Friday, 29 June 2018

Midsummer madness

Bit of an odd week.
Firstly, let's talk about the weather.
I hate it. I evolved, as far as the genealogy suggests, a waterproof skin perfectly adapted to digging peat from a bog in the rain. I have worked hard to avoid adding to climate change: no car, no children, almost no flights ever (currently averaging one every 6 years, solely for work) and yet people with SUVs, air conditioners, holidays and commuting are burning me to a crisp. As I cycle to and from work I sometimes wonder why even that altruistic act qualifies me for a faceful of poisonous exhaust and abuse simply to make more room for flatulent drivers of flatulent cars.

On the up side of this week, I spent two days in Swansea acting as external examiner for their MA in Welsh Writing in English. It's a good course taught by inspirational people at a university in a park opposite the beach. If there's a league table of Universities With Beaches, Swansea must be near the top, alongside Bangor, Aberystwyth, Bournemouth and (in a few years' time) Cambridge.

On the down side, my colleagues and I all got letters telling us whether or not our jobs are in danger. It's not the declining applications that get to us. Nor do we think that any course has a god-given right to exist. It's being sent inaccurate letters by incompetent people based on untrue calculations by people with no understanding of our subjects, little or (in some cases) no experience of teaching and who have no concern for teaching quality, workload, sustainability, student experience or research. Having failed on a spectacular level to keep the ship afloat, they're throwing us off the side while clinging to the topmost mast, still collecting the bonuses and bellowing orders down at those of us in the water.

Despite my letter congratulating me on moving from a job I haven't had in four years to the job I've been doing for four years (not a surprise: they're also telling me that they haven't lost my pension, only the records relating to my pension), I'm as angry and despondent as my targeted colleagues – what does one say to those in the firing line that's at all meaningful? All the ideologically loaded, statistically-meaningless things we've been bullied into doing – TEF ratings NSS satisfaction, REF outputs that distort actual research – have suddenly and conveniently been dumped in pursuit of short-term gains to protect those in private offices who won't pay any kind of price for their failure. I run a big course and a couple of associated ones. We're down to the bare bones: a small group of utterly brilliant colleagues with no duplication of specialism. Lose some, and we lose not just bodies in classrooms but swathes of expertise needed to meet the subject benchmarks.

Needless to say, when my colleagues are fired, the survivors' workloads will (as usual) be way above the contractual maximum. There is a culture of overwork in all universities, but this time it's serious. Redundancy is a legal term used by employers when specific work no longer exists. If my employers fire people and still overload others' workloads and/or employ teaching cover, it's tacit recognition that the work does still need doing, and that the redundancies are bogus. So this time I'm declining anything that breaches my contract because to do otherwise is to connive with managers to get rid of my colleagues.

There's plenty more where that came from, but I'll save it for the next instalment. Instead: books. I seem to be on an accidental Manchester kick at the moment, which is fine because it's one of my favourite cities. Having re-read Jeff Noon's Pollen, I'm most of the way through Stevie Davies's Impassioned Clay, an intriguing mix of academic, historical and sexual identities set in the previously under-appreciated south-of-Manchester towns and villages (the title is from Keats and also the title of a Llewelyn Cowper Powys long essay). Very highly recommended. After that, it's on to Hugh Lupton's loose and interesting-looking new Mabinogi translation, The Assembly of the Severed Head, Nicholas Daly's Literature, Technology and Modernity 1860-2000 and Huw Osborne's much-lauded Queer Wales.

But tonight, as my reward for writing the programme notes (successfully avoiding being sacked for glossing last year's The Tempest as a piece of Brexit madness), I'm off to see Macbeth performed in the shadow of Stafford Castle, prefaced by a Gala glass of warm white wine!

Friday, 22 June 2018

A short ride in a fast week.

Funny week this week - lots and lots of the more formal end-of-year administration to do, much of it important but also quite tedious, alongside some more enjoyable things, all conducted amidst an atmosphere of mutinous fury.

The week's main activities were Boards: mark entry deadlines, internal results board, external results board, meeting our external examiner and arranging for him to spend some time with our students. It's not all wearing tweed and wowing people with our fabulous knowledge: marking is soul destroying because there's a lot of it to do in a short space of time. Then we moderate it. Then I get to check that all four forms have been completed for each module, after which I send them off to an underpaid External Examiner from another university who checks that the courses are intellectually appropriate, assessments are fair and challenging, support is sufficient and so on. He meets our students who give him their perspective and then we all get together to go through every module's results, theoretically identifying strengths and weaknesses as we go along. We do it all over again in a few weeks for Results Boards and Resit Boards. Most of the time it is amazingly boring, but it does mean each class and each student gets careful consideration at every level. This year, our externals very politely pointed out that getting rid of excellent colleagues and courses is a ridiculous course of action.

All this is conducted, naturally, during the annual round of newspaper stories claiming that university grades are being massively inflated. In actual fact, the posh universities hand out far more top-class degrees than places like mine, and we all spend a lot more time explaining to students exactly what constitutes good academic practice. I did a degree in the 90s: 'learning outcomes', 'marking criteria', 'academic skills' classes, draft review tutorials, mixed-mode assessments and the like didn't exist. We hand-wrote what we thought might be an acceptable essay and got a grade. No wonder students are doing better now: we support them a lot better. I was one of two people who got a First in my cohort: I expected a 2.2 and still couldn't explain what was expected of me beyond 'good writing' and 'ideas': but I was armed with the middle-class cultural and social capital that let me guess what constitutes these things. I spend time explaining to intelligent students with no HE cultural capital what I'm looking for, and it works. I also think that my students are over-assessed, but that's a whole other post.

I'm an external examiner too - at an Open University centre in East London and a Welsh university. The small fee isn't the point: it's a contribution to the health of the whole sector, and it's a chance to see how other courses run. And to steal their ideas, obviously (or share your own). It gives you a sense of how your field is developing and a chance to be a good citizen - it's one of the things that I do which feels important, however invisible it is. Quite a lot of this week has been spent reading work by students at these universities – while I'm massively proud of my own degree, I'd happily recommend anyone take their courses (if mine are oversubscribed, that is).

Other highlights of this week: my colleague Daisy Black gave a performance of her feminist Chaucer re-tellings, Unruly Woman, interspersed with #MeToo renditions of familiar and new folk songs; I went to a PhD progress presentation on digital poetry that was rather thrilling, I gatecrashed the Science faculty's conference to hear about the Big Read project my Faculty says it's too poor to join, and I interviewed a mid-PhD stage student to see how he's getting on. Having worked as an employment office adviser for years, he's doing a philosophy/ethnography project on wordlessness as a concept and his only problem is too many ideas – not a challenge I've ever faced, sadly. It was just excellent to meet people doing such exciting things in so many areas.

Not, however, as exciting as the delivery of my new, massively over-engineered steam generator. You may all think of me as a risk-taking, devil-may-care cultural, political and pedagogical provocateur, but those who meet me in meatspace are always struck by the crisp perfection of my natty outfits.* I iron everything, less as a hobby and more as a calling: where some people pray, meditate or paint trompe-l'oeil scenes on their chapel ceilings, I find fulfilment and calm in ironing. The death of my most recent one a week or so left a gaping void in my soul and indeed schedule, healed a few days ago by the delivery of a bigger, more powerful, state-of-the art that promises crease perfection.

Quite frankly, I feel like breaking a bottle of bubbly on its prow or saluting it with Also Sprach Zarathstra or Fanfare every time I switch it on. Mentioning this on Twitter attracted a flood of ironing-sceptics including some good friends for whom I previously had some respect. You people are animals. 

Obviously the advent of The Beast has considerably cut down on my reading time, but I did get through a couple of old favourites: Iain Sinclair's book-dealing-and-antiquarian-serial-killer psychogeographical novel White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings and Jeff Noon's wonderful Pollen. Both highly-recommended. 

*Not entirely accurate. Even the one tailored suit I own looks like I robbed it from some rough-living person of a totally different build then buried it for a while.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Definitely not another allegory of the week

High up in my Faculty's main building perches a nest of vicious, self-interested killers. Motivated solely by their own survival, they swoop down to pick off the weak and defenceless without regard for their victims, the future, the wider ecosystem or the needs of others. They have no predators, appear to be a protected species and float freely high above the busy, insecure and short lives of lesser creatures – like voles – scurrying about in the undergrowth. Their own short-term needs are satisfied without delay and that is all they need to know.

I speak, of course, of the peregrines which roost on the deep concrete ledges of the 7th floor, and not about Faculty management at all. You must all have either deeply cynical mindsets or a keen eye for analogy. Or perhaps both.

In completely unrelated news, our Faculty's restructuring plan has been circulated to everyone except the students and the students' union and it manages to pull off the twin achievements of being more hostile to the values of HE than expected and even more factually incorrect than the previous drafts. It's too much to expect a Dean of Arts to care about the Arts and Humanities, but these failings aren't even compensated by an ability to count. The faculty staff has passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in our 'leaders': the governors have ignored it and the VC has rejected it, so they now own the situation.

I am used to students crying in my office because we've produced a society and a scholarly atmosphere which imposes unconscionable pressures on them without justification: I am now getting used to my colleagues being reduced to tears and fury not just by management hostility but sheer incompetence and refusal to engage on factual matters. Still, it could be worse: Cardiff University ignored the pleas of one lecturer that he was overworked – including being required to mark 418 exam scripts in 20 days –  and he killed himself. My own employer is finding creative ways to reduce the appearance of overwork by removing time allocations for things like committee membership: colleagues will still be expected to serve, they just won't appear on documents. I was allocated time to write a book this year: 30 hours. I will be judged for not having written said book, but nobody will justify their insistence that 30 hours is enough. Meanwhile my own workload allocation was something like 300 hours over the contractual limit: we do the work because we care about students but my colleagues are being fired because there isn't, apparently, enough work to do. But it's OK: we'll be offered 'resilience training' to stop us feeling bad about a sick and sickening structure.

By the way, in addition to firing dozens of academic colleagues, the university is firing 36 of the 37 student support workers, who are to be outsourced. As you know, outsourcing always leads to secure, supportive employees doing a bang-up job for their clients with all the support they need…

Anyway, enough of this moaning. I've done nice things recently: took the boss for his first trip to Dublin where he thrilled at the graves of Jonathan Swift and Hester, paid homage to the dead of the Rising, and generally appreciated not being in Brexit Britain for a few days. I've read a couple of books (Lethem's Dissident Gardens, Blake's A Penknife in my Heart, Reeve's Station Zero) been fencing and watered the wisteria. I also popped down to London for a meeting of some of the Justice League of Academia, where we had our brains picked in return for a slap-up meal. Picking my brains lasted as long as it took to serve the amuses-bouche but I stuck it out for a couple more courses. Beforehand I strolled through Camden Lock market which was a vision of hell: my bedroom circa 1993 with added banal nationalism. Never again.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

You Play The Child Extremely

This week seems to have passed in a blur of marking and marking-related administration, but the weekend saw one of the highlights of the year: the English and Friends trip to the Globe Theatre. Students, staff, graduates and assorted others buy their own tickets and the Faculty pays for a bus. We go for lunch together, then take our chances with whatever's on at this time of year. We've seen some wonderful and some dreadful productions, in all sorts of weather: The Taming of the Shrew set in a Dublin tenement in 1916 was memorable for leaving us all completely baffled; Antony and Cleopatra took place in a thunderstorm so bad that the next day's newspapers all featured photos of lightning hitting the Shard building next door, while the poor actor who stepped in to play Antony that very morning tried to read a disintegrating script as he and the others slipped and fell every time they tried to move.

This year we saw Two Noble Kinsmen. It's hardly ever performed: I've never seen it, though I vaguely remember reading it as an undergrad. On paper it sounds quite dull: a version of Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale', a love triangle featuring Palamon and Arcite, two cousins who fall for the same woman – Emilia –  from their prison cell. The Arden Shakespeare describes it as 'a Jacobean dramatisation of a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance version of a Latin epic about one of the oldest and most tragic Greek legends'.

In the Shakespeare-Fletcher version, there's an unnamed Jailer's Daughter who goes mad with unrequited (unnoticed) love for one of the cousins, and a lot of morris dancing. Structurally, it's all over the place: the widowed Queens who feature so much in Act I are never seen again, while the Jailer's Daughter is bundled off and probably married well before the end.  The end isn't much cop either - a highly contrived settlement for the two young men, so equally matched.

On stage, it all worked gloriously: between Northern Broadsides' comedy chops, some astoundingly filthy gags appreciated most fully by the medieval drama specialist who sat next to me, Eliza Carthy's music and some hugely charismatic acting, particularly from Francesca Mills as the Jailer's over-sexed Daughter, it was two hours of excellent entertainment which made me wonder why it's not performed more often.

And now…back to the marking. Other than that, I'm halfway through Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens, which I'm mostly enjoying even though it feels a bit Great American Novel By Numbers.

Friday, 1 June 2018

A Play for All Seasons

I watched the BBC adaptation of King Lear the other night. I don't know if you are familiar with the plot, but a man incapable of running his fiefdom and more interested in status and baubles than hard work decides to hold a restructuring exercise based on incoherent whims, demonstrating along the way that he doesn't understand his vassals' duties or personalities, eventually finding out that bad management shares some qualities with the boomerang.

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death.

Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,--
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Only Cordelia, who points out that instigating a round of currying favour is no way to achieve success or to run a complex organisation, fails to join in the greedy, desperate grovelling and in-fighting that ensues:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Despite the sensible interjections of Kent:

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.

Cordelia's intransigence is felt not to fit with the kingdom's new mission statement or values and she and Kent are made redundant without even a notice period or compensation.

…take thy reward.
Five days we do allot thee, for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world;
And on the sixth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banish'd trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death.

Cordelia reluctantly heads off to a neighbouring institution which recognises her qualities, while Lear
sets off for a tour of his kingdom's new subsidiary units and finds himself neither welcomed nor treated in the manner to which he believes he is entitled. His new executives have their own priorities, and feeding a load of superfluous layabouts isn't amongst them:

your disorder'd rabble
Make servants of their betters.

despite Lear's claim that his management team are pushing the envelope of entrepreneurial skill:

My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know,
And in the most exact regard support
The worships of their name.

And as for those trying to do their best, but for a few who flee to France, their only solution is to speak in riddles and lay low:

No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.

Or else stand witness to folly, and bear the cost, as the Fool suggests:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,

It does not, need I say, end well for Lear or anybody else.

He eventually realises the error of his ways, having relied on the flattery of his closest confidantes

They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say 'ay'
and 'no' to every thing that I said!--'Ay' and 'no'
too was no good divinity. When the rain came to
wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when
the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I
found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are
not men o' their words: they told me I was every
thing; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

but culpable or innocent, most of the senior protagonists are soon departed, leaving behind a shattered wasteland and a shell-shocked population with - no doubt - a somewhat jaundiced view of top-down strategy, given that there's not much chance of this occurring:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

There's a vague hint of happier times ahead under new management, but it seems distinctly unlikely. Lear, though he saw the error of his ways, is not much missed:

 O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

The wonder is, he hath endured so long:
He but usurp'd his life.

and we bid farewell to this wretched place sadder, wiser, yet not empowered. 

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

And if you're wondering why I've treated you to this whistle-stop tour of high-handed ignorance and selfishness, why yes, it is an allegory. Have a good weekend. Tom's a-cold.