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.

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