Friday, 27 October 2017

All The Noose That's Fit To Print

One of the disputed joys of being an academic is the constant self-criticism. Whatever the field, academics hold that claims are contingent: we get attached to our current interpretations while hoping for new ones. We live in a state of professional doubt in the best possible sense, knowing that there's always more we could be reading, teaching and thinking about. The down side of this, perhaps more pointedly for those of an Eeyorish disposition, is the concomitant feeling of inadequacy. 75 years is not enough time to get through all the primary texts, let alone understand the critical theory sufficiently. And that's not counting all that time spent sitting on Review of Reviews committees (I kid you not).

My point is that this week's furores (furora? furori?) over Oxford and Cambridge's white posh intake and white literature curriculum are both welcome and vile. The obvious temptation from my end of the see-saw is a smug feeling of superiority: my institution's BME intake is roughly 40%, whereas some Oxford and Cambridge colleges haven't accepted more than one or two black students in 15 years. My curriculum, too, is diverse: we're teaching works by Equiano, Bernardine Evaristo, Monica Ali, Ralph Ellison, Gil Scott-Heron, Armistead Maupin and Jackie Kay just in the next few weeks, while postcolonial and queer readings inform our discussions of canonical texts as a matter of course.

But on the principle that academics are never allowed nice things, there's no reason for this smugness. One could quite easily see our diverse student intake as a property of structural racism: educational and employment outcomes are poor for BME groups, as is access to 'élite' higher education institutions, which means that we benefit from society's dysfunction because we have a mission to widen participation and they clearly don't. There's also the issue of the white curriculum: I have friends and acquaintances in Cambridge and Oxford faculties who are horrified at the accusation that they are individually or collectively racist, and who lead the field in theoretical diversity: Priyamvada Gopal, who has been monitored by the Telegraph and the Mail is a shining light of our discipline. It's also true, though, that blaming social failure (such as the secondary school system) feels like a cop-out. If my colleagues and I work hard to develop our curriculum despite being well ahead of these so-called elite institutions, we need more recognition from them that there really is a problem. In my more mean-spirited moments I wonder if Cambridge and Oxford will soon reach a point of equilibrium at which the number of BME students will equal the number of BME-authored texts on the curriculum.

What brings us together, however, is the lynch mob mentality of the Telegraph and the Mail. Hearing of a request from students for faculty to widen the English canon, they used it as the opportunity to indulge in a bit of Black Panic: while the online version of the story has been hurriedly altered, the Telegraph used the term 'forced' and pointedly used a portrait of Cambridge University Students' Union Women's Officer Lola Olufemi to evoke Confederate-era fears of a slave rebellion.

I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of links to an article outraged at the idea of asking students to read texts by black people with one robustly defending academic freedom:

The Mail, meanwhile, having spent recent years mocking students' perceived opposition to free speech, decided to add university lecturers to the list of Enemies of the People, aided by an epistoholic Tory MP who apparently dropped out of my very own university and devoted the rest of his career to persecuting anyone using polysyllabic words.

Funny how cultural position changes your perception: I look at that list of 'Lefties' and see some rich white liberals who have sold out by accepting jobs looking after most rich white kids: not many socialists think that taking a mansion and lots of cash from a massively rich training ground for the social and political elite (50% of whom come from the 7% of privately-educated children) is an act of insurrection. Although their students will be suffering some of the same individual hardships mine face, I very much doubt that many of them will submit work late due to homelessness, deportation, hunger or poverty, as happens here fairly regularly. Much as I admire Rowan Williams's literary criticism, for instance, or Will Hutton's economic analysis, I see their jobs as the Establishment's gold watch for good and faithful servants who haven't said or done anything to scare the hedgies or hunters. But perhaps that's the politics of envy talking…

Not being in the direct firing line means that I've had a lot of fun teasing Heaton-Harris, the Mail and the Telegraph but it isn't really a laughing matter. These unaccountable organs, owned and run by offshore shell companies for the benefit of tax-avoiding barons, are spending an awful lot of time hunting down people who think of themselves as public servants, and they're going for women and ethnic minorities first. The differences between me in my ex-poly and them in their medieval quads are nothing compared with moneyed racist élite and the ordinary people whom they're attempting to whip up into a xenophobic, mean-minded fury.

Universities and the people who constitute them are meant to be critical: of social structures, of cultural instruments, and of themselves. Sometimes we fail to be self-critical enough (out teaching body and management cadre looks nothing like the student body, for instance) and sometimes our obsessions with critique seem esoteric or frivolous, but far from being negative, critique speaks of a belief in progress and improvement, as John Stuart Mill knew:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.
The Mail and the Telegraph are pigs. They believe that they've achieved the right answers to pretty much every question, and are satisfied. Once such an attitude is adopted, its proponents start to draw up lists. Earlier this year it was judges. This week it's black intellectual
women and Remain-supporting academics. Who knows who will be next? It certainly won't be rich white newspaper-owners.

Friday, 20 October 2017


Good Friday! 

Its been another exhausting, if intermittently exhilarating week here at Vole Towers. We have quite literally had laughs, tears and leaking windows, plus the occasional bout of teaching and learning (this week: Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee which went down very well indeed, The Tempest, a selection of JG Ballard's short stories, and Jilly Cooper's Riders for the last time ever). I've enjoyed it enormously, particularly the privilege of hearing a new colleague lecture quite brilliantly for the first time ever. Next week sees me teaching more Ballard short stories, Dave Eggers's The Circle, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and Hamlet. Never let it be said that my teaching load is monotonous. 

The other issue of the week has been the latest reappearance of cynical government ministers demanding universities defend 'free speech' and threatening fines. This is a cyclical event: in a few weeks a story will appear in which the same government minister will condemn a university for hosting a 'radical' or 'extremist' speaker. Being the organiser of a public lecture and research seminar series, I can attest to the simultaneous paranoia and liberalism at play in university hierarchies. They genuinely want to be open to a range of ideas, but they've also been trained by Prevent and their local security service representatives into seeing terrorists under every shalwar kameez. It's all dressed up as 'mental health concern' and equally applicable to 'extremists' of any type, but it doesn't hold water: we know very well that the definition of 'extremism' is covertly linked to ethnicity. The Overton window is getting smaller every day, and the modern university discourse of employability, vocational skills and so in makes it shrinkingly unlikely for any student to be exposed to anything other than capitalist discipline. 

However, the other evergreen education story of the week is my old favourite, Trigger Warnings. Personally, I hate the phrase, almost as much as I hate the terms 'Political Correctness' and 'Check Your Privilege'. Perversely, perhaps, I like and endorse the sentiments and purposes – 'privilege checking' is what we literary critics have been doing ever since someone pointed out that the Leavisite Great Tradition was just a tad narrow. It's just the awful language that implies a deadening managerial rationality to concepts that are and should be expressed emotionally. I'm with Stewart Lee on 'PC': it's about being polite enough to recognise that words have effects and should be used thoughtfully – or as he puts it, 'you can't even scrawl racial abuse in excrement on cars without the political correctness brigade getting involved'. 

As for Trigger Warnings, I've been teaching (and alive amongst humans) for long enough to know that a significant number of people in my class have experienced deeply traumatic things: a depressing amount of my time recently has been spent trying to help my admirable students cope with things that nobody should have to deal with. I happen to think that literature is how we collectively process our experiences, and that it's entirely appropriate to study texts which examine awful events. There's a difference between doing that and deliberately picking texts because you think 'snowflake' students should 'toughen up'. I don't give anything that might be construed as a 'Trigger Warning' (it sounds like the kind of thing a lawyer would advise an institution to put in place) but I do carefully introduce texts and make sure that graphic texts are contextualised sensitively and chosen for their literary merit or social significance rather than just because it might be a laugh. One of my very clever and inquiring students told me today that she'd given up on a book because it used self-harm as the basis of a cheap gag. I'm with her: there's a qualitative difference between a text that takes serious experiences as its subject and one that unthinkingly throws such things in. 

Exposing people to something horrifying without context or warning then telling the newspapers that they're snowflakes is pretty much my definition of Being A Dick. And, let's note, the Telegraph understands this too: here are some lines from their Style Handbook:

 we do not make gratutitous reference to a person's ethnicity or sexual orientation.
obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden. 
Clearly the readership of the Telegraph must be protected from hearing the kind of words they used freely in the colonial wars, but students don't deserve enough respect to introduce things carefully. I can't find the Mail's style guide ('All foreigners are Bloody') but commenters are – and this may surprise you if you've ever seen its message boards – asked to be nice:

Please be polite. Do not use swear words or crude or sexual language.

Rule 5: No libel or other abuse
You must not make or encourage comments which are:
defamatory, false or misleading; 
insulting, threatening or abusive;
obscene or of a sexual nature;

offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory against any religions or other groups.

We have entire modules about taboo and banned texts – Cannibal Holocaust is on the menu soon – but students haven't objected because we demonstrate that there's a justifiable reason for analysing these texts: I have some controversial texts coming up which I won't name because I don't want to make yet another unwilling appearance in the local rag, but I've had to think long and hard about whether the offence is academically justified. I think students are quite right to expect academics to a) ask them to read disturbing texts; b) to have a justification for doing so and c) be happy to have the debate in class. 

The latest furore is about Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's nasty revenge tragedy. I don't think I'd spend too much time on trigger warnings if we were simply reading the play, but I'd certainly warn people what to expect if we showed them one of the recent film adaptations – just as the RSC did when it toured a production in the 1980s. Even horror films have certificates and explanations of what's in them, and I don't think the Mail is calling for abolition of the BBFC. Julie Taymor's astonishing film Titus (1999) got an 18 certificate for its 'strong sex and violence and sexual violence theme'. 

Finally, just to tie the week's education news together, we discover today that Oxford and Cambridge (from whence the Trigger Warning story emanates) have recruited almost no black students, and very few from poor or provincial communities. Perhaps it's because so  much of the political and media classes were educated there, but there seems to be a special level of outrage applied, as though the journalists' and politicians' successors at such places are specially degenerate, whereas the oiks who attend ex-polys like mine are so brutish that they're incapable of feeling much at all. 

The temptation therefore is to write off these Cambridge students as pampered posh whingers, but that requires us to treat them monolithically rather than as individuals with agency and unique identities. Perhaps the Telegraph (which quite often moans about the loss of civility and politeness) disagrees, but being rich does not exempt one from abuse and assault, as a review of historical boarding school abuse scandals should indicate. (The wicked thought crosses my mind that perhaps Oxford and Cambridge are so aware that their posh intake are such reactionary pigs that it would be abusive and unsafe to expose ethnic minority students to their behaviour: the former BNP fuhrer Nick Griffin went to Cambridge after all…).

Academics should always be self-critical and open to re-evaluating their professional practises and how they relate to students because those relationships are complex, driven by sometimes unexamined or unconscious dynamics. I really don't think that simplistic headlines generated by privileged people in furtherance of a generational warn against their own children is particularly productive, and we shouldn't be feeding the beast. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

I think I can feel the skull beneath the skin

Too busy working to have opinions this week, which I'm sure is devastating news to you all. Come to think of it, between exhaustion and a hefty dose of the traditional Freshers' Flu, I can barely think what I've been doing all week.

I did see Bladerunner 2049: a visual and sonic feast, wonderful performances and a decent storyline, though not as philosophically groundbreaking as the original film. There were even a couple of jokes. I did wonder about the nipple count: in this dystopian future only women get naked, and the core of the plot is maternity. Still, about a thousand times more intelligent than everything else on at the moment.

Teaching: this week we've done The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's Digger Manifesto The True Levellers Standard Advanced, and Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem.

They're all on different modules but they all seem to have shared interests if I think about them long enough. Away from work a Renaissance theme emerged too: I just read Nicholas Blake's 30s detective thriller Thou Shell of Death (Blake was the pen-name of poet laureate C. Day-Lewis: he claimed to churn out the detective novels for cash but he's very good at it). If you know where the title's from, you know who the murderer was and how it was achieved. I also read, on a Twitter friend's recommendation, Reginald Hill's An Advancement of Learning, a title (and chapter epigrams) lifted from Francis Bacon's Renaissance work of the same name. It's a campus murder mystery: efficient, witty, well-plotted and with a real sense of HE in 1971, but astonishingly and authorially sexist (women are always and only characterised by the size and shape of their breasts - in one case, 'hive-shaped', which beats me). A shame: I enjoyed his Austen pastiche, The Price of Butcher's Meat. Next week's classes aren't quite so coordinated: Ballard's short stories, Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee, Jilly Cooper's Riders and another session on The Tempest. 

I'm also reading a PhD on masculinity in Welsh twentieth-century fiction, MA dissertations on drugs in dystopian SF and on reason in Winstanley and Milton's works, and racing through a collection of essays on working-class fiction for the event I'm chairing tomorrow at Birmingham Literature Festival. An ironic cheer to the publisher for getting the book to me…today. I did manage to get along to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an hour, for research purposes: Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson were plugging their books. It was very low-calorie entertainment and mostly covered Brexit in various depressing ways, but I got some useful material by listening to the audience and observing the authors' throwaway comments on being a politician novelist. Johnson went for the full sprezzatura effect, claiming never to have been a serious politician or writer, while Cable saw his novel as a way of exploring the effect of political life on the soul – closer to the didactic tradition. Johnson's latest is a cut-and-paste job ramming together the Trump and Brexit stories as products of a Russian plot. At the event he announced that he thinks Angela Merkel is a Russian spy (echoing one of the mouth-breathers who shouted out the same theory on Question Time recently), and that having been a Remainer, he now thinks Britain will leave the EU with no problems at all ('I wake up every morning and wonder why you're all so worried: what's the problem?'). Sigh.

I also staffed an Open Day on Saturday. Having sent a snottogram to our highly-paid, bonus-culture directors about the mean-spiritedness of withdrawing the limp cheese sandwich traditionally provided to staff and students who gave up their Saturday, I was cynically fascinated by the queue of managers lining up to claim that it was nothing to do with them, out of their hands and something they disagreed with. Sustenance apart, there was an uptick in visitor numbers, though I confess to being shocked that families are checking universities out while their children are still doing GCSEs. Given that my taster class contrasted Jilly Cooper's sex-and-showjumping novels with BS Johnson's book-in-a-box I was a  touch worried about innocent youngsters' being debauched, but it seemed to work OK.

But all this is mere hackwork compared to the Magnum Opus of the week: writing the Course Academic Enhancement Report, the annual masterplan that will transform NSS lead into TEF gold, or something. And on that note, I'd better get back to it.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Random Ramblings at the end of a long week

I'm not sure I have any coherent thoughts this week. It's the end of our first week of proper lectures. I've met a largish number of enthusiastic new students (though not as many as previous weeks), welcomed back the existing ones, and plunged headlong into a dizzying array of modules. This week I've discussed Hall and Althusser with the third-years, John Ball, Froissart's Chronicles and Piers Plowman with the second years, talked with an overlapping group of second-years about whether the Renaissance is a meaningful term and what happens to those cultures and texts which are either included or excluded, and got an entire MA module on JG Ballard going (mmm…alienated). Enormously enjoyable of course, but I'm preparing an awful lot of new material in one go. I don't let modules or text drag on, preferring to refresh everything after about three years, but this year is feeling daunting. Next week's menu is The Tempest, Gerrard Winstanley's writings, some Ballard short stories and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem and the contested nature of Englishness.

I'm also nipping off to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for an evening of Vince Cable and Stanley Johnson promoting their novels- Cable's is a debut novel, while Stanley-Father-Of-Boris has produced quite a number over the years: I've bought them both but not yet read them. A few years ago my research colleague and I had our own slot at the CLF discussing politicians' novels, with Michael Dobbs on the panel. Our research is going slowly (see the first paragraph of this post) but I try to attend events like this to keep an eye on the way politicians frame their creative work and what audiences think. I also had a letter on the subject in the TLS last week, and someone sent in a follow-up too.

My collection of politicians' writings also gained some new entrants this week. The first was Sir Stuart Bell's Paris Sixty-Nine, long fabled as a suppressed self-published pornographic novel by the MP for Middlesbrough. In his later years he became a Commissioner of the Church of England, basically the CofE's ambassador to Parliament, and was rather reluctant to acknowledge this saucy little number. It's not actually pornographic in the sense that there are entire chapters without sex scenes, but those scenes are revolting conceptually and in literary terms. Obviously this is a family blog and I won't scar your eyeballs with quotation, but I will say that they read like the work of someone who had never met a woman, or at least not one for whom he'd ever had any respect.

Bell was accused of being Britain's laziest MP – no constituency surgeries in 14 years – but he devoted quite a lot of time to writing autobiographical short stories, some of which made into print, and the rest made available on his website for years after his death (sadly, no more). As the New Statesman implied, he had quite a high opinion of himself:
Stuart Bell MP has written another novel, Binkie's Revolution (the first in a trilogy), which chronicles the lives and loves of several families, beginning in Durham mining villages around 1900 and ending (two novels hence) in the election of the first president of the United States of Europe. The style is so fluent and racy it carries the reader along. We know this to be true, because the author says so in a five-page handout that also explains how to order the book from his publishing arm, Spen View Publications. It's being a Church Estates Commissioner that 'as made 'im so 'umble.
I haven't read Binkie's Revolution yet, but it vaguely echoes Edwina Currie's The Ambassador, which is set in a future united Europe in which the transcontinental ruling class has genetically engineered itself to retain power forever, despite the sterling efforts of a lovely English woman, a brash US ambassador and a supporting cast of outrageously stereotyped ethnic minorities.  Sadly, while there is a sequel to Binkie's Revolution on Kindle only, Bell appears never to have finished the trilogy.

The other politician's work that turned up this week is one of the very rarest and most beautiful (and expensive) books I've ever got my paws on. Lord Lymington's Spring Song of Iscariot was published in 1929 in an edition of 125 by the fabled Parisian artisan Black Sun Press, which also put out work by Sterne, Poe, Lawrence and Joyce in similarly tiny numbers. It comes in a complicated slipcase, is printed on beautiful paper with an exquisite typeface. Sadly the poetry is pretty woeful: bursting with the kind of imagery you'd get if a Vogon had eaten Freud and developed an obsession with Ezra Pound.

In a way I'm not too saddened by this, because after Lord L stopped being an MP for Basingstoke, he devoted his time to being a full-time Nazi, starting in the mystically-inclined blood-and-soil ruralist group English Mistery, then the English Array, the British People's Party and ultimately Kinship in Husbandry, several of whose members contributed their viciously racist and mystical ideas of purity to what became the now-respectable Soil Association. He ended up emigrating to Kenya with the rest of the despicable crew of toffs who made up the remains of the Happy Valley set.

Lymington's interesting though. Not many professional politicians wrote poetry at all (though some of the Welsh-speaking Liberal and Labour MPs did), and none associated with hardcore modernists. While the poetry isn't much good, it's ambitious and far removed generically and intellectually from the usual concerns of politician-authors. I'm not expecting Stanley Johnson or Vince Cable to start going on about the Pillars of the Womb, for instance.

Anyway, that's your lot: I've got tomorrow's Open Day talk to prepare. I think I'll leave readings from Bell's and Lymington's works until they've signed up…