Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bye for now

Right, it's time to put my feet up.

I'm off on my holidays, by which I mean going somewhere else to prepare next semester's lectures and read a PhD thesis. But at least there will be a goat up a tower for symbolism. And rain.

See you all in a couple of weeks. Unless Donald and Jong-un manage to spark an all-out nuclear onslaught.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Back to reality

I don't spend all my time agonising over the state of academia. I also punch printers.

University of Darkplace
Network Printer Instructions

1.     Press Print
2.  Choose ‘Follow-You Printer’
3.     Walk to printer
4.     Touch ID card to sensor
5.     Read ‘No Jobs Received’
6.     Curse the day the printer salesman sold machine to gullible IT services rubes. Curse his/her parents, children, pets and pot-plants
7.     Walk back to office
8.     Email documents to Head of Department
9.     HoD walks to printer.
10.  HoD returns with documents. Apologise profusely and pretend that this will never happen again. You both know this is a damned lie. 
11.  Phone IT Services more out of habit than hope.
12.  Repeat thrice daily.

For more information, please re-read.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Full disclosure

The BBC salaries report has prompted me to do something I've had in mind for quite some time. I read a while ago that (now ex-)Google employee Erica Baker found the limits of her employer's openness when she circulated a spreadsheet with her salary on it, inviting others to join in.

All companies like to be secretive about salaries. This is partly because those in the magic circle get inflated salaries and bonus payments which are often way out of line with those awarded to the workforce, and partly because employees sharing their salaries leads to muttering in the ranks. This is certainly the case in HE. My VC's last recorded pay rise was of the order of 20%, in pursuit of the 'industry average': in my 8 years as a full-time academic I have never had a pay rise that exceeded inflation. In my four years as an elected staff governor, pay was never discussed in detail and I was excluded from the Renumeration Committee that decides on senior salaries, performance bonuses, and the university's stance on the the national pay award for teaching staff. The only fact I managed to establish was that senior management salaries are calculated after a confidential survey of management salaries across the sector, meaning that as long as they all stick together, there's never a chance of a below-inflation rise or a cut.

So here it is: my salary.

£48, 327.

I am 42, and have had a full-time academic job since 2008, when I was 32. At the moment I'm a Senior Lecturer and a Course Leader (i.e. I do all the validation and organisation for a couple of degrees but I don't manage people). Before that I took a long time to do an MA and a PhD, and taught as an hourly-paid lecturer in six different subject areas for 8 years. When things were tough, I did some supply teaching, which is why I admire teachers so much and feel so guilty about my behaviour in school. Well, some of it anyway. I also had a £6000 annual scholarship to do my PhD.

If you think 32 is late, the generations of academics behind me have it far worse. Being on a selection panel for an entry-level lecturing job was shaming: every single applicant had achieved more in terms of research, while doing huge amounts of teaching, while never having had a full-time job, a permanent job, or even a full-year job.

Salaries are not as transparent as they look either. Some academics negotiate, while others aren't aware it's possible, and there are ethnic and gendered aspects to this. I was once sitting next to a colleague who was offered a proper contract after working with us for years. To his enormous credit, the associate dean on the end of the phone talked her into accepting a higher salary than was technically on offer. I was also lucky: I'd taught for years in so many areas before the possibility of a part-time job came up that I quaveringly asked whether my length of service might justify making me a senior lecturer, and the panel agreed. I doubt this would ever happen now.

How do I feel about my salary? I feel rich. The average UK salary last year was £27,600. I live in a very poor area, so the gap is far wider. I have benefitted from being middle-class, white and male: lacking any one of these characteristics would result in a sharp drop: lacking all three dramatically reduces earning potential.

I do have other feelings about my salary, and they're mostly comparative. I work in a sector where managements work very hard to make sure that academic salaries fall behind while their own converge with industry. That annoys me. I feel that the long years of earning little or nothing (and therefore not contributing to a pension) and having no job security simply to acquire the qualifications and experience needed should be reflected in academic salaries. I'm also aware that this is my peak salary: the elevator stopped long ago, and insecurity is once more afield. I work hard to remind myself that my salary is way in excess of my neighbours and what most of my students will get, and that I don't even have a family to support. I mitigate the guilt by happily paying every tax I can, and by making sure that those earning less than me never buy the coffees: that's how it was when I had no money, and I'm just passing it on.

I also feel that I work hard for my salary. I have contracted hours, and they're officially exceeded by a significant amount every year, and unofficially exceeded by even more. Then there's the emotional labour involved in this kind of work: we don't just teach and write, we provide intellectual, cultural and emotional support to students and colleagues in ways that can't be quantified. The strong bonds between us means that there's a culture of overwork which is never acknowledged. It's true, however, that within a neoliberalised social system, being a lecturer in English Literature and a researcher in Welsh literatures is a luxury good. It shouldn't be, but it is.

So there we are. That's what I earn. I'm lucky to work in a sector with a national pay bargaining unit, and resigned to the ever-widening gap between my colleagues and our overseers. I'm conscious of the class, racial and gender bonus included in my salary. I don't aspire to riches, simply to security. I spend my money on books and train travel, and lust over extremely expensive bikes that I'll never be able to afford. I'd happily pay more tax and see a more level salary landscape, but I also think that there are a lot of people taking home a lot more tax for doing less useful work.

Don't feel you have to share your salary too - but do add your observations in the comments.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Ye Olde Annual 'Three Month Holiday' Post: special Adonis Edition

Every year, teachers and university lecturers are chaffed by friends and loved ones about their 'three month holiday'. Extrapolating from the sudden presence of children on the streets for 5-6 weeks, and dimly remembered long hazy undergraduate summers spent snorting marijuana and seeing Barclay James Harvest at the 100 Club (sub: check details?), they're under the impression that educators simply down tools in about mid-April, swan off to their agreeable second homes in Tuscany/the Hamptons, and read Iris Murdoch novels or translate Das Kapital into Serbian free verse.

This year, we have the added joy of an ermine-clad lord weighing in. You remember Andrew Adonis, don't you? That wonderful night in 1997 when after months of stump speeches and solid campaigning  he overturned a massive Tory majority in the constituency of…

Oh wait.

That was Stephen Twigg. Andrew Adonis was one of those white men in suits who went to a boarding school, then Oxford, did a short stint as a research fellow – having written a D.Phil on Politics and Aristocracy – and after a few years on the FT and the Observer, fortuitously found himself doing Politics amongst the Aristocracy courtesy of being made a Baron and a government minister by his fellow private-school/Oxford chum Tony Blair. It's almost as though sex, class and whiteness open the door to power and privilege…

So having never troubled himself to get elected to anything other than Oxford City Council, Andrew found himself in charge of education policy and landed with a permanent vote in the British legislature until he dies, and £300 per day just for turning up. Turning up, that is, on a schedule that makes his imagined university look positively Stakhanovite: roughly 130-145 days per year. Still, nice work if you can get it. But not the kind of lifestyle that entitles Andy to make comments like this:

My colleagues around the country have been slightly riled by this: the very best is a long, detailed exposition by Christina de Bellaigue, who knows the Oxford system inside out. Andy was a Junior Research Fellow in Oxford in the late 80s. Oxford wasn't representative of the HE section then (or now); a JRF was an untypical position with quite low formal expectations; HE was nowhere near as bureaucratised then as it is now; student numbers were much, much lower. And as Jonathan Healey of Oxford University points out, Dr Adonis's outputs were not exactly multi-volume works, despite being employed primarily as a research specialist.

One was a book based on his dissertation; the others are rather ephemeral – and not all peer-reviewed – to the point at which my research committee, at my not-even-in-the-league-tables HE institution, would be tutting and making pointed remarks about REF-ability.

Poor Baron Lord Doctor Adonis or however he's titled seems to have missed the expansion and bureaucratisation of higher education, despite having been the Father of Fees and the Minister for Academic Mayhem under New Labour. Many better academics than me are pointing out on Twitter that the '3 month holiday' is the period in which we: a) write new lectures for next year; b) get research done (the stuff that feeds into teaching and attracts funding, the only thing promotion and hiring panels give a stuff about; c; go through the results of every single student in the institution to work out whether they've passed or graduated this year; d) do the marking; e) do the resit marking; f) counsel students who've failed or just want to see us (79 appointments over the last month for me); present at conferences to make sure we're still current; examine other universities' courses to make sure they're up to scratch; attend administrative committees; sit on progression and results boards (2 in August in my case) and so on ad infinitum. And let's spare a thought for my colleagues on courses like nursing and medicine: while Andrew coped with 8 week terms, mine are 15 weeks long (with marking and prep in between) and health courses just carry on. Spare a thought too for all those hourly-paid and 10-month contract academics who produce the amazing new work required just to get a foot in the door, while not being paid for a single hour outside the classroom. No holiday pay, no pension, no lab space, no research hours, no payment for helping students outside the class: and still they get the books written. Like me, they will be judged on the quality of their research output, regardless of their working conditions or institutional structures. Was Lord Adonis measured and monitored in this way? I very much suspect not.

Although anecdotes aren't data, I thought I'd share my working situation with you. I'm pretty ordinary: I'm a course leader (which doesn't bring cash with it, just 150 hours to design and administer the whole damn thing). My contract theoretically divides 1597 hours p.a. between teaching, research, scholarly activity, administration and the rest. I counted up almost everything I do and found myself doing 2200 hours, and sent it off to the faculty committee so that they could take away some duties and make my workload conform to contract. Instead, they left every single duty on the sheet, but invented lower hourly tariffs. This year, they have decided that I can write a book – while being permanently present in my shared office of 14 people, and available to students at all times – in 30 hours. The fact is that all universities rely on academics and support staff putting in enormous amounts of unpaid and unrecorded labour simply because some of it pleasant and much of it will benefit the students that we care about. What's shocking is that they're happy to record some of it: while they've fiddled my workload data to falsify the stats, they've cheerfully left it significantly over the contracted hours because they know that I and my colleagues are too conscientious to leave work undone.

Despite my contract saying I'm entitled to 4 working weeks of 'unbroken' leave, boards are scheduled throughout August, and faculty events throughout September. Today I attended a research seminar and wrote a conference proposal; yesterday I assisted with a student writing skills event and wrote another proposal. The day before, I went to the Faculty Learning and Teaching Conference. Last week I attended two conferences and marked a lot of resits (more to come). I'm off next week to attend the board of another HEI in my role as an external examiner for two courses: before I get there I have to read all the essays submitted for 12 modules, if they ever arrive, then write a report about the teaching, the curriculum, the feedback and the courses' suitability. Then there are the PhD students who don't go away for three months either. We have a new VLE launching in September: before then, I've got to learn how to use it, transfer everything from the old one, and design new teaching methods utilising its whizzy new features – and that's in addition to writing an entirely new module (15 new lectures on 20 new texts, 15 new seminar designs, assembling primary materials), sorting rooming out and organising my subject's Welcome Week activities. I have a PhD to examine. We also have the Course Committee findings to address, an external examiner's report to which to respond, some troubling Equalities and Diversity committee statistics to look into, two literature festivals to help organise, the Estates Committee meetings to attend, school outreach events to do, journal articles to write, book research to do, grant applications to write and union members to advise – often about workload worries, unironically. Then there are the students, who work long, long hours in their own jobs and rely on us to be available to see them at any time – and we do, because we like them and want them to do well. Our teaching hours, by the way, are 9-9.

I get to work at 8 a.m. on many days, and leave 12 hours later. My boss is usually there before me and usually still there after I go home. My management's response – from their private offices and company limos – is to announce a crackdown because we're never there, and that those who choose to do their research at home are swinging the lead.

What's most pernicious about my managers and Andrew Adonis is their implication that academia is about 'product'. While he's a little disingenuous about his own output, he clearly only values what's tangible. He – and they – refuse to value the intangible work done. How can I demonstrate that I have made students think about new things in new ways? That I have in some small way changed their lives, my life, or my field of inquiry? Sure, there are cards and emails but I'm damned if I'll produce those as evidence. I could produce a paper a month and a new module per semester (actually I'll be introducing a new one in every semester for the next three years) but volume and quality are not the same thing, despite the efforts of REF, TEF and university managers – many of whom collect performance-related pay and credit when the metrics go in their favour, but are conspicuous by their absence when there's blame to be assigned.

I know, I know: plenty of people do longer hours in harder jobs for less pay, with more domineering and even less honest management surveillance. And yet I hope you understand why people go red and even cry when you say 'three-month holiday' to them with that cheesy grin. And to be very very clear: my students are not having a three-month holiday. All of them have jobs. More than I'd like are working full-time hours (i.e. 40 hours) while studying full-time too. During the summer break a lot of them work even more hours because they have families to support or huge debts. I continually nag them to take actual holidays for their own health, but for many it's just not possible. Surprisingly few of them have holiday homes in Chiantishire…

Lord Adonis is very much not one of them.

Postscript: Lord Adonis is also going to town on all those massively overpaid Vice-Chancellors and university executives. He is entirely right to do so and I support him on this every step of the way.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mandatory Harry Potter Post

Twenty years since we first heard the words 'butterbeer', 'Slytherin', 'Quidditch' and 'Sorting Hat'. How time flies. As do young witches.

At the risk of annoying those who believe people should read only age-appropriate books, I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone towards the end of 1997, at the age of 22. I was between degrees, working the night-shift at a British Gas data entry centre (there are many horror stories), I was ill one week and I'd read every book in the house. My youngest sister (I'm the oldest of six) tossed me a brightly-coloured book and explained that she'd only bothered with a couple of chapters because she hated reading – since then I've tried to disguise her every Christmas and birthday present as a book just to wind her up. By the way, I should thank her: that first impression, first edition paperback is worth a healthy sum now.

As a reading experience, bearing in mind I was delirious with 'flu, I enjoyed it. Having read all my sisters' Blyton boarding school novels, all of Alan Garner (still the best), the Narnia series, The Dark is Rising (never, ever watch the film), The Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe Worst Witch, The Secret Garden, The Box of Delights, Jennings and pretty much every children's book written, it was all very familiar, but well done. Certainly the writing was occasionally clunky, and the structure fairly plodding, but I thought it was a superior bricolage with some additional interesting things. Yes, they're liberal-bourgeois wish-fulfilment, but I'm bourgeois and liberal, and rather feel that there's not enough of it about. So despite subsequently doing a Welsh literature MA and PhD, I kept an eye on children's literature, and carried on reading the Potter novels. Come 2000 I got my first teaching gig on a module about families in literature: I did what I think may have been the world's first academic lecture on Harry Potter: one of the things I did was pass round a big pile of the books I thought had most influenced The Philosopher's Stone.

The two things I thought Rowling did increasingly well as the series appeared were comedy, and the shifting, uncertain nature of teenage friendships: how they're made and how they're lost. I thought, and still think, that she does loss and depression – particularly Ron Weasley's secret inadequacies – very well. I also liked her increasing taste for satire: the Ministry of Magic moves from being a classic British shambling bureaucracy to an oppressive surveillance culture modelled on the post-Iraq War/9/11 security state, Dolores Umbridge, the sadist in frills, is a comic but also chilling masterpiece, while Rita Skeeter is a pitch-perfect parody of the Daily Mail's columnists (a comic version of Sophie Stones from Jackie Kay's Trumpet).

Halfway between Miss Mapp and Theresa May

Other arguments made against the Potter novels are fairly predictable: derivative, clunky, middle-class, fantasy, Satanic (yes, oft-banned in US states and various other places), over-extended (I'd agree: the more books anyone sells, the longer they get because nobody wants to take a blue pencil to The Money) and lacking in social realism. All true to some extent, but they're also well-pitched for their audience, they address subjects such as death with a sensitive touch, they promote a degree of liberalism that's often lacking – just have a look at C. S. Lewis – and there are far worse-written books out there. They got boys and girls reading over the course of years, and they made literature central to popular culture for a good few years. I have a sneaky feeling that the primary-colours moral lessons contained in the series, alongside Terry Pratchett's later works, may be responsible for young peoples' increasing interest in egalitarian socialism.

I don't know that I'll ever read them again unless I find myself teaching them – I have no children to read to, but I am mystified by the strength of feeling Rowling and her works arouse. It's almost as if their popularity has meant that they and she have achieved the status of straw men or public property. In reality, they're page-turners written by someone who isn't and shouldn't be expected to be perfect, right all the time, a Delphic oracle or the Devil Incarnate. The novels and their author are interesting, thoughtful, flawed, warm products of their contexts and cultural environment. They make some people happy and they annoy other people. They answered a need for a particular type of fiction at just the right time. That's all.

Finally, if you're a Potterphobe reading this, THE BOOKS AREN'T FOR YOU. They're for children. How easily this is forgotten in the rush to praise or condemn. Twenty years has passed: we can all relax and assess the actual texts at leisure.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The best I can say is, it's been another week.

I've (almost) nothing to say this week. Personally, it's been one of banal but necessary administrative labour the details of which I won't burden you, and one of social horror out there. This morning I watched a billionaire with a number of palaces make polite conversation with those burned out of their homes by capitalist greed, while yesterday the political figurehead of said capitalist greed took time out of her self-interested negotiations with the representatives of 17th-century Planter Bigotry to visit Grenfell without meeting any of her victims. What more is there to say?

Back here, it's results week: some of the students are thrilled, some are OK, some are resigned and others are very unhappy, and I'm hearing from all of them. Most of those who've failed or marginally passed have clearly worked hard, while a small minority fail because through lack of effort, and an even smaller minority cheat, but the key thing at this point is to encourage personal responsibility while not being a dick about it. We talk to those who come to see us about their academic practice and support them through the resit process, and we worry about those who for various reasons don't come to see us. I usually point out, too, that we submit work to journals and publishers and rarely get things accepted first time round.*

I'm keeping up culturally too: last night I went to a poetry reading organised by a PhD student and one of my ex-students, featuring their own work plus their favourite regional poets. It was really good - a range of styles and subject matter, and uniformly good delivery which isn't always the case. Sadly only one English student came along, and not a single Creative Writing student or teacher. No doubt they all had good reasons but it's a bit disheartening for the artists.

Except for the one on fan fiction-erotica and neoliberalism I wrote with one of my PhD students. Straight in! With the added joy of slightly freaking out the reviewers and editor. You quote one story about humans mating with anthropomorphised cats…

Friday, 9 June 2017

Musical and Political Twists

What an odd 18 hours or so. My emotions – so far as I have any – are mixed. The joy is easy: my arch-nemesis Paul Uppal lost resoundingly. His campaign to return as Tory MP relied on keeping utterly silent about his record and his distasteful business activities while hiding behind Theresa May's coattails. Faced with three excellent young women running for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour, he avoided almost all public appearances, and turned a 400-vote loss in 2015 into a 2000-vote one in 2017. Next time he might think twice about campaigning by covering a £70,000 SUV with his posters and driving through one of the country's most deprived areas. He was venal, dishonest and self-interested. Let's hope that he will slide back into the obscurity he so richly deserves.

I'm also hugely impressed by my students. After indulging in the usual academic's lament ('you're so apathetic, you've got no politics or beliefs', as my UG tutor constantly told us) for years, I've been hearing my students plan and discuss and read political material and register to vote. I think most of them voted Labour, but it's more important that having been on the receiving end for so long, they're riled up. It's a shame they won't get the immediate reward of a decent minimum wage and the abolition of tuition fees, but as long as they stay enthused, we can help mitigate the damage of Brexit and the decades of neglect to which they've been subjected.

I also had two friends standing for Parliament, neither of whom won: Julia Buckley for Labour in Ludlow, who didn't win but did achieve the best placing for Labour in nearly 50 years, and Daniel Williams for Plaid in Neath. Labour won by a massive amount and the Tories nearly doubled their vote to 20%, squeezing Daniel out, which I'm very sad about.

Nationally I'm confused. It was glorious to see places like Canterbury turn Labour, and Labour's result is far better than expected, but other aspects confuse and sadden me. I still find it almost impossible to comprehend why Welsh and Scottish people would vote for the Conservative Party, and I don't really understand how Scots could move their votes from the separatist SNP to the Unionist Tories so decisively in several constituencies. The ideological gulf just seems so wide. I was also hugely disappointed that Amber Rudd just about survived, alongside various other excrescences. But most shocking – though not surprising – is May's decision to form a government with the DUP. A party which took less than 1% of the UK vote is now dictating British political policy. Despite May's howling about Corbyn's links to Irish Republicanism, she's in bed with a party that has consorted with and encouraged sectarian terrorism since its foundation. Its leader held a meeting with the Ulster Defence Association's commander only last week.

They oppose women's reproductive rights, firmly believe that homosexuality is a sin and should be illegal, and believe that the earth is six thousand years old. They also designed a renewable energy incentive that was so badly (or carefully) written that £500m was paid out to their friends. They refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Irish language, they accepted a secret donation of nearly £500,000 to spend on Brexit adverts…in London, and they believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

Live footage of Offoster negotiating legislative priorities with the DUP
You're all going to need a DUP name now. I've bagged Ofpaisley.

The DUP's idea of Utopia is that depicted in the current adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale: unremittingly brutal, hostile to joy, self-expression, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, imperialist and sectarian. Theresa May will shortly find that she has a new name: Offoster.

So I'm torn: pleased that a radical agenda can attract votes, saddened that it hasn't attracted enough to take power. I wish Plaid, the Greens and the SNP had done better, and I wish that this country would grow up and adopt a proportional electoral system that reflects the obvious complexity of voters' beliefs: there should be more Greens, nationalists and – sadly – UKIP MPs. Instead, we have Conservative and Labour MPs elected with literally a couple or tens of votes more than all the other parties in their constituencies combined. Nowhere is this more outrageous than Northern Ireland, where parties shamelessly collude to make sure that 'protestant areas' get a protestant MP and 'Catholic' ones get a Catholic representative regardless of political beliefs. Look at Jim Wells:
Many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland yesterday. They are not welcome in this unionist town- particularly on a Sunday.
So much for the idea that individuals have a right to hear a variety of views then make their own political decisions (and Rathfriland is 40% Catholic). One of my friends campaigned for the Workers' Party in Belfast in the 70s, shortly after it spun off from the Official IRA and ran on a socialist, cross-community ticket. He tramped 'Protestant' Streets in the company of 'Machine-Gun Tommy' for protection, and was surprised to get a warm welcome from people sick of being taken for granted because of where they lived or which chapel they attended.

For now, I'm going to enjoy the crestfallen misery of the Conservatives, and worry about the new regime next week.

Yesterday wasn't all politics. In 2008, I went to see Sigur Ros the night Obama was elected, and ended up partying with some Dutch students as we watched history unfold. I now associate ethereal music with political success. So last night a few of us went to the Arena Theatre for Powerplant, a percussion-electronica-visuals musical performance. I knew that some Steve Reich pieces were on the programme, but nothing prepared me for one of the best and most mind-bending performances I've ever seen. Joby Burgess mixes various percussion instruments with live-looping and samples to produce immersive, hypnotic performances. The first piece was a drums-only version of weird visionary Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape: Nancarrow's music is so fiendishly complicated and fast that he ended up writing for mechanical player-piano, because humans couldn't manage it: the invention of tape loops and sampling brought it into the realms of the possible.

Here's a few seconds of Burgess's version, plus another bit of classic Nancarrow.

Here's Burgess's percussion plus taped piano performance of de Wardener's 'Im Dorfe', essentially sampled and warped from a Schubert phrase used in The Piano Teacher:

Burgess also played this astonishing piece by Gabriel Prokofiev, written for 3 Nigerian Fanta bottles and sampler: apparently Nigerian bottles have striations, and the musician consumes some of the Fanta to change the pitch during the performance.

Burgess also 'played' Steve Reich's 'My Name Is', which I hadn't heard of. He recorded several audience members including a distinguished member of my party saying 'My Name Is (their name)' and looped it in phases, moving in and out of comprehensibility. Having to extract meaning from a babble of my managers' voices was eerily reminiscent of being at meetings. It was amazing though, and wonderful to think that those sampled people made a piece of amazing art that can never be reproduced. It's gone for ever.

There was also a piece called 'Temazcal' by Javier Alvarez, a sampled piece about music censorship by Nicole Lizée called 'The Filthy Fifteen', then two classics given amazing twists. He performed Arvo Pärt's 'Fratres' (usually drums and choir) using drums and a Canna Sonora, or Aluminium Harp, a weird friction-operated metal contraption. Sadly there's no recording but the effect was astonishing, moving and ethereal. Here's a different bit of music played on this odd instrument.

Burgess finished by playing Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' on the xylosynth - amazing performance, but I admit to hating the sound of that instrument. Try the marimba/vibraphone and (original) electric guitar versions instead. If you liked The Orb's classic 'Little Fluffy Clouds' you'll recognise this piece.

So, mind blown, I went home for a night of anxious election coverage. I was not disappointed.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Incidental music

No insights into my working life or current affairs coverage this week, Vole fans! All I've done is mark essays and clean my house. Guess which one is most fun… Still, I'm down to my last 54 2500-word portfolios. Argh.

So as a placeholder: some music I've come across recently or returned to.

Phil Niblock's Works for Hurdy-Gurdy. I think I heard an extract on Radio 3 a few weeks ago and was hooked. Half-way between classical drone and kosmische, played on medieval instruments. If it wasn't such an effort I'd source some quality mushrooms for the full effect. This is one I can't play in the office while people are around – I think it might fray some nerves.

I've also got out my old Chumbawamba albums. Years before the awful hit they had, they played my SU as part of their pretty much permanent tour of anarchist squats and grubby student dives. Musically they're no great shakes and they're even more didactic than one of my more boring lectures, but I like their anarcho-syndicalist politics and they have a way with a tune. I also liked their adoption of postmodern remix and appropriation tactics: I bought their Jesus H. Christ album under the counter: made entirely of unapproved samples, it would have tied them up in court cases for decades. You can download it from various places or buy the 'official' (but still legally-problematic) version, Shhh

Which as I'm now in a crusty-rap-rock frame of mind leads me straight to Blaggers ITA, which might be the very first thing I ever bought on CD.

Which leads naturally to Tystion:

Back in the present, I've fallen for the new Thomas Adès album, particularly Polaris, and Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness. 

See you next week.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Collaborations Don't Work

It's Friday afternoon and I'm in the office, marking dissertations (some good, some bad and some ugly). On my colleague's desk is a review copy of the Cambridge History of British Working Class Fiction, which includes a chapter co-written by me and a distinguished academic from Cardiff Uni. Slightly annoying that his copy has appeared and mine hasn't, but never mind.

People in the humanities are a bit wary of jointly-written articles, because unlike science it's not traditional and therefore the REF Gods might look down on it. The thing is though, I really enjoy working with other people. They're usually clever than me and it takes much more determination to delay or disappoint somebody else. I'm so lazy that I'd rather do the work on time and up to scratch than deal with the guilt that I habitually let wash over me when my solo work is late or rubbish.

As well as the chapter on Welsh working-class fiction, I've written some other things with other people in the past couple of years:

1. Journal article on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucauldian technologies of the self (forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Television) with a colleague.
2. A chapter on jazz in contemporary fiction in this book with a different colleague.
3. A journal article on media representations of the Co-op Bank crash with a critical management scholar from another university (under review).
4. A journal article on neoliberalism and pornographic fan fiction with one of my PhD students (under review for a Journal of Popular Culture special issue).

Two of these were my idea, and I've also been asked to help with another colleague's work on new religious movements' use of social media, plus my ongoing politicians' novels project has room for collaboration. If we hadn't worked together, none of these pieces would exist, or at least not in the present form. I've learned from my colleagues and hopefully they've learned something from me – proper punctuation placement, if nothing else. Between us we've probably done a better job than we would have individually, and my intellectual scope has been widened (an alternative reading is that there's no solid core to my research, but that's an argument for another day).

All together now: 'collaborations don't work'…

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

All of a muddle.

It feels like a long time since I put fingers to keyboard for blogging purpose – it's certainly been an aeon since I managed 4 posts a day. Which is probably a good thing for all concerned. Recently the slowdown has been down to sheer pressure of work. I've fallen into marking like a drunk in quicksand. The more I flounder, the more it sucks me down. Iv'e done my online forums, and now I'm marking dissertations. After that it's the second-year Shakespeare/Renaissance essays, and after that it's the motherlode: 108,000 words of first-year drama essays. Great students, but marking really is a chore however good the work is.

There have been brighter spots. I went to two conferences the other week; one on Dissent Studies at Keele University and the other my annual Welsh Writing in English one, always held at the beautiful Neuadd Gregynog in Powys. The Keele gig was fun because it was multidisciplinary: I co-presented a paper on media coverage of the Co-operative Bank's travails, while others spoke about Jonathan Lethem's novels, legal matters, politics and a host of other perspectives. The keynote speaker was meant to be 60s agitator Tariq Ali, but he was too ill to attend. Instead we got a superb talk by cultural studies powerhouse Jeremy Gilbert.

AWWE a couple of days later was one of the best I've been at. We had to have three parallel sessions rather than two for some of the event, there were launches of good books such as Bethan Jenkins's Between England and Wales: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the 18th Century, and the wine flowed. M Wynn Thomas's keynote was a passionate account of the field's genesis and his disappointment that WWiE hasn't been afforded the intellectual respect other subject areas have garnered. None of his books get reviewed in the London literary press, for instance, reflecting a metropolitan uninterest in things Welsh. For the record, my review of his last-but-one book The Nations of Wales should appear in the open-access International Journal of Welsh Writing in English fairly soon. I don't want to give away too many spoilers but basically: it's a genuinely brilliant book. Wynn expanded on his topic with a fire that this generally gentle man rarely unleashes: he excoriated British historians and literary scholars capable only of reading English-language work, and identified a whole load of unexplored research areas for future scholars.

Other highlights included having a few beers with Jamie, whose PhD I examined a couple of weeks ago - all friends now! There were too many appealing sessions to justify sneaking off for a wander in the countryside, and I had to skip friends' talks to attend equally attractive ones. I tried to go to as many postgrad papers as possible – partly to be encouraging and partly to feed off their healthy fresh young blood. I was particularly pleased to hear people talking about the subjects of my PhD (Lewis Jones, Richard Llewellyn and Gwyn Thomas) in ways I hadn't thought about. We also had a compelling  – and visceral – keynote by Jasmine Donahaye about the existence (or not) of creative non-fiction, starting with her account of running over a cat and soon reaching her abbatoir views. Psephologist Roger Scully gave a fascinating account of changing Welsh political landscapes, though he wouldn't be drawn on whether our distinguished colleague Daniel Williams would win Neath for Plaid Cymru. The final keynote was Jon Anderson, the human geographer at the heart of the Literary Atlas Wales project, which is soon to launch. It provided some of the weekend's controversies, particularly the decision to choose only English-language texts. The other spat was Andy Webb's account of Owen Sheers' Pink Mist, which he saw as signalling its Welshness covertly and marginally: he saw the stage play as even more universalist, stripping any Welsh and anti-war material away to make it a Support Our Boys drama. Mr Sheers was following all this on Twitter and was, it's fair to say, less than impressed.

Since that weekend I've also been part of the hiring process for our very first Chair in English (white smoke has yet to emerge) which was interesting but probably not suitable material for a public forum, and done lots of the things that appear in clumps at this time of year: PhD progress reviews, external examiner work and so on. But above it all is the marking.

Wynn says farewell to Alyce von Rothkirch, who is returning to Germany and will be missed

Still, it keeps my mind off the outside world: mass murders at pop concerts and the most breathtakingly sinister and cynical election campaign I've experienced. The Tories in particular seem to be running on a Norsefire agenda of cracking down on democracy per se. Watch this space though: I'm actually running to ground secretive local Tory candidate Paul Uppal tomorrow at a very rare hustings. Your suggestions for questions are very welcome.

Monday, 15 May 2017

I beg the honour, sir…

Titles are weird. Some tell you that your interlocutor's ancestors were the most determined terrorists and plunderers of the day (Queen, King, Duke etc.). Others represent the judicious investment of large amounts of cash in political party coffers (Baron, Sir, Lady), or the neediness of a ruling class that just wants to hang out with the cool kids (thanks, Harold Wilson, for those MBEs given to the Beatles). President, I should say, is now a floating signifier. It once denoted gravitas and authority whatever you thought of the holder's policies: now it represents a nation's collective boredom and the lengths it will go to have a giggle.

Others are earned – despite the neoliberal attack on the professions embodied by Mr Gove's hostility to experts, I like being introduced to Dr. X at the hospital. It doesn't tell me whether she got 100% in her medical exams or a bare pass, but it does tell me that she worked very hard for many years and was considered competent in one of the most rigorous qualification process on the planet.

Yet more titles are unearned and unwanted: ask a female academic what title is bestowed on them by students (and shockingly, online forms) and the answer is frequently Miss or Mrs, despite the answer being 'Dr.'. (Google 'Professor' and click Images, and prepare to be depressed) Men get Mistered too (especially non-Caucasian ones), but not nearly so much – it's as though you can be a woman or a fully-qualified academic, but not both. Dr in this context is a formal recognition on the part of the student and others that the person guiding them is a bona fide expert.

I say this because I just read this very interesting piece in the New York Times about the way students can, do and should address academics, and it made me think about the complex cultures around such things.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.
Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

I deploy my title - and those of others – sparingly. The 'Professors' who were given the title without ever having published anything or taught a class never hear the word from my lips, because I still believe that the term should denote intellectual and pedagogical distinction, nor do I use feudal titles on the rare occasions that I bump into Lords and Dames in the chipper. I have friends who either never wanted careers in HE or for one reason or another couldn't achieve one whom I do address as Dr sometimes, because I think someone should publicly recognise their hard work and contribution to knowledge sometimes. For the same reason, I like to use the title when talking to newly-minted PhDs: it's all very well to be casual about it if you found the process a doddle, or it was decades ago, but being a PhD is special. The title change moves the individual's social position away from sexual and marital identity to the intellectual plane: it represents something valuable you did, rather than your accident of birth or social status. Not many people get that kind of freedom, and they deserve to be recognised for it. (None of this applies to me though: in a flash of pure ego I changed my debit card to read Dr, and have always regretted that moment of pomposity. Though it might help my credit rating, as there are two world-class academics with the exact same forenames and surnames, which has led to a couple of very interesting conference invitations).

So I can understand the need to apply the title for feminist purposes, and I agree that a title which recognises a contribution to knowledge should be celebrated, but I do think there are contexts in which the deployment of titles in general are barriers to inclusion. The author of the NYT piece sees it as part of a culture of informality which is to be abhorred: first names lead to text-message style communications, lead to bombing the campus chapel (seriously, read the piece). I recognise this: a lot of emails don't have any salutation or sign-off, and some are unexpected or indicative of cultural origins: I was both amused and rather gratified to read 'Yo blud'; 'bruv' is not unknown, and one module evaluation simply read 'nice arse', which was both inappropriate and inaccurate. Most emails start with 'hi Firstname', which is fine with me, and in person most students use my first name. There's a cultural aspect to this: often more middle-class students use an honorific, even if it's not the right one, and 'sir/miss' is common amongst those coming straight from school, but on the whole our working-class and mature students often address us in ways which imply social equality, and I like that. I particularly hate the sir/miss thing and work hard to eradicate it because to me it represents an authoritarian structure of pedagogy that has no place in a university. It's true, too, that Americans are generally more formal inside and outside the classroom - you'll hear 'sir' or 'ma'am' everywhere you go, and former titles are widely used - you're a President or a General for life. As an aside: I hate the compulsory obsequiousness of retail staff. They're paid the least their employers can get away with, and it's certainly not enough to justify forcing them to pretend they're our butlers or, even worse, our friends. I admire the honesty of the surly, disengaged till operator who refuses to disguise the exploitative nature of the exchange with emotional labour.

Class is one of the primary factors for me. My institution's undergraduates are 98% working-class; its academic staff are, shall we say, not 98% working class. Nor, racially, do we resemble our intake. We neither look nor sound like them. I therefore think there's a careful line to tread when it comes to formal modes of address in such a context. I want the potential academics amongst them to see a doctorate as something they can achieve; I want all the students to respect the acquisition of knowledge as valuable, but I also feel that the use of titles in an institution like ours raises barriers, and would also remind people that I have colleagues who are better academics than me without having PhDs, and bad teachers and researchers who do hold doctorates). My students aren't my friends: I don't have them round to my house or weep on their shoulders when I'm miserable, but I do generally like them, and want to communicate a sense that they're intellectual colleagues, that I've a head start on them in terms of time and experience, but that we're engaged in a common project of intellectual inquiry in which I can learn from them. Titles can sometimes be a bit like the locked doors that pervade some universities.

I'm not sure there's an answer to the questions raised by this NYT piece. I do think intellectual achievement should be recognised, and there are gender, power, racial and class issues to be addressed, but in general I'm happy to be spoken to informally because I try to be a democrat in all areas of my life. That said, I do draw a line sometimes. A casual email that treats me as a customer service operator will often result in stiff response, and I do remind students that the outside world has different expectations: I once counselled a student that her job application results were probably not aided by an email address containing the words 'sexy bitch', even though my own inclinations are to smash corporate hierarchies and value judgements rather than prepare students to bow before them.

Molly Worthen's view is that despite the problematic racial, class and sexual histories of titular deployment, the careful use of titles is part of a valuable social structure of respect for genuine achievement, though I notice that the NYT house style has stripped both her and her interviewees of their academic titles as a matter of course.
Angela Jackson-Brown, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told me that “most of my students will acknowledge that I’m the first and only black teacher they’ve ever had.” Insisting on her formal title is important, she said: “I feel the extra burden of having to go in from Day 1 and establish that I belong here.”

When Professor Jackson-Brown began teaching in the 1990s, most students respected her authority. But in recent years, that deference has waned (she blames the informality of social media). “I go out of my way now to not give them access to my first name,” she said. “On every syllabus, it states clearly: ‘Please address me as Professor Jackson-Brown.’ ”
I get that, and I understand that it's culturally contingent: my French and German friends have the option (and social minefield) of tu/vous or du/sie, and the progressive moments of the 60s and 70s saw a re-evaluation of their uses. There's a slippage I detect in this article: whenever I hear the words 'respect my authority' I think of Cartman from South Park and worry that it's not intellectual achievement underlying the respect being requested.

I wonder if we should consider how academics address students. If you watch old films (not necessarily historically accurate of course), students are addressed as Mr. or Miss: the formality might be interpreted as either the respect due to adults, or as a signifier of a necessary social distance. I use my students' first names, but I don't think I've ever asked permission to be so familiar: is it an unconsciously oppressive act, or would Mr/Ms sound so weirdly out of time that it would be automatically read as sarcasm or disapprobation? (Nor do I explicitly indicate that I'd prefer them to use my forename - I'd rather go with what people feel comfortable with unless it's the loaded Sir/Miss thing. Few things are more embarrassing than this:

I guess that for me, in the unlikely event of all things being equal, respect is gradually earned rather than enforced through honorifics, but I'm speaking from a position of gender, class and racial privilege. I can wear my PhD lightly (even though I only just scraped through) because I look more like the imaginary Prof than lots of other people (I combat this by being glimpsed in my cycling gear now and then: once the dry heaving stops the comedic value makes it hard to kow-tow again). At the same time, I don't think that students who speak to me casually are communicating a lack of academic respect or a suspicion of experts (the dreaded 'credentialism'): I think it often denotes trust, and that's a valuable thing.
The real point is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.
In the end, I don't think that a friendly deployment of my forename, or an overly familiar email, erodes the pillars of civilisation. It might make us bristle, or consider the underlying social and cultural paradigm, but there are rather more pressing threats to civilisation and civility to deal with, such as the global dominance of a man who thinks it's fun to 'grab' women 'by the pussy'.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Look into my eyes: HE, 'woo' and managing change

Hi everybody. 
It's been an action-packed few days here at Vole Towers. Since my last post I've been the external examiner for a PhD at Aberystwyth (on Jan Morris, Iain Sinclair and post-devolution Welsh literature), done some serious miles on the bike, seen The Play That Went Wrong – highly recommended – co-presented a paper at the Dissent Studies conference at Keele University and talked to lots and lots of students about their work. I've been appraised, planned next year's modules (ish) and done as much union work as I can. Tomorrow we're interviewing for a Chair of English, and then I'm off to AWWE17, my beloved annual Welsh literature conference. I'm not presenting this time, just doing Secretary-of-the-Association duties, so I'm paying for it myself. Oh yes, and there's apparently a general election on. 

So I could bore you with all sorts of things, but I won't. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an innocuous-looking invitation that dropped into my email the other day. 

Module 1 - NLP techniques for Leading Change (for line managers only)
Enables Managers / Leaders to guide their team through some of the challenges associated with change.  The focus here is ‘Leading People and Self through Periods of Change’.  
I'm not a line manager, so I'm not invited. But NLP rang a worrying little bell. I discounted the possibility that it stood for Natural Language Processing because some of my friends work on that and it doesn't help Lead Change (though teaching computers to understand corporate management discourse is probably easier than teaching managers not to use it).  So if not that, then what. All I remembered was that it was something slightly sinister. 

Got it: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 

I'm used – though not resigned – to being described in university systems as a Resource, but I'm not sure an organisation literally founded to foster a culture of rational inquiry and debate should be talking about 'programming' human beings. 

But this is surely Vole being his usual resistant, paranoid self, isn't it? Let's have a look at NLP. Where does it come from? What's it been used for? Does it actually work? Would it pass an ethics panel if I proposed using it on students?

NLP is a psychological model and set of techniques widely used by life coaches, corporate counsellors and similar types as a means of self-help. Here's one such company's explanation:
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language, and they couldn’t understand you? The classic example of this is when someone goes out to a restaurant in a Foreign country and they think they ordered steak, but when the food shows up, it turns out they actually asked for liver stew.
This is the kind of relationship that most of us have with our own unconscious mind. We might think we are “ordering up” more money, a happy, healthy relationship, peace with our family members, and being able to stick to a healthy diet…but unless that’s what showing up, then something is probably getting lost in translation.
In NLP, we have a saying: the conscious mind is the goal setter, and the unconscious mind is the goal getter. Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out TO GET FOR YOU whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.
To me, this is unadulterated woo with no scientific or philosophical basis other than a very, very distant descent from Freudian models. But it's simply yet another quick-fix for the suckers who obligingly keep getting born every minute. No real harm done in applying it to yourself (other than the cultural damage inflicted by the acquisitive, individualist assumptions underlying guff like the above. 

Where it gets properly sinister is when NLP is applied by one person to another to manufacture consent. NLP is the motor of those vile sex/dating systems promoted by 'pick-up artists'. Here's disgusting author of The Game, Neil Strauss:
How To Use NLP For Seduction
NLP’s greatest asset to a pickup artist is its comfort-building technology. Building comfort is a lot like being a therapist, in that you’re trying to create an atmosphere where she feels safe enough to share personal stories with you. However, unlike a therapist, you will be sharing your stories with her in an effort to build a strong emotional connection. 
The key is to listen to the words she uses when telling a story and decide whether they are based on sight, sound, or emotion. Once you decide which representational system they use most, respond in the same modality. With practice, the seducer should notice that the TARGET is much more responsive to everything being said. 
The use of the word 'target' is instructive: the person on the receiving end of NLP techniques is not an equal partner. She is being manipulated through linguistic devices to respond in pre-ordained ways to particular stimuli (if you explore The Game and its eco-system you'll find nasty concepts such as negging, the practice of undermining a woman's self-esteem until she's sufficiently depressed to accept anyone so amoral as a pick-up artist). 

So NLP is first and foremost an exercise of unequal power in which the user overcomes the victim's worldview and emotional/intellectual autonomy. It is emphatically not the use of rhetoric for persuasion on a level ground. It is a specific technique for evading analysis of the communication's content, by appearing to operate on the subconscious level. It is, and I don't think this is hyperbolic, a subtle form of rape, because it aims to achieve unconscious consent. 

In a sense, 'does it work?' is a secondary question, like 'does torture work?': it's clear to me that there's no ethical justification for employing NLP techniques on another human being. However, if you really want to know: very little serious research has been done on NLP, and the well-designed papers that tackle it are clear that no, it doesn't work and claims made for it are scientifically unverifiable (e.g. Sharpley 1987, Sturt et al. 2012). 

NLP is being used at my university to get us all to agree to 'change'. Any change. It is clearly being used to avoid the examination of proposed change on rational grounds. The purpose is to manipulate colleagues covertly rather than to engage them in a process of debate. 

If I proposed to use NLP techniques on my students it would not pass an ethics panel. There is no way that NLP constitutes informed consent to anything. Furthermore, it is entirely at odds with the ethos of education in general, and of this institution in particular. Here's are the first two points of our 'mission statement':
The University of [Cthulu] is a learning community promoting excellence, innovation and creativity. We are committed to being:
An agent for social inclusion and social change
An arena for the development of ideas and critical thinking
I cannot see how the use of covert and discredited techniques of psychological manipulation conform to ideals of inclusion or critical thinking - it is antithetical to both these concepts. Whether the proposed change is a different coffee blend or the abolition of lectures, colleagues in collective endeavour of education should expect to be treated as equals and to be respected. The use of NLP reveals both the paucity of management thinking (because they've fallen for a load of mumbo-jumbo despite being able to call on the skills of a whole department of qualified psychologists) and its moral bankruptcy. A course on applying NLP does not magically appear. This is a bureaucratic system (not necessarily a bad thing: bureaucracies can often guarantee fairness) which requires multiple levels of decision-making. Essentially, lots of people have calmly considered the use of an immoral technique of psychological manipulation and decided that yes, on balance, it would make their lives easier. While this might be what you'd expect of the more slippery corporate organisations out there, universities have legal, social, cultural and moral histories and public positions which supposedly protect their staffs, students and publics from this kind of thing. 

Not any more. The existence of this single little course is enough to tell you at here, at least, the humanist values of higher education have been replaced by a pragmatic, goal-oriented and morality-free system pursuit of other priorities - namely, I think, the frictionless exercise of power. 

I intend to pursue this internally. If this is happening elsewhere, please let me know.