off the impression that it's a progressive, welcoming, intellectual powerhouse. Still, if you're thinking of holding a cross-burning, or want to open a golliwog shop, there's probably a chance of making a go of it here.

I'm off to lock myself in and draw the curtains. Enjoy your weekend.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Feeling sic…

I wrote to the London Review of Books with a correction but it wasn't printed, so you can have the doubtful benefit. I'm still unsure whether I'm being pedantic, paranoid, or postcolonial. Also: the author is Marina Warner, one of the greatest minds of her generation, so I feel a little conflicted about that too. Hey ho…

In the midst of a very interesting review of Thomas Laqueur's The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, I found these three words:
Jesu Grist (sic)
The subject was Dr William Price, the doctor, Druid, political activist and all-round Romantic polymath powerhouse who illegally cremated his son and spurred on the legalisation of the practice. An accomplished wind-up merchant and anticlericalism, he named his son Iesu Grist.

So what is the 'sic' all about? If it refers to 'Jesu', it's wrong. Price was a Welsh-speaker, and Welsh only uses 'j' in loanwords. The boy was called Iesu: not a misspelling of Jesus. If 'sic' refers to 'Grist', that's wrong too: Grist is standard Welsh for Christ.

The mistake, and the compounding addition of 'sic' suggests either Warner or the LRB (I'm hoping it's the LRB) has a rather anglocentric notion of culture in which a prominent intellectual's correct – if provocative – use of his native language can only be understood as an English mistake by an eccentric from the wild Celtic fringes.

Say it ain't so…

Friday, 15 September 2017

Lesbian Bastard Heroes and Other Stories.

I have had an eventful week, to put it mildly. A week ago I was decorating a village hall, carrying chairs and checking camera angles for my friends' wedding in an idyllic English village in the heart of Brexit country. My main job was photographer, but I'm now an expert at bunting hanging, guest corralling and taxi-marshalling. The happy couple were beautiful, the rector was organised and thoughtful (even this atheist appreciated her sermon) and the draught porter was Murphy's. Oh, and I came home with a sack of cheese left over from the reception, which was a bit of a result.

I could have done with a couple of days' rest after that, but the pre-term panic is well and truly ON! Rather than write lectures (including the MA module on Ballard I've suddenly inherited), I've been wrestling with a new VLE and trying – after six months of work, to get the powers that be to give students the correct course guides so that they actually know what they're meant to be studying in two weeks' time. We've had a day-conference on 'widening excellence', a 'roadshow' from the VC which consists of buttered words and sharp steel, and before we even start inducting the new students there's a staff conference and graduation to look forward to. On the plus side, the department has a new Graduate Teaching Assistant. Having taken a First Class degree this year, she's getting used to seeing what her former teachers are like behind the curtain. Only one keyboard has been punched to death in her presence this week (not by me, I hasten to add).

The other highlight of the week was tearing a calf muscle while fencing. My first injury in almost 25 years: it's painful, and I can only hobble about. Given I commute by bicycle, it's making life rather difficult. Age is a terrible leveller, my children.

It's not all drudgery. I'm enjoying catching up on all the texts I'm teaching this year (including lots of Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Doctorow, Eggers, Atwood, Valerie Solanas, Winterson – in the course of which I found Esther Saxey's journal article with the superb title 'Lesbian Bastard Heroes' – Gerard Winstanley, Ballard, Monica Ali, Jackie Kay, Jilly Cooper, Gil Scott-Heron) and I have an interesting PhD to examine in early November. Oh, and I'm compering an interesting event at the Birmingham Literature Festival on working-class writing, including Catherine O'Flynn, one of my favourite novelists. I'm just not sure when my research is going to get done. I'm still working on my politicians' novels project, but the discovery that Robert Kilroy-Silk has produced three of them has rather taken the pleasure out of it. It just struck me that he's exactly the kind of politico who thinks he has talents in every field, so I looked him up on WorldCat and there he is: a mid-eighties novel called The Ceremony of Innocence which doesn't sound entirely savoury, and three more recent e-books which sounded even worse than Peter Hain's, Norman Tebbit's and Boris Johnson's output (and having read all of them, I promise that's very, very bad indeed).

One's a Condition-of-England one that attacks 'political correctness' and another one makes the case for father-daughter incest. If you don't know who RKS is, or what he's like, this Guardian article tells you far, far more than you might ever need to know.
Eye-poppingly unsavoury novels…Kilroy-Silk is beholden to no one as he writes novels that he self-publishes on Amazon's Kindle. He's published three since the spring and each seethes with rage at political correctness in modern British society – with their unsavoury racism, glum sexist stereotypes, borderline homophobic jibes and digs against Islam, they reek of an outsider judging a world he doesn't want to understand… 
Closure ends (spoiler alert!) with the wretched stereotype of an obese lesbian social worker being murdered by a vengeful father who leaves her strangled corpse tied up amid dildos to make it look like a perverted autoerotic asphyxiation. After, of course, having arranged that the children have been kidnapped from their adoptive parents and whisked away to Cyprus.
Which rather takes us back to 'Lesbian bastard heroes' I suppose. Anyway, welcome to my world. Enjoy your weekend.

Monday, 4 September 2017

This post was brought to you by…

Last night I texted someone to say 'even Portishead have licensed a track for advertising now'. My friends are used to such retro naïveté and some of them even summon up the energy either to take me to task ('bands can't rely on sales income any more') or to tease me ('another band off your list').

I am a stuffy puritan about these things though. I never download illegally despite reservations about copyright law and music labels because I want artists to make a living directly from their art. When they licence their music for adverts my feeling is that they've subordinated their own art to a product. I therefore stop buying their music. If they don't value it enough, and have another income stream, they don't need me, and I can't be sure that their music isn't produced with an eye to attracting further revenue streams. Funnily enough, there's a cultural hierarchy of these things. Most people don't care if pop bands sell their music; some people mind that BP and cigarette companies sponsored classical concerts and art exhibitions, while there was an outcry when Fay Weldon wrote a book sponsored by – and heavily featuring – tasteless jeweller to the oligarchs Bulgari.

Why yes, people have accused me being a pompous revanchist git before. Thanks for asking.

Why am I going on about this now? Because I spotted a tweet from WonkHE announcing a 'partnership' with Hotcourses, one of those businesses which repackages public information, adds what it considers 'value' and makes a lot of money. I don't like it much, and liked it even less when it was owned by Jeremy Hunt MP. I do like WonkHE though. Despite its overwhelming maleness, Englishness and preoccupation with the Russell Group, it's a lively and interesting arena for Higher Education policy discussions. It's particularly useful to me because it often features views I might otherwise miss in my neomarxist bubble.

I hadn't thought about WonkHE's funding model at all previously. I tended to treat it as a service rather than a business. I didn't notice that it had any 'sponsors' at all, which means either I'm dumb or they're very discreet.

Perhaps the fact that I like the site lulled me into a state of acceptance, because I'm normally very wary of such things. Having spent years teaching students about the social media model, I know that if a service is free, you are the product. This is why I don't have Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp or anything other than this blog and Twitter. I pay for a Flickr account, and I keep all identifiable details off Twitter. Obviously all the data is still very profitable to them, and it takes about 30 seconds to deduce my identity but I don't make it easy, and I'm gradually adopting ad-blockers and the like to my electronic presence to reduce my exposure even further. Next step: TOR or EpicBrowser (both blocked on my university network).

My problem with WonkHE is the same one I now have with Portishead. Now I know they have a lot of funders, I have to start assuming that everything they produce is shaped – however remotely – by their commercial instincts: just look at what happened when Google didn't like the conclusions reached by some academics it funded. WonkHE will gain access to data from their sponsors, but that data will have been collected and shaped to further particular ends. Likewise, while WonkHE won't be selling reader data to their sponsors, it will be helping those sponsors understand me, my colleagues and my context for their own purposes. It won't feel like a community any more. I'd have been happy to pay a subscription – as I do for The Guardian, LibraryThing and Flickr – to keep a valuable arena open, but now I feel a bit used.

This is of course a function of my privileged position as an academic. Universities are complex things, behaving in multiple – often contradictory – ways at the same time. They're charities, businesses, liberation movements, social justice vehicles and corporate service providers all at once. It's frustrating and wonderful at the same time. One of the key advantages though is that almost everyone in HE understands that we have multiple responsibilities. There's this magical notion that intellectual purity and honesty outweighs immediate, local or commercial concerns: while 'truth' is accepted as a social construct these days, commitment to open and fearless enquiry is at the heart of what we do, and my particular employers have sometimes stood up for these principles even when they've been deeply frustrated with the consequences.

The result is that when my students attend a lecture, or someone reads a journal article I've written, they know that there are no hidden motives or justifications for what I've asked them to consider and what I've said, nor are my thoughts consciously shaped by the interests and perspectives of my employers or anyone else: I'm beholden only to my students and my sense of professional duty. No publishers have sponsored my reading list. I can't any longer assume that this is the case for WonkHE: while individual articles will no doubt be rigorous and honest, each additional sponsor will have some effect on what is presented and how it's framed.

I should apologise to WonkHE: they aren't doing anything worse than thousands of household names (in fact they're a lot better than most) and they wandered into my field of view just as I was getting on the highest of horses. Objecting to one organisation's adoption of tactics refined by much nastier companies (and Portishead) with barely a squeak of resistance from the public is totally pompous, quixotic and certainly ineffectual, but here I am. I can do no other. Other than fall off this horse and do myself a nasty injury.