Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Know your price

Yesterday saw the first day of the UCU strike: staff at 60+ universities walking out – against their instincts – to highlight the enormous drop in wages over time, the repeated reductions in pension provision, the virus of casualisation and the obscene gender pay gap at all levels in universities. HE institutions have never been richer, but staff haven't had an above-inflation rise since 2008, which cumulatively means an 18% pay cut.  At the same time, senior managements have expanded enormously and their pay packets have ballooned beyond all reason.

For me, casualisation is the worst bit: the generation behind me is being treated appallingly. Even the lowest-paid, fractional posts are attracting applicants with PhDs, publications and multiple books with reputable publishers who have never held a permanent or full-time post even by their 30s. They are expected to produce the work of a professor back in the day while being paid less than their peers who didn't contract the 6 years of extra debt required to take an MA and a PhD, the minimum requirements to get any hourly-paid teaching. Heaven forfend that they might want to have a family, live in a house or buy the occasional avocado. The result will be social shrinkage: only those with extensive family wealth will be able to take on even a bursaried PhD and casual teaching, and the skills and insights of those from poorer backgrounds will be lost.

My university union branch voted to strike, but the turnout was so low that we didn't meet the government's new 51% turnout minimum. I think my colleagues are exhausted, depressed and insecure - despite our leaderships' massive salaries for strategic thinking, student numbers have plummeted and the future is not looking rosy.

With their usual tin-ear for mood, our VC decided that the first day of the strike was the perfect moment to circulate this message:
FREE Thank You film screenings As a thank you for the hard work of our staff this academic year and their ongoing contributions to the University’s success, the Vice-Chancellor invites you to two special FREE film screenings at the xxxxx Theatre. There is a showing of the award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody on Thursday 28 November at 5.30pm, while you can get in the mood for Christmas with festive favourite Elf on Wednesday 4 December at 5.30 pm.
Now I'm struggling to imagine the Renumeration Committee offering the VC a free cinema ticket as a reward for his hard work, and I'm struggling even harder to imagine him accepting it in lieu of his habitual £10,000 extra every year. If this email had started with the second clause (Claus?), 'The VC invites you…', my vicious little brain wouldn't be filled with images of Marie Antoinette bearing cake* and mortar-boarded sans-culottes dragging a guillotine into the quad – I might even have been touched even though I don't particularly want to see a film about a band that knowingly broke the artistic boycott of apartheid South Africa (and anyway, I'm still teaching past 5.30: the academic schedule is 9-9). Seriously: that one clause demonstrates an entire world-view in which those who do the actual work (not just lecturers) are tiny ant-like creatures beneath consideration.

But no. This is a leadership which has colluded with its counterparts across the country to depress our wages while regularly rewarding themselves enormous pay rises funded by student debt, and they dare to insult us with this rubbish. Rather than treating us a fungible assets to be sweated then disposed of, why not reward us for our 'hard work' and 'ongoing contributions' with actual cash either now or in our pensions. I once worked night shifts at British Gas (don't worry readers: nowhere near any actual gas infrastructure but if your address isn't listed on any gas providers' databases, that's my fault). We were paid £1.98 per hour and when the proletariat flagged a little, the fastest workers were publicly 'rewarded' with a Mars Bar at around 4 a.m., while the slowest workers were publicly shamed and fired each week. Thank heavens those days are gone, eh?

It's not even a matter of one out-of-touch fat cat: this communication must have gone through several hands and nobody thought it patronising or provocative. My colleagues work hard. There's a massive culture of overwork: my boss is doing 14 hour days coping with increasing administration and demands that he find ways to save our subjects, while my PhD students and hourly-paid colleagues work way more hours than they're paid for. A chance for one of a limited number of free tickets to a second-run film doesn't cut it.

If this is going to be a regular thing though, I have some more appropriate suggestions:
It's A Wonderful Life (starring the VC as Mr Potter)



The Lego Movie

Merry Christmas, one and all!

*Forget the cake: staff who work unpaid at open days were invited to use the water fountains at no charge.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Escaping into popular fiction

This has been an exhausting but exhilarating week, and next week promises to be more of the same. Lots of my colleagues have been doing Black History Month and Being Human events - psychogeographic walks, story-telling performances, masterclasses and the like – all of which are good for us as much as wider society: it's great to get out and talk to strangers about the things we and hopefully they are enthusiastic about.

I've also hit a run of good classes - today was Jilly Cooper's Riders, a novel which pretty much single-handedly encapsulates 1980s conservative feminism and is the perfect vehicle for all the cultural studies-influenced things we do here with popular fiction. For instance: we talk about how and why one could or should make room for a 900 page novel in one's life; about popular fiction as a vehicle for serious ideological and social perspectives, and how pop fic can be used to track social change.

In some ways Riders is fairly progressive: it's very positive about sex toys and women's sexual pleasure as an end in itself, but it's also deeply reactionary (posh people shouldn't be expected to conform to conventional sexual morality but admired for breaching it) and has aged extremely badly: it's attitudes towards older men having sex with younger women are echoed these days by Prince Andrew and virtually nobody else. It also contains two rape scenes, neither of which are taken particularly seriously and one of which is concluded with the rapist-hero making a knob gag. None of this, you may be unsurprised to learn, is mentioned in the breathless, cheery interviews Jilly gives whenever she publishes a new bonkbuster. Only snowflakes and academics ('hairy-legged' if they're female, 'bearded' and 'goaty' if they're male) care about this stuff. Oh, and teaching a book which praises Franco and whose German characters 'goose-step' and make Nazi salutes for a laugh is a bit uncomfortable in a class with more Spanish and German students than British ones.

Next week I'm teaching Armistead Maupin's Babycakes in American Literature - it's the fourth in his Tales of the City series and I picked it partly as an example of serial fiction, partly because it has a transatlantic plot, party because it's the volume in which Aids signals the end of the party, but mostly because it's a brilliant example of the wrenching you have to do to traditional realist fiction to include homosexual lives – when you can't tie everything up neatly with a heterosexual marriage and children, you have to wholly reconsider how novels work. Babycakes (like some of the others in the series) is funny, witty, chatty and moving, but Maupin struggles every time to convert stylish newspaper columns into a novel because he clearly knows that plots and resolutions are corny and artificial. Wilde knew that too, and employed irony and pastiche to signal it, but Maupin adds on plots in an unconvincing way – which is a shame because pretty much everything else about the series is perfect.

I'm staying in North America for the next class: Anne of Green Gables in Children's Literature, which I read it as a mix of colonial and postcolonial attitudes. Influenced by the other two children's novels I just read (Pixie O'Shaughnessy and Nancy Finds Herself), I see Anne as another Irish or Celtic subaltern whose romantic, impractical nature can infuse the Presbyterian Anglo-Scottish Canadian dominant culture with heart, while requiring her to submit to Anglo rationality and stolidity - both the other novels value the other-worldly ethereality and happy-go-lucky nature of the Irish and Welsh while accepting that those nations are helpless without English leadership, a very Arnoldian construction of Celticity (see also my paper on Celts in video games).

Once the two are united, Canada becomes a real place, eventually taking its place in the world by shedding the blood of its sons. In the sequels, Anne's hair gradually darkens and one of her sons dies in WW1. In real life, Montgomery was a leading supporter of Canadian involvement and one of the reasons she committed suicide in 1942 was guilt at her responsibility. I know this reading is a long way from the romantic comedy of popular perception, but it makes a lot of cultural sense to me. I'm also lucky that I'll be teaching it alongside my flame-haired PhD student, who will no doubt be responding to it in a more personal sense!

At the end of the week I'm teaching Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve but it's a long time since I read it and I can't remember what I thought then other than 'wow'. I'm sure I'll scare up some more detailed reckons by the time the class rolls by. There's so much going on that I'm opting out of keeping up with the election campaign's trail of lies, and the Trump Ukraine enquiry - exhaustion is no excuse for disavowing a citizen's duties but I get the distinct impression that the knowing employment of fake news tactics and extreme posturing is political tactic designed to leave us passive and incapable of coherent resistance. If so, it's definitely working. I'll still be voting though…

Friday, 15 November 2019

On not meeting Boris Johnson, and other stories

I've had a great week in terms of teaching: two Margaret Atwood novels either side of last weekend (The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman), Northern Lights (every time I schedule a text, the gods of TV programming air an adaptation), and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit today, a classic novel for discussing the intersection of alternative sexualities and alternatives to phallocentric narrative style. I'm not sure my mostly overseas students got the Lancashire humour elements, but I hope they enjoyed this class and the other texts as much as I did. It's so enjoyable to re-read old favourites, especially when they stand up so well. I bought my copies of the Atwood novels in 1994 on the proceeds of the Sir Henry Jones Philosophy Prize (alongside some Calvin and Hobbes, not Calvin and Hobbes), and the Pullman in 2000, immediately buying everything else he'd written and thus considerably delaying the process of my PhD.

I do have a tendency towards completism in books and music – once I decide I like an author or a band I'll read everything they've written or recorded whether they're any good or not. I've learned nothing from owning the complete works of every band and solo act associated with New Order, from Freebass (very much not the sum of its parts) to The Other Two (wonderful), nor from the endless ranks of Trollope, Hardy and Keith Roberts (tip: Pavane is essential, the rest less so).

There hasn't been much time for non-course reading, other than the massive list of REF outputs I have to attach a subjective number to, but I did get through Kate Charlesworth's A Girl's Guide to Sensible Footwear, which I can't recommend highly enough. I've always liked her cartoons, and this graphic novel combining post-war lesbian history and her autobiography is beautifully drawn (especially her affectionate pastiches of her favourite childhood comics) and just so enormously moving. Teaching Winterson's novel today meant I've been thinking about narrative and how to wrench traditional patriarchal/hegemonic forms to make room for non-heterosexual lives, and Charlesworth does it with apparent ease. It's funny, it's sad (especially her relationship with her mother, and the swathe Aids cut through her social circle), it's hugely knowledgeable and subtle. If it has a fault it's its self-deprecation: she's an important artist. Not sure what's next: perhaps Dan Simmons's Hyperion, through I really should refresh my memory of John Barth's short stories, Noughts and Crosses and Riders for next week's classes.

Apart from work, the high point of the week was a performance of Còsi Fan Tutte - not a full staging, just non-costumed singers doing a bit of acting, and an orchestra using period instruments. I'm not a huge fan of the baroque instrument thing - it can get a bit precious - but the singers were astonishing. Even though I prefer the rougher music of the medieval and contemporary periods, I was in awe of what the human voice can do. I could have done without the surtitles though: it turns out that this thing of beauty was essentially three hours of Italian Lads' Banter (plot: older man demonstrates to naive young men that like all women, their betrothed are slags, and that happiness lies in loving them anyway). The trickster maid, Despina, was the best part.

The Prime Minister was here on Monday. Assured of a slavish welcome from the local rag, he turned the remembrance day ceremony nearby into a stop on the campaign trail, doing his serious face for as long as he could manage before moving 20 metres into the nearest pub to do his man of the people act. If I were the organisers of the parade I'd feel used, but clearly others feel differently. At least I resisted the temptation to pop along and read out choice quotations from his comic novel about suicide bombers, some of which is set in this area, and not in a nice way. His father Stanley also wrote appalling thrillers - no doubt public-school confidence explains their slapdash, lazy style.

The one thing about being extra-busy at the moment is that I'm not glued to coverage of the cheapest, nastiest election campaign in living memory. I'll encourage my students to vote, turn up on polling day and pull the duvet back over my head. I'm thoroughly depressed by the diminishing space available for serious and informed debate - instead it's fake meet-and-greets for the cameras and lies in the studio and on the front page. There was once a political party in the US called the Know-Nothings. When did this become a collective national aspiration? I may have failed to get a job in Ireland this year, but my citizenship means there'll be a seat for me on the airlift when you lot turn to cannibalism in about 2021.

Anyway, that's enough doom and gloom - I intend to be out on my bike this weekend, blowing away the cobwebs. See you next week,

Friday, 8 November 2019

Mugged in Cheltenham

Week Six in the Big Academia house and the inmates are getting restless. Assignments are due. Attendance is down. Eyes are bleary.

My colleagues decided not to go on strike this time. A majority of those who voted opted for strike action on pay and conditions but the turnout was shamefully low - 29%. No doubt those in the first-class suites upstairs will assume that we're all delighted with the 0.1% pay rise that followed 10 years of below-inflation settlements, but that's far from the truth. The casualisation of HE is the major issue - whole generations of cutting-edge researchers and teachers have never had a permanent or full-time job, and yet are expected to produce the same volume and quality of research (in some ways more) as the tenured generation. Also, many of my colleagues feel that it doesn't matter whether institutions that cater for the poor and provincial go on strike anyway. It only makes the newspapers and politicians' radars when their or their kids' colleagues strike. There are – as recent discussion of election and term dates demonstrated – only two universities which qualify for attention.

As it happens I visited another non-university yesterday, in a delightful Georgian spa resort. Different intake from mine (pretty much all-white, all middle-class) but facing the same funding, staffing and entry challenges, but providing excellent, distinctive and enjoyable modules. I was there to examine a PhD – a scary but important thing to do. After that, I immediately went and blew the fee on old books. I was looking for RS Thomas poetry and Left Book Club volumes but bought one bilingual edition of Welsh mythology and some old children's books with Celtic elements - next year's Association for Welsh Writing conference is about childhood, learning and education (I'm co-organising it) so I'm thinking of doing colonial-Celtic constructions of children, including Anne of Green Gables: clearly a wild Irish girl who has to submit to WASP values while softening their edges.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy which left me bereft of cash 

Pixie is a 'wild Irish tornado' who needs taming by her English classmates in Mrs Vaizey's Religious Tract Society novel from 1902

A fine translation of Wales's oldest manuscript

Classic boarding school didacticism. For a history of such novels, read You're A Brick, Angela!

Not what you're thinking: in Olive Dougan's novel Nancy goes to boarding school and learns to dispense with the Welsh side of her Welsh-English heritage, to become a proper human being. 
Just a pretty sign on a now-converted old pub.

I'm off to teach Atwood's Handmaid's Tale now, and on Monday it's her Edible Woman, about which I'm very excited. I taught Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service earlier this week – Moomins weren't quite so popular but those who read The Owl Service seemed appropriately disturbed. I still think it's one of the most complex, dark and disturbing teen novels ever written. You can watch the whole terrifying 1970s ITV adaptation here

Thanks to all that, I haven't read much outside course texts. I'm most of the way through The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and appreciating its ingenuity more than I'm enjoying it.  Not sure what will be next. I also waved farewell to my Canadian astrophysicist friend. He bequeathed me about a decade's supply of fine whiskies and some bookcases, so I intend to get hammered and try to reshelve everything this weekend. The Dewey system won't know what's hit it.

More next week.

Monday, 4 November 2019

In weary haste

Apologies for the slight delay in transmission - no blog last week because I've been so busy. Lots of new lectures to write, a PhD examination to prepare and various other more tedious things getting in the way of me coming up with any new opinions on anything worth sharing with you all. The more heated public discussions become the less I want to participate. Oh well, at least my dentist's appointment was cancelled!

Still, however exhausting teaching was, it's been fun. A Streetcar Named DesireHaroun and the Sea of Stories (up there with The Phantom Tollbooth in my view) and Caitlín Moran's How To Be A Woman all generated interest and opinion from the students (young Marlon Brando still brings a good many of the students to the yard). It was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest today (not enough people had read it to get a good discussion going but we did introduce them to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), Comet in Moominland and The Owl Service tomorrow, and The Handmaid's Tale on Friday. The problem with The Owl Service is that while it's one of the most complex and disturbing adolescent novels ever written, Garner got his structuring mythical interpretation of the core Welsh myth from Robert Graves, whose Triple Goddess theory is both bizarre and deeply misogynist.

I did manage to read a couple of things apart from course texts this week. Ken MacLeod's Descent has an awful lot of fun merging near-future Scottish post-crash economics, close encounters of the third kind, genetics, religious exploration and surveillance culture to make a clever, witty and thought-provoking novel. John Le Carré's new one, Agent Running in the Field was a bit disappointing. Some nice characterisation, some satisfying rants, but the central twist is unintentionally obvious from the first few pages – a bit problematic when the narrator is meant to be an elite spy. I liked Michael Frayn's The Russian Interpreter – a 1966 comic novel about an inept English graduate student in Moscow getting tangled up in espionage – very much. It hasn't really dated at all and is very funny. My next book will be Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle because it sounds clever and funny. Just what I need.

In the meantime, tomorrow sees the departure of my friend Dean for ever. Exhausted by the relentless hostility and incompetence of British HE (not my institution this time), he's heading back to Canada for the first time in 20 years, determined never to darken the doors of a university ever again. I'll miss his sense of the outrageous, his idea of what constitutes a well-balanced whiskey and ginger, his habit of hate-reading the Financial Times at weekends, his dry sense of humour and scathing disregard for any astrophysics on a smaller scale than galaxy interactions, which is his speciality. Having shared an office with a Nobel winner, he's allowed to describe most of his field as 'parochial' and 'planet-chasers'! He'll be much missed.