Friday, 2 March 2018

On being slightly, temporarily, Twitter-famous

OK, I need to define my terms first. Being Twitter-famous means, as far as I can see, having a spike in retweets of something you've said rather than being actually famous (which I wouldn't want), and being picked up by 'news' outlets that privilege cutting-and-pasting (also here and here) over doing their own journalism. The second and final phase of being temporarily popular is a wave of pornographic twitter-bots following you. The current giveaway is 'cosplay', and I feel sorry for the original cos-players, who seem like a harmless bunch. I industriously block any account that's either fake, commercial or insincere: currently about 16000. I think that if this was the Counter-Reformation I'd have consigned enormous numbers of people to eternal hellfire in the blink of an eye.

I seem to have accidentally and temporarily become Twitter-famous for doing two things: posting three satirical gifs to illustrate the posh universities' Vice-Chancellors' attitudes towards their staff, who spent the week taking noisy, exciting and witty industrial action against swingeing cuts in their pensions.

One used the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally to illustrate the VC's reaction to USS finding a new way to rip off even retired employees, another took The Hunt for Red October as a metaphor for academics' ability to parse small print (it seemed funny at the time), and the third likened VCs crying poverty to Scrooge McDuck's plutocratic ways, though I could have used this one:

I guess the Frankfurt School would consider such lazy and snide repurposing of commercial art to be degenerate mass culture, but I prefer to thing of it as postmodern remix culture. And definitely not 'goofing off'. What I have learned this week is that a modicum of wit gets a message a long way – whether it has any meaningful effect is another matter entirely.

The other bit of tweeting that nearly broke my phone was simple outrage. I read the Public Appointments Commissioner's report on the Office for Students recruitment process. It turns out that Toby Young got a phone call from the Minister for Universities telling him to apply; that is disgusting social media history wasn't examined; that the social media of all the candidates for the student post were examined; that 133 students applied and none of them got the job; that special advisers to the Prime Minister rejected all the qualified candidates because they had histories of being involved in student representation (I know…) and/or of disagreeing with Conservative Party policy; that the eventual student representative appointed didn't apply for the job: she was found (how? nobody knows) and had her social media deleted on her first day: we know literally nothing about her beyond her name; that the Department of Education deliberately tried to hide evidence from the inquiry.

As a thoroughgoing study in corruption, the Office for Students is a case study in what happens when cynicism meets incompetence. It's the kind of thing dropped in the edits of an episode of The Thick of It. The Office for Students, which launched this week with no apparent shame, is meant to be a kind of watchdog in the Higher Education sector. It is in fact a device to promote privatisation, to deprofessionalise academics, to turn students from scholars to customers, and to abolish the autonomy of universities as any kind of counterweight to the neoliberal model.

What links these two odd events in my week? Well, the public outrage at the Toby Young story and the widespread support from students, newspapers, the public and even some Vice-Chancellors for the striking lecturers. While many of us, inside and out, have reservations about HE in practice, people are supportive of education as a site of critique and resistance, and (except for my brother) view striking academics not as greedy individualists, but as representatives of a worldview that can't be reduced to profit and loss. While a number of very famous institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge have been caught trying to rip off their employees while hiding behind the skirts of Universities UK, it's been heartening to see other senior education leaders defending the principles of autonomous education and the financial structures required to keep them viable.

This was certainly not the case when my own university and sister institutions in the Teachers' Pension Scheme took industrial action. My institution's leaders – despite landing eye-watering pay rises themselves – have never spoken in favour of staff getting pay rises above inflation (now a full decade) or of protecting employee pensions. Some speak of keeping the institution viable; others crudely talk about us as fungible assets to be sweated. Our strike had no effect: ex-polys lack the cultural capital that gets us onto the front pages of broadsheet newspapers, and ministers' children are unlikely to be inconvenienced and the ministers themselves rarely angle for the post-retirement mastership of any institution that doesn't have a High Table. (One day I'll give you my full Why Do Even Good Progressive People In The Establishment Only Ever Take Sinecures At Oxbridge Colleges Yes I'm Looking At You Will Hutton And Rowan Williams rant. It's not pretty).

If that sounds sour, it's not meant to be: the majority of academics at pre-92 universities are progressive, caring people who fully uphold the values of egalitarian liberalism, and many of them in medieval sandstone buildings have worse terms and conditions than we denizens of the concrete academy. I've been massively impressed by their sacrifices, wit and ingenuity in the snow this week and I hope they succeed.

Of course, I have done plenty of actual work this week. As soon as I'd finished outlining the sorry tale of a man chosen on obscure grounds by a mysterious process run by unpleasant characters to do a job he was utterly unqualified for, leading to shame and dishonour, I taught Macbeth to those few first-years who find the idea of a drama module taught in a theatre with working actors and directors as well as academics at all interesting (OK, now I'm sounding sour, and rightly so). I enjoyed it, anyway. I've also had a meeting with my new research mentor, whose first question was 'what are you submitting to REF 2027?' Oh god oh god oh god. It turns out that I've agreed to rebuild the Great Library of Alexandria solely with my own outputs. I did also send off two conference paper proposals though: one on Celtic representation in video games (planning to use Billig's Banal Nationalism to explore that, alongside an argument that Celticism is used to represent an ineffable mush of spirituality that's viewed as cute but outdated, and that all Celts are basically used as interchangeable Others, other than Drippy) and another on food and kitchens in contemporary Welsh literature. If the audience is good I might bake them some Welsh cakes.

I've also been down to London to do my External Examining at an East London branch of the Open University. It's a tiny place attached to an FE college, catering to the most deprived and put-upon students in the country and it's brilliant: the course is superb and the students do astonishingly well. As I listen to the list of hardships the students face ('deported', 'homeless', 'sister recently murdered') and overcome, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the VCs, their pornstar martinis and business-class mind-sets.

The rest of the week has been spent reading a PhD on Tolkien, Pullman, eco-labyrinthicity and Christianity, still reading Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, and staring out at the snow. Despite a couple of slides yesterday, cycling in it was wonderful: still and silent, just the sound of my Kojak tyres crunching through fresh powder and the wind whistling around me. Despite the ice, it's been safe too: drivers are being ultra-cautious. The best news of the last week or so has been my colleague Daisy Black's elevation: she's been chosen as a BBC New Generation Thinker, and will be positively infesting the airwaves with her views on medieval culture for the next year or so.

And on that note, I think I'd better go: it's snowing heavily and the wind's getting up. The office supplies consist of 6 biscuits, a jar of olives, a bottle of Chartreuse, some wine and some tobacco: an interesting cocktail but not really a balanced diet. Instead, I'm going home with this PhD dissertation. I'll ignore the ironing and cleaning, light the fire and settle in. But not before feeding last night's baking to the birds. It turns out that if you buy one of those bread mix packets designed for bread machines, then leave it in a cupboard for almost three years, the yeast dies and you get an inedible rugby ball-shaped object capable of breaking a toe. If I judge the trajectory right, I can bounce it off my noisy neighbour's head on the way to feeding my feathery friends.

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